James 2:17-26 – Faith Works

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department; I’ll handle the works department.”

Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.

Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?

Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? The full meaning of “believe” in the Scripture sentence, “Abraham believed God and was set right with God,” includes his action. It’s that weave of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.” Is it not evident that a person is made right with God not by a barren faith but by faith fruitful in works?

The same with Rahab, the Jericho harlot. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God? The very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse. Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a corpse. (The Message)

True faith is shown as the genuine article by how it acts and responds in real life situations. 

Christians are saved for a purpose. Christian faith is much more than mere intellectual knowledge of Jesus Christ. We are to take our knowledge of Christ’s redemptive events and put it into daily practice.

There were folks in today’s New Testament lesson who were justifying a lack of action with statements such as, “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “We pay our pastor to do the ministry,” “This church is not meeting my needs,” “Let the next generation deal with change.”

Anyone in the habit of complaining without doing anything to be part of the solution needs to get an active faith. Every believer in Jesus Christ is called to ministry. All Christians are gifted by God for service. And God expects us to use those gifts to build up the Body of Christ. The church suffers when we do not all participate with the abilities God has provided.

Faith apart from action is impossible. It’s like saying I can bench press 400lbs. just because I read about it in a muscle magazine; or, that I can produce corn just because I saw a farmer in a field. 

There are no atheistic demons. The glimpses of Satan we get in the Bible lead me to think he likely has the entire Bible memorized and knows it quite well. Knowledge, however, by itself, is useless.

The Great Blondin, walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls, 1859

In the nineteenth century, a famous tightrope walker from France, Charles Blondin, once strung a cable across Niagara Falls from the American side all the way to the Canadian side. Thousands of people watched him do his theatrics across the falls.  He walked back and forth, people applauding wildly. Then to further wow the crowds, he put a blindfold on and went back and forth. He also rode a bicycle back and forth, and then pushed a wheelbarrow back and forth.

As the story goes, while pushing the wheelbarrow back and forth, he called out to the crowd on one end, inquiring whether or not they thought he could successfully push the wheelbarrow across with a human being riding in the wheelbarrow. The crowd went berserk: “Sure you can. You’re remarkable. We believe in your abilities. You are the greatest.” On and on they went, to which Blondin responded, “Then someone volunteer. You come right up here, single file, form a line, and get in the wheelbarrow to prove your trust in my ability.” A deafening silence overtook the crowd. There were no takers.

Intellectual belief is one thing. It is quite another thing to place complete trust in Jesus Christ. Knowledge without an active commitment is about as helpful as a backseat driver.

Faith is a big word in Scripture and life. It encompasses the totality of how we come to Jesus Christ and how we live for him. So, when talking about faith, it is important to distinguish between saving faith and sanctifying faith. 

If we are fuzzy on our understanding and application of these two spiritual realities of salvation and sanctification, we will sleepwalk through life as zombies living in two different worlds of the living and the dead.

“Salvation” is a term used a lot in the church. In Christianity, it means to be delivered from sin, death, and hell.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a person is “saved” by knowing about the work of Christ on the cross and trusting this has taken care of the sin issue once for all. 

Through repentance and faith in Jesus, there is salvation. A person cannot earn it, accomplish it, or buy it. Salvation is a gift that comes by faith in the person and work of Jesus. It is a one-time event of trust.

“Sanctification,” on the other hand, begins when we become believers in Jesus. The word means “to become holy,” or, “to be set apart for God.” Sanctification is not a singular event; it is a lifelong process. Whereas saving faith is a gift given to us without effort, sanctification requires much effort. We work, struggle, and expend lots of energy to live the Christian life. 

“Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”

Dallas Willard

When a student receives a college scholarship, it is a one-time event, granted to the student. She now possesses it and is able to attend school without trying to earn the money to pay for it. Yet, the scholarship was given for a reason – so that the student can now focus entirely on their studies and/or sport. The work is just beginning.  More blood, sweat, and tears will take place living into that scholarship than the student could ever imagine. It won’t be easy. It will consume the student’s waking hours for the next four years.

