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Faith and Works: Wisdom from James

Faith and Works: Wisdom from James

by Teresa Donati

The lectionary for today includes the letter of James, a book of the New Testament that Martin Luther thought should not have been included in the canon of Scripture.

Why? Because the whole message of the Reformation was one of faith, not works, as being the path to salvation – that no work of our hands compares to the wondrous gift of grace by which God brings us to faith, and to eternal life.

Yet here comes James, saying: ‘…faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ (James 2:17)

But, have peace, dear Martin. James is not telling us that works save us. (though looking at the great compassionate philanthropies we see, doing so much good in the world, we must think, isn’t God pleased with those works? For sure!)

James is saying that we can’t just announce, ‘I believe in Christ’s message,’ and then ignore the needs of our neighbors. ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ Jesus commanded, (Matthew 23:39), a message from the ages, marking the Old Testament as well.  If we believe that love of neighbor is a reflection of the light of our love of God, how can we not help a neighbor who is hungry, who is lonely and longs for a visitor, how can we not be concerned for the sick, the poor, the destitute and desolate? It is in such help that works consists. Far from being contrary to faith, it complements, completes, and fulfills our faith statements, “I believe.”

James does not deny the primacy of faith. He simply says that faith is the beginning of a life in which we live out the message our Lord gave us: that in doing for the least of His brethren, we thereby do loving things for Him. (Matthew 25:40) In following these words of Christ, through these works, our life speaks an ‘Amen.’


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I have always ascribed to the view that there is a reciprocal relationship between faith and works. Faith moves us to do works of love, and the experience of doing works of love deepens and strengthens our faith.

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