My Sunday sermons given at Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR, for those who missed church or just want to see what we're up to. You can also listen to these sermons if you prefer. Just go to our church website and click the "Online Church" tab. Here's the link:

Monday, October 10, 2011

"Living in the Here and Now" - (10/09/11)

James 4:11-17 (Message #10 in James Series)
October 9, 2011

            Whenever you are visiting with a kid and you ask him his age he will always round the number upward as in, “I’m 7… and a half!” or “I’m 12… but I’ll turn 13 in two months!”  They always do this with that obvious excitement about getting older.  Children and young people live for the future.  They dream of all the wonderful things they will get to do when they get big.  I was visiting with our grandson, Morigaen, a couple of days ago and we were talking about driving.  He told me that his mom had taken him to a big abandoned parking lot a couple of times to let him get practice driving.  I asked him how old he has to be to get a permit in Washington.  He said, “I’ll turn 15 and a half next month, grandpa.  Then I can get my learner’s permit!”
            Of course, adults have a different perspective.  People older than about 25 will always round off their age downward, especially women.  A woman will still say that she is “thirty something” when she is really 39¾.  If children live dreaming about the future, adults often live in the glow of the past.  For example, we all know a few baby-boomers who are still dressing, thinking, and acting like old hippies who never quite made it out of Woodstock and Height-Ashbury. 

            But the truth is that we have no guarantee of the future, and we cannot go back and relive the past.  All we have is the present, the here and now.  And as Christians we are called to live for Christ today, to do what we can now for the Kingdom of God.  We hope we’ll have tomorrow but God never promised that to us.  And the past is already rolled up like a scroll, never to be seen or replayed again.  Of course, as Christians we should learn from the successes and failures of the past, and we should make plans for the future, but we should concentrate on living well today because today is all we really have.  We are told in God’s Word to “redeem the time.”  This means to buy it up and invest it well, for we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Verse 11: Do not speak against [slander, whisper about, speak evil of] one another, brethren.  He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. 
  • Here in verses 11-12 of our text James turns his attention once again to deal with the subject of speech, specifically mouthing off and judging other Christians.  This was likely one of the manifestations of the attitudes that James condemned up in verses 1-2.  Christians were apparently allowing their covetous attitudes to run rampant and this was causing fights and squabbling among the believers that James characterizes as “wars and battles.”  This manifested itself in part in judging and condemning one another.
  • James’ argument is that if you are guilty of judging your brother then you are placing yourself above the Law of God, which forbids such judging.  Of course, this is true of all kinds of lawlessness.  When a person breaks the speed laws on the highway he is, in essence, saying that he is above the law and that ordinance does not apply to him.

Verse 12: There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? 
  • James goes on here in verse 12 to argue that there is only one who is greater than the law and that is the Judge and Lawgiver himself.  He says to his reader, “There is only one Judge, buddy, and it ain’t YOU, so come down here and get out from behind that bench.”  He argues that you and I have no business judging one another.  We can’t save one another, so we shouldn’t try to condemn one another either.  God alone is “…able to save and to destroy” and He has the moral high ground to do both.  You and I are nothing!  Moreover, with our sinful track-record we should be ashamed to point a finger at anyone for anything!  “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”  Indeed.  The answer is obvious—I’m nobody.

