|RPM, Volume 19, Number 50, December 10 to December 16, 2017|
Sisters and brothers in the Lord Jesus Christ,
There are many challenging verses in the Bible that you may even know by heart. Some are challenging because they are difficult to understand. But other passages are challenging because they plainly say things we do not really want to engage too deeply.
Today we are challenged by perhaps the least loved book of the Bible for Protestant Christians of which the Christian Reformed Church members are. In the Protestant Reformation of the fifteen and sixteen hundreds and beyond, there was a rallying cry of salvation by grace alone through faith. This was raised up in response to the Roman Catholic Church of the day that, in practice at least, spread a religion of earning merit points with God in order to be saved; of earning God's grace through certain religious acts and rituals that one must do in order to be acceptable to God.
So the Reformation of that era was a back-to-the-core gospel movement through which fresh breezes of the grace and mercy of God began to blow again. Or as one old seminary church history professor used to say, "It was a time when people in the church were gettin' saved." People rediscovered that God's grace came because of Christ Jesus and not because of our own religiousness. And so in that era of renewal of the Good News of salvation by grace through faith, the book of James was not much highlighted. Even the great reformer Martin Luther at one time referred to it as a straw gospel, meaning, a bit thin and weak on good news. The book of James seemed to contradict the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone.
Fast forward to today and among the children of the reformation, churches like the Christian Reformed Church whose spiritual forefather is the Genevan reformer John Calvin, and we still are a little hesitant to face the stark language of the Apostle James.
But our reasons may be a bit different. Yes, we want to be sure to not drift back into some idea or practice that gives the impression that we somehow save ourselves, that we earn God's grace. So we keep our eyes fixed on the book of Romans or Galatians or Ephesians, on such passages as Ephesians 2:8, "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast."
But we in North America also live in a very affluent culture and despite some of our personal complaints and stresses of not having enough money to do what we want, we are wealthier today than nearly all people have ever been throughout history. And this is a tremendous blessing from God. We live in a relatively safe and law-abiding land. There are stores filled with any and everything you could ever need. There are shops and malls and super centers with food, clothing, furniture, electronics, you name it. And clean, safe drinking water flows from our taps. We have electricity and communication technology at our fingertips.
Nearly everyone in our society has a place to live and a way to get around. Most have jobs and cars and houses and recreation opportunities. North America is indeed a richly blessed land. But along with all these blessings can come a sense of hesitancy to hand it all over to the Lord for his purposes.
The book of James is not too popular because in it the Spirit of our risen Lord pulls no punches, so to speak, in being forthright and honest about what this grace-through-faith looks like in practice. We are generally okay with God's forgiveness coming through the gift of faith. This is great news indeed.
But we often prefer to stop there or are tempted to stop there. We do not want to slip into works-righteousness (earning forgiveness from God). We also do not want to be asked to give up all the perks of a wealthy life.
"Yes I have faith. I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. He has forgiven my sins and God loves me. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Amen!" That is the foundation of a new life in covenant relationship with God! But what does that life look like here and now? This is where James comes into the picture.
The Book of James is not a contradiction of salvation by grace through faith as a gift from God. It is a challenge to those who would stop there and not live what God by grace through Christ has done for us. There are those who take on themselves the title of Christian, but that is where it ends. We may be sitting here in church today. But our lives are settled into living as we have always done and our focus is primarily on our plans and desires for ourselves as we strive to live the good life as taught to us by our society.
James 2:14: "What good is it, my brothers, if a man or woman claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save them?"
Sounds like a contradiction to salvation by grace through faith alone. Here it might be helpful to picture the apostles Paul and James not standing face to face fighting each other over whether or not salvation is by grace or by works, but the two of them standing back to back in battle, resisting two different errors, two different lies. Paul is resisting those who are certain that their works are earning their standing with God. They are better than others because they do Christian things. James is resisting those who claim to have faith but live no differently than anyone else. There is no evidence in their life that they are believers and yet they claim to be saved.
And it is also helpful to know that the word in Greek for saved, has more content to it than simply being freed from judgment. It also means to be healed, to be delivered, to make whole, to set free from danger, loss or destruction. So another way to hear verse 14 is, "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save—that is--bring healing and restoration to him?"
James is not focusing on what God did in Christ to justify us sinners and set us free from judgment. He is focusing on what the result is in our lives right now. And even today as we have an offering for [insert the cause of the day or some other cause dear to the congregations' heart] it brings before our hearts the call to examine ourselves as to the question, do we have faith? Real faith? Or do we just claim to have faith?
How can we know? We examine our lives individually and communally. Do we believe that we should do this or that good deed or serve in this or that ministry because we believe we have to earn something with God? No! That is not what we believe. We are saved by grace through faith which is a gift of God!
However, what good is it to me, if this faith I claim to have, has no traction in my life? Do we really want this to be how things are? Why would I want a faith gift from God if it has zero impact on my life?
Have we ever considered the reasons why so many youth and young adults in this land, who have grown up exposed to the church and to Christians, still walk away from it as soon as they feel free to do so? The reasons are, of course, varied but I cannot help but wonder if the Lord is laying before us here today in James 2, one of those reasons.
The church in North America is in decline. Despite the growth of some larger churches here and there, the total number of Christians in North America is shrinking. Now some may say, well that is because many churches changed their doctrines and left behind the Bible and all its teachings. That is probably true in some places.
