First Mennonite Church
February 28, 2016
Faith: What Is It?
Text: James 2:14-17
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
I have been reserving to work on this one last topic from the letter of James, the topic of “faith.” In the book of James, the topic of faith is central, but not only that; it is presented from a different perspective we are not used to. We are, and we are not alone in this, used to thinking of faith according to Paul’s perspective of faith. The vast majority of Christians are more familiar with Paul’s perspective of faith, but that does not mean that Paul’s perspective has always been correctly understood. We will see a little more about this along our study of faith. Because of the broadness of the topic of faith, I will be working on it at least for two Sundays. For this reason, I want to ask you to be patient with me.
Faith, what does it mean? What is faith? Many believe that faith is staying or thinking positively. Therefore, as long as people take an optimistic view and remain upbeat about any event and circumstance they face, they are demonstrating faith. Others believe that faith is an intangible “feeling” that cannot be defined. It is often thought to be personal, mysterious and unique to each person.
Is faith the same as belief? Is faith the blind acceptance of something even when that something does not make sense? Along with that view of faith, does it mean that faith is incompatible with human capacity to reason? So when a person begins to ask questions about stories in the Bible, it would be preferable if that person “just takes it as it is. God works in mysterious ways and faith sometimes is also a mystery.” Is faith the opposite of doubt? Can someone doubt or have uncertainty about something in the Bible and still have faith? Is the faith of a person as strong as that person’s ability to believe? Is faith dependent on human imagination? (Not too long ago a famous pastor and TV personality suggested that in order to have faith you must have a great capacity to imagine. You have to think positively. You must speak positively; you must picture in your mind what it is you want to receive or be and you will get it or become what you envision yourself to be. You must say it to yourself until it becomes part of your thoughts and gets down to your subconscious mind.) In other words, faith according to this description is the fruit of the mind and the capacity to imagine creatively.
For a vast number of Christians, faith is the ability to feel certain about a number of spiritual truths they believe. In this case, faith is subscribing to a set of beliefs. Faith is to believe a set of eternal truths, which if you doubt on any of those truths or do not feel quite certain about any of them the whole belief structure comes crashing down. You either take the whole package or you take nothing.
To illustrate this let me say faith is the belief:
- that God created the world in six days,
- that Adam and Eve were two real people
- that God called Abraham, from whom Israel was formed,
- that Jesus came to the world; his death is our means for salvation,
- that people receive God’s salvation by believing this list of beliefs
- that Jesus will come a second or even a third time, but before he comes there are certain world events what will need to take place, and
- that the end of the physical world as we know it will come in a given manner.
In this case faith is tied to a way of reading and interpreting scripture and if someone would doubt any of these, such person does not have faith.
Alongside this view of faith is that faith is the central teaching position of a given Christian denomination. For instance we talk about Catholic faith, Mennonite confession of faith, or Baptist faith, or Methodist faith, and so on. Yet in Ephesians Paul writes: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (Ephesians 4:4-5). But if we were to try to reconcile what each of these countless denominations believes we’d have great difficulty unifying them.
How would you explain what faith is?
If your grandchild comes to you and says, “Grandma/pa, I hear the preacher/teacher talk about faith every time. Grandma/pa, what is faith?” How would you begin to answer that question? Maybe this question will not come from your grandchild but from one of your friends. Again, how would you explain “faith” to your friend?
Faith according to the Bible
There are many references to faith in the Bible. In the Old Testament faith is not a mental affirmation, such as believing in something or in someone. Faith is tied to the concept of keeping a covenant. True faith is visible because the two parties in the covenant fulfill their covenant commitment to each other. Faith is to live according to what the two parties have committed to. The one who has faith lives in faithfulness. When the marriage covenant is broken because one of the parties has acted deceitfully it is described as “breaking faith” (Exodus 21:18). When Israel walked righteously before the Lord, Isaiah says, Israel has “kept faith” (Isaiah 26:2).
