Readers of a certain antiquity will recall the comic strip
Peanuts. In particular, you will recall a series of cartoons involving the
Great Pumpkin. Poor Linus; he was convinced that the Great Pumpkin would arrive
in the most sincere pumpkin patch. It did not matter what you believed; just as
long as you were sincere. Today's Scripture talks about that:
use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can
that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of
daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be
filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if
it has no works, is dead, being by
itself. But someone may well say,
"You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works,
and I will show you my faith by my works." You believe that God is one.
You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to
recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not
Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the
altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the
works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says,
"AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,"
and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works
and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also
justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by
another way? For just as the body without the
spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
(James 2:14-26 NASB)
It doesn't matter what you do
It doesn't matter what you do as long as your belief system
is right. Most of us would not subscribe to this position, if it were put so
explicitly. It's something however that we often wind up doing because we don't
think about. It is, of course, completely true that they're asked that the
Christian performs which are not acts of service to mankind. In particular:
An act of devotion.
This is an act which brings glory to God from the devoted Christian. The world
may view it as something extravagant, of little use in the world as a whole,
and rather hard to understand. Worship is like that.
Similarly, an act of praise may seem somewhat strange. What
practical good does it do to sing hymns? There is an argument that there is such
a good, but the world itself is not going to see it that way.
Acts of charity, however, are universally seen as being
significant indicators of what a person believes. Human beings reason that you
would not perform an act of charity unless you are motivated by love – or
pride. One way or the other, an act of charity is reconciled with your beliefs.
So it does matter what you believe, but it also matters what you do.
That's why James asks us here, "what use is that?"
If the situation calls for an act of charity, and you don't provide, what
should the average human being conclude about that? That being the case, we can
now take a look at some of the excuses and supposedly reasons we have for doing
"God will provide"
This is a fairly common one. It also means we, personally, don't
happen to have the time or money or will to provide, but we have certain faith
that God will do so. The fact that he might want to do so through us seems to
be somewhat elusive. In fact, there is excellent reason for avoiding this
This is a form of testing God — which is forbidden.
The truth is that God will provide. There are some spectacular
examples of this in the Bible.
But it is also true that God expects us to be willing to provide.
We don't often see it this way, but God's method is to work
through us. We are to work as if everything depended on us, and to pray as if
everything depended upon him.
"Not Right Now"
My wife and I usually carry gift cards to a local fast food
restaurant. We do this so that we will be ready to give. Often, Christians are
not ready to give. This should not be
This is a form of laziness. You know you should be charitable,
but to do so means that you'll have to take the time and trouble to go and
purchase some gift cards – before you need them. It is simply prudent to be
prepared to give; it is laziness to omit such prudence.
Such lack of readiness causes hardness of heart. We get used to
not giving away anything, and it soon becomes habit.
Most deadly of all, assuring yourself that you will do it later
runs the risk that later will not come. You do not know the day or hour of your
Lord's return — but you do know that you should be ready.
"I'm a specialist"
Some of us get the idea that we're perfectly prepared to be
charitable, but only to certain selected few people. We specialize in a
particular type of charity, so to speak. Are we specialize in doing something,
or doing nothing? Remember the story of the starfish.
It Doesn't Matter What You Believe
Sincerity As Excuse
Most of us are pretty well aware that our sincerity about
what we believe is not really a good excuse for believing stupid things. In
fact, this is usually a simple cover for hypocrisy. But there are some
sincerely believed items which we should look at. First, have you ever had
someone tell you that they sincerely believe that the Bible would have said
something had it been written a little later? It's just that Paul didn't know
about online pornography, you see(pun intended). In fact this is not hypocrisy,
but blasphemy. It is quite literally taking the Lord's name in vain, saying
that he would have pronounced thus and such had he but lived a little later.
This is not usually used to permit something, but deny it.
It is a cover for legalism. As you most likely know, legalism is a form of
mental laziness; it substitutes rules and regulations for the understanding of
the Spirit. Curiously, we have come to accept the idea that legalism is just
fine as long as we are sincere about it.
Heresy and Error
There is a serious question behind this, however. There are
any number of different positions held by serious Christians in one or another
denomination which conflict with positions held by other denominations. Let's
take an example: how often should you serve communion? The authors church
services every week, citing the example given in the book of Acts. Other
churches do it as seldom as once a year. Does this make them heretics? Or are
they simply mistaken?
If you're going to answer this question, you will soon have
to ask what's important in the faith and what is not. What is essential? We can
look to the history of the church for this answer. How so? Simple; we look at
all the things that have been called heresies so far and see whether common
characteristics are. They generally fall into one of two categories:
Items concerning the atonement.
Items concerning either the divinity or humanity of Jesus.
These are the things that genuinely divide the church. The
rest we may simply write off as simple errors. How did I get this dividing
line? Simple enough; heresy is that which divides the church. How often you
serve communion can be settled by a compromise at a committee meeting. Whether
or not Jesus is fully divine will split the church — and has.
Why is this important? We're trying to determine whether or
not it matters what you believe; when it does and when it doesn't.
Do Good Moslems Go to Heaven?
Here's an example of a question that does need an answer,
and the answer is important. It also shows us the connection between whether or
not our doctrine is correct (and what we do about it) and very important
results. If Christianity is true, Moslems go to hell. If you believe that to be
the case does your example matter? Does the small bit of charity you perform in
the sight of a Moslem make a difference? Does your attitude about the major
issues of the day (for example, the role of women in society) make a
difference? Does what you believe make a difference?
Intellect and the Will
We Are What We Train to Be
Presuming that you now agree that your beliefs are important
and should be correct as far as possible, there comes the question of how do we
achieve this goal. The first step is in training the mind. This is fairly
obvious; it's the reason we have sermons. The problem with it of course is that
there is always less transfer of will than you think. In short, sermons are
easily forgotten unless put in practice. It is also true however that
well-trained Christians have an impact far beyond their numbers; ask any
Catholic about the Jesuits. It's a part of Christian maturity; we train up a
child in the way in which we should go. It applies to new Christian adults as
We Are What We Practice
Of course, we need to put what we have learned into
practice. Paul put it to Timothy this way:
however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of,
knowing from whom you have learned them,
and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to
give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ
(2 Timothy 3:14-15 NASB)
(You might take a look at the next two verses as well, to
see the context in which he said it.) This is the spiritual equivalent of
physical exercise; by analogy, the church (and its classrooms) is the gymnasium
of the spirit. Practice completes training. But the Christian has an additional
resource of great power.
We Are What the Spirit Makes Us
One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to reveal the
things of God.
This is how it is the questions can often surprise the world with what they can
do. In the 19th century, in Great Britain, the smart money was on the establishment
to retain slavery. After all, the Bible doesn't say you're supposed to abolish
it. So the Christians will probably have nothing to say about it. But by the
power of the Spirit, there arose John Newton, his story of the slave trader
reformed by the Holy Spirit, and his writing of the great hymn, Amazing Grace.
Here is the genuine difference of the Christian. Therefore
do not quench the Holy Spirit, but rather pray that you might accept as much as
possible of his power, knowledge and wisdom.
It is the secret of the Christian life: the imitation of
Christ. It is not particularly complicated; often enough it is not particularly
difficult. But the world — and its ruler — will always oppose this.