When the Apostle James talks about faith, he is primarily referring to sanctifying faith, to believers who already professed saving faith in Jesus. They were granted a full-ride scholarship in the kingdom of God. Now the work begins. And, just as a student will surely become discouraged at points throughout their education, wondering if they ought to drop out, so the Christian will face tremendous adversity and challenge in living the Christian life.  There is a lot of spiritual training and studies to do so that faith will be strengthened for a lifetime of service.

Abraham was saved from an empty way of life and given a gift of grace to move to a better country. Abraham did nothing to earn this favor. God just chose him, period. 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’s faith was demonstrated by what he did. The way genuine faith develops and grows is in the fiery trial of adversity and hardship.

Christianity is not a matter of continual upward triumph; it is a downright hard work of faith development as we learn to be followers of Christ. Spiritual maturity happens through sanctifying faith by means of difficult life circumstances.

Rahab, a completely different person than Abraham, was a prostitute who lived in the red light district of Jericho. Abraham is a recognized giant of faith. Rahab is an almost overlooked example of faith. All of us likely fall somewhere in between these two people – graced and called by God to live into our sanctifying faith through continual spiritual exercise.

Rahab’s faith and actions worked together. She honestly believed the city of Jericho would experience God’s judgment, and, so, she housed the visiting Israelite spies.

Maybe we need to expand our understanding of faith to include people we might typically exclude. 

No one is outside the realm of faith. So, let’s not be quick to judge those with dubious lives and backgrounds, as well as the poor and needy. If we do not know their stories, or why and how they ended up in this station in life, we may make unwarranted assumptions, and turn our backs on the needy.

We must not sanitize Rahab as someone other than who she was – and because of her faith she ended up being an ancestor of Jesus himself.

Needy people are not dumb, clueless, helpless, or ignorant; they are resourceful and resilient. They need Jesus, too. Yes, people make choices, often bad ones. Yet, nobody says to themselves, “When I grow up I want to be a prostitute or maybe a porn star and live in a red light district with a pimp who abuses me and gets high on heroin.” 

People too often back into behaviors due to a lack of positive relational connections and just trying to survive whatever crisis is going on in their lives.  The church can be a social connection for them to become grounded in something other than their past experience.

God grants faith scholarships to the rich and the poor, from every race, ethnicity, and background imaginable across the entire earth.

From the standpoint of faith, Abraham and Rahab are on the same level. Neither of them did anything to receive God’s grace. And God does not grit his teeth to show favor – the Lord genuinely loves us – and sincerely loves and likes all kinds of people.

Saving faith means life is just beginning. True salvation produces good works. Both Abraham and Rahab, along with all God’s people throughout the ages, exhibit sanctifying faith by persevering through hardship and allowing God to grow their faith.

Therefore, submit to hardship. Find solace in God and Scripture. Pray and worship like you mean it. Lean into community. Keep your eyes of faith open to what the Lord is doing around you.

Faith works. So, embrace it. Enjoy it. Live into it and with it always.

Ephesians 6:10-20 – Spiritual Combat

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. I am in chains now, still preaching this message as God’s ambassador. So, pray that I will keep on speaking boldly for him, as I should. (New Living Translation)

When I think of the Apostle Paul, I think of a guy who had a bucket load of boldness, who did not sidestep tough situations, but who fearlessly stepped into the world with the good news of God’s grace in Christ. 

Maybe Paul was that way because of prayer and the prayers of God’s people. Maybe what stands in the way of people knowing Jesus and believers maturing in faith is a profound lack of intense, consistent, and sustained prayer. Maybe too many of God’s people have been duped by the enemy of our souls to retreat in a bubble of fear, unable to effectively engage God’s big world with confidence.

Paul told the Ephesian Church what kind of practical and vital obligations were needed to put aside fear and flourish as Christians….

Be strong in the Lord because we are in an invisible war.

There is an unseen world all around us. We serve an invisible God, and we have an invisible enemy. Satan and all his wicked spirits exist. They are organized for war with methodical schemes and strategies designed to blunt our spiritual development and the expansion of God’s benevolent kingdom. The enemy seeks to render us ineffective in our walk with Christ, unproductive for God, and all knotted up inside in a broken mess so that we are weak, not strong.

