What was going on in Galatia?

Live video of my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for July 18, 2021.

This message began a new series in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This served as an introduction to the circumstances and themes of the letter.

Resources I’m using for this series:

J.V. Fesko, Galatians, The Lectio Continue Expository Commentary on the New Testament, ed. John D. Payne (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2012).

Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535): Lecture Notes Transcribed by Students and Presented in Today’s English, trans. Haroldo Camacho (Irvine, CA: 1517 Press, 2018).

Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005).

This message also draws extensively from Trevin Wax, Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope (Chicago: Moody, 2011), 11-13, 44-61.

Live video link below. No notes this week.

Blessed are the pure in heart (Matthew 5:8)

After taking a sabbatical from preaching during the month of June, I returned to the pulpit to finish a mini-series from the Beatitudes, The Upside Down Kingdom.

The text was Matthew 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Other scriptures read during worship were Jeremiah 17:9-10; Psalm 51:10-12; and Ezekiel 36:26-27.

This sermon owes much to the chapter, “Go Home, Heart, You’re Drunk: The Failure to Follow our Hearts,” by Chad Bird, from his book, Upside-Down Spirituality: The 9 Essential Failures of a Faithful Life, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019 (65-84).

Live video link embedded below. Sermon notes are below that.

Intro

Text: Matt. 5:8: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Three questions this text raises I want to answer today:

  1. What is my heart?
  2. How pure does my heart need to be?
  3. How can I get a pure heart?

What is my heart?

Before we can understand who Jesus is blessing, and what He’s blessing, we need to clarify what we even mean when we talk about our hearts

Because he obviously doesn’t mean that muscle in your chest that’s pumping blood through your body. But it’s also not the same heart that you hear about in pop songs on the radio.

In the Bible, your heart is who you are, at very core of your being.

As a face is reflected in water,

    so the heart reflects the real person. (Prov. 27:19)

It’s the totality of your emotions, your intellect, and your will.

It’s a single word that sums up what you feel, what you fear, what you desire, and what you think.

Bible doesn’t make the distinction we do between what you feel in your heart, and what you think or know in your head. It involves both.

See, in modern times, we redefined the heart. And we’ve downgraded it.

When we talk about our hearts, we no longer mean this rich word that sums up all of our inner life.

When we talk about our hearts, we mean the sentimental Hallmark version.

It’s the part of us that gets broken in a breakup.

It’s the thing Disney movies are always badgering us to follow.

It’s the part of us that marketing gurus have figured out how to manipulate us by tugging on our heart-strings

Like—Glade can’t just tell you why their scented candles are the best. They have to go and hit you right in the feels by showing you a lonely old man at Christmas or something.

They’ve got to pull on your heart like a leash, so you’ll follow your heart to Walmart and buy their candles.

See, what we’ve done is we’ve taken this rich, luxurious word, heart, that used to mean the totality of our inner nature, and we’ve boiled it down to just one aspect of who we are: our emotions.

The modern idea of the heart is little more than a lava lamp, with blobs of our feelings and our moods free-floating in it.

And yet—the popular songs on the radio, the Hallmark cards, the romantic comedies, the well-meaning cheerleaders of our lives are always telling us to just follow your heart.

But think about that lava lamp with its swirling orbs of emotions. Why would anyone want to follow that?

It’s fine, I guess, to follow your heart when it’s leading you to treat yourself to some Crumbl Cookie.

But why would you weigh matters of what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s true and what’s a lie, matters of life and death—on the unstable scales of pure emotion?

Don’t you see, that’s really what you’re doing if you just follow your heart.

Most of you know my two year old son, Auggie. He’s a lovely child.

But when we go out, he sits strapped in a stroller that one of his parents has control of. Why? Because otherwise, he would run all over the store, making a mess, getting lost, and terrifying other customers with his fearless antics.

Now see, that’s what comes natural to him. But as his parents, we don’t slavishly follow him and obey his toddler whims.

Because Auggie is moody. He’s undisciplined. He doesn’t care if he gets dirty or gross. He doesn’t see danger or fear consequences. 

Just following your heart wherever it leads you is terrible advice! You might as well be letting Auggie lead you.

And listen up—this is equally true however you define your heart

Whether you just mean your emotional life, or you mean all of your inner life—including your thoughts and your reasoning and your will.

Our own minds play games with us, don’t they?

Our logic is easily bent towards selfish solutions.

Our moods are unstable as quicksilver.

Listen, very last thing you should be doing is journeying through life with your heart in the driver’s seat. 

You should say: Somebody take the keys away from my heart! She’s drunk!

We hear Jesus that the pure in heart will see God, and I think most of us would like to believe our hearts are pure.

Or they could be pure, if we worked at it.

Or at the very least—that our hearts are in the right place.

How pure does my heart need to be?

We like to imagine that as wild and unpredictable as our hearts can be—they’re still mostly pure.

But as soon you admit that your heart is so moody and undisciplined, that raises our second big question:

How pure does my heart need to be so I can see God?

How much will I have to clean up my heart so that I can glorify and enjoy God forever in eternity?

That’s what we really want to know, isn’t it?

When Jesus says that only the pure in heart will see God, we want to know how pureis pure enough, and how much work it will take.

Now, here’s what you need to understand.

We’re not asking: How pure is pure enough by my own standards? 

And we’re also not asking: How pure is pure enough for other people?

Ultimately, only God’s judgments matter here. We can learn to clean up the surface of our lives. We can even make the outside squeaky clean. 

We can learn to do good things, and say the right things, in the proper tone of voice, with the right expression on our face.

But when it comes to whose heart is pure enough for heaven, God says: I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve (Jer. 17:10).

God’s the one who peers into our inner life, with a holy, penetrating gaze. He knows all the nooks and crannies of the heart. He’s going to search through the basement and in the attic, in the crawl spaces, and under the couch cushions.

God’s white-glove inspection of the purity of your heart is the only one that counts for eternity. So we need to listen to God’s thoughts on the matter.

So: What does God say about our hearts?

Genesis 8:21. Very early in the first book of the Bible. God tells us that

every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.

God doesn’t say sometimes our hearts are bent towards evil. He also doesn’t say only some human hearts are bent towards evil.

God says every human heart is always bent towards evil. From childhood. 

It’s what comes natural to us. Some people have blue eyes, some people have brown eyes, some people have curly hair, some people have freckles.

But everyone has a heart that’s inclined to do evil.

Now, we hear this, and one common reaction is to be defensive, like this doesn’t apply to me

Maybe we say: Listen, I’m not some psychopath or mass murderer. I’m not Hitler or Stalin or Ted Bundy! Surely, my heart is not really only inclined to evil!

Surely God just means that in general, human hearts are bent towards evil. But not my heart in particular. Right?

Here’s where we go wrong when we reason like that. God’s not grading us on a curve.

He’s not comparing your heart to the nastiest men in the history of the world.

By God’s grace, most of us don’t attain to the depths of depravity of someone like Hitler.

But people like that do stand as a witness to what any of us could become if God’s grace and providence wasn’t restraining the most evil impulses of our hearts.

So when God tells us that every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhoodno, He’s not saying that we’re all as wicked as we could possibly be.

But He is telling you that your heart is naturally not pure

God is telling us that, no matter how much you might believe that your heart’s in the right place, you have never had a truly good intention or a really pure motive a day in your life.