In the New Testament there are many references to the word faith. Jesus rebuked his disciples for having “little faith.” He praised a persistent woman for having a “great faith” (Matthew 15:28). Jesus guaranteed to his disciples that if only they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they’d be able to cast a mountain into the sea (17:21). He also warned about a time when some will “abandon the faith,” yet the evidence of such action is not that the person will stop believing and praying to God or failing to show in the fellowship, but through hatred towards his or her fellow believers (Matthew 24:10). We will be exploring more on this concept of faith in our next study. But for the moment, let us go and see what James says.
James and Faith
The Greek word for faith is “pistis.” Listen to what James says, but also listen to what he says indirectly in verse 13: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can such faith save you? James is troubled by anyone who would claim to have faith but whose faith is not visible in the way he or she lives. James indirectly says that true faith is not only visible by the way Christians live, but also that a visible faith is what saves. Again, what James is directly saying is that simply claiming to have faith is not enough. What he indirectly says is that a faith which does not manifest itself through life is insufficient for salvation. This is the greatest difficulty we have with James’ perspective of faith. We are so familiar with Paul’s words in Ephesians 2, verses 8 and 9 where it says: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. Most people get their Christian formation from letters of Paul. In fact, sometimes it is said that the Christian church should be called the Pauline church because it resembles more Paul than Jesus Christ. Christians tend to look at Paul for guidance, even if that would mean sidestepping Jesus’ teaching on some issues.
Luther and the Letter of James
It is precisely the passage for today in James about the implication of faith that made Martin Luther call the Letter of James a “letter of straw.” Luther’s problem was not only with James; he had problems with Jude and Revelations also. Luther said that James lacked evangelical “purity.” Firstly, because, in direct opposition to Saint Paul and all the rest of the Bible it ascribes justification to works. Secondly, because, in the whole length of its teaching, not once does it give Christians any instruction or reminder of the passion, resurrection, or spirit of Christ. It mentions Christ once and again, but teaches nothing about Him; it speaks only of a commonplace faith in God.
When Luther translated the Bible, he went as far as to add the word “alone” when he translated Romans 3:28. This is how our Bible reads: For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. But Luther’s translation reads: For we maintain that a person is justified by faith alone, not through the works of the law. Luther argued Paul’s words in Romans 3:28 are in complete contradiction with what James has in 2, verse 24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith only.”
How does Hebrews describe faith?
When asked, what is faith? Christians usually quote Hebrews 11, verse 1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (NRSV). How do you explain that? In fact, such difficulty is reflected in the various translations of this verse. Here are a few versions:
- Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen (ASV).
- Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (KJV).
- Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see (NIV).
- Faith means being sure of the things we hope for. And faith means knowing that something is real even if we do not see it (International Children’s Bible, ICB).
- Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see (CEB, Common English Bible).
And verse 6: And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (The promise of reward is not based on beliefs, but on acts.)
I want to invite you to explore this topic in the following two weeks. Take time to read and meditate on those passages that speak about faith. Read James 2:14-26. And before I close for today, let me say a word on Hebrews 11, verse 1. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (KJV).
The word “substance” is the translation of the Greek word “hypostasis.” This word is a compound word of “hypo” which means under and “stasis” which means to stand. It can refer to a foundation as that of a building. It can refer to something that has real being contrary to something like a ghost. It can mean firmness or courage like in the character of a person. But it can also mean something that has actual existence—the proof that something is alive. Now, if we would like to insert this meaning to describe faith, the text will read something like this: Now faith is the real living evidence of things hoped for, the evidence—elengkhos, proof of things not seen.
This way of understanding what faith is, tells us that faith is a living power, which is visible to everyone. Faith in God causes us to display before the world the transforming power of God through our transformed lives. Faith is the living evidence that God’s marvelous love manifested in Jesus Christ is also present in us through our love for others. Faith is living according to the glorious hope we have in Christ that one day he will wipe away the tears from every eye, but that as of today we have started wiping the tears of those who are crying around us. Faith witnesses to the world that Jesus is absolute Lord because as of now he is our Lord and Master. Faith testifies to the world that truth will ultimately overcome but as of today we speak truthfully, we live honestly. Faith proclaims to the world that righteousness will triumph because God’s righteousness is alive in us today. Faith displays to the world that God is love and that Jesus loved even to his death and it is possible to love even the enemies.
Hear once again what James says: What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
May our faith in God be alive to his glory and for the wellbeing of our dear brothers and sisters. Amen!