Lecture 27: James
Welcome to our lesson on James; we have a few more to go. We’re getting near the end of the New Testament. James is one of those irritating books, as I’m sure most of you know, full of things that when we read, we think, “It can’t possibly mean that, it must mean something else.” But fortunately or unfortunately as it may be, it generally means what it says. With that as a prelude let’s jump in.
Author and Date
There are a couple of introductory issues related to James. In terms of the author, most people believe that it is James who is the brother of Jesus, which makes his first verse interesting, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He’s talking about his big brother; this is James the brother of Jesus. This is the James who is the head of the Jerusalem Church. Remember, in Acts 15, they got together to finally decide about the validity of the Gentile mission, and it was James who made the pronouncement; this is the James we believe that was talking. This is not the James who is the brother of John, the dynamic duo that we have in the Gospels. That James was the one that was martyred in Acts 12, which resulted in the persecution and the spreading of the church. This is James the brother of Jesus and the head of the Jerusalem church. In terms of when it was written, we really don’t know. Most people guess that this was the first of the New Testament books written, even earlier than 1 Thessalonians. The reason is that it is really Jewish in many ways and very basic; that’s the general argument for putting the writing of it early. It’s really a guess, but most people put it somewhere between 40 and 50 AD.
Theme, Structure, and Resources
In terms of the overall theological themes in James, it’s really easy—there’s only one: sanctification. James is a book on how our changed lives should look, what we do in this situation, what we do in that situation. There’s some theology in the sense of philosophical or abstract theology, but it’s mostly about how you live your life out. It all has to do with sanctification, spiritual growth, and maturity.
In terms of the structure of the letter, people have tried for years to find a structure for James. Many doctoral dissertations have been written trying to find some esoteric little theme that weaves its way through and they have all failed at that attempt. There just isn’t a structure to this book; it’s just a bunch of different things. Sometimes there are conceptual links between one paragraph to the next, sometimes there are word links, so sometimes you’ll have something like that, but for the most part, James is just sitting down and writing, it appears, things that come to mind: here’s what you should do in this situation; here’s what you should do in this situation, and it jumps around a bit. What we’re going to do is look at the four basic themes because James repeats himself, he’s going to talk about something in chapter 1 and then he’ll talk about the same thing in chapter 4 again. What I want to do tonight is to look at the four basic themes that are in the Book of James, and we’ll jump around a bit to find everywhere he talks about those themes.
In terms of commentaries, David Nystrom’s in the NIVAC Series again is the one you want to get. There’s quite a few good ones on James, but this one is especially good for you I think. Anyway enough for introductory stuff okay.
Justification by Works
The first of the themes in the Book of James that I wanted to talk about is the whole theme of justification by "works." It’s so hard to say those words together—justification by works. I thought we were justified, we were made right with God by our faith, but the theme in James is that you’re justified by works. That’s the hardest of the issues in the book and so let’s look at that.
Contradiction with Paul
Here are a couple of introductory comments. James for a long time was seen as contradictory to Paul. It didn’t really have any trouble getting in the Canon because they knew who wrote it and the Apostolic and brotherly authorship of the book said, “If James says it, it has to be true; it has to be in the Canon.” It was a debated thing because it has some statements that on the surface appear to flat out contradict Paul. In fact, Luther is famous for his saying that James is a "right strawey epistle," meaning made out of straw. There’s nothing to it; it’s terrible; he didn’t like it at all because it went against his central teaching of justification by faith. It’s an interesting concept in James.
Look at a couple of verses in James 2:17, “Also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Now we’ll talk a bit about what dead means, but faith by itself if it doesn’t have works is dead. You go down to verse 24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Verse 26, “Faith apart from works is dead.” Apparently this is flat out contradicting Paul’s teaching that justification is completely and totally by a person’s faith, that we are not made right with God by what we do, works, but by what we believe Jesus did on the cross. The problem doesn’t stop there, because James uses the example of Abraham quoting the same passage out of Genesis to prove the exact opposite of what Paul does. In Romans 4:3, this is Paul, "For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Then it goes on the discussion that his being made righteous was on the basis of his faith. He makes a real big deal that it’s not works. Here’s Paul using Abraham’s believing God and that proves that being made right with God, justification, is through faith.
Then when you get to James 2:21, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar (21)? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works (22); and the Scripture was fulfilled that says (23),” and here’s that same verse, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—so you can see the problem that has been with James all the way through the centuries.
Be Doers, Not Only Hearers (James 1:19-27)
Let’s talk about the problem. The problem is introduced in a slightly gentler way in James 1:19; let me read this paragraph because this is what James is getting at. He says, "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (19); for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God (20). Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls (21).” In other words, verse 22, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves (22).” See, that’s the point that James wants to make, that the purpose of the word is not simply to hear it, but the purpose is to hear and then do it. If you only hear the word of God and don’t do it then you’re deceiving yourself. That’s the basic point that James wants to make, don’t just hear it—you’ve got to do it. “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror (23). For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like (24). But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres (25),” see there’s perseveres—there’s the word for someone who does the word “being no hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” That’s the basic point that James is trying to make throughout the entire letter, is that we hear the word of God and then we do it.