Now, Rom. 1:18 tells us that we all suppress the truth about this, but we do know it’s true. 

Our hearts rebel against obeying God. And even when we do obey, we grumble about it. And then we pat ourselves on the back afterwards. Look what I did!

We do good things to feel good about ourselves. 

We take all the credit and none of the blame. 

Even our best deeds on our best days are tainted with the rot of selfishness and self-righteousness. 

And this is what comes natural to us. It’s so natural, we don’t even notice it most of the time. 

And here’s the thing—we can’t blame God that we’re like that. Eccles. 7:29 tells us that God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes. 

It’s talking about our fall into sin. God created humans perfectly righteous. 

But in our first parents’ rebellion, every son of Adam and daughter of Eve was plunged into sin. It’s a common family trait, found in every nation, race, tribe, and family of man.

So now we go in search of many schemes. We follow our hearts, like a bull with a ring in its nose. But our hearts are always running away from God.

Rom. 1:21 says that because of sin, [our] thinking became futile and [our] foolish hearts were darkened.

The sin in our hearts has deep roots in every part of our lives.

Our emotions, our desires, our moods, our thoughts, and our reasoning are all corrupted by it.

In light of all that, here’s what else God says about our hearts.

Jeremiah 17:9:

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Not only is your heart, my heart—everyone’s heart—thoroughly corrupted by our sin, it’s wrapped in layers of lies.

Our hearts tell us: I’m in the right place. My motives are pure. Those awful things you’ve done don’t really reflect who you are.

It’s like layers and layers of bandages, with a festering cancer underneath.

Who can understand it? In other words—who can unravel all those lies our hearts are telling us?

And even if we could, God says our hearts are beyond cure. The condition of our hearts is beyond all earthly help.

The question, again, is:

How pure does my heart need to be if I am to see God?

Let me tell you about that word Jesus used for pure. It’s the same word you would use to describe 24k gold. 

That’s pure gold. Zero impurities.

Your heart has to be that pure. No sin. No deceit. No false motives. Full of nothing but adoring obedience to God, and perfect love for your neighbor.

But God says no one’s heart is pure enough. Our hearts are only bent towards evil from childhood, and they’re deceitful above all things.

What’s worse—God says our hearts are beyond cure. No matter how much we try to clean them up, no matter how hard we might wish for a pure heart—we can never make them pure enough.

Down in Alabama, there’s a courthouse window that’s had an indelible outline of a man’s face in it since 1878

The man’s name was Henry Wells, and he was falsely accused of arson, and killed by a mob of vigilantes.

He told them he was innocent, and if that if they killed him, he would haunt their town forever.

The next morning, a face appeared in the courthouse window, right where Henry Wells had called down to the mob.

The county sheriff scrubbed that window with soap and hot water for weeks, trying to get Henry Wells’ face out of the window.

It’s still there today.

Our hearts are like that courthouse window. No matter how hard or how long we scrub them, they will never be pure.

The face of our sin will always be peering back at us—haunting us with our guilt, and the promise of being eternally separated from God’s love, mercy, and grace.

How can I get a pure heart?

Now, hopefully you realize that Jesus didn’t just come to say that the poor in heart shall see God; but none of you has a pure heart, so it sucks to be you! 

Right? That’s not what the Beatitude says. Then it would be a curse, not a blessing.

Jesus says, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

That means God has made a wayto purify human hearts.

Our hearts are beyond all earthly help, all human help.

But they are not beyond God’s help.

So that’s our third and most important question:

How can I get a pure heart?

You get it from God, of course. God demands a pure heart. And God Himself gives what He commands. Isn’t that awesome? 

Here’s how you get a pure heart, according to an old Swedish pastor named Bo Giertz. He tells the story so much better than I ever will.

He says:

The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap … But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks his walking cane through it, and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with him.

Bo Giertz, The Hammer of God, rev. ed., Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2005, 123.

You can only have a pure heart because God Himself redeems your heart. By sheer grace alone, He pierces your heart with the walking stick of faith, and brings you home to Him.

We sing a song, and we heard the scripture today, Ps. 51:10:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

What is this crying out for? A new heart! A clean heart! Only God can purify the heart.

Here’s the story behind that prayer.

King David had just committed a string of grievous sins, over the course of a year.

He had taken another man’s wife, and then arranged to have her husband murdered on the battlefield.

Then he’d covered up all his evildoing, while this other man’s wife was carrying David’s child.

God sent a prophet to King David to confront him with his sins.

David saw the evil he’d done, all the carnage and the victims of his sin.

And he said: That all came from my heart. That’s what lives in my heart! Lies and lust and murder!

All that ugly evil in his heart—and King David was a powerful man, but he powerless to purify his own heart

He knew only God could do that. 

So David prayed aloud for God to create a clean heart within him, by the power of God’s own Holy Spirit.

That’s the only way you can get a pure heart. God has to take your impure heart, and create a clean heart in you, by His Spirit.

And God will do it, too! 

Here’s God’s answer to everyone who cries out to Him in faith, asking Him to purify their heart. 

Ezekiel 36:26:

God says: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you.

God promises to whoever calls upon Him in faith, to replace their heart of stone with a heart of flesh.

God takes your heart that was cold and stubborn and dead towards Him, and by His Holy Spirit, makes it alive again, and tender towards Him.

When God purifies your heart by the Holy Spirit, it’s really a kind of resurrection. God transforms your whole inner life—not just your emotions, but also your thoughts and your will.

And He does it all through faith in Jesus Christ.

You see, Christ is the true fulfillment of the Beatitude.

He is the One who is pure in heart

His heart is full of nothing but humble, adoring obedience to God, and perfect love for sinners like you and me.

Our hearts are made pure in Him alone. We will see God in Him and through Him alone.

Christ calls us to come to Him, and follow Him. I’m afraid a lot of us misunderstand what Jesus means when he says, Follow Me.

It’s not that we try and copy Him in our speech and pattern of life. 

You’re not shadowing Jesus like an understudy or apprentice, so that He’s just a role model and you’re trying to emulate Him.

Saving faith in Christ is so much deeper and more intimate than that.

Jesus calls us to come to Him and rest. He promises that if we abide in Him, He will also abide in us.

When God purifies our hearts by the Holy Spirit, our hearts no longer run from Christ. They run to Him in faith. And they cling to Him in faith. 

Resting in Christ and abiding with Christ means that we live and move and have our being in Him. 

I mean, just listen to some of the ways scripture talks about how intimately our faith joins us to Christ. 

  • We’ve been crucified with Christ, and will be resurrected with Him
  • We have put on Christ’s righteousness and holiness like clothing
  • We are grafted onto His body
  • We feast on His flesh, and are nourished by His blood in the Lord’s Supper

The Holy Spirit inside us purifies our hearts by joining us that tightly to Christ, by faith.

So Christ’s Father becomes our Father.

So that in God’s eyes, Christ’s obedience is our obedience.

Christ’s death is our death.

And Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection.

And finally—in eternity—we will be so joined to Christ, that our hearts will be His heart.

1 John 3:2 promises that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

Our hearts will be perfected, and we will see God’s glory in the face of our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, forever and ever.

When you are finally, perfectly pure in heart—when Jesus Christ our faithful Savior raises us from the dead—then you will see God.

They happen together!

