As it happens on occasion, I crossed paths this morning with a social media post making the point that a person doesn’t need to go to church to be a Christian. For the record, this is not only a tired statement but also a theologically lazy one. The simple biblical fact is that Christians go to church. God mandates such fellowship. If you disagree, that is, if the Jesus you confess teaches it’s okay to be apart from Him and the gifts He gives in holy worship, then you’re following a false Christ.
I could go further with this, but I don’t want to. As I said, it’s a tired and lazy position. I’d rather steer into something Saint James wrote. It’s somewhat relevant to the way I started. Although, it reaches a lot further into the Christian life than worship attendance. Essentially, it establishes the premise that faith is one thing and faith adorned with deeds is another. Saying this, I mean what Saint James meant when he wrote:
“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (1:22-25).
Do you know what the “perfect law, the law of liberty” is? Just know that whatever it is, James is not only insisting that we persevere in it but that such determination is somehow born from hearing it and then results in living according to it.
Maybe the best way to figure out what James means is to begin with the words he uses, namely, the word he employs for “perfect,” which is τέλειον. This word is equally translated as “complete.” In other words, the completed law—the totally accomplished law—establishes a standard for freedom. Variations of the same word are used in other places throughout God’s Word. But there is one crucial instance where it fully intersects with James’ understanding of the Law. It happens in John 19:30. It’s there the Lord announces from the cross the single word τετέλεσται, which is typically rendered as “It is finished.” Although, it’s just as accurately interpreted as “All is complete.”
By “perfect law, the law of liberty,” James has in mind Christ’s absolute fulfillment (completion) of the Law on our behalf. By His work, we have been set free, not only from Sin and Death but from the Law’s crushing burden as the only way of escaping eternal condemnation. In other words, instead of needing to keep the Law for salvation (which all of the Lord’s Apostles affirmed was impossible), we’re free to live in and according to it. It becomes a law of liberty, not one of bondage. James is saying that whoever keeps as one’s heading the Gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ—whoever believes and perseveres in it—will become a “doer,” someone desiring to keep the Ten Commandments, not for salvation but out of love for Christ. These doers will do. And they will be blessed, not because they’re performing the Law, but because they’ve been set free in Jesus. This freedom moves them to desire faithfulness to Him. Faithfulness results in works. This is why James goes on the say:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:14-18).
Samuel Butler once said, “You can do very little with faith, but you can do nothing without it.” That was a sloppy way to say it, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He attempted to speak alongside James. His point is that a proclaimed faith is not the same as a faith that acts to save the unborn from abortion. Although, from the proper perspective, a proclaimed faith hints at a much bigger picture. The proclamation is itself a deed. And faith made it happen. Faith produces. And why? Martin Luther so famously answered the question relative to justification. He said, “God does not need your good works. Your neighbor does.”
Do you have to go to church to be a Christian? How about this instead: genuine faith moves a Christian to desire to be in worship with his Lord.
On second thought, I did want to go further with my initial concern for worship attendance.
By the way, the people here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, are going to have plenty of opportunities for being in worship this week. Today is Palm Sunday. We’re entering Holy Week. There are services every day, sometimes more than one a day, all the way through to Easter. Should you attend all of them? I’ll simply say, give it your best effort to attend as many as possible. Each plays a role in leading us to the Triduum—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. Attending any or all certainly wouldn’t hurt you. It goes without saying that you’ll be blessed. Do you know what else goes without saying? The fact that your faith already knows this, and it’s craving to act on the knowledge.