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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

James, Day 14: James 3:1-2 - Who Should Be a Teacher?

Who Should Be a Teacher?
James, Day 14

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
- James 3:1-2, ESV

The Constitution sets clear qualifications for the office of President of the United States: One must be native-born citizen, 35 years old, and a resident of the United States for 14 years. Beyond that, to be president, you have to be elected by a majority of the electoral college. Similarly, to play in the NBA, the qualifications are clear: You have to be a really good basketball player, but then an NBA team needs to draft you and sign you to play for them. In both of these examples, the person needs to be both qualified and called or chosen.

In James 3:1, James warns his readers that not many of them should become teachers. James is talking specifically about being a teacher of God's word in the church, perhaps even more specifically about being a teaching elder in the church. The reason for James' warning is clear: Teachers will be judged with greater strictness.

So, who should be a teacher, then? If not many should, who should? Well, similar to our examples of the president or an NBA player, a teacher of God's word in the church needs to be both qualified and called. We have to look elsewhere in God's word to get a clear description of the qualifications, but places like 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 tell us that the character and conduct of an elder matters as much, if not more, than the content of his teaching. While James may not be talking exclusively about elders, the same biblical principle applies - the heart of the teacher matters as much as the head, because, as Jesus said, "out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34)

But a teacher should also be called, recognized by a congregation for his character and conduct and competency to teach. If no one wants you to be their teacher, that's good evidence you may not be called or really qualified to teach. Johnny Manziel is an amazingly gifted football player, but no team seems to want him right now, because of his character issues, and so he is not a professional football player.   

James then gives a further warning, that no one is able to so control his tongue that he does not sin in what he says. James says "we all stumble in many ways," indicating that the "perfect man" he refers to doesn't exist, apart from Jesus. So, if a teacher is going to be judged more strictly and everyone stumbles in what they say, what is the answer to this dilemma? Accountability.

Teachers in the church need to be qualified, called, and accountable. A teacher needs a clear standard for his teaching and a group of people who will hold him accountable to that standard. Ideally, the people who hold him accountable should be both inside and beyond his own congregation. We see evidence of this in the New Testament, as letters are written to warn congregations against false teachers and false teachings in their midst.

Teaching God's word to God's people is a high and holy calling, one to be undertaken in humility and diligence. Only those who are qualified, called, and accountable should undertake the task. Thankfully, by His grace, God has been pleased to bless His church with a good number of sound teachers who can build His people up in the faith. If you've been blessed by a qualified, called, and accountable teacher of God's word, give Him thanks and pray diligently that God will guard the heart, mind, life, and teaching of that teacher.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

James, Day 13: James 2:14-26 - What Good is Faith without Works?

What Good is Faith without Works?

James, Day 13

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

- James 2:14-26, ESV

Sometimes getting the right answer depends on asking the right question. And sometimes, if all you have is the answer, understanding its true meaning depends on knowing what question prompted it. For centuries, some people have pitted James' teaching here at the end of James 2 against Paul's teaching on Justification by Faith in Romans 3-4 and Galatians 3 against each other, as though the two teachings contradicted each other.

On the surface of it, this kind of thinking might appear to have some merit. James says "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Paul, in Galatians 3, says, "Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for 'The righteous shall live by faith.'” (Gal. 3:11, ESV) And in Romans 3:28, Paul says, "For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." 

So, is this a blatant contradiction in Scripture? Not if we understand what questions Paul and James are answering. 

Paul is answering the question of how a person can be justified before God. To counter self-righteousness and legalism, Paul affirms that only faith in Jesus Christ can justify us, not works of the law. No one can ever be justified on the basis of the law, because we are all condemned by the law as law-breakers. So, Paul is focused on the works of the law as a possible basis for our justification. In answer to this kind of question, "one is justified by faith apart from works of the law." 

James has a different question in mind altogether: How do we know if we have real, saving faith or just a dead, imitation faith? In other words, how do we know if our faith is alive or dead, genuine or a mere cheap imitation? In answer to this kind of question, "Faith without works is dead." The kind of faith that does not lead to good works is not genuine, living, saving faith. 

Neither Paul nor James would say that our faith and our works together form the basis of our justification before a holy God. Only the righteousness of Christ is perfect enough to be the basis for our justification. We lay hold of the righteousness of Christ by faith alone. And neither Paul not James would say that a profession of faith that makes no difference in how your live your life is true faith. They would both say such a so-called faith is an empty profession, a lifeless sham. Real faith loves, trusts, and obeys. 

So, what good is faith without works? It's no good at all - not because we need works to be the basis for our justification, but because faith without works is no real faith at all. It's no more than the affirmation a demon can make. Or, as someone else (Phillip Melanchton?) has famously said, "We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith which remains alone."

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

James, Day 12: James 2:8-13 - Are You A Lawbreaker?

Are You a Lawbreaker?

