Text: James 2:1-10, 14-18†††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††† ††††††††† †††W 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Living and Active Faith
††††††††† In the name of him who alone does all things well, dear friends in Christ:† last week in our time together we began to grapple with the somewhat slippery topic of Christian sanctification, that is, the progressive and increasing holiness of life and behavior that the Lord works in his people as they continue their walk of faith with him and continue to receive his gifts of grace through his Word and Sacraments.† And what we found is that itís a subject thatís kind of hard to get a handle on.† Itís like trying to catch a fish in a stream with your bare hands.† Just as soon as you think you have it under control it flips its tail and manages to wriggle out of your grasp.
Whyís that? Well, to begin with, the process itself is rather counterintuitive.† Conventional wisdom Ė that is to say, worldly wisdom Ė says the solution is: †practice makes perfect.† Since the goal is to live a more God pleasing life, what you really ought to do is to try harder to obey Godís Law.† That would mean both avoiding doing those things that are expressly prohibited (thatís obvious: no killing, stealing, bearing false witness, and what have you), and at the same time expending more effort to do the sorts of things that the Lord wants to see in you Ė you know, selflessly serving and loving the people around youóand that means everyone: your family, friends and neighbors, perfect strangers, and even your enemies, people who arenít nice to you at all.† Youíve got to try harder to be what God demands and fulfill his royal law of love.† Like the Nike ads used to say, youíve got to just do it; and in time, like everything else in life, with plenty of practice itíll become easier.† Hopefully itíll become second nature.
Now, that approach certainly sounds logical.† And as a result many, perhaps most Christians pursue this method.† But there are several critical flaws in it.† We saw some of them last week.† One is that such an approach concentrates mostly on improving outward behavior. And itís true that you can do that to some extent.† No matter how you feel or what you think about someone, you can Ė on the surface, at least Ė be kind and helpful to them.† Even if youíre seething with rage over something theyíve done, or if youíre wearied to the point of exasperation with their irritating faults, or even if you mistrust and despise them deeply, you can at very least pretend to be nice Ö as youíre gritting your teeth in a phony smile.† Of course, we have a word for someone who acts one way but really thinks another:† itís hypocrite.† Itís from a Greek word that literally means ďbehind a maskĒ.† Itís what they used to call their actors because they wore masks to represent the various characters in a play.† And thatís what youíre doing when you force yourself to be kind and helpful to someone you really donít care about:† youíre only acting.† It isnít real love or compassion you have for the person Ė only the appearance of it.† The problem, you see, is in your heart. Thatís where the evil lies. †And no amount of acting can change your evil, unloving heart.
But what this sort of acting can do, and usually does do, is deceive you.† This is second problem with the approach.† Because of your propensity toward self justification, that is, wanting to think of yourself as an intrinsically good and honorable personóand more to the point, wanting to think that God sees you that way, itís easy to think that this sort of good outward behavior earns you some points in Godís eyes.† In fact, youíre likely to think that the harder it was to pull off the act because you were being nice to someone you desperately wanted to throttle, the more points you earned. Why?† Because it took more effort to pretend to be loving.† And surely the harder you work at it the more the Lord will appreciate your effort. But thatís the deception.† Youíre sinning by harboring uncharitable, unloving, unforgiving thoughts about someone in your heart and at the same time thinking that youíre doing something wonderful and worthy because you arenít treating them with the spite you think they deserve.
And that raises the third problem with this approach: it doesnít lead to repentance for sin and increased trust in Christ and the forgiveness he earned for you on the cross.† It does the opposite.† Why would you repent for something you falsely imaged youíve done right?† You wouldnít.† And youíd be convinced that you need Christ that much less because, after all, youíre getting better.† Youíre not the selfish, unloving person you used to be Ė or so your actions seem to indicate.† But your heart is still as sick with sin as it ever was.† And to the sickness youíve now added self delusion and self righteousness.
††††††††††† And the real tragedy is that by only acting nice, and deceiving yourself, and failing to repent, you deprive yourself of the benefits of confronting the truth about yourself, killing that sinful old nature, and hearing the words of Christís forgivenessówhich is the real power to change your unloving heart. The word of Christís forgiveness that he won for you on the cross Ė thatís what implants and strengthens in you the new nature that he brings to life through his Word and Holy Spirit.† So trying harder to be loving isnít the solution.† Recognizing that youíre not loving, repenting of it, and trusting in Christ and the righteousness he gives all the more is.