Then he gives an example in verse 26 of one way in which we do the word, "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless." In other words, it’s not enough just to hear the word of God about our tongue and our speech, but we have to control our tongue and if we don’t bridle out tongue, if we don’t control our tongue, our religion is worthless—there’s another one of those annoying words in the book along with dead. He says let me give you another example of someone who hears and then does, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (27).” That’s highlighted in my Bible, that’s one of my favorite verses because I’d like to know what God really wants from me, the trappings and the stuff around the fringe is nice, but I want to know what’s at the heart. This is what pure and undefiled religion is that you visit orphans and widows. In other words, God cares for those who cannot care for themselves; all the way through the Old Testament, God is a God of the fatherless, the orphans, the widows. We’re supposed to be acting like our Father does, so we visit orphans and widows and then in terms of our own conduct we keep ourselves unstained from the world that if we mix with the world too much it stains us and we keep ourselves unstained.
All of these verses are meant to get one basic idea across and that is, be doers of the word, not hearers only. For example, the tongue, keeping yourself separate from the world. This is the same message that you get all over the place. In the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7, Jesus says, someone who hears my words but doesn’t put them into practice is a fool who builds his house on the sands, and the storms wash it away, but he who hears my words and does them is like the person who builds his house on a rock and the storms don’t wash it away. It’s the same theme that you have in Jesus and in many other places.
Solution: “Justification” Has a Range of Meaning
So you’ve seen the problem and again, I mean there are many people who won’t preach from James because this is such a problem. The solution is actually very simple, and the solution is simply, the word justification like all words has a range of meaning. No word has just one meaning. All words have a range of meaning and which of that range we pick from is determined by the context—what the needs are. The word justification, again this is in Greek, can refer to the event of becoming right with God, so part of the Greek word behind justification can refer to that event where you become right, you become justified. This is how Paul uses the language. Secondly the word also can describe the evidence that proves the event happened. In other words, the word justified is much broader than simply referring to that one event of conversion when you and I were justified, but it’s range of meaning includes the event that we were made right with God and then the evidence that that event actually happened. Now there is no word in English that has that particular span of meaning. There is in Greek, and that’s the Greek word behind this. You can legitimately use the same word with two related, but different meanings.
For example, when you look in 2:22 he says, "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works." That’s a clear indication of how James is using the word. Now in 25 that’s going on as well, “in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” This was back during the Exodus. There’s some debate as to whether James sees himself as a balance to Paul or not. There’s no way to know, there’s no way to know how much James knew how Paul preached, but even if he’s not thinking specifically of Paul, it does round out and balance what the Christian life is to look like. That involves a change that God and God alone effects because of our faith, but changed people live in changed ways, and in fact those changed ways are evidence that the change actually occurred. Paul, for his needs, comes down on one side because he’s fighting the Jewish concept of justification by doing things. James is dealing with people who think that their lives don’t have to change, so he picks up the same concept, but uses it in a little different way.
Student: How close together was James writing to Paul’s writing? Didn’t Paul write more after James?
Response: The question is, in time, how close were James and Paul in their writing, and the answer is, Paul was probably later than James, that doesn’t mean that James wouldn’t know of Paul’s preaching, but you’ve got those fifteen years where Paul’s off in Cilicia so that’s going to put him on down the line, plus the other missionary things he did.
They do function as a balance, justification, if you are only going to use this part of the word, you’re leaving out half of the concept. I don’t want to say that James doesn’t understand the necessity of conversion and Paul doesn’t understand the necessity of a changed life—they both understand that, but they’re using this concept in a way that it’s a very handy way for us to balance our own theology. I just think as long as we’ll hold to the Canon of Scripture and the Canon is internally consistent, then as for us we can look at how Paul tends to use the word and how James tends to use the word and we can see how close sanctification and salvation really are. I’m not Roman Catholic you all know that by now, but in Roman Catholic theology justification equals faith plus works. It is stated that clearly—some of your salvation is due to what Christ did on the cross, other of it is due to the good deeds you have done or the merits of the saints, good deeds that other people have done. That’s not what is going on here at all; it’s just saying changed people live changed lives.
Paul uses the justification language to talk about the change; James uses the justification language to talk about the necessity of spiritual growth and maturity. It’s really not that hard of a problem if you understand that words have ranges of meaning. Is not Abraham a wonderful example of someone who is changed by the power of God in response to his faith? His life changes to the point that he’s willing to offer Isaac, believing that God will raise him up from the dead. When you look at that, Abraham is a wonderful example of both ends of the spectrum.
You have to understand that when I start talking about salvation and sanctification in the same breath there are a lot of people that start shivering because of how historically the Roman Catholic Church and people in general have joined those two concepts. They belong together so that you have to have both faith and works to get to Heaven, and that’s not at all what I’m doing. They are clearly separate, but they are right up next to each other. I didn’t start saying this until about a year ago, but it’s stuck: changed people live changed lives; that’s how close these two concepts are. Now in some parts of the American church, James simply has no place. All you have to do is have this single event and that’s all that really matters. It’s not just the raised hand at camp or the emotional outburst on a Sunday night service, but if you were changed, your life is going to change. James is writing to people who think, “I had my conversion experience, I was baptized, nothing else matters,” and to them he says, faith if it has no works is dead.
You know the ditty, the faith that saves is faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. The faith that saves is faith alone. The only faith that effects regeneration (and the faith doesn’t effect it the Holy Spirit does), but the only way to be regenerated is to respond in faith, believing that Jesus did on the cross what I can’t do. The faith that saves is faith alone, but the nature of saving faith is such that the faith that saves is never alone. It’s always accompanied by works, it’s always accompanied by a changed life and that’s what this chapter 2 is all about.
Student: Paul talks a lot about perseverance, isn’t that the same thing?
Response: It’s exactly the same thing.
