We learned from Part 1 of “Being a Doer of the Word” that James exhorts us “to be a doer of the word and not a hearer only, deceiving yourself”(James 1:22). Holding up this pearl of truth, James reminds us that “faith without works is dead” and that our faith will be revealed by the works that we do (James 2:26). This brings us to the age-old controversy between faith and works. We will continue with our study of faith and works to see just what the Scriptures teach about this. If you have not read Part 1 of this article it will be helpful to go back and read it before you continue here.
We learned in Part 1 of this topic that one reason for the confusion some people have over faith and works is due to the fact most people approach the Scriptures with a Greek-Western mindset. The Hebrew mindset is altogether different. It views faith as action and finds no contradiction in faith and works because one inevitably flows from the other.
We know that “the Scriptures are inspired by God” and that “holy men of old wrote as they were moved on by the Holy Spirit.” It is also important to keep in mind that the Old Testament writers as well as Jesus and His disciples were deeply rooted in the Hebraic way of thinking, which is totally opposite from the mindset of Greek-Western thought. Because most of us are products of this type of educational system, it is easy to approach and interpret the Scriptures with this mindset. This is where the stumbling stone between faith and works comes in and our misunderstanding of it. Paul reminds us that we can be “alienated from the life of God through ignorance,” having our “mind blinded” by our old modes of thinking. This is why the word of God is invaluable to “transform” our way of thinking, so that as Paul taught “we can understand what the will of God is.” (Rom.12:1-2, Ephes. 4:18).
Two Different Approaches to Leaning – Bible Study James
The Greek-Western approach to learning and life starts with man as the center, acting and interacting with his environment to know himself. This mindset sees education as gathering and imparting facts and ideas,
accumulating knowledge by which we understand and act in the world. Man does his best to perform and seeks to understand himself. Intellectual brilliance, according to Greek mindset can be compared to a fire. It is “ascending,” trying to “climb” to conceive and express new insight and understanding. Elaborate theories have been built in this way, only to be proved to be “false,” later.
The Hebraic approach to learning is totally opposite from this. Hebraic thinking teaches that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One that is understanding” (Prov. 9:10). The Hebraic mindset holds that God is the center of man’s existence. The Hebrew sages say that learning is to be done in deep humility, in a sincere desire to receive understanding. Truth is poured down like water from on high, and it will seek the lowest basin. Once we have received truth, been enlightened, and gained understanding, it as if a “light” goes on. We say, “Once I was blind but now I see. Now I get it.” This receiving mode goes for any subject you want to know about. It is the true essence of self-education and the secret of the brilliant wisdom of our founding fathers.
True knowledge about anything comes from God. By meditating on God’s word, we have the promise that we can “become wiser than our teachers.” This was the secret of Daniel and his four friends in Babylon. Although they were captives from a foreign land, they advance in the kingdom of Babylon, not by compromising with the Babylonians and bowing down to their idols and following their life style, but by meditating in God’s word and obeying His commandments.
The Revelations of Daniel
The book of Daniel is a series of the revelations that God gave Daniel while he served in Babylon. When asked to not only interpret the king’s dream, but to also tell the dream, Daniel asked God for the understanding. When God revealed these things to Daniel, Daniel worshiped God, saying, “‘Praise the name of God forever and ever, for He alone has all wisdom and power. He determines the course of world events; He removes kings and sets others on the throne. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. He reveals deep and mysterious things and knows what lies hidden in darkness, though He himself is surrounded by light. Thank and praise you, God of my ancestors, for you have given me wisdom and strength. You have told me what we asked of you and revealed to us what the king demanded.’ ”
When the king saw Daniel’s wisdom, he bowed down and worshiped Daniel’s God. The king said to Daniel, ” “‘Truly, your God is the God of gods, the Lord over kings, a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this secret.’ Then the king appointed Daniel to a high position and gave him many valuable gifts. He made Daniel ruler over the whole province of Babylon, as well as chief over all his wise men” (Dan. 2:20-23, 48:49).
James emphasizes this truth that God will willing supply wisdom to those who ask in faith, believing that they will receive: “If you need wisdom, ask God and He will gladly tell you. He will not resent your asking” (James 1:5).
