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Order Of Worship (Liturgy)
Hy 4:1,2,3 [after Nicene Creed]
Reading – Jeremiah 1:1-10; James 2:14-26
Sermon – Lord’s Day 24
Brothers and sisters, we’ve all heard of the great reformer Martin Luther. Even the children know about Luther’s work for Christ’s church, and that dramatic moment when he nailed up his ninety-five theses. Throughout his life he was a fierce defender of the faith. Because of him, countless people were brought back to the truth of God’s Word.
But like every Christian servant, even this giant among the Lord’s workers had his shortcomings. This afternoon we mention one area where he made an error in judgment: Martin Luther had a problem with the letter of James. It’s not that he didn’t want James included in the Bible. It’s just that he didn’t really have a lot of use for this book.
Luther wrote somewhere about placing the letter of James next to the letters of Paul or Peter or John. And he said, “[James] is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others.” That’s not a compliment: straw is common, almost worthless. Farmers don’t throw it out, but straw isn’t exactly a precious commodity. On the whole, Luther thought, those five chapters of James were not that helpful to read—you might skip the book altogether.
Luther said this for a couple reasons. For one, James seemed not to pay much attention to Jesus Christ. The Lord’s suffering and death and resurrection hardly get mentioned in James, even though these events are so foundational for our faith. What’s more, Luther didn’t like some of things that he read in this letter. For James wrote about the importance of good works in the life of a Christian. James even said that you couldn’t be saved without them.
But hadn’t that been Luther’s whole struggle? He had fought so hard and long to defend the teaching of salvation by faith alone. It was the Roman Catholics who always talked about doing good works for merit, and who bought indulgences, and who asked for the intercession of the dead saints. And all of that took away from Scripture’s clear teaching that it’s only by faith that we’re declared righteous by God. For proclaiming this truth, Luther had been called before the government, chased into hiding, even excommunicated by the church.
So to read in the letter of James about good works really rubbed Luther the wrong way. There, right in chapter 2, was that horrible statement: “A man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (v 24). Not by faith alone! No wonder Luther dismissed James as a letter of straw. Yet Luther’s eyes were clouded. In the intensity of his struggles, he missed what James was trying to say. And that is this: A true faith in Christ needs to be an active faith. A “saving” faith will be a “doing” faith. In that spirit, we consider Lord’s Day 24,
Do good works for God your Saviour!
- do them realistically
- do them humbly
- do them thankfully
1) realistically: One of the basic truths of the Christian faith is that God expects his people to live in a certain way—to live his way. This is fundamental: doing what is right, doing what’s good, is inseparable from a true relationship with the LORD.
This is seen early in Scripture, already in the Garden of Eden. There God granted incredible blessing to Adam and Eve, from the beauty of their physical surroundings, to the beauty of a face-to-face relationship with their Maker. And God also gave them a beautiful task: to be fruitful and multiply, to develop the creation, and—of course—to avoid eating from that tree. From the beginning, the value of their relationship to God would be shown by obedience. If they loved him, they would listen to him.
The same was true for their children Cain and Abel. Even in that fallen world, Cain and Abel had the blessing of knowing the LORD. And their faith too, had to be busy. Think about how it came out in those offerings and sacrifices, presented to God. And the whole problem with Cain’s sacrifice was that it wasn’t made with enough faith!
So it continues throughout the Old Testament: our covenant God has done great things for us, and He has promised even greater things. But He also calls us to a life of holiness and purity. That’s our covenant obligation. Look at the Ten Commandments: it’s the basic framework for a faith that works!
And is it any different in the New Testament? No. Think about the first recorded sermon of Jesus, delivered near the start of his ministry, the Sermon on the Mount. “This is what life in the Kingdom should look like,” says Christ in that sermon. “This is the kind of humble praying that should fill your mouth. This is the kind of heavenly treasures that should fill your mind, the kind of active loving that should fill every day.” Why, Christ says, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you’ll certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Those who are righteous by faith have to live in a righteous way.
