Not by faith alone? (James 2:20-24)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of christ in Stockton, CA for May 9, 2021.

The text was James 2:20-24. Genesis 22:9-18 and Hebrews 11:17-19 were also read during worship.

Video is embedded below. Notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

A paradox in the New Testament: Are we justified by works, or not?

We are continuing our visit in the classroom of James, so he can impart godly wisdom to us. The wisdom from above, James tells us, is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, James 3:17.

When we learn this pure, peaceable, gentle, and reasonable godly wisdom, that’s how we are fit to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.

Last week, we left off in James 2:19. Today, we’re picking back up with vv20-24.

In our passage for today, James is still arguing that faith that doesn’t express itself in action is, like we said a couple weeks back, decaffeinated faith. It’s useless, it doesn’t have any get-up-and-go in it. 

So now, James is going to start showing us examples from scripture of saints who had caffeinated faith. 

Those OT saints James will tell us about were saved by faith alone—just like we are. But their faith, as my old friend Martin Luther said, was never alone.

There is a confusing paradox in the New Testament. 

For example, Paul tells us that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ, Gal. 2:16.

So Paul says we are not justifiedby works we do, but only by faith in Jesus Christ.

Okay. Well, then … but what did we hear James say today?

I’m going to quote this from the ESV, because the NIV translation downplays the tension. James 2:24 says: You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

So, we have an apparent contradiction between these two verses, and it really trips people up. 

So here’s the most common way I’ve seen Christians try to resolve the tension between these two teachings.

You have these two verses that seem to be saying the opposite thing—you’re not justified by works and you are justified by works.

And people want to try sort of remixing them. Right, so you have this epic mashup of Paul and James. 

And they’ll come up with something like: No, you can’t do anything to get right with God; but you have to do good works to stay right with God.

But there are some major drawbacks to doing it this way. 

First of all, you are never going to have assurance of your salvation if you go this way. 

Because instead of fixing your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, like it says in Hebrews 12:2; you’re going to always be fixing your eyes on yourself, and what you’re doing or not doing.

And of course, if you look at yourself, and your performance—you’re always going to find sin and weakness. 

And so you’re either going to give up, because it’s just hopeless. 

Or you’re going to climb on the treadmill, you’re going to make the incline steeper, and the pace quicker.

And here’s where that can get really ugly. And I’ve seen this happen too many times to count. It’s even happened to me.

So, you’re on the treadmill—busy, busy, busy for the Lord. And then you see other Christians and they seem to be enjoying themselves too much. 

Or, on the other hand, they’re being dragged hard by the struggle bus. 

And what happens? You’re up there on your treadmill with the grade set to Mt. Everest. And you’re resentful of other believers who aren’t working at your pace.

Like—you can’t even step down off the treadmill to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. 

My plea to you—whether you’re the one who’s about to tear a quad on the Peloton, or you’re the one who’s about to let their gym membership lapse because you’re saying, Gee, I can never be as good as that guy on the Peloton over there—my plea to you both is to step down off the treadmill and listen. 

Because there’s a better way than this.

Law and Gospel Casseroles, and Chinese Finger Traps

I know that casserole is a real popular item at church potlucks. But church, listen to me—Law and Gospel casserole is going to disagree with you. Okay.

What I mean is, you can’t mix ‘em together like that and just sprinkle some cheese and corn flakes on top.

What I mean is, we don’t get into Christ by grace through faith, but stay in Christ by works. Paul said a big loud no! to that whole idea in Galatians.

Are you so foolish?, he asked. After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

In other words—Are you really trying to finish the work of salvation that God began in you by your own works, done in your own power?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If salvation is 99% on God, and 1% on me, I am going to hell.

Okay, y’all—that’s my longest buildup ever. But if we’ve been fed a steady diet of Law and Gospel casserole, Law and Gospel jambalaya, we gotta cleanse our palates so we can taste and see how good the Lord is.

So again—our problem: Paul says no one is justified by works. We are saved by faith in Christ alone. James says we are justified by works, and not by faith alone.

How are we going get free from this Chinese finger trap? [Slide 97] We’re gonna stop struggling, and we’re gonna lean in. That’s how you do it!

So first, let’s lean into the context. Who’s James talking to? What’s he talking about?

Remember, James was a pastor, and he was dealing with a serious problem in his flock. 

He had a group of Christians who were mistreating other believers. By their actions, it appears that they did not believe that they needed to be a reflection of God’s love.

They seemed to have reasoned like this: I am saved by grace through faith. I got my salvation for free, and I didn’t have to do anything to get it. 

That much is true. But here’s where their thinking went sideways: And since I don’t have to do anything to earn salvation, then I also don’t need to do anything in light of my salvation.

So that’s where James has his verbal guns aimed. He says, That’s dead faith. It’s decaffeinated faith. It’s useless.

And Paul would agree with James. Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?, he asked. By no means!, Rom. 6:1-2. The Gospel is not a blank check to disobey God’s Law. 

Both James and Paul and every other NT author would agree that if you believe salvation by grace through faith alone is a license to do whatever you feel like, you haven’t really understood the Gospel. So you might not really be saved.

James and Paul would agree that if your faith is alive, if it has any get-up-and-go in it, it’s going to bear good fruit, especially love for other believers. James 2:8 says: If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right,

And Paul says: the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Gal. 5:14.

And love has standards, you see. That’s kind of James’ whole point.

Living faith—caffeinated faith with some get-up-and-go in it—will lead Christians as Paul would say, to bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ, Gal. 6:2.

And that’s exactly what James was not seeing in his church. He saw people who said they were Christians not bearing one another’s burdens. But judging one another’s burdens. Complaining about one another’s burdens. And even adding to one another’s burdens.

And that’s why he had to say: You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

Or as it says in the ESV, and most translations—they are justified by works, and not by faith alone.

And that’s the tricky, sticky, thorn-bush everybody gets stuck on. Paul says we are absolutely not justified by works, but by faith alone. James says that we absolutely are justified by works, and not faith alone.

Church, remember—let’s stop struggling with it, and lean in! 

Justified in whose eyes? Getting unstuck from the Chinese finger trap

You know, the exact same words can mean something completely different depending on context.

Here’s an example. The other day, I was trying to read with Auggie. But he got frustrated about something and threw the book at me.

Now, if I were to tell you I went to court, and the judge threw the book at me—that would mean something completely different, wouldn’t it?

Something like that is going on with Paul and James.

And you can clear it up by asking one simple question of this text. Are you ready for it?

Considered righteous by whom? In whose eyes is a Christian justified by their works? 

Well, we know who it’s not. Rom. 3:20 states emphatically that no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law. No one will ever be justified in God’s sight by what they do.

James is talking about how other people will know that our faith is real and living and saving faith. 

And if you’re reading closely, you can see that. James already told us that in last week’s passage. James 2:18: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

Notice he says, Show me your faith by itself, and I will show you mine by what I do. This is about showing others that our faith is genuine, and our Gospel does what we say it does.

In this section, James is most concerned with how believers treat each other before the eyes of the world. I’ll come back to that idea, and develop it some more in a little bit.

But now we’re finally unstuck from the Chinese finger trap.

Paul was speaking primarily to Christians who thought salvation by faith alone was too good to be true. So he had to reassure them. A lot.

But James was speaking to Christians who were abusing salvation by faith alone as an excuse not to love God and their neighbor.

And this is not the way of faith, James says.

So James imparted some of God’s wisdom, from God’s word, to his flock. 

And this wisdom is just as true for us now, as it was for Christians back then. James leaned on scripture to present us with evidence that faith without deeds is useless, James 2:20. 

And the scripture he leaned on is a truly frightening story about Abraham from way back in the book of Genesis.

Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?, James 2:21.

Not considered righteous in God’s eyes. Long before that moment, when he tied Isaac on the altar and lifted the knife … long before Isaac was ever born … God had told Abraham to look at the stars in the sky, and promised that Abraham’s descendants would fill the earth and shine, like those stars filled that clear evening sky.

And Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness, Gen. 15:6.

Abraham had already been justified by faith in God’s courtroom long before he led his only son Isaac up that hill, with the wood for the offering on Isaac’s back.

Abraham wasn’t saved by his willingness to offer his only son. He was saved a long time before that.

I don’t know if you picked up on this or not when we read the story of Isaac’s sacrifice this morning. God says something kind of weird to Abraham. Gen. 22:12: Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

So did God really not know whether Abraham would obey? Did God really not know the quality of Abraham’s faith? Heavens to Betsy, no! 

We heard from Hebrews 11:19 today that, before Abraham and Isaac went up that hill, Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead. He had faith. And so he obeyed. Even when it seemed like obeying God would be the end of everything.

Because remember, if you know the story—Isaac was the son of promise. He was Abraham’s whole future. All of God’s promises depended on Isaac.

God never asks a question He doesn’t already know the answer to. And nothing you do, or fail to do, is ever going to prove your faith to Him. He knows whether you believe Him or not. The Lord knows those who are his, 2 Tim. 2:19. He wouldn’t be any kind of God if He didn’t!

The problem James is dealing with isn’t whether God knows you believe. It’s whether or not anyone else does.

Abraham was already justified by faith.

Abraham was already God’s friend, as James will say in v23.

In fact—I want you to hear what Paul says about all this. Rom. 4:2: If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

Paul specifically teaches that Abraham was not justified by works in God’s eyes. And since God is not the author of confusion, His Word isn’t going to contradict itself.

So when James says that Abraham was considered righteous for what he did—or that he was justified by works—he means the faithful witness Abraham left behind for future generations to see. And learn from.

See, we’re still talking about the faith of Abraham. And how do we know about Abraham’s faith? Because his faith led him to action. He believed God, and because he believed God—he obeyed God.

And that’s James’ point in v22: You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.

Abraham’s actions show us that his faith was real, saving faith—not just a sentimental feeling, or warm fuzzies. Not done out of fear or trying to score points with God. But because Abraham believed God’s Word, and God’s promises.

And because Abraham believed, and he acted on his faith—God used his obedience to leave us a powerful foreshadowing of the Gospel.

How Abraham’s faith points us to the gospel

So here’s your good news for the day, church. Because of his living and active faith, Abraham led his son, his only son Isaac, up a mountain—to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God.

Genesis 22 tells us that Isaac carried the wood for the offering on his back.

But just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac, whom he loved—the Lord stopped him, and provided a life in place of Isaac’s.

God told Abraham: No, Abraham. It will not be your son.

Don’t you see? Abraham could have made thousands of offerings to God. And that still wouldn’t satisfy God’s perfect righteousness.

We do not and cannot make an offering to God that will make us righteous in His sight. Nothing we can bring Him, no matter how costly; nothing we can do with our hands or say with our lips—that can make atonement for our sin.

That’s why God offered His Son. His only Son, Jesus Christ, whom He loved. Like Isaac before Him, Jesus climbed up a mountain, with the wood for the sacrifice on His back.

Only this time, it was a cross.

On that mountain, the Lord provided a perfect sacrifice—a substitute to spare our lives from eternal death.

And as soon as we believe—as soon as faith is Christ’s finished work comes to life in us—in God’s courtroom, we are justified. We are declared not guilty by God. 

Like Abraham, we believe God, and God credits our faith as righteousness. In fact, Christ took our sin to the cross, and God gives us Christ’s righteousness.

Now, that’s the Gospel, church. We are not justified in God’s eyes by anything we do. God justifies us, God declares us righteous, by faith alone.

Faith + works = salvation; Faith –> salvation + works

So, then—what was James teaching us in our passage today? When he said that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone?

Let me lay it out for you as a simple equation. Like—basic kindergarten math.

James was not teaching us that faith plus works equals salvation. That would contradict everything we see in the Bible, especially Paul.

He was teaching us that faith leads to salvation, plus works. In other words, faith is what saves us, and God’s work in salvation produces transformed lives. Our salvation shows up in our thoughts, words, and actions.

The apostle Paul calls it being transformed by the renewing of our minds, Rom. 12:2.

There’s a popular buzz phrase I hear a lot these days. I hear Christians being challenged to live the Gospel, or live out the Gospel.

I am sorry to say that you and I cannot live out the Gospel. Not one of us has ever been God made flesh. 

Not one of us has ever lived in perfect obedience to God’s Law, and suffered its just punishments in the place of sinners. 

Not one of us has or can make sinners right with God by our perfect life and substitutionary death.

There’s only one Man who ever lived out the Gospel, and that was Jesus Christ.

But you know what we can do? We can live in faith, and by faith. And we can live out our faith.

And that is what James has taught us today. Like Abraham, we can make our faith complete by our obedience.

While Abraham didn’t live out the Gospel by his obedience, his obedience did point to the Gospel in a visible way. 

But God is not commanding any of us to do something as awful as sacrificing our only son. He’s calling us to love Him, and love our neighbors. And when we love well, when we do justice and mercy, and walk humbly with our God—like Abraham, our obedience in faith will point others to the Gospel.

Our good works play no part in our salvation. But they do glorify God. In view of God’s mercy, [we] offer [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, Rom. 12:1. Our obedience is a sweet thanksgiving offering to the Lord.

Our good works are not the basis of our assurance in Christ. But they can be assured that we do have true, saving faith by seeing the fruits it has produced. 2 Peter 1:10 tells us to make every effort to confirm [our] calling and election. When we see ourselves growing in knowledge of the Lord, and in goodness, and in patience, and in mutual affection and love—we can be assured that God planted those good fruits in us.

Finally, our good works do not make us righteous in God’s eyes. But they do demonstrate our faith in the eyes of other people. With fellow believers, Paul tells us to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. And those things that make for mutual upbuilding are righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, Rom. 14:17, 19.

And God also uses our living and active faith to point unbelievers to the Gospel. Just like Jesus taught us: let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven, Matt. 5:16.

Salvation by grace through faith alone means that we’re not obeying God out of fear or duty. We obey out of love and trust and gratitude.

That being said—living our our faith, active faith, faith with some get-up-and-go in it—begins right here in the church. Among ourselves. Yes, even in this very building. 

So here’s our homework, sisters and brothers. One of the greatest times I’ve seen this church united, working in faith, was when we were working together to get this building ready to move in.

We were working hard, but working together. We were resting in the Lord, and leaning on each other. It was awesome.

I think it’s time for us to start brainstorming another work day. I bet our Board could put together a wish list.

And I know there’s stuff in the building and grounds here we could do to make this beautiful home God has given us even more beautiful.

But also—to build each other up in love and encouragement as the household of God. So let’s be thinking about that, beginning this week.

Because when our faith gets moving—whether here with each other, or out in the community—we glorify God and we enjoy God. And others will see the good we’re doing, and they’ll glorify God along with us!

Kitchen Nightmares, Church Edition

Live video link and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for May 2, 2021.

We’re continuing our series in James. The text was James 2:18-19. Psalm 19:7-10 and Matthew 5:13-16 were also reading during worship.

By the way, these are the resources I’m using as I preach through James.

Robert M. Hiller, Finding Christ in the Straw: A 40 Day Devotion on the Epistle of James (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2020).

Daniel M. Doriani, James, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2007).

Douglas J. Moo, James, rev. ed., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015).

Christopher W. Morgan, A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People, Explorations in Biblical Theology, ed. Robert A. Peterson (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 2010).

Sermon video embedded below, notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Chefs who can’t cook, and other empty boasting

We are continuing our visit with James, so he can teach us about the wisdom from above.

When we seek wisdom from heaven, God Himself will teach us how to walk in His ways, in His world. God’s wisdom will make us able to live so that we glorify God, and enjoy God.

So this week we’re picking back up where we left off. James 2:18-19. James is continuing to admonish Christians who say they have faith in Jesus, but their lives don’t show any evidence of it.

Now, remember—and this is so important—James wasn’t just picking on Christians who weren’t busy enough for the Lord, or he thought they were lazy, or they weren’t reading their Bible enough, or whatever.

James was seeing a problem in the church where poor Christians weren’t being cared for. They were even being insulted and mistreated by other church members.

