What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him?…
The hardest battle which Christianity has to fight in the world is not the battle against heathenism or against ignorance or against atheism. These are hard battles enough, as all who have fought them know; but the hardest of all is the battle against unreality. A missionary may convert a village, a town, a tribe, to the faith of Christ; a Christian worker may make himself a centre of Divine light and knowledge in some city den of thieves and outcasts where God was unknown before: there are Christian champions in plenty to repel the assaults of those who attack, from this side or that, the premises or the conclusions of the Christian faith. But how few are those who, not being the heralds of a new religion, lacking the stimulus of the novel or the strange, without the excitement of a controversial straggle, have Caught men to be Christians inwardly; who, brought face to face with professing believers, have persuaded them not to be content with a religion of formulas and congregations and a conventional morality, but have brought it home to them that that is not all of Christianity; that Christianity is not simply a system of belief or of moral practice, but that in its highest embodiment it is the holiness which is born, and born necessarily, not of an assent to a creed, not of obedience to a law, but of faith in a Person. Now this battle against unreality was, in the very essence of it, the battle which Christ had to fight and did fight in His life in the world. All religious faith must have a moral as well as an intellectual element in it; and (let me insist upon it for a moment) in attacking the Judaism of His day, Christ was attacking it upon its moral rather than its intellectual side. There wore three different developments of national pride in the Jews which combined to make their religion the barren tree it was. One was their pride in their descent: "We have Abraham to our father." Another pride was in their law; in their own knowledge of its requirements, and the exhaustive fashion in which some of them, at any rate, strove to fulfil them. The third kind of pride was a pride in their belief — their belief in the one God, Jehovah the God of Israel. It was to all this unmeaning belief, to this religion which was only self-satisfaction, to this faith which enlisted only the lower and more mechanical powers of the mind, and hardly touched the heart at all; it was to this that Christ came and opposed His religion. And there is nothing, perhaps, more remarkable in His teaching than the absence of any attempt to formulate a creed, or to set forth a precise statement of doctrine. But if this comparative absence of doctrine pure and simple in Christ's teaching is remarkable, no less remarkable is its appearance, and the transcendent importance given to it, directly He is gone from the scene. What is the reason of the change? If Christ had not thought this necessary, why should His apostles introduce it? The answer is not far to seek. Christ had done His work: He had laid the foundations of the faith — laid them strong and immovable in the personal love of His followers to a personal Leader and Saviour. But something more was requisite. If His work was to have, under human conditions, a permanent influence upon generations yet unborn, it must have an abiding centre from which this influence could radiate. This centre was the Christian Church. But it would have been in vain for the Church to content herself with precepts of holiness, and to leave the truth about the Author of holiness and the way of attaining it to take care of themselves. Men will not rally round a standard the motto of which is simply goodness. They must have something more definite: something which appeals directly to the mind, upon which the reason can fasten. And so the Christian creed, which in Christ's own lifetime had remained in the background, not because it was unimportant but because it was rather taken for granted, came into a prominence that it has never lost. If we look at the history of the Christian Church since the days of its Founder, we shall see that the great crises in its career have been crises when doctrines rather than morality have been at stake. Truth can count a thousand martyrs for every one that goodness has. And if you turn to modern religious circles, the same holds good there. You know how much readier people of the professedly religious type are to condone a moral peccadillo here and there than to forgive an error in doctrine: how much easier it is to collect a multitude that will rob a church where the service offends their beliefs or their prejudices, than one that will pull down a gin-shop where souls for which Christ has died are sold daily and nightly over the counter. The enthusiasm of opinion is far commoner, far more readily roused, than the enthusiasm of right-doing. But is this precedence given to truth over goodness entirely wrong? Are we to depose faith once for all, and enthrone morality in its place? Assuredly not. Bat for all that, there are two things which are of paramount importance for us to settle before we attach a supreme value to faith in a creed. One is what we include in a creed; the other is what we mean by faith. There are at the present time two opposite tendencies about creeds between which it is not wholly easy to steer. One is to regard all of them alike, as the same or nearly the same in value and authority: to "sit as God, holding no form of creed, but contemplating all." Assuredly, I do not envy the man who cannot see in the higher religions of the non-Christian world a thousand elements of what is noble and godlike. But it is one thing to allow that, and wholly another to say that the difference between Christ and these other founders, between the faith of Christ and their faiths, is only one of degree. If there is no Christian revelation, Christianity ceases to be a religion and becomes only a moral system: and if in Christ there has been a revelation, however incomplete, however limited, it is an essential part of it, as we have it — that it is the one authoritative revelation which God has made of Himself to the world. The other tendency is to go on enlarging indefinitely the area of what is held to be vital and essential in the Christian creed, to go on including in it point after point of debatable belief, until it covers almost the whole field of theology. There is nothing more dangerous than this tendency to multiply the vital elements in the Christian creed. In human belief there are three things, one of which will always vary in inverse ratio to the other two. One is the amount which men are asked to believe; the second is the number of those who will believe it; the third is the thoroughness, and by that I mean both the honesty and completeness, of their belief. If a creed is too minute in his details and too wide in its area, either people will not believe it, or they will accept it superficially or hypocritically. If we would have a universal Church, either its creed must be a simple one or there will be this half-and-half acceptance of it. If we would have a thorough and complete belief, either the creed must not be a complicated one, or we shall shut out from the Church the great mass of reasoning men. And if God has given us a revelation which confessedly leaves much unrevealed, if the utterances of the Church supplementing that revelation are on certain points but tentative and hesitating, is it a false inference to make that God meant the mind of man to exercise itself upon the great questions which concern the Divine nature and counsels, as well as upon those which concern only man and the world — to find a field, not only in all earthly knowledge, but in the science of sciences, the science of the nature of God as revealed in the history of His dealings with man? If so, the creed of a true Church will be one which has indeed a heart of rock, immovable and fast, in the great central truths of the faith, for without that it would be a mere floating island, disappearing and reappearing in a sea of doubt; and yet one which is content to leave unfixed much about which Christians will think differently as long as human reason is imperfect and the light from above but partial. And when we pass from creeds to our belief in them, from the matter of faith to faith itself, how narrow and mistaken is the common view of ill "Faith and works," cries the superficial student of God's Word, "at what opposite poles these stand!" Will men never see what the apostles saw plainly enough, that faith and works only differ as cause and effect, as the courage which moves to heroic deeds differs from the heroic deeds to which it moves us? that, to put it in another way, faith is a work of the mind and heart, works but the expression in outward act of some faith or other within? Will men never remember that deeds have no moral value in themselves apart from the motive which inspires them? When man slays man, is it the feet that are swift to shed blood, or the hands that are red with the stains of it, that are to blame? Does charity lie in the fingers that drop the coin into the alms-box, or that put the cup to the mouth of the dying? Does self-restraint reside only in the lips that close upon the angry word? Nay, there is no virtue in an act by itself — it is the motive in the heart that makes it good or bad. And it is so with the beliefs of the mind. There is no spiritual value in mere belief, even of religious truths; it is the heart with which men go to meet the truth, the honesty, the reverence, the fear with which they desire to look into it, that Rives it its worth. Faith and works alike are on one side, the outcome of what is best in man towards God; on the other, they are alike His gifts, as every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.
(H. A. James, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?