That’s what I said, Paul almost always limits his justification language to the initial event of regeneration. He chooses other vocabulary to describe the necessity of spiritual growth because of the nature of the battle he was fighting to get people to understand that becoming justified is by faith. To describe living as a justified person he just uses other vocabulary.
It’s all over the place and yet it’s amazing how often that is missed in the American church. How often have any of us heard, the close association, not the intertwining, but the close association of salvation by faith and perseverance by works? It’s all over the place, and I know my Dad never preached it and I’ve listened to my Dad preach since I was about 2; I didn’t grow up in a church, I don’t know if you knew that. Wherever Dad preached I went and Dad’s a really good preacher, so he was just going all over the place on interims so I don’t know where I’ve heard all this until I got to high school and started working in a church. Then I heard it like mad, and it was what that particular denomination preaches, just get them down the aisle, that’s all you got to do is get them down the aisle and they are saved and then nothing else really matters. You’ve got Paul and James, they are agreeing, they are complimentary and that particular verse, 2:22, “Faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works,” is one of the best ways I know of to join the two concepts.
Consequences of Hearing but Not Doing
One of the other questions that you’re going to have to decide on, and in the reflection questions I asked a couple of questions along these lines, is how are you going to handle the language that describes the consequences of hearing, but not doing. Let me give you just really quickly the basic ones. In 2:14, and this won’t be apparent in your translations, he says, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” Now, like English, Greek has a way indicating what the author thinks the answer is going to be. If I said to you, “His faith can save him, can’t it?” Then I’m asking the question I’m expecting the answer, yes, but if I say, “His faith can’t save him, can it?” Then I’m expecting the answer to be no—that’s this construction, it’s the word mei in Greek; it’s right there, there’s no debate about it. When James says can that faith save him, in the very way he asks the question, the answer is, no it can’t. The problem is the construction in Greek is very subtle, it’s there, but it’s subtle. It is difficult to always translate into English, so most translations just ignore these kinds of things. It like in the end of 1 Corinthians 12 where it says, “Are all apostles (29)?” It’s really, “All aren’t apostles, are they? All don’t speak in tongues, do they?” There’s a mei in all of those questions. James tells us right there that this faith, the faith that doesn’t have works, cannot save. By the way this is not a controversy, anyone who has one heard of Greek knows this, I’m not twisting anything.
Look at verse 16, he says, “If any one says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” There’s an implied answer—it’s no good at all and that person’s faith is no good at all. Down in verse 17 it says, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” What does dead mean? Does dead mean you’re going to Hell, or does it mean there’s not much victory in your Christian life, but you’ll still get into Heaven. Verse 26, again the dead word, “Faith apart from works is dead.” Dead. Down in verse 20 it says, "Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?" Is this someone just barely making it into Heaven or is it useless? Even up in verse 19 he says, "You believe that God is one"; in other words, you’re a deist, you believe there is a God, you’re a monotheist, you believe there is one God, “you do well,” it’s just dripping in sarcasm. “Even the demons believe and they shudder,” so here you have someone who, in the case of the demons, believes certain theological affirmations about God, and in fact they believe them so intently that it causes them to shudder.
There’s a church that I visited recently that their altar call is, if you believe stand up. That doesn’t mean anything—if you believe stand up—believe what? Belief in theism and monotheism gets you to Hell, so you see what is going on in this chapter. There are verses like this and language like dead and useless and the question that you have to make up in your mind is, what are the consequences of hearing, but not doing? What are the consequences of being dead, useless, even with the demons, and I think the answer is given in verse 14. That’s why in our Statement of Faith it talks about the necessity of persevering, that changed people live changed lives. When a life is changed by regeneration, and God is the judge, no one else is, that life must change, it must change because faith without works is dead.
This is one of the central passages when it comes to the necessity of persevering. We’ve talked about this some before, there’s all questions, what about my little brother, was there enough change in his life to guarantee that he was a Christian? Again let me encourage you, those are the wrong questions. If you’re not sure whether a child or a friend or whoever has shown enough works that they’re a Christian, what you really need to be doing is mentoring the person and spending time with the person and encouraging them to grow, because what good is it just to sit back and have theological discussions while someone may be going to Hell. I just think the whole debate about whether you can or can’t lose your salvation is one of the greatest wastes of time ever created in the history of theology. What does it matter whether a person never was a Christian to begin with or he lost his salvation? What does it matter? They are going to end up in Hell either way, so why not do something about that. I would just really encourage you, don’t get like this one guy who had five daughters and he said they just haven’t shown me enough works to convince me that they are on the way to Heaven. I thought what a horrible thing to say about our daughters. There’s a balance in all of this. There’s a balance in saying I’m not going to go around and try to calculate this stuff, I’m going to encourage growth, I’m going to rejoice in the growth that’s there. How much? That’s God’s choice not mine. There is a golden mean in all these things and I encourage you all to find it. These are all theoretical discussions until we start talking about a child in our family or a brother or sister, and then it gets really hard. I just have been a part of so many arguments on whether you can or can’t lose your salvation and this stuff. I just get to thinking, wouldn’t it have been better to go take your son out to a ballgame or something instead of sitting around arguing about this? What does it matter? Build a relationship, encourage them, strengthen them in all the things you can do. .
