Psalm 104, James 2:14-26
October 19, 2014
For years I’ve been saying something that has helped me understand and explain, this business of “grace and good works.” I’m not sure if I heard it once, or if I reworded something someone else said. But it’s a good expression. And it’s this. “Good works are a response to grace, not a means of obtaining it.” Did you get that? Listen to it again. “Good works are a response to grace, not a means of obtaining Grace.”
The idea is that we don’t do good works and live good lives I order to “earn” or to “work” our way into heaven. I remember talking to a guy in High School about this. The “assignment” in our youth group one week was to ask people what they believed they had to do to live eternally with God. And I asked that question to one of the teachers – a Math teacher, I think. And he said, “When you get to heaven, they have something like a balance scale, and they put your good works on one side and your sins on the other side. And if your good works outweigh your sins, you get into heaven.”
I don’t know where people come up with things like that. Although that does sound like something a math teacher would say, doesn’t it? I don’t know where that stuff comes from, but I know my Bible says nothing like that. In fact, my Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That’s Romans 3:23. My Bible also says, “It is by Grace that we are saved through faith, and not by works.” That’s Ephesians 2:8. Grace is not something we work for. It is a free and undeserved gift from God! We do not deserve Grace. “It is by Grace we are saved through faith, and not by works.” That’s what my Bible says! And so does yours!
Even so, the debate over the importance of “good works” in relation to “Grace” seems still to go on. And, of course, it’s centuries old. And it’s been quite heated at times. And some of it has centered around this passage we read from James. Because again, Paul told the Ephesians, “It is by grace we are saved… not by works. But here in James we have this whole section which is all about faith and works. And in it he says, “Faith without works is dead.” That seems to be contradictory.
Well, I think it only “seems to be” contradictory. I don’t think James and Paul would have been at odds at all. They both believed and said essentially the same things. But there are those who haven’t thought that over the years! The most notable was the great reformer Martin Luther. He called the book of James “an epistle of straw” – in other words “a letter with no value.” And he said that just because of this passage! He thought it sounded a little too much like “works righteousness.” – that is, “working our way into heaven.” As you may know, Luther didn’t include the book of James in his translation of the Bible. His Bible only had 65 books!
Now, to his credit, Luther was reacting to the times in which he lived. Because he lived in a time when the church was indeed promoting the idea of people “buying their way into heaven.” His opposition to that was one of his “95 theses” that he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in the year 1517. If you remember, that’s the event which sparked the Protestant Reformation. You may also remember that one of the most prominent of those “theses” was Luther’s objection to the “sale of indulgences.” Do you remember that? The “sale of indulgences” was a way, not only of buying your way into heaven,” it was also a way of “buying someone else’s way into heaven.” Even someone long dead! At the time of Luther, that practice was widespread across Europe!
Well, that whole idea was abhorrent to Luther. He believed in Ephesians 2:8, that we are saved by Grace, not by works.. He believed that it is God who redeems us, not us who redeems us! And I believe James would say the same thing. But James does have a good point! In fact, he has a very important point! He’s telling us that we cannot say we believe, we cannot say we have faith, if it makes no difference in the way we live our lives!
Think about that! This is that whole business of Christians being thought of as “hypocrites,” because they don’t live what they say they believe. Think about that. How many people – either now, or down through the ages – have said they believe, but then they haven’t lived the faith? I’m proud to say that here at Eddington we talk about that. We try to emphasize the importance of living what we believe. You often hear me talking about the idea that we are being changed “into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to the next.” That’s II Corinthians 3:18. And by the way, I don’t always give you chapter and verse. You usually have to read my sermons where I have those references in parentheses. But I’m doing so today so you see how important this is in the Bible!
I hope also that you’ll take some time to read this passage from James again. And I hope you’ll think about it in light of your own life. How can we say we believe, if we don’t help those in need? How can we say we believe if we don’t treat others with forgiveness and grace? How can we say we believe if our lives are no different than those who don’t believe?
Personally, I think the debate over “faith and works” is over. But sometimes I wonder how many there are for whom it is not. Paul was right. “It is by Grace we are saved…” But James was also right. “If our faith does not show in the way we live our lives, it is a dead faith! We must put the two of those thoughts together. And when we do, it comes out very close to my initial statement. “Good works are a response to grace, not a means of obtaining it.”
So then, do we “respond” to grace? Think about that. October is the time we talk about Stewardship. And with everything I’ve said so far, I’d like you to think about why we strive to be good stewards. Is it because there is a need? Certainly that’s part of it. Is it because we are concerned about our salvation? Certainly not – except in the sense that James was trying to tell us about. If our lives are not different because of our faith, maybe we should be asking ourselves how real or how important our faith is to us!
As we consider that for today, let me put it in terms of stewardship. First of all, if you think about it, almost everything we do in our Christian lives is our stewardship. As we often say, Stewardship is about our time, our talents. and our treasure. That pretty much encompasses our lives, doesn’t it? And all of those things can be considered to be part of the “good works” James is talking about. And so, according to my statement, all of those things are “our response to grace, not our means of obtaining it.” Do you see that?
With that in mind, I want you to put our response in perspective with what we are responding to! Grace is the unbelievable free gift of God! And that gift is eternal in scope. We sometimes forget that! But this life is short. This lift is fragile. Before we know it, it’s over. But God, in his unfathomable love, has said he doesn’t want it to be over! God, in his unfathomable love has said that he wants us to live with him forever! We can’t begin to deserve that! And we certainly can’t buy it! And, as we’ve been thinking today, we can’t even work for it! The Grace of God truly is “Amazing Grace” – like we just sang!
So then, the question is, what is our response to that “Amazing Grace?” Can we ever respond in a way that would be proportional to that grace? Of course not! Grace is huge! But, can we respond in a way that is a worthy response to that grace. I believe the answer to that question is, “yes!” And I think that’s a very good thing to consider, especially at this time of year.
Every year at Stewardship time, we ask you to think about the church year – that is, the year that’s just begun, and of course the upcoming year of 2015. How are you going to support the Church? And how are you going to be part of it? What pledge will you make? And as you consider that, think about what your pledge represents. Is it a response to the church’s appeal for you to do your part to move the Church forward in God’s kingdom. Of course, that’s a good thing. But is it only that? Today I’d like you to consider it as a response to the amazing, unfathomable, undeserved gift of Grace that God has given you!
Think about what a difference that makes!
Eternal God, you have given us everything, and all that we have is yours. Help us to see our lives that way. Help us to support the work of your kingdom here on earth, and help us to do so in ways that are worthy of the great gift of Grace you have given us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen.