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Thursday, June 13, 2019

1 Peter, Day 3: 1 Peter 1:6-9 - What is Faith and How is it Tried?

What is Faith and How is it Tried?
1 Peter, Day 3

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
- 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

If we have such great benefits in our salvation, such reason to rejoice and be glad, then why is life still so difficult? Last time, we saw that we are chosen for salvation, which includes sanctification by the Holy Spirit, obedience to Jesus Christ, cleansing from sin and guilt by the blood of Jesus, grace and peace, a living and undying hope, an imperishable inheritance, and protection through faith in Christ. Peter says, "in this you rejoice," and that certainly is a list of wonderful reasons to deeply rejoice. 

Still, life is really hard, isn't it? We don't always feel sanctified and cleansed, we don't always obey, we struggle with feeling really alive and hopeful, and we sometimes don't experience the grace and peace of the Gospel. Peter says it's happening because our priceless precious faith is being tested. So, what exactly is faith and how is it tested? 

Faith is not a subjective emotional experience; it is trust. Faith trusts God and His promises more than our eyes can see. Faith is what unites us to Christ and all His benefits. It is crucial, for it is how we law hold on the goodness of God offered to us in the Gospel. 

But lots of things can look like faith and not be faith. Easy belief is not faith. Quick assent in an emotional moment is not faith. Feeling close to God at a concert or on a retreat is not faith. Faith is trust, and trust is strengthened when it is exercised under duress. Like a precious metal purified by fire, faith only shows its real value as it is tested again and again. Such testing is not easy, and sometimes our faith wavers, as dross is burned away and we learn to cling to the Lord more closely. 

What helps us rejoice in the midst of the fire is looking up to Jesus and looking ahead to His coming again. When we look up from our circumstances, we realize He is enthroned in glory as the anchor of our souls and nothing can shake Him. When we look ahead, we realize He is indeed coming again, and every eye will see Him. On that day, our faith will be sight and it will be glorious beyond our wildest imaginations. 

So, when you find yourself in the fire, your faith being tested by affliction, remember the greatness of your salvation and what benefits you receive from Christ in the Gospel. Look to Jesus, who is seated at the Father's right hand, far above all power and authority. And look forward by faith to that day when we will see Him and rejoice in Him together! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

1 Peter, Day 2: 1 Peter 1:1-5 - What are the Elect Chosen For?

What are the Elect Chosen For?

1 Peter, Day 2

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia,  according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
- 1 Peter 1:1-5, ESV

Somehow, the NFL has managed to turn its player draft into a national entertainment spectacle. Cities now compete to host the draft like they're hosting the Super Bowl. It's kind of crazy, but it raises a good question for us as we're considering Peter's opening to his brilliant first epistle: Why do NFL teams draft players? We can look at this on two levels - what they like about a player and what they hope a player can do for their team. They may like a player's speed or size of toughness or football IQ, but they are also hoping a player can do something specific for their team: protect the quarterback, stop the run, catch long passes, stop the other teams from completing long passes, etc.

What does this have to do with 1 Peter? Well, last time, we saw that Peter tells us we are elect exiles. In other words, we are chosen by God, even as we live in a world that's not our home. We also saw why God chooses us: Because He loved us before He made us. That's foreknowledge. But what was God's purpose in choosing us? What are we chosen for?

Peter unpacks the purpose for our election in verses 2-5. The short answer is found toward the end of verse 5: "for salvation." But what exactly is salvation? What does it involve? Here. Peter names seven vital things included in our salvation:

1. The Sanctification of the Spirit: The Holy Spirit has set us apart from being ordinary people, mere flesh and blood, sinful and under condemnation, and has made us holy, made us His special people.

2. Obedience to Jesus Christ: By God's grace, our hearts are changed and we are now willing and able to obey Jesus Christ as our Lord.

3. Sprinkling with His Blood: We are forgiven by the cleansing of Jesus' blood, shed for us. We are washed clean, given a clean conscience and pure record in the eyes of God. 

4. Grace and Peace: These are really two things, but they very commonly occur together in Scripture and they go together. God gives us His undeserved favor and kindness, including peace with Him, with one another in the body of Christ, and within ourselves.

5. Born Again to a Living Hope: God's great mercy has caused us to be made spiritually alive, to be born again, or born from above. To be spiritually alive is to have a strong, living hope, for to be made spiritually alive by God's mercy is to never die again!

6. An Imperishable Inheritance: Not only will we live forever, but we will also inherit that which cannot perish, in God's eternal kingdom. Our inheritance in Christ and His kingdom is kept for us by the power of God where no one can ever disturb it.

7. Guarded through Faith: Not only is our inheritance guarded by God, but so are we. We are kept through faith - that is, as we keep trusting in Christ, we are kept in our salvation. God gives and keeps our faith, so we are secure in His hands.   

