|What does a Christian look like? What is the archetypal image of a Christian? James 2 is concerned with this question. Its a controversial chapter that deals with what a Christian looks like. And it blows away a myth. That myth is that “Faith is what I think”. (Mark Dever)|
As I said it's been a controversial chapter. The great church reformer Martin Luther didn't get on too well with this. He was the champion of Protestantism – reforming the church from its errors in the Roman Catholicism of 450 years ago.
He observed two key foundations for Protestants:
This is known as “Justification by grace, through faith”. It is the cornerstone of true Christian faith. That we are counted perfect by God, because Jesus died in our place.
And when Luther read the passage we're studying tonight he blew a gasket. He famously called James a “right strawy epistle”. That is to say – something that should just be discarded. And of James 3v1, where James warns few people to aspire to be teachers... Luther is said to have remarked “I wish he'd taken his own advice”. Luther wasn't a fan. So the question is – does this passage contradict everything else... or had Luther not quite understood it. Well, I hope we'll see that there is no contradiction.
Actually James' words are vital for us – they sound vital warnings about the way we live, and about the way we speak. He sticks a big “handle with care” label over our lives. We have to understand that James was a provocative writer which is where some of the problem comes from – he does use Biblical phrasing in slightly strange ways. But, he does it to make a necessary point. And his issue – is what does real faith look like. And one of the key reasons for this is that James writes to suffering Christians. People who suffered for being Christians.
And James wants to be sure that they suffer for real Christian faith. Something he describes in 2v1. “The Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”.
Its possible to suffer for calling yourself a Christian without actually being one. But its a bit stupid to do that.
James has two key things to say here.
First then: Faith is more than assent.
Now, what he is not saying is anything here about evangelism. It's not even on his radar at all. So he's not saying you can evangelise by just living in front of people.
Evangelism requires words. Preaching the gospel always requires words – what James is talking about is the way that real faith outworks. And it is more than what we think.
Here's the shocking illustration of his point. V19. He says “you believe that God is one”. I am glad, James responds. But even the demons believe that God is one. They believe that God is Trinity. And what is more, the demons even shudder before God. Actually, if you read the early chapters of Mark's gospel the only people who recognise Jesus are the demon-possessed people – and they are very scared of him. But they're not saved people.
* In pairs check these references and ask “How does true faith effect the way we treat God's people?” How might we be in the wrong, by the way we live? Look at 1v27, 2v3-4.
Secondly, Faith is active.
Incidentally, have you ever wondered what the messengers were doing in the house of a prostitute? Joshua 2 tells us that they'd just arrived from Shittim.... And Numbers 25 tells us that Shittim was the place that Israel had prostituted themselves with “the daughters of Moab” ...The messengers were probably curb crawling in Jericho. And Rahab was the woman they found. There's no self-righteousness here.
[Thanks to Mike Reeves for these insights]
What Abraham the pagan and Rahab the prostitute put their faith in the promises of God and it made difference. The promises of God were not a badge they wore. The promises of God changed the way they lived their lives.
Repentance. Being humbled. Killing sin. Being corrected in how we live. Changing the inclination of our hearts. Pursuing purity. Not showing favouritism. Changing the use of our hands and feet. Being encouraged in our hearts. Becoming obedient to a command. Loving. Rejoicing. Being wisened. Having our hearts broken. Reveling in the promises of God. Mourning over our sin. Boasting in the Cross of Christ. Trembling. Weeping. And many, many more responses...Hearing the Word of God is not an academic exercise. It is not merely comprehension of a text. It is an encounter with the voice of God. An encounter with God himself. And it will not do to simply understand and shudder. Demons do that. God's word is meant to effect change.
I remember, boldly thinking I was very humble in my first year at University – eight years ago. I agreed that God says he gives grace to the humble – so I wanted to think I was humble....
Recently I was listening to a University lecturer who is part of my church – and he observed that a fault many students make is not to ask for help when they need it.
Suddenly I realised that that was exactly my problem at the end of my first year at University. I was struggling on my course – but “humbly” kept my head down rather than admitting it and getting some help.
I thought I was a model of humility... but I was self-deceived. Incredibly proud. And so was missing out on God's grace to me. Faith effects the way we treat the promises of God. Faith in the promises of God change the way we live.
* Some examples of God's promises, in James, for you to consider in pairs. Ask yourselves – What is God's promise here? What difference is this promise supposed to make in my life? How must I change? 1v2, 1v22-24, 4v6, 4v14Friends, faith is not just assent. Understanding the Bible will not save you. Faith in the promises of God changes the way we live. And if it doesn't then we better cry out to God to help us change – and we had better make the hard decisions to change! Luther was concerned that people might think that God accept people because they lived differently. James isn't saying that.
James knows that people get justified by God because the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory died in our place. But James writes with due provocative language to shock us into action.
James will not tolerate people living as if “faith is what I think”. Saving faith changes lives. We stand before God on the basis of Jesus' blood, but if our lives are unchanged all the right words in the world wont save us.
The goals of the Christian Union are to live for Jesus and speak for Jesus. This passage doesn't say a great deal about how to speak for Jesus. But it says a lot about how to live for Jesus. And the way to live for Jesus is to get to grips with the promises of God in the Word of God and exercise active faith – to use the promises of God to effect change in our lives.
tags: martin luther | justification by faith | strawy epistle | abraham faith | creative arts | christian union | francis of assisi | if necessary use words