James, Day 12

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
- James 2:8-13, ESV

"Don't smoke, don't drink, don't chew, and don't go out with girls that do." That's the old Southern Fundamentalist credo. An old Rich Mullins song puts the idea somewhat differently: "I don't cheat on my taxes, I don't cheat on my girl. I got values that would make the White House jealous." Perhaps it makes you smile to think that the occupant of the White House could ever be jealous of someone else's values. But what do both of these thoughts have in common? It's the idea that if we keep some brief list of basic rules, that makes us righteous.

It's not without reason that Christians have sometimes had a reputation as self-righteous, narrow-minded prudes. It's not just that we have a moral code we are striving to follow, but we too often have had a very short list that we think we're keeping pretty well and which we think makes us pretty righteous. Meanwhile, we can have huge blind spots to the grievous sin in our lives.

James is confronting this kind of self-righteous blindness in today's passage. He had just addressed the fact that it was wrong to show partiality toward those in the church who had more money. He then says that if you truly love your neighbor as yourself, you're keeping the law and doing well. The problem is, of course, that none of us actually does that, do we? I mean, can you honestly say you care about your neighbor as much as you care about yourself? Of course not.

So, here comes the zinger: If you're keeping certain aspects of the law but not others, that still makes you a lawbreaker. Keep nine of the ten commandments and break only one, and guess what that makes you? A lawbreaker.

Do you think that's unfair? Do you think keeping 6 or 7 of 10 should be good enough. That's not how the law works. The next time you get pulled over for speeding or running a red light, try telling the police officer he should let you go and not give you a ticket because you weren't drinking and driving and you were wearing your seat belt. See what he says about that! Or imagine a bank robber arguing with the judge that he shouldn't have to do any jail time because he never killed anybody while he was robbing the banks - in fact, he never ever hit or kicked anyone; he just pointed a gun at them.

We know that's absurd, right? The law doesn't work that way. Many criminals serving long sentences could make impressive lists of all the laws they didn't break. What got them in jail are the laws they did break.

Okay, so we know we're lawbreakers, what difference does that make? Well, James says it should make a big difference in how we treat other people. We should show mercy, forgiving others as those who know how much we've been forgiven. We shouldn't be harsh and judgmental, acting like we've never broken the law.

The world doesn't need more self-righteous, proud rule-keepers. It needs more mercy, from those who humbly know how much mercy they're received themselves.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

James, Day 11: James 2:1-7 - Is It Better to Be Rich or Poor?

Is It Better to Be Rich or Poor?
James, Day 11

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
- James 2:1-7, ESV

If you had a choice, would you rather be rich or poor? Honestly, all things being equal, I'd rather be rich. But, the truth is, all things are not equal, are they? Because our hearts are not neutral, wealth comes to us with complications. The very same reason why almost all of us would say that, if given the choice, we'd rather be rich than poor, is the reason why being rich is problematic for us.

Why do we want to be rich? Because it would give us the freedom to be able to live as we please, to do what we want. Doesn't that truth expose the basic selfishness of our hearts, the fact that we really just want to have our own way, no matter what? It's that basic selfishness that makes wealth a problem and a snare for us, because it does give us freedom to indulge our selfishness.

Our desire to be rich also tends to cause us to envy the wealthy and to treat them with special honor, hoping they might decide to share some of their wealth with us. In a church setting, pastors and church leaders can be tempted to give special consideration to those in the congregation who have wealth, hoping they'll be generous givers, and thinking we need to keep them satisfied in order to keep God's work well funded.

All of these ways we tend to think about wealth are illusions, of course. It's wrong to give wealthier congregants special privileges. It's wrong to treat anyone differently based on how much money they have or don't have. We know this, but it's hard to resist the temptation to act in a worldly and fleshly way, isn't it?

On the other hand, it would be just as wrong to treat someone poorly and accuse them of wrongdoing just because they had money, wouldn't it? God does bless some people with abundance because He knows they will use it generously to fund kingdom priorities. Many Christian causes have been greatly blessed by the generosity of wealthy believers. So, it would be wrong to read James's correction in today's passage as a blanket condemnation of all wealthy believers.

In the end, the best thing for us is to approach whatever God has given us with a healthy dose of thankfulness, contentment, and generosity. As we thank God for what He's given us, learn to be content with God's goodness, and share generously what we have with others, we gain the right perspective on wealth in the kingdom of God. After all, it's all His, isn't it? 

Friday, March 29, 2019

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Wednesday, March 27, 2019

James, Day 10: James 1:26-27 - Is Religion Good or Bad?

Is Religion Good or Bad?
James, Day 10

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
- James 1:26-27, ESV

Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing good or bad, only thinking makes it so." Ironically, in our day, many of the same people who would say there's no such thing as an objective standard of right and wrong, but it's all personal and subjective, then turn around and declare that religion is wrong and bad for people and the world. They resent it when religion judges their actions as immoral, but then they turn around and judge religion as immoral. Perhaps it's not only religious people who are capable of hypocrisy.   