Ironically, some of the Jewish leaders were not approaching learning this way because they remarked about Peter and some of the disciples, “How do these men know letters, seeing they have never learned?” Then they realized that they had been with Jesus.
For the Hebraic mindset, life revolves around God and His way of doing things in both the Old and New Covenants. It is not until a person submits to God’s will and His kingship that he can know God and find himself. The ability to know God is the great promise of the New Covenant – “they will all know Me from the least to the greatest” (Heb. 8:11). Under the New Covenant, through the power of the indwelling Christ, we are raised to become a New Creation, to know God in an intimate friendship, and are empowered from within by the Holy Spirit and to discover truth by the Spirit’s revelation.
Hebraic Thought – Faith as “Doing”
All wrapped up in the Hebraic concept of faith is “doing.” The word faith is an action verb in Hebrew, it is not a noun. However, the Hebraic concept of “doing” is not the Greek concept of “doing.” From the Hebraic point of view, when James exhorts us to be a doer of the word, he is not telling us to try harder to be a Christian. Many people feel that this is what James is asking us to do when the Bible teaches elsewhere that we are saved by faith in the shed blood of Christ. As a result, people try to skip the book of James thinking they cannot possibly live up to his admonitions. Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, objected somewhat to the book of James believing that because of the incorrect emphasis of the Roman Church on earning your salvation through various works prescribed by the church, people might feel their works would justify them in the eyes of God instead of looking to the finished work of Christ. However, when we approach James’ teaching with a Hebraic mindset and compare James’ teaching with the rest of Scripture, we will not make this mistake.
Martin Luther put faith and works into perspective. He emphasized to his contemporaries who were deeply steeped in the Greek mindset “we are not made righteous by doing righteous works, but when we are made righteous through the work of Christ, we will do righteous works.” This is the Hebraic way of thinking. Because many people approach faith and works with the Greek mindset, they try to perform works as something to please God and gain God’s approval. The emphasis is on man from start to finish and his ability to strive to perform and his ability to work for God in his own strength. To get a good look at what this Greek mindset is, let’s look at it in its extreme form in Church history.
How the Greek Mindset of “Doing” Affected the Roman Church
During the Middle Ages, before the Protestant Reformation, the Church was deeply steeped in Greek thought and the teachings of Aristotle. At that time books were rare, very few people could read, and most of those who did read had never read the Bible, including the clergy. Because of ignorance of the Scriptures, erroneous teaching and traditions of men had been taught as the way to heaven with the emphasis on the works of man. As one of the most extreme examples of this, at certain times of the year, young men could be seen and heard running through the streets of Europe and mourning over their sins as they beat themselves with chains until they bled profusely, seeking forgiveness for sins and relief for their conscious. This act was considered a spiritual work of penance.
At this time Martin Luther was a priest and Doctor of Theology and Sacred Studies at Wittenberg University in Germany. As a young monk, Luther had the opportunity to briefly study the Bible in a monastery, which was unusual in his day. When the time came for him to put the Bible away and study other books, Luther would steal away to the monastery library to study and memorize the Scriptures. There he fell in love with the word of God. However, because Luther had been a student of Aristotle, he approached the study of Scriptures with a Greek mindset and was blinded from the Truth by human reasoning.
Before Luther was spiritually awakened by a revelation from God that “the just shall live by faith,” he had done more religious works in his zeal to try to please God than hundreds of average people. As a priest, he had given up the idea of marriage and family. He writes that although he was perfect in obedience to the moral law of God, he had subjected himself to all kinds of “works” to seek a true knowledge of the forgiveness of his sins and to be made perfect in love. He had worn scratchy clothing to subject his body to suffering. He had made many pilgrimages to pray before Christian relics. He had participated in endless prayer vigils, and according to his own testimony, if a deeper relationship with God could have been gained through fasting, he should have obtained it, because he notes that he had almost killed himself through all the fasting he had done. He admits that he was so involved in doing religious works to find favor with God that he got to the place where he actually “hated God” who had made the Christian life so difficult.