Verse 13: Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
  • Here in verse 13 through the end of the chapter James takes up yet another subject, and that is, the fleeting nature of our lives.  I think that in James’ mind this paragraph relates to his former statements concerning worldliness in that the attitude he is condemning here is a form of worldliness—i.e. leaving God out of our plans and heading out on our own as though we were in control of things rather than He.
  • You and I live in the midst a self-imposed delusion—that we are actually in charge of our lives, that we have some degree of control over what happens to us.  We make plans and lay out our schedules with the thought that if we just write it down then it’s settled.  We take precautions and do things to protect ourselves and our families so that we can sleep at night.  We buy insurance and set up retirement accounts to prepare for the future.
  • Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that we should stop doing these things, just that we should stop thinking that because we have done them now we are safe and don’t need God anymore.
  • For example:
1.       You take Lipitor and aspirin, and exercise every morning, only to have your doctor tell you that you have inoperable stage-4 colon cancer.
2.      You make your kid wear his bicycle helmet every time he goes out riding but he gets hits in the chest by a loose bullet from a drive-by shooting down the street.
3.      For 20 years you pay for flood insurance, only to have your house destroyed by a tornado.
4.      You raise your sweet little girl in Sunday School and church, plus youth group, Vacation Bible School, Christian summer camp, and the best evangelical university in the country, only to have her decide to elope with a long-haired rock musician with tattoos, nose rings, hygiene issues, and lots of attitude about you and every other Christian he’s ever met.
  • If you sit around and think about stuff like this it will drive you nuts, so instead, we keep on doing our little rituals to keep our minds off the fact that we are in charge of exactly NOTHING, and we can control exactly NOTHING.
  • Here in verse 13ff James is making an appeal to Christians who think they can plan out their own lives all by themselves.  He gives the example of a merchant who makes plans to expand his business and travel to new places to sell his wares.  Is James saying that this in and of itself is wrong?  NO, of course not.  People in business are always looking for new markets and new ways to sell their products to more people.  That’s the nature of commerce.  However, James is saying that many Christians operate every aspect of their life this way, leaving little room for God to do anything.

Verse 14: Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow [let alone next week or next year].  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. 
  • James zeroes in on three human failings: 1) The limits of our knowledge about the future.  We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  2) Our impotence to affect the outcome of tomorrow.  We are powerless to control what will happen.  And 3) The uncertainty of our life in general.  He says we are about as stable as fog.  We’re here today and gone tomorrow, or sooner.

Verse 15: Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” 
  • A believer, who understands that God is sovereign and in control, will readily admit and acknowledge his dependence upon God.  His attitude will be, “Im yirtzeh hashem…” (Hebrew), “Deo volente…” (Latin), “Se Deus quiser…” (Portuguese), “Insha’Allah…” (Arabic), or in English, “If God wills… we will live and also do this or that.”  Our words are important because they reveal our thought and attitudes.

Verse 16: But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
  • James comes down on his readers by pointing out that this logical and reasoned attitude toward ourselves and toward God was not what they were demonstrating.  Rather, they were “boasting in their arrogance.”  He denounces this attitude and calls it what it really is, “SIN!”
  • There is no place, ever, for this kind of boastfulness.  It is always condemned in Scripture.  Ephesians 2:8-9 come to mind: “For by grace you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, that no one should boast.”  Or I Corinthians 1:27-29: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before Him.” 

Verse 17: Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin. 
  • For years I’ve heard this verse pulled out of its context and used independently but it is even more powerful in its natural setting.  In this last verse of our text James sums up this section with a warning to the unthinking boastful merchant of verse 13, as well as to us, reminding us that there is more than one way to sin against God.  The Jews always tended to emphasize doing the right thing, with little emphasis on the quality of the attitudes behind the actions.  However, as Christians we all know that our lives should be characterized by an attitude of humility and a total dependence on God.  This is at the heart of Christian living.  And James says that the Christian who knows this and yet does not do it, “…to him it is sin.”
  • We know that all sin starts in the heart and mind.  For example, adultery is, first of all, a sin of the heart and the thoughts.  The sin of adultery occurs long before the sexual act is carried out.  Moreover, we often speak of sins of omission and sins of commission.  These both have to do more with actions.  “Sins of commission are when we do things that we should not do, things we have been forbidden to do, by God in His Word or by the laws of men, or both, as is often the case—stealing, hurting other people, setting fire to someone’s house, moving your neighbor’s property line, etc.  “Sins of omission on the other hand, are when we fail to do what we should do, we fail to do the right thing—e.g. when out of cowardice we fail to speak up or to prevent someone from being attacked; when we fail to help someone who needs our help; when we dummy up and refuse to witness to someone whom God has obviously put in our path, etc.

