1 October 2006 - Pentecost 17 - James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18

Faith and works, and the proper relationship between faith and works in our salvation and in the Christian life, have been the subject of an ongoing theological conversation - or dare we say theological controversy - for centuries. In a well-known passage from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul says:

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”

Father Abraham, and all who share the faith of Abraham, are counted as righteous before God, are forgiven by God, and are reconciled to God, by God’s grace alone. And this gracious salvation is received by faith alone, as we hear and embrace the promises of God.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul also says: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Again, the apostle is here comforting us with the knowledge that our salvation does not depend on our works - which would never be adequate in themselves - but that we are saved because of God’s grace, through faith.

It is interesting, though, to see that Paul then immediately goes on in this passage to say this: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So, there is definitely a connection between faith and works. There is a very real connection between believing in God, and doing deeds that please God. There is a necessary connection between having a relationship with God, and showing forth in works of love the evidence of that relationship.

In his own way, St. James also addresses that connection in his epistle, as we heard it read a few minutes ago. First, he makes it clear that he is writing to his “brothers,” who “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” The people to whom James is speaking are Christian brothers, who have embraced Jesus Christ as Lord with a true and living faith. In the words that follow, therefore, he is not laying out a way for people to establish a relationship with Christ, but he is describing what some of the consequences of a relationship with Christ should be. He says: “ by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

Those in our congregation who are currently taking the course in the Catechism are familiar with the twentieth-century theologian Joseph Stump, whose catechetical textbook we are using. Dr. Stump also has a good way of explaining the nature and character of genuine Christian faith, and the relationship between faith and works. In his book on “The Christian Faith,” his thoughts about faith and works are so well-stated that they can hardly be improved upon, so I will quote several lines of what he has to say about this.

“...saving faith is at once a receptive [or receiving power] and an operative [or operating] power. As a receptive power it receives grace and forgiveness from God. As an operative power it works by love. Every faith that is true and real has this twofold activity. It has, so to say, two hands, with one of which it reaches out and accepts God’s grace, and with the other of which it reaches out in the performance of works of love. Being a living, active thing, it is at once a saving and a renewing power. ... For, being not a mere intellectual assent to certain truths, but a new attitude of heart consisting of firm trust in Christ as the Savior, faith implies that a great moral change or transformation has taken place in man. He has become a new creature in Christ. He not only stands in a new outward relation to God through justification, but his heart has undergone such a change that he now loves God and seeks to do His will. ... A so-called faith which does not result in a new life of love to God and man is a dead faith, and cannot save. It is not really a faith at all, but a mere belief. ... Good works are, therefore, the natural and inevitable result of true faith. ... Faith produces good works as surely as a good tree produces good fruit, or a good spring sends forth good water. ... As Christ Himself declares, ‘a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.’” So far Dr. Stump.

Another way to think of saving faith in Christ is that it is like breathing. When our faith “inhales,” as it were, we breathe in the forgiving and justifying promises of God. And we also breath in the Holy Spirit, who always accompanies the Word of God, by whom we are made to be new creatures in Christ. Then, when our faith “exhales,” we breath out toward our neighbors the consequences of God’s love toward us, in works of love that we perform from the new nature that God has created in us.

With natural breathing, you can’t exhale unless you have first inhaled. But once you have taken a breath, it is inevitable and necessary that you will release it again. And that’s the way it is with a true saving faith. It is a living, breathing reality. It receives the love that God gives in his Gospel and sacraments, and then it releases the fruit of that love in free works of charity and compassion to the needy.

St. James, in today’s Epistle text, describes the importance of good works in the life of a believer. And he admonishes us to remember who we are in Christ when we see a needy person. He asks, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” Indeed, what good would such a faith be, either to the needy person or to the person who claims to be a believer in this way? Such a faith is not a genuine faith. A faith that is not alive in love for one’s neighbor cannot be a faith that is connected, on the other end, to Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Christians do have a new nature that God has implanted in them, and from this new nature we truly do love both God and our neighbor. But we are also afflicted by the continuing presence of the old sinful nature, with all of its selfish, uncaring, and indifferent attitudes toward others. That’s why, in actual practice, we are often sluggish, unreliable, and uneven in how we show forth the fruits of our faith. What people actually see coming out of us has the appearance of being a blending and a mixture of the fruits of faith that proceed from the new nature, and of the poison that proceeds from the old Adam. This poison hinders, weakens, and works to counteract those new godly impulses, so that they can never fully have their way.

