Divine Conundrums

So if your salvation is a gift from God and your good works play no part in it, then what do you make of James’ words in today’s Epistle Reading?

Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:17)

Listen to Pastor Hessler’s Sermon.

In the Name of Jesus

Divine Conundrums

Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

James 2:17


A Lutheran minister and a Catholic priest ended up sitting next to each other on an airplane flight. It was obvious that the Catholic man was a priest because he was wearing his collar; but not so with the Lutheran minister who was wearing a tie and sport coat. Eventually during the course of their conversation, the topic got around to work.

“And what do you do for a living?” the priest asked.

“Actually, I’m in the same business that you are,” came the reply. “ I’m a Lutheran minister.”

“Really!” came the priest’s somewhat surprising response. And then he added, “You know, I’ve always envied you Lutherans.”


“Because you Lutherans don’t have to do anything to be saved.”

You see, the Catholic church has always had an emphasis on good works. In fact, their insistence on good works was one of the factors that lead to the Protestant Reformation back in the 16th century. Martin Luther took a stand against good works, insisting that good works have nothing to do with one’s salvation. One doesn’t earn salvation by what one does; salvation is a gift one simply receives from God. It’s like the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through FAITH—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

So if your salvation is a gift from God and your good works play no part in it, then what do you make of James’ words in today’s Epistle Reading?

Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:17)

It’s a conundrum; and Webster defines a conundrum as “any puzzling question or problem.” Typical examples of conundrums would be:

  • What came first: the chicken or the egg?
  • If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around, does it make a sound?
  • If all the nations in the world are in debt, where did all the money go?

Even the Bible contains some conundrums:

  • How can the first be last and the last first?
  • How can one save one’s life by losing it?

And of course, today’s divine conundrum:

  • If one is saved by grace through FAITH and not by works, then why is faith without works dead?

I guess the simplest answer to that conundrum would involve a two-fold explanation:

  • First: one’s salvation was earned by Jesus who lived the perfect life God demanded of fallen human beings, who took human sin on himself and paid the penalty sinners de-serve when he suffered and died on the cross, and who defeated sin, Satan and death when he rose in victory on Easter Sunday.
  • And second: when one comes to saving FAITH in Jesus Christ, the works one does do not earn their salvation but are a living proof of their salvation.

That’s it: the works a Christian does do not earn one’s salvation; the works are a proof, a visible example or demonstration, of that salvation. In other words, when one comes to saving FAITH in Jesus Christ, one can’t help but do good works. Good works are a natural by-product, a fruit, if you will, of that FAITH. Or, to use the words of James: “I will show you my FAITH by what I do” (James 2:18).

Martin Luther catalogued the good works a Christian does into three basic categories:

Domestic good works – Everyone is born into a family, and there are some basic responsibilities members of the family have toward each other:

  • Husbands and wives are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21); and they are to do so by looking to each other’s needs and by satisfying and fulfilling each other’s physical and emotional needs and desires.
  • Parents are to bring their children up “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). My daily prayer for the parents of FAITH congregation is that they see to their children’s 1) physical needs—providing them with food to eat, clothes to wear, and a loving and safe environment in which to grow and develop; their 2) emotional needs—teaching them that they are not the center of the universe but members of a family, a church, a school, a community, even members of a global world; their kid’s 3) mental needs—encouraging them to develop their talents and abilities to prepare them to use those gifts in a life of service to others; and finally their 4) spiritual needs—teaching them who Jesus is and what he has done for them.
  • Children fulfill their domestic responsibilities by following the Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and mother” (Eph. 6:2). I pray that the children of FAITH imitate the example of the 12-year-old Jesus who “went down to Nazareth with [his parents] and was obedient to them” (Luke 2:51).

So Christians give evidence of their FAITH by recognizing their place in their family and by faithfully carrying out their various domestic duties.

In addition to domestic good works, there are civic good works – In addition to being members of a family unit, everyone is also a citizen of an earthly country. Paul reminds us in Romans 13 that the civic “authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).

