The Three-Legged Stool

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By Larry Short

How do you define what a true follower of Jesus is? Some say, “A person who believes in Jesus.” Others say, “A person who’s life bears the fruit of his faith.”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between Paul’s epistle to the Romans (focusing on faith in God’s grace) and James‘ letter (focusing on faith proved through action). Recently I read a very eye-opening blog by Christian Piatt, writing in the Huffington Post, which put many things together for me. (I’m not a huge fan of most of Piatt’s work, but he is a provocative thinker.)

His blog, titled “Following Jesus isn’t primarily about beliefs or actions,” caught my eye. At the face of it, the “battle” between Romans and James seems to be just that, a battle between belief (faith) and action (works). So, what else is there?

Piatt explains:

“Right thought or belief is generally called “orthodoxy,” while right action is called “orthopraxy.” And sometimes we seem to assume that these are the only things to focus on, or even that one is somehow superior to the other.

In studying the teachings and words of Jesus, however, I’m coming to embrace the sense that “orthopathy,” or right-heartedness, is a critical third leg of the proverbial stool. Furthermore, I have the growing sense that this right-heartedness actually helps lead us to the path we’re seeking for the other two.”

It makes sense. You can be orthodox, or have the right “beliefs” about everything. Or you can be orthoprax, and have the right practice. You can even theoretically be both of these things, without having the right heart: to believe in God’s Word; to practice God’s Word and commands.

Ultimately, right-heartedness seeks sincerely to obey and fulfill the Greatest Commandment — to love God with all that we are, and our neighbors as ourselves. Orthopathy!

I like the idea of the three-legged stool, but I daresay orthopathy is a synthesis of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It’s faith and actions, together; or rather, it’s the fundamental motivation that makes James’ “third kind of faith” work itself out in our actions.

Learning to Love James

So, while like Martin Luther I used to struggle with James, I am now learning to love that book. The man who wrote it is an interesting character. The New Testament reveals that Jesus had four half-brothers (born to Joseph and Mary), and an unspecified number of half-sisters. (“Half” in the sense that Christ himself was not an offspring of Joseph, as his half-brothers and sisters were.) James was the first mentioned of those half-brothers. Early on, during His public ministry, it’s implied that his own family members apparently struggled to believe that He was who He was. But later, after His death and resurrection, it’s clear that James at least came around and ultimately was a leader in the early Christian church, taking a key leadership position in the church at Jerusalem after the disciples were dispersed.

Leading a church in the crucible of persecution would definitely give one a sense of what “real” faith looked like. And knowing the authentic, compassionate Jesus, as intimately as James did, would put you in a unique position to write about it authoritatively!

I think James issues a challenge to each of us who name the name of Christ. Don’t “just believe,” prove that you believe, through the way you live your life. Let God change your heart as well as your head, and you will see the fruit of that change working out through your lips and your hands.

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