            To clarify this a bit further, we can think of sin as a three-phase process.  Though this can work positively let’s start from the negative.
PHASE 1: Embracing an incorrect thought leads to…
PHASE 2: Having an incorrect attitude, which results in…
PHASE 3: Committing an incorrect or sinful act.
            Let me illustrate this first with something we all can understand.  In pre-WWII Germany those who espoused the doctrine of Aryan racial superiority and called themselves “√úbermensch” (overmen, or superhumans), came to believe that Jews were less than fully human.  They called them “untermensch,” meaning “undermen, or sub-humans.”  This was their belief, their firmly held doctrine.  However, I think we can all agree that they were, what I like to call, “Wrong!”  They embraced an incorrect thought.  That’s PHASE 1.
            This incorrect thinking led them to have incorrect attitudes toward Jews.  If Jews are sub-humans then they don’t have the same needs and rights as the rest of us.  If they are sub-human they are incapable of having the same hopes and dreams as us superhumans.  If they are less than fully human then I can trick them, steal from them, lie to them, and make fun of them and it doesn’t really matter because it’s not like I’m doing it to a real person.  That is PHASE 2—Incorrect attitudes based on incorrect ideas.
            PHASE 3 puts it all together and ties a bow around it.  If we know for a fact that Jews are sub-human and are hateful, dirty untermensch, then it doesn’t matter what we do to them.  Really, they are more like livestock than people, and we kill and eat livestock without a second thought.  Therefore, we can enslave Jews and make them do whatever we want done, or we can kill Jews by shooting them, gassing them, or starving them and we are perfectly within our rights.  You all know the end of the story.  Incorrect thinking, gave way to incorrect attitudes, which in time resulted in 6.5 million Jewish men, women, and children being murdered by the Nazis in horrific ways.
            So, you’re thinking, how does this relate to our text here in James 4?  Let me try and pull it together.  Just as the Germans can never say, “We didn’t know that killing Jews was a sin,” so also we can never use ignorance of the right as a defense or an excuse for our doing of the wrong.  If we choose to disobey God and not do what He has commanded us to do, that is sin, and there is no excuse for it.  On the other hand, if we disobey God by doing what He has forbidden us to do, that is sin too, and there is no excuse for it.  All too often we are quick to forgive ourselves, and to let ourselves off the hook.  As I mentioned last Sunday, we often take our own sin way too lightly.  It just doesn’t bother us that much.  But it should, and it will if we get into the Word, and begin to see things through God’s perspective.
            But how do we break the three-phase sin cycle?  Logically, if we want to begin doing the right things, then we have to be driven by correct attitudes.  Additionally, if we want our attitudes to be correct and right before God, then our thinking has to be brought into line with God’s thinking, and that can only be done as we immerse ourselves in God’s revelation, the Word of God.  Life change can only come about as a result of our knowing and embracing the truth.  Then our righteous behaviors will come into line with our thoughts and godly attitudes.
            The apostle Paul said it well in Romans 12:1-2 – I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.  2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Or as Paul says it in Ephesians 4:22-23, “[You must] lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and…be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” 
            Of course, telling others to do the right things for all the right reasons is easy.  I can look you right straight in the eye and tell you that you ought to do it this way.  However, I don’t find it so easy to do myself.  It’s a daily struggle and I fail often, but look again at verse 15.  It reminds us that our seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years are all in God’s powerful merciful hands.  “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”  He took care of your past when you came to know Him.  Let Him worry about your future because you have no control over it anyway.  You just need to concentrate on living for Him with all your might in the here and now.

Monday, September 19, 2011

"Power to Cure, Power to Kill" - (09/18/11)

James 3:1-12 (Message #7 in James Series)
September 18, 2011

            Many of you know that I am a staunch defender of the American citizen’s right to “keep and bear arms.”  Moreover, I believe that this Second Amendment Constitutional right is in danger here from those who would seek to take away our right to own and use firearms.  They scream, “GUNS KILL PEOPLE!” and people like me yell back, “NO, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE!”
            The truth is that a gun is a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver.  In the hands of a responsible person with morals, convictions, and training a gun is of no danger to anyone.  On the other hand, there are many things that can be used to injure or kill people.  Any Corrections Officer will quickly back up what I am saying.  In prison, people fashion the strangest, most unlikely things with which to hurt one other.
            In fact, nearly anything you can think of can be used both for positive and negative purposes.  For example, a moment ago I mentioned a hammer.  A hammer is a very helpful tool for pounding, driving nails, or prying on things.  However, a hammer is a deadly weapon if someone hits you in the head with it.  A hammer has the power to build, and the power to destroy.
            Or take a knife… in the hands of a woodsman, a hiker, or a cook a knife is a very helpful tool.  However, in the hands of an armed robber it’s a very different story.  Or think of a doctor’s scalpel… in the hands of a skilled surgeon in the operating room it is a life-saving tool.  However, that same scalpel held to the throat of a pilot by a terrorist can bring down a whole airplane and kill all of the passengers.  That same tool has the power to cure and the power to kill.

