Sunday, April 27, 2008

Extreme Teaching

James 3:1-5 (NKJV)1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body.

Having concluded his discourse on the importance of good works accompanying any profession of faith, James now addresses one species of good works that is of particular importance to him – the tongue.

Already James has admonished us to be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. He has warned us that if anyone thinks himself to be religious, and does not bridle his tongue, then his religion is worthless. And now James returns to this subject to instruct his audience about the nature of the tongue and its dangers.

He begins his discourse on the tongue by addressing teachers – those entrusted with the task of using their tongue to instruct others. James warns his audience from pursuing such a calling lightly – knowing that those who do pursue it shall receive a stricter judgment. It is no light thing, James tells all of us entrusted with the responsibility to teach, to carry out that function. It is a holy calling, a serious business, one of the most "extreme" of activities. Some may very well have been tempted to pursue the calling simply for the sake of the authority which teachers in the church possess – and so he warns his readers from jumping on the bandwagon just for the kudos that come along with the privilege. Teaching in the Church is a dangerous thing.

The warning that James gives is directly connected with his burden to address the power of the tongue. And so James follows up his warning against becoming teachers with a brief explanation. He notes that we all sin in various ways and that restraint of the tongue is one of the most critical virtues to possess – leading as it does to the control of the rest of our faculties. We’ll return to this observation next week – at this point let us simply remark that James’ warning is vivid because no one is more tempted to misuse his tongue than one who is commissioned to use it.

But lest you think that you are off the hook if you have not been called to the office of teacher in the church, let me remind you that many of us are called to teach in other settings. Parents, for example, are exhorted to teach God’s commandments diligently to their children and to talk of them when sitting at home, when walking along the road, when lying down, and when waking. Likewise, those in authority are commissioned to give wisdom and direction to those under their charge. And so James’ words apply to you – if you are called upon to teach, whether formally or informally, beware lest the use of your tongue cause others – or yourself – to stumble into sin. Speak wisely, speak sparingly, speak shrewdly.

Reminded that we often fail to consider carefully the words that we speak, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.

Define Your Terms

James 2:20-24 (NKJV)20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

The passage before us today has been the center of much controversy since the time of the Protestant Reformation. How can we possibly reconcile Paul’s statement that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law with this assertion by James that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone? Roman Catholics have consistently pointed to this text to prove Luther wrong. See, Luther, this text proves that our salvation is dependent upon our works. Indeed, Luther was himself so perturbed by this text that he called the epistle of James an “epistle of straw” and at times even recommended that it be excluded from the canon. Let us be thankful that cooler heads prevailed.

We know, of course, that there can never be any ultimate contradiction between different portions of the word of God. All works in harmony. So how do we reconcile Paul and James? Must we, with Rome, assert that our works are part of the basis for our standing with God – that God will save us because we live in a certain way? To answer with a Paulism, “May it never be!”

Whenever we are confronted with an apparent disagreement between two positions it is always good to make sure that the two are defining their terms in the same way. If George claims, “½ of all high school graduates are illiterate,” and Fred insists, “No, only 1/3 are illiterate,” then we have the makings of a great debate. However, once we discover that George defines illiterate as unable to read above a 3rd grade level and Fred defines it as unable to read at all, the debate is over – because the two statements are easy to harmonize.

Likewise with Paul and James – we appear to have the makings of a nasty argument until we realize that they use the term “justification” differently. Paul defines justification as “set right with God” and insists that a man is not set right with God on the basis of his works but solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness – which is grasped by faith. We do not, we cannot, we dare not try to earn our salvation. Any such attempts are doomed to failure – those who attempt to do so prove themselves ignorant of God’s righteousness, seeking in vain to establish a righteousness of their own.

James defines justification differently. James defines it as “vindicated in the eyes of men” and insists that a man’s profession of faith is only shown to be genuine if his claim manifests itself in a change of behavior. The claim to believe in God means nothing if one continues to conduct himself as though God didn’t exist. Faith must show itself in works.

And so both Paul and James would put the questions to us – do you trust in the Lord? Have you been set right with Him by faith? Have you believed Him like Abraham did, such that he was declared righteous only through Christ? And, if so, have you begun demonstrating in your life that this trust is real? That you really do trust Him even as Abraham offered up his son Isaac in full reliance on the trustworthiness of God?

Reminded that we frequently mishandle the word of God and that we stand in desperate need of the righteousness of Christ, let us kneel and confess our sin to our Heavenly Father.

Monday, April 14, 2008

What is Saving Faith?

James 2:18-19 (NKJV)18 But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!

