Monday, September 10, 2012

Sermon on James 2:1-18, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "The Way of the Christian"

1.      James teaches what the “way of the Christian” looks like. What the manner of life looks like due to the faith that the Holy Spirit has put in our hearts by God’s Word. Suspicion because of strong emphasis on good works. But actually James in no way diminishes the importance of faith, but rather sees it as a necessary first before we have good works. The words of the sermon hymn explain it well: “Faith alone can justify. Works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” Today James sets out to prove that faith is living.
2.      Since only God can see the faith in our heart, it is through faith expressing itself in good works that we can see and recognize faith as genuine. Good works indicate faith that is present, while the absence of good works indicate that faith is absent. “So faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”, James says.
3.      So what is the way of the Christian? Follows the life of Jesus. James begins with the example of favoritism or partiality. Jesus did not show partiality to the rich or the poor. He accepted the rich man Zaccheus who repented of his sin and followed Jesus. Jesus also sought out and honored the poor and outcast among the society, came near to them in illness and affliction, healed them, forgave them, and blessed them. Jesus didn’t judge according to the outward appearance, but according to the heart (which we aren’t able to do). We must not show favoritism based on wealth or social position. Don’t push aside poor to honor the wealthy. Christ blessed and honored the poor. He said that we’d always have them with us, but also entrusted their care to us. Christ didn’t say we’d eliminate poverty, gave the task of caring for needs and affliction, and showing Christian love not only in words, but also in deeds. James hammers home the point that words without deeds are empty and vacant. It’s not enough to wish someone well but do nothing. Words without deeds announce a missing faith, a faith that would instinctively rise to action in compassionate concern if it were present.
4.      While Christ did not set before us that impossible goal, God has set before us the impossible goal of keeping His law perfectly and entirely. That whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. There is no 99% success, or 90%, or 50% or any other partial achievement according to the law. You’re either totally successful in keeping God’s Holy Law, 100%; or one fails completely. Unlike horseshoes and hand grenades, close just doesn’t cut it. So why would God set before us such an impossible command? Why would God command us to obey His law perfectly, without fail, and leave room for no margin of error? So that we would stand utterly convicted and condemned under the law. So that every mouth would be silent and that we would acknowledge our sin and that we are accountable to God (Rom. 3:19-20). All escape routes closed off, all short-cuts and thoughts of getting into heaven by our own methods are gone; along with thoughts like “I’m a pretty good person, so I expect I’ll go to heaven”, or that God would grade on a curve (i.e. “I’m not nearly as bad as that person”--fill in the blank with Hitler or the other typical bad guys who we think are the only ones deserving of hell). The Law closes it all off.
5.      But how does our old sinful flesh twist this truth? Our sinful nature selfishly thinks that if anything we do against God’s law makes us guilty, then no additional harm is done if we add to or multiply our sins. This is the error-filled thinking of “I’ll sin more so that grace may increase.” May it never be!! May we never twist this word of God into a justification for more sinning. Some examples: “I have already sinned by lusting after her in my heart--I may as well also sin with my body.” Or “I’m already guilty of stealing a little--it will be no worse for me if I steal a lot.” Or “I’m already a sinner anyways, what harm is there in indulging in it a little.” Or “I can sin now and repent of it later”--turning grace into a license for sinning. Isn’t it remarkable how we  twist God’s judgment of our total guilt into a twisted legitimization of more sinning? Do you think God could possibly be pleased with that? Not at all! God takes no pleasure, but rather hates all wrongdoing, and wants it to be stopped! God rescues us out of the mud and mire of our sins--He does not encourage us to continue wallowing in them! Remember that Jesus said we should not cast pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6). But forgiveness isn’t meant to propel us over our conscience into further sin, but rather to rescue and deliver us from a guilty and fearful conscience, to leave sin behind.
6.      But why would God want us in such a position of helplessness under the law, and inability to do anything for ourselves to get out of our mess? Because it’s precisely there that all our pride and boasting falls away, and we can only lay hold of His promise of mercy and life in Jesus Christ. Only after accepting our guilty verdict, realizing that we’ve been condemned under God’s righteous law, can we be judged under a higher, better law. What James calls the “law of liberty” that shows mercy triumphing over judgment, or what Paul calls the “law of the Spirit of life that has set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2).  Hear James: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:12-13).
7.      This “law of liberty” is better known to us as the Gospel or Good News. It’s our rescue from the impossible burden of the Law. The Good News that says that our guilty verdict was charged to Jesus, by His and God’s own will, and that He discharges all our guilty debt for us. He liberates or sets us free from the power of sin and death, taking its judgments and punishments on Himself at the cross. It’s the Good News that Jesus, God’s Son, is the one and only perfect law-keeper, who obediently fulfilled the whole law in every point, loving His neighbor as Himself in the most supreme and sublime ways. Loving us in the greatest love there is, to lay down His life for His friends--even more--for His enemies also. Without partiality to the rich or poor, to those who loved Him or hated Him, He took the full hit, the severest blow the law could deliver, so that we would be spared God’s wrath against sin.
8.      So that God’s mercy, His sparing, forgiving, releasing, and life-giving mercy, would triumph marvelously over judgment and give life to us. That God’s mercy might seize the poor and the meek, the ones with an anxious and fearful heart--and lift them up with the words “Be strong; fear not! Behold your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” God bids the weak be strong; comforts the weary. His vengeance is for the enemies of His people, but His rescue and salvation for those who look to Him in faith. God’s mercy is His greater law, His greater defining principle, that shows His heart and His love for His people. Though He is strict and uncompromising in His judgment of sin, He has shown immeasurably greater love and mercy in sparing us that judgment through Jesus Christ, and pouring out great and eternal blessings on top of it all!
9.      So what does the life of a cleansed, forgiven, and trusting Christian look like? First and foremost, they hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. They’ve been thoroughly convicted and judged under the law, so that they might turn to the only Savior Jesus Christ. They’ve been lifted up to His shoulders where they find peace and entrance into life. Their new, redeemed and cleansed heart is purged of sinful partiality and favoritism, even while the sinful desires of the flesh still cling to them. They strive to keep the command to love their neighbor as themselves to rich and poor alike, and are motivated by our Lord’s compassion for the poor, the hurt, and the suffering. They follow their words with actions, and their talk with a faithful walk. The faith of their heart is matched by the loving deeds of their hands.
10.  With this description some might think that this pattern of living is in reach, and will gladly seek do it. Some might also think we are back to impossibility, and a life lived under the law. But remember you are called by the Gospel, enlightened by the Holy Spirit’s gifts, sanctified (made holy) and kept in the one true faith. The difference is as Paul says: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Gal 2:20  Christ is now living in you through His Holy Spirit, and it is His life and love that is awake and moving in you to produce this life. This is the kind of real, living faith that James is describing, that jumps into action even before it’s asked, and is loving family, friends, and neighbor simply out of thankfulness and love to God.
11.  It is the living faith that is seen in works that are the proof that faith is living. Not works that gain us any credit before God, but rather the interest on His Holy Spirit “down-payment” in us. Works that are the fruit of His “principal” in us by a free and undeserved gift. Zero principal bears zero interest. Producing good works is the interest on God’s principal, so all credit and glory remains solely His. For us to try to gain salvation by our good works is trying to do Jesus’ work of redemption for Him, which He’s already completed and sealed as done. To say that faith and works belong together is simply to acknowledge cause and effect. Faith alone is the cause of salvation, but faith is never alone because good works are the effect. In other words, it’s only the trust in Jesus Christ as Savior that brings us salvation--but God-pleasing good works always follow. Real faith is received passively as a pure gift, but it becomes an active and doing thing, that does not rest but seeks out the good that is to be done, and does it. Not for credit or for a higher score, or for special treatment or recognition before others, but for God’s glory and for the need of the neighbor.
12.   A faith without works (since there really is no such thing) cannot save. Even the humblest of works, giving a glass of water to a child because they are a disciple, is a God-pleasing work (Matt. 10:42). So the Bible can at the same time clearly teach that good works have no part in earning our salvation, yet are a necessary fruit of faith that will be seen in all believers. The Bible can praise good works and commend us to be eager in doing them, yet show that they are never for boasting—but only for the real need of our neighbor. This is the way of a Christian. This is the way of a person who speaks and acts as those who are judged under the law of liberty. Under that higher law and principle of God, we have been forgiven and freed from all sin by Christ Jesus. We have the Gospel promises as our sure and certain freedom. And we joyfully live out that freedom in love toward our neighbor, Christ living and moving in us. This is the way of the Christian who rejoices that God’s mercy has triumphed over judgment, and blessing upon blessing is ours and ours to share. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. How does the apostle James expose hypocrisy in James 2:1-18? Why are words without actions empty? James 2:14-17; 1:22-25; Rom. 2:13.

