For a couple of weeks I have been meditating in and preaching from the story of Jesus’ first miracle, the turning of water into wine, from John’s Gospel, chapter 2. I have very much enjoyed this engagement with the passage in John, and hope you enjoy the message.
Recently I read through the Gospel of John, reflecting on it one chapter at a time and making some notes. Of course I have read John previously, some parts of it many times. Nevertheless I found myself arrested when I arrived at John 9, the story of the man born blind.
This magnificent story refuses to draw a connection between sin and disability, as those in the ancient world were, and sometimes today are still, inclined to do. Rather Jesus does the work of God which in this case involves healing and restoration—and so indicates the kind of kingdom for which Christians hope. And John, as he does elsewhere in the Gospel, uses the story to point to Jesus’ identity, and to the necessity of appropriate human response to him and his message.
John makes this plain by his portrayal of the encounter between the religious authorities and the healed man. The Pharisees are disturbed by Jesus’ lack of orthodoxy and his popularity. He does not adhere to the standards that they believe are necessary if one claims to know and represent God. And they are infuriated by the plain though somewhat belligerent speech of this man who reasons that anyone who can miraculously heal a man born blind must have power that comes from God. They throw him out of the synagogue. Evidently Jesus heard about this and went looking for the man, and, when he found him, asked him if he believed in the Son of Man. The man did believe and confessed his faith, worshipping Jesus. On the one hand repudiation of Jesus because he does not adhere to their expectations; on the other, faith, confession, and worship.
But the wonderful drama of the story did not prepare me for what came next, where Jesus turns the tables on those who labelled the blind man a sinner:
And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, “We are not blind too, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (NASB)
For judgement I came into this world.
I found the statement arresting because it is so alien to much contemporary Christian thought, discussion and proclamation which assures us that Jesus has nothing to do with judgement. And indeed John 3:17 seems to affirm this:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
God’s attitude toward the world is an attitude—and indeed an action—of utter self-giving love. God loves the world, and sent his Son to save rather than to judge, the world. Jesus accomplishes this salvation as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). This gift of love, this life—of the ‘Word who was with God and was God’ (John 1:1) and who became flesh and dwelt among us full of glory, grace and truth (1:14); and this saving death, are the expression of the heart of God which pulses with love for every person no matter who or what they are.
Is it possible, then, to square John 3:17 with John 9:39? Part of the answer is found in the next verses in John 3:
John 3:18-21, 36
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God. . .
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.
Jesus speaks of judgement again in John 5:22-30. Here he declares that the Father has “given all judgment to the Son,” and that those who believe in him have eternal life and “shall not come into judgment,” but have passed from death to life. The judgement of which he speaks is the eschatological judgement awaiting those whose deeds are evil. These are those that God loves and sent Jesus to save. The world loved by God is in danger of perishing and so needs saving.
The climax of the first part of the gospel occurs in John 12:27-50, especially verses 44-50, and here again the theme of judgement is central to Jesus’ teaching.
I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness. If anyone hears My sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day.
Again Jesus affirms the words of John 3:17 but also insists that there is yet a judgement awaiting those who do not receive him and his words.
My sense of all this is that Jesus has not come to judge the world but his coming results in judgement, and the criterion of the judgement—which will be fully realised at ‘the last day’—is whether or not one has believed in him and kept his words.
For judgement I came into this world.
These sobering words are the words of Jesus, words that remind us of what makes the Good News good, words that warn us against cheap grace in its many manifestations and costumes, words that call us to faith in and obedience to the One who has so loved us and given himself for us.
Only one thing is needed.
Mary has chosen what is better (Luke 10:41-42)
Of the many good things that one can do, only one is necessary; only one is better. Mary received this commendation from Jesus because she had sat at his feet and listened to his word. Thus, we have a major problem when we fail to take the opportunity to do just this.
But we have a different kind of problem when we do listen, to some degree at least, to Jesus’ word, but then for one reason or another, fail to take him seriously. We are adept at side-stepping his words, choosing only those words which agree with our own perspective, explaining away the words if their challenge is too direct, and so on. To truly listen to his word requires not merely the act of hearing, but reflection on those words so that they might become part of our thought and decision-making processes, and so issue in life-action on the basis of those words. To truly listen to his word is to become a “doer of the word and not a hearer only” (James 1:22). Jesus declares those blessed who “hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 11:28).
