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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.