CHRISTIANITY IS AN ACTION WORD
Dear Friends in Christ,
Martin Luther once called the book of James a “straw epistle.” Why? Because other books especially the book of Romans, gave him comfort of knowing that he was saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ apart his insufficient works. For instance Romans 3: 28 is so clear about that. “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” In other words, keeping the commandments don’t save. They can’t, because no one is good enough to keep them. Thanks to Jesus who save us.
But then along comes the book of James that says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Want me to read that again? “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Isn’t that contradicting what the apostle Paul writes in Romans and in many other places? Paul says we are justified by faith alone without the works of the Ten Commandments. James says we are considered righteous by what we do and not by faith alone.
How do you explain that? Or do we concede that the Bible contradicts itself? The answer? Context! Context! Context! In Romans Paul is addressing an entirely different subject than what James is. In Romans Paul is addressing the issue of standing before God. No one in righteous on their own. Only through Jesus’ perfect life lived on our behalf of us, and only through his cleansing blood shed on our behalf are we declared perfect. He paid for our sins. Through faith in him alone we say yes to his rescue of humanity. That’s what justification through faith alone means.
In James, the context is different. The subject is the definition of saving faith. It sounds like he is addressing the issue that people bring up even today. If Jesus forgives me anyway, I can sin all l want No, says James. Saving faith, genuine faith in Jesus Christ always includes a thank you shown through the works we do out of love. In fact, James says that a faith without works is dead. Don’t kid yourself, the kind of faith that doesn’t include a thank you is not faith at all. It’s a sham. Christianity is an Action Word. James speaks to us about 1) Useless faith; and 2) Useful faith.
There is such a thing as a useless faith which is no faith at all – a person who claims to follow the Lord, but doesn’t show it. It’s incomplete. Did you hear the joke about the fire at the circus? Doesn’t do much good if I don’t include the punchline does it? Paul Harvey, the nationally known journalist who died in 2009 at the age of 90 was the radio’s Walter Cronkite. Some referred to Walter Cronkite, CBS news anchor, the nation’s anchorman. Paul Harvey was that to the radio. He had a unique feature he called “The Rest of the Story.” He would begin an astonishing story of people or events that had an astonishing end, the punchline. Then he would say, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
I remember one of those stories where he recounted the life of a woman named Caterina who had a one night stand with a man. She became pregnant. She didn’t even know the man’s name or how to contact him. It was a selfish relationship for each. He told the story about another woman whose name was Klara. She also became pregnant for the fourth time. Each of the babies died, the first one within thirty-one months, the second within sixteen months, the third within several days. Mr. Harvey’s punchline was as follows: “For if you, as the hypothetical physician, had advised for them to get abortions - then you have respectively denied the world the multifaceted genius of Leonardo da Vinci--and spared humanity the terror of Adolf Hitler.” That last sentence makes the rest of the story. If that were not included it would have been just like the joke, "Did you hear about the fire at the circus?”
That’s what James says here too. The definition of genuine faith in Jesus includes the desire to love. Faith in action! “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Mark Richt, the former football coach at Georgia had as a team motto “Finish the drill.” Don’t leave the job undone. Remember you are a Christian 24/7. Don’t act like a Christian only on Sunday or even half a week!
James gives an example. “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.” Imagine having a job interview at 1PM next Monday. It is a hot humid and windy day. You have an early lunch to get to your interview on time. You have a spinach salad for lunch. You are nervous. You are anticipating the questions that you will be asked. You are totally preoccupied with how you are going to answer them. You find a mirror but since you are so preoccupied by the possible questions, you look at the mirror but you don’t really pay attention. You go into the interview with your hair looking like you just got plugged into a light socket. Remember it was windy. You have a piece of spinach caught in your incisors. Not one of those dress for success moments, is it?
The purpose for James’ illustration is a warning. Don’t give the commandments of God a cursory look and run; they are there to do. “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.”
