James 2:14-26 – Faith Works

What good is it, my brothers, and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (NIV)

Genuine authentic faith is more than mere sentiment and head knowledge. Faith without works does not work. Strong robust faith is active and can withstand adversity.

The rhetorical questions the Apostle James asked were meant to awake his readers to the reality that true faith is always active. In other words, inactive faith is not really faith at all. In his letters to the churches, the Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person converts to Christ, whereas the Apostle James emphasized the role of works after a profession of faith in Christ.

St. James was getting at the heart of how a believer in Jesus ought to live. And he did this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works: If someone is in need and a person expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – the expression is merely an expression, nothing more. 

I once came home after a long day at work on a Valentine’s Day several years ago. I had picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop. I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.”  Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the television. My dear wife’s response was not so favorable to my sentimental overtures. I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it. My words of “I love you” just did not sync with my actions. 

Just so you know, I redeemed myself the next year by winning a contest on a local radio station for a spouse’s best love note, and it got read on the air several times throughout the day for my lovely wife to hear. My commitment and actions were were nicely aligned so that when I said “I love you” at the end of that workday, there was no doubt about it.

Faith requires that actions sync with words. For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be more than an expression of concern – we need to spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.

Faith involves emotions yet ought not be limited by them. Faith can neither exist nor survive without deeds. Christian works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body. Both faith and action is needed for the Christian life.

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts in real life situations. Faith is more than a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on, as if it were some fire insurance policy against hell. Frankly, as a Pastor, I have heard some pretty lame justifications over the decades for failing to help others, give to the poor, be involved in justice work, and just plain serve in the church, like, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “That’s what we pay you to do,” and the ever-prolific, “This church is not meeting my needs.”

Those in the habit of complaining without an intent to boots-on-the-ground helping do not yet have an active faith. Each person is to do their part in serving the common good of all. And we all suffer when that does not happen. Bifurcating faith and action leave us with a false faith. 

If faith without action is okay, then so is the entire demonic realm. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible leads me to think that the devil has the entire thing memorized and knows it well from Genesis to Revelation. Yet, knowledge puffs up but love builds up. Information by itself is useless unless it is accompanied by gracious and loving action. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Salvation is a term Christians are familiar with. In the Christian tradition, it refers to being saved from sin, death, and hell. Sanctification is another term most Christians recognize. It means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart” for God. Sanctification is not an event but a process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given without works, sanctifying faith requires a great deal of effort. A lot of energy is expended to live the Christian life. The late Dallas Willard used to often say, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.” 

The Apostle James dealt primarily with the sanctifying faith every Christian needs to exhibit. It is as if we have been graciously granted a full-ride scholarship to a university (salvation) but now the real work begins (sanctification) to learn, grow, and obtain the degree. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at some point throughout their education and wonder if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge. Indeed, a lot of blood-sweat-and-tears goes into our spiritual studies so that our faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of active loving service.

For example, the Old Testament character Abraham was saved from an empty way of life in a pagan country and given a gift of grace to move to the country God would show him. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor.  God just chose him (Joshua 24:2-3). Abraham sojourned as a pilgrim throughout the land God gave him, which mirrored his spiritual sojourning and learning to be a follower of God. Abraham faced a monumental test of faith when asked to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19).

Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did. Testing of faith is necessary so that we become mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:3-4). The way for authentic faith to develop and grow is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship. Spiritual maturation, holiness, and a well-rounded faith come by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab and the Two Spies by Unknown artist

To press the significance of faith and works, the example of the Old Testament character Rahab is highlighted. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the red-light district of Jericho. St. James was doing something profound and important – he took two extreme examples, one a giant of the faith, and the other an almost overlooked example of faith, to demonstrate we all are candidates for real faith.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked harmoniously. She genuinely believed the city of Jericho was going to be overcome by God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies (Joshua 2:1-11). Methinks we must expand our understanding of faith to include persons others might exclude. Some may be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot sanitize Rahab as something other than what she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself (Matthew 1:5).

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. In Christ’s new egalitarian society, all are welcome, all are equal. Together, we work on our sanctifying faith by submitting to adversity as our teacher; finding solace in God’s Holy Word and Spirit; praying for and with others; worshiping God like there is no tomorrow; leaning into faithful relationships; keeping our eyes open to what God is doing; being patient with the process of sanctification; and embracing unwanted change as our friend.

Faith works, my young Padawan. Embrace it. Enjoy it. Energize it.

Genesis 22:15-18 – Faith, Obedience, and Blessing

Blessing to Abraham

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (NIV)

The biblical character of Abraham is synonymous with faith. And for good reason. God had told Abraham that he would have a son with his wife Sarah. This was especially unusual because the couple were well advanced in age, and Sarah was incapable of having children. Infertility is not just a modern problem; it has always existed.  Yet, despite all the contrary evidence of age and ability, Abraham believed God. Years later and with a mix of patience and impatience from the would-be parents, the promise from God was realized.  Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.