The pure in heart will see God because God Himself purifies our hearts, by the Holy Spirit, through faith in Jesus Christ.

By His grace alone, He redeems our hearts and makes them do what they were created for—to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.

The master of your fate (James 4:13-16)

Video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for May 30, 2021.

The text was James 4:13-16.

Resources I’ve used when preparing these messages:

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!

I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul

Today, we have come to the end of our time in James’ classroom. 

We’ve been coming to hear James teach us about the wisdom from above. 

Last week we learned Jesus Himself is the wisdom from heaven. Christ is the pure, peaceable, gentle wisdom from God, who makes us pure in God’s sight, and peaceful and gentle in ourselves, and with our neighbors.

And we can only get this wisdom from heaven by faith. By receiving Christ and resting in Him, as He is offered to us in the gospel. 

You see, James has taught us that: 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, James 1:5. 

Now the ancient African preacher, St. Augustine, warns us that God gives where he finds empty hands.

Only with the empty hands of faith can we receive Christ in His fulness. 

And so James in today’s passage is going to teach us how we must receive not only wisdom from God, but every good and perfect gift from His hand, with the humility of faith.

There’s a famous old poem from Victorian England called “Invictus.” And even if you don’t recognize the poem by its name, you’ve probably heard its final stanza.

The poet concludes with a manly confidence, proclaiming:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

The author of this poem, William Henley, died at the age of 53 from falling off a railway carriage. You see, William Henley suffered from a rare form of tuberculosis in his bones. When he fell, he injured his leg, his tuberculosis flared up, and he died.

So it turns out the author of these proud words was in no way, shape, or form the master of his fate or the captain of his soul.

But how often do we then turn right around and actually live our lives like we also believe we’re the master of our fate and the captain of our soul?

We want ultimate control over our own outcomes and destinies. And very often, we actually believe that we have that control. Or at least we live like we do.

And that is exactly what James was preaching about in our passage today. 

Leaving God out of your plans

In v13, James says: Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”

Now, it’s really tempting to hear these words and say, James is talking about somebody else. He doesn’t mean me obviously.

Because you’re not planning on going out town tomorrow on a yearlong business trip.

Okay. But let me ask you a few questions.

Do you have a calendar? 

How much do you have scheduled for the next six months?

How full is your calendar?

Are you one of those people who has a calendar on your phone with a bunch of alarms and reminders?

Does your calendar have a vacation on it?

And I bet a lot of you would say, Yes—don’t you have a calendar?!

By the way—there’s nothing wrong with calendars or schedules or planning. Christians should be responsible caretakers of the lives and the opportunities God has given us. And that includes being prudent with how we manage our time.

But this is about a reality check, a gut check. Am I managing my time to the glory of God? Or is my schedule a reflection of my desire to manage the future, which belongs to God alone?

Here’s my point: It’s so easy for our calendars and our schedules and our goals to become an idol. 

I’m not suggesting that we literally bow down to our calendars and worship them. But it’s easy to become a slave to them. 

Like—do you ever worry about offending your calendar?

What I mean is—do you ever get anxious when you’re off-schedule, or something happens and your schedule goes out the window?

Let me confess, I have the opposite problem. A lot of time, it’s being on a schedule that makes me anxious. Unscheduled time is me time. Schedules and calendars mean I’m moving in the world of other people and their expectations. The world of deadlines and due dates and doctor’s appointments.

I love seeing a day on the calendar with nothing penciled in. No plans. Of course—something unplanned always ends up popping off anyway, doesn’t it?

Our calendars and schedules can give us an illusion of control over our lives. 

The future is so uncertain and unpredictable. But when it’s hanging on your wall, or it’s on your desktop, or even in the palm of your hands—it feels so manageable. It feels like you are the master of your fate, and the captain of your soul.

Like I said—there’s nothing wrong with planning—even if you’re like me and schedules make you itchy.

The problem James is addressing is when our planning doesn’t consider God, and His plans. God and His sovereign control over all the events of history—including our own lives.

In this verse, James is really diagnosing three mistakes we often make when we consider our future plans.

  1. We assume we have control over how long we’re going to live. Right? If I say, Later today, or tomorrow, I’m going to do so-and-so. Well, that’s assuming I’m going to still be alive later today, or tomorrow, and healthy enough to do whatever I want to do. I’m sure William Henley had plans for tomorrow when he fell off that railway car.
  2. We assume we can make whatever plans we please. We can come and go as we please. Today or tomorrow, we’ll go—whichever. The choice is ours.
  3. We assume that our plans will be successful. In this case, James was speaking to people who planned to go off to some city and do business. They assumed they would be successful: We’re going to carry on business and make money. But he could be talking about any kind of plan, couldn’t he?

The common thread running through all of these bad assumptions is that God is missing from all of them. 

We often make our plans as if there were no God, who has His own plans, and who is the true master of our fate, and captain of our souls.

So in vv14-15, James is going to show us three things we’re forgetting when we don’t factor God into our planning. 

What else we’re forgetting when we forget God

First, we forget that we don’t know what the future holds. James looks over our plans and our schedules and our calendars, and he says: Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

In his case, he overheard some church members boasting about how they were going to go off to the big city for a year and get rich. And so he’s asking them: Why are you so confident about that? You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. How can you know what will happen in a year?

God is eternal. For God, all times are now. God already decreed what was going to happen tomorrow before He even created time.

God knows tomorrow. We do not. And in some sense, what will happen tomorrow is none of our business.

We often go about life like we’re living by those words from “Invictus”: I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. But what happens when our plans go out the window?

What if you drop your iPhone in the toilet? What if you booked a flight to Cancun for vacation, and the airline went out of business the day before you were supposed to leave? What if you lose your job? What if there’s a recession that tanks your 401k and ruins your careful plans for retirement? What if tragedy strikes?

Now your plans are ruined. And your calendars and schedules are suddenly worthless. We cannot really plan our futures, and certainly we cannot control them!

James teaches us so much wisdom and humility with just these words: You do not even know what will happen tomorrow.

Moving along in v14, James continues to teach us humility. The first thing we miss when we fail to factor God into our plans, is we forget that we don’t know the future. Second, we forget that we are weak.

James says: What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Maybe you’ve been blessed to watch the sun rise over the lake on a cool, misty morning. It’s a beautiful sight to behold, the fog is all golden and brilliant. But in a few hours, the sun burns off the mist—and it’s gone. 

James says your life is like that, too. So is mine. So’s everyone’s. Against the endless ocean of eternity, our lives are just wisps of fog over a lake.

And yet—without even pausing to think about it—how often do we strut around making plans and filling up our calendars like we are the masters of our own destiny? 

James’ words here are a wake up call. Our lives are fleeting, like a mist that appears and a few hours later is gone. And our lives are as frail and fragile as butterfly wings.

Godly wisdom and humility teaches to remember that our days vanish like smoke (Ps. 102:3). We should call on the Lord with words like Job: Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath, Job 7:7.

The third thing we forget about ourselves when we don’t involve God in our planning is that we are dependent on God for everything.

This is what James teaches us in v15: Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Even Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, prayed: Yet not as I will, but as you will, Matt. 26:39. He was modeling a spirit for us of submitting to God’s will. And he taught us to pray the same way: thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, Matt. 6:10.

Now, just saying Lord willing when you’re making your plans is not a magic formula that will guarantee humility. But getting into the habit of saying it, or even thinking it, might be a way God uses to help make you more humble. More gentle. And more submissive to God.