Our faith, if we are true believers, is producing fruit in our lives, but it’s not producing enough. We are impelled by God’s Spirit to show love for our neighbor, but we don’t show enough. With God’s help we try to be kind and compassionate to those around us, but we’re not kind or compassionate enough. There is always room for improvement in how we serve others, and in how we demonstrate our love for them. In our efforts to do good works for others, there is always a failure to regret, a shortcoming to be ashamed of, and a sin of which to repent.

This kind of sluggishness, unreliability, and unevenness does not measure up to the standards of the law of God, which is supposed to guide us in our good works for others. Again, St. James writes: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

The convicting power of these words drives us back again and again to the cross of Jesus Christ. Christ did fulfill the royal law perfectly, for us. He loved his “neighbor” - that is, the fallen human race, to which we all belong - to the bitter end, all the way to his atoning death for us on the cross. As he poured out his blood, he thereby poured out his love for us fully. He also showed no partiality. He died for the sins of the whole world and everyone in it, and in the means of grace he invites all to believe and be saved. He did not fail in his submission to the divine commandments one little bit. The forgiveness, life, and salvation that our Savior in this way procured for us, is what we “breath in” whenever our faith “inhales” the Gospel.

We have access to God’s forgiveness and strength whenever and wherever the Gospel is brought to us, and in whatever form it is brought to us. In the Lord’s Supper, however, we are given an opportunity to “breath in” the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a very special way. In the sacrifice of his body on the cross, and in the shedding of his blood for our redemption, Christ performed the best possible work for us. When we receive him in faith, as he comes to us specifically in his body and blood, our consciences are at peace with God. And, we are supernaturally energized to go forth and show the evidence of our faith in good works - to “exhale” to our neighbors our Christian love for them.

Ponder with me, then, the meaning of the post-Communion collect with which we are so familiar. In the words of this prayer we express to the Lord our thanksgiving for the forgiveness and mercy that he has bestowed on us in his Holy Supper. And we also express our wish to be strengthened by this sacrament for a life of love and service to each other. “We give thanks to you, almighty God, that you have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore you that of your mercy you would strengthen us through the same, in faith toward you, and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.” Amen.

8 October 2006 - Pentecost 18 - James 3:16-4:6

The sin of adultery always has a very devastating effect on a marriage. Adultery is a betrayal of the unique relationship and commitment that exist between husband and wife at so many levels. An adulterous spouse may think that he or she can secretly keep a paramour “on the side,” while also staying in the marital relationship. But those who try this do not get away with it for long. Marriage as God originally instituted it requires of each person undistracted devotion to the one spouse whom God has given. And when the infidelity of a cheating spouse finally comes out in the open, it is often very difficult if not impossible to restore what has been broken.

There are times, though, when the offending spouse does develop a desire to break off the illicit relationship and to go back to his or her marriage. And there are times when the offended spouse is willing to take the adulterous spouse back. But depending on the circumstances, there are different reasons why this happens.

Sometimes, when a cheating spouse sees how much pain and suffering has been caused by the adultery, he or she is cut to the heart with guilt and sorrow over the sin. And if the victim of the adultery is willing to forgive the offending spouse, and to give him or her a second chance, this is a situation in which the marriage can be restored. The forgiving love of the wounded spouse in a sense calls and invites the repentant adulterer back to the relationship where he or she belongs.

Quite often, though, an adulterous spouse who returns to his or her marriage does so for a different reason - because of a renewed sense of duty and obligation. A cheating husband or wife will sometimes come to realize that he or she simply has no right to depart from the marital commitment, and that the offended spouse does actually have the right to expect the life-long loyalty and fidelity that were promised in the wedding vows. Friends and relatives will often pressure someone who is cheating on his or her wife or husband to break off the illicit relationship, and not to further disgrace himself or herself by such irresponsible behavior.

