"We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds, but, having been made righteous, we do righteous deeds." Martin Luther
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Monday, January 26, 2015
Faith Without Works is Dead
This passage is controversial for some people. Some claim James contradicts Paul on justification. However, when we look at the passage as a whole, and keep all the verses in context, we will see there is no contradiction.
James lays out this passage like a high school literature paper. It has an introduction, here in verse 14, several points and a conclusion.
James’ introduction is in the form of a rhetorical question. A rhetorical question is a figure of speech asked to make a point rather than to solicit an answer. James asked: “what good is it, my brothers, of someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” In other words, is faith without work saving faith? The assumed answer is “no”. James actually says this three times in the passage: 17, 20 and 26). Each time saying this kind of faith is dead. It does not save (14) or justify (24). Works here means actions done in obedience to God.
The passage before this one stressed obeying the royal law, avoiding partiality among members of the body based on artificial things, such as wealth and appearance. We obey the royal law by loving others as much as ourselves. James realized that his audience might argue “ we do not have to worry about that law or works because we have faith and are saved”. James counters that saving faith produces works. s
So, James drives home the point that saving faith results in a change. The believer no longer lives for himself, but for Christ and others. We can recognize a believer by his or her good works. Paul recognized this also. He wrote “For we are his (Christ’s) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
A Picture of “Faith” Without Works
James illustrated his point with another hypothetical. If a Christian brother or sister is hungry and poorly clothed, and you say, “go in peace, be warmed and filled”, but do nothing to help that person, what benefit is there? Your so called faith has not changed you enough to take care of that person, who is also a believer in Christ. Yet, people who call themselves Christian do this all the time. We have great excuses. He needs to get a job. She will only drink up the money. I am uncomfortable around that person. But saving faith reveals itself in good deeds, in mercy. So, in verse 17, James reiterated that faith that does not have works is dead.
This reminds me of the story of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. Those who helped others were the sheep and those who did not were the goats, symbolizing those who were destined to hell despite their claim to know Jesus.
Demonstrate Your Faith by Works
James used another rhetorical device in this verse. He interjects a hypothetical opponent. This was a common device in Greek argument and philosophy. It is done to rebut a potential argument. Here the opponent would say faith and works do not always go together; they could be separated. But James says we show our faith by our works. They cannot be separated. We prove our faith by what we do.
Rejecting “Easy Believe-ism”
This is a term used to describe those who claim that you can be saved by merely believing the facts about Jesus are true. They separate salvation and lordship, saying you can believe without receiving Jesus as your master, or Lord. But remember Romans 10:9-10: …if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” But Easy Believe-ism claims you can do the second part (believe God raised him from the dead) without the first part (confessing his Lordship) and be saved. That is how so many people in America can tell you they are Christians, they believe in Jesus, but their lives show no evidence of it.
James rebutted that idea in his own time. He said it is good that you believe God is one. (19) That is probably a reference to the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4 (Hear, O Israel: The LORD our god, the LORD is one.) And, of course, a lot of people today believe there is a God. They may even pray to this God. But they do not obey him or even believe he is who claims to be in the Bible.
But, guess what? Even demons do that. In fact, James says demons not only believe in God, they shudder at his presence in fear of him.
Let us look at a couple of examples. First, look at Luke 8:26-39. This is a story of Jesus’ interaction with a demon possessed man in Gadara. The man, never having seen Jesus, recognized him because the demons who possessed him did. They called him Jesus, son of the Most High God. They begged him not to torture them and not to send them back to the abyss.
The second example is in Acts 19:11-17. There a bunch of Jewish guys has seen Paul cast out demons in Jesus’ name. They decided it was a magic they could appropriate. They commanded demons to come out in the name of Jesus whom Paul proclaims. That got them beat up by an evil spirit. But, note that the evil spirit said “Jesus I know”.