See again—James is not against schedules, calendars, or planning. In fact, the Bible commends those who make plans. Prov. 6:6-11 teaches us look to the ant, [and] consider its ways and be wise! See how it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.

Proverbs teaches us to plan like the ant, or poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man. That is godly wisdom, to plan for retirement. Or for me to plan my preaching for the year. Or to have an escape plan for your family, in case your house catches on fire.

James’ point is that when we plan, when we schedule, when we draw up our calendars, when we set our goals—we must always remember that we are ignorant of the future, we are weak, and we are completely dependent on God.

God transforms arrogant schemes into humble, wise planning

So James looks at all those times we’re living like we are the masters of our fate, we are the captain of our soul. And here’s what James says about that, v16: As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil.

And since this is the Bible—it’s God’s word—that’s also God’s judgment on it. 

Remember, last week, we heard James call this kind of arrogant boasting unspiritual and demonic. I called that the wisdom from hell. It’s from the devil, not the Holy Spirit.

The most basic impulse in all sin is to live like God isn’t real. To say: I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul. James says the boaster is arrogant because he has forgotten God.

So then—what does it look like when we include God in our plans?

First, including God in our plans means confessing that we are don’t know the future. So we will dedicate our plans to the Lord. 

Then we might say something like: I hope to finish college and become a nurse, for God’s glory, and the good of my neighbors. 

See, now you’ve made a plan, but you’re submitting that plan to God’s will, and the desire of your heart is to live your life for God’s glory.

When we remember that we are weak as butterfly wings and our days are wisps of smoke, we will always confess that we need the mercy and favor of God. 

Psalm 127:1 says: Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Do you trust the Lord enough to let Him build your life, your future, for you—as He sees fit? 

Psalm 139:16 says all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. Your life is but a vapor, and yet God has planned every drop, every molecule of it. 

Are you content to rest in faith, confessing that you are weak, but the Lord is strong, and you rely fully on His favor and grace? 

What if you buy a house, and lose your job the very next week? What if you buy a farm right before a drought?

What if you lose everything? Will you be able to say what Job did when he lost everything? The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).

The humble planner knows that she can do everything just right, and her plans could still fail. So she has learned to rest in the Lord, and believe Him when He tells her: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness, 2 Cor. 12:9.

Finally, when we remember that we depend completely on God, there is no longer room in us for boasting and arrogant schemes. 

James has already reminded us that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father, James 1:17.

Do we really, truly believe that? Because that humbles us. If you are a great singer, who gave you your vocal cords? If you are successful at your job, who gave you skills and opportunities? 

Who gives us our talents, and nurtures them, and nudges us towards our highest aspirations? Who was it that made your mentors in your life choose you for special attention?

Christians realize we have nothing to boast about. Any good thing we have, any useful blessing we possess, is a gift from our Father, and He has given it to us so that we might glorify Him, and enjoy Him.

May we learn to confess the words of St. Augustine: O Lord, everything good in me is due to you. The rest is my fault.

Faith in the Lord leads us to repent of all the ways we live like we’re the master of our own fate, the captain of our own soul. And say: No, God—You are the master of my fate, and You are the captain of my soul!

It leads us to cast aside our illusions of control. And to commit our plans, our calendars, our schedules, and our outcomes to God’s Providence. Whether the Lord gives, or He takes away—faith teaches us to say, blessed be the name of the Lord.

Faith is your empty hand, reaching out to receive whatever today or tomorrow God decreed for you from eternity past. Faith receives the plans God has for us, trusting that God is working all things together for the good of those who love Him, Rom. 8:28.

But of course, that’s exactly what makes faith so difficult for us, isn’t it?

The God who planned your future has secured your eternity

It can make us uneasy to confess that God is the Master of my Fate, and I am not. 

It’s not always comfortable to place ourselves, our plans, and our outcomes in the hands of Someone as unpredictable, as unmanageable, as holy—not to mention invisible—as God is.

What if He doesn’t do things the way I want Him to, when I want them done? What if He laughs at my plans, wads them up, and throws them out the window? What if He keeps writing appointments on my calendar I don’t want to keep? What if everything falls apart? Can I still trust Him then?

We are such anxious creatures, and that’s why it’s so easy for us to try and climb back onto God’s throne, and declare ourselves master and captain over our own destiny. 

Sisters and brothers, here is your good news to remember when you get that anxious feeling. 

The same God who has planned your future, who has ordained all of your days and written them in His book, has also promised you eternity.

This same God who is the master of your fate and the captain of your soul has loved you and chosen you from eternity past. Eph. 1:4-5 says God chose [you] in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that [you] should be holy and blameless before him. And, in love he predestined [you] for adoption to himself—as His own son or daughter—through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will.

This God loved you enough that, before the creation of the world, He chose to send His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for you. Before the first beat of your sinful heart, or the first breath in your fragile lungs, God had already planned your salvation. I mean you—personally.

Because He loves you, Jesus Christ took on your sin, and bore your curse on the cross so that he might present [you] to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [you] might be holy and without blemish before His Father, Eph. 5:27.

God has not only planned for your salvation, and accomplished it in Christ, He has prepared a place for you in His presence for all eternity. You have a home in the new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells, 2 Peter 3:13. You will feast in the house of Zion. You will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!

God is the master of everyone’s fate, and the captain of everyone’s soul. He holds all futures in His hand. But he controls the future with infinite love, grace, and mercy for all who are His daughters and sons by faith.

And for that, may we glorify Him—because the God who controls the future loved us and chose us from before creation to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever!

The wisdom from above (James 3:13-18)

Live video link and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for May 23, 2021.

The text was James 3:13-18.

Live video link embedded below. Sermon notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Where do you get wisdom?

Today we’re continuing our visit in the classroom of James, so he can impart wisdom from God to us.

Today we’ll be in James 3:13-18.

And today’s a really cool day, because we’ve come to where James is going to tell us directly what the wisdom of God is, what it looks like, and what it does.

When we’re able to discern what godly wisdom is, and we live by God’s wisdom, we begin to live lives that glorify God, and we enjoy God while we’re glorifying Him.

It’s kind of a challenge for me, as a preacher, to talk about wisdom, when the wisdom of the world is at your finger tips. It’s bombarding you from cable news channels and you’re staring at it all day on social media screens.

There used to be gatekeepers. People with some sort of wisdom and discretion who made it difficult for certain ideas to be let loose on the culture. 

But now, the gatekeeper is us. The decider is us. 

We decide what shows we’re gonna stream, and when. We decide which cable news we’re gonna watch, and it’s whatever station is gonna scratch our itching ears. We decide who our circle is gonna be on social media, and if somebody doesn’t toe whatever line we’ve drawn, we can always just mute them or unfollow them or block them.

And there’s this thing called the algorithm, that really—it makes a lot of our decisions for us. Because it says, Oh, I see you like this—so let me show you this! The algorithm finds your sweet tooth, it will create itches you didn’t even know you had, just so it can scratch them.

And it’s addictive, you see? The way we consume media is increasingly turning us into people whose lives could be summed up as a show about nothing.

This is a real problem in our culture. But it’s an especially concerning problem for Christians.

Because we are out there, bombarded by all these voices, always speaking the wisdom of the age.

