faith must work to work

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

James 2:14-26

We can say we have faith in God, in God’s promises, and that’s all well and good. But it won’t make the needed difference unless we act on it. The difference certainly refers to others. In James’s words here, helping the sister or brother in need, or with reference to Rahab, for one’s own family as well as for Rahab herself. What I’m especially referring to here is one’s own salvation. When we experience that salvation, or in the words in this passage, justification, we naturally want to see everyone else experience the same. But when we’re struggling with a lack in being settled into that in our spirits, ourselves, then we can’t see our way to really have that same longing for others.

What is absolutely essential in a sense is being willing to burn all bridges down behind us, so that there’s no turning back, but that our faith is expressed in action. If we say we believe something, then we have to act on that, or in the words of James, our faith is barren, even dead.

Abraham is the stark case in point here. He was asked to sacrifice his son no less, Isaac, on an altar he would have to prepare himself as a whole burnt offering to God. Certainly a mind boggling, simply unfathomable thing to ask of someone, at least in our world. In Abraham’s world, from what I’ve read, it may not have been as shocking. We read elsewhere that Abraham reasoned that God could raise Isaac from the dead if need be to fulfill God’s promise that through Abraham and his seed Isaac, Abraham would become the father of many nations, heir of the world, and that all nations would be blessed through him (Hebrews 11:19; Romans 4:13, 17; Galatians 3:8). Just the same, it couldn’t have been easy.

But as we see in Genesis 22, there’s no hesitation to fulfill what God commanded. Maybe there was something in Abraham’s mind, like, “Let’s get this over with.” We don’t know what precisely was in his mind, except as mentioned above, because Scripture doesn’t tell us. But Abraham went all the way with no hesitation, hard as that had to have been. And raising the knife was stopped by the angel of the Lord before plunging the knife into his beloved son, the son who was to be heir, and through whom God’s blessing was to be extended to all.

James is telling us that we’re to have this same kind of faith. We either do it, and that includes the hard thing which maybe at the time makes no sense to us. But we do so in obedience to God, resting on God’s promise of blessing and good. In and through Jesus.

returning to our first love

Write this to Ephesus, to the Angel of the church. The One with Seven Stars in his right-fist grip, striding through the golden seven-lights’ circle, speaks:

“I see what you’ve done, your hard, hard work, your refusal to quit. I know you can’t stomach evil, that you weed out apostolic pretenders. I know your persistence, your courage in my cause, that you never wear out.

“But you walked away from your first love—why? What’s going on with you, anyway? Do you have any idea how far you’ve fallen? A Lucifer fall!

“Turn back! Recover your dear early love. No time to waste, for I’m well on my way to removing your light from the golden circle.

“You do have this to your credit: You hate the Nicolaitan business. I hate it, too.

“Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches. I’m about to call each conqueror to dinner. I’m spreading a banquet of Tree-of-Life fruit, a supper plucked from God’s orchard.”

Revelation 2:1-7; MSG

To really get a good overall picture, and just how we might fit into the scheme, or what God might be saying to us, we surely need to read each of the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3. The first letter here as rendered by Eugene Peterson, or in any translation, for that matter, is striking and noteworthy. This church is as zealous as it gets, but their zeal while at least largely based on head knowledge, has left its/her first love, or the love this church had at first. And thus we might say it was bereft of heart knowledge, or a knowledge driven by love. Love for Christ, and the love which follows from that.

It’s a burden to try to apply these letters to us as individuals, and it’s important to see that they’re actually written to churches. But individuals make up churches, so we all have to ask how they might apply to us, what we might be contributing to the situation. Notice that the blessing at the end is applied to individuals who overcome. I would like to think that I fit, or would prefer to be part of a church like Philadelphia, having little strength, but faithful, and simply being told to hold on to what they have until Christ returns. But we need to prayerfully read and consider all these letters.

How do we fall from the first love we had? And Jesus makes no bones about it, they either have to repent as a church, or he’ll put their light out, so that they’ll be a church in name, only. No church was more active, but that’s doesn’t mean they were okay. Far from it, though Jesus does give them the nod of approval for their hatred of the works of the Nicolaitans, which he too hated.

I’m not sure. I think it can become more about what we’re doing than anything else. Maybe we need to stop in our tracks, shut our mouths, quit doing what we’re doing, maybe something like a silent retreat. Then maybe we’ll be able to hear what the Lord is saying to us. It’s a work of the Spirit, quite beyond us. It’s not like sitting in a schoolroom where we might possibly figure it out with the help of the teacher. No.

