faith without works is dead
The Fifth Sunday After Easter
Ezekiel 34:25-31, Psalm 65, St. James 1:22-27, St. John 16:23b-33
Pure and Undefiled Religion
The tongue is a curious little instrument. Unlike other weapons, the more you use it, the sharper it gets.
Winston Churchill and Lady Astor both liked to wield theirs, and they did so in a long-running feud. In one duel, Lady Astor got in the first thrust: “If I were your wife, I’d put arsenic in your tea.”
Sir Winston parried: “If I were your husband . . . I’d drink it.”
Churchill, I imagine, had no more use for the letter of James before us today than Martin Luther, who called it an epistle made of straw . . . but for a different reason. Luther could unsheathe a sharp tongue, too, but his complaint against James was that he advocated what Luther saw as a religion of works.
The reformer took this understanding in no small measure from the first verse of our lesson: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
It seems odd that one as bright as Luther could not or would not see what the rest of us find as obvious as the nose on his face. James is not advocating a works-based salvation. He never implies that a Christian can pile up enough merits to earn God’s favor. His point is that true faith will generate good works:
Faith without works is dead, but real faith is never without works.
Luther seems to have been so consumed with combating the works focus of the medieval church that anything anyone might take as supporting it got his hackles up.
Last week, we found James building his case in the preceding passage. He exhorted us to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
Now he goes on to make the point that receiving that word is not enough for the sincere Christian. Many appear in church week in and week out; they receive the word endlessly without ever acting on it. They deceive themselves. A faith that bears no fruit is dead. Attendance must not be mistaken for faithfulness.
He who loves God does not try to claim the saving power of His word and cast away its imperatives to serve. If you are truly a child of God you will act upon His teaching.
A new priest dazzled his congregation with his first sermon, a charge to “gird your loins” for the work of ministry. They were abuzz with his depth of knowledge of the Scriptures and his rhetorical skill.
The next Sunday he preached the same sermon. The people thought that was a bit strange. And on his third Sunday in his new pulpit he preached the identical sermon for the third time.
That was more than one parishioner could take. He demanded to know: “Don’t you have more than one sermon?”
“I do, indeed,” said the preacher. “Actually, I have quite a few. But you haven’t done anything about the first one yet.”
James, I have no doubt, would applaud that approach. His one letter in the canon of Scripture relies heavily on the preaching and teaching of his half-brother Jesus. James’ style is direct and to the point. His letter includes more imperatives than any other and a wealth of practical exhortation.
He shows us here a contrast between the true believer who has the word within him, who looks into the word that is the gospel, perseveres in it and acts on it, on the one hand, and a man with a mirror who looks at himself, goes away and forgets his appearance.
What you see in the mirror should prompt an action – brushing your hair, straightening your tie, repairing your makeup. The word rightly preached is a mirror. The diligent Christian holds his life up to it and asks himself, “How do I look? What must I do?
“Am I reflecting the word I take in in the holy place when I venture into the marketplace?”
Or, as a sign in a church vestibule framed the matter: “If you were on trial for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
This, beloved, is a question each of us must confront. When the secular culture looks at you, does it recognize you as different from the citizens of the unbelieving world around you? He who hears and acts not sows deceit; he who hears and does reaps blessing.
This latter is a lover of that “perfect law of liberty.” In worldly thinking, law and liberty are enemies. We hear this attitude aired at an ear-splitting volume today in the never-ending argument over the supposed rights of homosexuals.
When the Final Four, the culmination of the NCAA thumpathon, was staged in Indianapolis a couple of years ago, we were treated to a fine old hullabaloo over a new Indiana law designed to protect religious liberty. It allowed those who could not have any role in a same-sex wedding ceremony as a matter of conscience the opportunity to opt out without penalty.
This statute, some screeched, could be used as a shield by those who would deny homosexuals their rights. These religious troglodytes were hung up on an arcane provision in an Old Testament law code that has no relevance today . . . if in fact it ever did for the enlightened.
One difficulty with this rationale is the many New Testament condemnations of homosexuality, none more forceful than that in chapter 1 of Romans. More to the point for us today, however, is that God’s law, from which we take our attitudes toward sex and myriad other subjects – no less in our day than in that of Moses – reveals God’s character.
He promulgated it not to harm His people but to help them. The law can’t save people and it never could. It was given as a code of conduct for the covenant community.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2),” Yahweh said to His people Israel assembled at Mount Sinai as He prepared to give them His law.
Emerging into the light of their God’s liberty, they needed a code to instruct them in how to live free, for the faithful child wants nothing more than to reflect his Father’s character in his own. You and I who have been saved from sin by the One who came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it need the law no less.
Just as we cannot observe society’s regulation of safe travel on the roads without speed limits, we cannot maintain orthodoxy in the church without God’s law. Many in the churches today insist that God loves everyone without condition. Have they checked in with St. Peter?
St Peter is sitting at the Pearly Gates when two guys arrive wearing T-shirts with a package of Lucky Strikes rolled up in a sleeve and carrying tire irons. They want in. St. Peter looks out through the Gates and says, “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
He trots over to God’s chambers and describes for Him the guys who are waiting for admission.
God says to St. Peter, “How many times do I have to tell you? You can’t be judgmental here. This is heaven. All are loved. All are brothers. Go back and let them in!”
St. Peter goes back to the Gates, looks around and lets out a heavy sigh. He returns to God’s chambers and says, “Well, they’re gone.”