So in this whole section, James is telling these Christians who are being ugly to other Christians: Look, you say you have faith in Christ. But your actions towards your fellow Christians tell a different story. They way you’re treating them doesn’t look like somebody who knows Jesus.

And James’ warning to them is always solid wisdom for the church in every age.

Here’s something about me you might not know. I am a little addicted to Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay.

If you’re not familiar with the show, here’s the premise.It’s a reality show where Gordon Ramsay, a wildly successful chef and restauranteur, swoops in to try and save failing restaurants.

And because it’s reality TV, there’s a lot of drama and yelling and meltdowns and just plain silliness.

Watching Kitchen Nightmares is almost kind of a guilty pleasure for me—except I’m not guilty about it at all. Sometimes it’s just therapeutic to see somebody else getting yelled at.

Now, here’s something you see like 99% of the time on Kitchen Nightmares. The chefs at these restaurants all claim to be gourmet cooks. But then Gordon Ramsay will come and sample their food, and tell them how awful it is.

Here’s some of the stuff I’ve seen restaurants try to get away with feeding Gordon Ramsey, who’s a seven-star chef.

Rancid, rotten scallops. Potato chowder that tastes like glue. Grilled Caesar salad—even the romaine lettuce was grilled, and the leaves weren’t even properly cleaned. A thin crust pizza where the crust was as thick and chewy as a baguette.

So the regular drama you see in nearly every episode are these people who claim to be gourmet chefs. 

But then Gordon Ramsay eats their food, and he surveys their kitchens.

And he tells them, You advertise yourself as a gourmet chef, but the food you served me tells a very different story.

Now, we don’t just see that kind of thing on reality TV. 

We all know that one guy who claims to be a ladies’ man, but can somehow never manage to get a second date.

Or the person who brags about what an awesome athlete they are, and they hype themselves so much, you almost believe them … until you see them out on the court, or on the field.

Maybe you’ve interviewed someone for a job. And on paper their credentials were stellar. Their references were glowing. They knew all the right answers. So you hired them. But it wasn’t long before you realized, Wow—this person is so unqualified for this job, that it hurts.

We’ve all seen it. People writing checks with their words that bounce when it’s time for action.

And that’s the problem James was addressing with the members of his church. 

They showed up for worship. They bowed their heads in prayer. They sang along with the hymns. They might’ve even shouted a few hearty amens.

With their lips, they confessed faith in Jesus. But their lives—their attitudes and their actions—were telling a completely different story.

It was like James was playing the role Gordon Ramsay on a reality show called Church Nightmares. 

And these people proudly claimed that they were gourmet chefs in the kitchen of faith. But when James tasted their religion, it was rancid and mushy and gross.

And just like Gordon Ramsay, the actual expert chef, tells the restaurants what’s wrong with their food, and how to make it better; James was an expert theologian and preacher, who told his flock what was wrong with their faith—and how to make it better.

So, let’s put on our lobster bibs and dig in to James’ gourmet teaching on faith.

Show me your faith, and I’ll show you mine

Now remember, James was preaching to Christians who proudly proclaimed their faith in Jesus, but they weren’t doing what Jesus would’ve told them to do.

Now—having said that, and before we go any further, I can’t stress this enough: Your salvation does not depend on how well you follow Jesus.

James was a realistic pastor who absolutely knew that even Christians are going to sin. A lot.

Later on, in James 3:2, he says: We all stumble in many ways. Notice James said, we all stumble, which means he was including himself.

I don’t like to put percentages on these kinds of things, but I’m kind of speaking from personal experience. And I’ve found this to basically be the same with wise Christians who’ve counseled me, and other Christians when we’re swapping stories about our struggles.

I can follow Jesus … like 20% of the way, 80% of the time. Sometimes I have really shiny moments where it’s better, other times there’s seasons where it’s just ugly.

Now, maybe you’re here and you’re arguing with those numbers in your case, or you think I’m up here admitting that I’m a bad Christian, and I have no business preaching to anyone if I can’t do any better than that.

Well, then I believe we’d need to have a conversation about Romans 7, and how deeply sin is still entrenched, even in the hearts of mature believers.

But my point is, if Judgment Day came and our eternal destiny depended on how well we lived up to our WWJD bracelets—nobody would see heaven, and that’s a fact.

James wasn’t flipping out because people in his church were still struggling with sin, or they weren’t holy enough, or they weren’t busy enough. It’s that they were neglecting and sometimes even sinning against other Christians.

And when James called them out on it, they’d say: Well James, we’re saved by faith alone. I believe in Jesus! So why does anything need to change in my life?

And that’s the attitude James is responding to here. Listen to the first part of v18:

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

I think a lot of times Christians—even preachers—will come to these verses in James, and we think: Paul preached so much on faith, James is in the Bible to remind us that good works matter, too.

But if you follow what James is saying very closely, if you pay attention the logic of his arguments—James is actually primarily concerned about faith

He’s bringing up works or deeds because, again—he saw people who said they had faith in Jesus, but there was no fruit in their lives to prove it.

So here at the beginning of verse 18, James was responding to an objection someone had raised. And it was one of those times when people say something that sounds pious and holy, you can even quote a scripture to prop up your point—but they’re really just looking for a loophole.

See, basically this person is saying: Look James—the Lord gives us all different spiritual gifts. Some of us have been blessed with very profound faith, and others have been blessed to do good works and acts of mercy. This person has faith, and that person has deeds.

Now, it is true—Paul talks about this in some of his letters—that the Holy Spirit blesses some Christians with a gift of profound faith. And the Spirit does bless other Christians with a special knack for doing.

But what this person who’s arguing with James was really saying was this: Hey preacher, quit hassling us! God gave that person faith, and He gave that other one good deeds, so let the person with faith have their faith, and let the person with deeds do their deeds.

Now, maybe that sounds like a good argument to you, a good arrangement. But there’s an obvious problem with it.

What happens if flip that argument around? Would you say that the Christian who does good deeds doesn’t need to have faith? I mean, if God is okay with faith that doesn’t produce any works, then God should also be just fine with good works that aren’t done in faith.

But what does God say about good works that aren’t done in faith? 

All [your] righteous acts are like filthy rags, Isa. 64:6. Even our best deeds, if they’re not the fruit of faith in Christ, will not pass God’s sniff test. They belong in the diaper pail.

So what does Jesus say to people who have a mountain of good works—even good works they’ve done in His Name—but they didn’t do them in faith? He says: I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers! (Matt. 7:23). 

Stacks upon stacks and rows upon rows of good works, but Jesus calls them evildoers. Why? Because they weren’t the fruit of faith. 

In fact, Jesus will say: I never knew you. Why? Was it because they didn’t do enough? No. It’s because they didn’t do it in faith.

That’s why it says, without faith it is impossible to please God, Heb. 11:6. 

Good works that are produced by faith please God, because they give glory to God as we do good for our neighbor.

James is teaching us that we can’t use, Look, that’s just not my spiritual gift, as an excuse not to do the good that’s right in front of us.

Just like we know that a mountain of good works that were not done in faith will not save anyone, James was asking: Is a faith that doesn’t produce good works a saving faith? James didn’t think so.

Here’s the difficult balance for Christians—and I mean, sometimes this  balancing act can feel like you’re trying to ride a unicycle across a tight rope strung over Niagara Falls.

But fear not, because even if you fall, God’s going to catch you. 

But the difficult balancing act for us is to realize that when it comes to faith and works—what you believe, and what you do about what you believe—is that, in one sense, they’re two totally separate things. 

Eph. 2:8-9 is very clear when it says that we are saved by grace through faith alone, and not by works. It is a gift of God.

But you also can’t completely separate faith from action, either. Good works will grow from saving faith. Eph. 2:10—the very next verse—tells us that we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

So on the one hand—faith is not the same as obedience. But faith will lead us to greater obedience.

Or, like we heard from Martin Luther last week: We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.

Moving on now, to the end of v18. Here’s James’ answer to this person who’s like: But what if my spiritual gift is faith, and somebody else’s spiritual gift is works?

James tells them: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

Now, here’s a really crucial distinction I want you to see, because I think it makes all the difference in the world how you understand these verses.

James says, Show me your faith, and I’ll show you mine. James isn’t saying, You need to prove to God that you really believe by your actions. 

After all,God already knows if you have faith or not. This isn’t about showing God that you’re really serious. This is about other people benefiting from the fruit of your faith.

This is about what we heard Jesus say in Matt. 5:16. It’s letting your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

I’m going to lean on Martin Luther again here. He said: God does not need your good works. But your neighbor does.

Again—what was the specific problem in James’ church? Poor Christians were not being cared for, and some fellow Christians were even abusing them.

And even the people who weren’t actively abusing them were apparently just standing by and letting it happen. And they’d say to the poor Christians, You know, you don’t look so good, and you’re shivering. You should eat more and wear a jacket. I’ll pray for you.

That’s what James was looking at, and he’s saying: How would I know you have faith in Jesus? Because you get warm fuzzies when we sing ‘Light the Fire’? But are your warm fuzzies warming up anybody else?

See, that’s the real issue James was getting at. Yes, scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit blesses some Christians with extraordinary faith, 1 Cor. 12:9. 

And the Spirit blesses others with gifts of works—deeds of service and acts of mercy, Rom. 12:7, 8. 

But those gifts are to be shared. Your spiritual gift is for the common good of the church, 1 Cor. 12:7. Whatever gift the Spirit has given you is for building up the body of Christ, Eph. 4:12.

It’s really easy to see how if someone has been gifted for service and mercy, their good works are going to benefit other believers. 

But if the Spirit has indeed given you the gift of extraordinary faith, that means you’ve got a deep, almost contagious confidence in God’s promises and God’s presence. 

And you’re going to use that gift to encourage other believers. So that when they’re weak, they can lean on you. 

Actually, the person God has gifted with great faith—you’re not going to have to worry about them not working. 

Their work is often going to be quiet and behind the scenes, but they’re going to be the ones who live out Gal. 6:2: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 

They’re going to be the ones interceding in prayer for you when you’re in the dark seasons of life. 

And because they are so confident in God’s promises, they’re going to be the safest people in the church to be around when you’re on the struggle bus. 

Because they completely trust God with you. 

Because they believe so strongly in His promise that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6), they’re not rushing to fix you. They’re going to be the ones who give you time and safety for the Holy Spirit to do His good work in your life.

So here’s what I want you to understand right here. When James calls believers to show our faith by our deeds, he’s really not calling you to do anything extraordinary or radical. Okay?

He’s not asking you to organize the church’s medical mission to Guatemala when you’re not gifted for that. He’s not telling you that you must read the Bible this much every day, or pray for this long every day, or give away this much of your income to the church, or anything like that.

He’s not even telling you, if you’re like me and you’re kind of an Eeyore or a Puddleglum, that you ought to change your attitude and be more happy clappy, because downcast Christians aren’t good for public relations. And truly faithful Christians don’t get depressed or anxious.

No. Remember the context. You had people in the church who claimed to believe in Jesus, but they were neglecting and mistreating other Christians.

So when James says that we prove our faith through our works—it can really be something as simple as not being a jack-wagon to other believers.

And if you do having saving faith, you can at least do that. Because the Holy Spirit comes with saving faith, and when the Spirit lives in you, you are going to start seeing that good fruit begin to blossom and grow. 

You’re going to start showing others love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And no one’s going to question your faith, then.

Are you a better theologian than a demon?

So v19. I wanted to spend more time on this verse, but alas—I’m almost out of time. So I’m only going to say a little about it. 

James says: You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

I’ve heard a lot of well-meaning preachers go to this verse when they believe some of their flock has gone lukewarm and they want to fire them up.

But again … context. James wasn’t trying to scare Christians into being busier for the Lord, or make them feel guilty because they were struggling with besetting sin, or twisting their arms to put more money in the collection plate.

What he’s saying is even the demons know true things about God. They believe there is One God, and Jesus Christ is His Son. I mean, obviously they believe it, since Jesus personally evicted them from heaven.

But knowing true things about God isn’t the same as having faith in God. Demons are not good theologians, or else they would never have rebelled. 

The real difference between a struggling, sinful Christian—and that’s all of us—and a demon, is that the struggling Christian has her eyes fixed firmly on Jesus for salvation.

She knows that her only hope in life and in death is that she belongs body and soul, in life and in death, to her faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

A demon does not have that comfort. A demon is not clinging in faith to Christ alone for salvation. A demon sees Christ, and can only tremble at the judgment they know is coming for them.

So we need to be oh-so-careful how we use this verse, on other people, or on ourselves. Please do not ever compare a sister or brother who’s struggling, who’s weak, who might have a tender conscience, who may lack assurance—please don’t compare them to a demon. 

Love will turn you around: hope for burned-out believers

You know, I started out talking about the show Kitchen Nightmares. How you had people boasting about being gourmet chefs, but when Gordon Ramsay tastes their food—it’s awful.

A lot of times—yes, it turns out that all their talk about how great their cooking is, is really empty boasting. Those chefs are often fired by the end of the episode, and Gordon Ramsey loans the restaurant a new chef to clean up the other guy’s mess, until they can hire one.

But a lot of times what you see is—yes, these people have the skills, they have the training, and they’ve been successful chefs in the past. 

And what’s happened is, because of all the stress and pressures of life and money and running the restaurant, they’ve lost their joy and passion for cooking.

When it turns out that’s the problem, a lot of times Gordon Ramsay will train their business partners and employees how to support the chef, so they can be relieved of those stresses, and focus on cooking. 

That can happen for Christians, too. With our faith. We can get beaten down and disillusioned, we can lose our focus. We can get distracted. Because we’re struggling with life issues, with health issues, with mental and emotional health issues.

We can get burned out. It’s happened to me. Maybe it’s happened to you. You still have faith in Christ, but it’s not exactly blossoming with a bountiful harvest of the fruit of the Spirit. 

What you do in that situation is—you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of your faith (Heb. 12:2). 

And because God Himself is the One who creates faith in us; and because saving faith comes with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit is going to remind you of how deeply the Father loves you.

That He sent His only Son to die for you while you were a sinner. You weren’t thinking anything about Him, but He knew you by name, and loved you from eternity.

There’s an old Kenny Rogers song that says, Love will turn you around. Resting in God’s love for you in Christ; believing that even when you’re took weak to hold on, He still clings to You—it won’t magically solve all your problems. But it will restore the joy in your salvation.

But no matter what condition your faith is in right now—listen—it’s not how much faith you have, or how strong your faith is, that saves you. It’s who you have faith in. It’s faith in Jesus Christ. And since He’s begun a good work in you, He will bring it to completion until the Day He returns.

So, here’s your homework, church. And you can do this no matter if you’re crushing it with your faith right now, or if you’re feeling kind of crushed.

Let’s make ourselves two lists. One is a list of hope. The other is a list of celebration. [1]

The list of hope will be a list of prayers. These are areas where you want to see growth, where you can pray for God to work in you, so your faith is shown more clearly in your actions.

The list of celebration is where you can thank and praise God for those areas where He’s already shown you grace, and you’ve grown in your ability to show your faith through your actions.

And both lists can just keep growing, see? Because we’ll always have areas where we can grow in faith and in love. But as we grow, we’ll have new reasons to celebrate, and praise God for His faithfulness producing good works in us.

And as these lists continue to grow—so will all the reasons we have to glorify God and enjoy Him. Now and forever.

[1] This exercise was suggested by Daniel Doriani, James, 88.

Decaffeinated faith (James 2:14-17)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for April 25, 2021.

We are continuing our series in James. The preaching text today was James 2:14-17.

Psalm 119:97-100, 105 and Ephesians 2:8-10 were also read during worship.

Live video link below, sermon notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The empty promises of decaffeinated coffee

Today we’re continuing our visit in the classroom of James, to learn wisdom from God.

James teaches us that the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere, James 3:17.

And when this pure, peaceable wisdom from God is planted in our hearts, it bears good fruit in our lives. 

Over the past two weeks, first James taught us to be quick to listen to God’s word. 

And then, when we’ve peered into God’s word—once we’ve let God’s word read us, if you will—James told us to become doers of God’s word.

