Be Doers of the Word
September 20, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today our reading from St. James tells us to get off the dime – to get going and get busy. It tells us that believing in Jesus is not enough – that we must also follow him. These are tough words that keep us from basking in the laurels of our faith. Why is that?
That Epistle of Straw
We would think that believing in Jesus would be
enough – especially when it comes to our salvation. And that is because,
for the longest time, we have been nurtured on the words from Ephesians
2:8 that we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not our doing
but a gift from God, lest anyone should boast. So why does St. James
tell us – in contradistinction to this venerable Biblical passage – that
we must also be doers of the word (James 1:22), in addition to believing
in the word of grace?
Some take refuge in Martin Luther’s notorious statement that this Epistle of St. James, written by the very brother of our Lord (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19), is nothing but “an epistle of straw” (Luther’s Works 35:362). Running with this statement, they dismiss St. James, erroneously concluding that he must be without any divine merit since Luther didn’t like him. But this overlooks Luther’s praise for the Epistle of St. James, which he couldn’t sit on, because it so “vigorously promulgates the law of God” (LW 35:395). Even though, then, he disputes parts of it – like what it says about temptation, justification and the anointing of the sick with oil (LW 4:92, 132-134; 35:396; 36:118-122) – he cannot deny that “otherwise [there are] many good sayings” in it (LW 35:397). Even at his most perturbed, all Luther says is – “I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove” – but only “almost” (LW 34:317)!
Sounding Like Jesus
The fact of the matter is, that St. James sounds a lot like his brother at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when he says:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven (Matthew 7:21).
Doing the will of God the Father sounds a lot like St. James when he admonishes us to be doers of the word and not hearers only (James 1:22). On doing the will of God, Luther says that
we should believe in Christ and be found in a calling [authorized by] a word of God.... [For instance, there] should be fidelity and obedience from inferiors to superiors, and among the others there should be mutual love and service, and everyone should perform his office faithfully. You find nothing here about... any other special way of life.... These are the ones who belong in heaven, not the ones who neglected the Word of God and yet supposed that they were serving God very seriously and devoutly by saying the word twice, “Lord, Lord,” while the rest of us hardly say it once. They are always busier and more energetic in their worship than genuine Christians; but since they have been doing their own will, they better look for another Lord to... open up heaven for them.... [So] we should be careful not to... be seduced.... We should abide by what He calls good so that everything... is done on the basis of His commandment, though it may not be very ostentatious or pleasing to reason (LW 21:269-270).
Faith in Christ, then, is supposed to result in obeying the Biblical commands of the Lord – and nothing more. Doing nothing, then, is just as unacceptable as pursuing non-Biblical life-styles. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), that Danish admirer of Luther, also warned against such busyness (Kierkegaard’s Writings 16:98-99):
The one who occupies himself only with the eternal, uninterruptedly at every moment, if this were possible, is not busy. Thus the one who actually occupies himself with the eternal is never busy.... To be busy is, divided and scattered, to occupy oneself with what makes a person divided and scattered. But Christian love... is as far from inaction as it is from busyness. It never... rests satisfied.... It is not a mood in the pampered soul that knows and wants to know no law, or wants to have its own law and listens only to songs – Christian love is sheer action, and its every work is holy, because it is the fulfilling of the Law.
So if we veer off course, all our righteous deeds will amount to sheer, wasted busyness – and of no account to anyone.
No Floating Goose
With those important refinements in hand, we return to the basic point that faith necessarily reaches out to do good deeds. Luther makes this essential point in a most unforgettable way:
Faith is a vigorous and powerful thing; it is not idle speculation, not does it float on the heart like a goose on the water. But just as water that has been heated, even though it remains water, is no longer cold but hot and an altogether different water, so faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, fashions a different mind and different attitudes, and makes an altogether new human being (LW 2:266-267).
