Posts Tagged With: works

John 10: Three Themes

The frontispiece to the Gospel of John from the Saint Johns Bible, a beautiful modern hand-calligraphied Bible produced in medieval style

There are three themes (among others) I am seeing a lot in John.  They show up in this chapter too.

First, I am struck by how many times the word “life” is used in John.  In particular, John really drives the point home in a strong way that Jesus offers his followers life, both here and now and in the hereafter.

I came so that they could have life — yes, and have it to overflowing. (10:10)

Second, repeatedly we are reminded in this overtly evangelistic book that one can judge the spiritual veracity of a person by their deeds.  You can tell something about the tree from its fruit.  Reader (original and still today), do you want to know if Jesus is for real?  Look at what he did.

If I’m not doing the works of my father, don’t believe me.  But if I am doing them, well — even if you don’t believe me, believe the works! (10:37-38a)

Third, scholars have opined that one of the possible purposes for the Fourth Gospel is to counter an over-glorification of John the Baptist.  I have never thought of it before nor noticed how many times John shows up in this gospel.  Yes, the point is being driven home in a strong way: Jesus is far superior to John.

“John never did any signs,” they said, “but everything that John said about this man was true.” (10:41)

Are you noticing these too? 

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Romans 10: Trust Me!

A trap very easily fallen into when reading Romans is to bypass the original context and focus solely on what Romans can teach us.  Romans 9-11 is a difficult section of Scripture, but that is especially true when we forget about the original context.

Any good Jew in Paul’s time would have been tempted to appeal to their chosen-people status as grounds for salvific confidence.  The logic would have gone something like this: Israel was chosen by God, I am a Jew, so I am good with God. That line of logic has a modern equivalent: the Church is composed of God’s elect in this world, I go to church, so I am good with God.

In Romans 10 Paul is taking on this faulty thinking.  God isn’t looking for heritage or membership, He is looking for people who truly trust Him and His faithfulness to His promises.  God isn’t looking for people who “establish a covenant status of their own” (10:3), He is looking for people who have faith in their hearts, confess that faith with their mouths, and ask with dependency for God to save them (10:10-13).  That invitation was given to the Jews and some received it, though others did not (10:21).  That invitation is also open to all because it relies upon God’s goodness not those being saved.

If the Jewish Christians in the Roman church thought that being a Jew seals the deal, they missed the boat.  If we think being a church member ensures salvation, we too are just as lost.

What were you drawn to in this chapter?

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Romans 4: Saved by Faith

In what would have been a powerful illustration to the Jewish Christians in the Romans church, Paul makes the point that just as was true in the life of Abraham, we are saved by faith not works.

Everyone has a definition of “faith.”  This chapter has a pretty good one too:

He [Abraham] didn’t waver in unbelief when faced with God’s promise [of a son even though he was approaching 100 years old].  Instead, he grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to accomplish what he had promised [even though it defied logic]. (4:20-21)

Faith is believing that God can do something even though it is entirely against all odds.

When was the last time you acted on a belief in God that defied logic and was against all odds?  

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Matthew 7: Kingdom Is As Kingdom Does

There is just too much “doing” in this chapter for this sermon to be nothing more than pie-in-the-sky idealism.

  • The word “do” (or “don’t,” “does,” “doesn’t,” “didn’t”) occurs 15 times in this one chapter.
  • Jesus encourages his audience to “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” (7:7), all very active verbs.
  • Jesus summarizes all that the Law and Prophets were teaching using the very active Golden Rule: “So whatever you want people to do to you, do just that to them” (7:12).
  • The calling card of genuine Christians is “the fruit they bear” or “produce” (7:16-19; “produce” is used 5 times in 3 verses).

Clearly, the Kingdom will come into existence by doing.  Granted, the Kingdom is not of our doing, as if it is the work of our hands.  But we are disregarding the activity in Matthew 7 if we think God will bring His Kingdom while we sit back passively waiting.

"The Wise and Foolish Builders" by Danny Halbohm

Don’t get me wrong.  I am no legalist who glories in my good works.  People who sit in my classes hopefully will tell you that is not the focus on my teaching.  People who know me the best will also tell you I don’t have enough good works to glory in!  We don’t “do” in order to get; we “do” because of what we’ve got.  But the world needs more than a Church that offers cheap grace that neither changes anything within us nor demands anything from us.  This world needs wise builders who hear and do.  The skeptical around us need to investigate the vines of our lives and find abundant fruit.  They need people who have actually found the gate that leads through the “tight squeeze” (7:14) to the narrow path and have turned around to show others the way.

This is the sort of thing Jesus meant when he said “Follow me!” (4:19)

A rhetorical question (if you wish): who in your life needs you to “do” this Sermon?

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James 5: But God Does Redemption

I am intrigued how James ends this letter that has focused so much on what we are to do in our faith.

So be patient, my brothers and sisters, for the appearing of the Lord. . . . the appearing of the Lord is near at hand. (5:7-8)

Three more times in four verses James uses the words “patient” or “patience.”

All letter long James has focused on our actions — all the while avoiding the legalism and self-reliance of the Judaizers — and at the end he closes by drawing the readers’ attention back to Jesus.  And not just Jesus, but the return of Jesus to this world to set it right with judgment and re-creation.