And today we’re in James 2:14-17. And in this passage, James is going to teach us why we need to put God’s word into practice. He warns us that faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But if we put what God says into practice—we will begin to be able to live to glorify God, and enjoy God.

I was at one of those good, greasy breakfast restaurants one morning. 

And I was about three cups of coffee in, and I wasn’t any more awake than I’d been before. And I began to get a little suspicious.

So I called the waitress over, and I told her, This coffee is just too weak to defend itself. 

And she said, Oh hon, I forgot to tell you. All we have today is decaf.

The best part of waking up is decaf in your cup, said nobody ever.

So I paid for my breakfast, and then went home and brewed myself a pot of real coffee. With caffeine.

Decaf can be deceptive. It looks like real coffee. It smells like real coffee. It even sort of tastes like real coffee.

But it doesn’t deliver the goods real coffee delivers. It doesn’t awaken the senses, refresh the soul, or sharpen the mind. 

You get the warmth and the smell and the taste of coffee—but they’re all just empty promises. 

Anybody here feel as strongly about coffee as I do? Then you understand what I’m talking about.

Now look—I know that some of y’all have to drink decaf for health reasons, or you drink it after dinner so you don’t go to bed with the jitters.

But you know, deep down, if everything was right with the world—you’d rather be drinking real coffee. 

I submit that there will be no decaf in heaven. We will enjoy real coffee to the glory of God forever, and never get the jitters.

Why am I talking about decaffeinated coffee? 

Well, you see—just like coffee without caffeine is dead, James tells us in our passage today that faith without works is dead.

James is diagnosing this problem of decaffeinated faith

The empty promises of decaffeinated faith

Here’s what I mean by decaf faith. 

The Apostle Paul preached about it, too. 2 Tim. 3:5, he warned about Christians having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. It looks like the real thing, but there’s no get-up-and-go in it.

It looks like faith. A person with decaf faith might attend church regularly. They may even be very active church members, or contribute a lot of money. Their life might even be wholesome—or at least, it looks like it is.

Decaf faith smells like faith. They might be able to recite the books of the Bible, or rattle off Bible verses from memory.

And it might even feel like real faith. You can still get the warm fuzzies if you have decaf faith. I mean, even decaffeinated coffee is still hot. Just so, even decaf faith can feel like faith to the person who has it.

But here’s what decaf faith is lacking. It doesn’t produce any distinctively Christian, or Christ-like, behavior in the one who has it. 

Here’s what I mean. A person with decaf faith is probably a decent neighbor, and they may even serve their community through volunteer work. But of course, we all know unbelievers who are good and dependable neighbors.

Or a person with decaf faith might cultivate several close friendships. They might be very social. But there’s nothing inherently redeeming about relationships, is there? What I mean is, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a good friend, do you?

And James warns us that while decaf faith might look real and even feel real—it cannot save you. Decaf faith is not saving faith.

James dishes on decaf faith (James 2:14-17)

So we’re going to take a closer look at what James 2:14-17 has to teach us about the difference between saving faith and decaf faith.

But first let me say something, loud and clear. I’ve been working very hard to teach that faith alone, apart from works, is what saves a believer.

We heard that in our readings today, too. Eph. 2:8-9: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. 

We can never do enough good works to save ourselves. If salvation is 99% what God does, and 1% of what I do—I’m going straight to hell.

We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.

What’s more—listen—God isn’t coming along all the time, checking on us to see if we’re righteous enough or holy enough. We’re not, and we never will be in this life.

So whatever James means in these verses, when he says faith without works is dead, and dead faith won’t save anyone—he can’t be contradicting what it says in Ephesians 2:8-9, that we are saved by grace, through faith, apart from works. 

God’s Word does not contradict itself.

What I mean is, you can’t have Paul saying, You’re saved by grace through faith, apart from any good works you do; and then James saying, Well, actually, you do need a little good works to stay saved. 

Because the ultimate author of scripture is God. And God’s not going to talk out of both sides of His mouth. 

So, the Reformer Martin Luther came up with the best way of explaining the difference between saving faith and decaf faith I’ve ever heard. He said: We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.

In other words—let’s go ahead and look at James 2:14—James puts the problem in the form of a question.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?

NIV

This might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but just hang in here with me, okay? James wasn’t asking: Can a faith with no deeds be saving faith? 

When you put it that way, you always end up navel-gazing and wondering, Have I done enough? Am I doing enough? And the answer is always going to be, No! And that’s why salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The question James was actually asking was this: Can a saving faith have no deeds? Or, better yet: Is it even possible for saving faith to not be working?

James assumes that if you have saving faith, God has given you the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is bearing good fruit in your life. Like, he’s expecting to see some love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control where there’s saving faith.

And the problem was, in the church James was preaching to—he wasn’t seeing that from some of them. We’ll see that when we come to v15.

But for right now, we can sum it up like this. Saving faith bears the fruit of good works. But our good works are the fruit of our salvation, never the root. The root, the trunk, and the branches of salvation is always grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

So moving on to v15. And this is going to help us understand the context. 

James wasn’t just giving a general theological treatise on the role of faith and works in salvation. 

I think that’s why we misunderstand a lot of words in the Bible, because we’re not looking at it asking, Who was this person speaking to, and what were they talking about? 

James was confronting a specific problem in a specific church. So let’s look at vv15-16. James says:

Suppose a brother or a sister—in other words, another member of the church—is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?

This wasn’t just a hypothetical problem. This kind of thing was happening in the church James was preaching to.

He started setting this up back in ch1, v27. When he said: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this—and he’s going to name two things. First, to look after orphans and widows in their distress and, second, to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Those are the good works James is talking about that will flow from a saving faith.

First, if you’ve got members of your church who are poor, cold, hungry, and vulnerable, maybe they’re being abused, maybe they have a chronic illness or a disability, James says good works in God’s eyes is to look after [them] in their distress.

He mentions widows and orphans specifically, because in that culture, a single mother and her children were some of the most vulnerable to poverty, to being exploited and abused. I mean, it’s still basically the same way in our culture today, isn’t it?

And when he says to look after them means make sure they have what they need, encourage them, protect them—love them. Love these people in your church who can’t do anything for you. You know—just like God loves you.

And second, James says, do that, and keep yourself from being polluted by the world. Don’t think like unsaved people think, don’t behave like unsaved people behave.

Paul teaches us the same thing in Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Saving faith makes us think differently and act differently than people in the world.

So that’s the end of James 1, and as it goes into ch2, James is going to tell us what the problem was. He saw a lot of people in his church who were not looking out for their poor brothers and sisters, and they were thinking and acting like worldly people.

James had seen a situation where wealthy, important-looking visitors—not church members—had come to a gathering of the church. 

And when these wealthy visitors came in, some folks had actually kicked some poor Christians—their own fellow believers, their brothers and sisters in Christ—out of where they were sitting, and made them sit on the floor. And gave their seats to the rich guys. Who were not fellow believers.

That’s what James was still talking about in our readings today. He’s saying, more or less: You guys are treating these VIP guests better than your own brothers and sisters in Christ.

You’re not looking after your poor brothers and sisters. You’re acting like the world—not like people who have saving faith. 

That’s worldly wisdom, James would say, not the wisdom from above.

See, the world is not kind to people who can’t do anything for them. Like single mothers and their children, or like poor people in dirty old clothes.

So there’s a couple of takeaways I want us to see from these verses.

First, James is saying, You claim to have faith in Christ, but from where I’m looking—your faith is as empty and cold as that poor brother or sister you just sent away hungry and shivering.

Your so-called faith is as useless as decaffeinated coffee. 

Second—and this is another place I think Christians get hung up—when James says that faith without good works can’t save anyone, v14; and when he says without action is dead faith, it’s decaf faith, in v17—he’s specifically talking about how Christians, how brothers and sisters in Christ, relate to each other, how we treat each other.

Good works doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going out into the world looking to do good, and we’ve got a program for that, and it’s got a catchy name, and we even have tee shirts.

Now, don’t hear me wrong. The Bible certainly calls us to do good in the world, and Christians have done much good in the world, and will continue to make our corner of the world a better place.

But notice, in this verse—James is specifically talking about brothers and sisters; fellow believers—who need help, but they’re being neglected, and sometimes they’re even being humiliated and abused by other members of the church.

In fact, remember James saw Christians going out of their way to show kindness and hospitality to non-believers, while being ugly to their own sisters and brothers in Christ.

And James said: That’s dead faith. That’s decaf faith.

And James wasn’t the only one in the Bible to point that out.

The Apostle Paul said: as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers, Gal. 6:10. You do good for all as you have opportunity, but you prioritize your brothers and sisters in the faith.

1 John 4:20 says: whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

John said the same thing. Saving faith will bear the fruit of love for other believers. It’s unbelievable to say we love God, who is a Spirit and invisible, while ignoring or mistreating the flesh-and-bone Christian who’s right here with us.

And listen to what Jesus said: As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another, John 13:34-35.

It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say the world will know we’re Christians if we’re always going out and looking to do good in the world. 

Jesus said: They will know you belong to me when they see how you all love one another.

Because again—many people who are not Christians do good works in their community. They’re good neighbors. They hold fundraisers, they help out with disaster relief. 

But James’ point is this: You’re going to go out of your way to try and coax a few people into coming to church, for what? To feel the tension in the room? To see you squabble? To watch you send away a fellow believer who’s struggling, with only empty thoughts and prayers?

This was gut check time for James’ church. He’s saying: Don’t tell me about your faith in Christ if you can’t even act like a Christian with other Christians in church.

That’s the difference between decaf faith, and saving faith. Saving faith looks to Christ alone, and recognizes that we love because he first loved us, 1 John 3:19.

We are willing to sacrifice for sisters and brothers who are needy, hungry and naked because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us to fulfill our need of forgiveness and salvation.

Sin had left us hungry and naked and suffering. But Jesus suffered for us, He clothed us with His own righteousness, and now He feeds us from His own body and blood each week at the Lord’s table.

So here’s where we’re going to leave it with James this week, ch2 v17. Next week we’ll pick back up at v18. But here James says:

Just like your prayers alone won’t feed your brother when he’s hungry, or put a jacket on your sister when she’s cold: In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Like we heard from Martin Luther earlier. We are saved by faith alone. But the faith that saves us is never alone.

Decaf faith says: I believe in Jesus, I’ve been baptized, and most of my major sins—the public ones—have been washed away. Now leave me alone to live as I please.

James says: That is not saving faith. It’s no benefit to you, or anyone else.

And that’s something else we often fail to see. Saving faith gives us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit plants the seed of God’s word in our heart, so that we bear the good fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

And none of those are about us, are they? They’re so we can love one another, rejoice with each other, be at peace with each other, be patient with one another, be kind to one another, be faithful to one another, be gentle with one another, and be self-controlled toward one another.

If your faith keeps you gazing at yourself, constantly focused inwardly on your personal growth or comfort or whatever—that’s decaf faith. Saving faith will open your eyes and warm your heart to your fellow believers, and their needs and their struggles. 

The Holy Spirit in you is going to draw you like a magnet to the Holy Spirit in them, and teach you to love your fellow believer as yourself.

Application: Pray with someone, and offer help

So here’s your homework. Here’s what we can start doing with the wisdom we’ve learned from James today.

It may not come up this week, so just make a note of it. The next time you’re with a brother or sister in Christ who’s hurting or struggling, and you offer to pray for them—start by praying with them. Right there on the spot, if you can.

And offer to help them with their problem in a real, tangible way. 

And you know, maybe what they’ll tell you they need you to do for them is to just be there with them. 

Maybe they just need a hug and a kind word, and a listening ear. They just need to know that you love them, and that you’re a safe place for them to land.

Maybe they don’t need you to rush to fix them.

After all, the only good thing Job’s friends did for him was sit and grieve with him for a week. It was when they started trying to fix him that everything went sideways.

Maybe all they need is to know that they can call you or text you when they need you, or that you’ll keep a light on for them, and you’ll even make them coffee.

A lot of times, when it’s not an immediate, physical need, like food or clothes—your brothers and sisters just need to know they can count on you.

They need to be assured that when they’re with you, they can feast on the fruit of the Spirit, and be refreshed.

And all you really need to give them is safety and time, and remind them of the good promises of the gospel.

And that’s the wisdom from above James has to share with us today. The surest sign that our faith is genuine, saving faith—not just decaf faith—is how we love one another. 

It’s how our faith bears fruit of kindness and patience and gentleness towards one another. 

Those are the good works the world will see, and glorify our heavenly Father, Matt. 5:16.

A church with caffeinated faith

One early Christian described how the church was growing so fast in the ancient world, even though they were being persecuted. This is what made the church so attractive that people out in the world would want to join them, even though it meant suffering persecution, too.

He said the pagans would look at Christians, and say: Look, how Christians love one another, when our people hate one another. And look how they are ready to die for each other, when our people are more ready to kill  each other.

Decaf faith may produce sentimental words and warm fuzzies, and maybe even do some good deeds in the world. But saving faith will lead us to feed each other’s hungry bodies, and hungry hearts.

And saving faith blossoms and grows into good works that build up the body of Christ. 

And that’s really good news. Saving faith doesn’t mean we’re always going around looking for something good to do. 

And good works doesn’t have to be some grand gesture, like you’re a dude in a romantic comedy. 

It doesn’t have to be radical or extraordinary, or else you’re worrying that your faith is dead and you won’t be saved.

Living faith, saving faith, caffeinated faith, with some get up and go in it, means that God is going to give you opportunities to do good works, and He’s going to equip you to do them. Eph. 2:10 says God has prepared good works for us to do in advance, and we’re going to do them in Christ.

God’s going to give you plenty of opportunities to show love to your sisters and brothers in the faith.

It’s going to be woven into the fabric of your ordinary life together.

And when you actively love and serve that other person—that’s a good sign that saving faith is alive in you.

Whenever we love and serve each other, it glorifies God. And through His grace alone, in Christ alone, our saving faith makes us, along with our fellow believers, able to enjoy God—now and forever.

The Christian’s Mirror (James 1:22-25)

Video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for April 18, 2021.

I’m currently preaching from the book of James. The text this week was James 1:22-25; 2:8-11.

Selections from Psalm 119 were also read during worship, along with Galatians 5:13-18, 22-23.

Video link is embedded below, sermon notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

The preacher who forgot to look in the mirror

Last week we looked at James 1:17-21. Today we’re picking up at v22.

We’re coming to James to learn the wisdom from above—wisdom from God Himself. 

The wisdom God has shared through James will teach us how to live to glorify and enjoy God. 

I read a story recently about a preacher who had an unruly mop of hair. (I haven’t had that problem myself in over twenty years.)

This poor preacher looked like he got up every morning and combed his hair with an egg beater.

So his wife tried to help him out. Every morning she would come while he was getting ready and put bobby pins and barrettes in his hair, to try and tame the really unruly parts.

And before he’d go out the door, he’d go to the mirror, and he’d see where she placed the various hair clips and take them out, one by one.

But one morning, this preacher had one patch of hair that just wouldn’t stay put. So he decided to keep a large silver barrette on top of his head while he drove to his day’s appointments. He told himself, You know, I’ll just take this out before I get out of the car.

Problem is—he forgot about the barrette. The preacher went to visit a lady in the hospital. He had a staff meeting in his office. Then he went to go speak at a big event that evening.

All day long, he had that big, silver barrette in his hair. And no one was kind enough to tell him about it!

When he finally made it home for a late dinner, his wife gasped: What are you doing with that thing still in your hair?! 

That poor, embarrassed preacher reviewed his day, and realized that hundreds of people had seen him with that big shiny barrette in his hair. And boy, did he feel silly.

What had happened to our preacher friend? He’d looked in the mirror that morning, and seen what needed to be done.

But he failed to do what the mirror told him he needed to do. So he went around all day with a shiny barrette in his hair. 

Because he didn’t follow through on what the mirror revealed, our preacher with the unruly hair suffered some social embarrassment. 

But our reading in James today tells us that we will suffer a far greater disaster if we don’t follow through on what our mirror reveals.

