Living By the Rules … of Mercy: Grace Thoughts on James 2.14-26 (A Sermon)Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Contemporary Ethics, Exegesis, Faith, James, Love, Ministry, Mission
If legalism is alive in us we should hunt it down and we should kill it! We should kill it without mercy. We should kill it ruthlessly. We should kill it without regret, for the parasite that it is. Legalism is a lie. It is a damning and damnable lie. And like some parasite that lives down in the dark feeding on the body of its host — so legalism eats and destroys Christians. And without apology and without remorse, without any looking back we ought to nail it dead as we can get it.
They came in their thousands. Then they came in their millions. They passed through the “birth” canal reception center into a conglomeration of camps known as Auschwitz. They came frightened, they came freezing, they came weak and bewildered. They came starving and in fear. As they got off the cattle cars to further abuse they noticed above the gate the words in huge letters: “ARBEIT MACHT FREI!” And it was a lie. It was a sick, satanic lie! In English it would read “WORK LIBERATES!” “WORK WILL SET YOU FREE!” And it was a lie.
It created among the people awful fear in the heart of those who were sick, and worse fear in the heart of those whose loved ones were sick. For they cared more for the people with them than they cared for themselves. And because they knew they couldn¹t work and because they knew they couldn’t survive — they were filled with utter fear and grave despair.
The strong who got of the train knew they were superior to others. The words “ARBEIT MACHT FRIE” produced that kind of bigotry and that sense of superiority. What it did then outside of the church, it will do today in the church. It’ll drive people to worry, to fear because of their weakness. And then there are those for whom ‘goodness’ seems to come easy or so it seems — they have their haughty and self-righteous attitudes that ring with condemnation for those of us who struggle. But it was a satanic lie for they ALL died! All of them!
I don’t want anything to do with legalism. Salvation begins in grace, it continues in grace, and it ends in grace! I know that and you do too. The notion that life with God is earned or given by virtue of our upright living is not only a lie — it is insane and perhaps even “stupid.” Billy Sunday, the great evangelist, used to enjoy saying, “You can get forgiveness of sins but stupid is forever!”
My suspicion is those of us that know ourselves with any degree of honesty know that to look in the mirror and then to say “salvation is yours by virtue of your moral performance or doctrinal prowess or the precision of our obedience — well we couldn’t say it — but if we did we would know it was a moment of insanity. (I credit Jim McGuiggan with this illustration)
BUT LEGALISM IS NOT EQUAL TO HUMBLY OBEYING THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD AS THE SPIRIT ENABLES US!
James is writing to a group of Christians who are “orthodox” in doctrine but put very little emphasis on “living by the rules.” They place little emphasis on what a walk with Christ is to look like. It is incredibly important for us to remember that James is not writing his Letter to tell a person how to be saved before God (that is on how to become a Christian), that is not the issue at all. The issue is about the real meaning of love. Do I really love my fellow man or do a I love in word only?
I want to focus in on three main words in our text. These words are significant for understanding what James is saying. These words are often the subject of serious misunderstanding primarily because the rule of exegesis are avoided.
First, what does James mean by “work” or “deeds“?
Second, How does James use the word “faith“? and
Third, what does James mean by “Justification“?
James uses the word “work” (erga) in 2.24 to refer to charitable deeds of mercy. In the context of chapter two and the Letter itself James has discussed:
the “work” of listening (1.19-22),
the “work” of caring for widows and orphans (1.25-27),
the “work” of being fair and impartial to the poor and disenfranchised (2.1-11).
the “work” making sure fair wages are paid by the rich to the workers (5.1-6)
All of these “works” are applications of Leviticus 19.18 — loving our neighbor as yourself. James discusses the “work” of being merciful (2.12-13). In fact the Lord’s brother calls Leviticus 19.18, “the royal law” and the “law of liberty” (2.8 & 12)
When we approach ch. 2. 14-26 we must be careful of reading conflict into James. We must be on guard of coming to him with our own agendas. The works of justice and mercy that he has spoken of repeatedly thus far in his Letter is exactly what he means in our text. I find it interesting that if you read through the book of James you will NEVER come across the phrase “works of law!” James speaks of the “perfect law, the law of liberty,” (1.25) and the “royal law” (2.8) — in these two instances his meaning is explicitly defined as the law of love of Leviticus (2.8). We will not find James speaking of circumcision, Sabbath keeping, food laws, meat sacrificed to idols — all the things Paul discusses in Galatians and Romans.
The “works” to which James speak are not sabbath keeping, food laws, or (and listen carefully) being baptized or taking the Lord’s Supper. We know what “works” James means by his context but we need not speculate because the Lord’s brother tells us explicitly what he means.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can such faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one one 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 faith? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2.14-17).
John speaks to the same matter when he writes “How does God’s love dwell in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (1 Jn 3.17).
The work we do is the work of love. The work of love is to apply mercy to those, whoever they are, in need. James is tapping into a teaching that spans the entire biblical story from the Exodus to the Psalms to the Prophets to the Lord Jesus. It is the Royal Law of Love. That is the “work!” As the great prophet Micah had noted,
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice
and to love HESED,
and to walk humbly with your God”
The occasion of James is different from Romans, his subject matter is different. He does not refer to any of those matters of contention in Paul’s discussion of “justification.” What James is speaking of is merciful deeds of love shown in a concrete manner. We should be very careful in our methodology; just because Paul uses a word in a certain manner does not mean that James is obligated to do so — and he does not. We must be better students of God¹s word or we will make it say things the Spirit never intended.
