When my twin brother and I were very young, we found some candy in our parent’s bedroom. There wasn’t a lot of it, but what was there, we ate. Unfortunately, we got caught. Our mom walked in on our little candy-snacking. Even more unfortunately, the candy turned out not to be candy. To everyone’s shock, my brother and I had just gorged on my mother’s birth control pills. She called the doctor and we were rushed to the hospital. Mom was terrified that we might have just poisoned ourselves. Thankfully, everything eventually worked out. But it was a toxic scare. And, since that incident, I have been unable to get pregnant.
What almost happened to my brother and me happens frequently in the U. S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day in the United States, nearly 90 people die as a result of unintentional poisoning. Another 2,000 are treated in emergency departments each day for unintentional poisoning.
Most of us realize that there are toxic poisons that threaten our lives. Our medicine cabinets contain them. Our kitchen cabinets conceal them. And these toxins threaten our lives.
There are spiritual toxins as well. That, in fact, is a theme in the book of James. James is authored by James, the brother of Jesus. It is addressed to a group of Christians who are suffering trials. The letter was one of the earliest written in the New Testament. It focuses on practical wisdom for daily living. And one of its themes is “pure religion.”
In Jas. 1:27 James writes about “religion that is pure and undefiled.” In some ways, the entire letter fleshes out that one verse. James finds that there are toxic poisons threatening the spiritual lives of his readers. James’ readers face the threat of a religion that is defiled and not pure. This series will explore some of these toxins that make our religion defiled and not pure. We’ll explore the toxins James highlights in the first half of James as we lead up to our Special Contribution for World and Urban Missions on April 29. We’ll return to this series later this fall.
In Jas. 2:14-26 James identifies one of the most deadly toxins that makes our religion defiled not pure: 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14-16 ESV).
James distills our spiritual life down to two ingredients. He calls them “faith” and “works.” We could call them “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy.” We could call them “doctrine” and “deeds.” When your spiritual life is boiled down to its essence, this is what remains—doctrine-what you believe; and deeds-how you live.
And James makes this diagnosis: A spiritual life consisting only of the right doctrine is deadly. James finds that some Christians have the right doctrine. James even quotes the Shema in vs. 19, the great statement in the Old Testament which served as the foundation for the Jewish faith and the Christian faith: “God is one.” Yet even though James’ readers have this correct doctrine, they do not have correct deeds. And the result is toxic. James writes in vs. 26 that it leaves them “dead.”
James explores how this toxicity affects us vertically and horizontally. Vertically, a doctrine-only life poisons our relationship with God. James writes that when it comes to our relationship with God, faith without works is “useless.” He writes that doctrine without deeds cannot “save” us. When James writes in vs. 22 that faith is completed by works, the word “completed” means “matured” or “perfected.” Just like healthy baby matures into an adult, so a healthy faith will mature into works. The right doctrine will eventually manifest itself in the right deeds. If it doesn’t, something’s gone wrong. And that’s what God’s looking for. James says that if we have a doctrine-only life that never grows in to deeds it’s deadly in terms of your relationship with God.
But it’s also deadly in terms of our relationships with others. Horizontally, a doctrine-only life poisons our relationships with people. Notice the illustration James provides: 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 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? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James is asking, “What are you going to do when confronted by people who have needs? If your doctrine-only faith does not mature into a deed-also-faith you’ll end up hurting those people. People in need will end up dying because your doctrine-only faith doesn’t lead you to provide for them. It’s deadly not only to your relationship with God but also to your relationship with others.
But when doctrine and deeds come together, amazing things happen. James tells two stories. First, James tells of Abraham—the father of the Jewish faith. And though he had some less-than-stellar-moments, there came a time when Abraham’s doctrine expressed itself in the most amazing of deeds. He came to realize that in order to do what God wanted, it was going to cost him his son Isaac. He was going to have to sacrifice his son to follow God. And what few fathers could do, Abraham did. His faith acted. And he made the greatest sacrifice a father can make.
