The book of James has a way of making grace-lovers like me a little uncomfortable. We love to talk about how salvation is a gift and how faith in Jesus is all that we need to get into Heaven, but then all of a sudden James comes out of left field with a line like “Faith without deeds is dead.” It doesn’t make sense. Either we get into God’s house by faith alone, or deeds are a necessary part of salvation. I wonder if a lot of this confusion comes from our view of Christianity. For me at least, there’s a temptation to see this way of life as something that’s all about getting to Heaven, but the problem with that way of thinking is that it leads us to a very scary conclusion.
It’s best just to become a Christian on your deathbed.
Think about it. If the only benefit that comes from being a Christian is that you don’t have to go to hell when you die, then why would you want to follow Jesus any earlier than those moments when you’re finally taking your last breaths? You don’t have to mess around with bearing fruit, walking the straight and narrow, or learning Christianese. You just do whatever the heck you want, and then when you’ve had all the fun you can, make the switch to Christianity and take your party up to Heaven.
But what if following Christ actually benefited you before you died?
I’m not a theologian or a Biblical scholar any more than the average Christ-follower is, but I can tell you that when the Bible talks about salvation, it’s not always talking about being saved from hell. Even the simple statement that we are “saved from our sins” means more than an escape from punishment. We aren’t just saved from the consequences of our sins – we are saved from our sins themselves. No longer are we slaves to those things that we hate ourselves for doing over and over again.
Christianity isn’t a one-time deal that you get taken care of now so you can be taken care of later. It’s not about avoiding eternal torment. That’s part of it, but a really big chunk of it is about redeeming the world we’re in now and finding ways to reverse the effects of the Fall. If this wasn’t true, James would have said something like “True religion is this: to become a Christian and then kill yourself so you can go to be with Jesus.” But his message is actually very different: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Faith still gets you into Heaven. The stuff you do down here has nothing to do with the inclusion of your name on God’s official guest list. But if you really want to experience salvation – salvation from the pain that sin brings, salvation from a life without purpose, and salvation from this broken world – God asks for a little more.