Last week I gave an example of how an Evangelical Christian might be tempted to explain-away the teaching of Jesus, because it seems to contradict their doctrinal conviction. In the interests of fair play, today I consider another saying of Jesus which a more progressive Christian might want to sidestep or explain away. In answer to the question, “Lord, are there just a few who are being saved,” Jesus responds:
Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’
It is likely that these words are addressed to Jesus’ contemporaries to warn them that genuine repentance is required if devastating judgement on Jerusalem and the Jewish nation generally is to be avoided. This is a theme of Luke’s gospel, and is found earlier in this same chapter (cf. Luke 13:1-9).
In this chapter we are face-to-face with a stern Jesus, a no-nonsense Saviour. There is no universalism here, no salvation-lite, no complacency, no easy approach to sacraments or a take-it-or-leave-it approach to Jesus’ teachings. Here Jesus warns of exclusion and judgement; here he calls for a genuine repentance from our sinfulness; here he declares that we either come to him on his own terms or we do not come at all. These terms include what we read last week: do this and you shall live! They also include the stern words of Luke 14:25-27, 33:
Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. … So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.
Those who would follow Jesus must ‘hate’ all other relational claims on their lives, and even their own life as well. We cannot cling to our ‘loves’ if we would follow Jesus. Rather, we are called to take up the cross daily—die!—and follow Jesus. There is a cost to discipleship which will cut to the very core of our existence, including the giving up of all that does not belong in his kingdom, and of all that challenges our sole allegiance to him, whether our ‘possessions’—literally and figuratively—our loves, or our relationships.
If it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and a response whereby we ask, “Yes, but what about…?”, go with Jesus every time.
At the end of Luke 10, the evangelist records Jesus’ visit to Martha and Mary’s house in which Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and ‘listened to his Word’ (NASB). Jesus commended Mary saying that “only one thing is necessary” and that “Mary had chosen the good part.” The most important thing for any disciple is to do what Mary did: to hear—and then do—Jesus’ word. This is the foundation of Christian life and mission.
Many and perhaps even most Christians would agree with this sentiment. In practice, however, it is possible that our theological convictions might make this harder than we initially imagine. This may be the case especially for Protestants, and specifically for those evangelical Christians who, like myself, consider careful doctrine an essential aspect of Christian faith and life.
A case in point is found right here in Luke 10. Immediately preceding the story of Martha and Mary is the story of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in response to a question posed by a ‘lawyer’—an expert in the Mosaic Law:
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 And He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How does it read to you?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” 28 And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”
The lawyer’s question is focussed on the issue of obtaining eternal life, and Jesus directs him back to Scripture, and appropriately in the time and context, to the Law. When the lawyer answers, Jesus commends him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” The lawyer then takes it further, asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, elaborating on what it means to love one’s neighbour. The Samaritan stops, sees, serves, and sacrifices; he gets involved personally and acts, even to one who typically would despise him. This is an active, practical love that ‘costs’ the Samaritan in terms of time and money—though the ‘cost’ of such love is not even raised in the parable. And Jesus instructs the lawyer to “go and do likewise,” for this is the way to eternal life.
Do this and you will live!
The difficulty for Protestants and many evangelicals in particular, is that we have such an investment in a Pauline-Reformational doctrine of justification by faith, that Jesus’ words sound like a form of ‘works-righteousness,’ and as such, stand in tension with a doctrine of salvation in which we are ‘saved by faith and not by works.’ The great temptation, then, is perhaps to overlook Jesus’ words, to bypass them, explain them away, harmonise them to Paul’s teaching, or in some other fashion, to side-step and avoid them—precisely the opposite of what we hear in the Martha and Mary story.
This we must not do! The one essential thing is to hear Jesus’ words, let them stand, let them be heard, let them challenge us, let the tension remain unresolved if necessary, even if Jesus’ words and teaching challenge our most cherished doctrines.
(I note here I. Howard Marshall’s judgement that “There is all the difference in the world between the loving service of God commended here and the salvation by works of the law which Paul condemned”—The Gospel of Luke [NIGTC], 440).
Do this and you will live!