  1. How did Jesus show no partiality or favoritism between the rich and the poor, between the outcast and the accepted? Luke 18:35-19:10. What are ways in which we might “dishonor the poor” (James 2:6) or show favoritism to others, instead of treating all people with dignity and as made in God’s own image?

  1. Why does incomplete keeping of God’s law, at even the smallest level, make us guilty before God? James 2:10; Romans 3:19-20. What’s the purpose of the law’s condemnation of our sins? What realization does it bring about our situation before God? How are we sometimes tempted to make comparisons instead, to think we’re boosting ourselves up?

  1. Once we’ve accepted our guilty verdict according to God’s law, how are we liberated by Jesus Christ and a higher “law” of God’s? James 2:12-13; Romans 8:2. This higher truth, often called the Gospel or good news, reveals God’s mercy toward us, mercy that triumphs over judgment.

  1. In order to grant us mercy, what did Jesus have to undergo to fulfill the law and suffer our punishments? Galatians 4:4-5; Philippians 2:8

  1. What temptation arises for us to misuse forgiveness to excuse or go further into sin? What are some rationalizations we go through? By contrast, how does the true Christian receive the word of forgiveness and seek to live out their life? Why does faith always give rise to works, and yet salvation depends on the faith, not on works? John 15; Galatians 2:16

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