The Addition of One Word Alone

It’s funny how you can read a passage of Scripture a dozen times, two dozen times, a hundred times, and never see something in that text until you read it with a specific question in mind. I have been working on a series of lessons on Christ, culture, and faith, and as a part of that study have been looking at Romans 1-5 (in particular) and, almost by necessity, incorporating the teaching of James. Although I have read James countless times, for once one little word jumped out at me as if it was stoked on performance enhancing drugs. More on that in a moment.

If you read virtually anything written by a card-carrying, approved member of the evangelical intelligentsia you will read, again and again, that we Christians are saved by “grace alone through faith alone.” It is a mantra repeated ad nauseam. It’s most quoted champion is the reformer Luther. However, you do not have to be a Lutheran to promote that line of thought. We humans cannot do anything to save ourselves, to think so would be to preach “works salvation,” so therefore we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.

The only problem, and it is a whopper, is that no one, not one single New Testament writer, wrote or said such a thing.

Now, there is no question that the apostle Paul said we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), a point that was tragically overlooked for decades by many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But – and I make this point emphatically – the word alone never appears in Paul’s writings in relation to saving faith. Once again, no reader of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, or any other of Paul’s books for that matter, can come to any other conclusion other than the fact we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

Which brings me to the book of James.

Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of the teachings of Paul to James for centuries. The problem boils down to one fairly small section of James’s letter – James 2:14-26. In those brief paragraphs James excoriates the idea that mere acceptance of a doctrine or set of doctrines can constitute “faith.” And, tucked right in the middle of that section of his letter James writes this:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

In one amazing little sentence James totally contradicts the Lutheran/Protestant mantra. We are not saved by faith alone. Not. Read it again – not! If you are waiting for me to untangle the relationship between Paul and James you are going to have to wait a while, and probably attend about 13 weeks of classes. The point I want to make here is that James did write something that contradicts what so many think that Paul wrote – and Paul never wrote what they believe he must have. (If that sentence is confusing to you, you should see how confusing it is to me.)

The statement is so stark that Luther – and I should say a great many modern evangelicals – simply cannot justify (pardon the pun) James with Paul, and since Paul is regarded as being clearly superior – and spiritual – they simply reject James. As in, cut James out of the canon. As in, James is not inspired, so we have to listen to Paul and not James. As in, we are just so much smarter than 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,800 years of Christian theology, so we can pick and choose which texts we are going to follow and which we are going to excise from the Bible.

This, to me, is simply staggering. Paul never says something and what he does not say becomes a part of “Christian” doctrine so rabidly promoted that to question it amounts to heresy, and James does say something so clear and unambiguous, and it is for all intents and purposes, simply cut out of the New Testament.

I can only think of three reasons why scholars, pastors, and Christian authors promote Luther to the utter and total exclusion of James 2:24. One, they do not know Greek, and so do not have access to verifying whether Paul did or did not use the word alone. Two, they do know Greek, but have simply swallowed the Lutheran doctrine to the point that they have no reason (in their mind) to verify whether Paul used the word alone or not. Those two reasons are sad, and are in reality without excuse (as a good English translation and concordance would reveal the same truth), but it is the third reason that I think is so tragic, and indefensible. The third reason is that they are aware that Paul never uses the word alone in relation to saving faith, but they are so beholden to defend the dogma of Lutheran/Protestant thinking that they willingly repeat the falsehood. In their mind Luther is so correct that Paul must have meant alone, even though he did not use the word, that they say “. . . through faith alone” again and again and again.

All of this just goes to illustrate why we need to be so careful – painstakingly so – in our writing. Speech is one thing; we can be forgiven for a little hyperbole here and a little sermonizing there (so long as what we say or sermonize is not certifiably false!). But when we write, when we put words on paper (or pixels on a blog) we must be so minutely careful that what we say is correct. Or, in the absence of that, that we go back and correct any false statements that we make.

I have no doubt that Luther’s intentions were utterly innocent. He was writing (and preaching) to confront ecclesiastical dogma that held people in complete terror. Hell awaited the slightest sin, and works of penance were beyond the ability of the average Christian; therefore the payment of indulgences became a source of comfort for the ignorant and a formidable source of income for the church. Luther was absolutely correct to bring “salvation by grace through faith” back into the Christian teaching. Where he erred was in adding one little word – alone.

May we be so careful, so diligent, to preach the New Testament fearlessly and honestly. But, let us be so careful, so diligent that we never add anything to the teaching of the inspired authors!

 

Trump’s Wall and the Cross

[SPOILER ALERT: THIS POST TAKES AN UNABASHED, “NO-HOLDS-BARRED” POSITION REPUDIATING THE BUILDING OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S BORDER WALL WITH MEXICO. IF YOU CANNOT HAVE YOUR SUPPORT OF TRUMP OR HIS WALL CHALLENGED, PLEASE DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER.]

First, this is a theological blog, not a political one. However, there are times in which issues which have their origin in politics impinges so directly and so profoundly upon theology and ethics that to ignore them means a retreat from Christian convictions. This is one of those times.

Second, I admit there is an immigration problem to be addressed by the lawmakers of both the United States and Mexico (and possible other nations). This is a serious, and I dare say, entrenched, problem that calls for thoughtful, deliberate, and above all, a unified approach if it is to be solved.

Third, I support policies that provide for safe, legal immigration to the United States, and also defend the sovereignty of this nation. Those who are drawn to our country are drawn to us for a myriad of reasons – and they should be given every opportunity to do so LEGALLY. The line between legal immigration and illegal immigration is not really all that fine. It should be defended and protected.

