The promise…

To Abraham

For Abraham it all began with a promise, “the promise that he would be heir of the world,” Romans 4:13. And Paul used a powerful Greek word for “heir” too – kleronomos (clare-oh-nomm-oss) – meaning “taking possession of.” So imagine being Abraham and hearing you’re going to take possession of the whole world – as a promise, and legally bound by God himself too. 

But this was God’s way of introducing himself to Abraham – or Abram as he was then – as a God of promises. It was part of God’s nature to want to make legally binding declarations that humans could rightfully expect him to come through on. So when God tells Abram, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you” in Genesis 12:2, there’s a relish in those two words, “I will.” I will do this for you, Abram, because that’s who I am; I’m a God who makes promises.   

And makes promises out of the blue too, to a man seventy-five years old already (12:4), and then telling this old man to leave his home country and head for a land that his children would possess (12:7) – when the poor chap had never been able to have children. Is it any surprise, then, that ten or so years later and still no son, Abram says to God, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless, and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You’ve given me no children; so it’s a servant in my household who’ll be my heir” (15:2-3). 

To Abram, then, this was an impossible promise. It’s like me saying to my wife, “I promise you the whole world” (which I did just now to try it out – and she laughed). And to Abram it must have seemed just as crazy.  How could God make such promises to him and his non-existent children, when the circumstances weren’t in place to make them happen? 

So God “took Abram outside (15:5) and said, ‘Look at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” Well, that just made God’s promise even more impossible, telling this old childless chap he’s going to have more children than he can count.  

But God knew exactly how to get through to Abram, because as Abram stared up at the stars that’s when it hit him, that what God was promising was real. Which is good to know – because of what happened next…(more on this tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 14)

Salvation in James 3:13 is the “humility that comes from God’s wisdom,” because it saves us from so much of the hurt and chaos caused by the “envy and selfish ambition” of the devil’s wisdom. 

Imagine how much trouble our churches would be saved from, therefore, if we were all “peace-loving, gentle, approachable, full of tolerant thoughts and kindly actions,” verse 17. What a display we could be of what God’s good living looks like, and what a light in the darkness of a world that can never stop conflicts, and how “peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness,” verse 18. God set up his church to be such a light, and promised his wisdom in great generous dollops to make it possible.  

The test on us then, is do we believe his promise of wisdom? According to James it’s a good idea if we did, because life in this world doesn’t make being a peacemaker easy. People in high office exploiting fear, fomenting hate, confusion and division, for instance, can make us highly critical and condemning, and vocally so too. Which in turn can make us quarrelsome and argumentative, and a rather unpleasant person to be around. So much for raising a harvest of what good living looks like

That really came home to me during the pandemic when I found myself becoming very angry at our government leaders, and feeling the need to express it too. Which was dead against Peter’s admonition in 1 Peter 2:17 to “Show proper respect to everyone,” including “honouring the king” – meaning anyone in a position of authority (verses 13-14). 

To me that was a test I could not pass. But James’ point is that we prove our faith by our works. Well, God made a promise to give me the humility that comes from his wisdom – so – could I take the nasty critical thoughts toward our leaders that I cherished expressing, and like Abraham taking his cherished son to be sacrificed, be willing to sacrifice them too?  

Fortunately, yes. Just like that too. Out went all my sources of anti-government justification, and I haven’t watched them since. And has it ever been my salvation. No longer angry. And all because of believing what God says, proving one’s belief by acting on it, and seeking his wisdom to make it possible. And that’s the salvation James is talking about – that we can experience in this life now, again and again and… 

(A new series, entitled The Promise, starting tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 13)

According to James 3:13, the “good deeds” we do, that truly show “the righteous life God desires,” are displayed at their best when “done in the humility that comes from God’s wisdom.” 

To make it clear what James means by that, he compares it to the “earthly, unspiritual ‘wisdom’ of the devil,” verse 15, the driving forces of which are “envy and selfish ambition” – the obvious fruits of which are “disorder and every evil practice,” verse 16

There are two wisdoms in operation, therefore, both with clearly visible characteristics and results. On the one hand humility and goodness, and on the other selfish ambition and evil; two clear opposites. 

