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Do We Have What We Claim?

Sep 09, 2018

Passage: James 2:12-20

Preacher: Rev. Dr. Alfonso Espinosa

Category: Sunday, Pentecost


In the Name of Jesus. Amen. James – the half-brother of Jesus and author of the New Testament letter bearing his name (which we are now considering) – gets bad press sometimes, especially by pesky Protestants paranoid about speaking too much of good works. Even Luther was not always as affirming as he could have been, referring to the letter as an epistle of straw [in his 1522 Preface to the New Testament], but this is not necessarily a diss. Straw -- after-all -- had (in Luther’s day) many practical uses (straw is not bad, but is good). And that’s the point: Luther saw James as practical. And it is! Truth be told, however, that James does not highlight the person and saving work of Christ as say the letters of St. Paul. Nevertheless, Luther could write and did write that the epistle of James is “a good work, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God.” (AE 35:395 as quoted in The Lutheran Study Bible, p 2130)

But it does even more than that. At James, chapter 1, verse 18 James, yes James, says, “Of [God’s] own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” By teaching this, James clearly attributes the life of faith/the life of the Christian as coming from God, “brought…forth by the word of truth.” Sounds like St. Paul, “Faith comes by…the Word of Christ.” (Ro 10:17). St. Paul and St. James are therefore not contradictory, but complementary.

As much as we need to hear for the sake of our confidence, comfort, and peace that we are saved by grace through faith alone apart from the works of the Law; we also need to hear that faith cannot be true faith – no matter what we claim – if it is a faith that only CLAIMS, but does not also HAVE. To CLAIM faith (legitimately) is to HAVE good works.

If the sun that shines above IS the true sun, then by definition it must HAVE sunlight.

If the apple-tree IS an apple-tree, then by definition it must HAVE apples.

The sunlight does not make the sun; the apples do not make the apple-tree; but the sun will HAVE sunlight and the apple-tree will HAVE apples.

In the same way, if faith IS faith, then by definition it will HAVE good works. The good works do not make faith, but faith must HAVE good works.

The Solid Declaration of The Lutheran Confessions teach this from Luther’s pen: “Faith, however, is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.” (McCain, Paul Timothy, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006. 548)

Indeed, true faith has two things happening at once: we stand before God justified through faith alone; and, we stand before people, showing faith – by what we do. Both are true. This is not an either-or proposition, but a both-and state of life.

Jesus taught this. Matthew 25: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne…[He] will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.…Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (vss 31, 34-39 & 40b)

James is teaching within the verses of our consideration from chapter 2, the following facts:

Faith without works:

is useless, 2:14, 16

cannot save, 2:14

is ineffective, 2:20

is dead, 2:17, 26

(the above is part of the analysis by McKnight, Scot, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letter of James. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. 225)

But why was this so important to teach? The answer is because the Christians in that early church in Jerusalem were struggling to the extent that they were tempted to repress and avoid a living faith. They were growing lazy in their faith, and they were starting to compromise their faith. Franzmann explains,

“[These early Christians in Jerusalem to whom James wrote] were…placed squarely into the midst of Judaism, enmeshed in the life of Judaism; and they there called Israel to a radical reversal of repentance, to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to baptism in His name. This made their situation difficult in the extreme. It put them under the persistent pressure of opposition, of official and unofficial persecution, and brought them poverty (cf. Gal. 2:10) ... official Judaism was against them from the beginning. This opposition was intensified by the success of the new movement and particularly by the fact that ‘a great many of the priests’ went over to it and ‘were obedient to the faith’ (Acts 6:7). And apparently the will of Israel’s leadership imposed itself more and more upon the people generally; about A.D. 44 Herod saw that the execution of the apostle James had (as he had hoped and intended) ‘pleased the Jews’ (Acts 12:2, 3), and he imprisoned Peter…(Acts 12:4).” (Franzmann, Martin H. The Word of the Lord Grows. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961. 21)

In spite of early Christianity’s impressive credentials, the power structures were against it. They were being actively persecuted and it was tempting as a result, to hide faith. And in this way, faith was being compromised. Their faith was beginning to become only a claimed faith without what true faith always does: it makes itself known by the life that flows from it! Christians behave like Christians! Faith shines through what we do!

