Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Lunar New Year Lunacy with the Ox-y Morons, and Faith, Works and Justification in James 2:14-26

"Happy Niu Year. Happy Moo Year. Happy Oxpicious Year." says the cow on the Christmas tree
At dinner, there was an old Christmas tree resisting retirement to the storeroom. It attempted to stay relevant for the lunar new year of the ox by having a squeezy cow tied to it with red ribbon and garnished with a plastic gold ingot. Looking down from her tree perch, festive cow observed the conversation at the table deteriorating from serious talk on global currency, the situation in Gaza and Obama's promises, to walking one's wife at MacRitchie with a human harness and the savvy business idea behind youporn.com (accompanied by neighbour-to-call-999 crazy laughter).

Boca Negra
The boca negra, one chocolatey chocolate cake that takes its major characteristic seriously, claims not to have contributed to the madness but it was completely consumed and is thus persona non grata for the purposes of claims of innocence. Perhaps the blame may also lie in the partial solar eclipse. Or the muddled drinks and the wine. Or the company.

Frying up some turnip cake on the first day of Chinese New Year
On the day of the first somesortof solar eclipse of 2009, which was also the first day of the lunar/Chinese new year, we started as usual on a healthy note by frying up a batch of turnip and carrot cake. Very good with garlic chilli sauce. Chinese New Year isn't Chinese New Year if you don't end the festivities with a raging sore throat.

Like the Mosaic locusts, the relatives descended upon us, ate and laughed and were gone in 3 hours. They rather liked the curry chicken and the chocolate cake-pudding with raspberry yoghurt ice-cream - looks rather dodgy but the interplay of the bittersweet with the soursweet was interesting. And you could legitimately tell the rellies weren't just being polite because of the people queueing in the kitchen for seconds and thirds and eldest uncle, erm, insisting on having it right now right here in his white wine glass.
Whatever was left of Raspberry Yoghurt Gelato and Chocolate Cake-Pudding
The chicken curry took the better part of the night before to prep. The recipe for the chocolate cake-pudding is as follows:
  • attempt to make boca negra
  • forget to switch portable oven from "Grill" to "Oven"
  • wander off
  • ignore smell of burning
  • return to a smoke-filled kitchen and neighbours yelling "Fire! Fire!"
  • calmly take smoking cake-like object out from oven
  • equally calmly turn said object over onto huge plate
  • contemplate pudding-like chocolate stuff glooped all over plate
  • scoop unburnt bits into bowl and refrigerate
  • serve with raspberry yoghurt gelato from Venezia Gelataria
On things half-baked, we come to James 2:14-26. Or perhaps it would be too grand to call the unreal faith of a professed Christian unaccompanied by works "half-baked".

To those who might have grumbled at James' emphasis on doing not just hearing (James 1:19-26), bridling the tongue (James 1:26), visiting orphans and widows, and keeping oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27): Ah James, stop being such a nag. After all, we're all justified by faith not works so spare us the yabber about all these chores!

(And indeed Paul said in Romans 3:28 "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." and again in Galatians 2:15-16 "we know that a person is not justified by works of the law(AE) but through faith in Jesus Christ".)

James isn't disputing sola fide ("by faith alone") in the Pauline sense - salvation through Christ alone, through his blood alone, through the grace of God alone, not by anything we can do. Rather he is emphasising one facet of that truth.

Somewhere along the supernova sugar-high that resulted from a compulsory family dessert buffet (and attendant anti-social bouncing off walls), the concept of "faith" got a good workthrough with some folk. Faith means, to a Christian, a fuller concept than the word might suggest in the minds of any other person. We know that true faith, saving faith, is that trust that lays hold of God through his promises and results in a new life (Romans 5:1). One dimension of this saving faith is an intellectual conviction, a certainty of truths, of things invisible and things future (Hebrews 11:1-2).

Another necessary component of this saving faith is "works" (James 2:14). James does not appear to be talking about the Pauline meaning of "works" by which the Gentiles thought they could be good enough to save themselves, but some outward demonstration that the person before him is a man of faith*. He is challenging the people who seem to have a sort of defective faith, a counterfeit copy of faith that has not resulted in any of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) by giving the ironic illustration of a man of faith snug in furs and bursting from a warm dinner saying glibly to the poor shivering fellow with the grumbling belly next to him in church "Alright, toodle-doo and hope you find some clothing and a bit to eat soon!" without doing anything about it (James 2:16).