The words of condemnation and admonition would go something like this: “When you have made a commitment, you have to stick with it. You simply have no right to break off a relationship to which you have obligated yourself until death.” In such cases, an adulterous spouse would be forced by the strength of these ethical arguments to admit that he or she had done something wrong and unacceptable, and that he or she needed to go back and start doing the right thing again.

The reason why I have spent so much time discussing this is because the strained or broken relationship that exists between an adulterer and his or her spouse is the same kind of relationship that exists between sinful humanity and God. St. James writes: “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. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’?”

When we follow the selfish and covetous ways of the world, and when we set our hearts on the acquisition of material wealth and worldly happiness as the chief concern in this life, we have thereby turned our backs on God, and on the obligations we owe to him as our creator. We have thereby become spiritual adulterers, and have made ourselves to be God’s enemies. God created us, and he has the right to our unwavering gratitude and undistracted loyalty. We have absolutely no right to turn our hearts away from him, and to set up an illicit relationship with the sinful world as our spiritual “paramour.”

God is a jealous God, and he has the right to be a jealous God. He has the right to call us to account for our infidelity. As his creatures we owe him our loyalty. We have no right to redirect the devotion of our hearts toward anyone or anything else. We have only one creator. We have only one legitimate spiritual “spouse.”

Sometimes people misinterpret the meaning of the First Commandment, as it is translated into English as: “You shall have no other gods before me.” It is possible, on the basis of this English rendering, to get the impression that the Lord would actually tolerate other gods in our lives, as long as they are not “before him” in importance; that is, as long as we don’t believe in these other gods as much as we believe in the Lord. But this would be like a married man thinking that he can love various women, as long as he loves his wife more than the others. What kind of wife would tolerate that? And what kind of God would tolerate that?!

This is not what the original Hebrew really means. The First Commandment actually forbids us to allow any false gods to be anywhere where the Lord can see them. “Before him” means “in front of him.” And since God is all knowing and everywhere present, “in front of him” means anywhere and everywhere, in any part of our lives.

If we, in our sinful arrogance, would think that we can get away with this kind of adulterous idolatry, and that it is possible to serve the gods of money and worldly power “on the side,” behind our creator’s back, then we will have a rude awakening. As St. James reminds us, “God opposes the proud.” With his holy judgments God will oppose any attempt on our part to turn our backs on him, to abandon him, to try to replace him with a different god, or to commit spiritual adultery against him. He will never relinquish his right to be our one and only God, and he will never release us from our obligation to love, serve, and obey only him.

But let’s make sure we do not miss the full significance of the last couple lines in today’s epistle lesson. In just a few words, St. James gives us much comfort and hope. Again, he says: “Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’”

He “gives more grace.” God is powerfully jealous when the souls that he created depart from him to pursue an idolatrous love of the world, and he manifests that jealousy in his unrelenting judgment against humanity’s spiritual adultery. But what is even more powerful, and even more unrelenting, is God’s gracious love and forgiveness toward fallen man, and his revelation of that love and forgiveness in the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. God’s anger against humanity’s idolatry - against your idolatry and mine - is indeed strong. But his desire to forgive you, and to bring you to repentance and faith, is even stronger.

He does want you to fulfill your obligations toward him, and to forsake every bit of your illicit love of the world. But even before you are willing or able to do this - because of your sinfulness and spiritual weakness - he reaches out to you first. With his forgiving grace he graciously kindles within you a faith that does in fact cling to him, and that finds its only hope, for time and eternity, in his Word of truth. St. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, expands on this point when he writes: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ...God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God is the “innocent party” in the case of humanity’s rebellion against him. But he does not just stay where he is, in his righteous indignation, and wait until we feel coerced to come back to him. Left to our own devices we would never do that. Sinful men and women could never be adequately shamed into changing their adulterous ways and doing “the right thing,” because apart from God’s Spirit and grace they are spiritually dead and incapable of doing the right thing. But God comes to us. He reaches out to us. With his law he brings conviction to our consciences and calls us to humility and repentance. With his gracious Gospel, in Word and sacrament, he gives us faith and life. God “gives grace to the humble.”