The apostles continued with a similar theme. It’s actually striking just how many commands you can find in the letters of Paul and Peter and John. Like when Paul says, “Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted… in brotherly love” (Rom 12:9-10). On and on the apostles go, in each and every letter, packing them full of commands and exhortations and admonitions for those who follow Christ. The lesson is that we have work to do!
Yes, and this was the same Paul who insisted, “The righteous will live by faith” (Gal 3:11), apart from works of the law. This was the same Paul who rejected the idea of earning favour with God by being nice and working hard. We are saved by faith, not by works! Yet Paul never forgot the duties and calling of we who believe in Christ. What did Paul once write to the Galatians? “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6). You have faith—good! Now your faith has to be shown, through acts of love for God and your neighbour.
It makes you wonder what Luther did with this. How did he read all those commandments given by the apostles? When Peter urged people to be holy, and Paul told them to present themselves as sacrifices, was that really so different from James saying, “Faith without deeds is dead”? (2:26). No, the point is that those who love the Lord will also serve the Lord.
And if anyone showed how faith should work, it was Luther himself! He was, we said, completely devoted to the cause of Christ. He was so devoted because he had started to grasp how much God had done for him. Luther had seen the futility of saving himself. He had tasted the bitterness of trying to attain a righteousness on your own. And then he’d experienced the brilliant joy of knowing salvation to be secure, only through faith in Christ.
In gratitude for this rich mercy, Luther dedicated his life to the Saviour who had given life back to him. And though his accomplishments were many, Luther didn’t neglect the one thing that made it all possible—a living relationship with God and his Son, Jesus Christ. So when the reformer was busy with all his daily writing sermons, and studying Scripture, and debating with other scholars, and testifying in church courts, he prayed to the Lord more than ever. It’s reported that Luther once said, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer, I would never get it all done.” Imagine that expression of faith. Usually we stop praying when we’re busy, and we let prayer be crowded out. But Luther said he was too busy not to pray! That’s humbling for us, isn’t it?
And while Luther was busy preaching the truth for many others, he made sure the truth of God’s Word was close to his own heart too. He once challenged every Christian to memorize the whole letter to the Romans. And we can be sure Luther did it himself. He kept his faith well-supplied with the fuel that would make it work. He once wrote, “For some years now, I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches, because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.” We should all aspire to keep our faith so well fed with the Word, that it might be strong and active for God!
At the same time, we know—just like Luther knew—that whatever good we do in this world or in the church cannot be even a small part of our righteousness before God. They can never be points put up on the scoreboard for our side. We do good works, but we do them realistically. For who are we in the sight of God?
In answer to that question, we consider Jeremiah. We read what’s sometimes described as “the call” of Jeremiah in chapter 1. There God announces his new task as a servant of the LORD. Jeremiah tells it this way, “The word of the LORD came to me… ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I sanctified you: I ordained you as a prophet to the nations’” (1:4-5). The Almighty God had a purpose for Jeremiah: he was a man called to a special job, one that would consume his life.
But Jeremiah isn’t ready for this. He might have faith in God, but he’s not prepared for such a heavy task! “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I cannot speak, for I am a youth” (v 6). So shocked is he by the words of God, he insists he can’t do it.
This reminds us of other people who pointed out their shortcomings to God. Think of Moses, speaking to the LORD at the burning bush, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex 3:11). “What if they don’t listen? What if I stumble over my words? What if…?” Moses, later a mighty leader for God, was once so full of uncertainty and doubt. Who was he, a lowly shepherd, to be a servant of the LORD?
And in a way, it is good to do this. It’s good to acknowledge that we are inadequate before God. Sure, we might have a few things we’re good at. We might have a couple skills and opportunities we can use for building the church, for advancing the Kingdom. Maybe you’re a young man who can start to lead. Or you’re in a position to donate large amounts. You’re a sister who can give sympathetic support, or someone who is good for serving on a committee. Some else is a parent, a deacon, a teacher—who can all serve.