And our mirror, according to James, is the word of God.

How we cheat ourselves when we don’t listen and obey (James 1:22)

Last week, we heard James’ instruction—be quick to listen to the word of God, because it’s the true word that saves us. Don’t argue with the word, don’t talk over the word. Certainly don’t add your own words to it. Listen to it.

And our reading from James today picked up on what we heard last week. What do you do once you’ve listened to God’s word? 

V22: Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

You could translate this literally as, Become a doer of the word. Now we see why it’s ever so important to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry—as James taught us last week.

We can’t obey the word if we don’t listen to it. 

If something in God’s word makes you angry, you aren’t going to obey it. 

And if you’re talking over God’s word, or adding your own words to God’s word, you’re not listening carefully, and you’re going to fail to keep it. You’re not going to humbly submit to God, because you’ve put yourself up on His throne.

Rom. 2:13 tells us that it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law.

When we listen deeply to God’s word—when we meditate on it day and night, like the Psalmist teaches us—when the word of God is planted deep in us, it puts down deep roots and begins to bear fruit in our lives.

On the other hand, James warns us that if we listen to God’s word in a careless or casual or shallow way, we only deceive ourselves. See that in v22?

That word can also be translated to defraud or to cheat. We’re cheating ourselves if we don’t listen to the word and do what it says. We’re going to miss out on blessings.

Our listening obedience glorifies God, and enhances our enjoyment of Him.

I’m going to tell on myself, because it’s always a good thing for the preacher to show off his humanity to his parishioners.

When Megan sends me to the store, she’ll rattle off a list of things I need to get. And I’ll make a note of it on my phone. But sometimes—y’all know how easy this happens—my mind is somewhere else. Or I’ve got the theme song to Full House or something bouncing around in my brain.

And so I forget something she told me to get. Why? Because I wasn’t listening well. 

Of course, then I end up missing out, or I have to turn right around and go back to the store because I forgot the carrots. 

But then, of course, Megan will ask: Weren’t you listening? And I have to admit—No, I wasn’t listening very well. 

In that moment, for whatever reason, something trivial was more important in my mind than what my wife was telling me.

I didn’t fulfill my wife’s instructions, because I wasn’t listening. I not only cheated myself out of the carrots I needed for the pot roast. I also missed out on an opportunity to be an attentive husband.

What’s worse are the times I forget something on the grocery list, but then come home with a summer sausage and some horseradish she didn’t ask for. A lot of Christians do that with God’s word, too. But that’s another sermon for another day.

When we don’t follow through on God’s instruction, we cheat ourselves out of opportunities for blessing, for growth, and for having a mature relationship with our heavenly Father.

But our humble, listening obedience glorifies God, and enhances our enjoyment of Him.

So don’t just listen to the word of God, James says. Do what it says!

Three ways the Word of God is our mirror (James 1:23-24)

And that’s where he uncovers the mirror for an object lesson. God’s word, James says, is the Christian’s mirror. 

vv23-24: Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 

Just like a mirror shows you the condition of your body, God’s word reveals the condition of our souls.

And James warned us that we deceiveourselves when we hear God’s word, but don’t follow through. 

We’re like that preacher with the barrette in his hair. Going around thinking we’re just fine and dandy, but we’ve got a shiny badge of foolishness poking out of an unruly mop of hair. Spiritually-speaking.

Now, there are three ways God’s word acts as our mirror.

The mirror warns us

First, the word of God is a warning. It reveals that there are penalties for disobeying God’s instructions. 

In this sense, the mirror reflects God’s perfect holiness and justice, and gives us a glimpse into His wrath.

We see God’s own perfect standards reflected in the mirror of His word. And with them, the threat of judgment on all who disobey. For the wages of sin is death, Rom. 6:23. And for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger, Rom. 2:8.

When we gaze into the mirror of God’s word, we see a God who tells us: If you obey my commands perfectly, you will have eternal life. But if you disobey, you will die—eternally.

And in the mirror of the word, we see that not only does God—as the Creator of all life—have every right to demand this of His creatures, it is only right for Him to say this. If you rebel against the One who is the very Author and Source of life itself, what else can follow but death?

The mirror accuses us

Now, here is the second way the word of God is our mirror. It always, always, always accuses us of disobeying God. It reveals our sin to us. 

In the mirror of God’s word, not only do we see our sins reflected back at us—we see ourselves as sinners. 

There is no one righteous, not even one, the mirror reveals, Rom. 3:10. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Rom. 3:23.

When we gaze deeply into the mirror of God’s word, we find that we have continually, repeatedly, and carelessly broken all Ten Commandments for as long as we’ve been aware.

The mirror shows us the ugly truth about ourselves. That we are not sinners because we sin. We sin because we are sinners.

The mirror shows us grace

What we see in the mirror of the word will either send us into denial—my skin isn’t really that saggy, you can’t hardly tell I’ve gained all that weight, that mole doesn’t really look cancerous—I’m a good person, God! 

Or … what we see in God’s mirror will kill our pride and crush us, so that we cast ourselves on God’s mercy and forgiveness. And that brings me to the third way God’s word serves as our mirror: It discloses God’s promise of grace.

We see in God’s word the true reflection of our own condition—disfigured and distorted by sin. 

But we also see the beauty of Christ!

You see, sin has made us all outlaws. We spend our lives running, looking back in our own rear-view mirror—waiting for that inevitable day when God’s judgment falls on us.

But then we see Christ, and we hear Him say: You do not have to run anymore! 

He invites us to Himself: Come to me, He says, all you who are weary and burdened—weary of running from the doom we know we cannot escape, burdened by the truth revealed in God’s mirror—our sin and guilt. 

Come to me, He says, and I will give you rest, Matthew 11:28. Whoever comes to me, He tells us, I will never drive away, John 6:37.

In the mirror of God’s word—we see the Gospel. We see Christ fulfilling the Law for us—perfectly obeying all of God’s commandments where we have failed. 

We see Him willingly, voluntarily go to the cross—bearing our sin and guilt and judgment. 

The mirror reveals a God who no longer says to us: If you perfectly obey all my Instructions, you will live. He tells us, My Son has perfectly obeyed all my commandments for you—and more! Believe in Him, and live.

When you were not a Christian, God’s word was a mirror that condemned you, and drove you to Christ.

But even when you’ve been a Christian for a very long time, you don’t stop paying attention to the mirror. It will continue to disclose your need for Christ. It will keep driving you back to Christ.

Where, before it condemned you and crushed you to kill your stubborn pride—now, the more you gaze into it, carefully, and meditate on what you see, the mirror of God’s word will continue to correct and instruct you.

It will still show you the spinach in your teeth and your split ends. You really should do something about those, it says. But you don’t floss your teeth or condition your hair with the mirror.

You turn again to Christ for forgiveness and healing. 

And He has given you His own Holy Spirit, breathing Christ’s own life through you so that you’re not only convicted by the word of God—now you remember God’s Law, you marinate in it, you delight in it, you act on it, and you persevere.

The perfect law of liberty (James 1:25)

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden and condemnation of the Law, precisely so you can know the freedom that comes from obeying God’s Law.

That’s what James says in v25: But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

We have not been set free from the Law so that we can sin more. Instead, we have been set free from the guilt and condemnation of sin so that we can obey God without fear.

James tells us to continue gazing into the mirror of God’s word. 

We shouldn’t rush through our scripture reading, check off the box, and then run off to the rest of our day, forgetting what we have read. 

We also ought not stay on the shallow end—not in how we read the Bible, or how we apply it to our lives. 

No, James says if we abide in the word, and we do what it says, what we do will be blessed.

I love what James calls the commands and instructions we find in scripture. Look at this, in v25. He calls God’s instructions the perfect law that gives freedom.

We Americans are libertarians by nurture, so when we hear that there’s a perfect law that gives us freedom—we have a difficult time believing it.

But James says that scripture demands our attention—he tells us to look intently into it, and do what it says—for two reasons. First, because it’s perfect. And second, because it gives us freedom.

Psalm 19:7 tells us that: The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.

First, God’s law is perfect because it reflects His perfect character.

We just finished a series on the Ten Commandments. Think about some of those commandments.

God’s Law says: Thou shalt not kill. God is the author of life.

God’s Law says: You shall not commit adultery. God is always faithful to us. Even when we are faithless, He is faithful.

God’s Law says: You shall not steal. God gives us every good and perfect gift.

God’s Law says: You shall not bear false witness. God’s word is truth, and He always keeps His promises.

So when we meditate on God’s instructions, and seek to conform our lives to them, we learn to live and move in God’s world, by God’s ways.

Second, James says the Law of God gives us freedom. The Psalmist said—we heard this in our readings today, Ps. 119:45—I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.

Like I said, it’s hard for us to equate Law with freedom. After all, doesn’t having to obey laws mean we’re less free?

In a way, it does. When God tells me not to bear false witness, that means I’m not free to say whatever I want. My speech must be more disciplined than if I weren’t wanting to obey God.

But that commandment also brings freedom—not just to me, but to others. If a parent knows that their child is truthful, that gives them the freedom to trust her. Parents, that’s liberating, isn’t it? 

But it also gives the child the freedom of being trusted. So when she says she’s going to the park to play soccer with her friends, she’ll be home by seven for dinner—typically, she’s going to be free to do that without the bother of her parents constantly checking in on her.

The Law of God gives us freedom because humans thrive and flourish when we obey. 

For example, there is great freedom in our marriages when we listen to God’s Law, which says, Do not commit adultery, and we obey it. 

There’s a joyous freedom in a wife not having to ask her husband, Do you still love me? There’s a satisfying liberation for the husband who knows his wife will not abandon him. A faithful marriage gives both partners the freedom they need to grow together, knowing they’re not going to face life’s challenges alone.

Just before God spoke His Law to His people at Mt. Sinai, He told them: 

I am the Lord your God, who brought you … out of the land of slavery, Exod. 20:2.

For redeemed people, who know we’re saved by grace through faith alone—God’s Law brings us freedom. It does not lead us back into slavery.

James tells us that when we remember God’s instructions, when we consider them, and we put them into practice—then God will bless what we do. The great blessing of real freedom, says James, is found in doing God’s will—not just knowing it.

Fulfilling the royal law (James 2:8)

So church—with that in mind—here’s our homework this week. In James 2:8, which we also heard today, he said that the royal law found in Scripture is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We heard that from Paul in our readings today, too: the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Gal. 5:14.

The Law of God is actually what teaches us to love others the way we should. 

So here’s what I want us to do this week. Along with the bulletin this week, I sent out a document that has the final six of the Ten Commandments. These are the laws that teach us how to love our neighbor.

They also have little notes from our old Puritan friends at Westminster explaining what each commandment means, and a few other scriptures to support them.

Let’s all pick one—just one!—of those commandments this week, and really meditate on the command, and its meaning. What you must do to fulfill it.

And then—here’s the really sticky part—pray that God will give you an opportunity to act on that commandment this week. 

In other words—gaze into the mirror of God’s word, and then do what it says.

But as you do it, remember what else God’s word tells you: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, Rom. 8:1. 

Along with the commands, there is also the promise of grace.

Take comfort in those words, because you will find that you often still fail to obey the Lord’s commandments. Or when you’re trying to obey the one commandment you’re focusing on this week, you’ll find that you’ve failed at another one.

The word of God will still convict you of your sins—that’s actually a good thing. It means the Holy Spirit is making your heart more tender to the things of God. But the Law no longer condemns believers. 

So when you feel the sting of failure—do take heart. Christ already atoned for it on the cross. Now you are free to glorify God with you life, and enjoy Him without fear. Now and forever!

Our words and God’s Word (James 1:16-21)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for April 11, 2021.

We began a new message series in James. The preaching text was James 1:16-21. Proverbs 10:19-21 and Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 were also read during worship.

Video is embedded below, notes are below that.

Soli Deo gloria!

A brief introduction to James

Today begins a new leg of the journey we’re on this year to focus on how we can live to glorify and enjoy God. We’re going to be learning some practical wisdom for Christian living from the book of James.

First, a little background.

James was the half-brother of Jesus Himself. And He was an elder in the church in Jerusalem—the church that sent out missionaries and apostles to spread the Gospel of Christ throughout the known world.

The book of James is actually a transcript of a sermon James preached to the church at Jerusalem.

It was put in letter format, and sent out to to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations, James 1:1.That is, copies of this sermon were sent to Christians from Jerusalem who had been displaced by persecution.

If you ever sit down and just read James, sometimes it comes across as very harsh and demanding. 

But here’s the key to reading James: He was speaking to a church that was being torn apart by two forces.

The first was persecution, from the outside world. And the second was conflicts, and even abuse, happening inside the church.

So James had to use very strong and direct language. James knew those Christians were facing trouble and hardship from all sides, so he couldn’t afford to sugar coat anything.

His message is simple: The time to repent is now! The time to get rid of the evil among you, and resist the devil, and fight the wickedness in your own hearts is now! 

So James is very direct and pointed. But it’s with a purpose: He wants to expose sin to drive Christians to Christ for repentance and forgiveness. 

We all have a constant need for repentance and forgiveness. So the message of James is always relevant for Christians.

James constantly directs Christians in every age to seek God’s wisdom for navigating hardships in life, dealing with our sin, and handling conflicts within the church. 

In James 1:5, he instructs us with these words: If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

God’s wisdom is completely different from what the world calls wisdom. James makes this point in 3:17: the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

The godly wisdom James tells us to pray for will teach us how to live to glorify God and enjoy God whatever our circumstances are.

The trouble with our words

I’ve read somewhere that the average person speaks between 10,000 and 20,000 words every day.

I don’t know how the words we type on social media, or send in text messages or emails factor into that average. But they should be included in the grand total. You’re still communicating by words in those spaces.

In Matt. 12:34-35, Jesus said: the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

Those 10 – 20 thousand words we say or type every day reveal the true condition of our hearts. Think about that. 

How often do you vent to others every day? 

Ten to twenty thousand words every day. Prov. 10:19 says: Sin is not ended by multiplying words, but the prudent hold their tongues. Ten or twenty thousand words a day means we have ten or twenty thousand opportunities every day to sin with our words.

That’s pretty eye-opening, isn’t it? Maybe it should be ear-opening. Do we really stop to listen to ourselves?

We talk to our friends, our co-workers, our spouses, our children … we even talk to ourselves. The conversations are endless. 

We live in a talking culture. How many of you listen to talk radio? What are they talking about? Do their words build people up, or tear them down? 

We live in a world of wall-to-wall news media, most of which is really a bunch of self-appointed experts who get paid to talk, talk, talk. What do we call them? Talking heads.

They give them memos called talking points. They don’t actually have to know anything much about their talking points. They just see the talking points and improvise.

In a 24 hour news culture, everyone’s grabbing for the hot take on the day’s events. 

But how often do they turn out to be completely wrong? The more words you say, you just multiply your chances of being wrong.

But like we heard from Proverbs, the prudent hold their tongues instead of multiplying their words. So the people on the cable news get paid a lot of money to not be prudent. If they held their tongues, they’d be out of a job.

So if they’re not prudent, if they’re not wise, why do we listen to them?

Hot takes are usually wrong. Back in the early ‘90s, all the news outlets told us a story about a woman who drove around with hot coffee between her legs, and then sued McDonald’s for a gazillion dollars for pain and suffering. How many of y’all heard that one?

Here’s what actually happened. An elderly lady, sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s—not driving—sat her coffee between her legs while she got her food situated. Scalding hot coffee poured onto her legs and thighs, causing second and third degree burns that required skin grafts and a stay in the burn ward.

So what happens when you listen to a hot take? In this case you had thousands of people believing unkind things about a woman they believed filed a frivolous lawsuit against McDonald’s because their coffee was hot. 

Why would all these basically fine upstanding people persecute some elderly burn victim? Because they believed some talking head’s hot take about a hot coffee lawsuit.

As bold as that hot cup of morning coffee, Prov. 18:21 tells us that the tongue has the power of life and death. Our words have the power to refresh others, to awaken them, to welcome them. Or they have the power to burn and wound and destroy them.