I will offer this from my own life and experience. I think the more we realize life is all about love, that God is love, and that Christ’s love for us is as great, deep and true as love can get, then that can help us. But it’s so easy to substitute doing, doing and more doing for the real thing. Let’s find that love, enter into it, live it out with each other, and out into the world. And keep doing that. Then what we do will matter. And Jesus’s life and love will continue among us as a light for us and for the world. In and through Jesus.

justified (declared righteous) by faith in this life; justified by works in the judgment to come

There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.

Romans 2:9-11

The NIV heading for Romans 2:1-16, “God’s Righteous Judgment” is a good summary of what this section is getting at in terms of the judgment to come. It’s future, after this life. God will, so to speak look back on our lives and judge us, judge all human beings according to our works. See the rest of Scripture to verify this.

This is called a justification of works, and you can see that clearly in the overall passage (click the link above). In the final judgment we’re judged by what we do and fail to do, by our works, essentially it seems, our lives. In this life we’re not justified by works, but by faith. Romans 3:21-5:11 unmistakably and clearly lays that out.

So we’re in the clear not at all by our works, by by faith in Christ, and God’s finished work in him. At the same time, just as James points out we are saved by a faith that works. You can see that in Paul’s writings too. So works do matter in this life, an indication of whether or not we have justifying faith. But we must beware of getting the cart before the horse. The only way we can do the good works is through faith.

But now to the passage quoted above. After knowing the context, it’s good to dwell on parts. It’s actually a shame not to consider the whole. Again, you can click the link above, and better yet start right from the beginning of the book. But the trouble and distress mentioned here is in terms of final judgment. As well as the glory, honor and peace. What we do now along with our experience will be carried over into the next life. If we choose to live apart from God now, we’ll be apart from God and all the goodness that comes from God then. If we choose to live under God’s judgment in the curse now, we’ll experience that later. But if accept God’s offer of salvation through faith in Christ and his death and resurrection, we will receive forgiveness of sins and new life. And we’ll begin to live new lives filled with good works, thoughtful, repentant lives, making our wrongs right along the way.

Where we’re headed now is where we’ll end up being when it’s all said and done. If we’re headed in a direction contrary to God, then we need to stop in our tracks, and head the opposite way in and through Jesus.

 

learning to rest in a restless world

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

Hebrews 4:9-11

I have wondered, and still do, over all the passages in the Old Testament which mandate Sabbath keeping for God’s people Israel, and really come across as harsh, at least to me, and probably to most of us. There were no ands, ifs, or buts about it. You did keep the Sabbath, period. Or you were at least regarded as an outcast. Of course then it meant resting one day in seven, confining work to the other six days.

In the New Testament in Jesus, Sabbath keeping seems to have taken on a different meaning. It’s really not about a day, but more about one’s attitude in life coming from one’s faith in Jesus. That’s not to say that it’s not good to rest one day in seven. And in Christian circles, various churches and denominations, there used to be pretty strict standards and rules for Sunday, what you could and could not do. That seems now at least mostly a bygone era.

Sabbath rest in the New Testament, and we do well to say, in the new covenant, is about something else entirely, rather mystical in its source, but down to earth in its outworking. It’s about learning to rest in Jesus in what amounts to a restless world. And it’s not a matter of just a nice thing to do. Sabbath keeping in that way ends up being a matter of life and death. Note the passage above, as well as what we noted about Sabbath keeping in the Bible. It is not a recommendation, or suggestion. It is a command, and it really ends up being part and parcel of the faith.

Yes, I know, it can simply mean I put my trust alone in Jesus for my salvation. That I’m not trusting in my works or in myself to get that done. And that is at the heart of this. But it includes our attitude toward all of life, including our work. The work by which we’re not saved is the kind of work we’re to avoid altogether. It is not work which is accepted by God. Only God’s works are accepted by him. So that we need to enter into that work, so that our works are actually a part of his. You read glimmers of this even in the Old Testament. It was a reality back then. How much more so now in Christ?

We could misread the above passage to suggest that regularly we need to rest from our works, like one day in seven. But that’s not what it’s saying. It seems more like suggesting that we leave our own works behind entirely. That they’re not part of the equation. So that it’s not the old Ted who is present with all the good things he used to do of the old creation. But instead it’s the new Ted, with the good works God gives which are part of the new creation in Jesus.

The world won’t accept this, and it won’t be easy for most any of us to accept. We’re to be restless, working hard, trying to outdo others, or at least keep up a certain pace needed, and indeed often required to achieve worldly success. And one might get comfortable in that mode and even seem to be at rest. That attitude can carry over right into the church, and into Christian service and work.

Instead we need the new way in Jesus. Which is of Jesus, certainly like him. So that we become more and more the person we’re meant to be in him. That people might sense him in us, even as they come to know the new self that is emerging. Through the sabbath rest given to us by God in and through Jesus.

