By Matt Hein
Awhile back I owned a station wagon. It was a good car that carried me on many journeys. When I took care of it, my wagon not only brought me from home to work and back, but also across state lines and international borders. From hauling camping gear to hauling kids, this car was a blessing.
However, life was not always smooth with my wagon. Every once in awhile a problem would begin to manifest, one that would threaten to send my car to the side of the road or the service garage. Most of the problems were preventable and fixable as long as I could see and understand them as problems.
About seven years ago I had a serious issue with my vehicle, though I did not know how bad it was at the time. The clunking sound coming from the front end of my wagon was undeniable. Vibrations that could be felt through the steering wheel put me on notice.
The day that my car began to shake violently when it hit 50 mph was the final warning sign that something might be seriously wrong. The warning signs were all around but I did not realize the extent of the problems until I talked to a mechanic friend. He knew what was wrong with my wagon after just a few questions and a short drive around the block.
A tie-rod was about to break and a bolt holding the engine to the frame had come loose. I was in danger of losing my ability to steer and to keep my engine from falling right out of the car. This was not good.
The problems were undeniable but I could not see how bad or dangerous they really were. Over time problems developed partly from the normal wear and tear of the road and partly from my ignoring them. In this particular case I ignored the problems to the point that they threatened to harm anyone near my vehicle!
My friend named my problems and helped me see the dangers of continuing to drive with them. From that point it was an easy choice. I did not want to crash and die, or injure someone else, so I had him fix the car.
Soon my engine was secure and my front end stopped shaking. I was able to drive safely again. But I needed someone to first identify the problems and help me see the potential consequences of ignoring them.
James, the brother of Jesus, was writing to the early church around AD 50, centuries before cars were invented. He was no vehicle mechanic but he knew how to keep a discipleship journey going well and how to diagnose a discipleship problem.
James cared deeply about those he wrote to, Jews who were scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. He knew their sinful stumbling as well as the enormous challenges that they faced, especially that of persecution for following Jesus. As a result, James was bold in his exhortations and challenges.
In his letter he points out the damaging consequences of misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works, of failing to see the many challenges to discipleship, and of falling into the sinful behaviors of the world. James knew that without correction, individual disciples and the broader community would suffer.
The month of September will take us into the letter of James for worship. As we consider how this practical letter regarding the Christian life applied to its original hearers, we will be invited to examine our own discipleship journeys. From a place of grace in Jesus we will check our discipleship gauges again and evaluate how we are doing as we reach up, in, and out.
From weekly worship and daily word, to trusted relationships and joyful service, to missional living and generous giving, James will help us receive the forgiving and transforming grace of Jesus so we can be hearers and doers of the Word.
Finally, as you encounter the discipleship diagnoses of this leader in the early church, pay attention to the following themes.
Grace in James
While many scholars and observers of the Bible have struggled with a lack of grace in James, grace is nevertheless present. In the first chapter James holds up God the Father as the giver of every good and perfect gift (1:17). The Father of Lights, James says, “chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of first fruits of all He created” (1:18). And James exhorts his hearers to receive something that they cannot give themselves, “the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21).
James reminds his readers that saving faith in Jesus is a gift from the Father, one that is not earned by good works. When read through the lens of this unearned grace, James can be properly understood as an examination and diagnosis of the Christian life, which is lived in response to the new birth we receive in Jesus.
The Relationship Between Faith and Works
While James knows that faith comes before works and salvation is a gift from God through Jesus, he asserts that works are a sign that one has saving faith in Jesus.
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession the relationship between faith and good works in James is cited.
“When James says we have been born again through the Gospel, he teaches that we have been born again and justified through faith. For the promise about Christ is grasped only through faith when we set it against the terrors of sin and death. James does not, therefore, think that we are born again through works.
From these things it is clear that James does not contradict us. He criticized lazy and secure minds that imagine they have faith, although they do not have it. He made a distinction between dead and living faith.
He says that faith that does not being forth good works is dead. He also says that a living faith brings forth good works.” (Ap. AC IV 247-249)
To be sure, faith in Jesus comes before good works and is a gift of God. But faith in Jesus is also active and cannot help producing the fruit of good works for the sake of others.
Disciples do not make themselves but are actively blessing those around them. Faith without works is indeed dead, but faith that is alive overflows with works for the sake of others.
The Impact of Faith: Relationships Matter
James is also concerned with the well-being of the community of believers that God has created in Jesus. Faith in Jesus goes well beyond our lives as individuals. We are brought, through new birth, into a community of faith where relationships matter.
We also live in a world of relationships with those who follow Jesus and those who do not. How we live our lives as individuals impacts our relationships and has a powerful effect on those around us, both locally and globally.
Throughout his letter, James challenges sinful behaviors and patterns that wreak havoc on relationships. For James, showing partiality, an untamed tongue, bitter jealousy and selfish ambition, quarrels and fights, speaking evil of others, etc. all impact relationships and our living out faith in love toward others.
James lifts up some of the challenges that impact our discipleship journeys as individuals and a whole community. From persecution to suffering to sickness to the need for restoration, there is much that would cause God’s people of faith to break down along the side of the road.
Whether calling out sin or examining difficult challenges to the body of Christ, James helps us see that faith impacts our everyday lives as individuals, and even more the lives of those around us.
As September approaches, get ready to spend a few weeks with James, the brother of Jesus, whose letter will help us see the challenges to discipleship we face everyday and diagnose those places that Jesus stands ready to forgive and transform with His grace.