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True Christians don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk

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THE contention that the New Testament epistle of James contradicts the Apostle Paul’s teaching on salvation is wrong. The idea is unfortunately the result of theological laziness.

Today’s Book of Common Prayer epistle reading, a continuation from last Sunday’s passage in James chapter one, reflects the writer’s concern to counter religious hypocrisy in the churches he was addressing. James insists that it is not enough to profess Christian faith; Christianity should be put into practice: 

‘But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world’ (James 1v22-27 – King James Version).

James makes clear that walking the walk and not just talking the talk is the mark of the true Christian who has internalised the gospel message, ‘the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls’ (James 1v21). Attending church and listening to sermons does not guarantee eternal salvation.

In chapter two of his letter, James develops his theme of the contrast between false and true religion and invokes the example of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham:

‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only’ (James 2v21-24)

The 16th century German reformer Martin Luther misinterpreted this statement as contrary to Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith in Christ apart from good works. The Pauline teaching that sinful human beings are put into right relationship with God by casting themselves on his divine mercy is set forth in such texts as Romans 3v21-24:

‘But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.’

The 16th century French reformer John Calvin saw no contradiction between James and Paul: ‘So when the sophists set James against Paul, they are deceived by the double meaning of the term “justification”. When Paul says we are justified by faith, he means precisely that we have won a verdict of righteousness in the sight of God. James has quite another intention, that the man who professes himself to be faithful should demonstrate the truth of his fidelity by his works’ (Calvin’s Commentaries, translated by A W Morrison, Eerdmans, 1972).

The relationship between faith and good works is well expressed in the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion: ‘Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit’ (Article XII, Of Good Works).

Luther himself did not hold to the antinomian position that faith in Christ releases people from the obligation to obey biblical commands. In the preface to his 1529 Short Catechism, Luther urged pastors to teach the Ten Commandments ‘and especially dwell on that commandment that is most neglected among thy people’ (Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettenson, 1963).

In the Collect for today, the Fifth Sunday after Easter, the Christian worshipper asks for divine leadership in putting faith into practice: ‘O Lord, from whom all good things do come: Grant to us thy humble servants, that by thy holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by thy merciful guiding may perform the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ.’

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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