February 11, 2023 - James

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Today we’re going to take a look at the book of James. The author here is James the brother of Jesus. He writes this letter specifically to Jewish followers of Jesus. James’s letter appears to have been preserved by the Jerusalem church, because it was not well known in the Gentile churches. Early Christians had plenty of copies of the 4 Gospels and Paul’s letters, but few copies of James. Very few Christians even mention the book of James until the great church councils after 300 AD. James almost didn’t make it into our hands, but God made sure that this vital piece of God’s word did not get lost.

Imagine: even without our Gospels, we could put together a fair number of Jesus’ teachings from the echoes of his teachings in this letter by his brother James. “Above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, lest you fall into condemnation.” (James 5:12) “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” (James 4:11) “The prayer of a righteous person has great power in its effects.” (James 5:16) In fact, there are so many themes in the book of James that sound like Jesus that this book may be full of words of Jesus that are not reported in our Gospels.

James is a good way to follow up our recent series on the 10 Commandments. As we have seen, God’s law as spelled out in the 10 Commandments is a pretty tall order. It’s hard to find a commandment that we haven’t broken countless times, in spirit if not strictly literally, and those sins add up. As they say, a clear conscience is often the product of a poor memory.

So where does that leave us? James is famous for his teaching that “faith without works is dead” and for his arguments that Abraham and Rahab the harlot were justified (put right with God) by their works. How do we put that together with Paul’s teaching that we are saved totally by grace through faith alone, “not by works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9)? Are we saved by our obedience, or is our obedience merely evidence that we have been saved? How can we know that we have been good enough to be saved, to spend eternity with God?

The rabbis of Jesus’ day figured out that there was more than one way to answer that question. 1. There was the belief that our good deeds only have to outweigh our bad deeds. (The problem there is: Who knows how many more good deeds it takes to outweigh the bad deeds?) 2. Some rabbis went so far as to claim that one good deed can wipe out a lifetime of bad deeds. But nobody knew for sure. When he died, 1st century rabbi Yoḥanan ben-Zakkai wept because he did not know whether he was worthy enough to be saved.

But there was a third unsettling answer to the question “How much is good enough?” 3. It was the all-or-nothing approach to the Law found in Deuteronomy 27:26, which says, “Cursed be the one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the Law, to do them.” Failure to obey the entire Law without ever breaking it (even once) puts us under a curse.

The apostle Paul, our authoritative Messianic rabbi, sides with Deuteronomy’s all-or-nothing approach. Paul writes to the Galatians (3:10) that all who rely on their obedience to the Law as the way they hope to get right with God are under a curse. Paul backs it up with that quote from the Law: “Cursed be the one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the Law, to do them.” (Paul then gives them a way to break that curse; we’ll come back to that.)

Believe it or not, James’s approach to God’s law is an all-or-nothing approach just like Paul’s. In 2:10, James writes, “Whosoever shall obey the whole Law, but offend in one point, has become guilty of it all.” It only takes one weak spot to break a chain. It only takes one pinprick to pop a balloon. Likewise, James teaches that all it takes is one sin to make any one of us a lawbreaker in the sight of God.

James explains that it doesn’t matter how clean you’ve kept your life on all the other commandments, if you break one of them. One sin (it doesn’t matter which sin) is enough to poison our relationship with God, to disqualify us from God’s heavenly kingdom. Some sins do greater damage down here than others. But one sin, whatever the sin, is enough to separate or alienate us from God. So much for our ability to reach God through obedience!

You may ask, What about repentance? Doesn’t repentance wash away that sin? What good is repentance, if all it does is say “I was wrong,” or cries tears of sorrow, or suffers punishment? What good is such repentance, even if it corrects the sinful behavior, or even if it does a huge amount of good deeds to try to make up for the wrong we did? Correct the behavior? All that does is bring you back to where you should have stayed; it doesn’t pay the penalty for what we did. Do good deeds? We should have done them anyway. Neither of these types of repentance can erase what we have done and make us perfect, as if we had never sinned.

So James has an all-or-nothing approach to God’s law: “Whosoever shall obey the whole Law, but offend in one point, has become guilty of it all.” How do we put that together with what James says about being justified or “put right” (with God) by works? Let’s take a look.