            We could, of course, give many other examples of this duality but in our text for today, in James 3:1-12, the writer tells us of something that is potentially more lethal than any of these things I have mentioned.  Turn with me to that passage.

Verse 1: Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 
  • James starts this section with a warning to all those who aspire to attain a position as a teacher of the scriptures.  While to be a teacher or preacher of God’s Word is a noble calling, it also bears a greater moral responsibility before both God and man.  A person who knows the scriptures can never use the excuse, “Oh, I just didn’t know that.”
  • Notice too that James puts himself into this category: “…knowing that as such WE will incur a stricter judgment.”  He recognizes that he too must one day give an account before God of what he did with his knowledge of the Word.  A pastor’s sevenfold job is to feed, guide, love, protect, train, heal, and correct the sheep that God has placed under his care.  Moreover, I believe that every shepherd will one day stand before God to have his ministry evaluated.  The writer of Hebrews was speaking of that day when he wrote this in Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.  Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you.”

Verse 2: For we all stumble in many ways.  If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. 
  • Here James begins to get into his subject—the tongue.  He recognizes that we are all imperfect in every category.  We all make mistakes and mess up in many different ways.  However, the tongue has incredible power, and can do untold damage in a heartbeat, and is very difficult to tame.
  • He says that if a person can manage to control his tongue, his words, then he will be a truly “perfect person” meaning complete or mature, and will find it relatively easy to control the other parts of his anatomy.  For example, if you know how to tame a Bengal Tiger, then you won’t have any trouble taming the family’s cute little housecat.
  • The language that James uses has been used by skeptics and scoffers to say that Christians are just a bunch of uptight, obsessive, self-hating, prudes.  He talks about “bridling the whole body,” while the world says, “let it all hang out.”  He talks about muzzling our mouths (see also Psalm 39:1), but the world says, “Express yourself, no matter whether people like it or not.”  The Bible speaks of reining in our sexual passions, while the world advocates getting all the sex you can, wherever you can, with whomever you can.  They cry out, “No rules, no regrets!”
  • But it’s not that Christians are repressed; it’s just that we believe in biblically placed boundaries, put there by a loving God for our protection.  The world wants to throw off every boundary, especially moral fences of any kind, believing that will make them truly free.  The truth is, without God’s boundaries, man quickly becomes the worst kind of slave, a slave of his own passions and lower nature.

Verses 3-4: Now if we put the bits into the horses’ mouths so that they will obey us, we direct their entire body as well.  4Look at the ships also, though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, are still directed by a very small rudder wherever the inclination of the pilot desires. 
  • James uses two examples to show that little things can control big things.  First, he points to a horse’s bridle with the bit that goes inside the horse’s mouth.  That little bar of steel, when placed in the back of the horse’s mouth behind his back teeth, can control a huge war horse.  Pulling on the reins puts pressure on the sides of his mouth.  That makes him turn his head to relieve the pressure.  By turning his head you make his body go in the direction you want to travel.
  • The same principle works with a ship’s rudder.  Relatively speaking, the rudder is very small compared to the ship itself, yet it can make the ship go wherever the helmsman leads it.  Even in rough seas and with strong winds the little rudder forces the ship to go wherever the captain wishes.

Verse 5a: So also the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. 
  • Here we have the conclusion, based on those last two illustrations.  James says, in the same way that the bridle bit and the ship’s rudder are both small yet can control something much larger, so also the tongue, though it is a small part of our anatomy, it wields a huge influence.
  • “…it boasts of great things.”  Our mouth is what we use to brag and boast.  It’s also what we use to tell lies.  It’s what we use to curse and carry on arguments.  It’s the instrument of gossip and slander.  Need I go on?  If we are honest we will have to admit that our mouth gets us in more trouble than any other part of our body.