So James is boiling things down to basics, and he’s aiming right at Christians too, because in James 4:1 he asks a rather piercing question: “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” – “you” meaning his readers, and in particular Christians who considered themselves “religious” (1:26). Because word had got back to James that there were fights and quarrels going on in their Christian communities. So rather than being shining lights in a dark world riddled with envy and selfish ambition, they were bringing the devil’s darkness into the light. 

So why would they do that? 

Well, James, the ever practical, has a clear answer in verses 1-2: The reason you’ve got fights and quarrels is “what’s going on inside your own heads. You want something you can’t get, or you want what someone else has so desperately that you’d be willing to kill to get it.” Like kill a reputation, or kill someone’s chances for promotion, or kill friendships others have out of jealousy. Or put down anyone who gets in the way of our own personal ambitions in church – to sing the solo, for instance, or lead the Bible study, arrange the flowers, be on the Council making the decisions, etc., etc. How much wreckage in churches has been caused by “envy and selfish ambition” (3:14) and personal desires thwarted?  

And with so much experience of that all through church history, why on earth would Christians choose that over what God’s wisdom provides in James 3:17-18?…(more on this tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 12)

Back in James 1:5, James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom,” which he ties in with becoming “mature and complete,” verse 4. So to become truly skilled in “the righteous life that God desires” (verse 20) is going to need God doling out wisdom to us “generously” (verse 5), and for us not to doubt for a second that he will (verse 6), because we will need it.

Because one thing that plagues us Christians is “considering ourselves religious” (verse 26) and “wise and understanding” (3:13), and maybe even fully qualified to teach God’s word as well (3:1), because of what we’ve discovered in God’s word, which creates in us the attitude that we’ve got things put together where others haven’t. I spent years in a church that thought that way.

And it sounds like James was dealing with people who thought that way too, who could not come to terms, therefore, with why God would put them through hard trials, when in their minds they were such “religious” people. And they were angry at God for treating them like that (1:19-20). 

But it gave James the opportunity to explain why God’s wisdom was so important. Because it would take away their anger. It would stop them being critical and condemning, and set them on a whole new course of discovery that would truly make them skilled in the “righteous life that God desires.” 

And it was all in that one word “humility” in James 3:13. So when James asks, “Who is (really) wise and understanding?” – or “Who’s the truly skilled, intelligent Christian?” – the key to that becoming real was “good deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” – humility also meaning “gentleness.”  

What God’s wisdom would give them, therefore, was a change, even a transformation, in their personality. It would pump a different nature into them, so that the course of their lives would take a completely different turn. It would become the new rudder in their life, steering them away from being critical and competitive to being “peace-loving, gentle, approachable, full of tolerant thoughts and kindly actions, with no hint of favouritism or hypocrisy, quietly sowing a harvest of righteousness – in other people and in themselves,” James 3:17-18…(more on this tomorrow) 

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 11)

So after two chapters and twelve verses, James poses a question in James 3:13: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” Or in the context of what James has covered so far: “Who is truly skilled in the righteous life that God desires?” (1:20). 

And after a lifetime now of “going to church,” starting early in my childhood attending church every Sunday, and years of learning and teaching since, what proof can I offer that I’m truly skilled in the righteous life God desires?

Well that’s easy to prove, James adds, “just show it by your good life,” James 3:13. The proof that we’re truly catching on to what God wants for all us humans, is the obviously good life we’re living. 

And it’s meant to be obvious too, Philippians 2:14-16 – “Do all that you do without grumbling or arguing, so that you may be God’s children, blameless, sincere and wholesome, living in a warped and diseased world, and shining there like lights in a dark place. For you hold in your hands the very word of life.”

In a dark world we shine as lights by the obviously blameless, sincere and wholesome lives we’re living, characterized especially by what comes out of our mouth, and in particular no grumbling or arguing. 

But how on earth is that possible when we can see how wrong and sick the world is, and how much better off we are from living by God’s word? What’s to hold us back, therefore, from criticizing and condemning the stupidity and hypocrisy that characterizes just about every aspect of our world? How can we not spill out on occasion our disgust at how people are acting? 

And be also tempted, perhaps, to mouth off about how good we are by comparison, like: “Well, if I was in charge things would be very different” – or “If I was that child’s parent, I’d know exactly what to do,” etc. 