What a salvation! All of this salvation is received by faith now and is to be revealed openly on the Last Day, the great Day of the Lord, when Jesus returns. Until that time, we keep believing, hoping, waiting, and obeying!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

1 Peter, Day 1: 1 Peter 1:1-2 - Who Are We in This World?

Who Are We in This World? 

1 Peter, Day 1

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:

May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
- 1 Peter 1:1-2, ESV

U.S. Senator Tim Scott from South Carolina is the only black Republican serving in the U.S. Senate. In his first five years in the Senate, he was stopped and questioned at least three times, his identity as a senator challenged. He was essentially asked, "Who do you think you are?" Racial profiling is ugly, but it's still an ongoing reality some people face. 

For Christians living in this world, we can often be on the receiving end of scorn and contempt. The world often looks at Christians and essentially asks, "Who do you think you are?" The world may label us as hypocrites, because we are religious and yet sinners. The world may call us intolerant haters, because we cannot approve of the things the world approves. 

What should matter to believers is not what the world says we are but what God says we are in this world. In the opening verse of 1 Peter, God calls us "elect exiles of the Dispersion." What's interesting about this title is that it's very Jewish, but it's being assigned to a mostly non-Jewish group of Christian believers. As Peter will make very clear later in his letter, this is very intentional, as believers in Jesus are the heirs of all the covenant promises and identity the Jewish people of God had under the old covenant. 

But what is this identity? "Elect" means chosen by God. If we believe in Jesus Christ, it is because God has chosen us to be His own. "Exiles" means people living in a land that is not their home. This world is just the site of our pilgrimage; our true home is with the Lord. "Of the Dispersion" means we are scattered as a people among the peoples of the earth. Rather than having a particular nation-state on earth that is ours, we are a scattered people, spread among the peoples of the world.    

How did we become this special people, the "elect exiles of the Dispersion"?  It was "according to the foreknowledge of God the Father." Foreknowledge is not fore-sight, as in God looking ahead and seeing what is going to happen. It refers instead to God loving us in advance, before we were even born. It's a powerful word that tells when we were elect (before the creation of the world) and why were were elect (because God loved us). 

That's a pretty wonderful identity: Loved by God before the world began and chosen by Him in love, yet for a time living in a world that's not our home and scattered among people who are not really our people. Learning to see ourselves as we really are in the eyes of God is key to living faithfully in this crazy, fallen world. Let's not let the world define us, but let's walk in the truth of who God has made us by His grace! 

Sunday, June 2, 2019

James, Day 26: James 5:19-20 - How Should We Handle Wayward Believers?

How Should We Handle Wayward Believers?
James, Day 26

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. - James 5:19-20, ESV

If you live long enough as a believer, you will certainly see a number of professing Christians wander away from the truth. Within the past several years, we have seen Pastor Rob Bell deny the doctrine of hell and then wander completely away from real Christianity, the late Rachel Held Evans deny core doctrines of the Christian faith, and several Christian musicians who have denied their faith and embraced the world over Christ. Beyond these celebrity Christian apostates, we probably all know people personally who have either wandered away from Christianity entirely or have denied core doctrines of the faith.

So, what should we do?

It would be easy to say it's none of our responsibility, none of our concern. It's easy to embrace the American ideology of "live and let live" and "to each his own," but that's clearly not a biblical approach.

Instead, James 5:19-20 makes it clear that we have an obligation to do what we can to restore a wandering brother or sister to the truth. How? Well, we need to pray and seek wisdom for how to best engage them. What is needed is face-to-face, life-on-life persuasion, truly speaking the truth in love.

What is required is love with caution, compassion with conviction. Very often, people either make the mistake of being too harsh and pushing the other person away or of being too soft and potentially being pulled into the lies of the person you're trying to reach in love. You need to listen and seek to understand, but so that you can counter with the truth of Scripture and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Sadly, too often, even the best efforts are unfruitful in restoring a wandering loved one. When this happens, we need to keep praying and looking for opportunities to speak the truth, but understand that it's not always possible to restore someone who is wandering away. We can only do what is within our power to do; we must leave the rest to the Lord. But very often, God will use the words we speak and the prayers we pray to reach the wandering ones we love in His own time. So, keep praying and keep speaking the truth in love. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

James, Day 25: James 5:13-18 - Does Prayer Really Make a Difference?

Does Prayer Really Make a Difference?

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. - James 5:13-18, ESV

If God already knows what we're going to ask before we ask, why ask? Or, if God has already decreed everything and is sovereign over all things absolutely, why pray? In light of a perfectly sovereign God who knows all and rules over all, does prayer make any difference at all? Isn't God going to do what He 's going to do, whether we pray or not?