Verses 5b-6: See how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!   6And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 
  • We are still in the 2011 fire season.  We’ve been watching the out-of-control wild fires in much of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.  And right here in Oregon we have wild fires raging even today.  Though some of those fires were started by lightening strikes, many of them were ignited by a spark from a car or from a carelessly thrown cigarette.  We all know that a huge fire can be started from one tiny spark.
  • James says that the tongue is a fire, and though small, it can do a world of damage.  He says that it can defile, or make dirty, the rest of our life.  That’s because our tongue can verbalize every sort of sin including covetousness, idolatry, blasphemy, lust, and greed.  These all find expression through the tongue, and consequently, James says, “…it defiles the entire body.”  Moreover, he says that the tongue-fire comes originally from hell itself.  Picture this: the fire from hell lights up the tongue, which in turn, sets on fire the whole “course of our life.”  By the way, the word here translated as “hell” is actually the Greek word, “Gehenna,” which was the name of the smoldering, stinking, rotting, putrid garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem.  It was the constantly burning place where the carcasses of animals would be dumped, where all of the refuse of the city would be burned, where the filth of society would be dealt with.  The fires would never go out because there was always plenty of fuel to keep them going.  Gehenna is used in the Bible as a metaphor for the horrors of hell, and is the word that James uses here to describe the motor that runs our mouth.

Verse 7: For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed and has been tamed, by the human race. 
  • We read in Genesis 1:27-28, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.  28God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”  Humans have been doing that ever since.  In fact, man has pretty well learned to subdue and control every creature on the planet (except for my dog, Bubba, of course).  We’ve trained falcons to hunt for us.  We’ve trained dogs to find lost hikers and sniff out drugs.  We’ve trained pigs to dig up truffles for us.  We’ve taught apes to talk to us using American Sign Language.  We’ve trained elephants to paint pictures for us.  We’ve trained giant tigers to jump through burning hoops to entertain us at the circus.
  • We can control big animals, but sadly, most of us still haven’t figured out how to control our own big mouth!  And just look at the results.

Verse 8: But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 
  • James makes it sound here like Mission Impossible.  But is that what he really means?  He says “no one can tame the tongue.”  Does “no one” here really mean “no one”?  Of course not.  What is impossible with man is possible with God.  Through Christ our tongue can be tamed but we can’t do it on our own.
  • James portrays the tongue as “a restless evil.”  That gives it a kind of built-in malevolence, an evil nature.  He says too that it is “full of deadly poison.”   I believe he is making reference here to Psalm 140:3, a verse well known to his readers.  It goes, “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; preserve me from violent men 2who devise evil things in their hearts; they continually stir up wars.  3They sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips.”  The Carpet Viper and the Desert Horned Viper, both common to that part of the world, were the most poisonous creatures known in that day.  In both cases, their bite would usually result in a horrible, painful death, drug out over several days.
  • James’ point, of course, is that the tongue can likewise bring about death, and in very painful ways.

Verses 9-10: With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be this way. 
  • Here James shows that like the tools I mentioned earlier, which can be used for good or for evil, the tongue can also be a wonderful instrument for praising God and for blessing people, or it can be used for cursing and condemning.  We have a choice in how to use our tongues.
  • “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”  Just because something can be done, doesn’t mean that it should be done.  You and I are free to use our tongues however we choose.  However, there is a right way, as God intended, and a wrong way, as our old nature prefers to do things.  God created man to have fellowship with Him forever.  He fashioned man’s mouth to offer up praises to Him.  However, like everything else that God meant for good, in our fallen state we use it for evil.  James says, “…this ought not to be,” because to use our mouth for evil is incongruous with God’s purposes.

Verse 11: Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water? 
  • The obvious answer to this question is, “NO, of course not.”  A fountain or a spring only gives off one kind of water.

Verse 12: Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a [grape] vine produce figs?  Nor can salt water produce fresh. 
  • A second illustration with similar question, expecting a similar answer: “NO, a fig tree can never give olives and a grape vine can never produce figs.  Neither can salt water produce fresh water.”  Now don’t get hung up here.  No illustration ever walks on all fours.  We all know about desalinization plants that produce fresh water from sea water.  And we all know something about grafting on kind of fruit tree onto the stump of some other kind of fruit tree, but those things never happen in nature, without some kind of human intervention.