But James adds a codicil to verse 13, that the good life we show is “by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom”…(more on this tomorrow) 

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 10)

So the extraordinary test that James put to his readers was to keep such a tight rein on what came out of their mouths (James 1:26) that they’d be absolutely faultless in what they said. Never a wrong word, ever (3:2) – an especially tough call for his readers, who’d been through some hard trials and they’d been mouthing off at God and blaming him (1:13).

And all due to a rather tiny part of their human anatomy: the tongue. James compares it to the tiny bit placed in a horse’s mouth that gives power to the rider to control the movements of such a large, strong animal. Ships too because, for all their size and the momentum they have with a strong wind behind them, they too can be controlled by a small rudder in the hands of a helmsman. “Likewise,” James writes in James 3:5-6, “the human tongue is physically small, but what tremendous effects it can boast of! A whole forest can be set ablaze by a tiny spark of fire, and the tongue is just as dangerous with its vast potential for spreading evil. It can poison the whole body, and make one’s entire life a blazing hell.”  

And how sad it is, verses 7-8, that “for all our skill at taming animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea, we’ve never been able to tame our own tongue. It remains a wild and restless evil, full of deadly poison.” 

Tough words for those who “consider themselves religious” (James 1:26). But tougher still in verses 9-12, when faced with the hypocrisy of “using  our tongue to bless our Father, but also using it to curse and judge those he created in his likeness.” Amazing how “Blessing and curses come from the same mouth – how can such a thing happen? Have you ever known a spring pour out sweet and bitter water simultaneously? Have you ever seen a fig-tree with a crop of olives, or seen figs growing on a vine, or a spring pour out fresh and salt water at the same time?” 

So, the tongue is not just brutal it’s also clever, plotting, and subtly deceptive. It is hypocritical and duplicitous, eagerly willing to deceive in order to achieve its own advantage. So how difficult must it be for us humans to control such a monster? And yet that’s what we’re called on to do (verse 2). 

It’s a massive test, so what equally massive purpose has God got in mind for us passing it?…(more on this tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 9)

James is writing about the blessings we receive in this life now for trusting God through tough times, which is good to know, because there’s one test God puts us through that must seem as mind blowing to us as God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son. 

James hints at it early in his letter, that “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (1:19), and “If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless” (1:26). And in chapter 2:12, “Speak and act as those being judged by the law of freedom.”  

To quote one writer on this verse, “God is going to judge us on the basis of how we have loved and reached out to people, regardless of who they are” – a point to ponder for those in chapter 2, because they were speaking respectfully to the rich, but disdainfully to the poor. When it came to loving their neighbour as themselves, therefore, they’d become “lawbreakers” (verse 9), for “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point (in their case, favouritism) is guilty of breaking all of it” (verse 10). It’s all or nothing; there’s no room in God’s law for any unloving word or act. 

Which would include James 3:2, that “It’s only the person who can claim that he never says the wrong thing that can consider himself perfect (in keeping the whole law), for if he can control his tongue he can control every other part of his personality.” 

So here was a real and very practical test – and especially for those who “presumed to be teachers” (3:1), thinking they were qualified to teach because of how “religious” they were (1:26) – because, as James reminds them, “we who teach will be judged by a much higher standard” (3:1). And as Christians aren’t we all held to that standard?

In which case, what James is saying is facing us all with an extraordinary test, of never saying the wrong thing to anyone – and having that kind of control over what comes out of our mouth at all times. It would seem as impossible for us to do as it was for Abraham to kill his son. 

And yet this is what makes our faith complete (2:22). It’s doing what God requires of us, believing God has a wonderful purpose for it…(more on this tomorrow)  

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 8)

For Abraham’s belief in God and acting on what God told him to do he was credited with righteousness. “Credited” doesn’t meant “earned” or “deserved.” Abraham’s actions, no matter how good, could never make him righteous. But for his actions God “credited” him with righteousness. 

Like I’m credited with bonus points on my credit card. I don’t earn those points. I just use the card as intended, and the company bonuses me with points. Those points can then be put to something I get for free, credited to me as the company’s way of expressing “customer appreciation.” A poor analogy if we take that to mean “a way of keeping us hooked so they make money,” but hopefully a fitting example for describing “credited” as an unearned bonus gift from God in his deep appreciation for us trusting him. 

