BY GABBI ZEGERS
A Dilemma of Life and Death
In a world where death seems to come silently, easily, and with certainty, it becomes imperative to discuss life. Even though a highly-infectious pandemic will bring the issue of death, and consequently life, front-and-center for many, there is only one thing humans have always been certain of: somehow, at some point, they will die. The issue of life is a consequence of this because, in order to die, one has to have lived. In light of the Christian belief that there is an existence beyond one’s life on earth, the question of life morphs into, How does one’s life on earth affect their existence after death?
For Jews living in the Roman Empire, this question was already answered: if you follow God’s rules, you will have his favor and enter eternal paradise when you die. If you don’t follow the rules, you enter eternal suffering when you die. Simple. Then Jesus came two thousand years ago, turning the status quo on its head. Early Christians took to heart a life-changing truth: Jesus Christ died on a cross to free them from the guilt of their sins, and He rose again to show that He is God and God has defeated the certainty all mortals face: death. A new answer to the question of life-after-death came forth: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).
However, Jesus had also said in his ministry that “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17, ESV). The foundations of Christianity are in Judaism. God established Israel as a nation that would belong to Him: His people: His family. Jews followed the Law of the Prophets, which helped them mediate their sins so they could re-establish their relationships with God. When Jesus arrived on Earth, He came to the Jews. He grew up as a Jewish child. The first people he spoke to about His identity, and the first Christians, were Jews. Through the ministry of the Apostle Paul, Christianity began to include those who were not ethnically Jewish: Gentiles. This obviously created much confusion among early Christians: does one have to become Jewish in custom and appearance before they can become Christian? If not, does the Law of the Prophets no longer apply? If so, are people not saved by merely believing, but by accomplishing certain tasks? What truly is the essence of the Christian religion?
The Apostle Paul, who converted from an ardent Jewish faith to Christianity, wrote to the new Christian church in Galatia,
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith (Galatians 3:23-26, ESV).
James, however, seems to contradict Paul:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?… So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14, 17).
How can one leader in this new faith claim that we are no longer under the guardianship of the law held by Jews, and that Christians are saved by their faith, while another author highlights the need for works?
Paul placed these questions at the forefront of his letters to early churches made up of non-Jews. He writes to an audience that had not received the Laws of the Prophets, making it clear that they do not need to become Jews first in order to become Christians. He is, therefore, arguing that one’s ethnicity, culture, or social status does not prevent them from becoming a part of God’s family: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, ESV).
James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote about this issue to Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. These converts grew up following specific practices and wondered if faith in Christ meant that their actions no longer counted for anything. James is arguing that actions in reverence toward God still have value in the context of their faith in Christ. However, he does not say that merely completing works and following rules is what pleases God. He states that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (emphasis added), meaning that faith is still the foundational piece to living an earthly life that honors God.
In addressing the right conduct for those a part of God’s family through their faith in Christ, James addresses several key themes:
James mentions self-deception three times in the first chapter of his book related to four concepts:
- God does not tempt people to sin: they do this by following their own desires (James 1:13-14, ESV).
- Every good and perfect gift comes from God, by His own will (James 1:17-18, ESV).
- Just hearing God’s word is not enough, you will be blessed by doing the word (James 1:22-25, ESV).
- If one does not control what they say, their religiosity means nothing (James 1:26, ESV).
Throughout the rest of the book of James, self-deception related to religiosity appears again and again. What might be deceiving James’ audience at this time? The simple answer to this question is pride. Pride that they could still control their righteousness. Pride in that they could cover their own imperfections and wrong actions with right ones. That if they did enough good things, their words would have no consequence. Pride in the fact that they believe in Jesus, so they no longer need to sacrifice their comfort for the common good. Pride in that as long as they avoided committing certain sins, they could still get away with lesser sins and prejudices. Pride in that they could even negotiate with God: God, you’re sovereign. You saved me through Jesus. Why did you let me get tempted like that? I asked for wisdom, and you did not give it to me!
To this, James’ reply is clear: “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:13b-14, ESV). Giving into temptation is not God’s fault. Even more, God does provide wisdom generously! However, God knows the person’s intent: “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting… For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8). James then asks, Do you really want to hear what God has to say to you? The one who asks for wisdom should be ready to receive it, even if it is not what they wanted to hear! It is indeed double-minded to ask for advice from God without wanting to hear it honestly: they want to show God that they care about his perspective and power without really caring about it.
Thus, James shows that we should not deceive ourselves in believing that we can cover any sinful intentions we may have of wanting to be the God over our lives. God cannot be deceived, so we should not deceive ourselves in believing he can be deceived. James leads his audience to accept their need for God’s forgiveness for any breaching of His laws, and the need to accept God’s law of liberty in order to live rightly.