James uses the word “faith” in a manner that is not like Paul as well. Before we get to ch. 2.14-26 James helps us to understand the way he uses the word. In 1.6 he writes,
“But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind”
and again in 2.1
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.”
James uses the word in these two places to mean “personal commitment including trust and obedience.” That is faith that is alive. In 2.14-26 James shows that these Christians are suffering from a disembodied faith. It has all the doctrinal marks of orthodoxy because the believe in the One God but there is no life commitment.
The examples that James gives of living faith (Abraham and Rahab) are folks who demonstrated their faith by trusting obedience or commitment. The critical point that James wishes to make with Abraham is that the episode in Genesis 15 was not mere orthodoxy but a vibrant trust in God that led him to place it all on the line. Rahab’s faith led her to put herself in jeopardy for God’s sake by showing active love to the spies of Israel.
Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians, uses the word “faith” to refer to our trust in Jesus as our atonement in order that we may have peace with God. He sums that up in the saying “Jesus is Lord.” That for Paul is faith, faith that trusts in and leans upon Christ as our peace with a holy God. Paul and James use this word with different shades of meaning and we do not need to import Paul into James (or more commonly import James into Paul). We need to hear both writers and what the Spirit lead the to write.
The last important word I want to look at is “justified” (dikaioo). Of all the words that are misunderstood in James it is this one that causes the most trouble. The KJV, RSV, NAS, and NIV all do an injustice by rendering dikaioo as “justified” in 2.21 and 2.24. It is this word that has caused major confusion. We have come closer to understanding this word by working our way through the previous two. James is not talking about entering the Kingdom of God as Paul is in Romans. He is not speaking about becoming a Christian as Paul is. Rather James is writing about Christian ethics or to use a big fancy word he is speaking of discipleship or sanctification.
According to the critical commentaries [those based on the Greek language] dikaioo should be rendered as “declared to be just” or “righteous” in both 2.21 and 2.24. Paul who is confronted with false teachers in Romans and Galatians says we are justified (saved) by our faith in Christ. We are not saved by “works of law” [a phrase as I pointed out that never occurs in James] but by faith WITHOUT works.
But James is not dealing with what Paul was dealing with. He is dealing with people who are already saved but have grown comfortable and lazy in their Christian walk. They are not living by the rules of mercy!! They are not treating the poor as equals but showing favoritism. They are ignoring widows and orphans. They are listeners of the word but are not doers (= livers) of the word. James comes in and says that it is not authentic Christianity. It is not authentic faith in Jesus.
Authentic faith will motivate me to love in word and deed. This is the entire point of James. James is reminding his readers of a dozen texts in the Psalms and Prophets and most of all Matthew 25. Christians are to live by the law of love and the rules of mercy. Abraham is a perfect example for James to appeal to, and when we do not misunderstand and think James is talking about becoming a child of God — his message is crystal clear. I believe K.C. Moser has some words of wisdom regarding our passage. Let me relate this quote:
“This we can be assured of: Paul and James were writing for different purposes. Paul’s purpose was to explain the method of justification under Christ. This is the primary purpose of the Roman and Galatian Epistles. James was reproving idle brethren. Some brethren had become inactive, and James is telling them that a faith that permits one to do nothing is a dead faith. He refers to Abraham’s offering up of Isaac to show faith should act. Their references to Abraham are different. Paul referred to the time when God made the promise to Abraham that a son would be given to him. This was before Isaac was born. James refers to a time when Isaac was more than twenty years of age . . . A period of at least twenty years separates the references of Paul and James. This point is significant. Paul never mentions the offering up of Isaac when he discusses the justification of Abraham. Indeed, the offering of Isaac came many years too late to have anything to do with the justification spoken of by Paul” (The Way of Salvation, pp. 53-54).
James says exactly what Paul says, “If I am saved by the grace of God on account of Jesus Christ who died for me then my life will be dominated by living by the rules of mercy. We will do works of love — thankfully. We will not show favoritism but will make sure all women and men are treated fairly. We will in mercy take care of the orphans and widows. In mercy and love we will watch our tongue. In short if we are saved by grace we will Live by the Rules of Mercy — not to get saved but because we already are. The rule of mercy confirms our salvation. James says you can have the proper “creed” but our lives are what truly reveal what is in our heart.
Works do not produce faith. James never suggests they do. James claims that real faith, however, will produce good works of mercy to glorify our Lord and King. No, James does not buy into that satanic lie of ARBEIT MACHT FREI! Only a badly abused and distorted James teaches that “Works Liberate,” that we enter the Kingdom on the basis of our deeds. No, James believes we are saved by grace and mercy of God just as Paul taught. For like Paul, James experienced first hand the grace of Jesus! (cf. 1 Cor. 15.7).
We will close this lesson by reading our text in the Message as rendered by Peterson. I think he does an incredible job of capturing the meaning of James. I recommend you get the Message yourself:
“Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicated that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half starved and say, Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!’ and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup — where does that get you?
Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
“I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, ‘Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.’
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I
can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith,
fit together hand in glove.
Do I hear you professing to believe in the One and Only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?
Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham made right with God by works when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial alter? Isn¹t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are works of faith?’ The full meaning of believe’ in the Scripture sentence ‘Abraham believed God and was set right with God,’ includes action. It’s that mesh of believing and and acting that got Abraham named God’s friend.’ Is is not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works. The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape — that seamless unity of believing and doing — what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse.”