These questions some people ask about prayer could be asked about other things, too. If election is true, why evangelize? Why share the Gospel if God has already determined from eternity past who He is going to save? Or, to take it to an extreme, if the days of our lives are all numbered and written in God's book before we're born, why bother with medical care or healthy living? Why not just eat what we want and never go see a doctor? Jesus said we cannot add an hour to our lives by worrying, so what difference does it make?

One simple answer to these kinds of questions is that we should never use one truth from God's word as a battering ram to knock down other truths from God's word. The same God who declares His own sovereignty very clearly in Scripture also calls us to pray, promising to answer our prayers according to His wisdom and love. The same God who proclaims the truth of election throughout Scripture also tells us to preach the Gospel, for "faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." (Rom. 10:17) We must believe all that God reveals about Himself, not picking what we like and using it to nullify what we don't.

Digging a little deeper into the issue, we see that the same God who ordains the ends also ordains the means toward those ends. In other words, God not only tells us what He's going to do but also how He's going to do it. God could accomplish His purposes apart from our prayers and our evangelism, but He has declared that He will not. So, does prayer make a difference? Absolutely! Why? Because God has decreed that it does.

When we pray in faith, we can pray in hope and in confidence. Our prayers aren't going to convince God to do something wrong or foolish or unloving. Yet our prayers do make a difference. They are heard and answered by a loving God who is our Heavenly Father and who delights to hear and answer the prayers of His children. It's all part of His plan, and His sovereignty should encourage, rather than discourage, our prayers.   

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

James, Day 24: James 5:12 - Are Christians Allowed to Take Oaths?

Are Christians Allowed to Take Oaths?

"But 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, so that you may not fall under condemnation." - James 5:12, ESV

One of the nasty side-effects of the internet and social media has been a breakdown in understanding and empathy between opposing groups, increasingly bitter polarization, and even the fragmentation of society. It's rare for people with opposing views online to truly listen to each other and seek to understand each other. Instead, we are quick to speak at each other, rather than to each other, and to vilify anyone who disagrees with us.

A quick way to check yourself on this issue is to pick some position you don't hold and ask yourself, "Do I understand why people hold this view?" You don't have to agree with someone to be able to understand what they believe and why they believe it. So, if you think, "I can't understand why anyone would believe ______________," I would encourage you to find out why, so you can better love your neighbor as yourself.

I'll give you an example: Someone recently asked a friend of mine if he really believed that God was sovereign, and my friend said, "Yes, I do." The other person replied, "Well, then, you believe God is the author of evil, don't you?" My friend quickly replied, "No, I don't." Later in the conversation, this person said, "Well, I just believe that whosoever will may come," to which my Calvinist friend replied, "Well, so do I. We agree on that, you know." If you don't know how a Calvinist can believe that God is sovereign over all things, including salvation, and yet not believe that God is the author and evil and believe wholeheartedly that whosoever will may come and drink freely from the waters of life (Rev. 22), then you haven't understood biblical Calvinism at all.

Today's verse raises another somewhat controversial issue: Can Christian take oaths? I was selected for jury duty earlier this week. While I didn't end up serving, it reminded me that some Christians believe it is wrong to solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing bur the truth. They prefer to simply affirm that their testimony will be true and reliable. What's the difference? Does it really matter?

Today's verse is one of a coupe of verses (along with Matthew 5:34-35) which seem to forbid taking oaths. Christians disagree on what these verses actually require. Some take them at face value and say that Christians should never take oaths but should just be honest and straightforward at all times. Others say that, while Christians should always be honest, the verses don't really forbid taking oaths at all, but rather taking oaths in a deceptive way.

In the days of Jesus and James, many religious people would take high-sounding oaths as a way of appearing sincere, but in truth their oaths had loopholes which allowed them to lie without consequence. Jesus condemns this hypocritical and legalistic code of oath-taking in Matthew 23:16-22.

Christians should be known as people of integrity, people whose word is reliable and trustworthy. We should love the truth because we love the Lord who is truth. Any attempt to use an oath to cover a lie (like saying "I swear on my mother's grave" when your mother is still alive) is absolutely unacceptable for a child of God. Some people believe these verses also require Christians to never take oaths at all. I can understand why they believe that. I think it's possible to uphold the spirit of what is being taught here, even if you're called on to take an oath. Whether taking an oath or not, always " let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation."

And while we're striving to keep our word with integrity, let's give room for understanding those whose convictions won't allow them to take an oath, as well as for those who believe they can, as long as they do so with integrity. Let's respect one another's conscience of conviction on these secondary matters, as long as we agree on the essentials.

Friday, May 24, 2019

James, Day 23: James 5:7-11 - Why and How Can We Be Patient?

Why and How Can We Be Patient? 