Humility: recognizing one’s need for God
James talks a great deal at the beginning of his letter about suffering. This was timely, since Jewish converts to Christianity faced heavy persecution at the time. Though the rich suffered less, James gives a counter-intuitive command: “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away” (James 1:9-10 ESV). Those who are rich and earth will not carry their wealth into eternity. In fact, hoarding wealth and oppressing the poor, even by just following the status quo of society, displeases God greatly.
What is James’ recommendation? He states, “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21, ESV). He urges followers of Jesus to submit to God, to “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8, ESV) so they can be honest about their selfish intentions and come back to a God who loves and forgives them. The word God provides is not one of oppression, but of salvation for one’s soul. God wants people to change their ways not just because he said so, but because he knows it is beneficial for us.
Jesus did not save us because He was in need. Paul, in his letter to the early church in Philippi, urged followers of Christ to “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7, ESV). Jesus sacrificed His power and comfort as God for us. He was clearly not in need for us, but did so out of reverence toward His father. This, Paul and James argue, should not lead us to use the freedom God offers through Christ to keep doing what dishonors Him, but to respond out of gratitude and humility for undeserved forgiveness.
“Pure religion:” helping orphans and widows in their time of need
“Religion” used in James appears to be defined as actions done for the purpose of pleasing God. It is not pure if it is not done in reverence or submission to God. It is pure and undefiled when it serves others and is not tainted by outside influences other than God.
James states that “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26 ESV). When the tongue isn’t controlled, the heart is deceived if the person thinks they are religious. They are therefore not acting in submission to God. The tongue guides the entire body. A person who thinks they’re religious but has no control over their tongue cannot act in reverence of God and are therefore not religious.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (James 1:27, ESV).
Jesus makes it clear throughout his ministry that one’s devotion to God is reflected in their mercy toward those who most need help: the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. It is an act of justice to right the wrong sin has done.
Jesus reflects this strongly in his ministry and teachings. The way people treat other humans, made carefully and lovingly by God, matters to their creator. Jesus illustrates this with a parable, or a story that tells a lesson, about the end of the world as we know it when Jesus will come back to judge it. Every human is either a sheep or a goat, and is led to sit at Jesus’ right or left, respectively. To the sheep, who represent those who are righteous, Jesus says,
Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:34-36, NIV).
The sheep, very confused indeed, reply that they do not remember ever seeing Jesus in need and tending to Him. To this Jesus replies,
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (Matthew 25:40, NIV).
Jesus then proceeds to judge the goats, and the exact same dialogue occurs except with the opposite outcome: the goats did not tend to Jesus’ needs, they respond that they had never seen Jesus in need, and Jesus responds with almost the exact same words that He used with the sheep: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (emphasis added) (Matthew 25:45, NIV).
In the end of the story, the goats, who represent the unrighteous, “will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46, NIV). Jesus’ words echo James’ argument: the actions of a person determine where their true affections lie. A person who loves God will show it by loving what He loves and humbly seeking to prioritize what He prioritizes. Someone who does not, and fools themselves by trying to earn a ticket to Heaven by following the rules, will fail or fall into pride. Religion is pure and undefiled when done out of humility toward God, who is truly the one we should follow and who loves us.
The Law is the symbol and manifestation of God’s love and wrath to the Israelites thousands of years before He came to earth as Jesus Christ.
[It] is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins… Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:1-3, 19-25, NIV).
The one who follows Christ lives each day in anticipation for when he will come and make all pain, suffering, and sin melt away from the world. In anticipation for this, Jesus leads them along a journey through which they become more like Him in action, mind, and heart. Their lives are a trust-walk and trust-fall, in which they learn to lean on God in every challenge and in every joy. God’s body is a collective of others who believe and trust in Him. Thus, the Law, and Jesus’ freeing us from guilt under it through sacrificing His life, brings us both into a loving relationship with God and with other humans.
In a world where it is tempting to believe that actions do not matter, we should be wise in discerning what is truly God’s voice, then acting upon it. Faith and works are therefore not all that separate: true faith will cause a person to naturally act in a way that pleases God, to turn to Him in humility when they make mistakes, and to live life with compassion toward everyone. In Christianity, religion does not mean fulfilling a task list to make God happy; it means trusting him whether or not one is doing right, accepting his forgiveness, and letting one’s life be shaped by a God who knows and can see everything.
This allows us to fulfill what God declared was good thousands of years before James sent his letter: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). Once we stop deceiving ourselves, we realize we need God’s forgiveness, humble ourselves in the face of God’s servitude, and begin to appreciate the kindness God has given humans. Perhaps remembering this kindness Jesus displayed on the cross can help guide us as we look to help those around us in most need at this time. As we wait for eternity on this planet, the Christian can consider a life that honors God: one which aims for His vision of compassion, justice, and deep relationship with His family members.