So when we believe in Christ we are different – we behave differently (LW 26:405) – our faith doesn’t leave us unchanged, only floating on our hearts like a goose on water, instead of penetrating it and changing our hearts. Once we become Christians, we no longer live as we used to. We talk differently. We spend our time differently. And we even spend our money differently. Have you ever heard people say they don’t like to go to church because all they ask for is their money? Well, I hope so! And that’s because “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21). So we have to talk about giving 10% of our money, or what’s called a tithe, to the church where we worship (Deuteronomy 14:22; Malachi 3:7-10; Matthew 23:23). We have to because it’s a Biblical mandate – and because how we use our money affects our hearts, which affects our faith – and ultimately even our salvation (Ezekiel 11:19; Luke 8:15)! So these critics aren’t making a moral point against greedy Christian churches – all they’re saying is that they want to be watered-down Christians.
They’re saying that “God wants nothing of us but that we... believe in him” (Gerhard O. Forde, “Tetelesthai,” Logia, Epiphany, 2001). They want to believe in Christ but without becoming new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). They want to believe in Christ without following him (Matthew 16:24). They want to live by the Spirit but without walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). They want faith but without having to supplement it with virtue and knowledge (2 Peter 1:5). They want faith but without having to share it (1 Peter 3:15). They want to be Christians but without lifting up the beaten down (Luke 10:37). They want the Christian blessing but without running the race (1 Corinthians 9:24). They want to be with Christ but without suffering with him (1 Peter 4:13). They want Christ but without eating the bread of his body on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; John 6:53).
of these unwarranted, illegitimate, and unauthorized cuts in the
Christian faith, put these naysayers squarely against the Bible and its
saving message. They also pit them against Luther himself, who in a 1528
sermon, just recently translated, says that he “always taught” that God
wants Christians “to live and walk in holiness and without blame” (LW
69:38). So may the Lord indeed have mercy on their souls. May he keep
them from watering down the Christian way of life (2 Peter 2:1) [The
Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 169], in spite of
it’s appeal to our sinful selves. Supposing that we have been thoroughly
“liberated by the gospel,” we end up “misusing” it and saying there’s
“no further need to do anything [or] give anything” (LW
The Implanted Word
Rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
Here it’s clearly and powerfully stated that salvation does not depend on our doing of the word, but on the fact that the word has already been implanted in us. And that implantation happens by simply hearing it (Romans 10:17).
In his 1536 sermon on this verse, Luther erupts, “What more could be desired?” – that God’s word has been “planted or engrafted within” us (Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker, 7:299)! That’s because that’s as good as it gets – having the saving word there, within us, well before our welcoming of it takes place. But this doesn’t mean everything is then settled. No, there’s still more to our salvation than this implantation – wonderful though it is. We must also welcome that implanted word in all meekness – knowing that our welcoming is parasitic on the implantation of the word itself. Therefore “take heed,” Luther says,
to accept in purity and to maintain with patience the Word so graciously and richly given you by God without effort or merit on your part (SML, 7:300).
So when you grow weary in your well-doing (Galatians 6:9), do not despair. All is not lost or in vain. The implanted word remains – even apart from your tired out doing or practicing or welcoming of it. Work diligently, then, to implement God’s implanted word in your lives – but not in such a way that you rely on those efforts of yours, diligent though they may be. Rely instead on what God has so graciously and richly given you in what you’ve heard (Romans 10:17) – and then let it “dwell in your richly” and simply (Colossians 3:17). Kierkegaard, in a journal entry from 1851, also strikes just the right balance when he says (Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, ed. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong, §993):
No, infinite humiliation and grace, and then a striving born of gratitude – this is Christianity.
Forgiving & Forgiven
A good example of this combination of our implementing and God’s implanting is that petition in the Lord’s Prayer where we say – “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). Luther explains this dialectic between forgiving and being forgiven in his profound, but largely under-read and unstudied, Large Catechism (1529) – which he thought was “one of his best books” [LW 50:173; Martin Brecht, Martin Luther (1985-1993) 2:280]. There he writes:
God has promised us assurance that everything is forgiven and pardoned, yet on the condition that we also forgive our neighbor who does us harm... and... bears malice towards us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that God forgives you. But if you forgive, you have the... assurance that you are forgiven in heaven. Not on account of your forgiving, for God does it altogether freely, out of pure grace, because he has promised it, as the Gospel teaches. But he has set up this condition for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise (BC, p. 433).
Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation in Christ (LW 30:236), and so we would do well to follow the catechism carefully at this point. This passage trades on the connections between the words condition, assurance and accounting.
Condition. First we are struck with the condition – that if we don’t forgive others, we’ll never be forgiven by God. That is the plan and simple condition for our forgiveness from him. This condition is so important that Jesus reinforced it in one of his most strident parables (Matthew 18:23-35). In Luther’s 1530 sermon on this parable, he says that it teaches us “the state and regimen of the forgiveness of sins” (Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug, 3:138). Regimen? Yes! For there’s nothing sloppy, cheap or undisciplined about God’s forgiveness. Thus the condition before us – if we are unmerciful, God will never forgive us. Period. Luther sees a quid pro quo in this condition:
We should not misuse God’s... forgiveness. Our Lord God has given us more than enough proofs that our sins are forgiven, namely, the proclamation of the gospel, baptism, the Sacrament, and the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Now, it is important that we, too, give proof by which we testify that we have indeed received the forgiveness of sins. The proof that is expected of us is that [we] forgive the faults of [others] (LHP 3:144).
Assurance. Luther then turns this condition on its head. What was first over-bearing, has now become gracious. For when we forgive others, we have a certain assurance that God truly has forgiven us. This is renewing because often our guilt over what we’ve done seems greater than God’s mercy (1 John 3:19-20). So this unexpected assurance is deeply and mercifully gracious. The very fact that we forgive others means that we also have taken God’s mercy to heart and have “not forgotten... the grace of God and become more wicked and rebellious than before” (LHP 3:141).
Accounting. Finally we cannot say that God forgives us on account of our mercy toward others. Even though our forgiving others is the condition for God forgiving us, our forgiving doesn’t make God forgive us. That’s because he’s already waiting in the wings with his absolution on the tip of his tongue. We don’t have to make him want to forgive us. He already does (Exodus 34:6-7). So follow the regimen of forgiveness, as Luther put it, and fulfill the condition by showing mercy to those around you, and then rejoice in God’s goodness, mercy, kindness – and forgiveness.
Furthermore, you who have welcomed that implanted word into your lives, receive him now, made flesh, in, with, and under (BC, p. 575) the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. For in this sacrament there is abundant life (John 6:53; 10:10) that enables you to do all things through Christ (Philippians 4:13). That is because through the immortality of Christ’s divinity, he completely swallowed up death (LW 29:135). This covers not only the death that tries to keep us from eternal life in heaven, but also the spiritual dying that plagues us all now. So do not depend on yourselves – for you have no abundant life in you. Look instead to Christ. He is bodily here today in this “most venerable” Sacrament (BC, p. 577) with his abundant life. And he has promised to lighten your load by helping you carry your burdens. Come to me, he says (Matthew 11:28). Just as he carried our sins in his body on the cross – that by dying for them he might free us from God’s wrath (1 Peter 2:24; Romans 5:9), so he helps us now. Rejoice, then, in Christ today.
And then when you leave this place, continue to do good deeds in the name of Jesus (Colossians 3:17). James 1.27 says that these works come in two types that make up true religion – helping the lonely and needy, the widows and orphans, and also pursuing personal decency by keeping yourselves unstrained from the world. So work to perform both types of works in your lives. First do so by helping the needy. Feed the hungry. Encourage the depressed. Protect the abused. Sit with the lonely. House the homeless. Do all of these things as if you were helping Christ himself (Matthew 25:40). And then secondly, be sure to keep yourselves unstained from the world. Don’t follow the dominant value system of consumerism and violence that engulf our world. Strive instead to live a simple, peaceful life (Romans 12:16-18) – not based on getting more and more, nor on walking over whoever crosses you. Call on God to help you, for without him you will surely fail at these tasks (John 15:5). And he will answer you for today we have seen how he is at work in us to turn us into doers of the word. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)