“The Faith that Saves”
By Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
As reformed believers we are rightly concerned with what we believe. We enter the celestial city through —as Luther rightly discerned — ‘faith alone.’
Our awareness of the importance of what we believe and what we place our faith in, leads us to take great efforts to teach and explain the content of the Faith. We read books, listen to sermons and tell others what we have come to believe. In a very real sense, what we believe about Jesus determines our eternal destiny.
It is easy for right belief to be corrupted. We are warned often in the Bible to be on our guard against false teachers who soften, dilute or alter the faith handed down to the saints. So pilgrims know that what we believe matters.
The religious part of all our hearts longs to find something to do which makes us acceptable to God. We so easily find security in ritual, ceremony or effort to do good works. And so it is important that pilgrims know they go to heaven through faith alone — not on the basis of good works. Pilgrims know that what we believe matters.
With such insights about the importance of faith — and the dangers of corrupting it — Luther suggested that the book of James ought to be removed from the New Testament. He called it an ‘epistle of straw.’ The letter places a major focus on the importance of actions, good works and changed behaviour.
That the former monk God used to unleash the reformation could have been so wrong on such a basic matter as the canon of scripture, is a reminder that nobody has perfect aces to all truth. How are we to defend the value of changed behaviour and good works, in a way that holds tighter the insights of James and the rest of the Bible?
Two suggestions: 1. Let’s remember there is always a danger of empty intellectual faith — which is really no saving faith at all. Gal. 5:6 tells us that genuine ‘faith worketh through love.’ 2. The logic of James is that how we behave reveals what we really believe. People often like to think they have faith in Jesus — while actions and bank balances and schedules evidence that the gods trusted are precisely the ones the pagans are enslaved to. James challenges those of us who ‘believe’ right doctrine to ask what evidence our lives give to that claim? The faith that saves is that which shows itself to be saving faith, by real actions, good works and time spent in loving others.
Revd Dr. Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk