Faith and works

Read James Chapter 2; secondary text Romans 6:5-23

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – James 2:18

The second chapter of James is about how our faith must translate into actions that reflect what we believe. James begins with the concrete example of the sin of partiality—when we honor or respect certain people more than others for superficial reasons. When we show partiality our actions reveal what our hearts truly believe; that some people are more valuable or important than others. While we might never say it out loud, our actions demonstrate our beliefs. James uses the sin of partiality to show the outermost symptom of a heart that is out of step in loving Jesus. Like tracing the symptoms down to their origins, James digs in to uncover why our actions would be out of line with what we say we believe. 

What leads us into the sin of partiality is not taking Jesus’ words to love your neighbor as yourself seriously (2:8-9). Jesus calls this the royal law because the whole law can be summed up in this one command. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we will honor our parents, we won’t commit adultery or rob or murder or oppress others because we wouldn’t want to be treated that way ourselves. 

But what might seem strange is that James is talking about the law at all. In 1:8-13, James says that we are doing well if we keep the royal law, but if we show partiality we are convicted by the law as transgressors. It is easy to think when we are in Christ the law no longer matters, but this is not true. Israel was given the law to enter into relationship with a holy God, but the law only highlighted their sin and their enslavement to it. On the cross, Jesus broke the power of sin over us (it no longer is our master) and the penalty of sin (the wages of sin is death) so that we might become obedient from our hearts to Christ (Rom 6:16-19). Our relationship to the law now is as Spirit-empowered children of God who obey his law because we love him. Jesus says if you love me you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15), so while the law no longer condemns us, it is still our instructor, teaching us how we grow in Christlikeness and revealing our sin. When James says that if we keep the law of Christ we are doing well, he is saying that if we love others as ourselves we are demonstrating our love through our actions, actions that cherish the word and commands of our Savior.

But James goes deeper still. If the sin of partiality is the outermost symptom and underneath it lies a disregard for the law of God, the root of the problem is thinking that we can have faith without works. If I say that I love the Boston Red Sox and am a huge fan, but have never watched the games, don’t know the players, or care about their record, it would seem like I am actually not a big fan. The same goes for our faith. Many claim to be big fans of Jesus but do not read his word, follow his commands, or grow in our love for him. 

James closes with two examples of people who demonstrated their faith through their actions, Abraham and Rahab, and interestingly their actions both involve sacrifice. To put our faith into action means being sacrificial with ourselves and things. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his home and even his own son because he believed in God and trusted him. Rahab sacrificed her safety betting that Yahweh was the true God, she was willing to sacrifice her life to be proved wrong. Sacrifice is a great litmus test for determining if we are living out what we believe in concrete ways because Jesus was the sacrificial one who gave up his life so that we might know him and become like him. When we are living a sacrificial faith, we are living out a faith that works. 

Reflect:

What kind of people do you find yourself showing partiality towards?

How seriously do you take putting your faith into action? What kinds of things do you prefer to show your faith through? Where do you generally shy away from following God even though he commands it?

In what ways can you grow in imitating Jesus through sacrificial love and practicing the royal law?

Cheerful Endurance in Trials

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. -James 1:1-8

When was the last time you needed to be steadfast? Perhaps it was endurance in an athletic endeavor or emotional strength in a relationship, mental focus to complete exams, or getting through another night of taking care of an infant. James begins his letter by holding up the virtue of steadfastness. To be steadfast is to endure, to wait patiently, to be constant, to have cheerful endurance.

Lately, my daughters have been waking up at 5:30 am. Though hopefully, this is a short-lived trend, I have not rejoiced in the predawn rooster cries emerging from their room. In fact, if I really examine my response to trials, I often see the benefits of spiritual growth in hindsight, after the ordeal is over, but I rarely am thanking God and rejoicing for whatever difficulty he has allowed my way. So why is it so important that we rejoice while we face trials, not just after? And more than that, what is it about the Christian faith that enables not only endurance but joyful endurance? 