Pain and Suffering
The second theme is the theme of pain and suffering. James doesn’t talk a whole lot about it, but the few times that he does are so powerful that people often go to these passages, especially James 1:2-4. By way of introduction, let me just say that when you’re reading Scripture and the issue of pain and suffering comes up, you have to distinguish between pain that is caused by living in a sinful, fallen world, and persecution. Now a lot of times, especially in 1 Peter, it’s really hard to know which is which, but persecution is must easier to handle than bad things happening to good people. Someone says, “Bill, you’re a warm Calvinist.” I’m a warm Calvinist so I’m willing to say bad things happen to good people. Cold Calvinists say bad things happen to bad people because we’re all bad people, but no, I think that regenerated by the power of the Spirit we’ve been made into good people and bad things happen. I’m not going to fill out the specifics, you can fill them out. If possible, you need to distinguish between them.
The problem is that so often they accomplish the same thing, don’t they? In a sense, if God wants me to grow in maturity, he can achieve that by bringing someone into my life who persecutes me or he can allow something bad to happen to me. In a sense, pain is pain and pain handled correctly grows into maturity as we process it. You want to keep the pain of being a human being and persecution for being a Christian separate as you look at the verses, but in one sense they really are joined in the middle because they are producing the same thing. Lots of times, Scripture just isn’t clear as to what pain it’s talking about. For example, James 1:2-4 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” well whether I’m persecuted as a Christian or whether I’m being tested if I really believe God is all good all of the time, it’s still a trial, isn’t it? Why should we count it a joy? “For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” endurance, spiritual maturity, “4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
You Will Meet Trials
Let me talk through these most difficult verses probably in all of James. First, you and I will meet trials. We just have to understand that’s just the nature of life. God never promised us a rose garden, except maybe the thorns, and that someday we’ll be able to look at them without pain and enjoy the beauty. I’m extending the metaphor too far. We are going to meet trials. It is a sick and perverse health and wealth gospel that says Christians don’t meet trials and that trials and testing are always the result of sin or lack of faith. It is one of the most bizarre things in American Christianity, the health and wealth gospel that God wants us to be pain free and God wants us to be rich. Charlie Regalado shared last year that he was talking to someone and the guy said, “What car does your pastor drive?” When Charlie told me this I didn’t have a clue what was coming so I answered him, “I’ve got a pastor mobile, it’s got a 130,000 miles and it’s clean and I like it. It’s my big brother’s Jeep,” I’ve since sold it, but that was what I drove. Charlie said, “No, you don’t get it.” He told the guy, “I’m not really sure what it is he drives,” and the guy goes, “Well, our pastor drives a BMW.” Certainly because I’m driving a 130,000-mile Jeep, I am not as pure and as holy and as faithful as a pastor who drives a BMW. It is the most bizarre thing, but the worst thing about the health and wealth gospel is that it connects suffering with sin always.
You can’t read the Book of Job and believe in the health and wealth gospel; it’s not possible. When I taught at Azusa, it was a school that was connected with Wesleyan and Free Methodist denominations so there was a lot of charismatics in the school and I learned a lot about charismatic theology those ten years, I had a student in upper division Greek named Jason. Because it was Greek there were only three or four people so we really knew each other well. Jason came into class one Monday and he just looked terrible, and I said, “Jason, what happened to you?” He said, “You won’t believe, we had a guest speaker in church on Sunday.” I asked, “What did he preach on?” He said, “he preached that if Jesus had had just a little more faith he wouldn’t have had to die.” Jason was saying this was his church, it was where he was going to be ordained and he was just beside himself, but the preacher was logically and theologically consistent. If sin and suffering are always connected then Jesus and ourselves would have lived forever if we really were faithful creatures. I think that constitutes heresy, doesn’t it? You and I will meet trials, it is the nature of life and according to James, it’s a good thing. (A), you’ll meet trials.
Respond in Joy Because of What the Trials Do
You and I are called, and this is really a hard one, we are called to respond in joy in the midst of our trials because we know what the trials are producing in us spiritually, that we are to respond in times of trial in joy because you know that the trials are producing steadfastness and Christian maturity. Now this is certainly one of the hardest commands in Scripture, and aren’t we glad that Christian life is a process and we’re moving toward this and we should be striving for it, but how often, how often in the midst of a difficult time—you lose your job—and in the midst of it you think, “James, couldn’t you have said ‘a week later count it all joy my brothers,’” and he doesn’t even have the decency to give us a week. No, he says if you really understand God and his sovereignty and his power and his love and his provision, then right in the middle of the really difficult time, we should be responding with joy.
Now, having said that, it’s impossible for me to believe that when my daughter died in my arms I sinned by not breaking off into a song of Hallelujah. I don’t think joy is that shallow of a concept. If you haven’t read C. S. Lewis book on Surprised by Joy you really need to read it. He talks about joy as being something that is very down deep and that it goes through circumstances, but it’s a very deep awareness of God and who he is. It’s a story about C. S. Lewis’s wife when she died and how he processed some of the stuff. I don’t want you to leave here saying, “If I can’t rejoice every time I get a speeding ticket you know I’m not really a Christian.” I’ve got to imagine that James is saying, this is the way it should be and it doesn’t mean you’re always smiles. I can’t believe he would do something like that, but I think that deep down, even in the midst of hurt and pain, we can understand what’s going on. It doesn’t mean we have to smile, but it means there’s an end to this and there’s a purpose to this. I suspect that as all of us mature in our faith then there are times where there actually can be joy.
What I’m saying is the Christian life is a process. None of us have arrived, none of us will ever arrive and this is an arrival passage, this is the end of the process, but it’s one we should be striving for and looking for so that, if we don’t have the money to make the next month’s payment on the building, our response will be with joy because I believe that God is about to do something that we can’t do for ourselves. See what I’m saying? I think that’s the joy—he’s not talking about giddy joy. It’s like how an Olympic athlete endures phenomenal pain to achieve the goal and our goal is Christian maturity. It’s growing up in Christ and there’s pain along the way and so we endure the pain because we know what it’s producing in our life.