The names of our invisible enemy in Scripture tells us the kind of diabolical and methodical work he is doing to snare us: 

  • Satan (the adversary who opposes us)
  • Lucifer (the shining one who comes looking like the light but only delivers darkness)
  • Beelzebub (lord of the flies, who is a false god promising protection and help apart from God)
  • Belial (the evil one, who seeks to have us engage in sin instead of righteousness)
  • Tempter (offering alternative plans to the will of God)
  • Accuser (the false judge, using criticism to bully people into shameful submission)
  • Prince of this world (the architect behind all systemic evil)
  • Devil (the diabolical one who engages in spiritual guerilla warfare against God’s people)

The unseen wicked spirits of this dark world pull out whatever technique they can to turn us from knowing who we are in Christ and how we are to really live. They seek to distract us from our mission, to keep us busy fighting among ourselves, so that we will put our ultimate confidence in anything or anyone but Christ.

Put on the armor of God and prepare for spiritual battle.

Satan is a defeated foe. The nails that crucified the Lord Jesus, and the power of God that raised him from the dead, ensured Satan’s doom.

Although we stand in the victory of the Lord Jesus, the world, the flesh, and the devil still dog us at every turn. So, we must discover and dislodge every threat to our spiritual growth and the mission of the church to step into the world with the gospel of grace. 

Jesus said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us. The picture is not one of the church being defensive and only responding to threats, but of a church pushing forward and storming the gates. 

The promise we have is that we can engage the enemy to the point of hell itself – and will not be burned by demonic enemy fire. Therefore, we are not to hunker down in self-protective foxholes; we are to engage the enemy with our spiritual armor on.

  • Put on the belt of truth. We need to combat the demonic lies. The truth will set us free. Lies will place us in bondage. Shame will keep us in the dark shadows. We are to embrace Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The truth is that we belong to God. We are not to fight demonic fire with fire. Instead, we fight Satan with the waters of baptism, remembering who we are in Christ. Just as the wicked witch of the west was killed with water, so we are to fling our baptismal water in the face of the enemy and watch him melt away.
  • Put on the breastplate of righteousness. It protects our heart as we push forward and engage the enemy. Satan is aiming for our hearts, so it is vital that they are well-guarded. Our hearts belong to God. Before we chose God, God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4).         
  • Put on the gospel shoes of peace. Satan and his minions are trying to cause chaos, unrest, and division.  We are to be ready for his methods through embracing God’s peace and harmony with others. We are to use our shoes, both for digging in and standing firm, and stepping forward into situations as peace-makers. Those who ready themselves with the gospel of peace live differently, openly, with grace and integrity.

Take up your spiritual weapons and do battle.

Whereas the spiritual armor is protective, giving us a solid defensive posture, our spiritual weapons help us to go on the offense and walk into the struggle.

  • Take up the shield of faith. Extinguish all the nasty flaming arrows of the evil one. The Roman phalanx was a rectangular military formation where the army took their shields and connected them together for protection and the ability to push forward, engaging the enemy. This tactic helped the Romans to conquer most of the known world of the time. It was based not on individual ability but on the strength of the entire army working together. The devil seeks to divide and conquer. Yet, there is strength in numbers, that is, as long as we work together!  Linking our shields together through unity, fellowship, and encouragement is absolutely necessary if we are going to win the battle.
  • Take up the helmet of salvation. Active transformation through the renewing of our minds enables us to avoid retreating and going back to old sinful patterns of thinking. We need mindfulness, not mindlessness, aware of who we are in Christ and actively occupying our thoughts with God’s Word.
  • Take up sword of the Spirit. This is the word of God. The written word is to be the spoken word. Our primary offensive weapon in the battle against the evil one is God’s Word. It needs to be read, memorized, meditated upon, learned, talked about, and, used by speaking it aloud.

Be alert and pray.

Prayer is to undergird everything we do. The early church was effective and successful through prayer. They all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14). They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42). After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly (Acts 4:31).  The early apostles re-arranged their busy schedules so that they could give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). Believers in Jesus pray.