Here, in shortest possible compass, we have an instance of Jesus’ doctrine of salvation: love God and love your neighbour—and to do so in the most concrete, personal, and engaged sense imaginable. Certainly a systematic theology may legitimately seek to understand the relation between Jesus’ words and Paul’s, but never at the expense of setting either aside, or diminishing the force and impact of Jesus’ teaching. Certainly we might argue that Jesus’ command here presupposes faith in God, even if it is a faith before the cross and resurrection. But if it comes down to a choice between Jesus’ words and our doctrine, go with Jesus every time.
The more I read of Anthony Thiselton’s The Hermeneutics of Doctrine the more I appreciate it. His three chapters on the atoning work of Jesus and the interpretation of the cross provide additional cause for appreciation. The first chapter is inelegantly titled “Hermeneutics and Linguistic Currencies of Theologies of the Cross,” with Thiselton developing a quite simple analogy and making a quite straight-forward point. The analogy: “In financial currency-markets hard currencies are those that do not readily fluctuate with time or with changing conditions in other economies” (320). The point: biblical language is like a hard currency; it must be understood against the historical-linguistic contexts in which it emerged, but holds its value in the face of different contexts and “economies.” He cites Wolfhart Pannenberg with approval and emphasis:
The fact that a later age may find it hard to understand traditional ideas is not sufficient reason for replacing them. It simply shows how necessary it is to open up these ideas to later generations by interpretation, and thus keep their meaning alive. The problems that people have with ideas like expiation and representation (or substitution) in our secularized age rest less on any lack of forcefulness in the traditional terms than on the fact that those who are competent to interpret them do not explain their context with sufficient forcefulness or clarity (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 2:422; cited Thiselton, 312).
The chapter progresses in four moves. First, Thiselton argues that Christian interpretation and proclamation of the cross must begin with two interpretive horizons in view. First, the interpreter must deal with human pre-understandings, those points of contact in common human experience which may function as a bridge to understanding doctrinal truth. Second, the interpreter must deal with the subject matter itself in its own historical-linguistic context. He illustrates this opening contention with three examples.
The first concerns the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” Thiselton suggests that while the jury is still out with respect to the best way to understand the nature of first-century Judaism, and so also Paul’s doctrine of justification (the second horizon), the old perspective at least has the advantage of linking the work of the cross to the experience of the human condition and plight (the first horizon). That is, “a human experience of struggle, guilt, or alienation from God” is “ingredient in the revelation of the self in relation to God” (315), an experience addressed by the cross of Christ. In a pointed conclusion Thiselton writes,
We cannot exclude a horizon of understanding, then, that responds to questions about human plight in terms of the saving work of Christ. While Sanders’ work invites respect in exploring a horizon of understanding in the second sense, its validity is by no means self-evident or beyond criticism, and Käsemann rightly warns us that if we press such approaches, we may end up replacing Paul’s core concerns about justification by grace with issues of ecclesiology (316).
Far more important for Thiselton is his insistence that any discussion of atonement theology must begin with the New Testament emphasis on the grace of God. As such, we understand the atonement best not by starting with ideas of human fallenness or divine wrath and judgement, but with the love of God toward humanity. Further, objections to atonement must likewise deal with Old and New Testament contexts of the teaching.
Finally Thiselton notes that the variety of metaphors and images used in the New Testament to describe the work of Christ all provide horizons of meaning and points of access for understanding that work.
In the next two sections of the chapter Thiselton explores the “hard currencies” of the biblical language for redemption, salvation, reconciliation, and mediation. He insists that these terms must be understood against their Old Testament usage, with an eye, consequently, to the way in which they are modified in the New Testament. This usage then provides the initial hermeneutical horizon within which the meaning of these terms is to be understood.
Thus in his discussion of redemption, he notes that the term “usually denotes transference from a state of bondage or jeopardy to a state of well-being by a costly act” (321). In the Old Testament the pre-eminent symbol of this work is the exodus with its themes of political and social liberation.
In very broad terms the Exodus paradigm remains a founding model for a horizon of understanding within which to perceive the meaning of redeem and redemption. However, the New Testament writers qualify the salvific model with a sociological one. This is the model of release from slavery to an oppressive master to the lordship of a new master or Kurios. … The transaction in Paul’s theology involved a price not for freedom but for change of ownership (322).