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
- James 5:7-11, ESV

I have to admit that patience is one of my least favorite words. It's also probably the fruit of the Spirit I struggle most to consistently display. (Ask my kids, they'll tell you. Actually, don't ask them; just take my word for it.) So, when I come to a Bible verse that says, "Be patient," I confess my immediate reaction is to feels ashamed and inadequate and then to start making mental excuses for my lack of patience. 

One of the reasons why impatient me finds James 5:7 helpful is that it tells me right up front that patience has a point and an end. It's easier to wait if you know why you're waiting and you know you won't have to wait forever. In this case, what we're waiting for will bring with it an end to all need for waiting: the coming of the Lord.

In this life, too often, waiting is just followed by more waiting. The old military motto of "Hurry up and wait" applies to many areas of life, and sometimes it feels like "Wait for a while, and then wait some more. After that, it'll be time for more waiting." But when the Lord comes, we will receive everything we've been waiting for and all need for waiting will come to a glorious end in the consummation of the all things in the glory of Jesus Christ. 

The more we understand it, the coming of the Lord becomes both the goal and the fuel of our waiting. Because we know what we're waiting for and we trust who we're waiting for, it makes waiting with steadfast patience and faithfulness easier. James uses the analogy of a farmer: A farmer knows what seed he's put in the ground and what crop it will produce, and this helps him to be patient as he waits for the seasonal rains. 

Similarly, we know that the Lord Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the first-fruits of the resurrection, and when He returns and we see Him face-to-face, we know we will be like Him in perfect holiness and righteousness forever. As if seeing Him were not enough, knowing we will be like Him is even more powerful incentive to wait patiently. 

We don't know when the Lord will return, and it may not be in our lifetimes, and so James points us to the example of the prophets of the Old Testament, who had to wait beyond their lifetimes for the coming of the Promised One. And while we're waiting, we often have to endure suffering, so James points us to Job, who had to suffer more than any of us can imagine and yet trusted in the Lord. So, whether our waiting is long or hard or both, we have good examples in His word that God can apply to our hearts by His Holy Spirit. 

As much as I lack patience, I don't mind waiting as much if I know what I'm waiting for is worth the wait. So, really, could anything be more worth waiting for than seeing our Lord and Savior face-to-face and being fully and finally transformed into His perfect likeness? 

Thursday, May 23, 2019

James, Day 22: James 5:1-6 - What Are the Dangers of Being Rich?

What Are the Dangers of Being Rich?
James, Day 22

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
- James 5:1-6, ESV

As a pastor, I am always a bit suspicious when someone's feedback on my sermon focuses on how much some other person needed to hear what I was saying:

"If only my husband had been here . . . "
"I'm going to get a copy of that for my sister."
"Let me know when that's available online. I'm going to send it to my son."

Now, most of the time, these kinds of comments are sincerely intended in appreciation and with love in mind for the other person. But I often want to respond, "And what was God saying to you through His word this morning?"

The danger of a passage addressed to "you rich" is that very few of us think of ourselves as being rich. Studies have shown that even many of those who fall in the Top 1% of household incomes in America (earning $421,926 per year or more) do not think of themselves as being rich, because they still need to budget their income and spending. The fact is that, if we back out of the American framework to the wider world, if you earn $32,400 per year, you're in the Top 1% of all income earners. That's most of us, isn't it?

One of the marks of how wealthy the American evangelical church is can be seen in how blind we are to our own wealth and its spiritual pitfalls. We may hear sermons on tithing and giving, but we don't hear very many messages like the opening verses of James 5, which probably strike us as being more than a bit extreme, if we're honest.

Yet having wealth does make us seriously blind to certain realities in our lives and the world, just as extreme poverty can also be blinding. In Proverbs 30, Agur senses the problems that come with poverty and riches, and so he prays a wise prayer:

Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God.  (Prov. 30:7-9, ESV)

Riches can lead us to deny the Lord, and, according to James, that sometimes looks like denying the poor workers who are made in His image. We can become so focused on getting what we want - perhaps even what we think we need - that we don't think of the real cost of our wealth. We don't think of the poor who have been oppressed or denied justice to give us what we have.

It's harder in our world because we live so distant from the lives of those who supply us with our goods, and we don't know how they live. At one time in the not-so-distant past, many of the Christmas tree lights sold in America were being made by Chinese political prisoners who were not being paid anything for their labor. China has just recently opened massive prison labor compounds to "re-educate" Muslims and Christians through forced labor, and many of the goods they make will probably find their way to our store shelves.

What can we do? We're not directly oppressing these workers, and we have no real way of knowing who is being oppressed and who is not, do we? Well, we can still do some specific things:

1. We can seek to be less wasteful and also seek to give as much as we can to help relieve the suffering of the poor.
2. We can be more thankful for what we have and more mindful of how we're investing it for God's kingdom purposes.
3. We can stop being judgmental toward the poor and arrogant about our wealth, which we're all guilty of doing at times, if we're honest.
4. We can stop thinking that being rich is better than being poor and that having more money would solve our deepest problems. Wealth often creates more problems than it solves.   