Demons, and Stan himself, know who Jesus is. But they do not commit their lives to obey and follow him. And a lot of people who call themselves Christians are the same way. James said that is not saving faith.
Example of Abraham’s Obedience
This is where it gets tough. If you read this passage on its face without knowing the context of this passage and the passages about Abraham, it sounds like you must be justified by a combination of works and faith, the Roman Catholic position.
First, let us look at what the text says. James said Abraham was justified by works when he offered Isaac on the altar. His faith was active along with his works and completed by his works. His actions fulfilled the Scripture that said Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteous.
First, we must look at the story of Abraham’s faith. There are two parts to the story.
First, Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. Genesis 15 tells the story of God making a covenant with Abraham (then known as Abram). Abraham was worried that he had no son to inherit his legacy. God told him he would have a son and, not only a son, but a great people would come from him. (Gen. 15:4) Abraham believed the Lord. The Lord counted Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness. In other words, the Lord declared Abraham righteous because Abraham believed the Lord’s promise. From that point on, Abraham was “saved”, he was declared righteous.
Later, God gave Abraham a son named Isaac. Abraham loved his son. God tested Abraham’s faith, and love, by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. This is recorded in Genesis 22. Abraham obeyed God. He tried to sacrifice his son, but God stayed his hand. God commended his obedience and love and promised to bless him greatly.
Abraham was already “saved” at this time. God had already counted him righteous because of his faith. Abraham’s obedience regarding Isaac did not save him; he was already saved. But he proved his obedience and love for God. In terms James would use, he demonstrated his faith by his works. That is the sense in which James used the word “justified’. He explained that in verse 22, saying his faith was completed by his works.
Paul, in Romans, explains this situation thoroughly. You can read it in Romans 4:1-12. He states plainly that Abraham was justified by faith. That is why some people claim Paul and James are in conflict on this point. But Paul argued from Genesis 15, and James from Genesis 22, after Abraham had already been declared righteous. he use of the word “justified” causes the confusion here. Paul uses the word to mean declared righteous by God. James is using it more in the sense of a demonstration that one has been justified (declared righteous by God).
One can also be helped here by consistent principles of interpretation. These are called “hermeneutics”. One principle is that we interpret scripture to be consistent. Since all scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and the men who wrote it were driven along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21), Scripture must be consistent and not contradictory. Otherwise, God is inconsistent; he changes.
A second principle is that we interpret hard to understand passages in accordance with passages that are easy to understand.
Applying those principles, we know Paul and James did not contradict each other while being driven by the Holy Spirit to write scripture. We can interpret James’ teaching to be consistent with Paul’s.
I one other point to make on this issue. James’ own words at another time show he believed in salvation by faith. When Gentiles began to come to faith, some Jews were concerned. They wanted the Gentiles to become Jews first. They wanted them to obey the law in order to be justified. In Acts 15, James rejected that idea. He did not impose the law on the Gentiles. He only asked them to refrain from sexual immorality and things offered to pagan idols, things which would offend the Jews greatly. James accepted Peter’s word that God cleansed their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)
The Example of Rahab
James’ second example is Rahab, who hid the “messengers” or spies. This refers to a story in Joshua 2. When the Israelites were about to cross the Jordan in their conquest of Canaan, Joshua sent two men to Jericho to spice out the land. Rehab hid the men and saved them from the king of Jericho.
Rahab did this righteous deed because she believed in God. She declared that the LORD is God in heavens above and on the death beneath. She acted on her faith with works when she protected the spies. The writer of Hebrews 11 commended her faith, saying “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies”. She had faith and she acted on it. Her work showed her faith.
James concludes very simply by restating his premise: faith apart from works is dead. This kind of faith is no faith at all.
Martin Luther said:
O it is a living busy active might thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done this and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.