James was preaching to a church whose members were under a lot of stress. The outside world was growing increasingly hostile to them.

And they weren’t handling it well. They weren’t handling life together well. There were disagreements and conflicts and even actual abuses going on among these Christians.

Some of the believers were complaining and grumbling and accusing each other. Others were actually being harmed by the words and actions of others, and no one was standing up for them.

So—let’s start moving this out of the world of first century Christians, and let God’s word start to shine the spotlight on us.

What happened to them can happen to any of us, and can and does happen in any church. How many of you have ever been under a lot of emotional stress or life pressures, and you’ve used your words unwisely and it’s caused harm?

How many of us—you don’t have to raise your hands—have taken a side in a conflict without knowing all the facts? In other words—have you ever been deceived by a hot take that turned out to be wrong?

Again—you don’t have to raise your hands—who here has grumbled or complained about your spouse or your kids or a coworker or a church member said you were just venting?

Our reading from James today is talking to you, to me, to all of us.

God’s good and perfect Word that can save us

So here’s what James said to the church He was shepherding. And it’s what God says to us, and to His church in every generation. James 1:19-20: 

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

On the one hand, this seems like straightforward advice for getting along? Basically like James is saying: God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.

We could pick all kinds of applications here, couldn’t we? Big talkers are poor listeners. Angry talkers rarely hear anything. So be deliberate and careful when you speak.

Or, Don’t get angry over petty things. Because your rash anger is usually selfish and self-righteous. 

Those are all true points. You can’t argue with any of them. But James is saying even more than that.

If you have your Bibles or your Bible apps open or whatever—I invite you to glance with me at what James says just before these verse, and just after.

First, James 1:18. It says, Our heavenly Father, God chose to give us birth through the word of truth.

The word of truth is the gospel of Jesus Christ. God chose to adopt us as His sons and daughters through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. 

And now, listen to what it says at the end of v21: humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

So James tells us to be careful about the words we speak—especially angry words—right in the middle of reminding us of God’s Word.

The word of truth, that’s given us new birth as God’s children. And the word God has planted in us, which saves us.

The Word is Jesus Christ Himself! Because we only find salvation and new life in Christ—the Word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth, John 1:14.

Elsewhere in scripture, Col. 3:16, the Apostle Paul tells us to let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. That’s what James is telling us here, too. 

Jesus Christ Himself—God’s living Word, full of grace and truth—dwells in us by the Holy Spirit, Rom. 8:9.

Christ, living in us, forgives our sins and trespasses. He doesn’t lord His righteousness over us, but He clothes our sin and weakness with His own righteousness. 

And of course—Christ dwelling in us by the Holy Spirit—over time that’s going to transform us. That’s a lifelong process the Bible calls sanctification

And sanctification just means God is making you holy—making you more and more like Christ Himself, in your actions, your thoughts, and your words.

So—let’s revisit our passage in light of all that. It’s easy to read James and think he’s just throwing out random instructions, scattering unconnected pearls of wisdom. But he is not. Hopefully this whole passage is going to shine a lot brighter for you now.

Be quick to listen to God’s Word

First thing—James starts out by preaching the Gospel here. He tells us what God has done for us through Christ. That’s vv17-18. 

v17: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

James’ point here is that God the Father is faithful. The sun goes up and down. The constellations move with the seasons. The moon waxes and wanes. But God is the one who created light itself—and He does not change.

He gives us only good and perfect gifts. Back in v5, James said if you need wisdom to navigate the pressures of life, and your own emotional ups and downs—ask God for wisdom and He will freely give it.

He has already sent forth His Son, Jesus Christ, to be perfect wisdom for us. Jesus is also our righteousness, our holiness, and our redemption. Christ is the good and perfect gift from the Father.

v18: He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.

John 1:13 says that believers are God’s children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. 

God chose chose us for new birth, for new life, through Jesus Christ, His living Word of truth. The Father has adopted us as daughters and sons through His Son.

When it says we’re the firstfruits of all God’s creation—that’s a reference to the OT. You’d bring God the first produce of your harvest as an offering to God. It belonged to God in a special way.

Now, Christians are God’s firstfruits. In His eyes, His children are the first and best of all His creation. He will be faithful to us. 

But because we’re firstfruits, that also means we’re the first installment of God’s promise to redeem and restore all things. Our lives should shine differently in the world. Our gratitude for God saving us should shine in all that we do—our actions, our thoughts, and our words.

Now, vv19-20. Because James is going to take all this Gospel goodness, and talk about how we can live with wisdom, and grace, and gratitude because of what God has done for us.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of thistake note of this could be translated as, you already know this. You already know this is what you should do.

Everyone should be quick to listen … Quick to listen to what? Should we be quick to listen to the talk show hosts and the cable news? Should we be quick to listen to all the voices of doom and depression and outrage on social media? Should we be quick to listen to worldly wisdom from our friends who don’t know the Lord?

Of course not. We shouldn’t be quick to listen to just any and every voice. We should be quick to listen to God’s words in scripture, which remind us that the tongue has the power of life and death. 

We must be quick to listen to Christ, dwelling in us by the Holy Spirit, and His perfect words of forgiveness and grace and wisdom.

When we’re quick to listen to God’s Word, and let the word of Christ dwell in us richly, we’ll become slow to speak and slow to become angry. Christ dwelling in us will actually make us more empathetic, more responsive, and more discerning listeners.

We must be quick to listen to Christ’s words of forgiveness and grace, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. But Christ dwelling in us, full of grace and truth, will produce the righteous life God desires for His children.

If we’re easily offended, or we’re quick to become angry, it makes it difficult for us to get along well with each other. 

But it also makes it difficult for you to get along well with God. Because anger makes you slow to listen and receive His Word. 

So in v21, James tells us: 

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

He’s not saying you have to cleanse yourself of all your sin and wickedness before you can hear the Word of God in faith. 

In fact, it’s the opposite. The only way you can get rid of your sinful pride and arrogance, your short temper, your selfishness and self-righteousness is to receive God’s Word in faith.

It’s Christ—God’s living Word, full of grace and truth, who is our wisdom from God, and our righteousness and our holiness—planted in our hearts and saving us, who makes us able to put off our sin.

James reminds us to always humbly accept God’s Word—both in Scripture, and dwelling in us through Christ. He’s reminding us once again to listen well to God. Not to look for loopholes or excuses to avoid doing what God has taught us. Not to argue with God’s good instruction and correction. 

But to be teachable. To be quiet before the Lord’s instruction, to be gentle, and gratefully receive every good and perfect gift of wisdom our Father has for us.

Let God’s Word do the work

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Get rid of all moral filth and the evil that has been so prevalent in your life.

Those are words of instruction. God is commanding us to do stuff in these verses. But notice, God’s commands are completely sewn up in the seamless garment of the Gospel. 

He has given us every good and perfect gift—including His Son, Jesus Christ. Who is our wisdom, our salvation, and God’s word planted in our heart, producing the good fruit of righteousness in our lives.

God doesn’t tell us work hard and controlling your temper and being a better listener. That’s what happens if you read these instructions outside of their Gospel context.

God says, If you would put away your sin, you must humbly accept my Word I’ve planted in you, which can save you.

That’s how are transformed and made holy. The Word of God does the work. 

The Word of God in Christ, planted in us by the Holy Spirit, takes deep root in our hearts. Deeper even than the tangled roots of our sin. And transforms us from the inside. 

The Word of God in Christ, dwelling in us by the Spirit, convicts us of our sin, and makes us long to be more peaceable, less quick to be angry and offended and outraged. More humble and patient with others. 

That same Word, planted deep in us, and putting down deep roots, also assures us of God’s mercy and forgiveness when we fail. 

The Word of God in Christ, living and active in us through the Spirit, instills faith, nurtures faith, grows faith, and creates new life.

And from that new life—good fruit inevitably grows. 

You’ll begin to notice—when you humbly let the Word of God do the work—all the times when you were too stubborn to listen, when you’re speaking too quickly, when you’re too easily rattled to anger.

You’ll find you do it often. James said this kind of wickedness is prevalent in all of us, v21.

After all, we do speak 10 – 20 thousand words every day. And that means we have thousands of opportunities to sin with our words each day.

But when the Word of God is planted in us, and tended by the Holy Spirit, those ugly weeds will gradually give way to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, Gal. 5:22-23.

When Christians talk to each other, and when we talk to people in the world, we shouldn’t sound like people in the world. 

We shouldn’t be loudmouths and know-it-alls. 

We shouldn’t sound like the talking heads rattling off their talking points, always trying to make someone else look foolish or bad.

The words we use should be a reflection, and an outgrowth, of the words of grace and truth God has spoken to us in Christ.

So here’s something to try: The next time you’re in an argument, lose it. 

I don’t mean compromise on your faith, your values, your ethics, or your boundaries. 

But the petty conflicts we often get caught up in—you don’t have to get the final word.

So go out and lose an argument to the glory of God! 

Remember: it’s the Word of Christ, full of grace and truth, dwelling richly in you by the Spirit, that saves you. 

So let the Word do the work. Yield your thoughts and your words to Christ dwelling in you through the Spirit. Because you are certainly not going to be able to self-discipline all 10 or 20 thousand words you’re going to speak each day.

God is faithful, and will not allow His firstfruits to be swallowed up by the weeds of sin—no matter how deep and tangled in our lives their roots run. 

His Word and His Spirit will uproot them in due time, so we can live to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Christian hope is Easter hope (1 Corinthians 15) [Easter 2021]

Live video and notes for my Easter message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. April 2, 2021.

Scriptures read during service were: Luke 24:1-12, 36-43 (Luke’s Easter story); and 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, 42-44, 53-55, 58 (Paul’s description of our future resurrection).

The message was based on the 1 Corinthians 15 selections.

Live message video embedded below, sermon notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Christian hope is Easter hope

Today is Easter. Or, if you prefer, Resurrection Day.

And it’s a good day to talk about hope.

When Jesus’ disciples got up on Sunday morning, when those faithful women got up before the sun, Jesus was still in His tomb, and they were hopeless.

Their Lord, their teacher, their friend—the One they’d put all their hope in—was dead. And all their hope had died with Him.

But when they found the tomb empty …

When the angels proclaimed: He is not here; he has risen!

When Jesus showed up in their midst, showing them His battle scars transformed into marks of indelible love—and then asking for some barbecued fish to eat …

Just like that, their hopelessness was swallowed up by a fierce, bold, unshakable hope.

Easter kindled a flame of hope that no bad day, no heartbreak, no trauma, no persecution, not even the shadow of death itself looming over them could ever extinguish.

It’s a hope that every Christian can have, and should have.

1 Peter 1:3 says that God has given us a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

We have a living hope.

We have a resurrection hope.

Christian hope is Easter hope.

One day we’ll all get up and walk out of our graves, just like Jesus did.

Everyone lives by hope. Even the most godless unbeliever you will ever meet has some sort of hope. 

Hope is what gets you out of bed in the morning, and it’s what keeps you going. 

Even if your only hope is that you can go out and scrounge up enough to keep your family from going hungry tonight—that’s still hope.

But without Christ, without Easter, without a living hope that transcends this life, you can only put your hope in earthly things.

Your career. Your accomplishments. Your possessions. Your relationships.

Without Easter hope, all of your hope dies with you. The only way you can have any hope that outlives you is maybe you provide an inheritance for your children. Or an endowment at your alma mater. Or maybe your name on a plaque somewhere.

But let’s face it—you won’t be alive to enjoy any of it, so why does it matter?

All earthly hopes vanish like smoke. Trying to hang on to them is like trying to grab the morning fog in your hands.

But Christians have a living hope. A resurrection hope. An Easter hope.

What Easter hope is not, and what it is

First, me tell you what Easter hope is not. 

It’s not just some vague, hazy notion that we live on after death. Many other religions believe that. Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, as it says in the ancient Apostles Creed.

If you want to know what Easter hope is, you look at the Gospel stories of the resurrection of Christ. 

We heard the Easter story from the Gospel of Luke today. We saw Jesus, with His body, daring His disciples to touch Him, and joyfully eating a piece of barbecued fish, fresh off the grill.

Do you understand what that means

It means Jesus didn’t come back all wispy and transparent like Yoda and Obi Wan and Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi. It means the risen Jesus has a body, and his body has taste buds.

Okay, well—what does that mean for Christians, if Christ still has his body? 

Well, that’s our living hope that Peter talked about. 

In 1 Cor. 15:20, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. And in Col. 1:18 he calls Jesus the firstborn from among the dead. And in Rom. 6:5, Paul tells Christians that we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Okay, so if Jesus is the firstfruits or firstborn of resurrected humanity; and if if God has promised us a resurrection like his; that means if you want to know what you can hope for when this life is done—just read the Easter story.

You’re going to be raised like He was on Easter morning. 

Paul answers your resurrection questions! (1 Cor. 15:35ff)

Now of course, I know that raises all kinds of questions for most of you. 

Thankfully, God knew we would have questions, so the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to wrote 1 Corinthians 15, so we’d have answers. Easter hope is too important for God to leave His children in the dark about it.

Outside of salvation itself, it’s the sweetest, most precious treasure that Christians have.

We heard from 1 Corinthians 15 already today, so now … you have questions about resurrection, and God has answers.

Isn’t that cool?

See, Christians in the first century also struggled with this, and they also asked questions. 

The Christians at Corinth were having a difficult time with the whole idea of the resurrection. How could a dead, rotted body come to life again? 

So they fell back on what their philosophers had taught them. 

Greek philosophy held that our bodies are just a shell for the most important part of us, and that’s the soul. In fact, they taught that the body is really a prison for the soul, so when you die, you’re finally free.

Only the soul is immortal, only the soul lives on after death. That’s what the Greek philosophers taught. Death is like a bird being set free from a cage. Your spirit goes to live with God, and your body is left behind forever to rot.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is saying: No, no, no! That’s all wrong. We will be raised physically and bodily—just like Christ was. 

What kind of body will we have?

The first question—the main question—they asked Paul was: “How are the dead raised?, With what kind of body will they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35).

Paul answered those questions by pointing toward the ground. When you plant a seed in the earth, it springs up as something greater, and more glorious, he said. But it’s still the thing you planted. You don’t plant wheat and raise up barley.

So Paul’s answer to this first question was: The dead are raised with human bodies! Duh!

 Humans do not become angels when we die. 

We also don’t live on forever as free-floating spirits in sky.

God created humans to be bodily creatures. A spirit without a body is not human. A spirit without a body is either God, or a ghost. 

Resurrection means you plant a human in the ground, and they’re raised a human.

Again—remember what Jesus told His disciples on Easter. He told them to come and touch Him. Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have, Luke 24:39. 

On Easter, Jesus wanted his disciples to see, and He wants us to see—resurrection means you’re fully alive, and still human. Resurrection means you still have your flesh and your bones and your personality and all your memories. You still have taste buds and everything.

Now, doesn’t that just get your heart racing with hope? The end of this life doesn’t mean the end of physical pleasures.

You’re not going to be a disembodied spirit or an angel baby floating on wispy clouds playing a harp for eternity.

Bodily resurrection means that smiles and hugs and dancing and laughing, Thanksgiving dinner, singing around the fire—we get those things back with people we love, even after death. 

Resurrection hope—Easter hope!—means have a living hope that transcends this life.

But Easter hope is even more awesome than that! 

The first question we ask about the resurrection is, What kind of bodies will we have. Paul answered: A human body. Your body.

You’ll still have your body, your personality, your memories, your taste buds. 

You won’t lose anything in the resurrection—but you will be transformed. Your resurrection body will be your body—but so much more glorious!

Remember what Paul says about planting seeds? You do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed. You bury a seed in the earth, and it gives birth to a plant. Like when you plant a tiny acorn in the ground, and it grows into a mighty oak tree.

And it’s the differences between our bodies now, and our resurrected bodies, that gives us all the more reason to hope.

And that’s the second question Paul answers. How will our resurrection bodies be different?

