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In my last post, I discussed Paul’s teaching that we are justified by faith and faith alone.  James 2:14-26 is often seen as a contradiction of Paul, but what James said was not directed at Paul, and for that matter what Paul said had not been directed at James.  Paul was speaking to a group of people who felt that they could earn their righteousness by obeying the law to the letter, and often to the point of neglecting mercy and compassion.  James was speaking to his brothers and sisters—those who already claimed to have a faith in God but were not showing it in their actions.

James is not saying that we need to have both faith and works in order to earn salvation.  If that were the case, we would be claiming that Christ is not our only saviour, but that we are saviours for ourselves.  This is not supported in the rest of scripture at all, and it is not what James is teaching either.  Faith in Christ is all we need for salvation, but true faith is more than just saying so; it is more than just intellectual agreement.  That is an essential first step, but it is not the last step.  True faith naturally results in obedience to Christ, and in the character of Christ being displayed through us.  Good works are the only way that other people will be able to see our faith.

If we were to go to court to claim our innocence in some matter, we would be judged on our actions; that is how the jury would decide if what we said is true.  The same principle applies to our faith.  Our actions are the evidence that shows the world that our faith is real.  Good works are the fruit of the tree that has faith as its root.  You are known by the fruit that you bear.   (Matthew 12:33)

It is a case of what motivates us.  Are we doing what we believe is right, as Paul’s audience was, because we are trying to earn gold stars, or are we doing what we believe God wants us to do because we love Him and want to serve Him?  Ephesians 2:8-10 ties it all together for us.  We are saved by faith, but we were designed to do good works.

In Romans 5:1-11 Paul discusses the benefits of being justified by faith.  Years ago, I memorized Romans 5:1-2 in the New International Version:  Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.

First of all, we are justified by faith.  I once heard someone define the term justified as “just [as] if I’d” never sinned.  Through faith, and only by faith, we are worthy to share in the benefits that Paul describes here.  They are gifts given through the grace of God to those who believe.  The NET Bible translates “justified” as “declared righteous”.  We don’t start out righteous, but we don’t have to clean ourselves up before we can be accepted by God.  All we have to do is have faith, believe.  (Romans 4:3-5)

The term peace here does not simply mean a contented feeling, but a state of peace.  It is not the peace of God, but peace with God.  We are not on opposing sides.  We can join God’s team, and the only way to get on the team is if we are justified by faith.  And this is only possible because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Jesus acts as a mediator for us to reconcile us to God.  As soon as we make the decision, we are at peace with God.  So, our faith plus Jesus gets us access to God’s grace.  We no longer have to worry about God’s wrath because He is surrounding us with His grace, His undeserved favour.  It was grace that allowed us to be justified by faith in the first place.

This all brings us to the hope of the glory of God.  Hope, as it is used in the New Testament, is not defined as wishful thinking but as expectation.  We expect to see the glory of God; we are looking forward to seeing the glory of God—to see God as He truly is.  We know that we will see God clearly in eternity, but we can also see glimpses of God’s glory now if we keep our spiritual eyes open.  (Titus 2:11-13, I Corinthians 13:12)

Sometimes we can get discouraged by all the things that we have to face in life, and maybe we sometimes think that God is punishing us.  He’s not.  It’s true that we may have to face the consequences of our unwise choices, but this is not punishment, because, if we are justified by faith, we are no longer under God’s wrath.   If we dwell on the promises of these two verses, perhaps our hope will be renewed.  What we are going through today is small in the light of eternity.  Even still, God is on our side.

In II Chronicles 6:13-42, Solomon humbles himself by kneeling in front of the entire assembly of Israel, and prays a prayer of dedication for the temple that he had just finished building.  He starts the prayer with praise for who God is, not for what He has done for him.  This is a good reminder for us, and it is the model that Jesus gave us in the Lord’s prayer. (Matthew 6:9-13)  God is worthy to be praised because of who is, not because He is a problem solving service for us.  And yet, Solomon also asks God to consider the requests of His servants.  He prays that God would hear and forgive.  (II Chronicles 6:19-21)  This implies the necessity on our part to repent.

In II Chronicles 6:18, Solomon states that God is too big to be contained within a physical structure on earth—even the highest heavens cannot contain Him.  So why then did he build the temple?  II Chronicles 6:20 tells us that God promised He would live there.  God wants to make Himself accessible to us.  God has established a covenant with His people, and through the temple they had a focal point to worship Him.  Even though the temple was often referred to as God’s dwelling place, it was not meant to contain Him, but to provide a place for His people to find Him.  That is not to say that today we need to go to a church to find God, for I Corinthians 6:19 tells us that we are now the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Through the death of Jesus Christ, who became the ultimate sacrifice for our sins, we no longer need to go to a temple, but we do still need to humble ourselves before God, praise Him for who He is, and ask His forgiveness.  Then He will hear our requests.