(Marting Luther, Preface to Romans)
Saturday, January 24, 2015
Sunday, January 11, 2015
Partiality Displeases Jesus
James continues to develop his concept of doing the word with a specific example. He said that the church is wrong to favor the rich over the poor. In is example, a well dressed man and a man dressed in shabby clothing both come to worship. We find a good seat for the well dressed man. We make the shabby man stand off to the side or sit on the floor. James condemns this. He commands us to do the opposite. The first sentence of chapter 2 says “…sow no partiality as you hold the faith…” Implied in this is that faith in Christ and partiality are incompatible.
The Old Testament is full of warnings against partiality. Here are some examples:
Deuteronomy 16:19 says “You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality…”.
2 Chronicles 19:7 says “Now then let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes.”
Proverbs 28:21 says “To show partiality is not good…”
The New Testament continued this principle as Peter and Paul both condemned partiality. Now James does it too.
James said, if you show partiality, you are judges with evil thoughts. You dishonor the poor man. Then, he gives 3 reasons this is a bad practice.
First, James said “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom”? (5) If God chose them, we should not un-choose them. Jesus showed his love for the poor in many ways. He preached to large crowds of poor people. They travelled from little villages to hear him. He spoke to a few who were well off but generally spoke to the poor. He healed diseases, drove demons out of the possessed, made the lame walk, cleansed lepers and made the blind see. He instructed us to give to the needy. (Matthew 6:1) He told us not to seek riches. (Matthew 6:19) He told John’s disciples to tell John several things to show he was the Messiah, including “the poor have good news preached to them”. (Matthew 11:5) Paul wrote thatGod chose what is low and despised in the world so that no human being might boast in God’s presence. (1 Corinthians 1:28-29)
Further, if God chose a person to come into his kingdom, who are we to treat that person as a second class citizen of that kingdom.
Second, James says the rich are the ones who oppress the believers and drag them into court. They were able to use the government and courts to get what they wanted from the poor. (2:6)
In James’ time especially, the rich could oppress the poor. It is likely the most of the believers who had fled Jerusalem for other lands were poor and easily oppressed in the countries they moved to. My child in France has experienced discrimination in obtaining an apartment. While this goes on in the world, it is not to occur amongst believers.
Third, James says the rich are the ones who blaspheme the name of Jesus. (2:7)
At the heart of the law is to love your neighbor as yourself. Look at verse 8: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well.” He calls this the Royal Law. “Royal” could also mean most important. I think he refers to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:36 and following. Jesus said the most important commandment was to love the Lord and the second was to love others as ourself.
Also at the heart of this is humility. The issue is not money itself. It is how that money affects a person. If it makes you arrogant, prideful and greedy, you are condemned. If you abuse your employees, you are a person like the rich person James describes. But there are people who own companies who treat their employees well.
We are not to think of others in the kingdom as having less worth than ourselves. We are not to show partiality to those who have financial success. We should love each other, serve each other, and respect each other. If we do not, James says we sin. (9)
There are those among us who have problems. It may be poverty, sickness or failed relationships. Verse 13 says we are to have mercy on those brothers and sisters. Mercy triumphs over judgment. God shows mercy to those who are merciful. Give me mercy over judgment any day.
Sunday, January 04, 2015
Hearers and Doers of the Word
We receive the word of truth in salvation, but we also receive it as the guide to a life that pleases God. It works toward our sanctification. Jesus, in fact, prayed for his disciples, saying “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth”. (John 17:17)
James seems to interject a topic here with an instruction on speech and anger. Those were evidently problems in the churches to whom James wrote. They are problems in many churches today, and among many believers in general. Our spiritual maturity, our sanctification, can be measured by these things James discussed. So, James seems to say that steadfastness in faith is expressed in obedience to God’s word no matter what is going on around you or what is being done to you.
We should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (19) Rashness or hasty speech and anger do not please God. The Old Testament teaches this also. Psalm 34:13, for example, says “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”
Proverbs 18:27-28 says:
“Whoever restrains his words has knowledge
and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise.
When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.
James is very concerned with the tongue in this letter, making us think it was as much a problem for his audience as for us.
