Posts Tagged "14-18"


September 09, 2018
By Rev. Peter Heckert


+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our epistle lesson, where James writes, 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? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

If you were squirming in your seat a little right then as I was reading that passage, it’s not that surprising. The epistle of James, in general, is a tough nut to crack, especially as Lutherans who have been steeped, raised and fed on Pauline theology. We’re more used to those great words from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: 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. That’s what we’re used to hearing, and the apparent contrast between these two words from Scripture is grating, perhaps even cringe-worthy or laughable. One might even be tempted to think that these words … contradict.

Well, if they do contradict, then we’re in a bit of trouble here! We would have only a few options. We could be like the higher critics of Scripture, who say that the books of Scripture are uninspired, simply written by mortal man, so of course there are going to be contradictions! … Well, no, we believe in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, that each word is inspired – God-breathed – so frankly, that option is off the table. Maybe we can do what the ancient Ebionites did, and scrap all of Paul’s words! That would make the apparent contradictions go away, right? Pfth…asking a Lutheran to give up Pauline theology is like asking a fish to give up swimming. We can’t lose a word of Paul’s letters! They are vital for the Christian faith! Well, okay, maybe we can jettison James, like Luther wanted to – yes, Luther did not like James, calling it an “epistle of straw” and wanting it taken out of the canon! That would certainly remove any apparent disagreement, but tempting as that may be, consider the words you heard and spoke in response to the reading from James’s epistle: “This is the Word of the Lord; thanks be to God.” Like it or not, Luther’s distaste for this epistle does not invalidate its standing as part of the canon of Scripture! We cannot lose this letter, either! It is the Word of God! So, what are we to do?

There’s another path altogether that we must take. These words … do not contradict, but of course, the question becomes … how are they in agreement? How do we hold texts like Ephesians 2, with its talk of salvation by grace through faith, and James 2, which boldly proclaims that faith without works is dead, to both be true? Oddly enough, Luther gives us the answer, in a sermon he preached in 1518 called, “The Two Kinds of Righteousness.” I won’t read the entire thing, but I will read a snippet. Hear his words:

“There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds. The first is alien righteousness – that is, the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith … Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. … Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone.

“The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is that manner of life spent profitably in good works – in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, of which we read in Gal. 5, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear towards God. … This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type – actually,.its fruit and consequence.”

Today, we call this doctrine, not surprisingly, “two kinds of righteousness,” or 2KR for short. As Luther said, we Christians are righteous twice. First, in our relationship with God, we are righteous entirely without works. It is something we simply receive, passively, purely by God’s grace for the sake of Christ. It is His gift to us, not earned, but given. When the Father sees us, He sees only His perfect and righteous Son, Jesus. This is the reality we see in Ephesians 2, Titus 3, basically the entirety of Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians – we are justified, saved, solely by God’s grace. He does it all, and we cannot do anything to earn it! By His grace, your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ and you are declared righteous! This is our vertical righteousness, if you will, because it flows down from God to us, and it is one-way only!

However, we are also righteous in our relationship with the rest of this world – with our neighbor, in our vocation and service to others. This is what Luther calls our “proper” righteousness. We call it our horizontal righteousness, because it flows out from us to the rest of creation, and this righteousness … is entirely active! We don’t just sit back and allow our neighbor to suffer in wanton squalor; we are called by God to do something about it! We are called to serve them, just as Christ has served us! We love because He first loved us! We don’t do it to earn our salvation – that’s already been accomplished! Rather, we do it because our neighbor needs our service! We cannot sit by and be passive; we simply must act!

Apparently, those who James calls his “brothers” were failing in this regard; thus, his reason for writing them! They weren’t serving their neighbor faithfully; instead, they were showing partiality, favor, to some and not others. This is likely only one of their collective transgressions, but James is pointing out to these Christians – who had supposedly heard and believed the Gospel – that they were living as though they were not Christians at all! It is true that after baptism, we still sin – we are saints, redeemed by God, and yet are still sinners – but from the sounds of James’s writing, these “brothers” were undisturbed by their sin. Their actions did not reflect the faith which they supposedly held.

What James is writing here is not a prescription to be saved (as some of our heterodox Christian brothers and sisters may believe). Hear it more as a warning! So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. If you are saying “I believe that Jesus’s crucifixion has atoned for all my sin” and yet you go about happily engaging in blatantly sinful behavior, be warned! You may be making a shipwreck of your faith, and your faith may be … dead! As Paul writes, Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? The Christian doesn’t stop sinning, but neither does he take joy in his sin! He hates it! He despises it! Is this you? Do you despise your sin … or revel in it? Do you beat your own chest and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” or do you say, “Father, thank You for not making me like those sinners there?” If the latter, be warned – your faith may be dead.

Now some of you may live in terror because you do not see yourself doing good works. Perhaps you are thinking more along the lines of what Matthew wrote of certain Christians when they ask Jesus on the Last Day, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” Let me assure you: if you’re worried about it, you have faith, and since you have faith, you can be sure that there are works being done through you, whether you see them or not! Those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb cannot help but serve their neighbor! It is God’s grace flowing down into you, and out through you, as you serve your neighbor. It is just something that we do as Christians – not in and of ourselves, but by the Spirit of the Living God Who dwells within us! While we may not see it, we will trust in the many promises given to us by our crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus, including that promise that He will say to those He has saved, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

If you’re like me, you have no delusions of grandeur. I do my best to serve my neighbor, but I know that I fail miserably on a daily basis. I’m sure you do, too. But that is the Christian life – it’s lived in this tension of Law and Gospel, of two kinds of righteousness, of our state as Christians being simultaneously saint and sinner. We serve our neighbor, we fail to do so perfectly, we remember that we are claimed and redeemed to God by Christ Jesus, and we get up the next day to try again! We will do this until our Lord Jesus calls us to rest, or until the blessed Day when He returns! So take heart, my brothers and sisters – while we may not serve our neighbor perfectly, our perfect Lord Jesus has served you perfectly! Because of Him, you are forgiven; now go and serve!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

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