Monday, October 27, 2014

Faith That Works

Part 1 of Faith and Works

Text: Romans 3:28 and James 2:24

You can listen to this sermon here.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28). You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). 

A Contradiction?

Someone once famously described the epistle of James as an “epistle of straw.” [1] Do you know who it was? It was Martin Luther, the man whom many historians see as the Father of the Protestant Reformation.

Why did Luther have a low opinion of the epistle of James? One of the slogans of the Reformation was sola fide, which is a Latin phrase that means “by faith alone.” And Luther thought that James 2:14-26 contradicted the doctrine of justification by faith alone (seen most clearly in the writings of Paul).

Does James contradict Paul? The supposed contraction is seen most clearly when comparing Romans 3:28 and James 2:24. Luther even added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28 in his German translation of the Bible.
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28). 
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24). 
It’s easy to see why people think that Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 are contradictory, but my view is that they are actually complementary.

Why does this matter? First, if there are contradictions in the Bible, our trust in what it says will be lowered. Second, there is nothing more important for us to understand than how to be justified. 

Complementary, Not Contradictory

How can Romans 3:28 and James 3:24 be complementary, not contradictory?

1. Paul and James use the word “justified” differently. 

In Romans 3:28, to be “justified” means to be declared righteous by God through faith (a past event). Our acceptance with God is not based on what we have done but on what Christ has done on the cross. In James 2:24, to be “justified” means to demonstrate righteousness through works (a present activity). James was probably responding to a distortion of Paul’s teaching on justification (which Paul also confronts in Romans 6). [2] David Nystrom writes, “Between James and Paul there is no disagreement of substance, but only of vocabulary and emphasis.” [3]

2. Paul and James agree on the necessity of works for the believer. 

James writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). “That faith” refers to bogus faith, not biblical faith. “James is not arguing that works must be added to faith. His point, rather, is that genuine biblical faith will inevitably be characterized by works.” [4] Paul wouldn’t disagree. He refers to “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5). He writes, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6). And he states, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).

A Working Faith

In verses 15-16, James presents a hypothetical situation: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” James comments, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (v. 17). Workless faith resembles the “worthless” religion of James 1:26-27.

Genuine faith results in good works.

“Works are not an ‘added extra’ to faith, but are an essential expression of it.” [5] The epistle of James was not Martin Luther’s favourite book of the Bible, but he actually did agree with James about genuine faith: “Faith…is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith.” [6]

[1] This quote only appears in Luther’s original 1522 Preface to the New Testament. After 1522, all editions of Luther’s Bible dropped the ‘epistle of straw’ comment.... It was Luther himself who edited [this] comment out” (James Swan, “Six Points on Luther’s ‘Epistle of Straw,’”
[2] James probably wrote his epistle before Paul wrote Romans, which would mean that James was not commenting on Romans 3:28.
[3] David P. Nystrom, James, 160.
[4] Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, 120.
[5] Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, 121.
[6] Ronald H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 259.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


Part 8 of Wise Steps, a series on Proverbs

Text: Proverbs 3:5-6

(Sorry, there is no audio available for this sermon.)

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths (Prov. 3:5-6). 

Trusting in My Stud Finder

This month I have been doing some renovations in my basement (see picture below). One of the most important tools that I used in this project was my stud finder. When you use a stud finder you have to trust that it knows what’s behind a wall (because you can’t see with your eyes what’s behind the wall). To “trust” in something is to “put your confidence” in that thing.

Trusting in the LORD 

Trusting isn’t easy. Proverbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart” (v. 5a). The Hebrew word for “trust” (bātah) is often used for a foolish kind of trust. For example, Psalm 52:7 says, “See the man who would not make God his refuge, but trusted in the abundance of his riches and sought refuge in his own destruction!” The object of one’s trust determines if that trust is wise or foolish. It’s foolish to trust in a false god like “the abundance of riches.” But it’s wise to trust in “in the LORD.”

Trusting in the LORD is the wise way to live. 

We are to trust in the LORD “with all [our] heart.” In the English language, we distinguish between the “heart” (emotions) and the “mind” (intellect). But in the OT, the “heart” (leb) is “the center of a person’s emotional-intellectual-religious-moral activity.” [1] In the OT, the heart thinks. [2] For example, Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

So Proverbs 3:5 is not talking about an irrational trust (i.e., a separation of the intellect from trust). It’s not saying that we are to just trust and not think. Proverbs 15:14 says, “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge.”

Many people would say that it’s foolish that Christians put their trust in a God who can’t be seen (and, in their opinion, whose existence lacks evidence). It’s true that we can’t see God, but it’s not true that he hasn’t revealed himself. God has revealed himself through creation, through Scripture, through Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit.

Strengthening Our Trust

Trusting in the LORD “with all your heart” is complete trust. If we’re honest we’ll admit that we often lack this kind of trust in God. We’re like the man who said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

How can our trust in God be strengthened? Proverbs 3:5-6 give us three truths about the LORD that can strengthen our trust in him.

1. The LORD is a promise-keeping God. 

Our trust is to be “in the LORD.” Who is “the LORD”? He is Yahweh. [3] Yahweh is God’s personal name. There is a connection between the name Yahweh and the covenants with his people. In Exodus 6:2-5, God said to Moses,
I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them. I also established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. 
Yahweh “remembered [his] covenant” with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he kept his covenant. He told Moses to tell the people of Israel,
I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you will know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD (Exod. 6:6-8). 
We now live in the days of the new covenant. During the Last Supper, Jesus said to his disciples, “This [cup] is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). This covenant was promised in the days of Jeremiah the prophet:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more (Jer. 31:31-34). 
Yahweh kept this covenant when Jesus entered into our world to die for our sins. When we put our trust in him, we are delivered from slavery to sin and enter into a relationship with Yahweh (i.e., we “Know the LORD,” Jer. 31:34). Yahweh will keep all of the promises that he has given to those whose faith is in Christ. 

2. The LORD is an all-wise God.

We are told to “lean not on [our] own understanding” (v. 5b). Our “understanding” is often faulty (like a broken deck railing—don’t lean on it!). Sometimes we doubt the wisdom of God.

There’s a category of Psalms called the psalms of lament. Psalm 142 is a psalm of lament. David wrote Psalm 142 when he was hiding from King Saul in a cave. In the psalm, David complains, “No refuge remains to me; no one cares for my soul” (v. 4). But he ends the psalm by expressing trust in God: “I cry to you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living’” (v. 5). When life frustrates us, God wants us to bring our complaints to him, but he never wants us to stop trusting him.

3. The LORD is a guiding God. 

Verse 6 says, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” [During my sermon I drew a zigzaggy line on a piece of paper. The line doesn’t look straight. But if you drew similar lines on several pieces of paper and connected those pieses of paper together and looked at the line from a bird’s-eye view, it would look straight.] Waltke writes, “One has to view the course of one’s life from a bird’s-eye view, not from a worm’s eye view, to see this truth.” [4] A Portuguese proverb says, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”

[1] Bruce K. Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 91-92.
[2] The function of the brain was unknown in the Old Testament.
[3] The Jews eventually stopped saying “Yahweh” out of reverence for the name and replaced it with the Adonai, meaning “Lord.” Most English translations of the OT have followed this tradition.
[4] Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 245.