††††††††††† And hopefully this makes sense; but like I said before, this whole sanctification thing is rather slippery.† And part of the reason for it is that the old sinful nature in you always tries to use what God means for your good in the worse ways possible.† Thatís what it does with the Law of God to begin with.† The Law that is meant to condemn you and show you how sick you are, it uses to try harder to obey in an effort to justify yourself.† But then, when it discovers that thatís a dead end as weíve just shown, it goes the other way seeking the path of least resistance.† Hereís what happens:† the old nature in you hears, ďDonít try to be more loving, just trust Christ moreĒ and thinks, ďHa!† Iím off the hook now!† All I have to do is have faith.† Thatís all that matters.† As long as I say I trust Christ, I donít even have to worry about doing good works or even pretending to be a nice, helpful person.† Iím a wretched, unloving creep, and I mean to go on being a wretched unloving creep; but itís okay because I trust Jesus and he forgives me.Ē And there are various shades of this. Some are not quite as blatant as exulting in your sinful condition as I just presented it.† It could appear as being merely apathetic about living a more God pleasing life as in, ďWell, Iím sinful and thereís nothing I can do about it, so thereís use in even trying to get any better.Ē †Or it may take on a falsely religious tone as in, ďAh, ah!† Donít be talking to me about doing good works. Thatís dangerous.† It will only lead me to self righteousness and make me a Pharisee.† And I donít want that!Ē
††††††††††† However it appears, though, it would be to fall off the other side of the horse we call sanctification.† And itís the problem that James is confronting in todayís Epistle lesson. James is dealing with people who have heard that with regard to the salvation of a sinnerís soul the effort to do good works is a dead end, and theyíve taken it too far in the other direction. And what theyíve done is set up a false dichotomy between faith and good works.† Theyíre saying, ďLook, good works donít save.† Faith does.† And I have faith.† So I donít need good works.Ē† And there is an element of truth to that line of reasoning, which is why it makes for such a great deception.† All really good lies are peppered heavily with the truth.† But they are lies nevertheless.† And in this case it is the lie the sinful nature tells you to save itself from further assault.† Like I said before, the sinful nature always uses for evil what God intends for good. And in this case itís hiding behind the good news of the Gospel of Godís forgiveness in Christ to protect its turf. Itís saying, ďDonít come after me. Donít try to drive me out.† Iím forgiven. Leave me alone.Ē† So, when someone says, ďI have faith so I donít need good worksĒ, you see which nature it is thatís in the driverís seat.
††††††††††† The new nature in you, the one given birth by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and sustained by Godís Word of grace wants to do whatís good in the sight of God.† This new nature lives in you by faith and trust in Christ.† So what James is saying in reply to anyone who falsely divides faith in Christ and good works is this: true and living faith in Christ will naturally produce good works.† It must.† It canít help it.† These works are not for salvation, they are natural result of saving faith.† Living faith is always active faith Ė active doing what is pleasing to God.† If your faith in Christ doesnít produce good works, itís because it isnít really living faith.† Itís dead faith.† Itís your dead, sinful nature using the pretense of faith to shield itself from attack and to protect its territory.
Again, the new nature born of God wants to serve him by sacrificially serving and loving people just as Christ does.† And it hates the fact that itís still tied to the old nature that keeps dragging it down and thwarting its efforts.† It wants that old nature to die.† So there is to be a war going on inside a Christian with living faith.† Itís a fight to the death.† And if you are not feeling this struggle, if you are satisfied with your progress (or lack of it) toward becoming more godly, itís because youíre allowing the old nature to get the upper hand.† Itís because youíre losing the fight and letting dead faith win. And dead faith cannot and will not save you.
But so far Iíve been speaking in the abstract.† Letís put some flesh and blood on the subject, like James does, so we can give ourselves a spiritual health check.† He gives us the example of how we deal with people who are not members of the congregation that happen to join us for worship some fine Sunday morning. Mind you, he could have drawn his example from how you deal with anyone in your life, however you might come into contact with them; but this example is especially good because it applies equally to everyone in the church.† The issue is favoritism.† And the question is: how will you receive a newcomer to your assembly?† It could be somebody who just moved to town and is scoping out the church.† Or maybe itís a visitor whoís just passing through.† It might even be a long time resident of the community whose history (for better or worse) is known to at least some of the members.† It really doesnít make that much difference.† The question is how will you personally view and welcome him or her?