Second, James tells of Rahab—Rahab the prostitute. She worshiped a pagan god and was involved in ungodly living. But when she heard the story of the God of Israel, she believed. And she not only believed. She acted on that belief. She risked her life to hide Israelite spies who had come to her city. And that made possible Israel’s first steps into the Promised Land.
This is the kind of healthy and vibrant life James calls us to. A life in which doctrine gives birth to deeds. A life of doctrine + deeds does tremendous good in the world.
Many of you have become aware of something that happened to Jab Mesa who runs the Melanesian Bible College in Papua New Guinea. Highland has supported Jab and his ministry for decades. As Jab was driving through a town recently, a young boy dashed into the road. Though Jab tried to stop, he could not. His car hit the boy and the boy died. In that culture, when things like this happen, the driver is supposed to leave immediately and head to the police station. Why? To save his life. Because it is not uncommon for those who witness an accident like this to riot and injure the driver. Even though the accident was not Jab’s fault, it was likely that a mob was about to form and become violent. So, Jab headed off. But as he looked through his rear view mirror he could see the mother of the boy weeping and holding her dead son. And he had to make a decision. Was his religion going to be about doctrine only? Or was it also going to be about deeds? Jab is one of the most orthodox Christians I know. He understand the teaching of the Bible and has taught the Bible at the Melanesian Bible College for years. Few know doctrine like Jab Mesa. But in that split second, Jab had to make a decision. Would his religion be about doctrine only? Or would it also be about deeds—even if those deeds were costly. He made his decision quickly. And Jab turned his car around. Knowing he might be killed by a gathering mob, Jab returned to the scene of the accident. He knew there was no way, as a follower of Jesus, that he could just ignore this tragedy. He got out of his car and wept with the mother, expressed his heartfelt remorse, and tried to help the mother with her son. His deeds caught everyone off guard. It was extremely rare to see a man in this situation do something like this. Once things finally settled down Jab headed to the police station and reported everything that had happened. It is also customary in that culture for the family of a victim to make financial demands of someone who kills a family member—regardless of fault. These demands can run as high as $50,000 U. S. dollars. Jab is a school teacher in a tribal country. He makes very little money. A normal financial demand could have ruined him and his ministry. But because of the compassion that Jab showed at the accident site and the love he continued to show the family through this process, the family asked for only about $11,000. Those familiar with the culture said it was a remarkably low demand. Jab met the family at the police station to deliver part of the money. He then promised that he would bring the rest of the money within a week. He simply didn’t have that kind of cash. He would raise it and bring it next week. And at that promise, a family friend of the victim said this: “That man standing there is a man of God. He is the voice behind the Sunday Sermons aired on the Local Radio…Now you see the face behind the sermons. I trust him and his family and church of Christ family. They will keep their word!” Jab’s reputation as a man of good deeds and not just good doctrine enabled this family to trust that Jab would bring the rest of the money. And then, in an almost unparalleled move, the family of the child who was killed visited Jab later in the week. They brought food and gifts to show their deep respect for him. The way he had acted toward them was so counter-cultural that they wanted to show their own love for him. It was a stunning example of how, when deeds are combined with doctrine, amazing things happen.
HopeWorks is a ministry that puts faith into action. HopeWorks is one way in which Christians across the city can move from of a toxic doctrine-only life into a life in which doctrine expresses itself in deeds which bless people. Ron Wade is the Executive Director of HopeWorks and he’s joining me here today to help us see just what happens when doctrine and deeds come together on behalf of those in need…
Supporting HopeWorks is one way in which you can put your faith into action. On April 29 you’ll have the chance to do just that. We need to raise $129,000 on April 29 to fund the 20 world and urban missions which Highland partners with. These ministries, like HopeWorks, put faith into action. And as a result they do a tremendous good in the world. You can put your faith into action by giving generously on that day.
And you can put your faith into action today by participating in Go MAD. Sunday School classes, Reach Groups and other groups are headed out today to bless the MidSouth through deeds. That’s what Go MAD is all about. It’s about us being a community of people concerned not only with doctrine but also with deeds.