Our material possession are blessings given by God. Like all blessings from God, they can be turned into idols by our sinful hearts. We need to remember who gave us our wealth and why He gave it to us: All of our God-given blessings are to be used for His glory and the good of others, with humility and thanksgiving.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

James, Day 21: James 4:13-17 - Is It Sinful to Make Plans?

Is It Sinful to Make Plans?

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
 - James 4:13-17, ESV

What makes something sinful? Is it just because it breaks one of a list of rules? Do we only sin when we intentionally violate one of the Ten Commandments? Could it really be sinful just to make plans for the future? That seems to be what James is saying in today's passage, or is it? 

Jesus Himself said it was a good idea to count the cost before beginning a project (Luke 14:28), and counting the cost involves making plans, to see whether or not we can afford something before we begin it. Proverbs both recommends making plans according to wisdom and also acknowledges the limitations of the plans we make. "The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps." - Proverbs 16:9, ESV  

So, our plans have limited effectiveness, for God can always overrule them, but surely making plans is not in itself a sinful activity. So, what is James saying is evil about them? Well, what is evil is not the act of making plans, but the arrogance of making plans as if God does not exist. 

For us to confidently boast about what we are going to do and what we are going to gain from what we do is to live and make plans as if God were a mere figment of our imagination. It is to effectively nullify in our lives everything we say about God in our worship. It is not a light, small matter. 

But it is also not enough to simply add the words "Lord willing" or "If the good Lord is willing and the creek don't rise" in some empty, quasi-superstitious sense. Rather, we must, in sincere faith and true humility, submit all of our plans to the providence of God and confess that He is Lord, and He is free to do as He pleases with our plans. If they please Him and He blesses them, then we praise and thank Him. But if they don't please Him and He doesn't bless them, then we praise Him still, for He is always wise and good. 

To fail to do this is sin, because it is a profound lack of faith in God. As Romans 14:23 says, "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." So, let us trust the Lord and submit our plans in faith to His providence. He never fails to act in wisdom and love toward His children. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

James, Day 20: James 4:11-12 - Why Do We Judge Each Other?

Why Do We Judge Each Other?

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
- James 4:11-12, ESV

I was waiting for my van to be serviced - getting new front brakes, I think. On the television screen was a daytime talk show. You know the kind, one where people with big problems from very poor life choices were paraded in front of a gasping studio audience. As I asked the customer service agent for the remote, I thought, "Why do people watch this garbage?" And in thinking that thought I answered my own question.

We love to feel morally superior. Many daytime talk shows have been built on the foundation of gasping self-righteousness: "Can you believe she said that?" "How can people live like that?" "And I thought my life was messed up -whew!" Somehow, if we can find someone who is clearly morally inferior, we can then feel morally superior. The viewers of these shows do it to the people on the shows, and I was doing it in my own mind toward the people who watch these kinds of shows.

Our natural human tendency toward self-righteousness causes us to be quick to judge and condemn others. But God did not give us His law so we could use it as a weapon to assault others. He gave us His law so we could do it. And since we always fail to be doers of the law as we should, the person whose failure to measure up to God's standard should concern us the most is us. When we focus on doing the law, instead of using the law, we are confronted by our own failure and driven to seek God's mercy. We are humbled and made more dependent on God's righteousness and grace.

"There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy." This is the heart of the issue: We can either submit to God or we can try to take His place. Just as we are completely unqualified to save ourselves, so we are completely unqualified to judge others. If we know we need salvation from God, then we must entrust all judgment to His hands as well.

To be clear, James is not forbidding us from teaching what the law says. He is not saying that we should have no moral standards. If God is the one moral lawgiver and judge, then His standard is the only standard we can embrace for our own lives and the only standard we can teach to others. Yet teaching is not judging, and faithfully proclaiming, "Thus says the Lord," is not condemning our neighbors or our brothers. We are to speak the truth in love and leave the judging to God.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

James, Day 19: James 4:6-10 - Why is Humility the Key?

Why is Humility the Key?

James, Day 19

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
- James 4:6-10, ESV

What would you say is the most vital key to real spiritual growth as a Christian? Bible knowledge? A vital prayer life? Active church involvement? Obviously, all of these things are important elements in the spiritual life and growth of believers, but one virtue is the underlying key to real growth in all of these areas and more: humility.

The great Puritan pastor and theologian Thomas Watson said, "Let us carry ourselves as God’s children in humility. . . It is a becoming garment. Let a child of God look at his face every morning in the glass of God’s Word and see his sinful spots. This will make him walk humbly all the day after. God cannot endure to see his children grow proud. He suffers them to fall into sin, as he did Peter, that their plumes may fall, and that they may learn to go on lower ground."

