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Hopping on one leg

How many religious skirmishes do you suppose have been fought over the years in regard to the topic of faith and works? On one side, there is a well meaning combatant launching rpgs to prove that faith alone saves while being counter-attacked with equal fervor and sincerity by someone staccato-blasting the words of James that "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone," (2:24).

I’m not against serious discussion of the topic because it is central in understanding our response to the grace of our Father revealed in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-10). I am penitent in regard to the spirit I’ve adopted in some of those discussions, and for the fact that for many years I simply failed to practice one of the most fundamental principles of communication, much less interpretation of the Scripture --- make sure the terms you’re working with are clearly defined. Discussing topics without defining terms tends to generate much more heat than light.

I’m speaking specifically to the point of James’ usage of the terms faith and belief (from the same root word pistis), in chapter two of his letter. If we allow him to define his terms as he does when he rhetorically asks "Can such faith save him?" (v. 14), it is apparent that what is under discussion is not faith in the normative biblical sense, but something else, something which it is fragmented and ineffective --- even though it is still referred to as "faith."
It is referred to as faith/belief because it believes something to be true (as faith always does), but it is incomplete in that it speaks only to the intellectual/emotional realm. Examples of similar usage can be found in Matthew 24:23; Mark 16:12-14; John 4:21; Acts 9:26,26:27). You’ll note in these passages, unlike James, there’s nothing pejorative in their use of faith/belief. However, the context also indicates that their usage of the word is limited to accepting something as true rather than embracing a lifestyle change.

As James effectively points out in a number of ways in the second chapter of his letter, while a fragmented faith may be the beginning of a full faith, it cannot be the end. It is like an infant attempting to walk by hopping on only one leg. While there is a sense in which that could be referred to as the beginning of walking (they are moving forward), it would also be legitimate to say they aren’t fully walking until they are using both legs. In the same way, faith isn’t full until it submits or surrenders to God. As long as it is limited to mere assent, like the good wishes given to the bereft brother or sister or believing God is one (v. 15-17,19), --- it is hopping on one leg.

When we step into James 2 then, we’re need to keep in mind that we're hearing the word faith used in a specialized sense. When he says that we’re not saved by faith alone (v. 24), he is clearly referring to fragmented kind of faith. The normative use of the word elsewhere involves intellect, emotions and the will. It is behavior changing belief (Hebrews 11:6). It is the conviction that God will do what He said He would do when we do what He’s told us to do (Wharton). This being so, it should come as no surprise that faith is often used as an umbrella term to sum up our entire response to God in the same way that the word love is (Mathew 22:36-40).  Therefore, the Scripture speaks in numerous places of us being saved by faith (John 3:16, 20:30-31; Acts 16:31; Romans 1:16-17). 

When viewed from this perspective, it is entirely correct to say we are saved by faith alone. After all, there is nothing we do in response to our Father that couldn’t be called faith (behavior flowing from our belief in Him). To resist this conclusion because we are passionate about helping people see the necessity of repentance or baptism as part of our faith response is understandable, but misguided and ends up pitting us against one of the central thrusts of the Scripture.

I came to the realization that in most of my faith-works discussions with people, I was using faith in the specialized sense of James 2, while the others were using it in the normative sense. I always concluded with not by faith only and they with by faith only. I now understand that we both were right but were both also wrong (since neither of us were open to faith being used in more than the manner in which we understood it). We both needed to understand that faith was an umbrella term used to encompass all that we do in coming to Christ and as such, involved repentance and baptism.  
Healthy faith travels on two legs --- let's make sure we use them both!
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