James argues that Abraham was justified (put right with God) by works when he offered Isaac on the altar. He says that Abraham’s faith “worked together” with his works (literally “synergized”), and that by his works his faith was “made perfect/complete.” James is showing that what Abraham did was a logical extension of his faith. Without Abraham’s extraordinary act of faith on this occasion, the faith he had in his heart was not complete. Faith (or trust, which is what faith is) is dead or inert until it takes the kind of action that requires faith to exercise. Without action, faith is purely in the head; it means nothing. You say, “I believe that chair can hold me up,” but until you sit on that chair, until you lean your weight on it, your faith is just words. There’s a huge difference between the faith that says “I believe that stock that everyone’s getting rid of is going to triple in price if I buy it,” and the faith that puts money on that stock.

That’s what makes Abraham’s act of faith so amazing. The author of Hebrews was right: Abraham must have believed that God could and would raise Isaac from the dead if he went ahead and did what God told him to do. That is easy to say, easy to theorize, but tremendously hard to believe to the point of action. Abraham’s willingness to act shows powerful faith.

But let’s not forget that Abraham’s faith has proved to be awfully shaky at times up till this point. Twice Abraham lies about his wife to save his own skin; he puts the promises of God and his own wife’s chastity at risk because he fails to believe that God will protect him. His lack of faith at these 2 times is shown by his actions. Likewise, Abraham and Sarah lose faith that God’s going to give them the child that he promised. They resort to sex with another woman to produce this child, an idea that was not pleasing to God, but God chooses to make it part of his plan anyway. Again, this was not an act of faith, but an act that showed lack of faith.

So does the example of Abraham prove that Abraham was saved by his obedience? Is that what “justified by works” means? No! We have seen that Abraham flunks James’s own standard of obedience: all it takes is one sin to make us an outlaw. Abraham’s got plenty of sin. Was Abraham saved by that one act of obedience when he offered Isaac? No, all he did there was prove that his faith was real. According to Genesis 15:7, Abraham was saved or reckoned as righteous by faith, long before that faith inspired enough courage for him to offer Isaac. God tells Abraham that his offspring will be as countless as the stars. Against all evidence to the contrary, Abraham “believed in Jehovah, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” (James himself quotes that verse.) Here is where Abraham becomes the “friend of God.” Only when Abraham offers Isaac more than 30 years later does his faith finally prove itself through action.

If we want more evidence that James should not be taken too literally when he argues that we are justified by our works of obedience, let’s take a look at James’s second example, Rahab the harlot. James asks, “Was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she received the spies and sent them out by another way?” Here’s a woman innkeeper whose lifetime business was enhanced hospitality for travelers, whose only act of righteousness we can point to is that she lied to protect the lives of the Israelite spies, and sent the security forces of her own people away on a wild goose chase.

So that’s how Rahab was put right with God by her works? Don’t get the idea I want to minimize the magnitude of what Rahab did. This woman exercised tremendous faith. All of her fellow Canaanites had heard the scary news of what God had done for Israel in Egypt and what God had done to the kings on the east side of the Jordan. But Rahab is the only one who takes action on what she knows, action that requires serious risk on her part: she chooses wrong, she loses big. Yes, for Rahab, faith shows itself by her deeds, even though those deeds are lying and betraying her country. Those deeds are direct expressions of her faith in the one true God.

Rahab’s faith was far above the belief of any of her fellow Canaanites. Rahab gets it: Israel’s God is more than just more powerful than her people’s gods. She says, “For the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.” There is no other God, period. “Your God is the absolute one and only!” That’s the faith that moves Rahab to take courageous action.

Rahab’s one act does not earn her forgiveness for her many sins. Nor can we equate her act with a repentance that rights every wrong she ever did. Her act is simply powerful evidence of faith in the undeserved mercy of God which can and does save her. That’s what James means when he says, “You see how that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:25). As James says, “Show me your faith without your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18) Faith is as invisible as the wind: we can only see it by what it does. But that does not mean that works are the means by which we earn what Christ has done for us. Deeds are simply evidence of genuine faith. Without deeds, faith is unlikely to be real.

“Faith without works is dead.” In other words, such faith is lifeless. Faith that does not produce deeds that are consistent with that faith is no faith at all; it’s just cheap fire insurance. As James asks, what earthly good is such faith?