When Dr. Luther was selected to make a pilgrimage to Rome, he hoped that at last maybe there he would find something that would bring him spiritual relief. Walking all the way from Germany was long and difficult. Along the way he cheered himself with the thoughts that soon he would be walking on the very streets traveled by Paul and Peter. He would stand in the Coliseum were early Christian martyrs were devoured by lions and were burnt as human torches to light the city of Rome. Truly he would be on holy ground.
Luther’s Visit to Rome – Bible Study James
When he arrived in Rome, Luther found things to be in a sorry state. Priests who performed the mass openly mocked God. Brothels were located near the cathedrals and priests could be seen frequenting them. He saw the pope ride through the streets dressed in military armor returning from battle, looking more like a military leader than a holy man of God. While in Rome, he visited a holy site where special forgiveness of sins could be obtained. Here he bought a pardon for sins. The “work” that was attached to this pardon was to climb a special set of stairs on your knees – 15 years of forgiveness could be obtained, one year for every stair. By tradition these stairs were said to be Pilate’s judgment stairs that had been miraculously transported to Rome by angels. These were said to be the same stairs that Jesus climbed to be tried by Pilate before He went out to be crucified.
When Martin Luther was halfway up these stairs on his knees, he was startled by a sudden voice, which seemed to speak from heaven and said, “The just shall live by faith!” Luther stood up in amazement. This was the third time these words had come to his mind since he had been in Rome. This time the words came to him with such faith and power, that it was as if a voice of thunder had uttered them. Now he received a revelation of what this great truth meant. What folly, he thought, to seek an indulgence from the Church which can last me but a few years, when God sends me in His word an indulgence that will last me forever! How idle to toil at these performances, when God is willing to acquit me of all my sins not as so much wages for so much service, but freely, in the way of believing upon his Son! “The just shall live by faith.”
Reformed by the Word of God
Luther went back to Germany with a spiritual aim to reform the Church to Biblical teaching. At that time the Roman Church refused his teaching, and the Protestant Reformation began as millions who embraced Luther’s message. All over Europe people received the glad news of salvation by faith alone. Luther and many of his followers were either excommunicated from the Roman Church or left it altogether. Many were imprisoned, burned at the stake, and tortured because they believed this revelation. It was this kind of Greek thought about “works” practiced by the Roman Church that made Martin Luther leery of book of James. At the time he became a priest the medieval church relied heavily on the human reasoning and logic of Aristotle to understand spiritual things and everything scholastic. After pondering over the pages of Scripture for many years, Luther realized that trying to understand the Scriptures through human reasoning was an impossibility.
Luther accused Aristotle’s philosophy of bringing “a bold and profane worldliness” into the study of theology. The study of divine revelation had been forced into Aristotelian thought forms and definitions. Luther writes, “My soul longs to publicly shame and expose that Greek buffoon. If he had not been a man, I would call him a devil.” 2 Luther believed that like Hagar (the works of the flesh), rationalism had usurped Sara’s place ( the work of God’s Spirit) and that the Church had been taken captive by Babylon. Luther’s preaching shook the entire Western world of thinking and believing. He wrote that trying to defend spiritual truth with human reasoning is like trying to “throw light on the sun with a light-less lantern.”
Luther contrasts the Hebraic way of learning to the Greek, “For Isaiah 7 makes reason subject to faith, when it says: ‘Except you believe, you shall not have understanding or reason.’ It does not say, ‘Except you have reason, ye shall not believe. ” Man’s reason is in darkness in regard to spiritual things. However Luther explains, “The understanding, through faith, receives life from faith; that which was dead, is made alive again; like as our bodies, in light day, when it is clear and bright, are better disposed, rise, move, walk, etc., more readily and safely than they do in the dark night, so it is with human reason, which strives not against faith, when enlightened, but rather further and advances it.”3
Paul Teaches the Greeks about the Hebraic Way of Learning
This is, of course, affirmed by Paul who told the church at Corinth, that man through his reasoning cannot know God because the things of God must be revealed by the Holy Spirit.” Paul tells us that we must listen to the teaching of the Holy Spirit who compares “spiritual thoughts and spiritual words.” We must let the Bible define its own terms, not try to impose our meanings upon them. This is why knowledge and study of the Scriptures is so important. We should daily set aside time to study the Scriptures to dig deep into the word of God so that through the pages of Scripture, by the power of the Holy Spirit we can encounter the Truth that will make us free.