And he lists four wonderful ways our resurrection bodies will be more glorious than they are now. The way the mighty oak tree is more glorious than the acorn it used to be.

An imperishable body

First, in v42, Paul says: The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable. 

You, me, and everyone else—we’re all slowly dying. Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. I’m dying as I preach this. You’re dying listening to me. 

Our bodies age and wear out. Our teeth get cavities. Our eyes grow dim with cataracts, our hearing goes, we lose our memories to dementia.

Our bodies are perishing, they’re deteriorating. Ruthlessly, relentlessly, and without remorse, every system and every cell in your body is subject to the laws of entropy until you die.

Our resurrection bodies will not be like that. They will be imperishable and incorruptible.

Resurrection hope is a hope of life in a body that is free from sin, from suffering, and from death. A body that is forever free from weakness, pain, or disease. That’s Easter hope.

A glorious body

The second way your resurrection body will be different—and so much better—than it is right now is found in v43. Your body is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.

Here’s what that means. The body in a casket has been wasted away by age or disease. Or it’s been irreparably damaged by an injury. 

That’s why we sometimes have closed-casket funerals. What has happened to the body of this person we love has been so brutalized and disfigured that it’s going to add more trauma to see it.

So if you think of that poor, ravaged, dead flesh we bury in the ground, that’s going to decay and turn to dust—that’s what it means when it says our bodies are sown in dishonor. 

Our death is a disgraceful thing. We don’t glorify death, do we?

But your body that is sown in dishonor will be raised in glory.

Before they sinned, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. Why? Because they were clothed in God’s glory. Sin has stripped God’s glory from us.

But when Christ calls His people back to life, our bodies will once again be clothed in glory. 

Jesus says: Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father, Matt. 13:43.

Our new bodies will be perfectly healthy, and radiant. 

No matter what you look like now, and no matter how your body has been ravaged by time or illness or injury when you die—your resurrection body will be beautiful. You’ll be strong and wonderful and glorious. Forever.

A powerful body

V43 also tells us a third way our resurrection bodies will be better: it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.

We all know what it means to grow weak and weary and tired. Your body now needs rest and sleep. You are not physically strong enough to do everything you’d like to do. And the older you get, the weaker you become.

We all have mental and emotional weaknesses, too. We are all at least sometimes plagued by depression and anxiety.

And then there are those who have to live with disabilities. Limited mobility. Some people are blind or deaf. Some of us bear chronic pain in our bodies. And some people also have cognitive impairments and mental illness.

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, He would often heal people who were blind or deaf or paralyzed. 

One reason He did that was to give us a glimpse of our resurrection hope. Our Easter hope.

When Christ returns to rescue His people from the grave, whatever disabilities or physical limitations we suffered in this life will not follow us into glory. 

We’ll be able to see colors we never knew existed. Our minds will operate at greater speed and with greater accuracy than even our most powerful computers. We will never grow weary. No disability will ever stop us from enjoying life, or even slow us down.

When it says we’ll be raised in power, it means that all of our impulses and desires will be holy and good, and we will carry them out without ever growing tired. 

We will glorify God and enjoy Him forever—and never ever need a break.

A spiritual body

V44 tells us a fourth way your resurrection body will be more glorious than it is now: it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

Now, this is where a lot of folks get tangled up in the weeds and confused.

When it says we’ll have spiritual bodies, it doesn’t mean we become spirits.

Here’s a Bible pro-tip. Most of the time when you see the word spiritual in your Bibles, it probably really needs a capital S.

Because it’s referring to the Holy Spirit. 

A Spiritual body doesn’t mean your body won’t be physical. It means that the source of your resurrection body’s life will be the Holy Spirit. He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you, Rom. 8:11.

So here’s what it means when it says our bodies are buried as natural bodies, but they’re raised spiritual bodies.

The body you have now is a natural body. We all have the bodies we inherited from our father, Adam. They’re the bodies we have by nature.

Now, God created the human body very good. 

But because of sin, our natural bodies are now weakened, we have all these limitations we’ve been talking about—we’re perishable, our bodies die and decay. That happens naturally now, because our whole nature—body, soul, and spirit—has been corrupted by sin.

But we will be raised with bodies like the resurrected Christ. Phil. 3:21 says that when Christ returns, He will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

A Spiritual body means a physical, material body of flesh and bone, but it’s no longer weakened by sin. Instead, it’s energized by, it’s animated by, and it’s completely ruled by the Holy Spirit. 

It’s almost like saying that the Holy Spirit will be the battery who powers your resurrection body.

Now, think about that, because that’s really something wonderful to hope for. Can you imagine a world full of people who are completely submissive to the Holy Spirit?

See—we’re going to have this glorious freedom we’ve never known in this life. We’re not going to be able to sin! Let that sink in! 

If your thoughts, your will, your emotions, and your body are always perfectly in step with the Spirit, then your life is only going to produce the fruit of the Spirit. 

A Spiritual body means a life where all anyone ever knows or does is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

All you will be able to do, all you will want to do, is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

A full-bodied hope, for this life and the life to come

See, God has not given us a hazy, foggy, ghostly hope. No, He has given us a full-bodied resurrection hope.

We were created to fellowship with God—to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Sin has broken that fellowship. Resurrection is the final, glorious crescendo of salvation, joyfully shouting: Where, O death, is your victory Where, O death, is your sting?; as it resolves into eternity.

We will dwell in God’s presence, see God face-to-face in the face of Jesus Christ. The early American preacher Jonathan Edwards said that God’s love is an ocean without shore or bottom

Our resurrection bodies—imperishable, glorious, powerful, Spiritual, immortal bodies—will make us able for the first time, to receive God’s boundless love with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and all of our physical senses. And finally, we shall be able to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. 

Resurrection will finally make us able to love God the way we’ve always known we should.

In the meantime—between now and our own Easter morning that God has promised us—what do we do with our Easter hope? 

How can this living hope transform the life we’re living now, in these natural, mortal, perishing bodies?

Paul answered that question in 1 Corinthians 15, too. It’s in v58.

Our resurrection hope gives us a reason—even in this life—to stand firm and let nothing move [us]. 

Our hope is not in earthly things that dissolve and crumble, and can be snatched from our hands in an instant. Our hope is in the saving work of Jesus Christ, and in God’s unshakeable promise of a glorious resurrection. 

Because our hope is in what is eternal and unchangeable. Not our careers, our money, our relationships, or our accomplishments. 

Why should I care if my name is on a plaque in some building when I know it’s written in the Lamb’s book of life? Why should I care if I am forgotten by history, if Jesus Christ—who dwells in eternity beyond history—has engraved my name in the palms of His hands?

Because we live with Easter hope, v58 also says we are able to give [ourselves] fully to the work of the Lord, because [we] know that [our] labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Resurrection hope reminds us that our truest joy will never be found, and our greatest longings will never be satisfied, in this life. 

And when we believe this, we are not defeated by the bad days, the traumas, or the shattered hopes of this life. God has promised to work all things together for His glory and for the eternal good of those who love Him. It is this hope that gives us the power not to give up, because we believe that the good work we do in this life is not in vain.

Our full-bodied, living, Easter hope is what gives us the power to glorify and enjoy God—now and forever!

It is finished (John 19:30) [Good Friday 2021]

Live video and notes for my Good Friday homily at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. April 2, 2021.

Video link embedded below, message notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

I’ve always struggled a bit with calling the day we remember the crucifixion Good Friday. What Jesus suffered was not good. The fact that there even had to be a crucifixion—that there had to be a Friday when the Son of God bore the judgment for our sins—is not good.

We call it Good Friday because of its good outcome for us. Without Good Friday, there is no gospel, because there is no good news. 

Without Good Friday, we’re still hopelessly sunk in our sin and mired in our misery.

Earlier we heard John’s story of the crucifixion. And we heard Christ’s words from the cross: It is finished! (John 19:30)

Those were not the words of a defeated man near death. They’re not the words of a desperate man who’s finally tapping out because he can’t take the pain anymore.

It is finished! was a triumphant cry of victory. Jesus had done everything necessary to atone for sin, defeat death, and silence Satan’s accusing voice.

For poor wretched sinners like us, there are no more beautiful, hopeful, comforting words in all of scripture than, It is finished! Because those words mean that there’s nothing more to be done, when it comes to our salvation. 

It is finished means there’s absolutely nothing you and I can do to add to what Christ has already done, and no one can take anything away from it, either. 

Even on our best behavior, God tells us that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6). Even your best deeds on your best day are a pile of dirty diapers compared to God’s righteous standards. It is finished means that we are saved by works. Not by our own works, but by the finished, perfect work of Christ on the cross.

We all stand before God as debtors in default, morally and spiritually bankrupt. It is finished means Christ has paid our debt in full. Not only our past-due amount from old sins, but all our sins—cradle to grave. 

It is finished. Okay, now what? There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

There is no condemnation for you when you are joined to Christ in faith. It doesn’t say there’s less condemnation, and you have to keep chipping away at it by being good. It says no condemnation. None at all

Why? Because it is finished. Jesus already suffered your condemnation and doom. 

And it says there is no condemnation now. Not a few years from now when you finally get it all together. Now. From the moment you first believe, until you stand before God at the final Judgment—there is now no condemnation.

Why? Because it is finished. There is no more to be done for your salvation. Not an ounce. Not a drop. It is finished.

And because Jesus declared, It is finished, here are some things you and I get to be finished with now, too. These are the reasons we call today Good Friday.

First, you can be finished worrying about Judgment Day. Listen to the promise Jesus made, John 5:24: whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life—not will have, has—and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 

When you’re in Christ, your Judgment Day already happened on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago. The punishment that brought us peace was on him, Isa 53:5. Jesus told us: It is finished. Do you believe Him?

Second, you can be finished listening to the condemning voice of shame that wants you to doubt your salvation, and God’s love for you. Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything, 1 John 3:20. God already knew you from eternity, with all your sin and weakness, all your suffering and misery, all your quirks and hangups and blind spots. He knows everything, and still sent His Son to die to save you. 

Yes, you’ll still face the consequences of your sin and stupid choices. Yes, there will be times you’ll need to apologize and make amends. But listen—the Holy Spirit is the voice in your heart that convicts you of sin and urges you to make it right. The voice that still condemns you when you’re a child of God is Satan’s.

The voice you need to listen to and believe is Jesus telling you, It is finished. We can be sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, Rom. 8:38-39.

And where does this blessed assurance come from? Jesus, from the Cross, declared to every believer: It is finished.

Finally, a third thing we get to be finished with—another reason we call today Good Friday—is you can be finished with always wondering if you’ve done enough, or if you’ve done it well enough.

The only one who earns anything in the kingdom of God is Jesus Christ Himself. And He said: It is finished. There’s nothing to be earned.

So quit asking yourself, Have I done enough? No, you haven’t. You never can. You never will. Don’t ask: Did I fully repent? No, you didn’t, and you can’t. Repentance is a lifelong process. Don’t wonder: Have I surrendered all? No, you haven’t, and you never will—you’ll always find something you’re still holding onto. Jesus already surrendered all for you.

Now, I know someone will object: But doesn’t Philippians 2:12 tell us to work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling? Yes, it does. But then it says: for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

So you can’t even take any credit for your own good works. They’re God working in you.

Good works are the fruit of salvation, not the root. They’re a sign of God’s saving work in you. They’re visible evidence of your faith at work. But the root, the trunk, and even the branches of your salvation is the work of Christ on Good Friday. Remember what He told you that day: It is finished.

There’s so much more good news I could pile on here. So may things we can be finished with. I could talk all night and into tomorrow. But I won’t. I’ll save it for Sunday.

Right now, we can go from here with full assurance of God’s love and salvation, because Jesus has told us: It is finished. 

And that means right now, in this life—and when we’re on our millionth year in the new heavens and new earth—we can glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We can glorify God and enjoy Him with wide-eyed wonder and grateful hearts because Jesus told us: It is finished. 

And we work in His finished work, and we rest in His finished work.

That’s why it’s called, Good Friday.

You shall not covet (Exodus 20:17)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for March 28, 2021.

This is the final message of my series, The Shadow of Christ in the Ten Commandments.

Video is embedded below. Notes below that.

Hiraeth, never-enoughness, and coveting

So today, we’ve come to the Tenth Commandment: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

During the darkest days of WWII, the BBC asked C.S. Lewis to present a series of radio talks defending the Christian faith. The transcripts of these broadcasts were later pulled together into a book called Mere Christianity.

It was a a time of wartime rationing, late night bombing raids, and the shadow of global tyranny looming over England. 

With all that going on, here’s one of the things Lewis told the old men in pubs, the army wives, and the young children who gathered around their radios to hear his lectures:

If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

Lewis wanted his hearers to understand that we live in a fallen and sinful world. And so life here and now will ultimately never be satisfying. It will never be enough.

He was talking to people who knew never enough all too well. They were buying everything out of ration books. There was never enough butter or bacon. The beer was weak because of barley rations, and the price of fish and chips skyrocketed because fishermen got hazard pay.

In wartime, we come to accept never enough as a way of life. But what we often forget is that planet earth has been a war zone ever since our first parents ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

God promised that very day to send a champion, a Son born of a woman who would defeat and utterly crush God’s enemies, and ours: Satan, sin, and death. But for humans, life outside of Eden is a life of never enough.

The Welsh have a word called hiraeth that means homesickness for a home you can’t return to. Or maybe a home you never had. 

We all suffer pangs of hiraeth, most of us just don’t know it. 

We are born homesick for Eden. There’s something in us that wants to be out of this war-torn, sinful world, where there’s never enough; and back in the presence of God. 

Back in Eden, there was always enough, always more than enough. Because God Himself is all we need and more.

Nothing on earth will ever satisfy this longing, nothing will fill this Eden-sized hole in our hearts but God alone. Like the old African theologian St. Augustine taught us, God has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.

So we wander through life, looking for a home we will never find. Always hoping that this next thing, this next accomplishment, this next relationship, this next promotion, this next milestone will finally soothe the dull ache of never enough.

But of course, it never does. It never will, because it never can.

The Tenth Commandment speaks to all the ways we try in vain to deal with our never enoughness.

God tells us: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

When we are not content with what we have, we begin to look at what others have with jealousy and envy. And our discontent can lead us into all other kinds of sins. 

If I’m coveting my neighbor’s wife or his car how close am I now to committing adultery, or to stealing? If I can’t take what I want by stealth, will I take it by force and maybe even kill someone?

1 Tim. 6:10 teaches us that the love of money—and that’s a kind of coveting—is a root of all kinds of evils. In the same way, coveting in general will lead us into many different sins.

We never just break one Commandment at a time.

So let’s talk about the Tenth Commandment. Because the sinful discontentment of coveting what belongs to someone else seems to be the very fuel that drives our hearts as we keep wandering farther and farther from God.

The God who commands us not to covet

The first thing each of these Ten Commandments does is to give us insight into who God is. What kind of God would tell His people: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house [or] your neighbor’s wife … or anything that is your neighbor’s?

Only a God who is completely secure in His own Godness could command this. 

In this Commandment, we meet a God who is not out for Himself. A God who doesn’t covet anything from anyone. A God who wants nothing, because He lacks nothing. 

He is the God who tells us in Psalm 50 that all the fulness of the earth belongs to Him. Every beast of the forest and the field, every bird in the mountains, and the cattle on a thousand hills all belong to Him.

He is the God we read about in Acts 17:25, who is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

The God who commands His people not to covet what belongs to their neighbor is Himself the giver of every good gift and every perfect gift, James 1:17. 

Here is a God who is always overflowing with abundance and kindness. Exodus 34:6 tells us that He is a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

He is a God who is so generous that He even pours out blessings on His enemies, and people who hate Him. He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust, Matt. 5:45.

In fact, this is the very God who, while we were [His] enemies reconciled us to Himself by the death of his Son, Rom. 5:10.

And it is to this Son—Jesus Christ—that each one of these Commandments leads us.

Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth, as it says in John 1:14. The Commandments come to life in Him, in His life. 

