Tag Archives: james 2

Why being “born again” might not be as crazy as it sounds

22 May

It is cringe-worthy. I admit it. Being born again?  It just sounds weird, not to mention the baggage associated with “Born Againers” in our society.  My guess is that most people don’t know what it means to be born again.  Or they believe born-againers are fundamentalistic, and therefore, mean, jugdmental and harsh.

But being born again is none of that.  In fact, please read on, because what being born again really is just might surprise you.

Last week I started preaching through the book of the Bible called 1st Peter.  It is actually a letter the Apostle Peter wrote to Christians around the Roman Empire in 1st Century AD when they were being persecuted.  This past Sunday, we looked at 1 Peter 1:3-5.

In verse 3, Peter exclaims, “Praise be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ!”  When you’re reading the Bible, you pretty much expect a phrase like this, right?  “Praise God!” sounds like a really biblical thing to say because it is a really biblical thing to say.  But why does Peter praise God?  Is he bursting with praise, just because?  Nope.  He has a reason.  There is something causing him to praise God.

Peter praises God for his great mercy.  God, Peter says, does not give us what we deserve.  As people who so often choose to rebel against God, whether in big ways or in tiny little ways, what we deserve is punishment of being separated from God.

But that’s where God’s mercy enters the scene. He could separate us from himself, but he chooses not to do that.

Instead, Peter says, God has mercy on us in that he has given us new birth!

New birth is a very Christianese sounding idea.  Here’s the thing though, Peter and other Christians didn’t make it up.  Jesus did.  Peter is just using words that Jesus taught him.  In John 3 we read the story when Jesus taught this.

Let me set the scene a bit.  The religious establishment guys were constantly on Jesus’ case?  They were called Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Jewish law, and Jesus often had run-ins with these guys.  The religious establishment guys were the power-brokers in the land of Israel.  What they said was law.  If you didn’t follow what they said, watch out.  The problem is that they had stacked law upon law upon law so that it was incredibly difficult for the regular person to have any hope that they, the regular Joes, could truly enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus could not stand for that lie, and he undermined their false system every chance he could get.  As you can imagine, the average Joes loved him for it, and the leaders hated him for it, and the leaders looked for ways to take Jesus down.

But not all of them.  Some of the leaders were curious about this Jesus guy.  They had never encountered someone with his gifts and abilities and teaching and miracles.  As hard as they tried to defeat him, those miracles were hard to argue with.  So at least one of the Pharisees was really intrigued by Jesus and knew he needed to meet with Jesus.  But it had to be in secret, under cover of night.  This Pharisee could not risk being found out by his Pharisee pals that he was going to talk with Jesus.

That is where John 3 picks up. Before you continue this post, read John 3:1-10 or so.

Did you read where Jesus says to Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3 that no one can see the Kingdom of God, unless they are born again?  That’s where the common Christian phrase “new birth” or “born again” comes from. Jesus himself!

Well, this confused Nicodemus greatly.  Born again? You can’t be born again. It’s obvious, Jesus.

Frankly, it is almost silly to me that Nicodemus even brought that up in verse 4.  It is so obvious that Jesus is speaking figuratively here.  You almost want to shake your head at Nicodemus, like we do nowadays and say, “Really?  Really?!  You think he wants you to get back inside a womb?”

Of course not, Jesus explains, what he means is that you must be born of water (which is natural birth) and spirit (which is the new birth).   Nicodemus is still confused, and in verse 10, I love how honest Jesus is. Can you imagine the twinkle in Jesus’ eye when he says, “You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?”

That’s Jesus saying, “Come on, man, do I have to really spell it out for you?  When I say you have to be born again, I’m not talking about taking you to the hospital so the surgeons can cram you back inside a womb!”

Look at verse 5 where Jesus explains what he means.  The Spirit of God must change us!  We must be born of the Spirit from the inside out.  That is the “born again” that Jesus is talking about.  But how are we born again by the Spirit?

Jesus goes on to say that it starts with believing in him.  Look further down at verses 16-18.  Being born again, means that we have a spiritual rebirth which starts by believing in Jesus, and a change takes place within us, a real change.  This is symbolized in our practice of baptism.  We go under the water to symbolize that we have died to our old selves, and we rise up out of the water to symbolize the spiritual rebirth, that we have new life in Christ.

Let me say something very important about belief.  It is not intellectual or mental assent.  Intellectual or mental assent is just saying, “Yeah, I believe that.  I would say that is true.”  But mental assent does not impact your life.  Jesus is not looking for intellectual assent.  Jesus is not interested in people just believing a fact about him.  I have quoted our Bishop Bruce many times throughout the years, when he says, “Jesus doesn’t want believers.”