Martin Luther’s greatest contribution remembered on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10

Martin Luther may have been the greatest of the Protestant Reformers. A book I would highly recommend is Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers, in which something of the complexity of that time is presented with a full, succinct look at the theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and Menno Simons, the last one not really wanting to reform the church, but start over according to the New Testament teaching- but by and by realizing, that you can’t just start from scratch, but must take into account the early centuries of the church when they wrestled through teachings on the Trinity and who Jesus is in his humanity and Deity.

Martin Luther and John Calvin may have been the most gifted of the Reformers, certainly not without their flaws, but it’s a mistake to simply brush them off. They are important church fathers contributing to the church’s understanding and edification in the faith.

Martin Luther himself, and what he accomplished is nothing short of amazing. Of course he would say, and it’s so true that it was not him, but the grace of God in and at work in him. Maybe his greatest contribution was to uncover and unshackle the gospel from the church’s traditions which had all but buried it. And this is not at all to say that all tradition is bad. Every church necessarily so, I think, and in reality has tradition. The question might be whether it’s good, or not, not whether a church should have tradition.

Martin Luther’s insistence from scripture that we are saved by grace alone through Christ alone is at the heart of understanding how the gospel, the good news in Jesus becomes good news for the one who hears or reads of it. God’s grace is a gift, one neither deserved, nor earned, which we receive by simple faith apart from works. Because of Christ’s work for us on the cross in his death, as well as his resurrection and what followed. It is a powerful, living salvation for sure, all in and through Jesus.

rooting out bitterness

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

Hebrews 12

We have all been hurt, sometimes in life-altering ways. And too often in ways we learn to live with in not such a good way. I think of those molested in childhood, others who have suffered physical or emotional abuse. Words inflict injury as well. James tells us that the tongue is a world of evil. Like a serpent, full of deadly poison (James 3). We carry around with us wounds, which hopefully are largely healed, or in the process of healing. But if not, can perpetuate a cycle of harm. “Hurt people hurt people.”

Oftentimes it seems that this root called bitterness plays out in people finding something wrong, something amiss and off, quick to judge others. And even when such judgments might be either largely or partially true, there is a poison in the air, which inflicts those around them. I think of what should be called gossip, or perhaps better, not putting the best construction on what’s being said or done. And unless we refuse to participate in such, we are taken in, and the problem can grow. It is sad when we can see that is where some people live. And yet we can have more of that in ourselves than we might imagine.

The text above tells us not just to look after ourselves, although that is surely where it must start. But we in Jesus, in the church need to look out for each other, as well. That means we have to guard our tongues to be sure, and work at guarding our hearts. We have to love others, including those who seem on a one track existence due to their bitterness. We all need help along the way, sometimes special help. The goal would be to root out the bitterness, get rid of that poisonous root. Otherwise it is sure to defile others, perhaps many.

Basics like prayer and loving counsel and repentance, and continuing to work against this, seem to be essential. And what is needed in all of this is an emphasis on grace (again, note the text above), no less than an air of grace in which we are careful to consider our actions, words, and what underlies that, our thoughts and attitudes. There is no other way of together following the way of Jesus.

 

encouragment to keep on keeping on

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

1 Corinthians 15

For many reasons, it’s easy to want to give up at times, to throw in the towel. There is often so much pressure, and so much that could go wrong, and at times does go wrong. And we live in a world in which evil too often gets the upper hand and seems successful, and in which there’s little good that doesn’t have some admixture of evil. And if we honestly look at ourselves, we have to admit that we’re far from perfect, flawed and definitely not all together. We most certainly haven’t arrived. And all too often it can feel like our wheels are spinning.

But then we turn to scripture, and specifically to the great resurrection gospel passage in 1 Corinthians 15. The conclusion of it, quoted above suggests that it is meant to be an encouragement, as well as careful instruction during a formative time in the faith once for all entrusted to God’s people. Because of Christ’s death for our sins, and resurrection from the dead, we are given assurance that somehow what we do here and now in this present state matters. That it has effects beyond what is apparent, what the eye can see.

So the resurrection to come in and through Christ is not ony something we look forward to as a present day hope for the future, but also is meant to impact our lives in the present, that not only are we now living in the resurrection power by the Spirit, even while still in our mortal existence, but that this promise gives lasting significance to what we do in the here and now.

If this wasn’t the case, then it would most certainly seem indeed that “all we are is dust in the wind.” But God has promised to bring that dust back together beyond this mortality into immortality. And somehow with that, our works which proceed out of faith, as well.