You only live once, they tell us. No, the Bible says. You only die once, and after that, you will face God’s judgment.

You are enough, they tell us. But the Bible tells us we’ve never been enough, we’ve always needed God and each other. 

The wisdom of the world is pervasive and deceptive. It can sometimes even dress itself up so it sounds like Godly wisdom.

And in a world that’s nothing but competing voices—where do you find wisdom?

Now of course, we know how Church Folks are supposed to answer that, right? God. Jesus. The Bible. The Holy Spirit.

And yes, every one of those answers are true. You all get gold stars! (I don’t really have any gold stars for you, I’m sorry.)

But here’s our problem. We know where to go to get wisdom. James even tells us: 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, James 1:5.

Christians know where to go for wisdom, we just don’t get there. And a big part of the reason we don’t get there is because we don’t know how. 

And we don’t know how because we’ve got a zillion other voices, diversions, distractions coming at us from every which way. And some of them have been in our ears so loud and so long, we just don’t even question them.

We don’t check our basic assumptions, our basic worldview, to see if the wisdom we’ve been living by is actually biblical wisdom. Godly wisdom.

You see, every waking moment of every day we are all being trained, formed, and discipled by something or someone. 

And we have to be careful to guard this precious real estate God has entrusted us with—our hearts, our minds, our emotions and our intellect and our will, and the things we pay attention to.

So we have to cultivate this mindset, that says: I am not going to find wisdom in the competing voices of the world. I’m going to have to get it from God. 

And what James does for us in our passage today—James 3:13-18—is he teaches us how to discern worldly wisdom from Godly wisdom. And it’s this serious—it’s the wisdom of hell vs. the wisdom from heaven.

In these verses, James teaches us what Godly wisdom is by showing us what it looks like, and what it does.

See, James is gonna give us the godly algorithm that teaches us to discern between the wisdom from heaven, and the wisdom from hell.

Wisdom and humility

So let’s go to James 3:13—James begins by asking a rhetorical question. Who is wise and understanding among you?

Now, this question is a set up. Because most people want to believe that they’re wise and understanding. We like to think that we’re reasonable, and  we have good sense. 

So what James is going to turn around and do is say, You say you’re wise and understanding? Okay—prove it! 

Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

James says the same thing about wisdom here that we’ve heard him say about faith the past few weeks. You say you believe in Jesus? Then act like it! Prove it! You say you have wisdom and understanding? Then live like it! Prove it!

Show me your wisdom by how you live.

James says we show that we are wise when our actions are marked by the humility that comes from wisdom. 

Wisdom is not seen when you’re a fountain of sage advice and clever soundbites. That’s why you’re hardly ever going to find true wisdom on Twitter.

Wisdom is seen in your humility. I’m going to unpack that word here in a minute. But Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. 

Wisdom—godly wisdom—begins when you realize you’re not so smart, your best thinking is going to lead you to misery in this life and hell in the next, so you submit to the Lord and His ways.

Now this word humility—that’s how the NIV has it. It’s not the usual word in the Bible for what we think of as humility. The ESV translates it as meekness. And the NASB has gentleness.

The word James used here, we don’t have a single English word for it. It’s got shades of all three of these ideas in it. Humility, meekness, and gentleness. 

But these qualities all arise in us because we understand that, left to ourselves, even on our best days living our best lives, we are just wretched sinful fools. 

But we believe that, stupid and bad as we are, we are also loved and we’re saved by a good, generous, gracious God.

So we’d rather spend our days walking in His ways than our own way, or any other way. Even though we’re going to be clumsy and trip and stumble all the time, and sometimes even lose the path, and God’s gonna have to get out His rod and staff and guide us back. 

See, when that’s your starting point, when that’s your basic assumption about who God is, and who you are—that’s the beginning of wisdom. 

And that kind of wisdom going to make you humble when you consider your own abilities, your own sin and weakness. And it’s going to make you meek and gentle with others in their sin and weakness.

What James calls the humility that comes from wisdom is really the calm assurance that comes from knowing your place. People who are confident in the Lord don’t feel the need to flex anything.

This gentle humility James says comes from wisdom is not going to make you a wimp. It’s not going to tell you to stay quiet when you really should speak up. See, when you walk humbly with your God, you’re also going to do justice and love mercy, Micah 6:8.

You can be humble and gentle and also bold. King David is a great Bible example of someone who was both gentle and bold.

When King David was still a shepherd boy, he was humble before God, and gentle with his sheep. But when the lions and bears threatened his flock—he was fierce when he fought them off. And when the big bully Goliath was mocking God, David got out his slingshot and shut him up for good.

We especially want to see this balance of gentleness and boldness in our pastors and elders in the church. The Reformer John Calvin once said that the pastor ought to have two voices: one for gathering the sheep, and another for driving away wolves and thieves.

Both of those voices can be humble, but also firm and authoritative. Godly wisdom will teach the shepherds of God’s flock when is the right time to use each voice. 

Being humble, meek, and gentle isn’t the same as being nice. 

Nice is the happy face that worldly wisdom wears, but that face is a false face that can cover up everything from fear, to trauma we haven’t dealt with, to sin in our lives we haven’t dealt with.  

Nice quotes the Bible verse about speaking the truth in love. But what nice is really after is for you to turn up the sentimental love, and turn down the truth.

That’s not what James called the humility that comes from wisdom.

It’s a strong humility that comes from knowing who God is, who you are, and who your neighbor needs you to be. It’s a kind of patient, peaceful confidence that only comes when you’re assured of your place in your heavenly Father’s household. You can only get it from resting in Christ, trusting Him to be strong for you.

So James says—you will know who has Godly wisdom, because they will live with a kind of bold gentleness, a strong meekness, a confident humility.

Now, in vv14-16, James moves along to expose the raw ugliness of worldly “wisdom.” [See, I’m putting that in air quotes]

The wisdom from hell

In v14, James says: But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.

Bitter envy and selfish ambition are sins which are the opposite of Godly wisdom.

James is talking about the impulses in us that drive us to want to “win,” so we end up competing with other Christians. We end up selfish, and self-promoting. 

I love how the NIV translates this here—that we harbor these sins in our hearts. Right? It’s like these sins are our worthless children on the run from the law, fugitives from justice, and we let them in, and hide them in the attic. And we feed them. And we’ll lie and get defensive if somebody asks, Hey, are you harboring envy and selfish ambition in there?

In v16, James warns us that as long as we harbor these criminal impulses in our hearts, you find disorder and every evil practice.

Why? Because we’re self-seeking, self-serving, self-promoting. These are the sins that lead to rivalries and divisions in the church. 

These are the sins at work when you see men and women who are not spiritually qualified for leadership in the church promoting themselves and campaigning for leadership. 

And when they get it, they abuse the flock and Lord it over them. They want to impose their own agendas, they’re driving the bus. And when you ask them, Hey, seriously—are you sure you’re hot harboring bitter envy or selfish ambition in your heart, they’re gonna throw you off the bus and run over you.

That’s why James says these sins lead to disorder and every evil practice. Worldly wisdom leads to chaos in the church.

Remember how I said James is actually contrasting the wisdom from heaven with the wisdom from hell? 

Look at v15. It says that this kind of “wisdom” … is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.