Hopefully the theological, pastoral and homiletical implications of that final sentence are clear. Christian salvation involves not liberation in an abstract sense so that now one is free of all limitation, restraint, authority, and responsibility. Rather, it is liberation from an oppressive master to become dependent upon and responsible to a new Lord.
Although there is no explicit linguistic background in the Old Testament to the language of reconciliation and mediation, Thiselton argues that the New Testament imagery is grounded in and develops ideas and images present there.
The final section of the chapter returns to the fact that the New Testament uses multiple concepts and images when discussing Christ’s saving work on the cross. Again his point is simple: these multiple approaches to understanding the work of the cross serve as models and qualifiers. That is, each of them communicates an aspect of the truth, and so they also complement and condition each other, as well as provide imaginative avenues for appropriating and participating in the work of the cross (331). Thus Thiselton discusses the work of the cross utilising ideas of sacrifice, forensic approaches, Jesus’ obedience, and the theme of victory. Of particular interest in this series of blog posts is his comment with respect to forensic approaches:
Some writers concede that it is legitimate to speak of substitution in these two passages, but reject the traditional Reformation term penal substitution. Yet…the cross and crucifixion belong to the conceptual domain of punishment for crimes. The antipathy toward using penal is understandable if or when this one aspect is overpressed, as if no other concept qualified it. Equally the term penal substitution becomes misleading if it is abstracted from its proper hermeneutical horizon of divine grace as an overarching understanding. Vincent Taylor judiciously observes, “Everyone desires a better word than penal, but until we find it we ought not to abandon it [simply] because it has been used in ways that revolt the conscience…” (334).
With this verse the illustration concerning Abraham is concluded and James universalises and applies his argument. “You see” (horate) is second-person plural and marks a transition from James’s argument with his imaginary interlocutor, to him addressing his listeners as a whole. His conclusion makes two assertions, the one positive and the other negative (McKnight, 255). The positive conclusion is: “you see that a person is justified by works.” James emphasises the works by placing them before the verb: hoti ex ergōn dikaioutai anthrōpοs (literally, “that out of works, a person is justified”). This picks up the language of verse 21 where James has previously argued that Abraham was “justified by works.” The negative conclusion follows: “and not by faith alone” (kai ouk ek pisteōs monon).
The supposed contradiction between James and Paul is sharpest with this verse, where James appears to directly contradict what Paul asserts in Romans 3:20, 28:
For by works of the law no one will be justified in his sight … For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Moo argues correctly that Paul would wholeheartedly agree with James concerning his argument “not by faith alone,” but that “it is impossible to imagine Paul saying, ‘a man is justified by works’” (Moo, 115). Once more, however, we must insist that Paul and James are engaged in different arguments due to the different circumstances each is facing. Paul speaks of the beginning of the Christian life, of the initial justification of sinners by grace through faith—without works “of the law.” One’s obedience to the law’s dictates, especially the so-called “boundary markers” of Judaism by which one might be considered “in,” provide no basis for justification. Further, the faith spoken of by Paul is steadfast faith in God through Christ. This faith is not antithetical to works, and will indeed issue in all kinds of works, though these works are the expression of the faith by which the person has been saved.
James, in contrast, is arguing against what may be considered a distortion of Paul’s teaching, whereby one considers that an intellectual commitment to monotheism is sufficient to please God. Further, he is speaking not of initial justification but of final judgement, in which one’s works demonstrate the reality of one’s faith. Nor is James saying that one is saved by the works “of the law,” although his overarching use of works may include obedience to the Torah as it was mediated to the messianic community through Jesus. His emphasis in the chapter as a whole is on works of mercy toward the poor, and obedience toward God.
The key to the verse is the little word “alone” (monon). Justifying faith is never “alone,” but comes to expression in action. The problem with the position set forth by the interlocutor is that faith is separated from works and considered sufficient and complete without works. Faith, however, is a whole-of-life reality, engaging the whole person in response to God, and so cannot be limited to a cognitive or confessional commitment that does not issue in a whole-of-life response to the will and ways of God. Such “faith” is not faith at all, does not justify, cannot save, and is dead.
