Wesleyan Wisdom: James had it right – ‘Faith without works is dead’

Two previous columns have highlighted the role of “belonging” and “believing” in our Christian journey. The third dimension is “behaving.”

When we argue about religion, we usually argue about doctrine or some debatable interpretation of a verse of Scripture. Let us consider the ultimate test of “good” or “bad” religion. Does it meet the criterion of Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” that we learn in undergraduate philosophy class: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should became a universal law”? How we behave is often the demarcation line between “good religion” and “bad religion.” Proverbs is a wise teacher: “There is a way which seemeth right . . . but the end thereof are the ways of death.” (14:12)

Political and cultural prophets wrongly thought religion would play a minor national or international role in elections and power struggles of the 21st century. This led to a virtual blindness with regard to Islam.

We are still sorting out the difference between mainstream Islam and the Islamic fundamentalism that created the political ethos of contemporary Iran. One of several major missteps in relation to Iraq before the defeat and death of Saddam Hussein—and in subsequent intra-Muslim conflicts—was a lack of attention paid to differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. We are still shocked at the theological indoctrination that convinces devout young Muslims to sacrifice their own lives in the name of Allah as they fly planes into the World Trade Center towers or blow up a bus in Jerusalem.

President George W. Bush was almost mocked for saying in 2004 that Jesus Christ was the most important influence on his life. Critics mocked Mr. Bush’s mid-life conversion and outspoken witness to his faith. Some decried his statement that he prayed before making decisions of state.

During the subsequent 2008 election, the press and many people in the church were unprepared for the sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, under whose preaching our future president, Barack Obama, had sat for several years. No one seemed to have heard of liberation theology! Mr. Wright’s invective about exploitation of the poor and people of color came as a shock. It seemed that virtually no one had read James Cone’s God of the Oppressed, nor many other volumes that had reframed the traditional interpretation of religion in America.

There had been a longstanding and wide gap between what pastors learned in the seminary classrooms and what they taught (or failed to teach) in local churches about contemporary Christian theology. The unfortunate upshot of this national exposure of liberation theology was Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from membership in the United Church of Christ. Today, the issue is still in the news.

Needless invective

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama are not alone in being condemned for their religious convictions. The pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas declares that presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not a Christian because he is a Mormon. President Bush’s mid-life conversion and United Methodist membership, President Obama’s discovery of the relevancy of liberation theology to the issues he faced in south Chicago, and the Romney family’s deeply entrenched commitment to Mormon beliefs and practices all have a common foundation: Religious beliefs are important to people.

Add to that the reality that religion has a shaping influence on the content of character, the platforms of political parties, the accent of national policy and the destiny of humankind.

In his book The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen Carter, Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale and an African American, puts the issue of religious belief into proper context and language: “Discrediting all religious witness because of the excesses of some Christian fundamentalists is much like what Jaroslav Pelikan once referred to as ‘the Enlightenment habit of undercutting all of historic Christianity by attacking Roman Catholicism.’ There has been no era in American history when our politicians failed to include routine references to God in their public rhetoric. Dr. Carter concludes: “When the guardians of the public square inveigh against religious dialogue or when pundits worry about the influence of religion on politics, they are worrying, as it were, against history. The rhetoric of religion is simply there. . . . The question is not whether religious people should have access to the public square; the question is whether and how to regulate that process.”

Dr. Carter then laments that we have turned the entire issue over to the courts, often having judges ill prepared in their study of history or their philosophy of jurisprudence to interpret the soul of America. How sad that the great historic religions do not have either the spokespersons in leadership or the appreciation of each other’s core values to inform their respective constituencies without such irresponsible invective as “Obama is a Muslim because he studied as a child under Imams in Indonesia” or “Romney is not a Christian because Mormonism is a cult.” Rather than condemn another person’s faith journey, let us resort to an adage: “The proof is in the pudding.” How does that person rate according to Wesley’s ethic of doing no harm and doing all the good we can?

Wesley and works

John Wesley felt comfortable with the religion-and-culture mesh of British heritage. The Archbishop of the Anglican Church crowns the monarch of the kingdom; then in due season, the monarch appoints the next archbishop! Wesley’s father was the first author to dedicate a book to Queen Mary when she and William were given the throne in 1688 following the Glorious Revolution. John’s last duty in 1735 before leaving London for his missionary work in Georgia was to present Queen Caroline with a copy of his father’s Dissertations on the Book of Job.

The major thrust of Wesley’s understanding of “scriptural Christianity” was what he called “practical divinity.” With his own background in the Anglican Church, Wesley’s pre-1738 journey was steeped more in what he called “holiness of heart and life” than in experience. Acts of mercy had accented his beliefs since his undergraduate days at Oxford. He broke with the Moravians in 1740 because of their doctrine of “stillness” which denied any place for good works. According to Albert Outler, classical Protestant theology (sola fide) considered good works as “nothing more than splendid sins.” Wesley demurred. In contrast to Luther and German pietism, Wesley loved the book of James! His Christian ethic repeatedly came back to the Parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. Behavior was the child of belief.

In his sermon “The Reward of Righteousness,” delivered to the Royal Humane Society at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1777, Wesley read Matthew 25 and exclaimed, “What a declaration this! . . . May the finger of the living God write it upon all our hearts!”

Wesley notes in that sermon that “many, even serious people, are jealous of all that is spoken upon this subject,” but then asks, “should we, for fear of this or of any other reproach, refrain from speaking the ‘truth as it is in Jesus’?” Wesley referred to the recent popularity of “salvation by grace through faith alone,” but said of it, “some attempted to preach the same doctrine, but miserably mangled it; wresting the Scripture, and ‘making void the law through faith.’ Some of these, in order to exalt the value of faith, have utterly deprecated good works.” Noting the pietistic reference to good works as ‘splendid sins,’ Wesley quotes again from Matthew 25 and says “these are not splendid sins . . . but ‘sacrifices wherewith God is well pleased.’”

He applauds the mission of the Humane Society: “How many times have you been pained at human misery? When you have beheld a scene of deep distress, has not your soul melted within you?” He concludes, “Remember . . . the solemn declaration of Him whose ye are, and whom ye serve, coming in the clouds of heaven! While you are promoting this comprehensive charity, which contains feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lodging the stranger; indeed all good works in one; let those animating words be written on your hearts, and sounding in your ears: ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto ME.’”

Joining hands

As sad as all United Methodists are about the results of the recent General Conference, let us remember who we are. Even if we cannot agree on the wording of the Discipline, we can agree on the imperative of “discipline.” We are people of a catholic spirit. We are people of a practical divinity. It is appropriate that we disagree on matters of doctrine, but we must join hands in the bucket line when the floodwaters are rising! History is filled with people who had “right doctrine” whom you dare not ask for a favor! My own experience since childhood—when Primitive Baptists outnumbered Methodists in my home community—is that loving God flows into loving neighbor.

Let us remember that Wesley connected the General Rules to the Articles of Religion. We must be sure that belonging and believing bear fruit in our behaving. In the sermon mentioned above, Wesley quoted the then well-known words of George Herbert: “[Let everyone] join hands with God, to make a poor man live!”

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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