When the Bible calls something spiritual, it means it comes from the Holy Spirit. So in the Bible, a spiritual person is someone filled with the Holy Spirit. By contrast, James says that this earthly “wisdom” is unspiritual. It doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit. It’s demonic. It comes from the devil.

I mean, listen—there is a kind of logic to living by envy and ambition, even if it is anti-Holy Spirit and demonic. This kind of “wisdom” says: 

I have to take care of myself first, because no one else will. I must make sure I get what I deserve. Because I see my friends I went to school with, my peers, my coworkers. And they’ve surpassed me. Even though they aren’t any smarter than me, and they don’t work any harder than me.

This is the wisdom of the world: I will take care of myself, I will get what I want, I’ll do it my way.

But see, that’s only wisdom if there is no God. If there’s no God, then it absolutely makes sense to say, I’m on my own, I have to take care of myself.

So of course that sort of attitude disorder and chaos and abuse and division into the church. Because then you’re in God’s church, acting like there’s no God.

And what does the Bible say about people who act like there’s no God? The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Ps 14:1). Acting like there’s no God is not wisdom, it’s supreme foolishness.

Here’s the problem. We all have these selfish, self-promoting impulses in our hearts. Me, you, even the most godly, wholesome Christian you know.

Why? Because we’re all sinners. And like the great Reformer Martin Luther, sin curves us inward, into ourselves. Because all sin is a denial of God. All sin is acting like there is no God.

And we are all sinners. 1 John 1:8 says: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. That doesn’t mean I used to be a sinner, but not so much. You and I are not without sin right now. 

Not one of us got up this morning and got ready and made it here without sinning with our thoughts or our words, if not our deeds.

There is not a heart here right now that’s free from envy and selfish ambition. Even our good works, our best deeds on our best days when we’re living our best lives—they’re all stained and tainted by sin. All our righteous acts are like filthy rags, Isa. 64:6.

Because we’re sinners, on this side of glory, we are never going to be able to completely rid our hearts of selfishness or envy. But we don’t have to harborthem, either.

When you’re in Christ, you don’t have to keep hiding your sin while you’re secretly feeding it. For sin shall no longer be your master, Rom. 6:14.

James says if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 

In other words, don’t brag about your influence, your success, or your accomplishments to dress up your sins. Because you probably rolled over a lot of people to get to where you are.

But don’t deny it, either. Don’t deny that you’ve been harboring those worthless, selfish impulses in your heart. 

James will tell you what to do. James 4:10: Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Humbling yourself before the Lord means confessing your sin, all the ways you’ve tried to live as if there is no God. 

It means that we not only confess that we have sinned, but that we are sinners, and we cannot reform ourselves.

Humbling yourself before God is what the Bible calls the fear of the Lord. And the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Humility and wisdom go together, remember?

What can humble us more than standing before a perfect, holy, and righteous God, Who will either be our Judge or our Savior; and confessing that we are miserable sinners, with nothing to boast about, only our sin and misery?

In the words of my old pal Martin Luther: God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger  … Pray hard, for you are quite a sinner!

And the sweet promise is that when you humble yourself before God, you say: God, have mercy on me, a sinner—then God will lift you up.

Here’s how God lifts you up: you will grab onto Christ and His life, His death, and His resurrection with the empty hands of faith. You will cling to your crucified and risen Savior. 

And when your faith is not strong enough to cling to Him, He will cling to you. Because He is the vine, and we are the branches, John 15:5.

The wisdom from heaven: Jesus Christ

Now church—here’s where we get to the meaty part. The application part. Where do you find wisdom? What does it look like, and what does it do?

James 3:17: But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

This is the part where most preachers would tell you to go out this week and work harder at being more pure or peaceful or merciful or whatnot.

I’m not gonna do that, because that completely misses the point. 

Don’t you see? God doesn’t just sprinkle down wisdom from heaven like glitter! 

The question is not what is the wisdom that comes down from heaven; but Who is the wisdom that has come down from heaven?

1 Cor. 1:30 answers that for us. It says Christ Jesus has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Just like Jesus is our righteousness and holiness before God; just like He is our redemption from sin and death—He is also our wisdom. What does the wisdom from heaven look like? It looks like Jesus!

This is James’ main point. This is what he’s been working toward the whole time. He does what the Bible always does, and that’s lead us to Christ.

How does James describe the wisdom from above? The wisdom that comes down from heaven is first of all pure. That word pure means there’s no mixed motives. You and I can never be that pure. Even our good works will still be stained with sin. But God will happily accept them in Christ as thanksgiving offerings. You see, Christ’s purity purifies our good deeds in the sight of God.

Then he says that the wisdom from heaven is peace-loving, or peaceable. Jesus has made peace between sinful humans and a holy God. By His death on the cross, He took your sin away from you, and God’s wrath away from you. Now God has no more wrath, no more condemnation for you. Christ makes us no longer God’s enemies, but His beloved daughters and sons. 

The wisdom from heaven is considerate. Another way of translating this word is gentle. It means patient, forbearing, willing to yield. 

And what does Jesus say when He calls sinners to Himself? Matt. 11:28-29: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 

Christ is the gentle wisdom who makes us gentle.

The wisdom from heaven is submissive. Jesus perfectly submitted to His Father’s will. He fully obeyed the Law on our behalf, and willingly suffered the Law’s curse for lawbreakers, on our behalf. 

The wisdom from heaven is full of mercy and good fruit. Christ is God’s mercy for us. He is the vine, and because we are joined to Him, He bears good fruit in us, by His Holy Spirit.

And the wisdom from heaven is impartial and sincere. Jesus is an impartial Savior because He saves sinners of every race, color, nation, tribe, and tongue under heaven; rich and poor; men and women; slave and free. 

And He is sincere, because He remains true to us. He promises you and me that whoever comes to me I will never cast out, John 6:37. 

The wisdom from above sows peace and reaps a righteous harvest

What does Godly wisdom look like? It looks like Jesus. And what does it do? That’s v18: Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

You see, the worldly wisdom—the wisdom James calls unspiritual and demonic, because it’s full of selfishness and envy—it does not sow peace. It sows strife and division, and raises a rotten harvest.

But Jesus—Who is our Wisdom from heaven, our holiness and our righteousness and our redemption—He has come and made peace between us and God, and peace between each other. 

And by His Spirit living in us, He is growing us to be a harvest of righteousness, that He will proudly present to God the Father on the last day.

So my assignment to you this week is simply to rest in Christ. Abide in Him. And abide just means stay put. Dwell with Him. Receive Him and rest in Him by faith. Jesus has promised you: If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit, John 15:5. And you will, because He is the wisdom from above.

What did we hear a couple minutes ago? Jesus didn’t call us to come to Him and struggle to be better. Which is exactly why I didn’t tell you to go out this week and try harder at Godly wisdom. 

He said: Come to me, and I will give you rest. And then He said: learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. Christ is the wisdom from heaven, and we will only learn from Him as we rest in Him, in faith.

Godly wisdom doesn’t come to us quickly like a Google search. It grows in us over a lifetime of abiding in Christ, and Christ abiding in us. 

2 Cor. 3:18 promises that as we receive and rest in Christ, as He is offered to us in the Gospel, we will be transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, by the Holy Spirit. By faith, the Spirit grows us, and matures us in the wisdom of Christ—so that we may glorify God and enjoy Him forever!

Rahab, the righteous harlot (James 2:25-26)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for May 16, 2021.