Whenever prayer takes a back seat to everything else, believers end up fighting the wrong battles with the result of a lot of friendly fire where people get spiritually and emotionally hurt. Our battle is not with flesh and blood human beings; it is with Satan and his wicked spirits. Fight them, not each other!

Conclusion

The spiritual forces we are up against are wicked, evil, cunning and do not observe any kind of Geneva Convention rules when it comes to war. They are out for blood. Therefore, we must be ready and put on our spiritual armor, take up our spiritual weapons, and move forward with the word of God and prayer. This present darkness requires that we be at our best. Our very lives depend on it.

Matthew 4:1-11 – Facing Temptation

Jesus Tempted by Russian painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Again, the devil took him to a remarkably high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (NIV)

In our most vulnerable moments, the devil attempts to swoop in and offer his demonic delights for us to consider. We call it “temptation.” Indeed, it can be quite alluring to entertain ways of getting what we need and want through avenues other than God.

In the desert, the place of preparation for ministry, Jesus fasted and prayed forty days. If ever there was a time when Jesus would be vulnerable to alternative religion, the devil mused, wringing his demonic hands together with wicked delight, it would be out in the desert by himself. So, Satan tempted Jesus with three whoppers he thought would get to Jesus, for sure. Having tempted Jesus with food and a way to fame, and having failed both times, Satan gave his final temptation.

To us this temptation to bow down and worship Satan seems like a no-brainer. Well, of course, no one would do such a thing as this, especially Jesus. And he did not. But it was still tempting. It really was. Jesus knew very well what was ahead of him. He had just spent forty days in an intense orientation for an upcoming three years of hard ministry with an end of tortuous death to look forward to. 

Satan presented to Jesus an alternative way, a different path to achieve his purpose for being on this earth. Jesus could have it all without the three years, without the hard slugging to communicate the kingdom of God has come. Most of all, Jesus could circumvent the cross and establish his rule over all the earth – all pain free! The temptation, yes, was very tempting. Become King Jesus now with no suffering.

This has always been one of our great temptations, as well: Take the easy path. Get what you want, what you deserve, now, with no hardship. 

The values of God’s kingdom include trust, patience, and perseverance. Temptation insists we need none of those hard things to be successful. Satan is the original slickster, marketing his quick and easy wares for people to buy into the notion that life can lived without pain and hardship, and with wild success, right now. The scary thing about it is that Satan can deliver… but it will cost us our very lives. Slavery to sin is the price we pay for hitching our hopes to the quick and easy.

The Christian season of Lent is a time for the slow, patient, deliberate development of the soul in attachment with the Lord Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines is hard. It is difficult to fast and pray. Growing in Christ is slow and takes a great deal of learned perseverance. Far too many of us are tempted to circumvent the hard work of discipleship and simply have a spiritual professional distill everything we need into one hour on Sunday morning. Or we fabricate our own religious practice and beliefs, picking and choosing what fits our lifestyle, as if convenience and comfort are the summum bonum of life, instead of worship.

Christ was able to face down temptation because the desert strengthened him. Yes, he was vulnerable. But he was not weak. If we want to handle temptation, it will take Lent to help us. It will take the desert to spiritually form us and prepare us for godly ministry that puts the devil in his place.

Lord Jesus, you are the king of all creation. Just as you chose the hard path of God’s kingdom, so help me to persevere with faith and patience. May my life reflect your words and ways, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Mark 1:9-15 – Desert Spirituality

Welcome, friends! We begin the Christian season of Lent through recognizing that the desert is a very necessary part of resisting temptation and becoming strong in faith and patience. Click the videos below and let us together follow Jesus…

Mark 1:9-15, Pastor Tim
Advent Birmingham is a diverse group of musicians who lead worship services in song on Sundays at Cathedral Church of The Advent in Birmingham, Alabama. They also write and record modern hymns of their own and set ancient Christian hymns and songs to modern settings.

Sin is defeated. So, may we become the people we were always meant to be,
by the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Amen.