14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
18 Yea, a man may say, Thou has faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
A question is implied here: Which is more important, faith or works? James refuses to answer; instead, he explains the impossibility of divorcing two things which are meant to work together. Trying to decide which is more necessary to salvation is like trying to decide which is more necessary to physical life, circulation or respiration. It’s a silly question, meaningless, on the order of the inane query, often trotted out by agnostics trying to look clever, of whether God is strong enough to make a rock so heavy he couldn’t lift it. If circulation were to cease, respiration would not long continue, and vice versa. They are interlocked by their very nature.
In truth, we are saved through faith; but faith is animated by works, and at the same time empowers works. For someone to ask whether faith can be divorced from works and still be a saving faith begs the question: Just what is it you’re planning to do?
The perceived dichotomy between faith and works puts me in mind of an experiment once done on rats in which large portions of their brains were removed or destroyed, I don’t recall which. The damaged rats survived the operation and carried on eating and drinking and so forth, in spite of having to rely on a fraction of the brain size they were born with. Whether or not the rats’ higher mental processes had been compromised by their maiming was not considered; they were not tested as to how quickly they could go through a maze or learn some new activity. Their quality of life, their essential rathood, was disregarded. This oddly conceived experiment ultimately gave rise, through time, misinformation, and poor reasoning, to the oft-quoted but misguided old saw that human beings use only ten percent of their brains.
The question of which is more important, faith or works, in my opinion betrays a mad-scientist sort of reductionism which is hostile to life, to all that is vital and organic. Our society is rife with reductionist thought, much of it, I believe, diabolical in origin. It endeavors to educate a child’s mind apart from his heart and spirit. It separates sex from marriage, reducing it to a recreational activity devoid of power and beauty. Humans simply cannot survive this kind of vivisection. We are meant to be whole. We are not factory products, and when treated as such we become warped, crippled, monstrous. We are more than the sum of our perceived parts. We are dust, yes, but animated by the breath of God, which defies reduction.
Rather than ask foolish questions in hopes of discovering how little effort we can get away with and still receive a passing grade from God, let us press on to take hold of all that is precious and excellent, all that is his extravagant desire for us. Let us come to the word of God as to a feast, not peer narrowly at it in a grudging effort to figure out which bits will be on the test.
17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.