Do you ever feel like God doesn’t answer your prayers?  I do.  Particularly lately, I feel like He is ignoring my requests for pain relief.  Ephesians 3:20-21 tells us that He is able to do so much more than we could ask or imagine.  So, if that’s the case, why doesn’t He heal me?  Perhaps because He is doing something beyond my imagination.  Perhaps He has a better plan in mind.  I can’t conceive what that might be, but isn’t that what this verse is all about?

In Ephesians 3:14-19, Paul makes some pretty bold requests—essentially that we would have the power and knowledge of Christ within us, and in fact have Christ Himself within us.  Yet, Paul believed not only that God was able to accomplish this, but that He was (and since it is in the present tense, still is) able far beyond Paul’s (or our) expectations.  Even though Paul seems to be asking a lot, he is in fact not asking too much.  We cannot ask too much of God, because whatever we think to ask is well within His power.  That does not mean that we will always get things just the way we ask for them.  God has purposes beyond what we could imagine as well, and we know that His purposes for us are good.  (Romans 8:28, Matthew 7:11)  God wants to give us good gifts, but He also wants us to be humble, and to bring Him the glory.  He wants our requests to be made according to His will.  (John 15:7, John 14:13-14)

The beginning of Ephesians 3:20 talks about the power that is working within us.  If we allow Christ to work through us, and in us, we will be much more effective.  God’s desire is to make us more like Jesus, and in order to accomplish this, we need to do things His way.  I know that it isn’t easy to give up control, but if we give it to God, life can be so much better than we imagine.  God’s grace and mercy and love and power will never run out.  They are infinite, not limited by our finite minds.  His goodness to us will not change; we just need to be willing to accept it, and to allow Him to have the praise and the glory.  God sees the end from the beginning and we can trust that He has our best interests at heart.

Today, my American readers are remembering Martin Luther King Jr., a man who stood  for equality, peace and freedom.  It has become a tradition to honour Dr. King on this date by performing an act of service.  The website at http://mlkday.gov/ invites you to share your story of how you helped others or served your community today, and also “challenges us to make service a part of our lives – every day of the year”.   They would like you to continue to honour Dr. King, and celebrate the 25th anniversary of this holiday by pledging to perform 25 acts of service this year.  That averages out to just over two kindnesses per month.  It doesn’t sound like that much really, does it?  Unfortunately, when we get into our busy routines and hectic schedules, we tend to focus only on our own desires.  We want to work to meet our own goals, and we leave the downtrodden to fend for themselves.

Have I got good news for you!  Proverbs 28:27 tells us that those who give to the poor will be blessed.  It is a common theme in Proverbs and throughout the Bible to give to the poor, but here the command is stated with a blessing.  If we give we will not lack.  That means that if we ourselves aren’t very well off, giving will not impoverish us.  God will find a way to bless us and give to us.  I’ve often heard it said that you can’t outgive God.

Those who have much really have no excuses.  You have already been blessed, and would not suffer for giving some of your wealth away.  The blessing still applies to you though, for those who give generously will be generously rewarded.  (II Corinthians 9:6)  There is another side to this blessing though.  Those who don’t give, will not only not be blessed, but they will receive many curses.  That is quite a serious statement, one that should be given sincere consideration by each of us.

We are all God’s children, and He doesn’t want to see any of us suffer.  We need to care for our brothers and sisters and trust in our Heavenly Father to provide for our needs.  We who act as His hands and feet to bless others will ourselves be blessed.  What can you do to help someone today?

I have come to realize that a major theme in James 1 is humility.  James 1:12 tells us that we will be rewarded if we endure the testing that we face.  What must we do to endure testing?  We need to let go of our pride and our feelings of entitlement.  How do you react when you face trials?  I have to admit that I usually try to avoid them.  I think it is quite common for people to pity themselves and want to escape the unpleasant circumstances that they are in.  But the Bible tells us that we face testing to humble us, to strengthen us and to bring good to us. (Deuteronomy 8:16, James 1:2-4)  A wise pastor once suggested that instead of lamenting our trials that we ask God what He wants us to learn from them.  Candy Hemphill Christmas, founder of The Bridge Ministry has said that she has learned something about God—“that if you ask Him a question, He will answer.  Now, you’re going to have to get ready for the answer, but He will answer.  It might not be what you want to hear, but He will answer.”  Are we willing to submit to God’s answer, to His plan?  That takes humility.