One such denomination will most likely shrink by two thirds in the next decade. That has something to do with their having had a leader, a moderator at one point who no longer believes that Jesus was divine. That is sure to have a devastating effect. But I wonder if the specter of Christians claiming to have faith but having no or little deeds to show in their lives for it, has an even bigger effect.
Let me give you an example of this phenomenon. What makes some particular diet program successful? There have been a whole host of diet plans that spring up and most of them burn out and disappear from the scene again. A few persist and claim they can help us lose unwanted weight. They persist because people tend to trust the programs that are not just claiming results but actually help produce them.
We do fall for a lot of false advertising, but we do know that the proof is in the pudding, as they say. A restaurant can claim to have the most succulent steaks around, but if they cannot cook one properly, you are not going to believe their claim to be true. See what I am getting at?
This is James' challenge. People claim to be a Christian, to be saved (remember: healed, set free, restored, made whole) and when you meet them, they are as mean and selfish, as uncaring and preoccupied with other things, as tight fisted and judgmental or worse than anyone else you know.
"Wow," you respond to them, "Jesus died for my sins and God now loves me?! That's great … so …. what now? It hasn't seemed to make a whole lot of difference in your life … are you sure it is real?"
I submit to you that we parents, we adults in the Body of Christ in North America, we may be guilty of claiming to have faith before the next generation in our homes, but not a whole lot of deeds to demonstrate it. I am not just talking about things like some cause we donate to. It includes these things, but it is more about a way of life that demonstrates that God's saving gift of faith has power to change us.
This is not easy to hear. It raises our defenses. We wish to point to many things, good and godly things we have done … and so excuse ourselves out from under the Word's conviction. What if a lot of youth in our culture, some of our own youth here too perhaps, wander away from the Lord and His Body the Church, or never give it a passing look because we Christians keep claiming to have something life transforming but we do not live transformed lives?
If my own children do not see the grace of God grasping me, convicting my sinful habits and patterns in my living, my parenting, my actions as a spouse, in our own home … if God's free gift of grace through faith that he gives me is not humbling me and I am not dealing with my "stuff" in my life and I continue to live in the mode of being I have always lived, why in the world would my own children believe that God's grace through faith is real or real important?
If in my own home, the will of my God is not in the center of my plans for work, or vacation, or my bank accounts, or the way I treat my spouse or my children at whatever age; if the will of God is not in the center at home, what good is it to claim I have faith in Christ if I have no such deeds to demonstrate it? Can such faith save me, that is, bring healing and wholeness?
How effective would an outreach center to homeless persons be, if the people who set it up and volunteered there, simply told people to believe in Jesus and so be saved, but never lifted a finger or gave a thing to help them? How effective would it be to tell people they need to open themselves up the Lord and let Him change their ways and change their lives, and yet we would show no such thing in our own lives?
This is a hard challenge, a wakeup call if you will. Many here serve faithfully in the ministries of this church. Many give generously in proportion to how the Lord has blessed them. But many of us do not. And we are being drawn toward a stance of claiming to have the new life God gives, but being more concerned to live "the good life" as the world presents it.
We start to only give to causes that are of interest to us. The flashy gets our attention. We are willing to do what is comfortable to us and to even try something new so long as it is not too inconvenient and it won't dig too deeply into my soul. And we are willing to settle for the mode of being we have been in for a long time. We might keep our temper or resentment or ridicule ready at hand as it has always been for us. We are always ready to judge or blame the other person.
We like church and home to be the way we always think we've had it. We feel safer keeping to ourselves. We live as this culture lives. And we claim to have faith. If you are anything like me, a part of you is telling yourself that James must be talking about someone else, some other church; some other Christian hypocrite.
But faith without deeds, without traction, without an impact and transforming power running rough shod through my life and through me into the lives of those I am connecting to; faith without that is dead. It can do nothing. It leaves me trapped where I am. It leaves me ineffective and living an empty impoverished life.
But how can I change?
Thanks be to God, not only has he forgiven my sins, but he has also poured out His Spirit into me. The same Spirit that gives me faith is willing and ready and able to transform my dead heart into a living one, my dead faith into a living active working faith. Am I willing to take hold of that for which for which Christ took hold of me?
In the same great passage in Ephesians about salvation by grace alone through faith and not by our works is this closing verse 10, "For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." There is life-transforming power in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
It is time we begin again to talk boldly and openly about what we are called to do and how we are being led to change and grow personally and as congregations. Today is the day so that the next generation too will see our faith, not just hear our words, but see our faith and see the God of all grace and life at work in us.
Let us pray for that …
Lord Jesus, you gave your life that we might have life and have it to the full. However you did not mean life full of ourselves, our own desires, our own plans and purposes, but life full of your mission in this world. We confess we have often been more enamored with what this world has to offer than what you call us to be and do. What a great gift is your grace. May it have full, penetrating impact in each of us here. Do whatever it takes to change us for your glory. Overcome our hesitancy. Bind our stubborn flesh and free us to grow in the life of faith that shows who you are and what you are doing in this world. In Your most precious and beautiful name we pray. Amen.
|This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor. If you would like to discuss this article in our online community, please visit the RPM Forum.|
Subscribe to RPMRPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.