And so that gives me pause, to not only want to do well, but to also avoid doing poorly. A straight arrow to us that what we do, our work matters. Both in our words and deeds. As we look forward to the time when all of our labor in the Lord comes together to be shown that it was not in vain, and we continue on in the love, goodness, grace, and indeed the life of our risen, resurrected Lord.

faith because of the faithfulness of Christ

In Paul’s letters, there are a number of places in which the literal translation would be “the faithfulness of Christ” as being front and center for our salvation. Of course our faith is factored into that, but our faith is not central. Oftentimes it is translated “faith in Christ,” which still puts Christ as the object of faith, but also emphasizes our faith. And there’s no doubt that there is an emphasis on human faith, such as in the case of Abraham in Romans 4. And that our faith is contrasted to our works, and specifically to the works of the Law. So that grace is grace only if it is by faith and not by works, I think not so much with regard to human effort, but more in terms of adherence to the Law of Moses. It’s a bit complicated, but even in that case in Romans 4, I think Paul is simply trying to show that it is faith in God’s word, and specifically in the gospel which justifies or brings salvation, and to think that works of the Law enter in, is to bring in a category which is actually as foreign to the First/Old Testament, as it is to the Final/New Testament. Abraham was justified by faith apart from the works of the Law, and before he was circumcised. The boasting Paul says is to be rejected is not really about one’s own effort, and not even a smidgen about some supposed moral perfection, even if Paul uses the latter to point out that those who emphasize Law/Torah keeping must not break any of it to remain in the clear with God. The boasting by the Jew would be in the Torah itself, and the fact that they possessed and sought to live by that Torah/Law.

But to the main point of this post. The faithfulness of Christ in his coming, life, and especially in his death, followed by God’s vindication in his resurrection from the dead, then his ascension to the supreme place of authority at God’s right hand, with the promise of his return when the final judgment and salvation come and in that, the new creation, is what our focus should be on. Not our own faith, but on the faithfulness of Christ. It is far better to have a small faith in a great object, instead of a large faith in a small object. The focus must not be on our own faith, but on the faithfulness of God in Christ, yes, on the faithfulness of Christ. That is the focus in which our faith can be established and grow.

Advent and John’s baptism

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

Luke 3:7-18

Jesus’ cousin John, for good reason is called John the Baptist (or Baptizer). His ministry was to prepare the way for the Lord in getting the people of Israel ready for the coming of the Messiah-King. It was certainly a message of repentance along with the warning of judgment to come. And of great promise in that while John baptized the people with water, Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Something unprecedented was to happen to the people of Israel at large. But they’d better be ready. Baptism with fire awaited those who would not be ready.

John preached the gospel to them, which simply means good news, which is Jesus, and God’s good will in him, that good news unfolding as we read on in the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and further explained in its outworking in the rest of the New Testament.

The people in preparation for the coming of the Messiah were not only to submit to John’s baptism of repentance by confessing their sins and being baptized by him in the Jordan River. They were also to change their ways, to do and not do certain things which John spells out clearly for them in this passage in answer to their question. Works play an important role in our preparation for the coming of King Jesus. It’s not enough to repent as in merely expressing remorse and regret over our sins. We have to change our behavior, which means we must do as well as not do certain things. Scripture is clear concerning that. We can’t just wait for some change of heart before we change our ways. Somehow both are simultaneous in God’s working. A change of heart with no corresponding change of life is no change at all.

And so John the Baptist’s ministry is an important reminder to us of the necessity of preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming. We want to be ready when he is appears, to be in sync with God’s good will in him, something that has begun even now through his first coming, which we soon are to celebrate.

 

“I know your works”

In reading Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in the Revelation, it has struck me once again, the place and indeed emphasis given to works (Revelation 2-3). There is no faith where there are no works.

It is true that a living faith is dependent on God and his underlying grace. Without grace, faith and the works that follow are impossible (Ephesians 2:8-10). At the same time we don’t do well in our theology and pastoral speak to not reflect all that scripture actually says. It is true at times that we may have to emphasize this or that to get a church or individual more on the mark. But the mark in the end is determined by the Spirit’s help to the church in the church’s reading and understanding of the sacred text, of God’s written word, scripture itself. Of course the gospel and its outworking being central in that. We have to keep going back to scripture again and again to measure our understanding as well as our practice of the faith.

Jesus seems to measure us both by what we do and fail to do. Works come from the heart. It’s never a matter of simply doing as well as avoiding this and that- lists, even those we find in scripture. It includes something of that and more. God sees our hearts, yes, his word penetrates there (Hebrews 4:12-13). What we need is a change of heart no less, before our works will by grace become more what they ought to be, even worthy in some measure in and through Jesus.

So we need to be in scripture and keep reading and listening, both as individuals and as the community of faith, the church. As we seek to live well as those who would love God fully and our neighbor as ourselves.