I think it is natural for people to think that trials are a punishment from God.  Job’s friends did, and so did Job’s wife.  Job, on the other hand, asked why we should expect good things from God and not accept the bad.  (Job 2:7-10).  When God answered Job, (Job 40:1-14) He reminded him that there is a God, and Job isn’t Him.  Neither are we.  We need to trust God and His love for us.  We need to trust what He tells us in Jeremiah 29:11, that His plan for our future is a good one.  The trials that we face along the way are stepping stones to that good future.  God is more interested in our character than He is in our accomplishments or wealth, and He can bring good from everything that happens to us.  (Romans 8:28)

I wonder what would happen if we thanked God for our trials and looked for the lessons in them rather than complaining about our lot in life.  Let’s try to focus on making the best of the present instead of wishing for something better in the future.  Let’s see how we can help other people instead of throwing ourselves a pity party.  Let’s trust God to bring good out of every circumstance in our lives.

I would like to illustrate Philippians 4:19-20 with a personal story.

Almost six years ago my husband and I moved to a new town and bought a house.  This could be a much longer story if I told you all the things that have gone wrong with this house since we moved in, but that is not the main point.  Suffice to say that we have had to do a lot of major repairs, and it has been a drain on our finances.  I should also mention that we live in Canada, in an area affectionately known as the snowbelt.

This house has a fairly large driveway.  Since I work from home, and my husband goes to an office every day, I have made it my responsibility to shovel the snow so that by the time he gets home in the evening he can drive right into a clear driveway without having to go over the pile that the snowplow has left at the end.  This is a time-consuming and sometimes arduous task, but I have seldom minded doing it.

We have a lot of dog owners in our neighbourhood, and they walk by our house frequently.  Almost every time I have been out shovelling the driveway, one or more of my well-meaning neighbours has said, “You need to get a snowblower.”  The first few times that happened I explained that we had higher priorities.  After a while, although I started to get a little tired of the advice, I would just smile and agree.   Over the years, two different neighbours have each helped once when they thought that the task seemed too daunting for me.  These occurrences of helpful neighbours are unfortunately rare, happening on average once every three years.

About a month ago, while stopped at a stop sign, I was struck by a vehicle that had made an unsafe turn.  I am still in a fair amount of pain, and I suffer sometimes debilitating headaches.  Since then my husband has pitched in to take care of all the household duties that I used to do, including the shovelling.  I know that he really doesn’t like to shovel, and he was much happier when I was doing it.  Being the compassionate guy he is though, he cares more about my health than about my contribution to the task.  Nonetheless, I felt bad about it.

One day, after a particularly heavy snowfall, I lamented on my Facebook status that now I wish that we did own a snowblower, so that my husband didn’t have to do all that shovelling.  A conversation ensued that included reasons why we should have a snowblower, where to find a used one, aren’t there any kids in the neighbourhood looking for odd jobs, and don’t I have any neighbours that would be willing to help.  Interestingly, there is a snowblower at just about every house on the street, and despite the advice that I need to get one of my own, no one has ever offered to lend or rent one to me, or to clear my driveway for a fee.  Nor have I had any kids coming to the door looking for work.

Now, let me get to the point of this story.  A day or two after that Facebook conversation, my best friend, who lives about an hour away, called me on the telephone.  She said, “I bought you a snowblower.  All you have to do is come and pick it up.”  I was flabbergasted.  Even a used snowblower is quite a large gift.  Ironically, she bought it from her neighbour who clears her driveway for her.  He was relieved to find out that it was for someone else and that he wasn’t losing a client.  And the point:  It came in a completely unexpected way, but God did definitely supply our need.  Is He prompting you to help a neighbour, a friend or a total stranger?  You could be the way that He supplies a need for someone else.

Sometimes we do things we regret.  That was certainly the case for David before he wrote Psalm 86.  In II Samuel 11 we read about David’s regrets…mistakes…sins—adultery, deception and conspiracy to murder.  That’s a lot to feel bad about.  So, when in Psalm 86:11 David prays that the Lord would teach him how to live, it is an earnest prayer.  He wants to be wholeheartedly committed to God.  The King James Version uses the term “unite my heart”.   In the New International Version, David prays for an “undivided heart”.  He realizes that if his heart isn’t entirely focused on God, he will go down the wrong path, but he also sees that he needs God’s help to do it.  He knows that what is impossible for humans is possible for God.  (Luke 18:27)

His vow, in Psalm 86:12, to praise God forevermore, is also sincere.  His reason is shown in Psalm 86:13.  David knows that what he has done is deserving of death, but God in His great mercy has forgiven him.  God is deserving of our praise simply because He is God, but His love and mercy toward David provided so much more motivation.  David vowed not only to praise God, but to do it with enthusiasm, and to do it forever.