We must also be clear that works are not “added” to faith, as though the two ideas were separable. Rather, works of obedience and mercy are the way in which faith becomes visible in one’s life and in the world, and so is shown to be faith. Scot McKnight provides excellent insight into the relation of faith and works, while arguing that we allow the biblical text itself to lead the way we think of this relation, rather than forcing it to conform to a predetermined theological conviction:
I see a tendency, which seems to me to be a subtle attempt to let the Reformation have too much influence on exegesis, to prefer this formula: faith is demonstrated by works. What this does is salvage faith as the sine qua non of salvation. which may well be sound theology, but it lacks the nuance of James. (Some have argued that it is James who lacks the nuance and is in need of help.) Instead of locking into the term “demonstration,” I suggest we use each of the four terms James himself uses, and I suggest we use these terms liberally:
Works show faith (2:18).
Faith works with works (2.22a).
Faith is perfected by works (2.22b).
Works fulfill faith (2.23).
While we may be most comfortable with the first and least comfortable with the second, both the third and fourth are instances as much, if not more, of the second as of the first. Yes, works demonstrate faith, but they also perfect and fulfill faith and, as James goes to great pains to emphasize, the two work together to produce a working faith that saves. His emphasis is on their inseparability, not on distinguishing them or on their sequential relationship (McKnight, 244, original emphasis).
After his trial at Worms in April 1521, Martin Luther went into hiding for almost a year. During that time his associates at Wittenberg began implementing practical reforms in the church there. One of Luther’s closest associates, the young Philip Melanchthon, was reluctant to proceed on some matters in case the changes led to sin. Luther wrote to him on August 1, 1521 urging decisive action:
If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are in this world we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day (cited in Hendrix, Martin Luther, 121-122).
We must be careful to interpret Luther’s words correctly lest we suggest he intends us to go on sinning deliberately and flagrantly after conversion. Although it is true he is pessimistic about humanity’s ability to rise above sinful behaviours, even amongst the most devout Christians, his words to Melanchthon are about his reforming activities. If Melanchthon decided to do nothing, chances are he would sin; if he decided to act, chances are he would sin. Luther was encouraging proper action even when a perfect result could not be guaranteed.
Not only does this exhortation provide a useful principle in moral deliberation, it also reveals the depth of Luther’s trust in divine grace, his realistic rather than optimistic view of the human condition, and his understanding of Christian spirituality.
To be a Christian is to be a sinner. If we pretend we are not sinners we cannot be saved because Christ gives his grace to sinners. A Christian is someone who acknowledges their sin, owning rather than hiding or denying it. When his protector, Elector John, died in August 1532 Luther refused to deliver a eulogy: “I will not now praise the Elector for his great virtues but let him remain a sinner like the rest of us” (in Hendrix, 236).
Luther said as much to his friend Spalatin, who brooded over his sins and errors:
Now join with us prodigious and hardened sinners lest you diminish Christ for us. He is not a savior of fictitious or petty sinners but of genuine ones, not only the lowly but also the big and powerful ones; indeed he is the savior of all sinners. My Staupitz consoled me this way when I was downhearted. You can be a bogus sinner and have Christ for a fictitious savior. Instead, get used to the fact that Christ is a genuine savior and that you are a real sinner (in Hendrix, 281).
I find something realistic and comforting in Luther’s approach. He did not go out looking for opportunities to sin: he did not need to. And neither do I. But nor did he shrink away from the reality of his own brokenness, but trusted more heartily in Christ—and found him truly a saviour.
It has been almost a year since I broke off my study of James. I had worked through to James 2:13 on a verse-by-verse basis, and had hoped to continue to work through the epistle in this manner. However, my year has been such that I have not had the opportunity to continue as intended. I am not sure that 2017 will be much different, but will try to get through to the end of chapter two at least. Before breaking off my study, I did write two posts providing an introduction to James 2:14-26 which provide an orientation to the passage as a whole. Given some of the difficult issues with this passage, I invite readers to consult these posts first. The two posts can be found here and here.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (NRSV)
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NASB)
With this verse James begins a new section in his letter, although there is continuity with what has gone before. In verses 1-7 of the second chapter, James has admonished his hearers against partiality in the congregation, reinforcing this admonition with a reflection on the love command and the reality of divine judgement (vv. 8-13). His listeners are to live in accordance with the royal law of love which is characterised especially, by mercy. Just as chapter 2:1 begins with an acknowledgement of the hearers’ faith and calls for works of mercy and love, so this section also considers the nature of genuine faith, and similarly calls for works of mercy.
