Heads or Tails?

James 2, Psalm 24

Do you say that faith is the only requirement for salvation?  That if you confess with your mouth and believe with your heart you are done?  Maybe you prefer to think that your “goodness” will pave the way for you.  That salvation is about how you treat others and what you do to care for the world.  Today, in James 2, we get a full dose of reality.  Apparently, both are true and neither is true.  How can that be?  For me, it’s easier to think about faith and works as two sides of the same coin.  To help illustrate that, I am recalling a movie series from the late ‘70s called Oh God.  Those movies captured my imagination and probably, in some twisted way, shaped part of my theology. I’m thinking specifically of an exchange where God, played by George Burns,  was talking with a young girl, Tracy.  He was attempting to explain the paradox of good and bad.  It went like this:

God: I know this sounds like a cop-out Tracy, but there’s nothing I can do about pain and suffering.  Its built into the system.

Tracy: Which you invented

God: My problem was I could never figure out how to build anything with just one side to it

Tracy: One Side?

God: You ever see a front without a back

Tracy: No

God: A top without a bottom?

Tracy: No

God: An up without a down?

Tracy: No

God: OK.  Then there can’t be good without bad, life without death, pleasure without pain.  That’s the way it is.  If I take sad away, happy has to go with it.

It is this conversation, along side James 2 that shows me how faith and work are two sides of the same coin.  You can’t have faith without works.

We must have faith.  We must believe that Jesus died, for our sins.  We must acknowledge that this sacrifice removes allows us to live free and abundantly.  Through Jesus, we have no guilt, no shame and no punishment.  We are justified and sanctified.  Righteous even.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  Some would have us believe that nothing more is needed.

The other side of the coin, however, is works.  Many in this world believe that their “goodness” is all that is needed.  They care for others and the world giving freely of their time and money.  They say, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). 

What faith alone fails to acknowledge is that Jesus’ resurrection gives us power.  What works alone fails to acknowledge is our need to be justified and sanctified.  They attempt to be fronts without backs, or backs without fronts.  Nonetheless, faith and work are two sides of the same coin.  When they work together, God’s plan is realized.

Consider Jesus’ challenge to his disciples.  He said, 

Truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).

God wanted the disciples to have great faith.  Not just so that they would be saved from eternal damnation.  He also wanted them to do great works.  Likewise, he wants us to do great works.  It is through faith that we are empowered to do anything.  Even move mountains!  Of course, we have to get on with moving the mountain.  Otherwise, all that power is useless.  It’s like an electrical generator running at full power with nothing plugged into it.  What a waste!

I could never write about faith and works without adding in a little Rich Mullins. One of my favs!