Well, letís ask what the new nature in you should see.† Thatís the nature that sees the person as Christ does.† What does he see?† He sees a sinner for whom he suffered, bled, and died.† He doesnít care if they are rich or poor, well dressed or in rags, male or female, young or old, in shape or out of shape, or if their skin is black, brown, white, yellow, red, or any combination thereof.† He doesnít care where they were born or what language theyíre most comfortable speaking.† He doesnít care how they were raised or what kind of trouble theyíve been in.† Itís not particularly important to him what combination of good or bad motives led the person to show up this morning.† What he sees is someone he is glad is here; because itís someone to whom he now has an opportunity to speak his death destroying and life giving Word.† He sees someone he wants very much to embrace with his assurance of love and forgiveness. He sees someone he wants to incorporate, keep, and preserve in holy faith unto life everlasting.† And he wants to do all of that for the person through us, the members of his body here.
††††††††††† Okay, now letís ask what the old, sinful nature sees.† The sinful nature, of course, is only interested in serving itself, and so itís sizing the person up and asking, ďWhatís in it for me?† Is this person likely to be an asset or a liability Ė to me personally or to the congregation as a whole?Ē† And so it goes through a checklist, making snap decisions based first on appearance, of course.†† Well dressed, pulled up in a nice, new car, refined manners Ö that all speaks of wealth.† And wealth is good.† It means more in the collection plate and less stress on me when the treasurer reports weíre behind on the budget again.† Besides, it pays to have rich acquaintances.† They can help you out when youíre in a bind.† And it raises the overall image of the church in the community. It says we have the right sort of people here Ė and Iím one of them.† On the other hand, shabby clothes, old rusty car, half a dozen dirty, ill behaved, snot-nosed kidsóyikes!† One way or another, thatís surely going to cost us.† Or maybe itís their skin color that offends Ė ďYou know, you never can trust those people.Ē† Or maybe itís their reputation Ė ďYeah, Iíve heard all about them and their familyís troubles.† We just donít need the likes of them around here.Ē
††††††††††† Anyway, then for whatever reason the old nature casts its initial judgment, it then determines how much effort to put into helping make the person feel welcome. Pour on the charm for the potential assets. †Chat them up. Introduce them around.† Help them figure out where we are in the hymnal during our confusing and unfamiliar Lutheran worship service.† And rebuff the liabilities.† Giveím the cold shoulder.† Glare at them when their kids canít sit still.† Snicker at the way they get lost during the baffling worship service.† Yeah, thatíll work.† And for those for whom the juryís still out and I havenít yet decided, Iíll play it cool and gather more information.† Maybe make some discreet inquiries while I pretend to engage in a little small talk with them.† Then Iíll decide.
††††††††††† And okay, maybe Iím overstating it here Ė or maybe not.† But either way, to the extent that we do engage in such judgments and displays of favoritismóand we all do, we stand guilty and condemned before the Lord.† By doing it we prove that we are the ones the likes of whom do not belong here. †We need to see that.† And hopefully you do.
The question is: What to do about it?† Try harder to do better?† Fake being nice and welcoming to those you have serious doubts about.† No.† Weíve seen thatís a dead end.† Well, how about surrendering to the sinful nature?† Admit thatís the way you are, and youíre not going to change; but not to worry because youíre forgiven?† Wrong again. †The correct answer lies in seeing yourself as you truly are Ė that because of your sinful, judgmental, self-seeking, and unloving heart you are the one who does not deserve to be here Ö and yet Ö and yet the Lord Jesus Christ in his mercy welcomes you as one for whom he died.† And here he wants to put to death in you all that is sinful and unloving by showing you how rotten it is in your heart so that you repent of it.† He does this because then he can raise up and strengthen in you by the Word of his forgiveness and the assurance you have of his grace as he feeds you with his own body and blood a new person Ė a person in his own image Ė a person motivated by his Spirit Ė a person who sees the people around you as he does:† sinners for whom he died and for whom his heart aches to bring to fullness of life and salvation through trust in him
Itís an ongoing process, one that will not be completed in this life; but one that we are nevertheless to pursue with steady resolve Ė not just in whom we welcome to the church, but in every aspect of our lives.† This is what sanctification is all about: growing in godly works and loving service for others through repenting of the sins of our hearts and growing in faith in Christ Ė faith that is both living and active.† So, without fainting or turning back, or letting the proper procedure slip out of our grasp, letís press on toward the goal.† In Jesusí name.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!