Why is humility so important? In part, it is because humility breaks us of our addiction to ourselves. By nature, we tend to rely on ourselves, trust in ourselves, listen to ourselves, and serve ourselves. This is the worst kind of idolatry, and it is as natural to us as breathing and sinning.

Humility says no the tyranny of self and turns our gaze to the Lord instead. We cannot open our hands to receive good things from God until we let go of the selfishness and pride we're already holding so tightly.

Think about it: You don't really grow in Bible knowledge if you think you already know the Bible. You have to confess you don't know and you need to know. You don't grow in prayer if you think you can handle life on your own. Prayer moves from an obligation to a true dependence only through humility. And we are never really committed to serving others as long as we think we should be served.

Pride is the root sin, and humility is the key virtue. James 4 puts humility is the context of spiritual warfare, because pride is the language of Satan, and humility submits to God, who then gives us power to resist the devil's selfish lies, so he flees from us in defeat.

One of the best ways to grow in humility is to approach God through His perfect law, especially as Jesus unpacked it in Matthew 5. God's law shows us our sin in the light of God's perfect righteousness. Stripped of our self-righteousness and exposed to God's righteousness, we are ready to confess our need and weakness in true humility.

Monday, May 13, 2019

James, Day 18: James 4:4-5 - Why is God Jealous?

Why is God Jealous?

You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?
- James 4:4-5, ESV

Oprah Winfrey very famously gave up on her childhood Christianity when she thought about the idea that God is a jealous God. She reasoned that any God who was jealous of her couldn't be worth worshiping, and she gave up her profession of faith in Him. Since then, she has been her own god, and her most recent religious crusade is to encourage women to be proud of their abortions.

What Oprah missed, that we all need to see, is that God never says He is jealous of us (as if that were possible!), but He is jealous for us. Imagine that: The God of the Universe, who framed the worlds with His word, is jealous for us. James tells us why.

James tells us that Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” Rather than being a quote of a specific Scripture verse, James 4:5 is a summary of the teaching of the Bible on the theme of God's jealousy. James is telling us what Scripture teaches, rather than giving us the exact words of a particular verse.

Understanding that worldliness is idolatry and that idolatry is spiritual adultery is key to grasping this truth of the nature of God's jealous longing for His people. In the beginning, God created people in His image and breathed His very breath of life into us, making us living spirits, or living souls. This set us apart from all other creation, All other creatures were spoken into existence by God, but people were made by the hands of God (Adam from the ground and Eve from a rib of Adam) and then breathed to life by the breath of God. This makes us uniquely, preciously His.

For believers, our spirits have been resurrected from the spiritual death we inherited from Adam. So, not only were we created by God in His image, but our spirits have been raised from the dead to breathe spiritual life again. How? By His Spirit working in us - that is, by His breath blowing upon us. (In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for breath and spirit are the same.)

And what did it cost God to be able to resurrect us from the dead and give us eternal spiritual life, so that our spirits will never die again? It cost Him the life of His one and only precious Son. God loves us so much, He was willing to pay an unspeakably high price for our redemption, to buy us back to Himself.

So, we are doubly His, by unique creation and by costly redemption. And so He yearns jealously over the spirit He Himself has made to dwell within us. He is jealous for us, as a loving father and a devoted husband. It is a compelling and powerful love, and we are unfaithful to that love whenever we love the world. If we understand how much God loves us and how jealous He is for us, how could we casually embrace the spiritual adultery of worldliness?

Thursday, May 9, 2019

James, Day 17: James 4:1-4 - What Are the Consequences of our Selfishness?

What Are the Consequences of our Selfishness?
James 4:1-4
James, Day 17 

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.
- James 4:1-4, ESV

"What difference does it make?" These words can be a legitimate inquiry into the possible consequences of an idea. But they can also be a callous covering for a knowingly selfish and foolish choice, but one we want to make anyway. Parents hear these words often from their children, but if we're honest, we think them in our hearts ourselves too often. 

James 3 ended with a compelling picture of the difference between worldly wisdom and heavenly wisdom. Worldly wisdom is characterized by selfish ambition and bitter jealousy and is unspiritual and demonic. "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." (James 3:17) The contrast between these two kinds of wisdom could not be more stark and clear, but what difference does it make?

James 4 opens by telling us in very clear terms what difference it makes. Receiving and living according to God's wisdom is no abstract matter. Why do God's people so often experience quarrels and fights? It is because of our covetous desires. Does that sound like selfish ambition and bitter jealousy? Absolutely! Just because we've turned to chapter 4, don't leave the context of chapter 3 behind. Our passions war within us because we're living according to that worldly, unspiritual, demonic wisdom and not the pure and peaceable wisdom of God.