“The guys in the T-shirts?” God asks.
“No. The Pearly Gates.”
In fact, God’s law is the law of love. The man who serves his own passions and desires is a slave, laboring nightly in the dungeon of earthly delights and paving his pathway into the everlasting inferno.
He who obeys God’s law lends hands and feet to God’s love. We are truly free when we live out the life our Creator intended for us, for then we are acting in accord with our pre-fall nature, to which we shall return in God’s glory.
The law protects us while we inhabit this sinful flesh, pointing us toward our once and future state unstained by sin. It is not a burden but a blessing.
A woman was married to a man she did not love. She could not, for he treated her shamefully. He gave her a long list of rules that ordered all of her time. Among the rules was one that required her to rise at 5 a.m., cook his breakfast and serve it to him promptly at 5:30.
After many years of misery, her husband died. In time, she remarried, this time to a man she loved deeply. One day, while cleaning out some drawers, she came upon the set of rules her first husband had given her: up at 5, breakfast at 5:30, and on and on.
As she scanned the list a thought seized her. She was doing all the things for her current husband she had done for the former one . . . yet this time with a joyful heart.
James now gives us characteristics of the new life in Christ. The list is hardly exhaustive, but he wants us to see what true religion looks like. “Religion” is a word for how we live out our love for God. One whose religion is genuine will bridle his tongue.
The philosopher Xanthus one day told his servant that he was having friends in for dinner on the morrow. He instructed the servant to go to the market and buy the best thing he could find.
When Xanthus and his company sat down at the table the servant appeared with the first course, which was tongue. Four more courses followed, and each of them was tongue . . . cooked in a different way to be sure, but tongue nonetheless.
The servant’s master lost his patience. “Didn’t I tell you to buy the best thing in the market?” he asked.
“I did get the best thing in the market,” the servant replied. “Isn’t the tongue the organ of sociability, the organ of eloquence, the organ of kindness, the organ of worship?”
The philosopher Xanthus, frustrated and wanting to make a point, told his servant, “Tomorrow I want you to get the worst thing in the market.” On the morrow the master sat at table with a different set of friends . . . but the menu was unchanged: five more courses of tongue.
Seething, he asked his servant, “Didn’t I tell you to get the worst thing in the market?”
“I did get the worst thing in the market,” said the servant. “Isn’t the tongue the organ of blasphemy, the organ of defamation, the organ of lying?”
The tongue gives voice to the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It reveals whether you are one brought forth into new life by God’s word of truth (v. 18).
He whose religion is pure and undefiled attends to widows and orphans – or, more broadly, those on the margins of the society. Does your care for them reflect the mercy of your Father, of whom the Psalmist (68:5) sang:
“A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation.”
Do you give from an overflowing heart with no thought of gaining a reward, for what struggling widow or poor orphan will ever be able to repay or return the favor? One and all have been estranged from God. He who has accepted God’s redemption and repatriation must not live as though he has not.
Are you giving of your time, talent and treasure for the good of those who are not blessed as you are? I have a policy of not knowing what anyone in the church gives. That’s a matter between each of you and your Lord. But I do know the statistics on the American church.
In the U.S. 5 percent give the tithe – 10 percent of income — with 80 percent of Americans only giving 2 percent of their income. In the Great Depression, Christians gave at a 3.3 percent rate per capita; today that number is 2.5 percent. If every church-goer gave a tithe an additional $165 billion would flow into the churches annually.
Our Lord spoke often on the subject of money. In the Sermon on the Mount He says:
“. . . where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).
The real issue is located not in your wallet but your heart. Where you dispense your treasure tells your Lord the condition of your heart. God loves a cheerful giver. And you have reason to be cheerful. St. Paul wrote:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And you are rich. Rich in grace; rich in mercy; rich in favor with God. And by the world’s standards, incredibly rich in money.
“Christianity Today” addressed the subject:
“For Christians in the richest nation in history to be giving only 2.43 percent of their income to their churches is not just stinginess, it is biblical disobedience — blatant sin. We have become so seduced by the pervasive consumerism and materialism of our culture that we hardly notice the ghastly disjunction between our incredible wealth and the agonizing poverty in the world.
“Over the last 40 years, American Christians (as we have grown progressively richer) have given a smaller and smaller percent of our growing income to the ministries of our churches. Such behavior flatly contradicts what the Bible teaches about God, justice, and wealth. We should be giving not 2.4 percent but 10 percent, 15 percent, even 25 to 35 percent or more to kingdom work. Most of us could give 20 percent and not be close to poverty.”
But . . . we worship. Worship, no matter how resplendent, is not pleasing to the Lord if those who offer it do not share His love for the least, the last and the lost. This was the snare of the Pharisee.
Just as James the Just does not condemn hearing the word but rather failing to act on it, he does not disparage beauty in worship but rather ornate ceremony set forth as a substitute for practical love for your neighbor.
Finally, the one who is truly religious will keep himself unspotted from the world. The world is simply that system that operates on human wisdom, leaving God out.
Much religion is a façade that obscures a dead faith. James, you may have noticed, is not interested in leaving you an easy way out.
And so, I ask again: If you were on trial for being Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Beloved, our heavenly Father longs to see His character, as expressed in His law, reflected in the character of His children. He has given us a model. Follow the example of Him who was the doer of the word par excellence, James’ brother, Jesus Christ our Lord, and you will neither deviate nor stumble on your journey to eternity. Amen.