Text: Luke 16:19-31
James, the brother of our Lord, wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the second chapter of his epistle, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him… Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14, 17 English Standard Version) As Lutherans, many of us are familiar with that verse; some of us have had it spoken against us. This is one of those verses that gets turned into a clobber passage. A clobber passage is what happens when you’re in a theological argument and someone pulls out a verse that is intended to immediately end the conversation. No more questions. With this passage, usually the intent is to quiet us Lutherans who hold, with Scripture, that good works do not contribute to our salvation. But, just because good works do not contribute to our salvation, we do not therefore cast them out. Rather, we agree with St. James. Faith without works is dead.
What James teaches is what is taught throughout Scripture: that a living faith created by the Holy Spirit through the Word results in good works in the life of a believer. St. Paul, for example, right after saying that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, then says, “we are…created in Christ Jesus for good works.” (Eph. 2:10) We don’t do them to earn anything. Instead, good works are produced in our lives by the Holy Spirit through faith. Where good works are entirely absent, that’s where we run into problems. If good works give proof of a living faith, what implication does an absence give? This is one thing we learn from the parable today. A true faith formed by God through the Word causes us to love our neighbor.
Our Lord’s teaching today is one where it’s easier to understand it if we start at the end and work backwards. The two men in the parable, the rich man and Lazarus, die. Lazarus goes to heaven, the rich man to Hades. The rich man, being in torment, asked Abraham near the end, “I beg you, father…send [Lazarus] to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he might bear witness to them.” (Lk. 16:27-28, my translation) Abraham responded, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” (16:29) With this interaction, we can see why it is the rich man ended up in torment. The primary cause of his damnation was not his lack of good works; it was his lack of faith. The rich man recognized that and begged Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead – for then they would listen. Abraham rightly said, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (16:31)
The rich man hoped that a miracle would create faith in his unbelieving brothers, but what did Abraham point him to instead? The Word. Abraham pointed him back to the Scriptures, which he neglected, as the source of saving faith. St. Paul teaches the same in the words we know, “Faith comes by hearing.” (Rom. 10:17) The Holy Scriptures are the instrument, the tool, with which the Holy Spirit creates faith. We see this on Pentecost, for example, when many who heard Peter’s sermon were brought to faith. The Ethiopean eunuch, as well, was brought to the faith when Philip preached to him about Jesus from Isaiah 53. The jailer in Philippi, and his whole family with him, was brought to faith and baptized through preaching of Paul and Silas. We are saved by God’s grace through faith, not by our works. Faith is created in our hearts by the Spirit through the Word, and faith takes hold of the forgiveness Christ won for us.
Our Augsburg Confession then says this, “Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.” (AC VI, 1) Later, it continues, “We teach that it is necessary to do good works. This does not mean that we merit grace by doing good works, but because it is God’s will. It is only by faith, and nothing else, that forgiveness of sins is apprehended. The Holy Spirit is received through faith, hearts are renewed and given new affections, and then they are able to bring forth good works.” (AC XX, 27-29) We saved by God’s grace through faith. Faith is produced in us by the Holy Spirit, and then the Holy Spirit then leads us through faith unto good works. Now, not all good works are the same or even visible to others – but they are present in the life of believers.
Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (16:19-22) When faced with such a situation, what should have the rich man done? Something. Anything. Here is this poor man, sick, lying at your door; what does it say if you do nothing? That’s what the rich man did. He feasted every day, he dressed in fine clothing; but for Lazarus – whose name he evidently knew – the rich man cared nothing. By his lack of love, the rich man showed his lack of faith.
Of the two men in the parable, there’s one that we mirror more often than the other. It’s not Lazarus, whose name means, “The Lord is my helper;” it’s the rich man. St. Paul said we are created in Christ Jesus for the good works God has prepared for us to do. Our Lord Himself said that He is the vine and we are the branches. What do branches do? They bear fruit. If we take stock of our lives though, what do we find? Often, a lacking. Now, just as not all good works are the same – as each has been given different abilities and gifts by the Lord – so, also, we don’t all lack in the same way. Some of us have failed in regular church attendance at points in our lives. Some of us have failed to live in devotion to God’s Word. Some of us have failed to diligently encourage our families in their growth in the faith. And, together, we have all failed to love our neighbors as ourselves. For our lack, for our sins and times we act as if we were unbelievers, we deserve the rich man’s fate.
In Bible study on Tuesday we were in Matthew 14. There’s a spot there that says, “When [Jesus] went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them.” (Mt. 14:14) Compassion is what our Lord has had on us. He saw us in our wretched state, knowing us even before we were born. He saw our sin and our lack of love, and He took it in Himself. Then He showed us a love of which there is no greater. He laid down His life for us. Last week we heard this, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The truth of God’s Word is clear. Good works do not contribute to our salvation. We do not merit anything by them. But, that does not mean that we cast them out. Rather, good works (and love) are produced in the lives of believers through faith. And faith comes from hearing. May the Lord grant that we, who are sinners and by ourselves can do no good thing, would continue to hear and believe His Word. May the Holy Spirit grant us His grace that, His Word taking root in our hearts, would also lead us bear fruit in our lives – in faith toward God, in love for Him, and in love for each other. Amen.