Waiting for Jesus

Lest we turn the book of James into justification for salvation by works, he reminds us that the most important work of all comes solely from God, not us. All we can do is be patient as we wait for God through Christ to restore this world to the just, loving, and faithful kingdom it was meant to be.  As we do faith and do love and do wisdom, James reminds us it is God’s role to do the redemption of this world and our very souls.

James has many, diverse messages, but did one overall point really hit home with you this week?

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James 2: Doing Faith & Love

“Talk is cheap” is what they say, and today James enthusiastically agrees.

“Love” is a lot of things, but let there be no mistake, love is active.  Love is a verb.  Love is something you do.

So too is “faith.”  We may “believe” certain things to be true.  We might give “mental ascent” to a concept.  We can even intellectualize fine sounding arguments for why something is true (like a lot of things on this very blog, right?).  But until action is added into the mix, what we have isn’t “faith.”  Faith is something you do.

You keep the royal law, as it is written, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”; if you do this, you will do well. (2:8)

Supposing a brother or sister is without clothing, and is short even of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; be warm, be full!” — but doesn’t give them what their bodies need — what use is that?  In the same way, faith, all by itself and without works, is dead. (2:15-17)

Since the beginning of humanity’s relationship with God there have been people who have focused only on what one does.  This compartmentalization can be convenient.  We get to lay out the right way to live and once we have accomplished that we can pat ourselves on our self-assured backs.  There have also been people who have focused on what one believes.  One, therefore, does not have to worry about how those beliefs should shape one’s actions.  We get to go about life our way not getting too involved in other people’s problems nor letting our religious views interfere with the rest of our life.

Both of those extremes are problematic.  Focus on “doing” and it becomes easy to think you have done it all.  This becomes a religion of self-reliance and that which only God can do is forgotten.  Focus on “believing” and it becomes easy to think God has done it all.  That can easily become a religion of complacent “cheap grace” and our role is forgotten.

People have noted that the views of Paul and James seem to be at odds, especially when you talk about the role of faith and works in salvation.  But could the solution to this perception be this simple?  Paul was talking to people who overemphasized actions to the point where grace and the need for Jesus had been eliminated (like what we saw in Galatians).  James was addressing people on the other end of the spectrum who were quick to tell you about their great faith (2:18-19) but didn’t do much to show it (2:15-16).  When dealing with people holding extreme views, you play up the part they are neglecting in order that they may come back to the middle where all parts are present and appreciated.  Had we an opportunity to talk to Paul and James together and ask them about their own personal views on faith and works maybe we would find they actually held very similar views.  And both would likely remind us that over and above this whole conversation about faith and works we have to remember that the Spirit works through us, so without the Spirit our works don’t amount to much.

In today’s passage James describes “faith” as something that has to have belief (2:19) and works (2:18) in order to be alive (2:17, 20, 26), full (2:22), and justifying (2:24).  Belief by itself is not enough; works by themselves are not enough.  Maybe for too long our definition of faith has been too small.  Faith and works aren’t two separate things.  “Faith” only exists when works are present.  In other words faith is this larger idea that contains the smaller component we call works.  Belief would be another component as well.  Bottomline, James reminds us that faith is something we do.

Likewise, love is more than just a feeling that creates actions, as if love and actions are separate things.  “Love” has within it feelings, but also actions.  It is not enough to feel some sort of fellowship with people who calls themselves Christians.  One has to allow those feelings to shape our actions, for instance, in such a way that favoritism is banished from the way we deal with others (2:1-10).  We are loving when we do love to others.  Until we treat our neighbors like we would want to be treat we have no business claiming to be loving (2:8).  Love is something we do.

What do you think?  

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BONUS: An Introduction to James

I can remember studying the book of James at summer camp for a week back when I was around twelve.  With James’ practical focus, it was the first time I ever realized the Bible actually did relate to everyday life.  This great little book, written most people think by Jesus’ own brother James (Gal. 1:19), will yield a week full of wonderful lessons once again so many years later.

James is typically classified as a “general epistle,” meaning it was likely written to be circulated amongst several churches and therefore had a broader focus as opposed to most of Paul’s letters which seem to have been written to address a particular situation going on in one specific church.  This does seem to be true.  James has no personal details at all.  However, as I read through the book with a group of students recently I was struck by how many times proper relationships between rich and poor Christians occurred in the book.  That has to be related to something going on in the background of this letter, though the details may be lost forever.

James was likely written to Jewish Christians.  James says their meeting place was a “synagogue” (2:2), the Jewish law is discussed with great familiarity, and the recipients are called “the twelve tribes,” probably a reference to Israel (1:1).  The recipients are said to be “scattered among the nations” (1:1).  James played a leading role in the church in Jerusalem so likely he is writing to Jewish Christians who had to flee from Judea when persecutions of Christians started (see Acts 11:19).  Ever the leader, James is pastoring his scattered flock.

James is best known for the strong argument in the second half of chapter two that faith is only real if it is active.  If one comes to James with a belief that faith is purely a matter of the mind and that good works are of no worth to God, he or she would probably join Martin Luther in disparaging the book of James; Luther called James “an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”

James 1:27 nicely puts together these ideas and serves as an appropriate theme verse:

As far as God the father is concerned, pure, unsullied devotion works like this: you should visit orphans and widows in their sorrow, and prevent the world [from] leaving its dirty smudge on you.

Over the next week we are guaranteed some very practical lessons from this part of Scripture that in my mind is closest to the teachings of Jesus or the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  How appropriate that James would sound a lot like his brother Jesus!

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