Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Living out true faith looks like this ..."

Day #295:  Daily Bible Reading Plan - October 19th

Scripture Reading:  James 1 - 3 …

So you say you're a Christian, a follower of Jesus!  If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?!  Perhaps you've heard that before, but that seems to be what James is saying as he challenges his readers, those from Israel who had been scattered among the nations, who had now come to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, calling them to examine the faith they claim to have.  It's one thing to SAY you believe, it's another to live out your faith by the power of the Spirit within you.

He begins by addressing their response to trials.  He says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance" (1:2-3).  No one would choose trials or suffering, but the wisdom James tells believers to ask for is the wisdom to understand that God works through the trials to teach us to trust in Him and to be His witnesses in this world.  "Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him" (1:12).  That should be incentive enough to endure!

Of course, with the trials comes the temptation to question God and to wonder what He is doing and why?  Some even blame God for allowing the trials to come, but the temptation to sin by doubting, or becoming anxious or angry comes from within us.  God doesn't tempt us to do bad things or to respond in negative ways.  He tests us to purify us, to strengthen us for what lies ahead, to remind us of our dependence on Him, but it is always to draw us near to Him, not to push us away.  This, too, requires wisdom, which God promises to give to those who ask.

As if to summarize, James says, "Don't be deceived, my dear brothers, every GOOD and PERFECT gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  HE chose to give us birth through the word of truth!" (1:17-18).  God is working for your GOOD!  Do not allow the temporary trials of this life to cause you to doubt.  Stand firm and know that your heavenly Father is on your side!!

In all things, then, you and I must pursue "the righteous life God desires" (1:19).  Some have twisted James' words to contradict what Paul writes in Galatians 2:16:  "We know … that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. … because by observing the law no one will be justified."  As he talks about being DOERS of the Word, and not only listeners, and about not showing favoritism and about "proving" your faith by your deeds, James says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and NOT by faith alone" (2:24).  How can we reconcile these two passages?

It is really quite simple:  In Galatians, Paul is talking about our standing before God and he explains that we can never do enough works to earn our salvation and so to be "justified" in God's sight.  We are guilty, as James agrees when he says, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (2:10).  We are "justified," declared righteous in God's sight, only through faith in Jesus Christ, for by faith the righteousness of Christ is credited to us.  Amazing grace!!

So while Paul is writing about our standing before God, James is writing about the evidence of true faith, that which is produced by the Holy Spirit, in the lives of believers.  James is saying that if you say you have this faith, that you have have been born again and the Spirit lives within you, it WILL show!! And if it isn't showing, can you really have true faith?!  God doesn't make the mistake of beginning a work in someone and forgetting to give them the desire and the power to live for Him, to produce "the righteous life" He desires for His children.  While none of us ever reaches perfection in this life, that must be our constant goal, for the glory of the One who saved us to be His!

This is why James emphasizes some very practical applications of faith to life.  In Chapter 1, James uses the illustration of looking in a mirror to help us understand the foolishness of claiming to be a disciple of Jesus, but having no fruit.  When the Spirit of God works in you there is freedom from the sinful nature.  That freedom leads to obedience to God's law, not because you have to obey, but now because you want to obey.  You look into the mirror of God's perfect law of liberty - liberty from the self-centered way of life dictated by the sinful nature - and you find a new identity in Christ.  You don't have to keep looking at the law because you know who you are and you live as a follower of Jesus ... you are blessed in what you do (1:25).

In Chapter 2, James uses another illustration - favoritism.  Those without the Spirit of God look at the outward appearance and treat others differently for their own advantage.  Not so those who have true faith.  "My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism!" (2:1).  "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (2:8-10).  Many today seem to have the idea that you pray a prayer to receive Jesus and get your "get-out-of-jail-free card," and then go on your merry way living however you want.  James and the rest of the writers of Scripture would disagree!  God calls us to imitate HIM and He has shown us mercy so that we will show mercy to others and treat them as we want to be treated.

James then goes even one step further and states emphatically in verses 14-26 that the faith that does not produce good fruit is DEAD!!  It is not faith at all, but only head knowledge.  "You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that - and shudder!" (2:19).  Jesus said the same thing in His "Sermon on the Mount," in Matthew 7:16-20:  "By their fruit you will recognize them ... every good tree bears good fruit ...  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them."  That's what James is saying!  "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead" (2:26).

The goal, then, for us who believe in Jesus Christ, is to BE what God wants us to be as we do what God wants us to do.  James mentioned the importance of how we use our tongues in Chapter 1, verse 26, explaining there that "religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (1:27).  The way we use our tongues and the way we care for others reveal what's on the inside!  Now James comes back to the tongue in Chapter 3 and expresses the power the tongue holds, to build up or to destroy.  He describes the tongue of sinful man as "a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers, this should not be!" (3:8-10).

Indeed, where the Spirit is working the tongue is under the control of the Spirit.  Paul likewise instructed the Ephesians:  "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:29-30).  Tearing others down with your tongue displeases God, grieves the Spirit and dishonors Christ, whose name you bear.  So James concludes, as he already stated in Chapter 1, verse 5, that we need to ask for wisdom.  "Who is wise and understanding among you?  Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom" (3:13).

What does God's wisdom look like?  "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure, then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (3:17-18).  That's what living out true faith looks like!

"Father in heaven, as I live in this world as a follower of Jesus I thank You for Your Spirit's work within me.  I see the remnants of sin in my life, but I rejoice in the wisdom and strength You give me to bear fruit in obedience to Your Word.  Help me daily to be one who hears Your Word and responds in thankful obedience for Your mercy and grace in Christ, remembering that mercy triumphs over judgment!  In Jesus' name, Amen"

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