It is likely that most of the people reading this have not sinned to the same degree that David did in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah.  But even the most noble among us are dependent on God’s grace to save us.  We cannot save ourselves.  (Ephesians 2:4-9)

God wants us all to be completely devoted to Him.  He wants us to ask for His help to live the way we should.  He is ready and willing to give it, along with His grace, mercy, love and forgiveness.  He has provided His Word so that we can learn more about His ways, but it takes commitment.  We need to choose each day to put Him first, to praise Him and to give Him the glory.

Something I said in my last blog post (John 1:14, January 7) inspired me to look up Colossians 3:23-24.  My question from the passage in John was how would it change your life if Jesus moved in next door?  Colossians 3:23 tells us that it doesn’t matter what we are doing, or what human person asked us to do it, we are really working for God.

From the previous verse we see that this passage refers to slaves working for their masters, but in today’s context the principle would apply just as well to employees, children and students.  How do you react when your boss asks you to do something that isn’t technically in your job description, or you feel is beneath you?  What is a child’s usual response when asked to clean his room?  What about students who let other members of the group carry the load on a group project?  Would it make a difference if Jesus had asked you to do it?  It’s true; your boss’ motives may not be as pure, selfless and forward-thinking as Jesus’ are, but her authority still needs to be respected.

Verse 23 also tells us to work with enthusiasm.  The King James version uses the term heartily; the original Greek means from the soul.  Now think about this for a minute.  When you are doing the dishes or the laundry or taking out the trash, are you doing it with enthusiasm?  These are not the most glamourous tasks, but they deserve the best of your ability.  They may seem like thankless jobs, because there’s a good chance that no one ever says thank you for doing them, but the Lord will reward you.  When you are working for Him, what others think won’t matter to you.

You may not get a raise or promotion by working those overtime hours when your boss asks you to at the last minute.  You may not get an A on that group assignment, or a bonus in your allowance for cleaning up your room.  Earthly rewards are not always fair or reliable.  Sometimes you get praise for what others have done, and sometimes you don’t get the praise you deserve.  Sometimes it seems like your efforts are quickly forgotten.  God doesn’t forget.  Your reward from God will not be based on the amount of talent you have, or how popular you are, or how much money you earned.  The reward He gives you will be for your attitude and your faithfulness.  Did you give God your very best effort?  Jesus will be doing your final performance review; are you ready?

Today’s verse continues the theme in my last post (January 5, 2011) from John 1:1, where we learned that Jesus was referred to as the Word.  After John 1:14, John no longer uses the term Word to refer to Christ, perhaps because this is where John tells us that Christ became a man and took up residence on earth.  This is an incredible thought.  Think about it.  What in this plan could be of benefit to Jesus?  He gave up every good thing to come to earth, not to live in a palace with all the blessings of great riches, but to live the life of a nomad, one who was pursued by both the most needy people and the self-righteous haters of the day.  The term that is here translated as  “took up residence” comes from a Greek term that means to pitch a tent.  He left heaven to live in very lowly conditions for us.  He did this because He loved us.  He did this because He knew it was part of the bigger plan, the one that the Father has to redeem us.

So, there was Jesus, the only Son of the Father, living among the people.  The Message paraphrase of this passage says that He “moved into the neighbourhood”.  How would that change your life if Jesus moved in next door?  What if he moved in to your spare room, and joined you at your dinner table, or more significantly on your sofa as you watched TV?  Would you do things differently?  Many people of that time didn’t recognize Him as God, just as many people today don’t.  But He is still here with us today, no longer in flesh but in Spirit.  He is there with you at your dinner table, while you watch TV, while you surf the Internet.  And He still loves us just as much as He did when He put on flesh to walk among us.  Amazing!

Jesus is referred to as the only Son of God, unique because He is in fact God.  When we receive His gift of grace, we also become children of God.  (John 1:12)  We are adopted into the family.  God the Father has just as much love for us as He does for Jesus.  Because of Jesus, John and others of his day were able to see God’s glory, His grace and truth.  Jesus was the personal revelation of God.  He still is today.  He still represents the goodness and love and light and life of our Heavenly Father.