Foolish Faith: James 2:14 – 2:26

thePsalmist on January 23rd, 2010

There is a real irony in the foolishness of the gospel though. In Proverbs foolishness was a very very bad thing:

“A foolish son bring grief to his father and bitterness to the one who bore him.” Proverbs 17:25

As Christians I think we can often bring a great deal of grief to God, and real bitterness into the heart of Jesus who bore us spiritually into this world and the next, by the utter foolishness with which we live out the gospel. A foolishness which isn’t like the foolishness Paul talks about in Corinthians, but is a foolishness in stark contrast to the gospel – a foolishness which seeks to hang on to the values of this world some measure, whilst also trying to claim the rights of heirs of God’s kingdom.

This passage from James is the fundamental reason for entitling this series “Inside Out and Upside Down”. This central passage in James’ letter is often seen as the pinacle of what the letter is all about, especially the famous opening verse:

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” James 2:14

And herein lies a big issue for our understanding of the Christian gospel. It is the most important of fundamental teachings of the Christian faith that there is absolutely nothing which we can do, by way of good deeds, to save ourselves. When Jesus was confronted by the rich young man, himself a fantatsic example of upright citizenship and religious obedience, he made the mistake of addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher”:

“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” Luke 18:18-19

Jesus challenged him not on his question but on his use of the word “Good”. He takes that opportunity to make the point in his ministry that there is no one who is good, not really, not compared to God! Our deeds, our religious observances, our niceness or perfect morality will not add up before God to making us “good” people worthy of His kingdom:

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

ALL have sinned … and ALL are justified freely by HIS grace. Not one is justified by their own good deeds. Not one! Are we saved by our own merits? Nope! Are we able to convince God that actually we are quite holy and righteous after all? No! Was Christ’s sacrifice fully sufficient in and of itself to redeem my sinfulness? Yes, absolutely.

So why then does James bang on about our faith HAVING absolutely and necessarily to produce good works? Surely that is contrary to the Word of God? James’ most famous of passages here would appear to tread a dangerous line between the gospel of grace and the heresy of salvation by good deeds.

Well perhaps … and perhaps not. This is James at his very gospel centred best in truth. This is James at his hardest hitting, calling a spade a spade, inside out and upside down best. The gospel of grace is central and crucial, but the full impact of that grace on our lives is left without any doubts at all.

Back in Romans again we see Paul’s take on what effect the Gospel should have in our lives:

“12:1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spirituala act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. 3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” Romans 12:1-6a

Paul makes a bold claim here. Firstly that everything we now have and are are there by God’s own grace and mercy, and that secondly, in response we should give our whole lives to be living sacrifices to Him … thus to each other who we find in the body of Christ. Paul goes on and on turning our faith upside down, just like James, making out that who and what we are comes not from us but from God … or at least it should do. Our faith should be generating more stuff from above and a lot less from the world below. The stuff we exhibit in our lives should be the gifts from God to serve one another, he says, the stuff from Up there, being given to serve each other Down here. Upside Down.

God’s grace, love and mercy in action in the everyday. Our faith, so desperately held inside our hearts, worked out in the relaitonships we are part of and the community around us which we live in. Inside Out and Upside Down.

So James is able to say in the light of all this …”What flaming good is it you muppets if you reckon on God giving you a new life and yet you live it like the old one you had before? What point is it in believing in spiritual gifts which are given for the common good, but you don’t actually use any of them! What use is the church if it was created by Jesus to change the world and yet all it does is meet in relative comfort and isolation and cares not one jot for actually being out there with it’s sleeves rolled up?”

Well, he might have said that, had he lived amongst us these days.

Wr might believe every word of the Bible, but unless it is actually busy transforming our lives, our minds, our hearts, our values (as Paul would say perhaps), then it really counts for nothing. James drives the boot deeper into our backsides saying

“You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” James 2:19

Oh! And so he brings us to the issue of a foolish faith:

“You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” James 2:20

Foolish Faith – a foolish faith is one for James which hasn’t even begun to grasp the reality of what that faith teaches, and yet professes to live by it nonetheless. To be honest, most people with any sort of faith have a foolish faith. I speak to many teenagers especially who would devoutly call themselves pagan, yet haven’t even begun to grapple with the true meaning of paganism … as they celebrate Christ’s birth at Christmas, live lives highly out of balance with nature and environmental concerns trashing the planet with their high-refuse generating, high-polluting, high meat-consuming diets. I speak to many more who profess to being convinced atheists whose atheism hasn’t even begun to be thought through, and who readily turn to prayer at the mereist whiff of trouble. And sadly I speak to so many Christians who live lives wholly divorced from the impact of the gospel on their lives, either through the outward engagement in living life the way the rest of the world lives their lives with decadence, loose morality, no morality, sexual misadventure, materialism … Or worse, the lack of love for their neighbours, the holding their faith quietly, the lack of service of others, the consumerism within the church. All of these things equally foolish for a people who have been supposedly transformed by the grace of God.

