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.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (see Joshua 2) For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. – James 2:14-26 (ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:1-10 (ESV)
Lutherans don’t usually make a habit of quoting the Book of James, because on the surface it may appear that James advocates the concept that we can earn salvation through the things we do much as a worker earns a wage or we exchange money for items we buy. There is no exchange. God has already acted on us. Our wages have been paid in full, through the merit of Christ. However, faith (knowing who we ARE in Christ) always results in action. As we believe, so we respond. What we do is a result of our faith, a response to the work of God within us.
We believe that faith is a gift of God. Jesus teaches us in John 6:44- “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus gave the church (meaning all believers) its marching orders in Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
All of the other activities the church gets involved in are secondary to making disciples. Yes, it follows that we as Christians would seek to help our neighbors with their physical needs. Yes, it follows that we would strive to be good stewards of the environment and that we would care for animals, land and water, which are good gifts from God.
But if we simply focus on doing we can forget from whom comes our being. If we neglect to preach and teach the Bad News- that all of humanity is born dead in trespasses and sins and that we cannot save ourselves, followed by the Good News that Jesus took our penalty and paid the price we all owe when He died on the cross, and that we who belong to Him will live forever with Him, then our good works have no lasting value. This world is temporary.
Without Jesus, there is no point. We can and should encourage people to do good things for each other. We should be good stewards of our world which is a gift to us from God. But a message and a life that is not focused on the cross of Christ is no life at all.
The cross of Christ is central to who we ARE. What we do for others springs from the reality that there is nothing we can do to earn favor or repay God for what He has first given us.
Without Jesus, serving others is a chore, an endless to-do list that wears on the body and burns the conscience. We are not capable of doing enough to earn our own way. But in the light of His mercy, serving others becomes a delight. In the light of His mercy as we serve, we are being served.