            So what does James want us to take away from this passage today?  What is the point, the bottom line?  Several things stand out to me.
1.       First, the warning to teachers jumps right out at me.  I believe that the job of interpreting and explaining God’s Word to others is a huge responsibility and should never be taken lightly.  All of us who teach or preach the Scriptures, no matter what the setting or the age group, need to take this seriously.  But before you write yourself out of the story, how about our job as parents to teach and explain God’s Word to our children and grandchildren.  I believe the principle applies there too.
2.      Secondly, in our flawed thinking about the relative awfulness of the sins we commit, we tend to put more emphasis on sins of commission—i.e. doing bad stuff.  For example, we all admit that stealing, killing, cheating, worshipping idols, and committing adultery are terrible sins.  However, we tend to put mouth related sins in a different category.  We don’t lie, we “tell stories” or little “white lies.”  We don’t gossip, we “share a prayer request.”  We don’t fight, we have “spirited disagreements.”  We don’t curse and condemn, we “tell it like it is.”  In general we downplay the negative things that our mouths can do and make excuses for our lack of control in this area, not recognizing that the tongue has the power to kill.
3.      Thirdly, on the other hand, we fail to see the power of the tongue to heal.  Our mouth, when filled with the Word of God and empowered by the Spirit of God has great potential for good.  With our mouth we can bless God and thank Him for all He is and has done for us.  With our mouth we can tell a person about the love and grace of God and lead him to put his trust in Christ.  With our mouth we can build up a person and make him feel like he matters to us and to God.  With our mouth we can bind up emotional wounds from the past, and give new hope, and tell a child he is loved, and make a friend’s day.  The tongue has the power to cure, and the power to kill.  How we choose to use it is up to us.

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Show Me What You've Got" - (09/04/11)

James 2:18-26 (Message #6 in James Series)
September 4, 2011

            When someone truly believes in a cause, that belief will change the way that person thinks and lives.  For example, if I truly believe in our Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms”, then I’m not about to vote for any politician who is doing his dead-level best to take that right away from me.  If I am truly pro-life and believe that abortion is a terrible sin, then I am not going to send any money to Planned Parenthood.  If I truly believe that it is morally wrong to steal, then I am not going to go out and hold up a liquor store just because our finances happen to be a little tight this month.  My deeply and sincerely held beliefs will always translate into actions that are in keeping with those beliefs.  Actions always follow beliefs.

            In the same way, genuine saving-faith will naturally produce God-honoring good works; the two always walk hand-in-hand and complement each other.  When a person comes to truly believe in Christ as Savior and Lord, good works follow as the attesting marks that the conversion was genuine.  This is the point that James is wanting to make in our text for today.  He is defending the premise that faith, if it is genuine, never travels alone—it is always accompanied by good works that declare and model God’s greatness, love, and compassion and bring glory to Christ’s name.
            He was emphasizing this point in response to some in the Early Church who were saying that all you had to do was believe the right stuff and say the magic words and you were automatically saved, regardless whether or not there was any observable evidence of a changed life.
            But lest you think that this was just a problem way back then, I would point to the millions of people in this country who claim to be “born again Christians” because they said a prayer, or walked an aisle, or got baptized as a baby, or went through confirmation class.  Yet their lives give off no sign or signal of a person who really knows Jesus.  It’s all just talk and deception.

Verse 18: But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
  • Here James anticipates what his critics might say about what he has just written in the preceding verses.  But rather than running away from the debate like some others do, he charges right in.
  • Now before we can move on you need to know that the ancient Greek manuscripts had neither punctuation nor quotation marks.  Therefore, scholars have long argued about where we should place the quotation marks in this verse.  The KJV, NIV, RSV and others close the quote at the end of the phrase, “You have faith and I have works” (closed quote), treating this as a complete sentence.  Whereas, the NASV and a few others run the quote all the way to the end of the verse.  While in general I like the NASV better than the others, in this particular case I have to go along with the rendering in the KJV.  I believe that the phrase that follows in the second part of the verse is James’ challenge and rebuttal.
  • In other words, the objector might say in his own defense, “So you have your faith and I have my good works.  I think that one is about as good as the other.”  But James has a bone to pick with anyone who would make such a claim.
  • He says, “OK, show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  Let’s have some show-and-tell here.”  He’s confident to call them on this because he knows that there is no such thing as genuine faith that is barren of good works.  He knows that they cannot show him such a thing because it doesn’t exist.