The fourteenth verse sets forth the first two questions in a series of three, the third question being longer in form and posed in terms of an illustration. The verse is again addressed by James to “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou), a device, as we have previously noted, that James uses to frame his various exhortations and to signal a new phase in his argument. The first question poses a hypothetical based on someone’s claim to have faith: James does not say the person has faith but no works; rather, they say they have faith (ean pistin legē tis echein) but they have no works (erga de mē echē). Of what use—or good or benefit—(Ti to ophelos;) is such a claim? The expected answer to the question is, “no use whatsoever.” The second question, also anticipating a negative answer, confirms this, and also shows the kind of “use” or “good” James has in mind: “Can that faith save him?” (mē dunatai hē pistis sōsai auton;). That is, when a claim to have faith is not supported by works, the claim is empty and useless. It provides no use or good or benefit whatsoever to the person making the claim; it cannot save them.
This verse raises many questions: What does James mean by “save”? What kind of works does he have in mind? What does it mean for someone to claim “I have faith”, if they have no works? What is the significance of this claim? What is the nature of this faith? What good or benefit does the person derive from their claim? Why would someone claim to have faith if such faith has no other effect in their life?
James questions the viability of someone making this claim and in so doing, questions the very reality of the faith itself. Such “faith” is no-faith, and therefore it can bring no benefit, and certainly no salvation into the life of the person making the claim.
A person may make such a claim because it is expected of them—like a candidate for the American presidency. Others perhaps because they wish to appear religious or spiritual if such qualities are culturally valued and approved—hardly the case in contemporary Australia! Some may claim faith on the basis of tradition or heritage, whereby the remnants of a faith once held by one’s forebears still clings to their life, though perhaps not the faith itself.
For James, such “faith” is not faith at all. The claim does not equate with the reality. A faith which has only the claim as its evidence is not genuine. True faith penetrates one’s life, shaping and guiding it. Faith in God issues in a life characterised by those priorities which characterise the life and being of God: love, mercy, etc. Thus, faith determines the life of the one who has faith, whereas the claim, by itself, is fruitless: it cannot save.
Scot McKnight speaks very bluntly to James’ point in this verse and its implications for many in our churches:
Salvation, then, is regenerative, morally transforming, and eternal—and the tragedy for James is that those who claim to have faith but do not have works will not be saved. Most Protestants do not believe this today (229).
Barth now drills more deeply into the primary question he is discussing in this section: how is it that something which took place in the history of Jesus Christ becomes an event in us? He does so by exploring two presuppositions associated with his “event” language:
The divine change in which the Christian life is founded has been described as an event. Viewed from above, this means that the history of Jesus Christ becomes once in time the origin and commencement of the reorientation and refashioning of the life of a specific man liberated therein. Seen from below, it means that once in time a specific man is liberated for the reorientation and refashioning of his life in the history of Jesus Christ as his origin and commencement (p. 23)
In these pages Barth explains how the ‘event’ of Christian faithfulness takes place in the lives of particular individuals. Two things are necessary, which Barth refers to as his two presuppositions.
The first presupposition, which he calls ‘viewing this event from above’ has to do with God’s faithfulness to humanity generally in the person and history of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus Christ is the Representative of every person, what takes place in him – back there, back then – takes place for every person and in their stead. On their behalf Jesus Christ is faithful to God and his faithfulness is theirs. His death includes them, and so too does his resurrection. In him, they have been faithful to God, have received forgiveness of sins, and been reconciled to God. Thus Barth says,
We presuppose that the history of Jesus Christ which took place in time pro nobis, His birth, His being as a preacher of the imminent kingdom of God, and finally His crucifixion, which fulfils the purpose of His birth and being, contains the power to become the factor which posits a new beginning in nobis, in the temporal life of man (23).
How does this history—then and there—become the factor which posits a new beginning in our life—here and now? How is the power of this history communicated to each person? Barth’s answer is simple and profound: the resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the power of his history is no longer limited to his historical existence, but has broken the banks and overflowed the borders of that historical existence, such that the risen Lord Jesus Christ himself is now present to every person in every time, and further, is in every person. His resurrection is the manifestation of his perfect work for every person, a divine pledge and promise pledged and given to every person.
