By Chuck Griffin LifeTalk Editor
With James 3:13-18 serving as today’s lectionary epistle reading, I feel inspired to launch into a series of devotionals based on this early New Testament letter.
Here’s the basic problem I hope to resolve today: We’re going to spend a lot of time hearing from James about how to behave. The danger is that you will process all of this as a lesson in what you have to do to get into heaven.
Please do not hear this series that way. In fact, this first devotional mostly is about how not to hear the other devotionals.
We are saved by grace and grace alone. In other words, when Jesus Christ went to the cross and died for our sins, he gave us a gift, the gift of eternity. All we have to do to gain eternity is believe and accept the gift.
When we begin talking about Christian behavior, we’re always talking about it as a proper response to grace. God acts first, loving us and saving us, and we respond joyously and thankfully. That response often is delivered in the form of righteous living and good works.
James talks about righteousness this way in what we number as Chapter 1, verses 19-24 of his letter:
Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like.
The author of James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He also likely was the brother of Jesus, coming to a belief in Jesus as the Christ after the resurrection.
His one letter that made it into the Christian canon has long been controversial. Some church leaders—the 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, for example—wondered if it should be in the Bible at all, concerned that its emphasis on works caused too much confusion in a grace-based religion.
I personally don’t find James’ words as perplexing as Luther found them. I find them challenging, but they don’t trouble me. We simply have to keep events in their proper order.
Remember, the branches follow the vine’s lead and have a job to do. In John 15:5, Jesus said, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.”
Our faith in Christ makes us his branches, but there is no point to being his branches in this metaphor unless we bear fruit, the good works that demonstrate the presence of the kingdom.
Doesn’t a new life in Christ imply new ways of acting? James is telling us that if our new life in Christ doesn’t result in new ways of thinking and relating to others, then we may be mistaken about our relationship with Christ.
The next few days will be about seeing what change is possible, trusting that even miraculous healing of the body and soul can occur.
Lord, may this prove to be a week where we discover our beliefs and our actions to be better aligned. Amen.