Then he explains what he means by steadfast: “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” The whole point is that as you and I have joy in the midst of our trials what we’re doing is we’re being steadfast, we’re persevering, and we’re hanging in there. We’re not letting the trials divert us. We’re not letting the trials get us off the rail or change the destination of our life, but rather we’re staying on course and we’re staying focused because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. When difficult things come up, we handle it with a firm knowledge of a Sovereign and loving God. We smile if we can, and we grow, we don’t change course, we stay faithful.
The goal of all of this, and he uses the words full effect, is that we be perfect and complete. Now this obviously isn’t perfectionism, none of us are ever going to be perfect; these are just words about maturity. That’s what he wants us to do, he wants us to be steadfast, to keep a focus on the goal, to keep going the direction we’re going as Christians and grow in our Christian maturity. That’s what is going on. Then what is at the end of this whole thing, I just jumped down to verse 12, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” I have no idea what the crown of life is, I don’t really care, I’m just glad that it is there. As we handle trials in our life, as we don’t let them derail us, and as we continue to march on to maturity, we can know at the end of the day, and of our life, is our reward—our crown of life. I believe it’s Jesus saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” I don’t think there is anything that can touch that.
There are several other passages that are worth looking at, although we don’t have time to do it now in depth. Romans 5:1-5 is one of the main passages, and we talked about this when we did Romans. It’s the same basic theme that you hold up under trials and pressure because of what it produces: steadfastness, endurance, a Christian character—all of these things. Romans 8:28-29 are actually primary verses in this whole discussion of pain. In Romans 8:28-29 (the rule is you never read 28 without 29), “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (28). For those whom he foreknew he also predestined (29)” and here’s the important phrase “to be conformed to the image of his Son,” and the idea is that God orchestrates reality. God is at work in the midst of all things; that’s why we can rejoice because he’s going to use the circumstances that he orchestrates so that you and I will start looking more and more like Jesus; we will be conformed to the image of his Son. When these difficult times come it’s a time to assert the Sovereignty of God. Acts 4:24 and 31 is a great passage where the disciples are told to quit preaching, and there’s a wonderful prayer in there on the Sovereignty of God saying, we know God you are in control and so we will not be deterred; we will be steadfast and we will persevere. There are other verses as well.
The problem of pain I think is the fundamental problem of human reality. I don’t think there is anything as difficult as this—how can a good God and a powerful God allow suffering of the innocent (or even the non-innocent)—this is something that I don’t think has an answer, bot this side of Heaven. I’ve read many of them, and I think they are all written by people who haven’t really suffered. As you deal with people and evangelize, you’ll find this has got to be one of the most dominant things. I don’t understand why God created a reality where 40,000 children starve a day. I can’t do that. There’s nothing in my mind that can line that up. How can a God be all good all the time and create a world where 40,000 children a day die of starvation. I can’t do it, I don’t think anybody can, but by faith I know that when I get to Heaven I will, with the saints, cry out Holy and Just are all your ways—Revelation 13 or 14.
Of course the greatest act of sin and pain was the crucifixion of God; that’s the greatest injustice. See the greatest injustice is that Jesus died. The second greatest injustice is that he died for me. There’s no way, by any human standards of justice, Jesus’s death should be applied to my sin, it’s not just. It’s not just by any human standard. We’re in this realm of pain and suffering and the justice of God that I believe is simply beyond us. There are things that will help us, but ultimately I think you have to believe it and I think that is what the essence of faith is—believe God is who he says he is, that he is all good all the time. I believe it—I don’t understand it, but I believe it, and I think that’s how we’re supposed to respond.
There are some great books on this topic. Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Disguised is probably the best book we’ve ever come across. He’s a Whitworth Professor who lost his wife, daughter, and mother. His son and Tyler are really good friends. There is no explanation for their death—they were murdered by a drunk, and Jerry told me that one thing that was really hard was when he was out giving CPR, trying to keep some of his kids alive, he looked out and saw the drunk drag his pregnant wife into the driver’s seat, and she was dead, so she would get the blame for the accident. He got off on a technicality—he was never punished for killing three human beings. That’s not in the book; that’s a little extra. It is an excellent, excellent book. When we lost our daughter, Robin read everything in print, I’ve never seen anyone read books like she had, and her favorite book was Misty Our Momentary Child by Carol Gift Page. It’s a Crossway Book and I checked and it’s not in print anymore. I know the publisher and I wrote them and said this should be in print; you can’t let this thing go out. You may be able to find a used copy. It’s a story of a woman who had a child with “water on the brain” (hydrocephalus), and it’s the story of that life. Craig Barnes wrote a book called, When God Interrupts, which is also very good. If these are issues that you want to deal with, I would encourage you to read those books.
What is Justice?
This is a hard topic and I’ll end with this. What is justice? This is very important. When it comes to the problem of God’s goodness and suffering and pain, the justice of God is paramount. This is why Romans 9 is all about the justice of God. What is justice? You want the answer? Whatever God does—you have to say that because if you and I have a human defined set of justice, then God is the most crooked and most horrific creature in all of reality. If you try to put God under human systems of justice, he is the worst that has ever been created. He killed his son; he killed his son for guilty people—that’s a terrible thing to do by human standards. Justice has to be defined as by whatever God does. We have to, in humbleness, accept that as a definition and someday I believe we will understand it a lot better than we do now. Justice is what God does, there’s no Aristotelian logic under which God exists, he’s over it all. He is horribly unjust by human standards, but perfectly just and loving by His. Someday we’ll understand.