In Jesus Christ God has taken up the cause of every person and been faithful to them. This divine faithfulness is the ground and foundation of Christian life, because this history of Jesus’ perfect obedience as our Representative and Liberator is made fruitful, efficacious and immediately present to every person through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In other words, Jesus’ death and resurrection has changed the situation of every person with respect to God. God has been faithful to them and has taken away the sins of the world.
Barth’s second presupposition, which he calls ‘viewing the event from below,’ has to do with human faithfulness to God in response to God’s faithfulness to them. Whereas God’s faithfulness to humanity in Jesus Christ concerns humanity as a whole, now God’s work in the Holy Spirit is concerned with particular individuals. Once more Barth elucidates his presupposition:
In the life of these men, certainly not apart from the awakening, quickening and enlightening power of the history of Jesus Christ demonstrated in his resurrection, a power is at work which makes these men free, able, willing and ready to give this event a place, the central place, in their willing and thinking, a place where it may exercise a force and authority which are seriously and ultimately decisive. We presuppose that this power enables, permits and orders them, that through the history of Jesus Christ it both commands and liberates them, to become responsible subjects of their own human history, which, renewed by the presence of the living Jesus Christ, has become a history of salvation rather than perdition (26-27).
That this divine change which has occurred in the history of Jesus Christ for all and in all may then actually take place in the life of a particular person is the work of the Holy Spirit:
In the work of the Holy Spirit this man ceases to be a man who is closed and blind and deaf and uncomprehending in relation to this disclosure effected for him too. He becomes a man who is open, seeing, hearing, comprehending. Its disclosure to all, and consequently to him too, becomes his own opening up to it. In the work of the Holy Spirit it comes about that the man who with the same organs could once say No thereto, again with the same organs, in so far as they can be used for this purpose, may and can and must say Yes. In the work of the Holy Spirit that which was truth for all, and hence for him too, even without his acceptance, becomes truth which is affirmed by him. The pledge which was previously given to him and to all becomes the pledge which is received by him. The promise which was good for him and for all becomes the promise which is grasped by him. By him! Inasmuch as he himself affirms, receives and grasps! … The point is that the man on and in whom the work of the Holy Spirit is done has to put himself seriously at God’s disposal in his creatureliness. … Moved by the Holy Spirit, he is opened up to the history of Jesus Christ as his own salvation history, and he thus begins to cry ‘Abba, Father’ (28-29).
For Barth, the work of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit are not two separate works, but the one work of God, commencing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and continuing as a movement in the Holy Spirit which reaches its goal with the concrete awakening of specific individuals (29). Together, these two presuppositions elucidate the one work of God by whose power a divine change may take place in a person’s life that they may become faithful to God, that they may be and live as Christians. Barth calls this one work of God by which specific persons become Christians, their “Baptism with the Holy Ghost” (30).
It is clear that Barth wants to ground Christian life and salvation wholly in the grace of God while also ensuring that the human agent is not rendered passive in the process. The individual must choose, must decide, must trust, and must act; that they can do so, however, is because they have been freed for this through the ministry of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Equally clear is Barth’s contention that the term “Baptism with the Holy Spirit” refers not to an experience separate and subsequent to conversion, but refers specifically to the individual’s conversion itself.
The mystery of the Christian life is that it is grounded in the history of Jesus Christ, a divine event which occurred in him rather than anything which occurs in us. Yet—and this is Barth’s central concern in the entire section—how is it that an event which occurred in his history can be the ground of the Christian life as it unfolds in our lives?
What has this Other, who there and then was born in Bethlehem and died on Golgotha, what has He to do with me? What has the freedom of His life as very Son of God and Son of Man to do with my necessary liberation to be a child of God, and consequently with the humanity which is true because it corresponds to the will of this Father? And what have I to do with Him? How can it be that, as I grow out of Him as out of a root, He can be one with me and I with him, and in unity with Him my own life can begin as a Christian life, the life of a man who is faithful to God? How can that which He was and did extra nos become an event in nobis? (p. 18)
Barth rejects one-sided, ‘artifical’ responses to this question. That is, he refuses to attribute the decision to the sole agency of God, thereby rendering humanity passive in their own salvation. He likewise refuses to attribute the saving decision to humanity alone, as though each person were their own “reconciler, teacher and master in relation to God” (19-20). Both these approaches dismiss the ethical problem of the genesis of the Christian life as irrelevant, and “conjure away the mystery which confronts us.”