Christ He has fulfilled every Commandment for us. Even the Tenth Commandment—you shall not covet.

Jesus could have rightly said: I am the eternal Son of God, the Father created all things through Me, this entire universe is My inheritance, and I am taking it for myself.

Instead, He was born a poor infant. His newborn body exposed to the cold night air until constrained by swaddling cloths, He lay down for His first nap on a bed of straw. 

Very God of very God in the flesh, Mary had to change Jesus’ stinky diapers. Here was the Son of God, the source of all creation, who never had experienced any want or appetite—now crying for milk from His mother’s breast. 

He would come to know all of our human infirmities—hunger, thirst, sadness, pain, exhaustion, the salty sting of tears.

And yet—He never once coveted anything that belonged to anyone else. Instead, He always gave to others. His one desire was to do His Father’s will, and to call tired, weary sinners and sufferers to come to Him and rest.

Very God of Very God in human flesh, Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many, Mark 10:45.

This is the God we meet in the Tenth Commandment. A God who needs nothing from us, but who supplies our every need. 

This God commands His people not to covet your neighbor’s house or your neighbor’s wife or anything that is your neighbor’s. Why? Because He gives us all what we need

This God should be more than enough for us, but He isn’t. And that’s our problem.

What does the Commandment say about us?

Just as each Commandment gives us insight into who God is, they also show us who we are. 

God’s Law is like a mirror we look into. And in the light of His perfect holiness, righteousness, and justice, we see our own sinfulness reflected back at us.

So what does it say about us that we need to be told not to covet anything that belongs to our neighbor? Who would need to be told that?

People who are discontented, ungrateful, insecure, and fundamentally selfish. 

Rom. 1:21 says that in our natural state—in our sinful, fallen flesh—we neither glorify God, nor give thanks to Him, until even our best thinking turns to foolishness, and our hearts grow dark and confused.

We are so curved inward, so self-focused, that we seek out and use not only physical luxuries, but even spiritual graces, only for ourselves and to our own benefit.

And even though we are so self-focused, we are not self-aware enough to know that this is who we are, this is where we are, this is what we’re doing. James 1:23-24 talks about the person who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. We are all that person.

There’s the who mother believes she is a loving, caring, and dutiful parent, pushing her children to flourish into their full potential. But then she discovers that she covets success for them on her terms because she’s so enmeshed in her own desires and insecurities. Does she really love her children? She does—but the love is flawed by her own discontentment. And those flaws still harm the child.

Then there’s the son who learns that his father is terminally ill, and he’s horrified because one of the first things that crosses his mind is what he’s going to get in the will. Does he truly love his father? He does, but even his love is polluted with selfishness.

Even our work for the Lord can get twisted up like this. While he was in prison, the Apostle Paul discovered that some were preaching Christ out of envy and rivalry and selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains (Phil. 1:17). There were preachers who were happy that Paul was in prison, so that his gifts couldn’t outshine theirs! 

Even in the church, we can be selfish, we can be insecure. And instead of being grateful that God has blessed the church with this other person’s gifts, we become envious of their success.

Even our best deeds, our greatest loves, our most noble impulses—our marriages and families, our work in the church and in the community—end up all being tainted by our selfishness. 

When Adam and Eve got snakebit by the devil in the garden, the venom went in so deep all of their sons and daughters have been poisoned by it. And so everyone—even the godliest saint you know—even at our best righteousness is tainted with discontent, ingratitude, and insecurity.

You shall not covet cuts right to the heart of our hiraeth, our homesickness for Eden, and our wretched life in this gloomy land of never enough

We are desperately trying to make a true home for ourselves outside of Eden—away from God. There’s a magnetic force inside us that should draw us to God, but we’ve turned it inward, and so it repels us from God.

But of course—God is the only cure for our homesickness and never enoughness.

In our secret life, our inner conversations, our daydreams and fantasies, we tell ourselves—if only I had this wife, that boat, this house, this much in my retirement account, that skill, that body—then I would be content. 

But the Tenth Commandment reveals that, in some way, we are all like the man described in Ecclesiastes 6:6—we might live a thousand years twice over but still not find contentment. 

A Buddhist would tell you that what you need to do to rid yourself of your sin is to kill every bit of desire within you. Basically, if you just keep lowering your standards, everything will be fine. It’s all mind over matter, you see? If you don’t mind the pain, if you don’t mind the humiliation, if you don’t mind going without—then it doesn’t matter.

Now, we Christians have a much better answer to this sin of coveting. 

The problem with coveting is not that we have desires. God wants us to enjoy the good gifts of His creation, He wants us to enjoy intimacy in marriage, He wants us to enjoy the fruits of our labors. He created us for those very things. 

Our problem is the ways our desires are pointed, and how we go about trying to satisfy them. 

Again, C.S. Lewis tells us in Mere Christianity that: Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy [our desire], but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.

In other words, we ought to be unsatisfied with life in this fallen, sinful world. If earthly pleasures can satisfy us, then our desires are too weak, and pointed in the wrong direction.

Even our greatest pleasures here—the love of a husband and a wife, the glory of a billowy sunset after a summer rain, along with food from the earth: wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make [our] faces shine, and bread that sustains [our] hearts (Ps 104:15)—will always be enjoyed in the shadow of sin and sorrow and death. 

Like those wise old philosophers the Grateful Dead taught us: every silver lining’s got a touch of grey.

In that sense, there’s a kind discontentment of discontentment that is good for us. When earthly pleasures don’t satisfy you, the thing to do is not to shut down your desires—like the Buddhists teach. 

But you also don’t keep on dwelling on your unfulfilled desires. That’s what will always trap you and steer you toward coveting what others have, and not being grateful for what God has given you.

That’s how Satan twists what are really good and natural desires, and creates insecurity, jealousy, and envy in our hearts.

That’s what gets you to go on digging and digging and digging, hoping that this time you really will find a diamond, until the whole cave collapses on you.

What you must do when you are dissatisfied and discontent, you have all these unfulfilled longings—you should look beyond all earthly pleasures, for the only true and real and eternal pleasure.

You must look toward your heavenly Father—the giver of every good and perfect gift—and your forever home with Him.

Nothing on earth—no relationship, no status, no creature comforts, no amount of money—can ever purchase happiness or heaven. But Jesus Christ has already purchased them both for you.

Understand that Tenth Commandment condemns us all. In the light of God’s generosity, we see our own selfishness and ingratitude for what it is. 

We all wear what 1 Thess. 2:5 calls the cloak of covetousness. And Ephesians 5:5 tells us that anyone who is covetous … has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.

This is why we must look to Christ alone for salvation. Our covetous hearts, turned inward on themselves, not only deny us entry to our Father’s house—they make it so we don’t even look in that direction.

When the Law cuts us in our hearts, the only thing we can do is to join that man in prayer who says: God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13). And then turn our attention away from ourselves, and fix our eyes in faith on Christ alone.

Because no one can come to the Father except through Him, John 14:6. We must look to Christ alone, because His perfect obedience fulfills all the Law’s Commands, and His death completely satisfies the Law’s justice.

The Law’s final demand is a heart that does not covet what belongs to our neighbor—a heart completely free from envy, jealousy, selfishness, or lust. The Gospel gives what the Law demands. God has given us Christ, and His open, generous, merciful, loving heart.

Christ is the the only one who can set us free from a life of never enoughness. When you’re joined to Christ by faith, all things are yours … and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s, 1 Cor. 3:21-23.

Christ alone is the cure to your hiraeth, because only Christ is your bridge back to Eden, back home with your heavenly Father.

Jesus said, Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also, Matt. 6:21. When your eyes are fixed on Him, when your heart is in love with Christ who first loved you—then Christ is your treasure, and your heart is already in heaven with Him.

In Christ, we receive new hearts to obey the Commandment

When anyone is in Christ, the Commandments are transformed. God’s Law will no longer condemn us, but it does still teach us and command us. 

The Commandment not to covet is the only one that we can violate in secret. Your neighbor will never know if you’re lusting over his wife, or you’re envious of his new car—unless you make a pass at his wife, or steal his car. 

That’s exactly why it’s the final Commandment. Coveting is the sin that can and does and will lead you to violate all the other Commandments.

What we must have to obey the Commandment is a new heart. And once again, the Gospel gives what the Law demands. 

Here’s Christ’s promise to all who believe in Him, Ezekiel 36:26: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you—His own Holy Spirit; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

And with this new, softened heart the Spirit gives us, over time we begin to learn to serve with contentment, wherever the Lord in His providence has placed us. Like the Apostle Paul, you will be able to say: I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances (Phil 4:11)—because the Spirit of Christ living in you will teach you.

You’ll begin truly to believe that godliness with contentment is great gain, 1 Tim. 6:6. That’s how you’ll learn to be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5) You can trust God, because His own Spirit is dwelling within you. You are God’s child, and He is no absentee Father.

And then you’ll see another transformation. You’ll find that you’re able not to do things out of selfish ambition or vain conceit … [but rather] in humility value others above yourselves, Phil. 3:4. This new heart the Spirit gives you will not always be turned inward, but will learn to in love and compassion towards God and other people.

And instead of coveting what your neighbor has—living in ungrateful envy that makes you self-centered, you’ll find yourself able to rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, Rom. 12:15.

Our hope: When God transforms our hiraeth into homecoming

Now will this be a smooth progression, always going up, up, up, towards heaven? Heavens no! Our old friends Cap and Zach were totally realistic about that, and we should be too. They said: No, but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of such obedience.

But by Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are being transformed into the [image of Christ] from one degree of glory to another, 2 Cor. 3:18. We will not be perfected until Christ returns.

1 Cor. 15 promises that we will be raised immortal, imperishable, and incorruptible—just like Jesus Himself. Until then we can long for the day when we will never again sin against our Lord in word or thought or deed.

Again, in Mere Christianity, Lewis says: [We] must keep alive in [ourselves] the desire for [our] true country, which [we] shall not find till after death.

And we don’t even have to do that on our own power, you know—keeping our desire alive for our home country. Because the Holy Spirit who lives in us himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if we are children, then we are heirs, Rom. 8:15-17. 

God’s own Spirit within us assures us—even on our worst days, even when our consciences accuse us—that we are daughters and sons of God by faith, with an eternal inheritance in the new heavens and earth. 

The Spirit will always draw the desires of our hearts back to our true home country. Where God will transform our hiraeth into homecoming, and the never enoughness of life in this world the always enoughness of glory, filling us with joy in His presence, with eternal pleasures at His right hand, Ps. 16:11.

We’ll be back in Eden. Back to our home country, that we were made for, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

You shall not bear false witness (Exodus 20:16)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for March 21, 2020.

Live video link embedded below, sermon notes below that.

The Ninth Commandment in the courtroom, and outside it

Our 2021 theme is To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

The Ten Commandments sum up the holy Law of God. They teach us how to love God and love other people. As a summary of God’s Law, these Commandments teach us how we may glorify and enjoy God.

Because humans are sinners by nature, on their own, these Ten Commandments can only condemn us. We have sinned against a holy and righteous God. On their own, these Commandments cast a dark shadow of God’s judgment and doom. Sinners stand hopelessly under God’s righteous frown—our condemnation is well-deserved.

Ps 89:14 tells us that righteousness and justice are the foundation of [God’s] throne. He cannot simply overlook our sin. 

But this verse also tells us that steadfast love and faithfulness go before [God]. His steadfast love and faithfulness is given to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us. He perfectly obeyed all Ten Commandments every day of His life. And then He died on the cross—under God’s wrath and curse—in our place. He fulfilled all righteousness for us.

And now, when we are joined to Christ by faith, we stand sheltered safe in the shadow of His perfect righteousness. Christ’s righteousness casts a far longer shadow than our sin and doom. 

And that transforms the Law. Now the Law is no longer our doom, terrorizing us with God’s wrath. For Christians, the Ten Commandments are our teacher. Teaching us wisdom, and guiding us to holy living.

In each of the Ten Commandments, we see a shadow of Christ. They reveal to us not only our sin and misery, but also foreshadow Christ’s righteousness that saves us.

So today we have come to the Ninth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

What does it mean to bear false witness against your neighbor? The words bear false witness imply a courtroom scene. A place where justice is at stake, and futures—perhaps even someone’s very life—is on the line.

Indeed, the famous old TV trope in courtroom dramas, where a witness places their hand on a Bible and swears to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—so help me God!—is actually derived from the Ninth Commandment.

You’re swearing an oath not to bear false witness. That means that you don’t pervert justice by lying against someone; or by lying to cover up someone else’s crime.

The technical name for lying in court is perjury. And if you are caught committing perjury—bearing false witness, lying on the stand—you can also face severe legal penalties. 

This is also based on the Ninth Commandment. Deut. 19:15-21 is an example of case law that taught the Israelites what to do if they caught someone bearing false witness in court. 

It says that if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. In other words, whatever punishment was going to fall on the falsely accused would instead be carried out on the one who gave false testimony.

And God meant business. He told Israel that, in the case of a malicious witness, to: Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Honestly, I wish that’s how our legal system worked. 

So that’s the basic idea of not bearing false witness against our neighbors. It pictures a courtroom where someone is being falsely accused of words they never said, or actions they never did.

Now of course, committing perjury in a court of law isn’t a daily temptation for most of us. It’s just not something that comes up a whole lot, is it?

So, does the Commandment against bearing false witness have application beyond legal testimony? It absolutely does.

In Zechariah 8:16, God tells His people to: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts. So the Ninth Commandment applies to being truthful in legal settings and telling the truth in general.

The Ninth Commandment in historic Christian teaching

This Commandment really forbids speaking about anyone else in any way that unjustly tears them down, or seeks to destroy their reputation, or that belittles them in your own eyes, or in the eyes of others.

For example, in Romans 1:29-30, Paul includes gossip and slander among the sins that provoke God’s wrath and are deserving of death. Gossip and slander are other ways we bear false witness against our neighbor. 

Here’s what the Commandment means in all its fullness, according to the great Reformer Martin Luther: We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

What are some common ways people lie about, betray, or slander our neighbors?

One way—like we mentioned already—is gossip and slander. Gossip is revealing information that you have no business sharing. Gossip can be true, or untrue. But slander is always untrue.

The old-timey King James Version word for gossip and slander is backbiting. You’re being sneaky and manipulative, and harming someone behind their back. 

Gossip betrays your neighbor when they have given you sensitive information, and trusted you with it—but you go and share it with others. That’s sneaky and manipulative, because we only do that to tear someone else down, or make ourselves look better.

Likewise, Lev. 19:16 says: Do not go about spreading slander among your people.

And there are more ways to slander someone than just making up a lie about them.

It could be passing along information that’s based on hearsay—you can’t confirm if it’s true or not. That’s one reason the Bible teaches that a matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). 

Very often, people commit slander by misrepresenting what others have said, or offering groundless speculations about their motives. In Psalm 56:5-6, King David complained that his enemies were constantly twisting his words to stir up strife.

If you twist someone’s words to mean something other than what they meant; or you take a rather innocent comment out of context just to make someone sound bad or stupid—that’s bearing false witness. It’s a form of slander because it’s not being truthful about what they actually meant.

Our old Puritan friends at Westminster named some other ways we can betray other people through what we say. I mean, they pointed out dozens of sins of the tongue that violate the Ninth Commandment.

Here’s just a few I want us to notice. One way they said we bear false witness is by speaking the truth unseasonably. Just because something is technically true, that doesn’t mean it’s always the right time to speak that truth.

For example, while it’s true that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28); it might be inappropriate to lead with that when you’re talking to an inconsolable parent whose child just died. The best thing to do is probably just to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15), and then shut up. Unless it’s to ask them if there’s anything you can do for them.

Those wise old Westminster Puritans also said that we violate the Ninth Commandment by speaking the truth … maliciously to a wrong end. 

You should never tell the truth just to score points, or hurt someone. 

Prov. 29:11 says: A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back. In other words, there is a time and a place for diplomacy and gentleness. 

A really good practice is to notice how Jesus expressed Himself. When was He gentle, and when did He speak the truth forcefully? It’s not like busting up into places shouting and flipping tables was what He did every day.