Take a look at what happened in WWII. A lot of people in Europe believed in their heads that the Jews are God’s chosen people. But how many took action on that faith by hiding Jews from the Nazis? It is amazing how many believers did so, and how many failed to act. James says (4:17), “Whoever knows what is good and fails to do it, for them it is sin.”

But faith in the undeserved mercy of God is not a meritorious act in itself. Faith is like grabbing the lifeline when someone throws it to you to rescue you from a flood; the person who grabs the rope is no more “worthy” than the person who doesn’t. And yet, grabbing that lifeline from God by placing our faith in Christ makes all the difference in our eternal future.

So what do we learn from James? Are we justified by works, as James has often been quoted to say? Or have we misunderstood what James is saying here? I’d say the results of today’s study are that we have misunderstood James. James writes to correct a misunderstanding of Paul, in case we get the wrong idea from Paul that we can blow off God’s law. Paul himself would say, Absolutely not!

You say we can’t separate faith and obedience. That is true. Anyone who claims they can be saved by faith alone and then go live like the devil has got it totally wrong. No one can seriously make such a claim. Paul doesn’t! But Paul does say, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift (charisma) of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

What both James and Paul teach us is that good works are evidence that we have genuine faith. Paul tells the Ephesians that we are saved by grace (God’s undeserved favor), “not by works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) But Paul goes right on in the next verse to say that we are “created in Christ Jesus unto [for the purpose of] good works, which God has ordained beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Good works are the natural (I would say automatic) result of genuine faith in the undeserved mercy of God.

Which is it? Do we achieve worthiness to live with God forever, based on our track record of good and bad deeds (by “works”)? Or are we saved by grace – the unmerited favor of God? The Bible makes it clear in Romans 11:6 that both can’t be true.

Romans 11:5 says that God has chosen a small number of believers, based on grace, not on how good they are or how well they have obeyed. Verse 6 says, “And if by grace, then it is no more (the Greek word here means literally “no longer”) of works, otherwise, grace is no more (no longer) grace.” In other words, grace and works are mutually exclusive. It’s either grace or works that save us; it cannot be both.

God gave us the 10 Commandments for 3 reasons. One reason is to give us God’s owner’s manual on how to avoid a life of needless pain and heartache. God wrote the book on how to avoid such pain. God wrote the book on how to truly live. Whenever we break God’s law, we’re not really hurting God; we are hurting ourselves.

The second reason God has given us his Law is to show us what pleases God. If we truly love God, and if we want to live a life of gratitude for his undeserved mercy, we will want to know how to live a life that pleases God, to the extent that God’s Spirit empowers us to do so.

The final reason God has given us a Law that we can’t obey is to show us how much we need a Savior, to show us that we can’t reach God by obedience, no matter how hard we try. None of us is good enough. If you don’t believe me, go back and review our study of the 10 Commandments and see if you can honestly say, “I’ve done them all, perfectly.” Then go back and look at James 2:10: “Whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of it all.” God’s law is like a thermometer; it can’t cure us, it can only tell us that we are sick. Without the thermometer of God’s law, we’d never know how sick we really are.

Paul writes to the Galatians (2:21), “I do not frustrate the grace of God, for if righteousness comes by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain.” If you could reach God by how well you obey, then Christ died for nothing. God’s law proves to us that we are all unworthy sinners who desperately need a Savior. None of us can save ourselves. Only by placing your faith, not in your own goodness, but in Christ alone and what he has done for us, can you know that you have been made holy and pure and faultless before God, now and forever.

I would argue from today’s study of James that James and Paul must both be taken together. James corrects any misunderstanding of Paul where he says we are “justified by faith without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28). And Paul corrects any misunderstanding of James where he says we are justified by works and not by faith alone, by pointing us to James 2:10 (“whosoever shall keep the whole Law and yet offend in one point, has become guilty of it all”), a verse that Paul could have easily written himself. Yes, all it takes is one weak spot to break a chain, one pinprick to pop a balloon, and one sin to make us an outlaw before God.

How thankful we are that James’s letter did not get lost in the mail when the canon of God’s word was preserved for us! God knew we needed to hear from both James and Paul on the relationship between faith and obedience.

On our next broadcast, we’ll be taking a closer look at: how much do we really know about Heaven? Will Heaven be boring? What will we do for endless time? Will we be gods, ruling our own worlds? And how can we be happy in Heaven if we know that some people will be in Hell? We’ll talk about Heaven next time on Biblical Words and World!