Instead, Barth would “allow the matter to be its own interpreter … to see how the matter interprets itself, how the riddle is solved from within” (20). This is discovered by following the “singular movement of New Testament thinking” which in reality is a double-sided movement, “from above downwards, but also from below upwards” (20-22). In this twofold but single movement we find both, that in Jesus Christ God is faithful to humanity, and also that humanity is faithful is God.
As this individual history it is thus cosmic in origin and goal. As such it is not sterile. It is a fruitful history which newly shapes every human life. Having taken place extra nos, it also works in nobis, introducing a new being of every man. … He was faithful to us by being ready to give Himself, and by giving Himself, to fulfil the covenant between God and man in His own person, i.e., by being faithful to God in our place, in the place of those who previously were unfaithful to Him. In our place—even as He was there and then what only He could be, He was this in our here and now, in the weakness, ungodliness and enmity, the heart, the personal centre of the existence of every man. But if he acts extra nos pro nobis, and to that extent also in nobis, this necessarily implies that in spite of the unfaithfulness of every man He creates in the history of every man the beginning of his new history, the history of a man who has become faithful to God. All this is because it is God himself who has taken man’s cause in hand in His person. It was not a man who posited or made this new beginning. Not of himself did man become another man, faithful to God instead of unfaithful. Nevertheless, on the path from Bethlehem to Golgotha which Jesus Christ traversed for him as very Son of God and therefore as very Son of Man, the new beginning of his life was posited and made as that of a man who is faithful to God. On the ground of this beginning of his in the history of Jesus Christ he here and today can and should live his new Christian life which corresponds to, because it follows, the divine transformation of his heart and person which took place there and then (21).
By taking our place in his work outside of us and for us, Jesus Christ liberates and transforms us for a new faithfulness to God. The history of Jesus Christ is a fruitful history, and efficacious, and so does not remain simply external to humanity but is also in nobis here and now.
The God at work in that history, while He does not find and confirm a direct relation between Himself and us, does create and adopt this relation, which we could not create or adopt for ourselves, but which we cannot evade when He does so. Interceding for us in Jesus Christ, He is now present to us, not at a distance, but in the closest proximity, confronting us in our own being, thought and reflection. … What takes place is thus quite simply that in nobis, in our heart, at the centre of our existence, there is set a contradiction of our unfaithfulness, a contradiction which we cannot escape, which we have to endorse, in face of which we cannot cling to our unfaithfulness, by which it is not merely forbidden but prevented and rendered impossible. … What then? We can will and do only one thing—the thing which is positively prefigured for us in the action of the true Son of God and Son of Man at work within us. The only possibility is to be faithful to God. … The divine change in whose accomplishment a man becomes a Christian is an event of true intercourse between God and man. If it undoubtedly has its origin in God’s initiative, no less indisputably man is not ignored or passed over in it. He is taken seriously as an independent creature of God. He is not run down and overpowered, but set on his own feet. He is not put under tutelage, but addressed and treated as an adult. The history of Jesus Christ, then, does not destroy a man’s own history. In virtue of it this history becomes a new history, but it is still his own new history. The faithfulness to God to which he is summoned is not, then, an emanation of God’s faithfulness. It is truly his own faithfulness, decision and act (22-23).
It is clear in these pages that Barth wrestles to secure the genuine agency of the human person vis-à-vis God, although it is an agency which is strictly ordered to the prior work of divine grace by which the person is liberated for precisely this kind of agency. Thus, Barth’s interest is not so much soteriological or even sacramental though he does address these topics. Rather, as befits the ‘ethics of reconciliation,’ Barth is interested in the divine-human relation in its ethical dimension. Thus he speaks of the “ethical problem of the genesis of the Christian life,” and is concerned with the divine-human relation being one of “the genuine intercourse between God and man as two different partners.” The genesis of the Christian life is grounded in the divine work fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet this work includes humanity, and thereby liberates and transforms humanity, so that the human person might freely and faithfully respond to the divine address which encounters them.
At the heart of Barth’s exposition, then, is the ethical concern of faithful human response to the reconciling God. But this response must in its genesis be consonant with the whole character of the Christian life, and the response of the Christian to the divine summons in the whole of life must be consonant with its genesis.