19th Sunday after Trinity October 6, 2002
2 Chronicles 1:7-12
41, 398, 287, 54
For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “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? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Dear fellow Redeemed in Christ Jesus:
The congregation started out modestly enough—a group of working-class folks had begun meeting in a rented hall. A pastor drove thirty miles on Sunday evening to hold services. Gradually they established themselves. A full-time minister was called. More people joined, but not quickly, or easily. The congregation’s insistence on biblical doctrine and practice was rejected by some would-be churchgoers who were mainly just looking for a place to hang their hat.
But the members worked hard and struggled for what they believed. Eventually they purchased an abandoned country church, fixed it up, and dedicated it to the glory of God and the preaching of His truth. The congregation was growing internally as well.
When one of the local industries laid-off workers, the congregation saw to it that those in its midst who were laid-off were fed and clothed. When one man, two years from retirement, suddenly died from a heart attack, the widow’s refrigerator was so well stocked she didn’t need to cook for weeks.
About that same time, a new development of executive homes was begun not far from the existing church building. Visitors began to appear more frequently—a different class of people than before. These visitors were doctors, lawyers, university professors. Some members began to observe that their church was shabbier than they had first realized. Others glanced over at the visitors and squirmed as the pastor addressed touchy issues during the sermons. And a few people began to wonder how their church would change to suit the new ‘clientele.’
It was a similar situation that James addressed in his epistle when he became aware that the church was infected with favoritism toward rich attendees, and was forgetting about the needs of the poor. His response to the situation was to speak to the church about the law of love in the life of the Christian. James shows us in our text that I. This law governs all of life, and that II. Its deeds are the outworking of true faith.
There are many different kinds of laws. We speak of laws of nature, constitutional law, business law, etc. A “law” is a fundamental principle, an unchanging value that provides a standard for people. It is a standard by which people live and conduct themselves.
But the law that concerns James in our text is not “natural.” Likewise, it has as little to do with business law as diamonds have to do with glass. James here speaks of the “Moral Law”—the law that expresses God’s universal will for the conduct of man.
James addressed the Christian community about God’s enduring commandments, just as Moses gathered the Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai so that God Himself could address the people about these very same principles of life.
You and I know the commandments well. They range from “You shall have no other gods” to “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, cattle, and servants.” The beauty of James’ approach was to stress the commandments’ inner unity. The ten commandments are not ten unrelated articles lumped under the heading “Moral Law.” They are ten facets of the one diamond that says, “You shall love the Lord Your God above all things.” James emphasizes that one cannot break a single commandment without being guilty of all. It’s not a spelling test where one wrong out of ten will still earn you a passing grade. The Commandments of the Law form one harmonious whole, the center of which is absolute love for our Creator-God. In many of these commandments, the link between you and God is your fellow human being. It is the law of love that governs all of life.
This, of course, is not news to the Christian. But we often need a reminder of how far-reaching the Law’s claim on our life is. That the same God who said “Do not commit adultery” also said “Do not murder” is obvious. But James was speaking to church members who were pandering to the rich and ignoring the poor. They needed to realize that they couldn’t carry on in that loveless behavior and still escape the wrath of God, just because they hadn’t actually committed murder or adultery. The Law condemns every shortfall of the Lord’s perfect righteousness.
James says we will be judged by “the law of liberty.” To understand what he means by “law of liberty” we need to go back to something else that was well-known among the Christians, namely, why they were Christians. It was because of the Law—the law that condemns all sin—that they needed Jesus, the Savior sent from God. It was the Gospel revealing that Jesus redeemed them from the guilt and curse of sin that drew them into this church, changed their hearts, and gave them peace and joy. This Christian congregation was not an assembly of the guiltless, but a fellowship of believers—people who confessed that Christ had done what they could not do. They had turned away from their lives to turn to His life. They had died to themselves in order to live to God in Jesus Christ.
So what about the Law? As Christians, the Moral Law governs our life more than ever—governs it, not as a slave-master, but as a guide to the beauty of Christian liberty. The Law’s accusing finger is turned away by Christ, and now it offers a beckoning hand inviting us to “walk this way.” One believer of old said “I will run the way of your commandments, for you shall enlarge my heart” (Psalm 119:32). The Christian Church is that body of people who, through their faith in Jesus, have their hardened, narrow, bigoted, lustful, miserable hearts enlarged by the grace of God.
It is necessary for us to be reminded of Christ’s work in our hearts so that we do not fall into the self-deception of thinking we’re righteous while being unconcerned about giving evidence of faith in our everyday lives. For the deeds of the Law of Love are the outworking of true faith.
James poses a hypothetical, but not unlikely, situation: A couple—poor, destitute, fellow Christians—appears in the presence of the congregation. The Word has been preached which delivers us all from spiritual poverty. It warms the heart of the believer with the eternal love of God. Everyone is gladdened and encouraged as they return to their occupations. But the comfortable, the self-satisfied, those who cloak themselves in pious rectitude dismiss the poor man and his wife from their presence. They do so promising that pious-sounding spiritual blessings will follow them, but ignoring their obvious material poverty and suffering. Is that love? Does it honor Christ if we ignore the material needs of our fellow saints? James’ answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” He makes it an issue of faith.
Christian faith is a faith that arises from the ashes of sorrow over our sins against God and our fellowman. True faith is that which has already acknowledged that we are the poor, miserable sinners; we are the prodigals—the wasteful and dissolute sons who return home with only the deepest shame on our faces. We cannot look down on anyone because in our hearts, when we observe anyone else’s life and behavior, we are looking up! It is the Father’s grace and kindness that saves us and that alone.
When that faith rules our heart, it is a changed, humbled, truly grateful heart. And the Law becomes not a set of obstacles to our happiness and contentment, but a vehicle in which to exercise the faith in our heart. The law of God provides the form and opportunity for the outworking of our faith.
We begin, in accord with the fourth commandment, to honor our parents and superiors as representatives of God Himself. We see in the fifth commandment the call to show kindness and compassion to all—friend and foe alike. In the sixth, we recognize the value of married life and keep ourselves from anything that would corrupt the purity of our hearts and bodies. In the seventh, ninth and tenth commandments, we realize that God has made rich and poor both to glorify Him in their own way. And in the eighth, we seek to protect the honor and good name of everyone around us.
The Law of Love is the outworking of true faith. How can we nurture this outworking? We can remain close to Word and Sacrament, and be active in worship staying “in touch” with the condemnation from which we have come and how we have been saved. We can explore the Scriptures and pursue the examples of the saints who have gone before us.
You younger people, who have your lives before you: You can consider the talents you have and seek best how to apply them to the glory of God in the career you choose. It may be as a pastor or teacher, a homemaker, a public servant, or a carpenter. We can all prove the faith we profess by our works. It is a faith that says we are rich with treasures that will never perish. Let us prove the wealth of our souls by the generosity of our hearts!
The young and faithful church had grown fast, but now it was to be tested. How would it handle this new development? It handled it by making no changes. It neither thought of itself as a poor man’s church or rich. The message never changed to suit the visitors of the day. It saw itself as more than a handful of working folks in a hundred-year old building. It saw itself as sinners called out of a lost world—as children of God by the merits of Christ. They saw themselves bound to love one another with the most genuine love, that of preaching and living by the truth of God’s Word.
Some of the rich people were not impressed, just as some of the poorer people had also fallen away. But those who came and stayed, rich or poor, did so because they knew—they knew by the words and the deeds of these members that this church was true. This is where they needed to be. In this church, saving faith was proven by works. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.