In confirmation instruction for our 7th and 8th graders I want our students to memorize the commandments that God gave us and the meanings of those commandments as Martin Luther composed them. I have noticed over the years that they are often memorized for the moment to be forgotten by the end of class - like looking in the mirror and forgetting what one sees. Memorization to forget is useless, isn’t it? What is memorized needs to be put into practice.
Notice what he says about the commandments. James says it is the perfect law. It gives us freedom and it brings blessing.
It is the perfect law. If it were our law, it would not be perfect. It comes from the perfect one, the Lord himself. If followed would make us perfect, but that blows us out of the water, doesn’t it? Perfect? Anyone who believes that they are perfect is delusional.
But the perfect law tells us what Jesus did for the thirty three years he lived on this earth. He was perfect. I have heard people say that he kept the Law perfectly to prove it could be done. I have heard that he did so to be the model for us. But he did so to fulfill what we couldn’t do – to be perfect even as our Father in heaven is perfect. The demand God placed on all to be perfect was done by Jesus so we can stand before the perfect Father wearing his robes of righteousness, robes that never get dirty.
James tell us the commandments give us freedom. God declares us to be perfect so we can be nice. The freedom he is talking about is that our lives go better by striving to follow his perfect law. Our lives go better when we know the true God and not worship idols that are meaningless. They go better when we are refreshed in the word he has given us. They go better when we respect parents and other in authorities; when we know that life is a sacred gift. They go better when we respect marriage and family and flee from adultery. They go better when we respect property and possessions. They go better when we know that keeping the law is a way we can say thank you to God. They go better when we know that keeping God’s Law is a way of saying, I love you Lord!
James also teaches us there are three areas of life that we can concentrate on to put Jesus on display by the lives we lead – three ways to finish the drill. “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”
Start with the tongue. A mouth curses, lies and swears falsely; it abuses other people, tears down and ruins reputations. It is a disgrace to God. In a graveyard in England this epitaph is found: “Beneath this stone, a lump of clay, / lies Arabella Young, / Who on the twenty-fourth of May, / began to hold her tongue.” There is a truth to that. Only in heaven will we speak what is good and profitable all the time. While on this earth the tongue is powerful…for good and for bad. It can be so useful when we raise our tongues to our God in prayer. It is so powerful when God uses our tongues to proclaim the Savior who died and rose to save. It is so powerful when we use the tongue to teach others about the Lord our God. But we also must use our tongues to confess the times our tongues have done damage in one way or another.
Thank Jesus there was never a bad word that came from his tongue. Did he confront and rebuke and warn? Did he get tough in his speech? You bet he did, but he used his tongue in love. He was warning people of sin and calling on them to repent to seek forgiveness from him. Remember Jesus’ perfect tongue is the replacement for our vile and sinful tongues.
There is a second aspect in life where we can put Christ on display in daily living. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Looking out for yourself, for your own security and comfort without looking out for the unfortunate is also an insult to God. Rather, look out for those who can’t do so for themselves.
Is that hard work? You bet it is. Unborn babies can’t look out for themselves. We need to look out for them. When we do, we get a lot of abuse for that because many don’t believe that little babies have any rights. It is true that there are many who take advantage of generous and godly people; so many so that the godly and generous get cynical about people’s needs. But they aren’t all frauds. There are plenty of people to help. Look in nursing homes where families have abandoned grandma or grandpa. Or lead too busy of lives to simply sit with them and read to them. There are plenty of children in this world who have been abandoned by Dad and Mom. If there are people who can help, they should certainly be found in the Christian church.
The third aspect in life where we can put Christ on display in daily living involves handling temptation. Keep yourself from being polluted by the world.” Don’t live like unrepentant unbelievers. Remember finish the drill. Drunkenness, immorality, violence, an uncontrolled tongue, worldliness and a thousand other sins makes the Christian faith look so bad to the people who are watching to see if Christ is useful. Don’t endanger your own personal relationship with the Father. Jesus once said that we are in the world, but don’t be of the world. Finish the drill.
By the way, did you hear the joke about the fire at the circus? It was in tents. Maybe you didn’t need to hear the finish to that joke, but let me tell you that the world does need to see you complete your faith by your actions. Christianity is an action word.