Wednesday in Trinity 8 17 August 2011
LTS Chapel Pretoria,South Africa
Preaching Text: James 2:14-17
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, bless the preaching and hearing of Your holy Word that by its saving power we might be strengthen in faith, enriched with every spiritual endowment, and enlivened to live in fervent love toward one another; hear us for Your mercy’s sake. Amen.
Dear hearers of the Word of God:
When it comes to salvation there is an unbreakable antithesis between faith and good works. Sola fides. By faith alone apart from the works of the law is the eternal watchword of the Reformation. When it comes to the reception of Jesus’ saving work for sinners, works are completely excluded. No wonder that Luther was more than a bit hesitant when it came to the Epistle of James, calling it a right strawy letter when compared to such jewels as the Epistle to the Galatians or Romans. Now Luther’s fears were not unfounded as in Christian history we have ample cases of those who gravitated to our text from James 2 to insist that salvation is not through faith alone but some combination of faith and works of love, some synergy between divine initiative and human response.
But we need to listen to James more closely. He is not for a minute suggesting that salvation is a product of human and divine cooperation. There is nothing here about a faith plus works equation that results in our redemption. Rather James is speaking of the nature of faith itself. He wants us to be clear on what faith is and what faith is not. Faith is comes by hearing, the hearing of the Gospel. It is the receiving of the “implanted Word which is able to save your souls” as James says in chapter 1 (verse 21) of his epistle. In our text James is not offering a recipe for how people become Christians but he is telling us how Christians now live. Already in his letter he has proclaimed the Gospel which makes us Christian as he says that God the Father: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (James 1:18).
We receive our justification by faith alone apart from any works on our part. But it is the very nature of faith to be busy and active. To use Luther’s language before faith can ever ask should I do good or not, faith simply does what the Lord would have us do in loving service of the neighbor. Faith in Christ comes first, but love is sure to follow. James wants you to know that genuine faith is never without works. A faith that thinks it can exist as static and self-directed is dead. And a dead faith is no faith at all.
Faith gives as it has received. Faith lives not wrapped up in itself but in Christ and by love it descends into the misery of the neighbor as we have learned in Advanced Class from our reading of Luther’s “On the Freedom of the Christian.” We are, as Luther says, in this same tract, “a little Christ to the neighbor.” We do as Christ does…showing compassion in works of mercy that are concrete and real. Simple things like the cup of cold water extended in His name or sharing our food with the hungry.
We may not use faith as an excuse for laziness or inattentiveness to the need of the neighbor. Such an imagined faith is exposed by God’s law for what it is, empty and Christless. It is actually a false faith, a misdirected trust which is no faith at all.
You know God’s Law: You should fear, love and trust in God above all things and you should love your neighbor as yourself. This you have failed to do in thought, word, and deed. You have come here to this confessional service not to hide your sins but to confess them. If you are coming here today to compare your own good works to that of your brother or sister and then to rejoice in your own superiority, I say to you, repent. If you think that your good works of giving food and clothing to the poor will make you righteous in the sight of God, I say to you, repent. If you think that because you name the name that is above every name, the name of Jesus but inwardly hate and despise the neighbor, leaving him alone in his need, I say to you, repent.
And if you say you are guilty of none of these things, look again, pondering the words of the Apostle John, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
We come to this altar today not because we have been merciful but because we need mercy. We come as those who have failed. We come as those who have turned the brother or sister away even while uttering pious words. We come to this mercy seat not on account of our performance but trusting only in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and with that colossal load, also your sins little and big. We come here to receive mercy from the One whom we turned away as He was hidden behind the face of those whom we in our self-centered have ignored or neglected. We come here because that Jesus, shunned and rejected by us was unflinching in His will to be our Savior, fulfilling the Law we break in His righteous life and dying the death we deserve as the perfect and complete sacrifice for your sins. But to death for your trespasses and raised again for your justification, His words spoken over your heads and entering into your ears, give what they declare: the forgiveness of all your sins. It is only in His absolution that you will find the strength to live the life of faith active in love.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.
Prof. John T. Pless