But before we get carried away, we ask in all honesty, along with Jeremiah, “Who am I, really, to serve the Lord God? Do I take that title onto myself: Servant of God? Does the Almighty Christ really need little old me for his church-building work?” No, He doesn’t need us. He would do just fine without us. What’s more, we recognize that sin corrupts all we do. My weakness affects every area where God has called me to serve. Isn’t it true?
Think of the work of parents, for example. One moment we miss a great opportunity to teach our children what’s really important, and the next moment we frustrate them all over again.
Or as office bearers, sometimes we say insensitive things at a homevisit, or we obscure the beauty of God’s Word with our own stumbling words.
Or as spouses, we fail to live up to those wonderful things we promised one another, and we selfishly seek our own benefit instead.
Or as fellow church members, we overlook a chance to help and encourage each other, and instead we take the opportunity to complain about something, or gossip about someone.
Or as business owners or as employees, we don’t always take care of things with the attitude of a steward, nor do we work as if working for the Lord.
It’s like the Catechism says, “Even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (Q&A 62). Defiled, often because of our motivations. We do good, because we’re looking for compliments from our friends. We do good for appearances, because it’s expected by the elders or our parents. We do good, and then automatically think that we’ve scored a point with God, that now He owes us.
And so we listen to Luther—we listen to Scripture: Our good works cannot and they will not make our salvation any more secure. It’s only through that humble, child-like faith that we receive the gift of forgiveness, and are accepted back into fellowship with God!
2) humbly: We all like to earn things. If we work hard at our job, we’ll be happy to receive our pay every fortnight. If we study for our exams, we’ll be glad to see good marks on our report, proud to see that diploma on our wall. These are things we’ve earned.
But salvation is different. For this gift we depend fully on God’s grace. The Catechism says this about the connection between our good works and God’s blessing: “[His] reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace” (Q&A 63). Every other reward you get because you did something: you came in first, you did the best. But this reward is free. This prize is handed out to the undeserving. Even for those who don’t have much ability or strength, that’s a humbling truth.
Abraham understood this well. James points to him as an example of faith at work. Yet Abraham too, knew that salvation was completely the work of God. For it was God who broke into his life, and called him to leave his pagan ways. It was God who promised him land and people and blessing. God had done it all. So what was the only right reaction to this goodness? Abraham obeyed—he submitted to God’s ways, because he knew how lost he’d be without him. He believed God with all his heart, and the works he did confirmed it.
And that’s still the only way to find salvation: by faith alone, yes—but by a faith that works. Your faith has to be a living faith. Your faith needs to be “backed up” by what you do. Of course we know that our best still won’t measure up. Of course we know that it’s not enough. Yet we still do it! Because the God we love calls us to.
We still get up every morning with that new resolve and determination: “Today, I will serve the LORD my Saviour. Today, I will follow Jesus Christ.” In that spirit, we gladly do our daily work. We do it as children, as students, as parents, as elders and deacons, husbands and wives, employers and employees. We gladly carry out our office as kings and prophets and priests. We humbly do it because of what God has done for us.
And we humbly do it because of what God has done in us. God has given us faith. God has given us ability. God’s way of working in his people has always been this: He who calls, also equips! There are no impossible assignments with the LORD! Throughout the Bible, when God asked a person to do something, He always provided the methods, means, materials and specific directions. God provided, while the person always had but one thing to do: to obey. This is what Paul said to the Thessalonians, “He who called you is faithful, and He will do it.”