James raises before us a profound example, he talks about Abraham … a man who lived until a ripe old age of 90-odd without an heir, with no son to pass on both his worldly wealth and his faith in the true and living God Yahweh. Yahweh had promised Abraham a massive, world dominatingly large, eternal offspring … and yet he was now in old age and the promises of God looked hopeless. But God’s promise was good and Abraham’s equally aged wife bore him a son. No sooner was this son walking and talking though and God called Abraham to put his money where his mouth was. God said “You say you believe in me? Good! Now prove it! … take your son, who I promised you, and sacrifice him on an altar to me!”.

From that point on Abraham was living an inside out and upside down sort of faith. He was living a life which would have made James very proud. Abraham just quietly got on with the task of obeying God’s word, not making excuses and not theologising his way out of it. He gathered wood for a fire, took his son, some servants and headed out to the place God told him to go. He tied his son up, placed him on the wood and held out the knife ready to kill him. …And God said “STOP!”

Now that action, that readiness of Abraham was credited to him as righteousness. It’s the action of the body, it’s the words from the mouth, which truly show faith for what it is. If your faith in your heart is not causing you to sacrifice everything for God, who has sacrificed everything for you, then what sort of faith is it really?

If your faith has not enabled you to tithe sacrificially to God’s work in the church then what faith is it?

If your faith has not caused you to give up your time to serve others in the church and in the community, then really, does your faith truly mean anything in your life?

If your faith has not transformed you, how you think, how you talk, how you behave, …to be more like Christ, then is your faith really living and active and present in your life?

James finishes with these wise words:

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

And in so doing summarises just how he is able to tread that line between a heresy of salvation through works and the gospel of grace and mercy. James is saying that while the faith itself is one of grace, when it is active within us we should see transformation and real godly lifestyles emerging. A living and active faith will necessarily bring about such radical change in those who have accepted it for what it is, that they will not be able to help themselves in living out the fuitfulness of it. The love for the lost, the poor, the needy, … the proclamation of God’s word, truth, love, grace, mercy, … the sacrifice of material comforts for the sake of giving more to God and to those in need, … the study of God’s word and the time spent in prayer … All of these things and more will be evidenced by a life set on fire with a true and living faith in Jesus Christ.

Our God is a good God who loves us, but who loves us so much that He is wanting to transform our lives into something which is more like Him … and He is not tired of working among the needy, and He is not afraid of sharing who He is, and He has not had his turn to serve, or worried about money. He just is love!

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Tamed Tongues James 3:1-12

thePsalmist on January 21st, 2010

The subtitle I’ve given to my series on James is “Inside Out and Upside Down” and this is perhaps never more fitting than in this passage from James 3.

The question for all of us as christians is how well our ‘private and personal’ faith exhibits itself in the practical outworkings of our lives.  The things we choose to do with our time in set pieces at set times with set boundaries are one thing – like going to church for 2 hours on a sunday, volunteering at the homeless shelter,  or serving overseas with a mission team for a week or two. These sorts of things are actually pretty easy money for living out our inward faith. Being ‘Inside Out’ Christians is pretty easy when sign up to an event or activity with Christian merit to participate in.

Where becoming Inside Out gets tricky is when it affects EVERY part of who we are ALL the time! What if Christians were supposed to somehow breathe differently to non-Christians? That would be a pain wouldn’t it? Imagine if we had to somehow walk differently, or sleep in a different fashion to the rest of humanity. What if Christians could only eat carrots or if we had to wear pink every day … golly, becoming a Christian would be pretty hard work and jolly unattractive to most people, except the weirdos of course.

Here though in James chapter 3 though he calls us to speak differently…ALL the time! And that’s tricky because what we do with our tongues is as all intrusive into our lives as how we walk, what we wear, how we breathe, what we eat.  Our speech patterns, our vocabulary, our tone, out attitude, our thoughts … all intrinsically US. I convey to the world around me most clearly who I am when I speak. It is true that perhaps my actions define me, but I believe it is my words which truly describe me. Words express every part of who we are. They express our emotions, our ideas, our beliefs … and most importantly our values.

There is a saying “You do what you value, and you value what you do!”. Perhaps James would say “You say what you value, and you value what you say!”

The values within our hearts express what is in our hearts says James. What is inside us comes pouring out of that flappy hole in the front of our faces.

James says this of our tongues: James 3:2

We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.

Oooh … never at fault in what we say? Come off it? Surely he doesn’t expect that does he? …No of course not, we can be expected to die for our faith as many thousands of our brothers and sisters around the world find out every year still to this day, but expecting us to guard every word which comes out of our mouths is of course just taking things too far! Of course Jesus can transform people’s lives completely – the alcoholic can be set free, the prisoner restored, the victim renewed, the ill healed … and of course even the dead raised … but we shouldn’t truly expect the words we use day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute actually transformed into something godly should we?

Yes, of course we should. If we truly let Jesus into our hearts then the values by which we live should be changed to be in line with His, and the words which come from our hearts and minds and given utterance by our tongues should equally reflect His glory.

The thing is, says James, it isn’t just about us controlling the tongue. The key, he says, is that in controlling the tongue we in turn manage to control every other part of our lives. The tongue is like a rudder of a ship, or a bit & bridle in the mouth of a horse. With that small device you can turn the whole thing. With a tamed tongue our whole lives can come into check.