And what we receive for free in that bonus gift is “the crown of life,” James 1:12. Which James expands in question form in James 2:5 – “Has not God chosen (you/us) to be rich in faith and to inherit (or possess) the kingdom he promised to those who love him?” 

Rich in faith, for instance, is quite the bonus for us, knowing how little faith we had at the start of our Christian life. But, fortunately, it was enough for us to take God at his word, that he promises blessings for those who trust and obey him. Which is what got Abraham started too. God personally made a promise to him, and Abraham took God at his word. His belief was then sorely tested when God told him to sacrifice Isaac, but the bonus God credited him with for trusting him was a faith so rich that, unlike those James was writing to, he never doubted God, nor was he “double-minded” or “unstable in all he did” (1:8).  

Abraham made mistakes in dealing with tricky situations, yes, but never did he lose his underlying belief in God’s promises to him. And when he stood the test and kept on trusting even when faced with a mind blowing challenge, God not only credited him with a rich faith, he also gave him “possession of his kingdom” (2:5). 

Abraham, therefore, in his lifetime was given the chance to taste and live the goodness and rightness of God’s kingdom. And since Abraham is our example, we’re given that chance too…(more on this tomorrow)  

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 7)

James gets the point across that “Yes, of course we’re saved by what we do.” But what he means by “saved” isn’t salvation eternally. He’s talking about the process God set up for this life now, that saves us from living a bad life with bad effects to living a good life with good effects.

And by ‘good effects’ he’s not talking about a charmed life, or health and wealth, or never having problems. Being the Father’s much loved children didn’t make those James was writing to immune from “facing trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). But the purpose of the trials was to help them become mature, stable, wise and whole, pictured by the royal law of love (2:8), that when lived would give them freedom (salvation) from doubt, hypocrisy, uncertainty, emotional instability, and the debilitating effects of evil, immorality, anger, spite, and blaming others for bad things happening – all of which are mentioned by James. 

So James the practical is very much talking about the life our Father wishes for us now, that he made possible for us when we trust him – Abraham being our example, because when he “believed God it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend,” James 2:23

In this life now, then, James is saying we experience two things: being credited with righteousness, and being God’s friend. Both focus on what God thinks of us for trusting him, and for accepting that the trials we go through are totally for our benefit from a God who loves us. Or as James phrases it, “We’re blessed all right, when we stick to obeying God and trusting him under trial, because he promises a crown of life to those who love him,” James 1:12

So let’s make it three things we’re blessed with: credited with righteousness, being God’s friend, and a crown of life too. For trusting God under trial – which is our way of showing our love to him – does he ever love us in return. He’d happily pop a crown on our heads and announce, “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” 

So James is asking those troubled by trials, “Does this change your view of God a bit, knowing that he deeply loves us for trusting him, and that he promises to show it too?”…(more on this tomorrow)

Are we saved…

By what WE do, as well? (part 6)

James is a practical man. He’s writing to “the twelve tribes of Israel scattered among the nations,” James 1:1, who believed they were God’s chosen people, and God was setting up his kingdom on Earth through them. But here they were, just like us Christians today, dotted in little groups all over the place, not making much impact at all, and being “faced with trials of many kinds,” verse 2

It didn’t make sense. If God truly loved them, why was he letting them suffer? If they really were his chosen people, “the first fruits of all he created” (verse 18), why was he making life so difficult for them? And especially since they were true “believers in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ” too (2:1). 

How, then, could James convince these people that what was happening to them was for a good reason? Or that the trials they were facing were perfect gifts from a loving Father (1:17)?

James the practical gets down to basics in verse 12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial.” Ah, so first of all, there is a process going on here that will bring blessings. But only through “persevering under trial,” because “when you’ve stood the test,” believing wholeheartedly that God could surely only have good in mind, that’s when you “receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” That’s the blessing, the “crown of life,” which in context is “the righteous life that God desires” for us (verse 20), the life that makes us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (verse 4). It’s a blessing to be experienced in the here and now. 

Because when Abraham stood his test – believing wholeheartedly that God could only have something good in mind for him – that’s the blessing he received as well. He was “credited with righteousness.” He too experienced the righteous life of maturity and wholeness God had in mind through trials. He was credited with it, given the chance to experience it. 

So in answering those who wondered why a loving God would put them through severe trials, James explains the purpose of the trials, and the blessing that awaits those who accept the process God set up…(more on this tomorrow)