Of Work & Worry (James 2:14-24)

September 1, 2021


Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. - James 1:17, Douay Rheims Bible

The Bible in Catholic Apologetics

I read Trent Horn's Book, 20 Answers - The Bible last weekend.  It is a great book that answered a lot of questions for me. I especially loved how he used Scripture to help explain the tenants of our Catholic faith.  Which made me think about my own relationship to Scripture.

It had been a long time since I'd done any personal Bible study.  Part of the reason for that, I realized, was the way I'd seen the Bible used as a weapon against others on YouTube and social media. 

Then I thought about how I had once loved Bible study and made a commitment to return to it.  Happily, I ordered a Catholic Bible study called Letters from Prison.

Troubled Sleep

I felt good about the weekend and about my decision to study Scripture but for some reason, I couldn't seem to fall asleep that Sunday night.  As the hours passed, I began to worry about this and that.  Then I started to worry about the fact that I was worrying and whether or not that worry showed a lack of faith.

So I began to talk to God about it.  Which meant, I realized, that the faith was there.  I believed He was listening and that He was at work in my life. I even had faith that he would see things through according to His plan - despite my concerns.  

But that didn't mean that I was entirely off the hook.  There was a reason why I was worrying.  The truth was, there were things I wasn't handling as well as I should.

I turned on the light and made a list of things I needed to do - no matter what.  Then I prayed the Rosary and recited other favorite Catholic prayers, all of which were peppered with prayers for my family.  Finally I started to feel a sense of peace.  Just before sunup, I fell asleep.

Monday morning came.  I was tired.  But I felt good about my list.  I would do what I could and have faith in God's ability to handle the rest.

So after I had ticked off the items for that day, I decided to do a bit of Bible study and found myself drawn to the book of James. 

James on Works

What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?  And if a brother or sister be naked and want daily food:  And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit?  So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.  But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works. Shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.  -  James 2:14-18 Douay Rheims Bible

I have always thought about James 2:14-18 as being about doing things for other people.  And it certainly worked on that level for me. 

My first vocation is my family.  So feeding people and making them comfortable is part of my daily work.  Some of the things I'd been worrying about the night before, in fact, had to do with the state of my home and how I care for my family.

But I noticed something else in the passage.

In the first two lines James asks if faith (alone) can save someone who doesn't do any good works.  Then he goes on to talk about charity to others.  So, to me, the question is not only about helping others.  It is about helping ourselves as well.

So how do good works help the one who does?  

I had just spent the day attending to things - like housework and my Etsy shop and my overgrown garden.  I had accomplished things. I felt good about the things that would benefit my family.  And I  was pretty sure I was going to sleep.

But that wasn't what had helped me the most.  What had really helped me was turning to God in prayer and saying the Rosary and reading the Bible.  Those spiritual actions (or works), weren't necessarily inclusive.  In another situation, I might have sought out a different spiritual remedy.   But I had taken action.  And it had made a difference.

Publicly, writing about a controversial passage like this one is a little intimidating.  On a personal level, however, I'm reminded how the Bible can, and does, speak to me and how much it can help.  

I'm glad I came back to it.   But that doesn't mean there aren't challenges.

The James 2:24 Controversy

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God. Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only? - James 2:21-24 - Douay Rheims Bible

There has been a lot of debate about James 2 between Catholics and Protestants.  Often the debate begins with the verses I quoted above and continues to verse 24.  Some (though not all) of these arguments are based on misunderstandings.

Like the Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church agrees that we are saved (or justified) by faith.  But the Church also believes that our works can lead to ongoing sanctification and that some works, if sufficiently egregious can lead to a loss of salvation (though this is referenced in other verses).

This and other differences between Catholic and Protestant were delineated at the Council of Trent.  But what a lot of people don't realize is that James 2:24 ("Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?") wasn't the verse upon which the Council's rejection of Luther's specific application of the "faith alone" doctrine was rejected. It was actually, according to Catholic apologist Jimmy Aiken, a combination of verses.

It was actually, according to Catholic apologist Jimmy Aiken, a combination of verses.

After discussing the justification that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, Trent quotes several passages from St. Paul on how Christians grow in virtue by yielding our bodies to righteousness for sanctification. It states that by good works we “increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified” (DJ 10).  It is in the context of this growth in righteousness—and in this context only—that Trent quotes James 2:24: “Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?”  Trent thus relates James’s statement not to the initial justification that occurs when we first come to God but to the growth in righteousness that occurs over the course of the Christian life. - Jimmy Aiken, Catholic Answers Magazine, Faith and Works

As Aiken explains it the kind of "faith alone" doctrine the council was concerned with was the kind of faith alone that doesn't cooperate with God's grace. Calvinists like John MacArthur believe in this application of faith alone, while other Protestants (such as the Wesleyan denominations) believe in ongoing sanctification.  Despite this, the faith vs. works argument remains a point of contention between Catholics and Protestants.  

My Takeaway 

I learned a couple of different things from this one sleepless night.

One was that I needed to cooperate a bit more proactively with God's plan for my life.  This led me to give some serious thought to my vocation as a mother and homemaker.  Which, in turn, helped me to redefine my priorities.

The experience helped me to become more aware of the many differences between Catholic and Protestant doctrine.  It surprises me that I haven't given this more thought but know it's something I need to put into some kind of coherent personal context in order to write the last couple chapters of my testimony.  

Reading the book of James and just barely scratching the surface of the controversary surrounding it highlights how much I have to learn both about the Bible and the Church.  Which isn't discouraging to me at all.  In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

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