“Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead”
“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”
My old high school had a Latin motto: “Spectamur agendo.” Loosely translated it means “we are known by what we do.” My father, who was also a SACS “old boy” regularly reminded me about this in teaching me to do the right thing. But if we, as school boys, thought about it all, we probably thought that it meant that we were known for our ability to defeat other schools on the sports field. It was a battle cry, if you like, “watch out, you guys, we are about to crush you!” “You will know who we are by what we do to you!” The fact that we often lost games did not alter our conviction that we were the best, the greatest school, and determined to make our school great again after every loss. But our opponents were not always impressed. Prove what you say by what you do, and then we will start to believe what you say.
This is precisely what St. James says to his critics in his New Testament letter. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say that you have faith but do not have works? Can that faith save you?” James specifically had in mind the way in which Christians act towards those who were poor and those engaged in spreading lies and scandal. So in response to the misreading of St. Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith,” James says, OK, but if that does not result in good works that faith cannot save us. It is cheap grace. Nor will such faith convince anybody at all about what we believe, for we are “known by what we do” rather than sibymply what we say. It is a tough message for preachers and those who deliver meditations such as this one. We may be good at crafting words, but words are not enough. Mea culpa! To throw in another Latin phrase.
Donald Trump has been most upset this past week because Pope Francis said that he could not be a Christian if he does the kind of things he is now doing with regard to refugees and others in need. I can imagine Trump’s angry response:
“How dare the Pope question my Christian faith! After all my mother was a Presbyterian and I swore on the Bible she gave me at my inauguration! We even read the Sermon on the Mount during that event, though I must confess I was not listening very carefully. And, yes, not only that, but millions, probably trillions of Bible-believing Christians voted for me. In fact I have never needed forgiveness for anything for I have never done anything wrong. I wasn’t the guilty partner in my divorces for sure. I can do anything I like. So if I say I am a Christian even the Pope had better believe it or else I won’t give him a visa to visit our great country where everyone has religious freedom, unless you happen to be Muslims from certain countries and, of course, if you are the Pope. God bless America, the greatest Christian country on earth which I am making even greater by getting rid of those I don’t like, teaching my fellow patriots to hate our enemies, and would like to encourage torture. Yes, I will be known by what I do, because what I say and do is the same. You bet!”
Now let me make it clear. A political leader is never expected to be a saint, in fact, not all popes have been saints and some were corrupt rogues. Neither does a political leader have to be highly educated, though it does help if you can read and write. He can even have several wives serially or at the same time. And, it should go without saying, political leaders need not be Christians; even John Calvin said that he preferred competent pagan rulers to incompetent pious ones. No, the problem is that President Trump, like President Zuma, claims to be a Christian and makes political capital out of doing so, and he has received support from multitudes who profess to be Christians for that reason. But now Christianity is being judged by many non-Christians in terms of what Trump is doing. So I think the Pope is right to speak up on behalf of us all. He is a far better judge of what it means to be a Christian than the President of the United States. If you claim to be a Christian you had better try and live like one. The Bible tells us so. Even Jesus told the disciples of John to judge him by what he was doing.
We must be careful, nevertheless, about throwing stones at Trump from our own glass chapels. For how often do we also say “Lord, Lord” but don’t do what Jesus asks us to do? As much as we don’t like it, there is a little bit of Trump in all of us. He may be the chief narcissist, but who of us in this selfie generation are not narcissist to some degree? He may be a tax-evader, fraudster, and an adulterer, but we are not without sin ourselves. In any case, James is not writing to Trump alone, but to all of us who claim to be Christians.
We are known by what we do! That is not only how God judges us, but also how the world in general judges us. That is why it is so important for those of us who seek to be faithful Christians, those of us who seek to follow Jesus, to take a firm and resolute stand against the racial and religious bigotry that has already come to characterise Trump’s presidency just as it characterised his election campaign, and characterises much of our own national life. We don’t have to be self-righteous about it, but we have to be resolute and courageous in opposing and rejecting it. Trump’s, and his supporters’ claims, to be Christian is not not just challenged by the Pope and other Christian leaders, it is contradicted by the gospel, in fact by the very Bible on which Trump placed his hand in taking the oath of office. It is not we who judge Trump, but God’s Word that judges all of us. And like Trump we all need forgiveness and grace to live as we should.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 2 February 2017