Verse 19: You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
  • Here James refers to the doctrine of the unity of God, which was a fundamental article of faith in Judaism.  (Remember the Shema of Israel in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel!  The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!”)  He says, “You do well if you believe that.”  However, his point is that unless their belief produces real spiritual fruit then their faith is no greater than that of Satan and the demons who are also monotheists.  The demons tremble when they hear the name of God but not out of love and respect.  Their kind of belief does not lead to reverence, submission, and obedience but rather to rebellion, hatred, and disobedience.  They know He is One but they still hate Him!

Verse 20: But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless [barren]?
  • James is talking about dead orthodoxy.  A person can know the truth and believe in it intellectually.  He can give mental assent to everything that Jesus ever taught, and tragically, still go straight to hell when he dies, because salvation is not based on merely knowing the facts, but also acting on the facts.
  • James calls the person who separates faith and works a “foolish fellow,” which means empty-headed.
  • This verse functions as a hinge, a lead-in to the textual support that James is now going to use to prove his point.  Like a lawyer building his case, the first piece of evidence he introduces is the example of Abraham.

Verse 21: Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
  • “Abraham, our father…”  Abraham was considered to be the father of the Jewish people, who were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s sons.  The apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:6-29 goes one to say that Abraham was also the father of all true Christians because Abraham staked his life on God’s promise of a Savior, Jesus, who was yet to come.
  • This verse has sent many for a loop because it sounds on the surface like James is preaching salvation by works.  But we know that isn’t true because of what he says down in verse 23 where he connects Abraham’s salvation, not with his works, but with his belief in God’s promise of a coming Savior.  To put it another way, Abraham really got “saved” up in Genesis 12:1-9 when he believed God’s promises about a Savior, a land, and a nation that would come from his loins.  Then later on, recorded in Genesis 15:1-6, this faith in God was solidified even more so that we read in verse 6: “Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  In Romans 4:1-5 Paul speaks at length about this very text.  He brings in the example of Abraham to prove that salvation by faith is clearly taught in the Old Testament:  1What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?  2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  3For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”  4Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.  5But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…” 
  • But observe, here in verse 21 James is referring to an event that took place many years after Abraham got saved, recorded in Genesis 22:1-19, when in obedience to the Lord’s command Abraham took his son, Isaac, up to mountain and prepared to offer him as a sacrifice to Jehovah.  You’ll note that James here is using the word justification in the sense of “proved” or “verified.”  He’s not using it in the judicial sense of being declared “not guilty” the way Paul uses it.  To paraphrase, James is saying: “Was not Abraham’s faith proven/verified by his actions when he offered up Isaac?”  In other words, his act of unquestioning obedience was the verification and attestation of his absolute faith in God.  His willingness to do such a thing was proof of the reality of his previous salvation experience.  Or to put it yet another way, Abraham’s sacrifice of his son was the “justification” (i.e. proof, validation—by James’ use of the word) of his previous genuine “justification” (i.e. declared innocent of sin in God’s sight—Paul’s use of the word).

Verse 22: You see that [saving] faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
  • Saving faith co-labors with good works, not for the good works to provide salvation, but for the salvation to empower the good works.
  • Notice that James says that the works “perfect” the faith.  The word he uses means “to bring to completion, to fill in any gaps”.  Thus he says the good works serve as the completion of the salvation process, in the same way that the sweet, juicy apples are the completion/perfecting of the apple-growing process.
  • I know of no better scripture to use to show this than Ephesians 2:8-10.  In the NASV it reads, 8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.  10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” 
  • Now listen to it in the New Living Translation: 8God saved you by His grace when you believed.  And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  9 Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.  10 For we are God’s masterpiece.  He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things He planned for us long ago.” 