So you believe in the 5 solas and are proud that your theology is reformed and sound? You think you and your little friends alone know the full glory of the doctrines of prayer and predestination, and these have more completely informed your faith? Then how can you dismiss a brother in need with a careless "Ok, I'll pray for you"? This absurdity harks back to the forgetful man who stares himself in the mirror only to forget what he looks like immediately after (James 1:22-25). Hearing must lead to doing. Well, yes, it's important to have good theology. The great revelation that God is one is marvellous indeed. Every pious Jew recited this twice daily (Deuteronomy 6:4). This factoid does not escape the attention of Satan's cronies, those demons who caught on faster than any of the disciples that Jesus was part of the Godhead (see Mark 1:24, Mark 5:7). And this knowledge is enough to cause them to rightly fear God (which is more than can be said of an office worker in Raffles Place or the housewife in Ang Mo Kio). But fat lot of good their intellectual "faith" does them. So one might consider them spiritually superior to many but their mental assent and right theology "faith" isn't saving faith, the sort of faith that results in the "work" of repentance.**

Not convinced about this well-rounded concept of faith? Still clinging onto the wrong understanding of justification by faith? says James. Check out the Scriptural evidence. Exhibit One: Father Abraham, father of the faithful, the one through whom Israel's relationship with God began properly after the Fall. Sure, before Abraham had done any works to deserve it, God had already counted his belief to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). So in the Pauline sense, it is true that justification, being declared right with God, is not something do work for by perfect obedience to the law because our deeds can never live up to God's standard (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6).

But justification of faith is no cover for careless, bochap living. Genesis 22 tells us that what happened decades after Abe was credited righteousness by God was a test of his profession of faith. When he had offered Isaac up to be sacrified in obedience to God, the angel then said "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Genesis 22:12). Surely God knows everything so James says that this was in fact a fulfilment and completion of the earlier confession of faith and pronouncement of justification.***

And so Exhibit Two: Rahab the Gentile prostitute's faith in the God of the Jews was shown to be true when she acted on her belief by hiding the Israelite spies ("messengers" James calls them, how PC) and, erm, misdirecting their pursuers (Joshua 2).

So our confessed faith, our professed trust in Christ, is also completed when we live a changed life. We cannot claim to have any real saving faith if our lives have not changed.

There are those who were born into Christian families and greatly regret not experiencing a dramatic conversion. While it is great when a person turns from drugs or prostitution or gangsterism etc when they receive Christ, it is not the apparent conversion that matters so much as the God-centred life lived after that should cause us to rejoice marvellously with tears in the eyes etc. So perhaps, to be pedantic (but with pedantry sometimes comes great truth), we should not say so-and-so was converted today but that he made a confession of faith and we'll see if his works justify his profession later.

The faith that saves is not purely about holding the right convictions though it is essential to know the object of our faith. And though important, it is not just about being able to discern between faithful/unfaithful, expository/topical/just plain out of context, good/bad, deep/shallow preaching and teaching. The certainty of our faith does not come from our spiritual heritage: evangelical, reformed, Moore Theological College, Peter Jensen and Phillip Jensen, St. Helen's Bishopsgate and friends, Dick Lucas, David Jackman, Cornhill Training Course, Mars Hill, Don Carson, Mark Dever, C J Mahaney, Albert Mohler etc. It comes from the evidence of such faith in one's life: it must make a man a friend of God (James 2:23) and therefore no friend of the world (James 4:4). It is seen and completed in the man whose faith remains steadfast in trials of various kinds (James 1:2-15), who does not just hear the word of God but also does it (James 1:22-27), who loves his neighbour and does not show partiality (James 2:1-13)****, who controls his tongue (James 3:1-12).

It is pointless have an outward shell that is adorned with flamboyant conversion testimonies or intricate patterns of doctrine or reams of paper explaining Romans or James or Revelation, if it is not animated by obedience to the God it claims to love. Such faith is infact dead in the water.

* Works
Not sure that dichotomisation of the Pauline and Jamesian use of the word "works" into "pre-salvation" and "post-salvation" works helps clarify things. This seems merely to point to chronology rather than motivation behind the works.

** Faith and Works
So we tried out a few ways of expressing this:
Faith = Salvation = Faith + Works doesn't quite work unless Works = 0.

Of course, this could be refined to Faith (Paul) = Salvation = Faith + Works (James) but James doesn't seem to be adding works to saving faith as a separate entity but works as authenticating the confession of faith, so the Martin Lutheran "faith is never alone" doesn't quite work either.

Possibly Faith = Salvation = Confession of Faith + Works (wherein Works = Fruits of the Spirit) might work.

Visually, possibly, saving faith = salvation as a two-dimensional consequence. If you viewed it in three-dimensions, it would become evident that works is a component of saving faith.

Metaphorically, possibly, saving faith is a purple car, let us say the only car, that can get you into Sentosa. Works is the wheels on that car without which it cannot properly be called a car and without which it cannot get you to the island of fake sandy beaches and piped-in Caribbean music.

*** Justification
Some take the Jamesian concept of "justification" to mean the end-time judgements that consider a Christian's post-salvation good works as proof of his authenticity of faith. Am inclined to think that in the context of this passage, the emphasis is not so much on The Day (although that will always be in the picture) but on the confirmatory value of good works in reference back to the hour we first thought we believed.

***** Partiality
The only contemporary application I have heard concerning this is of ushers seating different groups of people during service. In what other situations would this apply? If eg. it's about spending time with groups of people, other considerations come into play. Maybe it's more to do with general attitude said the natter-y neighbour after last Saturday's service. Perhaps.

Dick Lucas, James 2:14-26


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At December 31, 2010 2:16 pm , Anonymous Belly SUrya Candra Orsa said...

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