Logic verses Revelation
The Hebraic way of learning and the Greek way of learning are poles apart. The Greek way is to analyze truth and facts to come to an understanding of those facts. Greek logic is a step by step logic that argues from premises and arrives at a logical conclusion. It is done in a coherent, rational, logical sequence. Therefore, the conclusion is limited to that point of view and limits that person’s view of reality. This reasoning can lead to a better understanding of how things work, but when applied to spiritual truth it can be devastating. The Greek way is for man to trust in his knowledge of things and his predictable way of doing things, rather to put his trust in God. This works out well for some people until their central planing and their predictable way of doing things are met with the unpredictable. Their faith is shaken; they stand on shifting sand.
The Hebraic mindset tells us that God can’t be put in a box or charted out in charts. Often, He will do something that is unpredictable. The words of the Lord recorded by the prophet Isaiah explain that God is often a God of surprises: “I am the Lord, who opened a way through the waters, making a dry
path through the sea. I called forth the mighty army of Egypt with all its chariots and horses. I drew them beneath the waves, and they drowned, their lives snuffed out like a smoldering candlewick. But forget all that–it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do a brand-new thing. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? Now I will tell you new things I have not mentioned before, secrets you have not yet heard. They are brand new, not things from the past. So you cannot say, `We knew that all the time!’ (Isa 43:6-7; 48:6-7). The Hebrew mind learns to experience Truth, not to just think about Truth. Truth is a Divine encounter. To experience Truth and to walk in Truth is more important than analyzing Truth. If we believe that the word of God is true, then we will act like it is true. Martin Luther demonstrated the very type of works that were the outward manifestation of the faith he held in his heart and that James was talking about. When he heard the voice of God and received the revelation, “the just shall live by faith,” he acted upon it that day and everyday for the rest of his life and preached this message to all of Europe. That is the true sense of the Hebraic understanding of “doing.”
Paul’s View of Good Works
How did Paul view good works? When Paul was preaching before King Agrippa, he told about the works he had done for the Gospel: “One day I was on such a mission to
Damascus, armed with the authority and commission of the leading priests. About noon, Your Majesty, a light from heaven brighter than the sun shone down on me and my companions. We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to fight against my will.’ ”
” ‘Who are you, sir?’ I asked. And the Lord replied, ‘ I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now stand up! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and my witness. You are to tell the world about this experience and about other times I will appear to you.’
“And so, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to that vision from heaven. I preached first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that all must turn from their sins and turn to God – and prove they have changed by the good things they do.” (Acts 9:15-16, 26:19-20).
Paul explains to King Agrippa that he was on a mission, not because he thought it would be a good idea, but because God had commanded him to do it. What he was doing was not the result of the Greek idea of “doing,” but the true Hebraic idea of “doing” – the result of a Divine encounter and the command of God. Paul explains that all those who have a transformed life and an encounter with God will be “doing good things” that are the evidence of their faith and their changed life. James gives us this same concept: ” Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” I say, “I can’t see your faith if you don’t have good deeds, but I will show you my faith through my good deeds” (James 2:18).
A Practical Application of James’ Teaching
What about you? Are there good works that God has instructed you to do from the time you have spent with Him. If not, there is some good news – you can start today! Set aside time daily to study God’s Word. Worship Him, offer your life to Him to use for His glory, and ask Him for His direction for your life, and what He would have you do. Jesus told His disciples, “You have not because you ask not. Ask so that you may receive so your joy will be made full.” Then whatever you hear God speaking to your heart, just step out in faith and go ahead and “do it!”
So go ahead. Jump into our Bible study on the book of James, How to live a Life of Excellence. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you will understand what the good and acceptable and perfect will of God is for your life, and from your faith will flow the good works of God.
Notes: 1 – Martin Luther and Scholastic Philosophy, Ray Shelton (http://www.fromdeathtolife.org/cphil/lsp3.html). 2 Martin Luther, How One Man Responded, Joy F. Kirch (http://www.tamuk.edu/mcpe/kirch.htm). 3 Shelton.