But, seriously, what about the accusation that religion is bad for people and bad for the world? Is religion good or bad? Well, the answer to this question is, "It depends." Perhaps the better question is not simply, "Is religion good or bad?" but rather "What makes for good and bad religion?"

James says that if a religious person has an unbridled tongue, he is self-deceived and has a worthless religion. It's sadly too easy to point out examples of this kind of religion: Bitter gossip, slander, half-truths, and self-promotion flow freely from the lips of these religious people. We don't even need to turn on the cable television to see this kind of hypocritical, weak religion. Sometimes all we need to do is listen to ourselves. But we'll talk more about the tongue in chapter 3.

On the positive side, James gives us two key marks of good religion that is right in God's eyes: helping those in need and refraining from the defilement of the world. So, true and God-honoring religion has a positive and a negative aspect, things we commit to doing and things we abstain from doing.

On the positive side, we are to help widows and orphans in need. Those who have no earthly protector and provider, the poor and vulnerable, should receive protection and provision from us, the church. We should meet their physical, financial, emotional, and spiritual needs to the best of our ability. To visit them in their affliction is more than just a little bit of charity from a distance; it is life-on-life, personal care.

On the negative side. "to keep oneself unstained from the world" means to clearly see the filth ad rebellion of the world for what it is and to stay away from it. Sexual immorality, pornography, abuse, faithlessness, profanity, violence, etc. are all pollution of God's good world, and they should break our hearts.

What do these two aspects have in common? Both are rooted in a true knowledge of God. If we know that God is love and that God is holy, and that we are called by Him to "be imitators of God as dearly loved children" (Eph. 5:1), we will seek to walk in love and holiness by His gracious power. Just as all real children admire, observe, and imitate their parents, so all truly religious children of God admire, observe and imitate their Heavenly Father.

So, is religion good or bad? Well, it turns out religion is something like the little girl in the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -

There was a little girl,
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
            When she was good,
            She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Let's ask the Lord to give us the grace to make our religion and true and sincere imitation of our loving and holy Heavenly Father.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

James, Day 9: James 1:21-25 - Be Doers of the Word: Why and How?

Be Doers of the Word: Why and How?
James, Day 9

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
- James 1:21-25, ESV

"If it was easy, everybody would do it." I don't know where I first heard that expression, but it has stuck in my mind over the years as a motivation. It's simple and has limited effectiveness, and tends to promote a level of self-righteousness and arrogance when it is effective. I can feel really good about myself and look down on others who do less because I did something that "if it was easy, everybody would do it."

Is that the kind of thinking behind James 1:21-25 and God's admonition to us to "be doers of the word, and not hearers only"? Is God just saying to us: "Look, I know it's not easy, but it's time to buck up and "git 'er done"!"? No, it's not that simple.

First of all, God is challenging us to see sin for what it is, and not to be fooled by the deceptions of our enemy. What is sin? One of the tricks of our enemy is to minimize and justify sin: "Well, it's just a little . . . " And God calls us to identify sin for what it is: filthiness and rampant wickedness. All sin is defiling and evil; it's not some little, light thing.

Sin is deceiving, and when we give in to the voice of sin in our lives, we are deceiving ourselves. We are living a lie. So, James calls us to "receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." This is where we must begin: It's not a simple matter of trying harder. We first have to begin by rejecting deception, including self-deception, and humbly receiving the truth of God to our souls.

But receiving the word with meekness bears fruit far beyond mere head-knowledge. When we have received the word with meekness, our hearts are transformed from the inside out. We then recognize God's moral law for what it is: "the perfect law, the law of liberty." 

What does the world and our sinful flesh tell us all the time? "Sin is freedom, and God's law is restriction and limitation keeping us from that freedom." But that's a lie, isn't it? Of course it is. Sin is the real bondage, and God's perfect law is the real way to a life of liberty!

How do we learn this truth deep down inside? Only by walking in the law of liberty, by living according to the word, by being doers of the word and not hearers only. So, hearers of the word are those who give superficial assent to the word of God, but who don't really believe deep down that God's word is truly the path of life.

Once we receive the implanted word with meekness, really trusting God, we will know from the depth of our souls that this is the word of eternal life, this is the law of liberty, and we will desire to walk in it. And as we walk in it, we will experience the blessed freedom of living according to the word, and we will be even more encouraged and strengthened to walk in the light of His truth.

"If it was easy, everybody would do it." Turns out, that's not really true, because our problem is fundamentally not that God's word is hard, but that we don't really believe it is good and freeing. So, it's not a lack of effort but a heart-blindness to the truth that is our biggest obstacle. So, more that big spiritual muscles, we need clear spiritual sight and humble hearts to see and know and receive the truth, that we may walk in it.