How can Jesus save dying loved ones if ‘faith without works is dead’?
I only stepped a couple of feet into their yard to shoot the photo, but it was enough to get the dog’s attention. And the attention of the homeowner who must have been looking out the window right above the subject of my photograph.
Chased by the sound of barking and my own fear, I backed through the trees to join my husband on the street. We resumed our walk, Steve scorning my too-distant photo capture. It would be my only opportunity.
The next day, Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus were gone.
You never know the effect your words or behavior will have.
A few weeks ago, to answer a question by a colleague, I had posted a blog that contained a speech I had written and presented about my brother Scott. It wasn’t flattering. It made him the least likely person you’d expect to see in Heaven.
But in my addendum after the shared speech, I suggested my brother would go to Heaven anyway.
“Last year, when Scott suffered a downturn in his health,” I had written, “he ended up in the hospital a mile from where I work. I was able to visit daily (and text and call) for a glorious month and a half before he returned home. (And then to his heavenly home.)”
That parenthetical “And then to his heavenly home” statement earned me a visit from a faithful reader (who also happens to work where I work).
“I have to ask you a question about your blog post,” he said to me a day after it published. He had come to my office and shut the door behind him, much as he had when he’d asked me how I could reconcile with my brother the previous week.
“How can you say that Scott will go to ‘his heavenly home’?”
“Oh, well, he accepted Jesus in the last weeks of his life,” I replied.
“Yes, but what about the book of James, which indicates ‘faith without works is dead,’” he said. “I know my dad often went to visit people on their death beds, where they prayed to be saved, but I’ve never understood it. I’m going to need to have a conversation with you about this.”
We haven’t had that conversation yet, but since he certainly isn’t alone in his questioning, I wanted to address it here. It’s a great question.
How can God save someone like my brother who lived his entire life the way he pleased with no regard to righteous living?
My older brother and I were raised by the same God-fearing, law-abiding, church-attending, faith-professing parents. Scott had every opportunity to learn about Jesus Christ. He had enough knowledge to think he believed, but he didn’t have enough to realize he was missing the personal relationship with Jesus that could change his life. And save his soul.
Hence, no good works. No evidence of faith. No faith.
But what if you don’t have time to demonstrate love, to do good works? What if you come to the realization that Jesus is the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world, your sins, moments before you die? What then?
Then faith without works isn’t dead, despite what the author of the book of James indicated.
Remember the thief on the cross beside Jesus? He recognized that Jesus was the Son of God while he was dying on a cross. Jesus told him he’d be with Him in paradise that very day.
Faith alone saved the thief. Faith works.
Last-minute salvation that still saves
The day my brother died last year, my pastor based his sermon on that thief on the cross:
38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”Luke 23:38-43, NIV
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Other Gospel accounts indicated both criminals had blasphemed Jesus. Matthew 27:44, for instance, said both blasphemed Jesus, along with people passing by the crosses. “Blasphemed” is English for the original Greek terms “blax” meaning sluggish or slow and “pheme” meaning reputation or fame. Those who blasphemed were slow in recognizing who someone is.
One blasphemer crucified beside Jesus never recognized who Jesus was. But the other one was just slow, suggested my pastor, and once he recognized that Jesus was who he said he was, he believed.
“What happened between that passage in Matthew 27 and Luke 23:40?” my pastor asked.
“Forgive them for they know not what they do.” (He had preached on Jesus’ words the previous Sunday.)
My pastor suggested that the criminal had heard the Gospel but never responded with his heart. However, when he saw Jesus ask his Father to forgive those who crucified him, the criminal believed with his heart — expressed by the simple “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The criminal on the cross didn’t pray a formal sinner’s prayer when he came to faith in Christ. But look at what he did say:
“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”Luke 23:40b-42, NIV
He acknowledged his sin and that his sin came with a death penalty. He understood that Jesus had done nothing wrong and yet paid a death penalty. He made the connection between God the Father and Jesus the Son, and he recognized Jesus as king. He asked Jesus to remember him.
It was enough. Jesus responded:
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”Luke 23:43, NIV
Did that thief have the opportunity to get off the cross and do good works before his death and entrance into paradise? Certainly not. I suppose his urging to his fellow prisoner to fear God might be construed as a work of faith. It certainly suggested a change of heart from blaspheming Jesus to recognizing Jesus said who He said He was.
Late to work with no cut in pay
Another Scripture passage that comes to mind is the passage sharing the story of the laborers in the vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16. In this parable that Jesus shared, a landowner hired laborers early in the morning at a wage of one denarius for the day. He went out again at 9, noon, and 2 to hire more laborers.
At the end of the day, he paid the last hires first: one denarius. The early-morning hires were jubilant, thinking that since they had worked longer they would get even more than the rate they’d approved at the start of the day. They didn’t.
The landowner paid each worker the same amount, no matter what time they started work.
When the early risers complained, the landowner said:
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”Matthew 20:13-16, NIV
Works are for the faith-filled
The message “faith without works is dead” dominant in the book of James was written to fellow Christians. The author of James wasn’t trying to reach non-believers for Christ. He was telling believers they should live like believers.
“The book of James looks a bit like the Old Testament book of Proverbs dressed up in New Testament clothes,” Pastor Chuck Swindoll of Insight for Living Ministries wrote. “Its consistent focus on practical action in the life of faith is reminiscent of the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament, encouraging God’s people to act like God’s people.”
I’m not sure if you’d say I was acting like one of God’s people when I sneaked into my neighbor’s yard. Mary, Baby Jesus, and Joseph were still on their backs months after the Christmas storm that knocked them there.
The storm that hit our neighborhood Christmas Eve pruned trees of loose or heavy branches and made a mess of yards up and down our street. This neighbor, a couple of blocks from our home, had numerous lawn ornaments — the plastic Nativity figures plus a Santa Claus and a couple of lighted snowmen.
The air-filled decorations survived the high winds somehow, but plastic Mary and Joseph and their baby in the manger landed flat on their backs.
And there they stayed. The homeowners were gone for the holidays, but even after they returned, the Nativity scene remained toppled and ignored. More surprising, when the holiday season ended, the homeowner took down all the other Christmas decorations but left the plastic bodies of the Holy Family as they were.
Until I shot a photo and drew attention to their presence.
Without warning, the next day they were gone.
My brother had the “benefit” of a near-death experience to warn him he wasn’t guaranteed his next breath let alone years of life to get right with God. Like that thief on the cross, my brother believed that Jesus was who He said He was. And like that thief, my brother died soon after his conversion.
Scott’s last-minute decision left no time for works to prove his faith, but I believe he, like the thief, is with Jesus in paradise, too. And like the day laborers who started work in the last hour, he had his wages paid in full.
Like those laborers, he received not what he deserved but what was promised. Eternal life.
I hope you will too.
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