Jesus, God’s Son our Savior, was completely loyal and true to his Father throughout his earthly ministry. His heart never turned away, not even slightly, from his devotion to his Father’s will. Jesus was and is the perfect and faithful man, who lived and died in our place to redeem us from our many infidelities. His perfection and faithfulness is bestowed upon us, and is credited to us, when God’s grace is given to us. Again, as St. Paul says, “Since...we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

There are limitations to our faithfulness, even with our best efforts as motivated by God’s love for us. We are often in need of God’s restoration and pardon. Our hearts often wander from him, and need to be jerked back to where they belong, to the loving embrace of our heavenly Father. There are also limitations to God’s jealous anger against our sin. His jealousy and wrath are not what ultimately defines him as God.

But there are no limitations to God’s love and grace toward us. He sent his Son to die for the sins of the whole world, so that no one is excluded from the invitation of his Gospel. And his Word has the power to convert and change any heart, and to save any soul. It has the power to forgive and save you, and through his Word, God does forgive and save you by the grace that he gives you.

“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. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” Amen.

29 October 2006 - Reformation Sunday - Luke 18:9-14

One of the chief themes of the Lutheran Reformation was the restoration to the church of the clear and comforting proclamation of the sinner’s justification before God by grace through faith alone. The Augsburg Confession summarizes this important article of faith in these words: “ is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith, when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as St. Paul says in Romans 3 and 4.” St. Paul does indeed preach and explain this important Christian truth in many places in his epistles. But before any of them were written, Jesus had already taught his disciples about justification, and about how and why we are justified before God.

We read in Luke 18:9-14: “Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.” And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.’”

The Pharisee and the tax collector represent two specific kinds of people who are strongly linked to the historical context of first-century Palestine. They also represent two basic kinds of people who can be found in almost all times and places. In spite of their many differences, these men do have something in common. They are both praying in the temple in Jerusalem. This demonstrates that they are both, at least in a publicly observable fashion, religious. There are no overt atheists in this story. But the religion of the Pharisee and the religion of the tax collector are quite different.

In his prayer, the Pharisee begins by saying, “God, I thank you that...” So far, so good. We might expect him then to begin listing some of the virtues and blessings of God, for which all people should rightfully be thankful. “God, I thank you that you are good, gracious, and forgiving.” “God, I thank you that you have given me all that I need for this body and life.” But no, we hear no such prayer from the Pharisee’s lips. Instead of saying, “God, I thank you that you...,” he says, “God, I thank you that I...” The Pharisee hijacked a prayer that was supposed to be to and about God, and twisted it into a list of boasts about himself.

Those who believe in God and trust in his mercy will bear the fruits of faith in their lives. According to their new nature, as God gives them the strength, they will be honest, and respectful of the property of others. With God’s help they will be fair and just in their dealings. With God’s help they will be chaste and sexually pure, and faithful to their marriage vows. In their devotional life as God’s children they may also, in Christian freedom, adopt certain outward disciplines, including fasting, which our Small Catechism describes as “a fine outward training.” As good stewards of the resources that God has entrusted to them, they may, in Christian freedom, imitate the example of the patriarchs and commit themselves to donating ten percent of their income to the Lord’s work.

All of these things can be, and in the life of a believer often are, the fruits of a true and living faith that clings to God’s gospel promises. They can be and often are the joyful sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving that God’s people offer to him as free responses to his unmeasurable goodness. But the Pharisee had hijacked all of that too. In the darkness and self-deception of his spiritually dead heart, he had turned those things in his life that were meant to be the fruits of a true faith, into the objects of an idolatrous faith. In his case they were cheap and superficial imitations of the fruits of faith. They were, in reality, the damnable fruits of his own damnable moral and religious pride. And he trusted in his outward morality, and in his religious activities, because ultimately he trusted in himself.

If this parable were to be set in another time and place, the Pharisee might have been portrayed as boasting of other things. “God, I thank you that I am not like other men - Islamic terrorists, serial murderers, corrupt politicians. I go to church every Sunday. I always say the ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ prayer before I eat.” The Pharisees of the first century are not the only ones who are capable of turning what should be the fruits of a true faith into the objects of a false faith. The real issue for the Pharisee - and the real issue for us - is not about the things that he did or didn’t do. Instead, the most important question – truly the only question – was, “In whom did he trust?”

In whom do we trust? In whom do you trust?

The tax collector, in his prayer, says something quite different from what the Pharisee had said. Our translation renders his words in this way: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” But the original Greek actually speaks more precisely than this, on two points.