It’s about living inside out! Our inward faith being allowed to change our outward living. Our inner values for Jesus and love for Him transforming the one part of us which travels furthest from our bodies … the sounds which emmanate from our mouths – the words which we speak and which can travel hundreds of meters from us through the air, or to the other side of the world via the wonders of modern technology. Speech not only describes who we are and what we believe and value to the world around us, but it also has a profound impact on who we are.

James tells us too that this influence might not always be a good one. A small spark can set a whole forest ablaze! In a church setting isn’t it so often true that the biggest problems we encounter are not ones about what people have done, but mostly about what people have said … usually out of turn and out of place! Our advice earlier in James 1:19 was to be slow to speak and quick to listen…that’s upside down thinking, that’s the values of God at work there. How often to we set alight great blazes which are difficult to control because we’ve spoken too quickly about something, expressing anger, hurt, dismay,…all because we didn’t take time to listen properly to what was being said and why…and then even if we had listened we speak with the wrong words fashioned with th values of the world, not the values of God.

Yes, James expects us to tame our tongues in a way which reflects God’s glory, and to do so not just in worship on a Sunday morning, but down the pub with our friends, on the phone with our gossipy sister, in the car when someone cuts us up, on the internet chatting to a friend, in bed, on the streets, in church and in the supermarket … in all these places we need our tongues to be dripping with the love and grace of Jesus.

Tamed tongues? … It might be easier to make we wear pink and skip down the street while I tuck into my veggie burger! Another toughey for us to enjoy as James turns our lives inside out and upsdie down!

Cross references for this passage:Ro 3:13 | “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.”“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
Ge 1:26 | Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
1 Ki 8:46 | “When they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land, far away or near;
Ps 12:3 | May the LORD cut off all flattering lips and every boastful tongue
Ps 32:9 | Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.
Ge 1:26, 27, 5:1, 9:6; 1 Ki 8:46; Ps 12:3, 4, 32:9, 34:13, 39:1, 73:8, 9, 120:2, 3, 4, 140:3; Pr 10:19, 12:18, 15:2, 16:27, 20:9; Ec 7:20, 10:11; Mt 5:22, 7:1, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 12:34, 35, 36, 37, 15:11, 18, 19, 23:8; Lk 6:37; Ro 2:20, 21, 3:9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20; 1 Co 11:7; Eph 4:11; 1 Ti 1:7; Jas 1:26, 2:10; 1 Pe 3:10; 1 Jn 1:8

James – Inside Out and Upside Down

thePsalmist on January 13th, 2010

To begin 2010 at St Thomas’ Church I’ve set us the task of preaching through the whole book of James, or rather the letter of James.

James is an awesome letter – but also downright horrid. James isn’t the sort of letter you get from your nan. James is the sort of letter you get from the bank when you’ve gone well over the limit … uncomfortable and slightly panic inducing! It makes you wonder whether there’s any way forward, and makes you wonder what on earth you’ve been living life like.

But ultimately James is the most wonderfully revitalising thing to read because it infuses new life, new values, new purpose into your everyday living. James is awesome!

The tagline for James is ‘Inside Out & Upside Down‘, … and for very good reason! Everything about James is topsy turvy for starters, but that’s not really the reason behind the tagline. But in terms of topsy turvyness at least just look at the second verse … “consider it pure joy…when you face many kinds of trials!” …oh great! Oh yeah, Praise the Lord, I’m utterly screwed! Thank you Lord, I’m in prison for my faith and I’ve just had my bones broken, my teeth smashed and my finger nails pulled out. I’m so happy to be a christian! … or for us in the comfy western world’s 2010: “Praise the Lord, I’m so chuffed to be stuck in a dead end job, mortgaged up to the hilt, in piles of debt with miserable kids and a stomach ulcer!”

Life is full of trials and even fuller of temptations. When they come and smack us in the face we’re meant to be pleased about it … according to James!

It’s topsy turvy! …but with very good reason!

More than that though, it’s very deliberately a call to base our lives on a set of values which are utterly Inside-Out and Upside-Down.

James is a book which challenges us not just to read the word of God and insert it into our brain via a quiet read over a cup of tea, but to get off our backsides and actually live out what it says … and the rest of God’s word. It is a letter which challenges us out of our comfortable little world of idealised faith which sits neatly in our little heads making us feel smug about ourselves and sends us out into the world to actually live out what we believe in the everyday situations we find ourselves in. It takes our inner, invisible, silent faith and pushes it out onto our sleeves, into our words, our actions, our relationships, our jobs, our spending habits, our walk along the street, our every part of the lifestyle we live … it turns us Inside-Out.

“Do not merely read the word of God and so decieve yourselves … DO what it says!!”

It’s also Upside-Down in the most remarkable way. James calls us to bring the stuff of God, the stuff that’s normally thought of as being ‘Up’ there, down here into our everyday lives and the world we live in! Literally, the call by James, is to bring the Upside stuff of God DOWN here into the everyday pratical world in which we live.

It is inside-out & upside-down!