Last Sunday, near the end of the service, about ten people responded to the invitation to give their lives to Jesus. Of course I was as shocked as you are. I thought, “Who let all these heathen sinners in the building? Don’t they know that church is just for Christians?!”
Of course I didn’t think that!
Yet that is exactly how some people perceive the churches of the New Testament – exclusive clubs for Christians only. Some seem to think that the early churches all had halos around them. But the Bible tells us that the early churches attracted all sorts of people, including legalists, false brothers, false teachers, false apostles and Jezebels. Indeed, a healthy church will always attract sinners and good preachers know this. They know that each week they will be preaching to the saved and the unsaved.
A New Testament for all
The New Testament contains several letters written to churches. Every one of them has something to say to both saints and sinners, and James’s letter is no exception. Although his letter is addressed to his Jewish brothers generally, we can be certain that it was written for both believers and unbelievers. Does this surprise you? It shouldn’t. Wherever the gospel was preached there were some Jews who believed and some Jews who didn’t. Jesus could tell who was who (see Jn 8:31); so could Paul (Acts 14:1-2) and Peter (Acts 2:38); so why not James?
As we saw in Part 3 of this study, James wrote to stir up faith and combat unbelief. To inspire us he identifies two heroes of the faith. For Christians, he points to the works of righteous Abraham. For sinners, he describes the works of unrighteous Rahab:
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (Jas 2:25)
Why do I say Abraham was righteous and Rahab was unrighteous? Because James makes it plain that Abraham was counted righteous when he believed (2:23) and before he did his famous deed on the altar. Rahab, on the other hand, was not numbered with the righteous until she acted in faith. In her case, faith without deeds would literally have led to her death (Heb 11:31).
Works of faith #423: National treason
You may already know the story of how Rahab betrayed her city by hiding the spies of Israel. There’s an interesting detail from that story that you may have forgotten. According to Rahab, everyone in Canaan knew about and even feared the Lord. Look at what she says to the spies:
I know that the LORD has given you the land, that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land are fainthearted because of you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were on the other side of the Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And as soon as we heard these things, our hearts melted; neither did there remain any more courage in anyone because of you, for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath. (Jos 2:9-11)
The citizens of Jericho were under judgment. The condemnation of a holy and just God was hanging over their heads and they knew it. Yet none of them, except Rahab, did anything about it. Don’t you find that strange? What do you think James might have said to the paralyzed inhabitants of Jericho?
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (Jas 2:19-20)
If I had been a Canaanite living in Jericho under the fear of God, I’d like to think that I would’ve run to the Israelite camp waving a white flag and shouting “Mercy!” Why didn’t they all do that? Why was Rahab the only one who switched sides? Evidently they were too attached to their precious city for their own good. Perhaps they thought their investment in walls and other defenses would protect them from God’s judgment. Hmm, wonder what James would’ve said about that:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! (Jas 5:1)
All of Jericho feared God, but only one acted. Here’s the take-away: If you believe that God provided a way of escape at the cross, but this belief doesn’t prompt you to open your heart, to switch sides, and say “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner!” then your faith is utterly worthless. You can go to church and hear the gospel every Sunday of your life, you can even accept that it is true, and it won’t change a thing. Unless your faith moves you to open the door of your heart and say, like Rahab, “Lord, save me,” it is a dead and fruitless faith.
My friends, what good is it for one of you to say that you have faith if your actions do not prove it? Can that faith save you? (Jas 2:14, GNB)
Jesus died for you. Now He lives for you! If that doesn’t move you nothing will. Come on now, unlock your tongue, throw up your arms and say “thank you Lord!” Extravagant love deserves at least some response.
Homiletics 101: Know your audience
I said earlier that James was written for both saints and sinners. We who have been saved by grace need to keep this in mind if we are to remain under His grace. In Part 1 of this study we saw that we can get into error if we do not read James in light of the finished work of the cross. Rightly dividing the word also requires us to consider the audience being addressed. Is the preacher speaking to the saved or the lost? Even though there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rms 8:1), Christians may feel condemned if they swallow medicine intended for sinners. Here is some of the life-saving medicine that James has for sinners…
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (Jas 4:4)
How do I know this exhortation is intended for sinners and not saints? Because nowhere in the Bible do you find saints being described as adulterous or God-hating. How can a son of God be an enemy of God?! This verse is clearly for those who stubbornly remain friends with the world, even as God draws near in judgment. If you are an enemy of God, what should you do? James has the answer:
Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (Jas 4:7)
There are only two kinds of people: those who are submitted to the Lordship of King Jesus, and those who persist in rebellion. James knew who was who. Do you? Or are you still not convinced that James is talking to sinners and not saints? Look at this next passage, where James makes it very clear:
Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded… Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (Jas 4:8,10)
Humble yourself before the Lord? I already did that 38 years ago! And it was the smartest thing I ever did because God gave His grace to me and lifted me up (Jas 4:6). I used to be a sinner, but that old sinner has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me and this life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave his life for me (Gal 2:20).
Repent and believe
The gospel challenge can be reduced to three words: “Repent and believe” (Mk 1:15). If you have faith to believe but your faith doesn’t lead to repentance, then you’re as deceived as any Jerichonian:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. (Jas 1:22)
And what does it say? It says “repent!” Make up your mind. Decide whether you are for the Lord or against Him. If Jesus is King, then throw your crown at His feet. Mere listening is not enough. Faith always responds or else it’s not faith.
The Jews of the first century had witnessed an amazing move of God – signs, wonders, and the gospel bearing fruit all over the world. They knew people who had walked with the resurrected Lord. Yet many of them refused to leave the crumbling walls of the old covenant. They looked to the laws that enslave instead of the law of the Spirit of life that brings freedom. Jesus? Sure, they knew all about Him. They’d heard all the stories, even seen a few miracles. But they lived on the fence between two covenants. They were in two minds. And then James came along to wake them out of their stupor.
Imagine you were writing to people who knew about Jesus but who had never repented. What would you say? You might uses phrases like “submit to God,” “humble yourself,” and “draw near.” These are the words James uses and it is exactly the right sort of medicine for an unrepentant sinner. James writes for a verdict. He wants them to turn around and start living by faith in Christ. Then right at the end of his letter James has a message for the rest of us:
He who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (Jas 5:20)
You would think this would motivate us to preach the gospel and challenge sinners to repent. Yet many Christians are so confused about their identity that they’re swallowing medicine that was never meant for them and making themselves sick in the process. Instead of doing the works of God and setting people free, they’re still trying to figure out whether they’re saved by faith or works or both.
Last Sunday when the invitation went out to make a decision for Christ, not for a second did I think the preacher was speaking to me. Neither should you think that all of the New Testament is addressed to you. If you’re a son of God, read the bits written for you and stop living under guilt and condemnation. If you’re still in two minds about these things, then repent and believe!
In Part 5 of this study we will start to unpackage the gospel of grace as James preached it.