We continue with our study of the book of James at Queen Street Church as we move into some of James’ most memorable lines of teaching. While I was praying and preparing this past week for this second lesson I checked out my colleagues at LifeChurch.tv who launched a sermon series “Stop Just Acting Like a Christian and Be One.” What a challenge!
I also remembered the joke from my childhood. A father asked his daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The young girl responded simply, “A vitamin.” “A vitamin,” the father responded, “whatever gave you that idea?” “The cereal box” came the response. “Its says right there on the side of the box: vitamin … B1!”
So before we even begin today, let me give away my conclusion. Stop acting like a Christian and be one!
Let’s read what James has to say in chapter 2:
Warning against Partiality
My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
This extended lesson about hospitality and the sin of favoritism is telling in our time (and every time). First, let’s make some general observations about the text that reveal the Jewish milieu that James speaks out of and into:
1. James question about favoritism in the first verse echoes Elihu’s argument with Job over God’s sense of justice. There he says God “shows no partiality to nobles, nor regards the rich more than the poor, for they are all the work of his hands” (Job 34:19).
2. The royal law of scripture to love one’s neighbor is found in Leviticus 19:18, which God simply states: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
3. Again, James’ concern with partiality remembers the admonition to Israel’s tribal leaders that they “must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike” (Deuteronomy 1:17).
4. The clear word of judgment against murderers and adulterers in verse 11 originates in the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:13-14 and Deuteronomy 5:17-18).
Now the obvious lesson within the Christian community is that Paul teaches us that in Christ their is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female (see Galatians 3:28). We can add neither rich nor poor, neither black nor white, and dare I say it this week Republican nor Democrat for we are made one in Christ. We cannot walk in these doors and start making distinctions about who is honored or not honored, who is great and who is small, who is welcomed and who is rejected. It may be in the world’s DNA and its brokenness that causes us to make those distinctions, but in Christ it is not acceptable! Let me say it plain, whatever ways that we want to utilize to separate people make no sense in God’s eyes. Why? Because mercy triumphs over judgment (verse 13). Mercy does not simply mitigate judgment – mercy trumps judgment! (Paul promises this as well: “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Let’s return to James’ words to the dispersed Jews:
Faith without Works Is Dead
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Now another debate ensues. Do we agree with Paul or James about the importance of faith and works? Let’s compare Romans 3:28 and James 2:24:
“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28).
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
As we begin this discussion we need to remember a few things. First, Paul wrote his letters after James did, but if we “read the bible straight through” James’ arguments come after Paul’s and seem to be a corrective. Not so, James is speaking to a different audience at an earlier time than the time period of Paul’s audience. Martin Luther, the German reformer of five centuries ago, would say that people may be saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. That is, true faith is not an opinion (even demons believe in God), it must have an outward expression.
Second, James and Paul use the word justified in differing ways. To James the word justified points to that moment in eternity when we stand before our creator and judge to account for our lives. For Paul to be justified points to that moment when our sin is made right before God through Christ’s atoning act. Centuries later, John Calvin would state “as Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as justified who are destitute of good works” (see his Institutes, 3.17.12). John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement summarized the position this way:
1. They do not speak of the same faith: St. Paul speaking of living faith; St. James here, of dead faith.
2. They do not speak of the same works: St. Paul speaking of works antecedent to faith; St. James, of works subsequent to it (John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, James 2:24).
Perhaps we can say with a contemporary word “its not whether you can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk.”
In just a few moments we are going to come to table to feast together. At this meal we are reminded of the atoning work that Jesus did for us. We break the bread and share the cup in remembrance of what God did through the death and resurrection of Jesus and we break the bread and share the cup in anticipation of that great day when we shall all be gathered at the gospel feast. And then we depart …, but this week. We cannot simply leave this place with James’ word echoing through our brains, so I have some homework for you to do this week.
1. God has placed someone in your life who is “poor” and someone who is “rich.” They may be a different color of skin, live in a different part of town, vote for a different party, be richer or poorer than you, etc. Whatever that distinction you treat them differently, maybe even with partiality or neglect. What difference would it make in your life if you saw them as God sees them? Now here the key, I am not asking you to ponder WWJD – what would Jesus do? No this week its WWJHMD – what would Jesus have me do? And when you have pondered, live into the Nike slogan and JUST DO IT! No excuse about time, money, resources … JUST DO IT!
2. This next week we are going to put ourselves into service. During the time that has been our early worship service we will gather here in the fellowship hall, break into teams to go out and pick up our friends from Carver Court, return to share in a light meal together, move into Sunday School, then worship together, and take our young friends home. Now I know how we are … we move away from Sunday and slowly forget what we have promised to God, so today each exit from our sanctuary will have someone with a clipboard available to take your name and number as you leave so that we can remind you of what you have promised.
3. Finally, as we write God’s word on our hearts, memorize with me: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17).