Temptation and Sin
The third overall topic in James that I wanted to mention was that of temptation and sin and James has quite a bit to say; perhaps the best known passage is 1:12-15, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (12). Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one (13). But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (14). Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death (15).”
The Necessity of Persevering Under Temptation
Here are a couple of things about temptation and sin: First is the necessity of persevering. This is the theme that comes up over and over again in James. When trials come, when temptations come, the call is to not divert us, but to persevere to hang in there. That’s what verse 12 is saying; you’re blessed, in fact, when you stand the test, when you persevere. You’ll receive the crown of life.
The Source of Temptation
What’s the source of temptation? Certainly what is made really clear here is that it’s not God. Now there is a difference between test and tempt. Does God test us? Yes, earlier it said that he does. God does test us. He puts or allows, however your theology wants to say it, difficult things in our life to test our faith, to refine our faith, to make it pure. But God himself never tempts us to sin. He never tempts us to sin, which makes the last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer really hard to understand, but we’ve already talked about that, so I’m not going to repeat it.
Our Own Desires (James 1:14)
There two sources of temptation. Like Flip Wilson, did the devil make me do it? No, the first source of temptation is our heart. He talks about our own desires in verse 14 and in 4:1 and 3 he talks about passions. The source of temptation to sin in our life resides inside of us, it’s in our heart. Again, I think I shared this a while back, but a couple of years ago what finally got through to me that sin is not some passive thing in our life, that sin is an active force and it wants you to do what is wrong, is that you and I have, in a sense, a foreign entity in our bodies. When you read Romans 7, you get a good feel for this, but what I want to do, I don’t do, the very things I don’t want to do, I end up doing. Paul blames everything on sin. For a younger Christian, you’ll say no blame it all on me because you know I don’t want to excuse it or push it off, but what Paul is saying in Romans 7 is, what’s going on in here is that sin is a very active force and it wants you to do what is wrong.
I don’t use many movie analogies, but the ring in The Lord of the Rings is a perfect example. The ring wants to be found. It’s just sitting there, and since it’s not moving, it’s a force that’s drawing Frodo to the temple of doom. In the same way, sin is an active force. There is something inside you and me that is trying to make us do what is wrong. I don’t know why that was such a big revelation to me, because it’s like well yeah obviously, but I think when I was younger I thought if I just do something that’s wrong or I think a wrong thought, I’ve sinned. I never really thought of sin as an aggressive agent within me trying to pull me down, but I think that’s what Paul is saying in Romans 7. I think it’s what is going on here, that we are tempted to sin because our desires pull us and our passions push us in order to sin.
I had a conversation with my youngest son a while back, and Hayden’s a great kid, but every once in a while he has these sprees where he just does things that are not right, otherwise known as sin. He was on a roll one day and I finally said, “Hayden why did you just do that?” He started to cry and said, “I don’t know why.” I said, “Let me tell you why you just did that Hayden. You have a force inside of you, we call it sin, and there’s something inside of you and it wants to make you sin. This force wants you to use bad words, this force wants you to yell at your sister, and there’s something inside of you that’s pushing you.” He goes, “Oh.” The light went on and it was really amazing. Then I used the analogy of the good dog/bad dog. There’s a good dog and a bad dog inside of us. The good dog’s the Holy Spirit and the bad dog is sin and they are fighting. We have to be aware that there is a war going on. I think understanding that really helps when it comes to issue of temptation and sin—there is a battle, a real serious battle going on. Student: In Genesis 4:7, when the Lord is talking to Cain, he says, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Response: Yes, good verse. One source of temptation is the heart.
Friendship with the World (James 4:1-4)
In chapter 4, and these things are all related, friendship with the world is another real source of temptation. As I look at my own life and my family and as I look at the church and the challenge before us to encourage one another to Godly living, friendship with the world keeps back around. Look at James 4:4-5, “You adulterous people!” The writers of Scripture are so sensitive to my feelings; he’s writing to a church too, remember. He’s writing to a church, the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion, it is a church and he calls them, "You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘he yearns jealously over the spirit [the Holy Spirit or our own spirit] that he has made to dwell in us’?” In other words, God is jealous and when God is jealous, it is a good thing because good is what God does, justice is what God does.
I think this is another just super huge source of temptation. Don’t we all fight the battle of trying to mute this? Friendship with the world can go hand-in-hand with loving God. We want to rewrite the verse, don’t we? I don’t like thinking of the beauty of the world being totally at odds with loving God, and that you can’t be friends of both. You mean, I can’t just throw myself in this role and enjoy it for all the beauty and at the same time love God? No, not according to James, we can’t, but we flirt so much with the love of the world thinking we can love the world and love God at the same time and we never do, right? We never ever do. Bad company corrupts good morals. There are other sources of temptation, but certainly our own heart and friendship with the world are two of the largest sources of temptation.
Solutions to Sin and Temptation
What’s the solution? At least what does James say is the solution to this whole issue of temptation and sin? First, know what lies at the end of obedient endurance, this is James 1:12. Know that when you and I are faced with a temptation to sin, that there is the promised blessing when I endure. I think that’s a real motivation. Jesus for the joy set before him endured the cross; he was looking forward to what lies ahead, he was living his life day by day, knowing what was going to happen at the end. That was an encouragement to him, that was something that helped keep him from sinning. Right? Because Jesus could have sinned (I’ll let the theologians argue that one). I think part of what James’s answer to the whole issue of sin and temptation is, get your head up and look down the road and see what lies ahead for you when you’re obedient. There’s a blessing, there’s a crown.