Verse 23: …and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called “the friend of God.”
  • Here James cites Genesis 15:6 to show that Abraham’s belief/faith in God resulted not only in his leaving his homeland looking for the place that God had promised to him, but also later in his willingness to trust God with regard to his son, Isaac.  In both instances he acted on his faith, thus proving its genuineness, and God put this act of faith to his righteousness account.
  • By the way, there are three places in the Scriptures where Abraham is referred to as “the friend of God” (cf. Isa. 41:8; II Chron. 20:7; and here).  I can think of no higher complement to pay to any human being.

Verse 24: You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 
  • This verse is really the answer to James’ question that he posed up in verse 14: “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works?  Can that [kind of] faith save him?” 
  • Here I’m quoting from the Wycliffe Bible Commentary in their note about this verse: “Bare, unproductive faith, cannot save a man.  True faith will demonstrate itself in works, and only such a faith brings justification.”
  • But I would warn you not to read too much into this verse.  James is not building a case for a doctrine of salvation by works.  He is not speaking here about justification in the salvation sense, but rather, the vindication and verification of Abraham’s faith by his willingness to act upon it.

Verse 25: And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
  • As another illustration James pulls a story out of Joshua 2 to show that real faith will result in good deeds.  However, this second scriptural example stands in stark contrast to Abraham.  Rahab was a woman, a Gentile, and a prostitute.  Yet James chose her to show that his argument covers the widest range of possibilities.  His point is that she, like Abraham, evidenced her saving faith in God by action.
  • Rahab’s story is found in Joshua 2:1-21.  There we learn that despite her evil past she came to believe in the God of Israel, and she committed her faith and trust to Him for her salvation.  Then when the opportunity arose she hid and protected the Israeli spies that had been sent to spy out Jericho, saying to them: “The LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”  Her faith in the true God led her to act upon that faith and perform a deed of kindness that resulted in the saving of her whole family when the city was later destroyed.

Verse 26: For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
  • James points out that the relation between faith and works is just as close as that between the body and the spirit.  The two things are inseparably linked.  Life is the result of the union in both cases.  When the two elements are separated, death results.
  • This verse sort of encapsulates James’ whole argument from verses   14-26: namely, that genuine faith will always be evidenced by genuine God-motivated good works.  In the absence of those attesting works we can rightly conclude that the faith is not genuine, but rather a counterfeit faith, dead as a doornail.  Dead faith produces dead works.  Living faith produces living works.  You can judge a tree by its fruit.  It’s as simple as that!

            I want to close this study by reading an explanatory note found in the Nelson Study Bible.  It is a short essay entitled, “Faith and Works.”
            The great reformer Martin Luther, champion of the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, never felt good about the Epistle of James.  He called it an “epistle of straw” in the preface to his 1522 edition of the New Testament, and he put the book in the appendix.  He preferred Paul’s wording of the faith-works equation: “A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
            In a sense, Luther had little choice.  He was surrounded by men who said that good works could save you.  He knew that God alone could save through faith alone, and his mission was to tell them.
            But Luther went too far when he put James in the appendix to the New Testament.  Neither faith nor works can be cut off and thrown away.  James was taking aim at freeloaders, those who claimed to have no need for good deeds since they had faith.  The reality is that if you have faith, works will naturally be a product.  You cannot get rid of works just because they do not save you.  You cannot sever the effect from the cause.  Just as an apple tree will bear apples, so faith will produce good works (see Luke 6:43-44).
            Paul had the opposite problem in view when he wrote Romans.  His letter targeted those who placed their faith in the Law of Moses.  Their trust was in their own good works, and not in God.  That is why Paul wrote a defense of faith, and that is why Luther preferred it to James’s defense of works.
            Faith and works are not enemies.  True faith and righteous works go hand in hand.  They are two parts of God’s work in us.  Faith brings a person to salvation, and works bring that person to faithfulness.  Faith is the cause; works are the effect.  James believed it, and so did Paul.

            So what do we take away from all this?  How will this text change our lives this week?  Why is this teaching so important for “Christian” people today?  Do you know anyone who claims to be a believer yet shows no evidence of the presence of Christ in his or her life?

About Me

My photo
Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

Stat Counter