God established government in order to keep peace and order in a sinful world. So we, as members of the United States of America, are to recognize our civic leaders as representatives of God, as his authorities placed over us. That means we fulfill our civic responsibilities by obeying the laws of the land, by paying the taxes that we owe, by praying for and supporting our elected officials at every level—township, state and nation, and, in short, by being model citizens. Now to be sure, if the government tries to force us to do something contrary to God’s will, then we have to follow the example of the apostles and  “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), but even then we must do so in peaceful, diplomatic ways rather than using undue force and violence.

Domestic good works, civic good works, finally Luther identifies vocational good works – Vocational good works is a fitting topic for this Labor Day weekend. Labor Day should be more than the last fling of summer—a time for cookouts, barbecues, picnics, and one last trip up north before the start of school. Labor Day is a civic holiday dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers and the contributions those workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. It’s been celebrated every year since 1894, when Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday in the District of Columbia and the territories.

Martin Luther emphasized one’s domestic good works by stressing the “priesthood of all believers.” On the one hand, Luther insists that grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ sets people free from everything that holds them in bondage — sin, death and the devil; but on the other hand, he also asserts that through Jesus Christ, every Christian is also set free for some-thing very specific: the priesthood of all believers. Christians do not perform good works to satisfy the demands of a holy God; rather, as a response to the gift of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ, Christians offer good works in gratitude to God by serving their neigh-bors. And that has some practical implications today: each and every one of us uses the talents and abilities God has given us to praise him as we serve our neighbor:

  • I happen to use my gifts and abilities to praise God as I serve you as your pastor. And from God’s perspective, I’m not any better than any of you just because I’m a pastor; that’s just how I use my gifts.
  • You, in turn, use your gifts and abilities to praise God as you serve one another. Whether you’re a school teacher or a student, a stay-at-home parent or a member of the labor force, a doctor or a nurse, an employer or an employee, a retiree or working your very first job—you all praise God by using your unique gifts in service to one another.

And it’s not like we have to make a concerted effort to do so. Our good works, being done through our work and our specific place in life – whether it be domestic good works as members of our respective families, civic good works as citizens of our community, or vocational good works as laborers in the work force – our good works are the natural result of our FAITH in Jesus Christ. It’s like the fruit of an apple tree: just as an apple tree bears apples because it is an apple tree, so Christians do good works because they are Christians. So even though we’re saved by God’s grace through FAITH in Christ, we can’t help but do good works: it’s natural.

So what do you suppose Jesus’ vocation was? Actually, Jesus himself fulfilled all three of the vocations Luther emphasized:

Jesus fulfilled his domestic good works by being a member of his earthly family. He was an obedient son to Mary and his earthly father Joseph. As the oldest son in the family Jesus also took means to provide for his mother after he was gone. While hanging on the cross, Jesus committed Mary to the care of the beloved disciple, and “from that time on,” we are told, “this disciple took [Mary] into his home.

Jesus fulfilled his civic good works by being a model citizen. When questioned about paying the two-drachma temple tax, Jesus provided Peter with a four-drachma coin and said, “Take it and give it to [the authorities] for my tax and yours” (Matt. 17:24). When challenged about withholding taxes, Jesus advised, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Even on trial, when examined by the High Priest and then Pontius Pilate, Jesus was respectful and answered their questions.

And Jesus fulfilled his vocational good works by submitting to his heavenly Father’s will and offering his life for the salvation of the human race. The writer to the Hebrews states:

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said. . .

“Here I am. . .I have come to do you will, O God.”

And what was God’s will? It was for Jesus to live the perfect life that we are unable to live, to offer that perfect life on the cross as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to rise in victory over sin, Satan and death on Easter Sunday, and to offer life and salvation to all who put their FAITH and trust in him. Perhaps Jesus summarized it best in his evening talk with Nicodemus:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17).


Divine conundrums. How can the last be first and the first last? How can one save one’s life by losing it? And if we’re saved by God’s grace through FAITH in Christ, and not by works, then how can FAITH by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, be dead? But perhaps the greatest divine conundrum of all is how can we have eternal life through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ? We may not be able to understand that conundrum, but thanks be to God that God gives us new life through the death and resurrection of his Son. And to quote Martin Luther: “This is most certainly true!” Amen.

To God Alone Be Glory