We’re continuing our study of the book of James. The preaching text was James 2:25-26. Joshua 2:8-14 and Hebrews 11:1-2, 31 were also read 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).

Live video link embedded below, notes below that.

Empty fortune cookies and empty faith

Today we’re returning to the classroom of James, so he can impart to us some of the wisdom from above. 

James will teach us that you will know it’s God’s wisdom you’re learning, not man’s wisdom, because God’s wisdom will make you first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere, James 3:17.

God’s wisdom, implanted in us by His Holy Spirit, makes us able to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Today we’re picking up where we left off last week. We’ll be in James 2:25-26.

This is the end of James’ warning to those who boast that they have faith, and their faith will save them—but they have nothing to show for their faith.

In James’ church, these people were neglecting and abusing fellow church members who were poor. But they were so proud of their faith!

And James told them: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead, James 2:17. You are serving decaffeinated faith, he says. Your faith has no get-up-and-go in it!

Last time, we heard James get his point across with a story about Abraham. We see that Abraham had saving faith because he obeyed God. Abraham didn’t have to boast about his faith. You could see it at work!

And this time, James is going to dig even deeper in the crate of Old Testament faith heroes to tell us about the saving faith of a pagan prostitute named Rahab.

Have you ever been to a Chinese restaurant, and they bring you fortune cookies after dinner? And you’re all excited to break open that sweet fortune cookie shell, and see what wisdom it has to share with you?

And then you crack it open …and there’s … nothing. It’s empty! Somehow you got one that didn’t have a fortune in it.

And then you don’t even want to eat it, you know? Because really, what’s a fortune cookie without the fortune?

It’s basically just a crunchy biscuit with a coat of shellac, and a mild whisper of vanilla extract. Nobody comes for the cookie—we come for the fortune.

Because the fortune cookie is empty, now the whole experience is empty. Completely unsatisfying.

The second chapter of James is all about James looking at folks in his church and saying, You guys are like a bunch of empty fortune cookies, you know that?

Now, what he actually said was: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

It’s like he said, Here, you empty fortune cookies. Let me give you a fortune.

James was talking to Christians who boasted that they had faith. Or, at the very least, said: Yeah, I believe in God and stuff.

And here’s how he set them up. He was such a bold and brilliant preacher, let me tell you. It’s all the way back in the first chapter.

First, he told them: Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless, James 1:26.

And of course, they would have said: That’s right James! You tell all those loudmouths and gossips and people who cuss like sailors!

They might have even been looking around the building at brother Billy or sister Sue. Pastor James really letting them have it today!

But then in v27, he turns around and says: Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Now this is where they would’ve started squirming so much their pants were about to shine the church pews. Because he’s gone a totally different direction than they were thinking he was going to.

Now James has made it all awkward, because what he’s basically told them in those two verses is: If your faith is all talk, it’s worthless. If you’re not looking after the vulnerable and needy in their distress, and you’re acting like the rest of the world—maybe you need to not brag so hard about how you’re a Christian.

That’s how James set up chapter two, which is where we’ve been camped out the past few weeks.

Because here’s what we learn in chapter two.

  • First, these Christians have not kept themselves from being polluted by the world. When some wealthy worldly visitors showed up, they made poor church members give up their seats for them, and sit on the floor.
  • Second, speaking of those poor, needy Christians—instead of giving their hungry brother a meal, or giving their cold, shivering sister a jacket—they just said: I’ll pray for you.
  • And third—they did all this while claiming to have faith in Jesus Christ.

That moment when you realize pastor’s been talking about you the whole time, and you didn’t even realize it, until you got caught in the net of the sermon.

Faith by itself, James says, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. Your profession of faith is as hollow and stale as an empty fortune cookie.

Your faith isn’t just for you!

Here’s what’s really scary about James’ message, when you think about it. James was an elder in the church in Jerusalem. This was the Mother Church—the very first church ever planted.

These were not new converts and baby Christians. These were people who’d been in church their whole lives. They grew up memorizing the Bible. Some of them had probably heard Jesus preach in person. Others were some of the first three thousand converts who were baptized after Jesus went back to heaven.

They had endured hard times and even persecution together.

These people were regular church attenders. They knew all the old hymns and the new songs, too. They bowed their heads at prayer time, and were quiet and reverent during the Lord’s Supper. They could quote all the memory verses they learned in Sunday school by heart.

But James told them, Some of you people are just empty fortune cookies. 

And so you end up bumming people out. Because they think you’ve got some wisdom and encouragement for them. But nope—there’s nothing in your faith.

Here’s something I think we miss a lot of times, and it’s very, very important: Your faith is not just about you. 

If you have been given saving faith—and I said given, because even your faith is a gift from God, Eph. 2:8-9—if God has given you saving faith, His purpose is to make you an instrument for His glory and the good of your neighbor.

Just like Jesus said: let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven, Matt. 5:16.

Likewise, 1 Peter 2:12 teaches us to live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

By faith, you can glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But also you will shine among [your neighbors] like stars in the sky, Phil. 2:15, so that they might also come to glorify God and enjoy God.

So, like any good preacher, James has laid out his pointfaith without works is dead—and he then uses stories to illustrate his point.

First—and we heard this last week—he told the story of the great patriarch Abraham. The father of the faithful. Abraham was saved by grace through faith alone. James would never dispute that. But, James tells us, Abraham’s faith led him into action

Because Abraham believed God, he trusted God’s promises, he even believed God could raise the dead—Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, whom he loved.

Even though that would mean the end of every promise God had made him.

Faith, you see, leads us to put our future on the altar.

James’ point was this: God counted Abraham righteous by faith alone. Abraham believed God, and God credited to him as righteousness, James 2:23. 

But we call Abraham righteous, we can see his faith, because of what he did. A person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone, James 2:24.

The faith of Rahab

And now in the verses we’re about hear, James switches gears big time. He moves from the patriarch Abraham, to the pagan prostitute Rahab.

James 2:25: 

In the same way—the same way as who? Abraham!—was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?

If you’re not familiar with the story of Rahab, or you kind of remember it from Sunday school, but you’re fuzzy on the details—here’s the short version. You ready? Rahab the righteous harlot / hid the spies in Jericho …

Okay, for real, you can read the whole thing in Joshua, chs 2 – 6.

Basically, the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. But many of God’s enemies stood between them and the promise. And some of those enemies were the citizens of the city of Jericho.

So Joshua, the commander of Israel’s army, sent out two spies to do recon and gather intel on the city. And it was Rahab—a pagan prostitute living in Jericho—who took them in and protected them.

What she did was, she hid the spies under some piles of linseed stalks she’d arranged on her roof. And when the king of Jericho sent his men out to capture the spies, she misdirected them. Sent the king’s men straight out of the city.

After she got rid of the king of Jericho’s bounty hunters, she went up to the Israelite spies and explained why she was betraying her own city to protect them. That’s what we heard in our readings today.

She said: 

I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.

Her people had heard the stories. How the Lord had rescued Israel from Egypt, and smashed the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. How lately the Israelites had cut through local warlords and their forces.

She said everyone in Jericho was melting in fear as they saw the Lord’s army advancing.

But Rahab, you see, had something more powerful than fear dwelling in her. Yes, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, Prov. 9:10, and Rahab’s fear led her to faith.

Here’s the exact moment Rahab put her faith into words. Joshua 2:11: for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.