Second, I think part of the solution is to understand the true source of temptation. It helped Hayden, it helps me as I think through that. Third, don’t be friends of the world. If you’re not living in friendship with the world, then the world has very little control over you and little control over me. It’s when I indulge myself in the things of the world that it starts exerting a greater and greater control. Part of the solution to sin and temptation is don’t be friends with the world. Fourth, part of the solution to sin and temptation is understanding that God is on our side, that God wants to help us. Look at James 4:6: “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” When you and I humble ourselves before God, when we say, God, we can’t do this on our own, we need your help, when we humble ourselves before God, then he is going to give us grace. He will give us the empowerment to be obedient. God’s on our side. You know it’s the old joke that some people’s view of God is that he is this angry old man that is up in Heaven, terribly afraid that someone somewhere is having a good time. He gives us a bunch of rules to make sure we stay good and miserable. This is the approach to God that so many people have, but the fact is that God is on our side, he is going to help us and if we humble ourselves before him, if we cry out to him, I cannot deal with this sin in my life, then he will extend his grace, his goodness to those in need, to you and to me. God is on our side, and that’s a huge thing.
The fifth solution of the problem of sin and temptation is to humble yourself. If we try to deal with sin on our own, under our own power, we’ll fail 100% of the time. One way or another, the sin will get a hold of us, it’s simply too powerful. If you saw The Lord of the Rings, one thing that Tolkien was trying to picture was the incredible power of evil, and I think he did a better job than anything else I’ve ever seen or experienced in my life. Down in the pit where all the good guys are being made, there’s one scene I just have to turn my head because it is so powerful, such a powerful description of how evil evil is. How overwhelming it is, and for me it’s a religious experience because when I see how powerful evil is portrayed and knowing that Satan is that much more powerful there, but for the grace of God. If we did not have a warrior to fight for us that would be our doom as well, but God is on our side and he will, not Frodo and not a magician, God will conqueror the evil and will destroy the enemy. That’s just a very powerful scene. What we do is we humble ourselves before God; we submit ourselves and then, what happens when we do that? God’s always there, but he draws near to us and Satan flees.
There are some very powerful verses in James 4, let me read them starting at verse 7, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep.” Blessed are those who mourn for theirs is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. “Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom (9). Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (10).” That “be wretched and mourn” is being wretched and mourning at your own sin and your lack of ability to deal with it. When we do that, then God in his grace comes to us and Satan flees. There are other things in James, but those are some especially strong statements relative to sin and suffering.
Is Temptation Sin?
Is temptation sin? Absolutely not. I had a fascinating discussion with someone here at church a while back who was struggling and struggling, with, he said, sin. As we talked about it I said, “You’re not struggling with sin, you’re struggling with temptation. Do you know that they are different?” He had never heard that before. I said, “You can’t control what thoughts fly through your mind to some extent. You can’t control what appears before you.” Temptation is the enticement to sin. You walk through the Mall and you accidentally go by Victoria’s Secret. Of course, if you know where you are in the Mall you just don’t go down that side, so in one sense you can control what comes before you. Having said that, what was happening in his mind is that this active powerful demonic force called sin was luring and enticing him, and he thought that the allurement and the enticement was sin, and he had never heard that no, that’s not sin. Lust isn’t sin until you look with intent, until you dwell, but the passing thought’s temptation is not the same thing. It was freeing to him. That may seem obvious to you, but it may not be obvious to your children, and this was a grown man that I was talking to, so you need to be aware of that. Temptation isn’t sin, yielding to sin is sin.
The fourth topic I wanted to mention is that of the tongue and we’ve already talked about this some when we covered Ephesians and so I don’t want to go into too much detail, but I want to say just a couple of things. It starts in James 1:26, and we’ve already looked at this verse. He’s been talking about how you don’t just hear the word of God, but you do it, and he gives us this example, "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless." Again that was one of those words, worthless, useless, dead—it’s not a good thing. That’s the first place in James it is introduced.
The strongest passage is in chapter 3 starting at verse 1, and if you haven’t read this passage you need to read it. It starts by admonishing that not many of them should become teachers because your tongue is a lot more active when you’re teaching and you’re going to say things that you wish you hadn’t. Then in verse 2 it starts getting into the power of this little member of our body, just like a little flame can set ablaze a forest, just like a rudder can steer a giant ship, just like a little bridle can direct a whole horse, so this one little part of our body can direct our whole body and destroy or make great. It’s really interesting to go through chapter 3 and look at the power that James gives to the tongue. He says it is “a world of unrighteousness,” and it’s “set on fire by Hell.” It cannot be tamed, no one ever is going to be able to control their tongue except Jesus. “It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Then the consequences, it stains the whole body, 3:6. It sets on fire the entire course of life. This is a powerful passage for getting after the tongue.
How Can the Tongue Be So Powerful?
Why does James give so much power to this tongue? I guess all we have to do it stop and think about our lives and we know, but there’s a hint given in 3:4, it says, "Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder," then here’s the phrase "wherever the will of the pilot directs." The reason the rudder is so powerful, is that it responds to the will of the pilot. The reason the tongue is so powerful is that it responds to the will of the person. When he’s talking about the tongue, he’s talking about what’s down deep inside of us and who we really are. Not who we mask, but who we really are. It is our will that obviously controls the tongue. I like to think of the tongue as a traitor or a snitch, because the tongue tells everyone what’s really going on in your heart. If a person has trouble with their tongue, the trouble is not the tongue, the trouble’s the heart. If we wash out the mouth with soap, but we don’t deal with the desperately wicked heart it doesn’t do any good except make a Pharisee out of our kids.