First of all, we should be quick to hear. Listening is a great talent. It is beneficial to your sanctification and to your relationships. We should be quick to listen to God’s word. Our first response should be to apply it to our lives, not argue with it or the one who presents it truthfully.
Second, we should be slow to speak. When you do not like what you hear, you can often benefit from thinking about it and praying about it before you respond. My family would say to “sleep on it”. Sometimes, what struck you unfavorably at first, may seem reasonable or good when thought out.
Finally, we are to be slow to anger. Anger usually impedes clear thinking and leads to speaking harshly.
The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. The NIV paraphrases this into “the righteousness life that God desires”. That captures the meaning here. I have heard horrible things said by church members “in the heat of the moment”. God is not pleased or honored by that.
I have worked to resist speaking about everything that comes up in church. I took a year moratorium from offering criticisms and suggestions. I extended it for another year. I offered a criticism that was not well received, and am now in another year of moratorium. I have found in the process that many things which initially aggravated me I did not have to bother with. Instead, I could focus on my own sanctification and ministry to others. I also resolved to not speak immediately upon every issue. I am not perfect in this, but it is what I seek to do.
I am not here speaking of confronting heresy or falsehood regarding the Bible. You are pretty much going to hear from me every time you offer that. Even then, I pray to answer with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15) But that is not the situation James addressed.
The next thing James admonishes us to do is to get rid of moral filth and wickedness. The Greek word refers to taking off these things as you would dirty clothes. If you want God’s word to have full effect in your life you have to put away your favorite sins. Those sins are rampant (ESV) or prevalent (NIV). James is saying, your reception of God’s word unto salvation is revealed in your obedience to God’s word. The saved person obeys God’s word out of love for him. The unsaved person rebels against God’s word. Jesus said we can know people by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20) A tree that bears bad fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire. That is a metaphor for the judgment of the unsaved person.
The fruit of the Spirit, the traits of the saved person, are listed in Galatians 5:22-24. The fruit of the flesh is described in Galatians 5:19-21. We may discern from a person’s character and behavior what their relationship to God is. I am not saying we will be perfect, but that the life of the believer should predominately express the fruit of the Spirit not the fruit of the flesh.
Television adds invite us to sin. Commercials for Los Vegas tell us to come there and sin and it will stay there. That is not true, of course. You will carry the marks of it.
There are common sins all around you every day and I do not need to list them for you. It is fine for the people belonging to the world to cover themselves with those sins. But it is not ok for the man or woman of God. People tell you to “lighten up” or to “get over it”. Christians will tell you it is ok to do a little. But God says to put it away. Take off those dirty clothes and put on righteous clothes.
1 Peter 1:22-2:1 takes a similar approach to James in this passage.
God takes sin seriously and he hates it. That is why James uses these graphic words here: filthiness and wickedness. Confess, repent and remove these things from your life. God does not want to hear “that is just the way I am”. He knows how you are and he wants to change you to be like Jesus.
Finally, we need to receive the word with meekness. We are open and receptive to it. We put aside pride, anger, sin and all our resistance. We hear the word and apply it to ourselves. We conform ourselves to the word. We do not change the word to fit our sin.
I have sat in many Bible discussion groups where the response to every command of God begins with “well, I don't think God really wants us to do this” as opposed to “oh no, I have to repent of this and stop doing it”.
In Mark 4, Jesus told a parable. We often call it the parable of the sower, but it is really the parable of the soils. There are four kinds of soil. Only one is described as good soil The good soil received the seed and produced much fruit. You are good soil if you received the seed of God’s word. When you do you will produce much fruit.
When the preacher preaches God’s word to you, your reaction should be to listen and apply God’s word to yourself. But often we want to think or speak a rebuttal. Sometimes we get angry at the preacher or teacher. If the teacher is giving you the truth of God’s word, that is not the way God wants you to receive it. It will prevent you from receiving it. As verse 20 says, it does not produce the righteousness of God in us.