Where he is quoted as saying “a sinner,” a more literal translation would be “the sinner.” Was the tax collector the only sinful person on the face of the earth? Of course not. But, in the context of his repentance, and in his unpretentious honesty before the all-knowing God, he thought of himself as the only sinner, and he might as well have been. The Pharisee, during his prayer, was looking around at others, noticing people like the tax collector, and congratulating himself that he was not like them. But the tax collector was comparing himself only to God’s law, and not to the actions of other people. Through his divine law God’s Spirit was addressing the tax collector’s conscience in regard to the tax collector’s sins, and not in regard to the sins of others. It didn’t matter in that moment that there were other people and other sinners in the temple and in the city.

Also, where the tax collector is quoted as saying “be merciful to me,” a more literal translation would be, “may your wrath be turned away from me.” The tax collector was liturgically aware of what was going on around him, and what it meant. It was with purpose that our Lord set this parable at the temple in Jerusalem. Here the sacrifices for sin that God mandated for the nation of Israel were regularly performed. Here the animals who were without sin were offered on God’s fiery altar in the stead of the people, whose sins had earned God’s wrath.

And so, when the tax collector pleaded for the Lord’s mercy on this day and in this place, he was not asking God to ignore his sin or to pretend that it wasn’t really there. He was not asking God to be indulgent or indifferent. That would be asking a holy God not to be who he is. But, in heartfelt repentance and hopeful expectation, he was asking that the God who forgives would forgive him, for the sake of the temple sacrifices, and ultimately for the sake of the true and eternally sufficient sacrifice of his own Son, toward which the temple sacrifices pointed.

Our gracious and loving God is always thoroughly delighted with a prayer like this, that asks him simply to be who he is and to give what he is ever eager to give. The tax collector could speak this prayer with confidence. Through the prophet Jeremiah the Lord had promised, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” He knew therefore that God would keep his promise, and would remember his sin no more.

The tax collector then “went down to his house justified.” The word “justified” is a forensic term. This means that it is an authoritative declaration, like the pronouncement of “not guilty” to a defendant in a court room. The tax collector was justified in this way by God. For the sake of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin, God pronounced him to be pure in the purity of Christ, holy in the holiness of Christ, and righteous in the righteousness of Christ. The relationship between God and man that had been severed by sin was fully restored for this man. And what God declares to be so is undeniably true. When he declares the tax collector to be righteous in Christ, he is righteous in Christ.

And the tax collector “went down to his house.” He would now live as a justified person in his earthly vocations. His right standing with God would have an impact on how he saw all of his human relationships and duties. Nothing that he did, or refrained from doing, would now be imagined as earning something extra from God, because God, in giving him Christ, had already given him everything. His justification in Christ had freed him from the desperate compulsion to turn every relationship and domestic duty into an opportunity for self-serving works, which might turn away God’s displeasure. Instead, as a fully justified saint he would now be able to see every relationship and domestic duty as an opportunity for genuinely good works - acts of selfless service to his neighbor, prompted by no motive other than Christ-like and Christ-given love.

As Luther would remind us, “The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found.” We, too, who have repented of our sins and believed what God tells us, go down from the temple of the church to our houses justified.

In the house of the Lord - that is, wherever the marks of his church are evident - God’s forgiveness is still and always available, and it is still bestowed freely and fully on every single “tax collector” who enters and prays, “God, may your wrath be turned away from me, the sinner.” In Holy Absolution Christ speaks this pardon through the lips of his called servant. The body and blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, are likewise present in God’s temple for God’s people, to give us divine and heavenly peace.

The Pharisee and the tax collector represent two specific kinds of people who are strongly linked to the historical context of first-century Palestine. They also represent two basic kinds of people who can be found in almost all times and places. One of them represents you. Are you the proud Pharisee, trusting in your own outward morality and religious activities to make you righteous before God? Or are you the humble tax collector, clinging with a God-given confidence to the gospel of Jesus Christ, covered with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ? On this day, through the gift of his grace, God grant it to you to be the penitent and believing tax collector. In the righteousness of Christ which God pronounces to be yours by faith, God grant it to you to be sent down to your house today fully and completely justified. Amen.