“The child of the promise.” This was Isaac’s moniker – which made the command from God so perplexing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2). Huh? I can easily imagine Abraham saying to himself, perhaps not out loud, “What the [insert favorite expletive]!”  But it only seems strange and super-weird to us. We get no reaction from Abraham, no questioning, no talk back.  He just goes about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and takes his only son with him on the journey to the mountain.

While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of talking with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served. We get an insight from the author of Hebrews into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking that is consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God:

“Abraham had been promised that Isaac, his only son, would continue his family. But when Abraham was tested, he had faith and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he was sure that God could raise people to life. This was just like getting Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-18, CEV)

Abraham did not try and figure out God’s mind. He picked no fights and chose not to debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do.

Abraham simply obeyed.

He reasoned that it did not matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides. After God stepped in and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac, Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide.” (Genesis 22:14)

You and I most certainly do not always know why we are facing the circumstances we must endure. We very much are rarely privy to know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing his voice, there is no hesitation to respond with obedience. We are convinced that God will provide. Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden; it is a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Blessings come through obedience. They are not willy-nilly thrown into a crowd like some cheap stadium trinket between innings of a baseball game. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, this very connection between obedience and blessing was re-emphasized:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. (Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 9, NIV)

A simple observation about the blessing of Abraham: It took nearly five-hundred years before that blessing was realized. Furthermore, in the Christian tradition, it then took another fifteen-hundred years before the blessing was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. And, I might add, all the promises of God to his people will be fully consummated at the end of the age when Christ returns. For a contemporary society which prides itself on timeliness and efficiency, taking the much broader scope of all history might seem unacceptable.

So, we come back around again to trust. Just as Abraham trusted God, even when it seemed like nonsense fraught with major moral implications, so we are to exhibit patient and persevering faith. Although the scope of history is massively large, the only moment we have is the now. It is now, today, in which we put one foot in front of the other and toddle forward into the next moment – by faith.

We simply obey.

Then, we obey again… and, again. It is in such continual small steps of faith and obedience that we will discover the blessings of God in the middle of our path.

Sovereign Lord, your ways are sometimes strange.  Yet, I know that everything you do is always right, just, and good.  It is to your gracious and merciful character that I know you will guide and provide. My allegiance is to you as I anticipate your divine blessings in my life through the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Genesis 12:1-3 – The Blessing

a5487-wisdom2bfrom2babove

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.” (NIV)

Words are powerful.  They have the power of life and of death, of blessing and cursing. Furthermore, withholding words of blessing and keeping silent is to withhold goodness and love from another.

Speaking words of blessing and backing up those words with an active commitment, is vital to humanity’s spiritual and emotional health.

The question for Abraham, and for us, is not only how we will respond to God’s commands but how we will react to his promise of blessing, and to be a blessing. Abraham left the city of Ur because he believed in the promise God was holding out to him of blessing.  It is the promises of God, not just the commands, which change our lives.  It is the promise, not only the command, which requires a decision and a change.  The world needs promise.  And promise is powered by blessing.

The term “blessing” in Scripture is a powerful communication of God’s presence and approval.  Notice some of the elements of God’s blessing to Abraham. God said that he would show Abraham the Promised Land, that is, he would be with Abraham. Abraham was neither alone nor on his own.  God provided Abraham with a peek into a special future – he would make Abraham into a great nation. What’s more, God would bless everyone else through Abraham. God’s approval was with Abraham – “I will bless you.”  Notice, also, God’s active commitment to Abraham: He would bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him.

This blessing was passed from generation to generation, from Abraham to Isaac, Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to his twelve sons; a blessing of God’s presence, approval; a blessing of a special future, and an active commitment.  The promise of the blessing found its ultimate fulfillment in the person of Jesus, who extended the original promise to the nations. I, as a Gentile believer, have come to faith because of this blessing.

Fathers and mothers everywhere across the world stand in a unique and special position as those who have the power of bestowing a blessing on their children – a blessing of being with them, approving of them, affirming their gifts and abilities, envisioning for them a special future of how God can use them. Those words of blessing have the power to help children navigate the world with assurance and confidence. Armed with blessing, they can filter-out the choices in front of them and walk in the way of God.

Notice in the New Testament Gospels how the God the Father blessed the Son:

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.  And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17).

God communicated his constant presence and an active commitment through the Spirit; God spoke words of approval and affirmation; God the Father had a special future for Jesus the Son, which helped Jesus to repel the words of Satan. Since Jesus needed and received a blessing from his Father, how much more do we?

