For some, the Bible is and should be a great comfort.
For others, it is and should be deeply disturbing.
Throughout the Bible, God heals with reassuring words of forgiveness, kindness, and welcome. Also throughout the Bible, God thunders with warnings meant to stir people toward repentance, restoration, and peace.
Jesus, the center of the biblical story, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. He gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud. He is kind to shame-filled prostitutes and fierce with self-filled Pharisees. He gives special attention to the poor and denounces those who ignore the poor.
Perhaps the scariest thing Jesus ever said is that at the final judgment, many will say to him, “Lord, Lord,” and he will respond, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:21–23). He will also say the following:
“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me … Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:41–45).
These words should jolt us, especially because they will be spoken to church folk. These are people like me who spent their lives attending church and reading their Bibles and giving their money and praying their prayers and getting their theology right and even preaching sermons and writing Christian books. And yet, like the ancient church at Laodicea, though they will have built reputations for being spiritually alive, Jesus will expose them as naked, poor, wretched, and blind (Revelation 3:14–22).
James, the half brother of Jesus and leader of the church at Jerusalem, linked genuine faith with an active concern for the poor. He wrote, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16).
James answered his own question, saying, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
Earlier in his letter, James said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
Both Jesus and James are putting a spotlight on our inclination to replace Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. We replace his call with a self-serving path in which we deny our neighbors, take up our comforts, and follow our dreams. When we do this, we exchange true faith for a counterfeit. We exchange irresistible faith with a way of thinking, believing and living that God himself will resist. Why is this so? Because demonstrating active concern for our neighbors—especially those whom Jesus calls “the least of these”—is an inseparable aspect of a true, Godward faith.
The apostle John, who was quite possibly Jesus’ closest friend on earth, gave a similar warning: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18).
One of my predecessors at Christ Presbyterian Church, Dr. Charles McGowan, says that our doctrine—that is, our stated scriptural beliefs about God, ourselves, our neighbor and the world—is the “skeleton” of our faith. Our doctrinal skeleton is a foundational, necessary structure around which the muscles, tendons, veins, and vital organs of faith must operate and grow. In other words, our doctrinal beliefs provide the foundation for our Scripture reading, listening to sound teaching, prayer, spiritual friendship, involvement in a local church, observance of the sacraments, and active love for our neighbors, including those who are without advantage among us.
As it is with the human body, so it is with faith: if the doctrinal “skeleton” is the only thing or even the main thing people can see when they look at our faith, it means either our faith is malnourished and sick, or it is dead.
Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
And a dead faith, like a dead corpse, is one of the scariest things of all.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at scottsauls.com.