To Do or Not To Do?
Faith and Works
A recurrent, and all to easy, temptation when doing theology is to unhook describing the life from living the life, as though theology were a science. This is one reason I prefer Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology. Biblical Theology tends to take the passages in their immediate context, applying them to the purpose for which and to which/whom they were penned, whereas Systematic Theology attempts to make a coherent system of disparate parts. This has merit naturally, but Systematic Theology is always going to fall foul of the need for a forced consistency and logic. And I’m afraid the Middle Eastern mind wasn’t the product of the Enlightenment (nor its Protestant sibling, the Reformation).
The Apostle John (in 1 John) does something that is almost the opposite of what any discussion about faith and works tends to do. But before we get to his point it may pay to step back momentarily and look at the issue from a historical perspective.
We theologically separate faith and works, as though they can be separated- which I contend is difficult, if not impossible. Luther maintained that James was an epistle of straw because James stated faith is only seen in works – they come from faith, in the same way the light comes from the sun. It is hard to separate one from the other for all practical purposes. James is saying you can’t separate the two and hope to still speak of a saving faith. Faith is not an inert or intellectual property. It is a living dynamic that bears witness of itself.
The coin has two faces. We are justified (declared in the right/made right) before God, and we are to live holy (practice the right) before God and man.
What I find interesting about John in this, his first, letter is that he makes the case for living morally (in the light) as proof of faith/belonging to Jesus, before he speaks of believing the right things about the self-same Lord and Christ.
In the Protestant/Reformed world this appears topsy-turvy, as we are trained to think the exact opposite. But maybe John was facing a disconnection in his day between confession and action? And can there be confession without corresponding and attesting action?
In 1 John 1 the great apostle is presenting the case for a living connection with the person of Jesus. Because he, John, had fellowship with Jesus, his readers could too. This fellowship is a living relationship, a living dynamic, that is transferable, by fellowship and proclamation. John saw, felt, was touched by, and touched the “word of life.” This is the core of his, our, faith, not a forensic proposition. It may, and does, include the latter but our faith is hardly birthed by truths/concepts/positions. Lawyers may wish it so, not John.
Out if this fellowship, this communion, this connection, comes identification with the God of light. When John speaks of walking in the light he is clearly referring to the moral dynamics of a holy life. The light isn’t an esoteric description of an unapproachable and ineffable God. It is a way of living that reflects, or refracts, God’s nature – found in Jesus. (Jesus is Gods statement of truth. “I am the… the truth.”) A person embodies who God is in their life, their actions and their body, as well as in their thoughts and beliefs.
John goes, as far as to say that you can’t claim any vital union with God if you are still acting like the devil. We lie when we claim fellowship with God whilst walking in the darkness. Clearly John is saying it is no good talking unless you are acting. We can’t claim something that has no proof.
The apostle is identifying who is in Christ, and he begins with the markers of lifestyle/morality.
In the second chapter we see that “knowing” God isn’t a formal commitment to a series of truths/propositions. It is seen in keeping the commandments of Jesus. The “truth in us” is not a legal status we can claim to rely on. It is the clear acknowledgement of a life that does the word of God. We know we know because, “we keep his commandments.” John is basing his knowledge of being in Christ upon a life that acts as though it is “being” in Christ.
Keener sums this up by saying, “John advocates testing the spirits by two main tests: a moral ethical test (keeping thecommandments, especially love of the Christian community) and a faith test (the right view of Jesus).”
Action precedes confession, in the sense of proof of faith, in this letter of John.