But we can relate to the first-century context of James. So, I’m going to cite a few examples, but this is not for doom and gloom. We are always to be joyful in the LORD and to know that He is with us to do great and wonderful things in the Kingdom of God. It is exciting to be a Christian today. You and me…we get to be salt of the earth and light to the world (Mt 5:13 & 14). You are the Christians, the disciples, the priests of God! You are washed in baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, fed and nourished through the LORD’s Supper, full of the love of God and we are assured that nothing will take us out of the hands of our Savior (Jn 10:28) and not even the gates of hell will prevail against His Church (Mt 16:18)! Having said this, that barking dog the devil tries desperately to convince you and me otherwise. Yes, he’s a real pain in the neck and he specializes in deception and powerful delusions (even as God permits these towards those who refuse to love the truth, 2nd Thess 2:9-12).

The devil says to you and me, “Look, what’s the use?! See how the Christian Church is in decline! see how many false teachings are multiplying! see the difficulties of this life!” Christian, he tries to beat you down. And what happens to us when we start listening to his discouragement? We start to curl up, we start to shut-down, we say we don’t want to offend or make people feel uncomfortable and so we avoid sharing the faith, our love can start to grow cold, we start getting paranoid (that everyone is against the faith we claim), and we stop showing our faith. And while we make our claims – especially when we come to Church on Sunday mornings – on the other six days of the week, our works are lacking. In our sinful nature, we don’t want to make it too evident that we are Christians…that we are “one of those people.” Do people see that what we CLAIM is consistent with what we HAVE?

It is easy for us to behave like those first-century Christians. We are no better.

But James does not treat his teaching about faith and works as a stale theological proposition in which he is leading us to try to check a box: “have I done my good deed or deeds for the day?” That’s ridiculous and this gives us opportunity to realize that James most definitely relates to the gospel of Jesus.

Here, I must include a couple of verses not in our official epistle reading today. They are important to include. Verse 12 mentions the word “freedom” … it is a word in the original language directly related to another word at verse 13: “mercy.” Let me cut to the chase and say that we are only truly free when God in Christ makes us free through His mercy; when the LORD releases us from the bonds of sin by His mercy in Christ and gives us new lives in the freedom of the gospel.

And such faith that lives in the freedom of the gospel expresses itself in love, in mercy, and in compassion, because THAT is how faith is formed (not by our love and mercy [that would be the false teaching of gratia infusia], but by God’s love and mercy FOR US)! God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s compassion has freed you from sin and death…and has created your faith! And this faith loves, it has mercy, and it has compassion…it mirrors what it has received! This faith alone saves, and this faith is never, ever, ever alone…love, mercy and compassion cascade down from it.

This James knows. He knows this “law of liberty,” (vs 12) and he knows of God’s mercy (vs 13). So, in going to verses 15-16: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” Let’s dig a little deeper. Such conditions are devasting. People lose their self-esteem and sense of dignity. McKnight says, “Nakedness is an image of shame and defenselessness.” (ibid., 230) Such people start to lose the ability to look another person in the eye, they are too ashamed, too defeated. But this was us Christians. We were naked in our sin. We were full of shame for our fall. We were defenseless in the face of death…and then, the LORD Jesus had mercy on us. He was and is full of compassion and He saved us in our extreme poverty of body and spirit. This is our faith and as we cling to Christ-alone through faith alone, God says you are justified, declared righteous, forgiven, and free! You have eternal life through faith in Jesus alone.

So, what to do now? That’s easy! We do what faith does! It lives what it receives…it HAS what it CLAIMS…it shows what it is! So, we care about the real needs of people. We see the needs and we have compassion, and we love, and we have mercy…why? Because we have faith! Real faith that moves beyond demon-faith (head-knowledge); a faith that is not useless, that does [instrumentally] save, that is not ineffective, and that is most certainly not dead. Your faith Christian is living but for one reason: it clings to the Living Christ! And on this account, His mercy, and love and compassion continue to be poured out upon you and through you! How can it not? Jesus has arranged it this way: you HAVE what you CLAIM.