With all of that being said, a few days back I made a comment on my Facebook page and also on Twitter that apparently upset some folks. Without repeating everything, I just pointed out how not all that long ago President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I opined that the same people who thought that was a wonderful idea are now supporting the building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico – kind of a strange, and in my eyes, a wicked form of hypocrisy.

I was challenged, and I must say in a very polite and generous manner, by a young man who had the dubious honor of being one of my students. I regard him as being thoughtful and sincere almost to a fault. But, in his defense of Trump and the wall, I must say he (and those who think like him) are just wrong.

To my young friend there is no difference between the wall and other forms of “security” such as the walls Israel has constructed – or any nation for that matter (I pointed out that Communist nations have had walls for decades if not centuries, but that did not impress). For him, as for many Trumpsters, the wall represents security and national sovereignty.

To that I say, “Exactly how?”

Let’s just cut to the chase – building the wall will make the U.S. no safer, and will not solve the immigration problem, to any greater extent than the confiscation of every firearm will solve the problem of violence in America. If you think that a little bit of steel and concrete will stop human trafficking and the influx of drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S., then I would politely, yet pointedly, suggest you are under the influence of a special kind of logic inhibiting drug. Let’s unpack that a little, shall we?

Proponents of banning all guns (or at the very least, all handguns) in America argue that without guns, America will be safer. Those who defend gun ownership respond (and I agree) that is a specious argument. There will never be a way to confiscate all handguns, what will happen is that criminals will always have access to handguns, and only the law-abiding citizen will be damaged by such a ridiculous proposal.

Proponents of building a wall to stop illegal immigration argue that the wall will prevent all (or at least the majority) of illegal immigration. Again, a specious argument – do you really think someone who is determined to enter the U.S. illegally will be deterred by that silly wall? It might keep out the migrant workers (upon whom so much of our agricultural output depends), but for the hardened trafficker or drug runner that wall will simply be a speed bump.

And, let us be perfectly clear about another issue – the wall will do nothing towards solving the greater problem of WHY people are fleeing oppressive governments and are “yearning to be free” in the land of opportunity. Illegal border crossings are not the disease – they are the symptom that indicates the disease. Building a wall will NOT address the underlying issues that will simply re-appear in different forms somewhere else.

Trump’s wall is nothing more than an ideological symbol of American (read white) supremacy masked as a “law and order” effort to stop “those” people from coming into the U.S.

Christians should repudiate that ideology – and the symbolism – as clearly as we can.

I return to President Reagan’s famous declaration. It was, in one incredibly short and powerful sentence, a statement of the core of America’s greatest gift to the world – that all people should be free, and that walls that create hatred and animosity must be torn down. Torn down, not by military aggression, but by the simple power of human dignity and respect. Trump’s wall creates hostility and distrust – read aggression – between many people who are more closely related economically and culturally than they are to other people in their own countries of legal residence. Trump’s wall is nothing more than a facade – a symbol (and a false one at that) – of security and “legal” obedience.

That’s my political take on the subject. Now – let us consider what Scripture has to teach us.

Consider such passages as Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Hosea 5:6; Isaiah 1:16-17, 8:12-13, 55:8-9, 58:6-7; Jeremiah 9:23-24, 22:3, 34:17; Leviticus 19. Consider how God repeatedly told the Israelites to be kind to the alien – as they had been aliens and slaves in Egypt. This is a common, and well noted, theme throughout the Old Testament.

But also consider Matthew 5-7! Read Matthew 23. Read Matthew 25:31-46. Consider James 2:1-13!

Consider Ephesians 2:11-22 where the apostle Paul goes to extreme measures to point out that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” so that he might “reconcile us both [i.e., both Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.” You see, in the Kingdom of God there can be no walls. Walls separate, Christ unites. Walls create division and hostility. Christ brings peace.

Just a note, but if you try to argue that the above passages pertain to Israel or to the church, and that he has another set of ethics for the world, then I politely but emphatically argue that I am not an Augustinian nor a Lutheran, and I do not ascribe to the “two Kingdoms” ideology. God may hold those who are aware of and who accept his laws to a higher degree of obedience, but he never, ever, said that he had two sets of ethics or moral absolutes – one for the “secular” world and one for his kingdom. (Read Romans 1-3)

If it was right to celebrate the destruction of the Berlin wall, then it is now wrong to celebrate the building of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. If it is now right and proper to build Trump’s wall, then it was wrong to applaud and support President Reagan. You cannot have it both ways.

You can attempt to defend Trump’s wall on purely pragmatic grounds – that it will stop illegal immigration. I am fully convinced that is a foolish, even ridiculous argument, but you may have it if you wish. I must add here that the cost of this foolish endeavor is five billion dollars! The building of the wall is immoral simply due to its cost. Just think how that money could be spent on policies that would have an impact on illegal immigration. It just boggles the mind.

You can also attempt to defend the wall on purely political grounds – that it was Trump’s promise before he was elected, therefore he should try to get it built. That, in sum, is why I think most people who support the wall want it built. That wall will be a collective “thumb-in-the-nose” to all those mean, nasty, ugly liberals. However – let’s be real here. Trump will not be president for long, and what kind of reaction will transpire when the next Democratic nominee is elected? Revenge is a dish politicians love to serve hot or cold, and I shudder to think what is in store two, or at the most, six years from now.

However, let us be clear. You cannot defend the building of the wall using any semblance of Christian doctrine or ethics.

For Christians, standing on this side of the cross, building Trump’s wall is just flat out wrong – and the whole of Scripture supports me on that statement.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.