When James says, "you murder," he means the kind of hating others that Jesus said was murdering them in our hearts. (See Matthew 5:21-22). Verse 3 is then a strong rebuke to the worldly, materialistic perspective of the prosperity Gospel. When God gives good gifts to His children, it's not for our selfish passions, but for His glory and kingdom. 

In the end. James says in verse 4 that all of this worldliness in the lives of God's people is spiritual adultery and hatred of God, enmity toward God. What difference does it make? James puts it clearly and bluntly: "whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God." Ouch! 

I am too easily tempted to think that my selfishness hurts no one but myself and concerns no one but myself, but God clearly and strongly says otherwise. On a human level, it causes quarrels and fights, leading me to hate my brothers and sisters. More importantly, it is spiritual adultery and, by my worldliness, I make myself an enemy of God. 

Lord, have mercy on me for my selfishness and my covetousness. I need Your heavenly wisdom. I need to walk in Your ways of purity and peace, of gentleness and humility. By the power of Your Holy Spirit in me, change my heart. In Jesus' name, Amen. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

James, Day 16: James 3:13-18 - What Help Do We Really Need?

What Help Do We Need?

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
- James 3:13-18, ESV

When I was young, I remember trying hard to loosen a bolt only to have my dad point out that I was trying to turn it the wrong way and was actually tightening it. That's that day I learned, "Lefty loosy, righty tighty.  Once you stop trying to do the wrong thing, you can start doing the right thing. Later in my childhood, I remember trying to saw wood and getting frustrated, only to learn I was putting too much pressure on the blade. "Let the blade do the work," was the lesson I learned that day.

Last time, we saw that James 3 is not telling us that we should tame our tongues, much less giving us direction for a self-help program of tongue-taming. So, once we stop trying hard to tame our tongues, a frustrating and unfulfilling task, we can turn our attention to what James 3 is teaching us: We need heavenly wisdom to free us from ourselves.

Much more than a self-help program, James 3 gives us a sharp contrast between two competing types of wisdom, one from the world that is unspiritual and demonic, and the other from heaven and which leads to true righteousness. What James calls us to do is to live a life which displays in meekness, in humility, the true fruit of heavenly wisdom.

In other words, in humility, we need to realize that we can't tame our tongues and speak great words of wisdom and understanding. What we can do is humbly confess our need and receive from God His wisdom, the wisdom that comes from above, and live our lives in harmony with it. So, what does this wisdom look like? Well, James tells us first of all what it does not look like: It is not characterized by bitter jealously and selfish ambition.

Rather than a self-focused orientation, the wisdom from above is "first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere." This kind of wisdom comes only from God, and He must write it on our hearts by His Holy Spirit. We must, in humility, seek it from Him and then seek to live according to it.

If we live by God's wisdom and not by our own selfishness, we are given a precious promise: "And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."  We will reap a harvest of true righteousness when we make peace according to Gods wisdom, which is first pure and then peaceable, and reject the worldly ways of selfish ambition and bitter jealously.

What we can see is that we need so much more than just learning how to say the right things. We need deep heart transformation and a divine infusion of heavenly wisdom, May the Lord be pleased to do this work in us, for the glory of His name in our lives!

Sunday, May 5, 2019

James, Day 15: James 3:2-12 - Can Anyone Tame The Tongue?

Can Anyone Tame the Tongue?

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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.
 - James 3:2-12, ESV

Sometimes the Bible doesn't mean what we think it means at all. For years, I had heard that James 3 taught about the importance of taming the tongue, that James 3 is all about how important it is for you to tame your tongue. I'd even heard people say that James 3 tells you how to tame your tongue. I would read James 3 and be left scratching my head, until I realized something: I'm sure all these people were well meaning and sincere, but they were wrong.

James 3 does indeed tell us much about the power and perversity of the tongue. But it most certainly does not tell us that we can tame our tongues, much less give instructions on how we can tame our tongues. So what does it say?

If we come to James 3 without preconceived ideas and just allow it to speak to us, the message is very clear: James 3 says first, "we all stumble in many ways." And them it says, "And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body." In other words, everyone stumbles in what they say. No one is flawless in what he says. Remember, this is in the context of why not many people should be teachers.

Reading on, verses 3-6 of James tell us about the great power of the tongue. James uses the bit on a horse's bridle and the rudder on a ship to show how great and powerful things can be controlled by very small things.  Similarly, the tongue is very small but has great power. In fact, James takes it one step further and tells us how great forests can be set ablaze by very small fires, and that our tongues can set on fire the entire course of our lives.

After such powerful word pictures, we surely expect James to tell us, "So, make sure you control your tongue so it doesn't set your life on fire!" But that is exactly what James does not say. Instead, he says, "every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison."

So, the power of the tongue is matched only by its perversity, and in the transition from the tongue's power to its perversity, James emphasizes emphatically that "no human being cane tame the tongue." The restless evil of the tongue is characterized by the fact that "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God."

