“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”[i]
I recently witnessed a high priests’ group remove the dilapidated, jagged driveway of one of the widows in the ward. They were down on their knees in work clothes, breaking up old concrete and hauling it to a dump truck—an airline pilot, a former Air Force colonel, a banker, a software designer, a building contractor, and many others. A few days later, they got together again to pour new concrete and create a beautiful, smooth new driveway. The sister can now get her car into her garage.
Watching this group, I couldn’t help but think of the verse from James:
“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”[ii]
These priesthood brothers certainly visited the widow in her affliction; and although they were dirty, sweaty, and spotted up with wet cement, I know them and they are “unspotted from the world.”
Why would busy professional men (most of them not very young or athletic anymore) take time to break up and pour concrete for a widowed neighbor?
Because they practice the “faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When faithful priesthood brothers see a widow’s broken driveway, they don’t just say “be fixed”—they fix it. They don’t just hold meetings to discuss it or hope someone will take care of it for her. They take care of it. That is the “faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Apostle James asks:
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?”[iii]
In this context, “faith” is assent. A person can agree with all the doctrines and even have a testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But there must be more.
“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?[iv]
“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”[v]
Men and devils can assent to the truthfulness of the Gospel, but without works there is no justification.
But wait a minute. Doesn’t the New Testament teach that “a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ”?[vi] Yes, it does.
Sounds like a contradiction.
Things get clearer when we remember that Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”[vii] No one by his own efforts can “earn” salvation; otherwise, the Atonement of Jesus Christ would have been unneeded. Only through exercising faith in His Atonement can we be justified before God.
At the same time, Jesus Christ certainly does not recognize as justifying faith the type of assent that produces no works. The true “faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” requires works—a certain type of works:
“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves?”[viii]
The work that demonstrate saving faith are not empty observances or pandering to the popular. They are works of service, as Elder Robert L. Simpson explains:
“Total fulfillment can only be found in that ultimate celestial state called eternal life or exaltation, which, of course, is to live eternally in his holy presence. Only those who have been justified and sanctified through service to their fellowmen can hope to reach such a lofty goal. To be justified is to be found acceptable in our ‘good works’ as well as by our superior faith.”[ix]
Our society cannot be justified in its exaltation of wealth and contempt for the poor. Everywhere the poor are ill treated and denied services. Just walk into any emergency room in a hospital and you’ll see the children of the poor crying and ill, begging and waiting for the services of a few overworked doctors. Walk into what we euphemistically call a “care center” in our society and look over the old and sick who have been shunted off from view. Visit with a young single mother who is trying to teach school on a starvation salary and raise her children alone, hoping her old car will hold out one more year.
We have a strange tendency to blame the poor for their ills and then hold up the rich for admiration. After all, we say, the poor are “idle.” Well, so are the rich. For many of us, luxuriant vacation homes, recreational vehicles, and expensive speedboats are the objects of our desire and, perversely, even evidences of our virtue because, after all, we work awfully hard to get them. The apostle James has a few words for the rich:
“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you. . . . The hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton.”[x]
Is there a risk to our salvation in seeking the gold and the silver? How will the Lord look on businessmen who made sure that wages (“the hire of the labourers”) were kept as low as legally possible and health insurance withheld from the most vulnerable workers? Could the apostle James have us in mind with this warning?
“Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? But ye have despised the poor.”[xi]
James makes it clear that the “chosen” are the poor of this world rich in faith. Such people flock to Jesus Christ because He is their only hope; they certainly haven’t much hope here.
He also makes it clear what the Savior requires of us:
“If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do
[i] James 1:27.
[ii] James 1:27.
[iii] James 2:14-16.
[iv] James 2:17-20.
[v] James 2:24.
[vi] Gal. 2:16.
[vii] Romans 3:23.
[viii] James 2:1-4.
[ix] Robert L. Simpson, “‘Go, and Do Thou Likewise’,” Ensign, Jul 1973, 22 (italics mine).
[x] James 5:1-3, 4-5.
[xi] James 2:5-6.
[xii] James 2:8.