Testing. James says that we can rejoice in testing because it produces steadfastness. Testing is what sharpens and refines us. Testing can sound negative as if God is throwing curveballs at you, trying to trip you up. Largely, tests are not popular. Testing brings back memories of algebra and physics, right and wrong answers. But testing can also provide an opportunity for what psychologists call eustress—a kind of stress that provides opportunities for positive growth. Even though the circumstance is still challenging or difficult, when you are working towards something good, the stress associated with it becomes a necessary part of human growth and development. The same goes for spiritual maturity. Jesus endured testing in the desert before his ministry began. Spiritual testing is a positive activity that teaches us to depend on God, rely on his word, and prove our faith genuine through endurance. 

An opportunity for joy. Biblical joy is contentment in Christ in spite of circumstances. Happiness is always connected to circumstances, but joy is a fruit of the spirit, something that grows out of participating with Christ, and the byproduct of faith. It is rooted in knowing that God is at work in all things and his promises are all true. This is why Paul in Philippians rejoices in his suffering and imprisonment. He knows that the Lord is using his imprisonment for his glory and purposes, and he is confident that even if the worst happens (he dies) he will be with Christ which is his heart’s truest yearning. When you desire to grow in Jesus, you can find joy in trials because God promises they will develop your love fo him and deepen your intimacy with him.

When James says to count it all joy when you face trials because the testing of your faith will produce steadfastness, he is saying that the foundation of Christian discipleship is growing in steadfastness, pursuing Christ in all circumstances, finding joy in Him in all seasons so that we might be transformed more and more into his likeness. So that we will be complete and lacking nothing. So that we will one day look just like Jesus. In your circumstances today, remember that the Lord tests and refines us to draw us to himself and change us into people that know and love him more and more.

The good gifts and the perfect gift

Advent devotional

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. – James 1:16-18

The Bible is full of things that seem unbelievable: humans rising from the dead, immaculate conception, prophecies, spiritual realms. But often, the most unbelievable things in scripture are not supernatural, they are the words that challenge our underlying assumptions about ourselves. James says that every good and perfect gift is from God. Every single one. When we see something good in our lives, it is from God. A healthy family? A gift from God. A good education? A gift from God. A delicious meal? A gift from God. 

The good gifts

When I worked with Harvard students, this topic was always an interesting one to breach. These incredibly gifted, hard-working students have largely been told “you got yourself here, you deserve this.” It was their work, determination, and brilliance that landed them a spot at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. When we would discuss James’ words, I could see the wheels turning, an uncomfortable tension rising in their minds. The tension of wondering who did what? Perhaps God did give me certain things, but at some point, it was my work that got me here. There was an invisible line between the things God did, and the things they did to arrive on campus. And this line runs through each of our hearts.

We find it hard to believe that God has opened every door, provided our family and finances, and created us with minds and abilities that are bestowed by him. We want our successes and accomplishments to be our glory, not his. But the Greek word for good in this verse means intrinsic good; gifts that are good whether we see them to be so or not. It’s like James is addressing this problem before we can even argue with him. Any intrinsic good in your life is a gift from your Heavenly Father. The things we celebrate most about ourselves should be the gifts we thank God for most. But there is something even more valuable—the perfect gift. 

The perfect gift

The word for gift is only seen in one other place—Romans 5 where it is used to refer to our salvation, the most valuable gift of God. Salvation is the gift we should desire most, be most thankful for, and delight in more than any other. And yet often, it is the overlooked gift. What a low view of salvation that we have when we accept that we have been made righteous through the work of Christ, freed from the penalty and curse of sin, and adopted as children of God, and move on looking for more. We take our eyes off of this most precious gift and put them back on the gifts that seem to serve us most today, bring us the most glory. But as James reminds us, do not be deceived, this gift of salvation is of much greater value than any comforts or provisions God has given us in his goodness. Do not lose sight of the reality that our salvation is the only gift we truly need.

Today, remember that the good gifts are good and we should thank God for them, but they are not the perfect gift. They are not union with Christ or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are not the promise of life eternal, our sin forgiven, or brokenness restored. Today fix your eyes on the gift of Christ, the only gift we truly need. 

Reflect:

What are the good gifts from God you see in your life?

Where do you see the line of what God has done and what I have accomplished in your life?

How has salvation changed your life? 

Pray: Lord, thank you that every gift comes from you. I repent of the ways that I think my own actions or work have earned the good things in my life. Help me to grow in my awareness of and thankfulness for your provision, and learn to treasure your gift of salvation more and more. Help me to rejoice with the Psalmist who says, I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me (Ps 13:5-6). Amen.