And this is exactly what Jeremiah discovered. Jeremiah was uncertain, and this is what the LORD said, “Do not say, ‘I am a youth.’ For you shall go to all to whom I send you, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of their faces, for I am with you to deliver you… Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (vv 7-9). Stepping forward for the job, Jeremiah knew that God wouldn’t betray his trust. The God he believed in would make great things happen: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
So while we ought to be humble, we should avoid a “false humility.” It’s a false humility when we say, “I won’t step forward, because I’ve got nothing to offer. My talents are pretty much nil. Others might be called to do good and important works for God, but I’m not called. Others might be able, but I’m just going to lay low.” A person might say along with Jeremiah, “I can’t speak. I can’t serve. I don’t know how. I’m too young. I’m too old. I’m too whatever.”
Let’s acknowledge that we’re inadequate. Fine, but then let’s also humbly look for what skills God has given. How has the Holy Spirit enriched you? What’s that place in this church, and in this world, where you can be involved? If everyone of God’s children has a calling, then what’s your calling? This is what Peter says, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10).
If we will be ready to serve, it also means training ourselves. God has given us many good things to do, yet it’s not always a simple task. For instance, how do you speak an uplifting word to someone, without sounding insincere? How do you share the gospel in a warm way? How do you remember to pray for all those people in need? How do you parent in a God-pleasing way? How do you conduct business in a Christian manner? These are things we need to think about, and talk about together. These are things for which we should search the Scriptures for guidance.
As Paul writes, “Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good” (Titus 3:14). Notice that word “learn.” The Spirit doesn’t assume that Christian conduct comes naturally, or that service is easy for us. As humble servants, learn to do good—by the Word, by practice, and by prayer. Then God will be praised.
3) thankfully: Did you know that even demons have faith? They do. They have faith, and their faith even works. But it works in the wrong way! James writes, “You believe that there is one God. You do well! Even the demons believe—and tremble” (2:19). The demons’ response to God is fear. They’ve seen what the Almighty God can do, so they dread their destruction.
So what kind of response does God find in us? What are the fruits of our faith? We believe there is one God. “So what?” James asks. Do we shudder, like the demons? Do we shrug, like so many in this world? “Who cares?” Or do we serve? What’s the activity of our faith?
This was the whole point of James 2—the point that Luther didn’t appreciate at first. God says that faithful living is the effect of a living faith! There needs to be works. We’re saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone! It brings holiness and service along with it. If there’s no holy action items on your agenda, what are you doing? If there’s no honouring of covenant obligation, if there’s no learning and doing of God’s will, then what value does your faith have?
James will say such a faith is dead. That’s his diagnosis: it’s dead. He reads the chart; he looks at all the monitors, and if sees no Kingdom service, no devotional life in prayer and study, no willing contribution and involvement in the church, he can only conclude that such a faith is dead—indeed, such a faith never lived! A faith that lacks all works is worth nothing.
What’s more, the Catechism says, it’s actually impossible. For does God’s grace make people careless and wicked? No, just look again at Abraham’s life. Or look at Rahab’s life. Look at Luther’s life! “It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (Q&A 64).
In thankfulness, cultivate those fruits. May your faith engage you in your surroundings, and involve you with your neighbours, and link you to your fellow church members. As James writes, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to him, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? (vv 15-16). The point is, a true believer will not “do nothing.” Because of the God and Saviour we believe in, a believer will respond.
And it’s not just about helping the poor. It’s about putting our faith into action wherever we are, wherever we go. In every situation, God’s question cuts to the chase: What good is your faith? Does it really come out that you’re thankful for redemption? Does your life express gratitude to the Saviour? How does your confession of faith on Sunday carry over into Monday and Tuesday and every day of the week?
In closing, it’s fitting that we let Martin Luther have the last word. For in his later years, Luther stepped back a bit from his opposition to the letter of James. He actually admitted it wasn’t so bad a book. And later on, Luther wrote these beautiful words about faith. He wrote: “O, faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It is impossible that faith should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. Faith does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them.”
Beloved, may that be true of your faith in the Triune God: that yours is a living, busy, active, and powerful faith! Amen.
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service. Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: http://frcmn.org/sermons/
(c) Copyright 2017, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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