Your first reaction to a lesson or sermon should not always be “I wish old so and so was hearing this”. The first application should always be to ourselves. But, it is harder to confront our sin than someone else’s sin. Yet, when we receive the word with meekness, it will change us. God will change us through it. As we change, our behavior changes. James will address behavior frequently in this letter. He is saying for us to conform our behavior to God’s standards now that he has changed us so that we can behave in a way that pleases him and brings him glory.
Notice that James calls it the “implanted word” in verse 21. The NIV says the “word planted in you”. This is another reference by James to the Old Testament. This time the reference is to Jeremiah 31:33. In that verse God said he would put his law within his people and he would write it on their hearts. God had described, through Jeremiah, all the ways his people had failed to keep his covenant and live according to his standards. He told them that he would change that in the new covenant.
So James calls it the implanted word. God has written his word, or law, into the heart of believers so we can live according to his standards. It is implanted in us. It is part of us.
It empowers us to live for God and not the world.
James summarizes in verse 22. If we receive the Word with meekness, we do not just hear it, we do it. Life that pleases God is a life of obedience. Jesus said “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11:28)
Lots of people hear sermons. Lots of people read scripture. Few go and do what it says. For example, Peter says “be self controlled”. (1 Peter 4:7) When we read that do we think “am I self controlled sufficiently to please God?” If I am a “doer of the word”, I repent of my lack of self control and work with his grace to become self controlled. If I am a hearer, I think, that would be a nice thing to do, and I go about my way as usual.
If we are only hearers, James said we deceive ourselves. Humans are masters of self deception. We always want to think of ourselves as better than we are. We are often blind to our spiritual state. Receiving the Word with meekness allows the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin.
The one who hears, but does not do the what the Word says, is like a man who looks at himself in the mirror and then forgets what he looks like. That is pretty stupid. The Word, is God’s mirror in that it shows us who we are. If we disregard that, and forget what we look like in the mirror of God’s word, we deceive ourselves and God’s word is of no benefit to us.
In contrast, if we hear God’s word and go out and do what it says, we are blessed. (25) We experience God’s favor. He is pleased with us.
Notice that, in verse 25, James switches words from “word” to “perfect law” and “the law of liberty”. I think he is saying here that God’s standards remain intact. God gave the commandments to the Israelites because they were his standards of belief and behavior. That has not changed. It is still the perfect law. We look into the law and see what pleases God and we do it. We are, though, looking into a law fulfilled in Christ. And we are empowered to live for God, obeying his law, through the Holy Spirit.
We obey the law, not for salvation, but to please God and because it frees us from sin to be like Christ. For that reason, James can call it the law of liberty.
To conclude this thought, James gave some practical examples of doing the word, not just hearing it. These occur in verses 26 and 27.
The first is controlling the tongue. James said our religion is worthless if we do not control our tongue. He uses the image of a bridle. A bridle is the headgear you put on a horse to control it. It holds the “bit” in the horse’s mouth, which allows you to direct him. We need to control our tongue. You can tell this is important to James because he mentions it several times in this short letter.
The second example is to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction. (27) He calls this pure and undefiled religion. In the Old Testament, God presents himself as the protector of the helpless and condemns those who took advantage of them. Exodus 22:22 says “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child.” He went on to say, if they did mistreat them, his wrath would burn against them.
Jesus condemned the Scribes because they took widows’ houses away from them and put heavy burdens on them. (Mark 12:40) Since they are afflicted, they suffer, and Christians should help them.
The third thing is very broad: to keep oneself unstained from the world. This sums up his statement on receiving the word with meekness, which began with his instruction to put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness in verse 20. The believer must separate his moral standards from the world’s and live according to God’s standards.
Any one can hear the word. Only the believer can do the word.
This passage is a great one to study as we look at a new year. This teaching would make a great New Year’s resolution for you.