Here’s an example, when I first started preaching on and off and I was in my 20’s, I was terribly afraid that the language that I used in my normal day conversation with people would come out when I was preaching. See the problem? So I developed a system of taking notes to control my tongue so that I would only talk about what’s on the page, only use the illustrations of what’s on the page, and finally it occurred to me that, Bill, you can have all the external controls in place that you want, but if you use off-colored language and you tell risqué jokes (I never told dirty jokes, but I told risqué jokes), it’s going to come out, it’s going to come out because the tongue is a snitch. I thought, “If I want to preach I’ve got to grow in my Christian maturity and become something better inside so that my tongue will continue to be an expression of what’s inside.”
We have a saying around our house that being a pastor or a pastor’s wife is a daily sanctifying process. In a sense, I’m saying this tongue in cheek, but in a sense, even when I was teaching and not preaching, I could take a vacation from spiritual growth, I could say you know what, this hurts too much, just forget it. I’m going to go teach the Bible for awhile or I’m going to go on vacation and no big deal. The problem with my job is I can’t do that. I can’t even take a week off from God, which of course is a good thing. It’s a good thing for Robin, but it’s really hard, because we find this to be the hardest thing in being a pastor and pastor wife is the daily, weekly sanctifying process, it’s never over. Every time you hit a challenge, you face it because I can’t preach if I’m struggling with this stuff. Another one is going to come up the next week and so it’s, count it all joy, beautiful, wonderful sanctifying process of growing because I have to stand up in front of you all every Sunday morning and share out of my heart what God’s been teaching me. So that’s one of the lessons I learned early on about my tongue, that if I’m going to say the right things, I have to be the right person. Of course Jesus said the same thing: by your fruits you will know them. A thorny bush does not put out figs. You look at the fruit and you know what’s down deep inside.
It is interesting and I won’t go into them, but it so interesting to me to go through all of our rationalizations that we have to let the tongue go loose. We’re all good at it, aren’t we? It’s a struggle. I’ll give you the top 4 rationalizations that I came up with. These are reasons that we let our tongue fly loose and say whatever it wants to say. (1) “It’s true, and I can say whatever I want as long as it’s true,” which is patently false. Truth can hurt and destroy and corrupt just as much as falsehood can. (2) “She/he hurt me; it’s my right to say whatever I want. What goes around comes around.” The verse that’s still stuck on our refrigerator comes up, Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (3) Many people love to feign piety. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but just let me tell you the struggle my husband is having. Let me tell you what’s going on in my son’s life so you can pray better for him.” We’re really good and some of that may be true, but most of the time I suspect it’s feign to piety; what we really want to do is cut and hurt. To that I would simply say remember faith apart from works is dead. As we deal with our tongue, as we deal with our hearts, faith apart from works is dead.
Additional Topics: Immutability, Wealth, and Prayer
As for the last category, there’s some really neat stuff on wisdom in the Book of James. The prayer that is always answered, James 1:5, if you have trouble with prayer and whether God answers it, here’s one I can find no reason why he would not answer it, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." That’s the prayer that when it’s given in faith is always answered. There’s some other stuff in James about wisdom as well.
One of the really important verses for the immutability of God is here in James 1 at the end of verse 17. We talked about this last time briefly; the doctrine of the immutability of God is the doctrine that God never changes, there’s no change. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” This is a very hard verse to translate; translations are generally different, but the idea is that you hold out your hand and God, the sun, shines on your hand and creates a shadow. The shadow never, ever moves because God, the sun, never changes. That’s the metaphor that’s being used. There’s no variation of change in God. We saw this in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Malachi 3:6, “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” The unchangeableness of God is one of those really fundamental doctrines. You can imagine if God changed his mind from justification by faith to justification based on how many doors you knocked on. Everything falls apart if God changes, if he changes the condition under which he accepts us, for example. The point that God is making through Malachi is that you Israelites better be really happy that I don’t change. I committed myself to you and I’ll be faithful, I will not change. Because if I did change my mind I’d destroy you in a second, because you ticked me off so much. Psalm 102 is another great passage on that.
There’s a lot in James on wealth, especially 5:1-6, which begins with: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten.” I find it very interesting that Scripture rarely qualifies condemnation of the rich; it very rarely says, those of you that got rich by oppressing the poor and breaking the law you weep and howl. It just says, "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you." Now later on he talks about how they kept back the wages from the people that worked in their field, so in context you know that these are rich people who got there by oppressing the poor, but it’s just one of those things that floats around in my head that Scripture rarely qualifies condemnation of rich. I think that it means that it is pointing to the fact that it’s really hard, at least in an agrarian society, to get rich without oppressing the poor, but just something to think about.
The one other passage in James that people often look at is 5:13-20 and it’s a discussion of the power of prayer. If someone is sick, the instruction is to have the elders come and anoint them with oil and be healed and forgiven. It’s a hard passage. I think what’s going on in the James 5 passage is that this is someone who is sick because he’s been sinning. That’s the point that the passage makes, but the whole thing of prayer is a difficult topic.
The Book of James is an interesting book, isn’t it? There are not a lot of philosophical or theological ideas, it’s very practical and down to earth. But for that reason it’s a great book for Sunday School and kid’s programs.