So, the tongue is incredibly powerful and deeply perverse, and no one can tame their tongue. That's the message of James regarding our tongues. You might be thinking, "How is that helpful?" And this question gets to the heart of the issue: If we approach the Bible as a self-help manual full of practical life advice, we will be sorely disappointed. James 3 does not tell us how to tame the tongue; it tell us no one can tame the tongue.

If we will accept this message, then what James says next is very helpful, but it's most definitely not self-help. Why not? Because we cannot help ourselves. We don't need self-help; we need salvation, and salvation comes from the Lord and not from us. We'll see more of that truth next time.

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.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

James, Day 8: James 1:19-20 - Why Doesn't Our Anger Work?

Why Doesn't Our Anger Work?

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 
- James 1:19-20, ESV

I have a confession to make: Sometimes I act like I know better than God. God says certain things very clearly in His word, and I believe His word is truth, but sometimes I live my life as if I think I know better that what the plain Word of God says.

Take today's passage, for example: Could I possibly be the one man whose anger might actually produce the righteousness of God, if I try hard enough? No, of course not. My human anger is as impotent as everyone else's human anger when it comes to producing lasting spiritual fruit. So, why do I get angry at my children and think I can force them to be righteous, not through the fear of the Lord but through the fear of Dad?

So, it's time for me to once again re-read these very familiar verses and confess to God my frequent prideful disregard of them. And it's time for me to hear the wisdom in them afresh. "Every person" includes me and you, all of us. We are called by God to be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

Why quick to hear? Because when we listen, we actually learn new things. We are open to new information and might learn something that would change our perspective a bit or help us grow in empathy or understanding.

We should be slow to speak because, in humility, we should count what others have to say as more valuable that what we have to say. Our words can wait until we have heard the whole story from the other side.

Slow to anger? Yes, we should be slow to anger because our anger is ultimately impotent. It has limited effectiveness to get some things done which have some limited value. Too often, though, it causes more pain and hurt and loss than whatever short-term gain it seems to produce.

Do you know what all of this really requires? It requires eyes of faith to see that God is already at work in the situation that is causing us frustration. The situation may seem out-of-control to us, and we may be tempted to want to lash out and grasp control of it. The truth is, of course, that it's not out-of-control at all, is it? God is always in control, and God is always at work.

For us to listen is to show faith that God may have something to teach us, For us to be slow to speak and slow to anger is to show faith that God's purposes will stand and His hands will hold the situation in faithfulness and love, even when we can't see how. And that's ultimately that call of James 1:19-20. These aren't just verses to shame us into submission, but they're calling us to a deeper trust of God and an abiding peace found only in Him. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

James, Day 7: James 1:18 - Why Were We Saved?

Why Were We Saved? 
James, Day 7

Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. - James 1:18, ESV

Last time, we discussed how important it is in teaching our children to address the question of how. But, of course, we all know that every child's favorite question is not how but why. Each of my three children went through a phase when their mouths often opened with the words, "Daddy, why . . . ?" or sometimes "Daddy, how come . . . ?"

"Daddy, why is the grass green?"
"Daddy, why do birds fly?" 
"Daddy, home come we can't fly?" 

And then there's the loud one in the middle of Wal-Mart, "Daddy, why is that man so fat?" 

As children of God, we often want to ask our Heavenly Father, "Why?" Most of the time, God doesn't answer and we can't even handle the answer. John MacArthur said in a sermon that God trying to explain why to us is like trying to pour the Atlantic Ocean into a Dixie Cup. 

Sometimes God does tell us why, so we'll understand His purposes when we need to know them. James 1:18 answers two different why questions about our salvation. Or, you could say, it answers the question, "Why were we saved?" in two different ways: What was the cause of our salvation? and What is the purpose for our salvation?

So, what was the cause of our salvation? Why were we saved? We were saved not by our own will nor by our own power, but, James says, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth." It was His will that was the origin of our being brought forth to eternal life, and it was His word of truth that actually brought us forth into eternal life. Thus, our salvation is the work of God just like creation was: God willed, God spoke, and it was good.

And what was the purpose of our salvation? Why were we saved? We were saved by God "that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." This one's a bit more complicated. What does it mean? Well, Romans 8 tells us that God is going to redeem all of creation when Jesus comes again, and that all creation is groaning in eager expectation as it waits for this final redemption. Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the firstfruit of the new creation. Then, when Jesus comes again, His trumpet call will raise us to eternal resurrection life. We will be the first thing Jesus brings to perfection, in body and soul. 

How incredible is that? God desired to save us, so He spoke the word of truth to our hearts and saved us. He did this so that He could bring us to eternal life, body and soul, at the coming of Jesus, as an eternal display of His saving power and goodness. Wow! That's a much better answer to the why question than anything I ever told my kids!