Another way the old Westminster Puritans said we bear false witness is by denying the gifts and graces of God in others. In other words, not giving others their due credit. Not celebrating the things they do well. The reason this is bearing false witness is that you’re not being truthful about their God-given gifts and skills.

What’s that saying? You don’t have to put out someone else’s candle to make yours burn brighter? That’s a sign of your own insecurity. It’s not righteous and it’s not godly. It’s just petty. And do you really want to break one of the Ten Commandments by just being petty?

Real quick—a couple of other common ways the old Puritans saw that we betray our neighbors with our speech. The first is aggravating smaller faults. 

In other words, nit-picking about some relatively small trait or personality flaw in someone else, or complaining about it to others. 

Jesus said: Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matt. 7:3) As soon as you go to nitpicking what is essentially your brother or sister’s human weakness, or complaining about it to others—that’s the log in your eye. Because now you’re bearing false witness against your neighbor by trying to make them seem worse than they actually are.

And the other one is unnecessary discovery of infirmities. In other words, going around like a tabloid reporter trying to dig up dirt on other people, so you can use it against them. 

Or here’s another example of unnecessary discovery of infirmities. Have you ever had a falling out with a friend—and maybe it was even their fault—but then you went around running your mouth about every wrong or stupid thing they’d ever done? 

Prov. 25:9-10 talks about that. It says: When arguing with your neighbor, don’t betray another person’s secret. Others may accuse you of gossip, and you will never regain your good reputation.

In other words, while you’re trying to make that person you’re mad at look bad, you’re actually making yourself look bad. Now all your friends are going to say: Oh, you better not ever tell her anything; don’t let your guard down, don’t be vulnerable around her. Because as soon as you make her mad, she’s going to tell everyone about it.

So the Ninth Commandment—it’s really about promoting and preserving truth. Not just in a courtroom, but in every aspect of life. It’s also about promoting, preserving, and protecting your neighbor’s reputation—and your own.

The Ninth Commandment in God’s courtroom: Everyone is a liar

The Ninth Commandment is God’s holy standard for integrity in our speech.  It commands us not to be a gossip, a slanderer, or a busybody. Not to manipulate others, not to use the truth as a weapon to harm others.

And not to be petty. One of the things I really appreciate about the Puritans’ insight into this Commandment is that they teach us how often we bear false witness against our neighbor just by being petty!

Here’s why I’m telling you all this. Most people think they’re really good at keeping this Commandment, because they’re generally honest. 

We don’t think about all the times we’ve gossiped behind closed doors. Or assigned false motives to what someone else did. Or we’ve twisted someone else’s words. All of those times we haven’t had integrity in our speech.

What would happen if you or I were to stand before God, with only our own righteousness to defend us? 

And of course, we would not be judged on our good intentions, or our greatest accomplishments, or how hard we tried. The only basis for judgment is God’s own perfect, holy, and righteous Law, which says: You shall not bear false witness.

Jesus tells us exactly what would happen. Matthew 12:36-37:

I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

If we stood before God with only our own righteousness, and He judged us by every careless word we’ve ever spoken, the Ninth Commandment alone would condemn us. 

Every lie you’ve ever told—you can’t remember them all, can you? Every time you’ve gossiped. Every time you’ve weighed in with your opinion about someone, even though you didn’t have all the facts. Every time you threw somebody else under the bus, while minimizing or denying your own wrongdoing. Even times when you’ve told the truth—but you told it for the wrong reasons. 

By that standard—Jesus says: by your words you will be condemned.

Jesus tells us that God will bring every careless word we’ve ever spoken as evidence against us. 

And we start remembering some of our careless words. 

And that’s when we have to confess that God was certainly not bearing false witness against us when He said that our throats are open graves; [our] tongues practice deceit; the poison of vipers is on [our] lips; and our mouths are full of cursing and bitterness (Rom. 3:13-14).

The Ninth Commandment bears true witness against us all. And the verdict  is declared in Psalm 116:11: Everyone is a liar.

That is the just condemnation of God’s Law. Now here is the Gospel.

Jesus: Our faithful witness in God’s courtroom

The good news—the most wonderful news—is that you don’t have to stand before God’s judgment in your own righteousness.

The same God whose Law condemns you, has sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to save you. And Heb. 7:25 says Christ is able to save completely those who come to God through him.

Because Jesus is both fully God and fully human, He is able to act as a bridge, a mediator, between a holy God and sinful humans. 

Jesus is able to draw us to Himself by faith, and present us to the Father. 

So that when you are in Christ, you no longer stand before God in your own righteousness—but in Christ’s righteousness.

Christ perfectly fulfilled the Ninth Commandment, because He is the very Word of God in human flesh. John 1:14 says: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. 

If you want to know what truth is, you look to Jesus. You fix your eyes on Him.

Jesus said so Himself. In John 14:6, He said: I am the way and the truth and the life.

John 1:14 also says that Christ was sent from the Father, full of grace and truth. Jesus always bore witness to the truth about God, about us, and about sin. And sometimes the truth was ugly. The cross tells an ugly truth about us, about our sin, and about God’s wrath. 

But grace also flowed out from Him, along with truth. Because in the cross of Christ, we also find our forgiveness. From the cross, Jesus tells us: It is finished. 

And it is finished means that you are forgiven. And I am forgiven. And that all who stand in the shadow of the cross, and by faith fix their eyes on Christ, are forgiven. 

God will not count our sins against us, because Jesus has fulfilled the Law on our behalf, and suffered the punishment for our sins. 

And now He is called the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead (Rev. 1:5). By His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has transformed the Ninth Commandment.

Now, instead of a promise of judgement and doom, the Ninth Commandment is God’s promise that Christ Himself will defend us in the final court of law—the very throne of God. His testimony—It is finished—will allow us to stand in the presence of the Holy King, and be welcomed into eternal life.

Outside of Christ, yes—we would have to give an account of every careless word. And by our words we would be condemned. 

But when you are in Christ, here’s what He says to you, John 5:24: Very truly I tell you—Christ, our faithful witness, is making a promise to us— whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.

In other words, as soon as you believe, in a sense, Judgment Day has already happened for you. As soon as you believe, you’ve crossed over from death to life, because Jesus has already suffered your judgment on the cross.

The sanctifying Spirit of Truth who makes us faithful witnesses

Not only that—but when you believe, Jesus leaves you with another true and faithful witness: His own Holy Spirit living in you! Jesus calls Him the Spirit of truth (John 16:13), who softens our deceitful hearts and tames our lying and vicious tongues, and leads us into all truth.

The Holy Spirit’s work in our lives transforms us, so that we can bear true witness to the Gospel. Christ has purchased our freedom from sin and death by His own blood, so that we can joyfully proclaim His goodness and mercy. 

In Rom. 12:1, St. Paul called our grateful witness to Christ [our] reasonable service.

Now—going back to what Martin Luther said about the Ninth Commandment—because we fear and love God in Christ, we no longer lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

How are we able to excuse our neighbor, instead of aggravating her smaller faults, as the Westminster Puritans said? How do we speak well of him, instead of unnecessarily pointing out his infirmities? How do we look for the best in our neighbor, and try to put the best spin on them whenever we can?

We do this by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth—living in us. 

Over time, the Spirit turns the rocky soil in our hearts, and waters and nourishes them with God’s own love—and His labor bears fruit in our lives. Remember? The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

Think about all those Spirit-grown fruits. They’re not really about us are they? No—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—they’re all growing to feed our neighbor. The Spirit is bearing this good fruit in us, so that we can bear witness to the Gospel of Christ by loving our neighbor as ourself.

Luther said instead of lying about our neighbor, now we excuse him. Let’s face it—we all have enough sin and weakness and broken places in our lives that we don’t even have to lie about one another to make somebody look bad.

What did Luther mean by excusing our neighbor? Not that we never hold them accountable for heinous sins that harm us or others. 

It means that the Law of God has humbled us, so that we see that our guilt before God was the log in our eye. And the things about others that annoy and frustrate and inconvenience us—the personality clashes, the petty conflicts—are really just specks in their eye. 

The Spirit bears fruit in our lives—like patience, kindness, and gentleness, so that we can be merciful to others, who are just struggling sinners like ourselves. Because mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). The Spirit reminds us of the mercy God showed us in Christ. And we bear witness to that mercy whenever we are able to overlook their smaller faults, instead of exaggerating them.

Instead of betraying our neighbor, through the Spirit’s grace and power, now we can speak well of him. 

Instead of gossiping, slandering, or complaining about them, we can find what is praiseworthy in other people—and celebrate it. Because whatever is good and right in any sinful human is from the Lord.

Paul tells us in Phil. 4:8: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When we’re thinking on those things, we’re able to see them in others. We’re able to see whatever is honorable, commendable, and lovely in them, and give glory to God for it by speaking well of them.

And that also helps us with the other way Luther told us we can obey the Ninth Commandment: instead of slandering our neighbor, we try to put the best construction on everything—in other words, we try and think the best of them, and give them the benefit of the doubt, whenever we can.

Because we’re not looking for bad in them. Because the Spirit of Truth is dwelling in us, teaching us patience and self-control—we’re looking for any excellence we can see in them.

But remember—that’s all the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Not the fruit of [throw out some names]

Even though we have all broken the Ninth Commandment and born false witness against our neighbors, by His grace, God has promised to use our imperfect lives as witnesses to the Gospel of Christ. 

We will often fail in our witness, because we will continue to struggle with sin throughout our lives. We will speak when we should be silent, and be silent when we should speak up. We will often find ourselves still complaining about the smaller faults of others, and trying to dig up dirt on people, assigning impure motives to others, and speaking even the truth unseasonably and harshly.

But here’s where we find our rest: Jesus took all of those failures to the cross with Him, too. They were nailed there with Him. He took them to the grave with Him. And when He rose on Easter morning—He left your sins dead in the grave. 

Our faithful witness Jesus Christ has already suffered the judgment for our faithlessness. For that reason, we have every confidence that God will receive, accept, and turn even our imperfect witness to His glory and our neighbors’ good.

Because Christ is our faithful witness before the Father, we are able to glorify God, and one day join Him in glory, to enjoy Him forever.

Are all sins equal?

It is almost a truism in popular Christianity that all sins are equal.

If you criticize anyone for what they have done in word or deed, someone will inevitably say: Judge not, that ye be not judged (Matt. 7:1); or, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone (John 8:7).

Why should you judge? After all, you are just a sinner in need of grace, like them.

The technical name for this idea is sin-leveling. The idea being that since we’re all sinners, God doesn’t see any difference between the unrepentant murderer and the poor grandma who stole a loaf of bread from the Safeway. Therefore, since all are equally guilty in God’s eyes, it is wrong to censure and condemn some sins more strongly than others.

Here’s a couple of regular consequences of this belief that I have seen too many times.

  1. A Christian leader is found to be living in a pattern of sin–even abuse. People will inevitably say: Oh, don’t be so judgmental. David was a sinner, and yet he was called a man after God’s own heart. Of course, what they are missing here entirely is David’s exquisite repentance (see Psalm 51), and the fact that while God forgave David, he still suffered severe consequences, as his family and eventually kingdom unraveled around him.
  2. A sexual predator or other abuser has roamed through the church, tearing Christ’s little flock with their ravenous teeth. We are told to forgive them and extend grace. (That’s not what Jesus said should happen with them, Mark 9:42ff.) Their victims are told they must extend grace to them, or they are just as guilty of sin as the abuser or predator. This is grace for the offender, and law for the victim.

So the upshot of this teaching is that heinous sins are minimized, abusers are enabled, and victims are re-traumatized … all in Jesus’ name.

Instinctively, even sinful humans understand that this cannot be right. After all, if stealing bread is no better than murder, then murder is no worse than stealing bread. And what sort of just God would condone that?

Is this teaching of sin-leveling biblical?

Not according to Christians of generations past.

For instance, Q 83 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks:

Are all sins equally evil?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English

And this is the answer given:

In the eyes of God some sins in themselves are more evil than others, and some are more evil because of the harm that results from them.

Were the Westminster Divines correct in saying this?

Let’s look at some of the scripture proofs they provide to support their conclusion.

Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

John 19:11

From this passage, we can deduce that, if there is a greater sin, there must also be a lesser sin.

If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.

1 John 5:16

Some sins in the Bible are said to deserve a death penalty. Murder, adultery and other forms of sexual abuse, human trafficking, etc. These are sins unto death. Not every sin is in this category. These sins are sins that are more evil because they cause greater harm.

For if the word spoken by angels was stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompence of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him.

Hebrews 2:2-3

Apostasy is a great sin in scripture, because it leads to eternal damnation. Salvation is found in Christ alone, so to desert Him and dwell in unbelief is to cut off all hope of salvation.

And they sinned yet more against him
by provoking the most High in the wilderness …

For all this they sinned still,
and believed not for his wondrous works …

Yet they tempted and provoked the most high God,
and kept not his testimonies.

Psalm 78:17, 32, 56

Living in a pattern of unrepentant sin is a great sin, because it reveals unbelief and rebellion against God. This is not a moment of moral weakness, or a besetting sin that we struggle against, or a season of weak faith. Abusers and predators are not struggling with weak faith or moral weakness. They are intentionally plotting to harm others, and they enjoy what they do. They are only sorry when they are caught. But they are not sorry about what they have done. They are sorry that now it will be more inconvenient for them to procure victims. The sexual predator in prison is a model inmate, because he is hoping for an early release so he can go out and commit more abuse.

He said furthermore unto me, Son of man, seest thou what they do? even the great abominations that the house of Israel committeth here, that I should go far off from my sanctuary? but turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations … He said also unto me, Turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations that they do … Then said he unto me, Hast thou seen this, O son of man? turn thee yet again, and thou shalt see greater abominations than these.

Ezekiel 8:6, 13, 15

Again, according to this passage we see God Himself referring to greater abominations. Abominations are bad enough, but God says that even some abominations are worse than others! What we see here is also the consequence of a pattern of unrepentant sin: It escalates to something worse! Over and over again, God tells his prophet: thou shalt see greater abominations than these.

Outside of these, scripture also tells us that there’s a special category of sins that cry out to the Lord. These include murder (Gen. 4:10) and robbing the poor (Deut. 24:14-15). When scripture says a particular sin cries out to the Lord, it means this sin is so awful that Lady Justice herself shrieks in horror before collapsing on her fainting couch. That’s how horrible this sin is.

All that being said–and I could say much more–the Westminster Divines were absolutely correct. Sin-leveling is not biblical. All sins are not equal in God’s sight.

While it is true that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), and that all sins deserve judgment, and all sinners will perish outside of Christ (Rom. 6:23), it is not true that all sins are equal before God.

Every day we live is a stay of execution, given us merely by God’s good pleasure, so that none of His elect be lost but receive eternal life (2 Peter 3:9). But there are specific sins that call for an immediate death penalty. Again, we see that not every sin calls for that. So those that do are objectively greater–not only subjectively–than others.

All the fruit of sin-leveling is rotten. It does not produce humility, but self-righteousness. It does not produce genuine repentance, but it does minimize greater sins and abominations. It does not produce biblical justice, but it promotes and perpetuates grave injustice for victims of abusers, predators, and bullies within the church.

Christians–especially the shepherds of the church–ought to be protecting and defending Christ’s little lambs from wolves, and binding up the wounded. The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17). Sin-leveling does not produce righteous judgment. Especially when it’s a highly debatable matter whether or not it is even a sin to withhold grace from an unrepentant offender in the first place.

To sum up:

  1. Scripture establishes that there are such things as greater sins (John 19:11).
  2. Examples of these greater sins include:
    1. Sins unto death (sins God has said demand a death penalty, 1 John 5:16)
    2. Apostasy (Heb. 2:2-3)
    3. A pattern of willful, unrepentant sin (Psalm 78:17, 32, 56)
    4. Escalating sins that go from bad to worse (Ezekiel 8:6, 13, 15)

All sins are not equal. Not in their harm or consequences, and not in the sight of God.