How is that faith? you ask. I mean, just a couple of weeks ago, didn’t James tell us that even the demons believe that there’s only one God, and tremble?

Well, first of all, for Rahab it was an expression of faith because the people of Jericho worshiped other gods. And in the crunch time, she saw those gods were not real—or at least they couldn’t save her. Egypt’s gods hadn’t saved them from the wrath of the Lord, after all. 

So what we’re seeing is that she has turned from putting her faith in those gods, those false gods, and she’s putting her faith in the Lord.

Second, for Rahab it was faith because she wasn’t just any kind of prostitute. 

She wasn’t just running a bordello on the edge of town for thirsty cowboys. 

Back then, prostitution was a religious thing. They had fertility cults. The idea was, if you slept with a prostitute from the temple, the gods would bless your crops and your livestock. 

Rahab made her living committing sexual sins in the name of idolatry. 

So when she told the Israelite spies that the Lordyour God, not the gods I’ve been working for—alone is God in heaven above and on the earth below, she wasn’t just changing her religion. Okay? She was turning away from her whole way of life, and making a living.

Like Abraham before her, Rahab was willing to lay her whole future on the altar. That’s faith. You see?

And so the Israelite spies realized that they were no longer dealing with a pagan prostitute. She was their sister in the Lord now, and as such, they had an obligation to protect her.

And so they promised Rahab that as long she didn’t blow their cover, when Israel came to destroy Jericho, they would spare Rahab’s life, her father’s life, her mother’s life, their entire household’s lives. 

The spies saw that Rahab’s faith was true, living faith because of what she did for them. She didn’t just say she believed in the same God as them. She acted on it.

Rahab did what she could when it needed to be done [1]

Remember what I said earlier. Your faith is not just about you. Rahab’s faith saved her, and it saved the spies, and it led to her entire family’s salvation.

Now, somebody might say: But what Rahab did was just desperation because an army was about to invade her city. 

Maybe it was. But James  still calls it faith. 

AndHebrews called it faith—we heard that in our readings today, too. By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient, Heb. 11:31. 

The Bible doesn’t seem to care what drives someone to faith. The Bible cares that they have faith.

Or maybe you’re thinking, Why is Rahab considered righteous for what she did? She didn’t do very much, did she.

That’s also true. And that’s kind of the point. Rahab did not do much, but she did what she could, when it needed to be done.

See, Rahab could believe in her mind all day that the gods she’d been hustling for were false, and the Lord was the one true God of heaven and earth.

She could even have known that intellectually, and still kept on working the temples because she enjoyed the money and the perks.

But that wouldn’t have saved anyone, would it?

It was Rahab acting on what she believed that spared the lives of the spies, her own life, and the lives of her family.

Rahab did what she could, when it needed to be done.

I think that’s why James told her story as an example of faith getting to work.

He wanted to put some get-up-and-go in the faith of these cradle Christians who made widows and orphans go sit on the floor, so their rich visitors could sit in comfort. 

He wanted them to understand that saving faith gives more than thoughts and prayers. It also gives food to the hungry widow, and clothes to the shivering orphan who’s right there in front of you.

And so, James sums it up by reminding them, again, that as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead, James 2:26.

It’s like a fortune cookie without a fortune, see. It’s just an empty shell.

Application: Open your door like Rahab!

James isn’t saying that you need a big, impressive list of good works to prove your faith. Or you need to be able to point to a time when you truly surrendered all, like when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac.

If James just left it with Abraham, you might think that’s what he meant. But no, he included Rahab. The pagan prostitute who just did what she could, when it needed to be done.

Rahab proves that small deeds done in weak, even desperate faith, can make a big difference. 

Rahab didn’t just make a big difference for herself, her family, or even the spies by doing what she did. Remember—your faith isn’t just for you.

Peep the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel sometime. It’s Jesus’ genealogy. A lot of times we skip through it because we can only take so much and so-and-so begat so-and-so. But long about v5, guess whose name you’ll see?

Rahab. She was King David’s great-great grandmother. She was a fruitful branch on Jesus’ family tree.

Don’t you see? Rahab did what she could when it needed to be done, and her little, desperate act of faith was part of God’s eternal plan to save you and me.

You never know what God will do with your small acts of faith. But you can trust that in the Lord your labor is not in vain, 1 Cor. 15:58.

Rahab also proves that small deeds done at the right time can put the finishing touches on our faith. Like the corsage around a girl’s wrist or the boutonnière in a young man’s lapel complete their prom outfits. You see?

We don’t earn our salvation by what we do. But what we do can publicly announce to others that our faith is genuine.

And if we won’t even bother to do what we can, when it’s time to do it—well, that can make other people legitimately wonder if our claims to faith are true.

What I mean is, even if the wrapper says “fortune cookie,” if there’s no fortune in it—it’s just a cookie. And not a very good one.

Who remembers from Bible class what Rahab did to mark her house, so her family would be protected when the army of Israel attacked the city?

She gathered her family in her home, and hung a crimson cord out her window.

That crimson cord was a foreshadowing of the blood of Christ, which covers all of those who believe. Rahab was saved by faith in Christ, just like we are.

The only difference between her faith and ours is her faith looked ahead to Christ; and our faith looks back on His life, His death, and His resurrection for us.

But you, me, and Rahab—we’re all saved by the blood of Christ. That’s the crimson cord that binds our faith to hers.

Like Rahab, you and I are sinners. Both by nature, and by choice. We sin because we are sinners. 

Like Rahab, our whole lifestyle has been out of step with God’s Law.

And like Rahab, we were all lost outside of God’s covenant.

But it is God’s will to use poor, miserable sinners like me and you and Rahab for the sake of His eternal purposes. 

And so God has supplied us with the crimson cord of Christ’s blood shed for us. 

Two thousand years ago, Christ crushed God’s enemies, and ours, on His cross. By His death and resurrection, Christ already conquered Satan, sin, and death. For Rahab. For me. And for you.

And you receive Christ and His benefits by faith alone. 

All your sins are forgiven. God counts you righteous and holy for Christ’s sake. You are promised resurrection, and eternal life to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. 

And in this life, God accepts your good works as thanksgiving offerings, no matter how small and imperfect they are, for Christ’s sake.

Because you and I are saved by the same gracious God who saved Rahab, the pagan prostitute.

For Rahab, working out her faith began with opening her door to some strangers, who turned out to be her brothers in the Lord.

So church, here’s your assignment for this week. Open your door to someone from this church you don’t know, or don’t know very well. [2]

And it doesn’t even have to be literally opening the door, okay? Like, I’m not saying you have to clean your house so you can invite someone over for dinner this week. 

You can do that, if you want to. 

But when I say open your door, it can be as simple as saying hello, introducing yourself, beginning a conversation. 

And maybe that will grow into having coffee or a meal together later. Maybe you’ll begin a conversation that leads to other conversations, and before you know it, you’ve got a new friend to lean on.

And you’ve got someone you can encourage with your faith. Because remember—your faith isn’t just about you.

Learning to open our doors, and in faith doing what we can, when it’s time, is one way we can glorify God and enjoy God, right here and now.

[1] I got this turn of phrase from Doriani, James, 98.

[2] This was inspired by Hiller, Finding Christ in the Straw, 59. But I took it in a bit of a different direction.

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.