Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 9, 2018
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Does the Bible contradict itself? Yes? No? Today we read the word from James, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way. faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14-17) But all of you good Lutherans know this verse, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
So what is it? Salvation by grace through faith in Christ? Or, is it salvation by works? Does the Bible speak two ways about the same thing? Grace or faith? Maybe the problem is about the writers. Paul thinks one way and James thinks another. Is that it?
I don’t think the Bible is in error and it does not contradict itself. There is no battle between Paul and James. It is all God’s word. It is inspired. It doesn’t contain an error.
But James 2 and Ephesians 2, the two contrasting verses that I read, had different intents for their writing. Their audiences were different. James was writing to a group of believers who had become lazy in their faith. They were going through the motions. They had the words but they had no heart. They needed to hear God’s in-your-face judgment and law. They needed a boney finger placed right in their chest and pressed hard on it until it hurt. “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?”
God, who has an amazingly boney pointing finger, sticks it right in our chest and says the same thing when our faith has become dry and dead. We have all the right words but all the wrong actions. We are one way inside the church but something all together different when we leave here. Hypocritical. Fake. Phony.
Dr. David Peter teaches at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. He tells the account of one of his parishioners who left his wife and family and moved in with another woman. Pastor Peter went to see him. This guy was committing sin openly and willingly. And he wasn’t sorry about it at all. In fact he was enjoying it and life was better now than when he was at home. He told the pastor, “I’m a Christian. I still believe in Jesus. I believe that he died for me and loves me.” You know what Peter did? He quoted James 2. “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” “Faith, if it is not accompanied by action is dead.” That guy needed to hear James. He needed to hear God’s pointed law that condemned his sin. James was written for those whose faith is dead, lifeless, sinful.
Pastor David Peter went on to quote some other verses as well, “For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words. Because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.” (Ephesians 5:5-6)
This man may have had a living faith at one time, but at that moment he only had a faith that was dead. He knew the words about believing in Jesus but his actions showed that he really had no faith at all.
James and Paul do not contradict one another; they speak about different intents. For the person whose faith has been lost or dead or needed to be woken, James wants to wake it up, revive it. He wants to wake up you and me. He wants to bring us again to a living faith.
Paul writes to the person who is repentant and seeking God’s answer for sin’s curse. He provides Gospel – good news. Jesus Christ paid for the sins of all, everyone who comes to Him is forgiven and cleansed and made a new creation. That is why Paul would tell the simple saving message in these words, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” That is why Paul would say, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-24)
Many years ago a lady from outside my congregation came to see me to confess a sin that had burdened her for decades. She did not want her pastor to know of it, it was too painful and too personal. She knew she had not followed the will of God for her life. Did she need James 2 or Ephesians 2? Did she need a pointing finger or an embrace? She needed Gospel. She needed forgiveness. She needed to know that her sin was no more. That is what she heard. That is what she received. That is what God gave her by the grace of Jesus Christ.
Faith is as passive as it can be. It receives freely all that God has done for us. No works. No deeds. Nothing on our shoulders. We are just receivers. Christ has done everything and faith trusts His work. In the hymn “Just as I Am, without One Plea” (LSB 570, Verse 1), we hear, “Just as I am, without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” A living faith is passive. It trusts, believes, relies on God alone. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
A living faith is not just passive, though. It is active. It works and gives, and does many, many things. James writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:18-19)
James says that a living faith doesn’t make judgments about others by mere appearances. It doesn’t show favoritism. “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you’, but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4) We aren’t to judge another by their appearance or looks, their position or their money or power. Faith looks deeper than that. A living faith has substance because we know the love of God in Jesus for all people and it lives by treating others just as God has treated us.
A living faith is costly. It demands much from us. When I was on vacation in Georgia a few weeks ago I attended worship at an Episcopal Church the first Sunday I was there. Little place. 50 folks or so. But they did something that I’ve never seen, at any church. And I wonder if it cost them. Before the offering the pastor said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) Now, I didn’t see anyone get up and leave, telling us that they would be right back to present their offering to God, but those words are costly. They tell about making things right with others and then bringing a gift, our offering to God, that doesn’t have a tinge of resentment, or unfinished business, in it. That is an active, living faith. It demands everything that we have in response to everything that God has given us.
James 2. Works. Ephesians 2. Grace. Contradictions? No. But what do we need to hear today? Law that accuses us, makes us repent and change our life? Gospel that comforts us with the sweet news that in Jesus, the old has gone and the new has come?
May God who knows what we need speak to our souls this day. He always speaks to our greatest needs through the work of Jesus. Amen!!