Last week James invited us to make the distinction between the profession of saving faith and the possession of saving faith. If we merely claim to believe in Jesus but our claim is not validated by our works, then we are simply professors of faith not possessors of faith. We will be those to whom the Lord says on the last day – “Depart from me you who practice lawlessness for I never knew you.”

But what exactly is saving faith? What is this thing that the Lord works in the hearts of His people and through which He unites them to Himself? In the passage today James makes yet another distinction which helps form the foundation of the traditional way theologians discuss the various elements of saving faith – notitia, assentia, and fiducia. What do these fancy words mean?

Notitia insists that saving faith contains a basic knowledge of God and the content of the Gospel. In order to believe in the Gospel and be delivered from our sin, we must know the nature of our sin and the promise of the Gospel. Saving faith involves knowledge. “For there is a way which seems right to a man but in the end it is the way of death.” We must know the correct way.

But mere knowledge is not sufficient for saving faith. As James remarks in our passage today – the demons know as much and tremble! No one knows the truth quite so well as the evil one and his legions; but no one hates it so viciously either. And so joined to notitia, knowledge, must be assentia, assent. We must not only know what the truth is, we must acknowledge that it is in fact true. Saul knew in his bones that David was not out to destroy him, yet he refused to believe his better wisdom. We must give our assent to the things that the Spirit of God brings to our awareness.

But even joining knowledge with assent, we don’t yet have a sufficient definition of saving faith. For when we come in saving faith to our Lord, not only do we know the truth at a basic level, not only do we give our assent to these things, saying, “Yes, those things are in fact true and lovely”, we also heartily embrace the One who has revealed these truths to us and enabled us to give our assent to them. Saving faith involves not only notitia and assentia but also fiducia. Christianity is ultimately not about knowing a number of facts and giving our assent to them; it certainly involves this, but is not defined by this. Christianity is ultimately about putting our trust in the One who has revealed these things to us. And this is what fiducia is – trust; embracing Christ Himself and clinging to Him as the solution for our sin.

This saving faith - notitia, assentia, and fiducia – is the very thing that the Spirit of God creates within us when He unites us to Christ. He opens our minds that we might acknowledge the truth, He woos our affections that we might give our assent to it, He moves our wills that we might embrace Christ – and so what kind of people ought we to be? How thankful ought we to be?

Reminded of the true nature of what the Spirit of God creates in us and our failure to be grateful, let us kneel and confess our sin to the Lord.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Profession versus Possession

James 2:14-17 (NKJV)14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

This morning we return, after our Easter hiatus, to the book of James. And it will be helpful as we do so to remember what James has told us thus far in this chapter. He began by rebuking his readers for showing partiality to the rich and famous while embarrassing and demeaning the poor. In response to their hypothetical objection that they were simply treating the rich as they would themselves desire to be treated – James says, “Fine, if that’s what you’re doing then well and good. But if you are showing partiality you are convicted by the law as transgressors – indeed,” James declares, “you are murderers.”

In the text before us today, James counters a possible objection to his scathing analysis of their behavior from the law, an objection that is frequently raised in our culture today. “How dare you judge us James?” his audience will no doubt be tempted to ask. “We profess the same Jesus as you. We believe. We have been freed from the law by Jesus. How dare you judge us!”

And so James asks a series of common sense questions to drive home the distinction between the profession of saving faith and the possession of saving faith.

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?

Using a different analogy than James’ to make the same point, I can claim to be a patriot all day, but if meanwhile I’m out selling secrets to the enemy I can hardly use my claim of patriotism in my defense. No patriot sells secrets to the enemy; and no Christian lives lawlessly. And so, James says, my judgment is simple common sense – I’m judging you because you are hypocrites. Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James tells us that there is a distinction between professing to have saving faith in Jesus Christ and actually possessing that faith.

Such judgments are of course easy to make of our neighbors. But James would have us to turn the mirror toward ourselves – to look at ourselves in the perfect law, the law of liberty, and to note what kind of people we are. So what of us? What excuses have we made of late for our disobedience to God’s commands? What outbursts of anger have escaped our lips? What impatience has marred our homes? What hypocrisy has tainted our witness? Do we merely profess to believe in Jesus or do we demonstrate by our Spirit empowered works that we actually believe in Him?

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’” Look, Lord, at all these spiritual experiences we’ve had. I raised my hand, I prayed the sinner’s prayer, I signed the card. “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Mt 7:21-23)

Reminded of the distinction between professing saving faith and possessing saving faith, let us kneel and beseech the Lord that He would cultivate the latter in our hearts and forgive us for transgressing against Him.