Notice how Jesus passed on the blessing to his disciples with promise and commitment (giving them much more than only the command):

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20).

Jesus let his disciples know that his presence would be with them; he communicated an active commitment to give them authority to do the job of disciple-making; he pictured for them a special future of reaching the nations; he affirmed them and approved them. “The Great Commission” is really a re-statement of God’s original blessing to Abraham.

Once we begin to view Holy Scripture through the lens of promise and blessing, we begin to see it everywhere. Perhaps one more illustration of receiving and giving blessing will assist us:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.  He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man, he could not, because of the crowd. So, he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.  When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately.  I must stay at your house today.” So, he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.  All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord!  Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10).

Zacchaeus was transformed.  His life changed from one of cursing others through extortion to blessing others through giving. Jesus not once commanded him to do it. Instead, Jesus simply blessed him, and Zacchaeus, in turn, became a blessing. Being invited into someone’s house in the ancient world was in and of itself an act that communicated acceptance, approval, and encouragement.  The presence of Jesus changes people.

God is with us.  He has given us his very great and precious promises in Christ.  He has demonstrated his active commitment to us by giving us the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has gifted each believer for service so that every individual may be a blessing to both the church and the world.

You and I already possess God’s blessing; there is no need to try and earn it.

We have the privilege and the ability to reverse the world’s curse and turn it into a blessing. Those blessed with money can be a blessing by giving it away. Those blessed by growing up in a loving family can provide love to others who are unloved and need a special blessing. Those blessed with wisdom can mentor and instruct those who need wisdom. Those blessed with the mercy of God can be merciful to others. Those blessed with a wonderful relationship with God can pray people into the kingdom of God.

Parents, it is never too late to bless your children, even if they are adults. Children, it is never too late to bless your parents and your siblings, even if they are prickly and hard. To not bless is to curse. Bless through words that build up, and do not tear down. Use those words to picture a special future of what God can do. Follow through with those words by demonstrating an active commitment to embodying blessing.

I leave you with a blessing, my dear readers:

May God answer you when you are in distress; and, may the name of Jesus protect you. 

May God send you help when you need it and give you support when you cry out to him. 

May the God of heaven remember all your good deeds done in faith and accept you just as you are. 

May God give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.

When the Almighty answers your prayers and goes out of the way to use you for his glory; then, I will be the first to shout with the loudest shout of joy that there ever was on the earth! 

I know that the Lord is God, and that he has a special future for you beyond what you can even ask or think.  And I will be there on the sidelines, encouraging you all the way. 

Some people trust in the political process, others trust in the strength of the economy; but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. 

May God answer when you call.

May God bless you with an everlasting love. 

May you know Christ, and him crucified, risen, and coming again. 

May God’s presence and power be with you now and forever.  Amen.

Click Blessings by Laura Story to remember that even in difficulty we are blessed.

Genesis 22:1-19 – The Lord Will Provide

abraham and isaac

Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide.” And even now people say, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

The biblical character of Abraham is synonymous with faith.  And for good reason.  God had told Abraham that he would have a son with his wife Sarah.  This wouldn’t be unusual except for the facts that the couple were well advanced in age, and Sarah was incapable of having children.  Infertility isn’t just a modern problem; it has always existed.  But Abraham believed God.  Years later and with a mix of patience and impatience from the would-be parents, the promise from God was realized.  Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.

“The child of the promise.”  This was Isaac’s moniker – which makes the command coming from God so perplexing: Take your son, the child of the promise, and go to the mountain and sacrifice him there.  Huh? What the…!  But it only seems strange and super-weird to us.  We get no reaction from Abraham, no questioning, no talk back.  He just goes about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and takes his only son with him on the journey to the mountain.

We can wonder what might be going through Abraham’s mind through all of this.  While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of talking with God.  He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own.  Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served.  We get an insight from the author of Hebrews into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking that is consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God:

“Abraham had been promised that Isaac, his only son, would continue his family. But when Abraham was tested, he had faith and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he was sure that God could raise people to life. This was just like getting Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-18, CEV)

Abraham didn’t try and figure out God’s mind.  He didn’t get into a debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do.  He simply obeyed. He reasoned that it didn’t matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death.  This, of course, is not what happened.  It was all a test of faith.  Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides.

You and I don’t always know why we are facing the circumstances we’re enduring.  We don’t always know what in the world God is thinking.  Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing his voice, we don’t hesitate to respond.  We are convinced that God will provide.  Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden; it’s a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Sovereign Lord, your ways are sometimes strange.  Yet, I know that everything you do is always right, just, and good.  It is to your gracious and merciful character that I know you will provide.  My allegiance is to you; in the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.