"The Risk of Separating Faith and Works" - Rev. Elizabeth Deibert

John 3:16-21 & James 2:14-18 4th Sunday of Lent

(A Dialogue Sermon By Elizabeth M. Deibert and Richard I. Deibert.)


Does it really matter how you live?


Just as long as you’ve put your faith in Jesus Christ, you’re okay, you’re saved,
you’re promised eternal life – now and forever. Once saved, always saved.
Unconditional love of God. It’s all good. You’ve got faith. God forgives. We
Protestants have always emphasized, “sola fide, sola gratia, sola scriptura (faith
alone, grace alone, scripture alone). Some of you can even remember the day you
committed your life to Jesus. Others of you have had a growing commitment since
childhood. Some of you could sing a Christianized version of the song the
Monkees made famous: “Then I saw Christ’s face... and I’m a believer. Not a
trace.... of doubt in my mind.” I’m a believer. I’ve invited Jesus into my heart.
I’m forgiven. No worries. Life is good. Got my ticket to the afterlife.


Wait a minute! That’s not only ridiculous, it’s heretical. Just mouth the right
words and — POOF! — instant salvation. Nothing required by the believer. No
work involved in your salvation. Just say something simple about Jesus and
eternal life is yours. That’s a rationalistic Protestant distortion of God’s grace.


I was wondering how long I could go on before you interrupted. I just love
getting your theological goat.


But this is serious stuff. We’ve turned salvation into a cheap flea market barter:
just ask Jesus into your life and your sins are cleansed for eternity. It’s that cheap.
Nothing else is necessary. No sorrow, no self-examination, no surrender, no hard
work, no obedience.


But Paul the Apostle, whom you studied for six years says, in chapter 3 of Romans
(NLT Romans 3:28), “So we are made right with God through faith and not by
obeying the law.” He says (NLT Romans 3:20), “No one can ever be made right
with God by doing what the law commands.”


But Paul’s the one who commands us to “Work out — bring about, produce —
your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2.12). And earlier in
your favorite letter to the Romans, Paul says, “Do you not realize God’s kindness
is meant to lead you to repentance ... God will judge everyone according to what
they have done. God will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good”
(NLT, Romans 2:4,6-7).


Now that you mention eternal life, we’d better get on with reading my text for
today – John 3:16 and following. I mean this is it: the most popular, most quoted
single verse in all of scripture – John 3:16. The power of believing. Though I do
wish people who are so quick to judge others, so eager to take credit for their faith,
which is a gift from God, would remember verse 17, because Christ came to save
the whole world – not just them. Christ did not come to condemn us.
John 3:16-21


Faith and works. Which is most important? Maybe it’s like the chicken and the
egg. Which comes first? There are a lot of chickens in that scene and only one
egg. Sometimes it seems like there’s a lot of professed faith around and not so
much work to support the words. You gotta walk the talk. I gotta practice what I
preach, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well.


Yep, sometimes you preach a lot better than you practice.


And sometimes you talk it better than you walk it. Same is true for them. Faith
and works. Works and faith. It’s been debated since the beginning of
Christianity. I think John casts a vote for faith. Don’t you think?


Perhaps, but wait a minute. None of us truly practices what we preach. The works
never quite measure up to the faith. And what gets me is that we just waltz along
falling short of God’s glory. Rarely do we have deep sorrow for our empty faith.
Did you happen to notice that John speaks about deeds too?


I did see that. He said, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it
may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” So there is a
connection even in John between deeds and believing.


Careful now, aren’t you beginning to slip into that dreaded black hole of “works-righteousness.” Aren’t you beginning to say that God saves us because of our
good works?


Of course not, the great Apostle Paul claims in Romans, “If it is by grace, it is no
longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (NRS
Romans 11:6). And don’t forget our opening scripture today from Ephesians at
the beginning of worship: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and
this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that
no one may boast” (NRS Ephesians 2:8-9).


Don’t forget that the very next verse of Ephesians says, “For we are what God has
made us, created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God prepared
beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2.10). Didn’t you have a second
scripture reading today from James, which speaks about Christian faith AS good
works? Did you hear that? Believing in Jesus IS good works. James says that
there’s no such thing as “sola fidei.” He thinks “faith alone” is ridiculous.


Yea, but tell that to Martin Luther and John Calvin, the Great Reformers. Martin
Luther called James the “straw epistle.” He put the book of James in the appendix
to his Bible, considered it inferior to the rest of scripture. Kind of the way I feel
about some of the laws in Leviticus and those verses from Paul telling women to
keep silent in church and obey their husbands.


But Luther was a Catholic monk and Calvin was a Catholic priest; and they were
reacting to the Catholic Church of the 1500s — the Medieval Catholic Church —
that was abusing the theology of sanctification, forcing people to pay their way to
holiness so the church could build its wealth out of people’s guilt. This is not the
Catholic Church we know today.


So, in this Medieval context of self-interested works righteousness, the Reformers
were emphatic about the power of simply believing in Jesus. And 500 years later,
we have many Christians who have a shallow understanding of salvation –
believers who think that their good works have nothing to do with their salvation.
We have Christians who feel no obligation to connect with a Christian community
that holds them accountable — and notices when they are present and involved,
and expects good deeds from them, and asks them to hunger and thirst for
righteousness, and to obediently share their time and skills and money.


We have a lot of people who are schizophrenic about salvation: they have
completely divided creed from deed, belief from action, what they believe from
how they live. EITHER they call themselves “Christian” because one day they
“accepted Jesus” OR they call themselves “Christian” because they pay their taxes
or donate to Goodwill, or worse, because they are nice to others. It’s amazing that
their salvation has little to do with obedience or prayer or worship or loving
enemies or sacrificing for the poor. They so easily call themselves “saved” yet
think nothing of being unkind, impatient, greedy, unforgiving, and selfish.


Yes, people call themselves Christian but are making no attempt to live like
Christ, to listen to the prophets, or to obey the commandments, especially the great
commandment of Christ – to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength
and to love neighbor as you love yourself.


The sad thing is that we’re all a lot like this: quick to profess faith, slow to live it.
So we need a good word from James: [text]


I think we can all agree that faith is more than just “Asking God to forgive you”;
more than simply saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” It’s more — a whole lot
more — than just a soft spot in my heart for the Lord or a mental ascent to the
teachings about Jesus.


Yes, I just read a helpful description of true Christian faith that holds both words
and actions together. The writer says that if we want to have faith as the New
Testament defines it, we must hold both faith as belief and faith as trust. In other
words, one side of faith is made up of words and concepts and convictions and the
other side of faith is made up of actions and daily discipline and concrete sacrifice.
Take away either belief or trust, and you no longer have Christian faith.


Today we will exercise our faith (BOTH our BELIEF and our TRUST) by
making concrete promises of our time and talent. We will not sit back idly,
leaning on undeveloped beliefs. We will bear fruit. We will deepen our trust by
a disciplined involvement in the church, where we know there will be
expectations. This means we will have less time and less energy for some things
in life. Because we will be taking that time and spending that energy to grow as
disciples of Jesus Christ, to build a community of peace, and to care for needs of
others.


Let us now spend some time in silent prayer.