That phrase might sound ludicrous when you are reading John 3:16 (“whosever believes in him”).  But Bishop Bruce is right on the money.  Jesus doesn’t want us to just agree to factual data about him.  He wants us to be his disciples.  He wants belief to lead to action.  How do we know this?

In James 2, we read that even the demons believe!  In other words, you can believe the right things about Jesus, but not have been born again into the new life of Jesus.  What Jesus wants, Bishop Bruce says, is disciples. A disciple believes and follows Jesus, learning from Jesus how to live out the principles and the way of the Kingdom of God right here and right now.  A disciples actually changes.  Jesus once taught “by their fruits you will know them.”  You can tell who is reborn, because the new things of the Spirit flow out of their lives.  The evidence of the Spirit changing us from the inside out is what is called the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control.   That’s what it means to have new birth.

And that is not so strange, is it?

How to grow your faith

12 Oct

 

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In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus tells what I think is one of the scariest stories in the Bible.  It is a story of people who thought they had faith.  But their faith was primarily intellectual, belief.  Jesus says to them that something important is missing.  They did not have the kind of faith that he said mattered.  They didn’t having saving faith.  Their intellectual faith was not matched with physical faith.  Saving faith has both!  How does Jesus describe saving faith in Matthew 7:21-23?  People who do what the Father says.

If you say that you have faith, but you do not do what the Father says, you only have an intellectual faith, not a life of faith.

This is why James says “faith without works is dead.”  And dead faith will not gain you entrance into the Kingdom of heaven.

And it is in James 2 starting in verse 14 where we learn about this important element of faith.  Notice how different James’ conception of faith is.  It is not just intellectual belief.  James says, even the demons believe.  The demons know that Jesus is Lord; they know in their minds what is true.  But clearly that doesn’t mean that the demons are a part of the Kingdom of heaven.

The point that James is trying to make is that faith must go beyond belief.

Faith goes beyond belief when we keep pursuing Jesus, when we learn from him how to live.  When we place our faith in Jesus, we are saying to him, “Jesus I want you to change me.  I am not just believing things in my mind about you.  I want my faith in you to be the impetus, the spark of a total life change.”

That change might be over night. But it could also, and I think should also, last a lifetime.

This past week our Faith Church Nominating Committee had the privilege of interviewing candidates for our Leadership Team.  We’ve been doing these interviews for three-four years now, and each year during the interviews I am reminded of how they are one of the favorite things I get to do as a pastor.  Why?  Because we hear the stories of how faith in God has transformed people.

Sometimes the candidates tell a dramatic story of how God radically changed their lives in a moment.  Sometimes they tell an equally powerful story of how they were raised in faith from a young age, and they gradually slowly placed their faith in the Lord.  When we place our faith in God, there are many ways he works transformation in our lives!

I want to ask you, therefore, to evaluate your faith.

Have you ever really, truly placed your faith in Christ?  Can you say that you really believe in Jesus, that he is God, that he died for our sins, that he was raised to life victorious over death?  Maybe you’re reading this now, and you’d like to accept the gift of God’s grace by faith. I would love to talk with you about how to do that.

But maybe you’ve already placed your intellectual faith in Christ.  You would say that you believe in him.  I also ask you to evaluate your faith.  Is it just intellectual?  Just in your mind?  That is not saving faith.

Faith learns from Jesus how to live.  As I said last week, and now again, study Jesus’ life, watching for how he demonstrated faith.

Seek out someone whom you would say has great faith.  Ask them to teach you how to grow your faith.

Read those stories in the Bible in Hebrews 11 about people who had great faith.  Search out the original telling of those stories in the Old Testament, and see if you can learn why the author of Hebrews included them.

Finally, take a step of faith. You can grow your faith by doing something that stretches your faith, your trust in God.  Maybe serving in a position in your church, a position you might feel iffy about.  Maybe starting up a conversation with a neighbor who you’ve always wanted to talk with about faith, but you’ve been shy.  Maybe give a financial gift of faith to the Lord.

Get a faith accountability partner.  Each of you make one faith goal, and hold each other to accomplishing that goal.

Know this. Faith is not faith if it only resides in the mind. Faith without works is dead. But you can grow your faith!

An early church MMA match – Faith and Works: Paul versus James, Round 1

11 Oct

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Did you know that the early church had an theology MMA match?  James vs. Paul.

Paul said Faith doesn’t work.

James said Faith does work.

Each was an important leader in the early church.  Paul its greatest missionary.  James the bishop of its biggest church (and brother of Jesus).  They really seem to conflict with each other.

I’ve mentioned that Ephesians 2:8-9 is a critical verse when considering Sola Gratia and Sola Fide.  There Paul puts these two Solas together, teaching that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works.

But right up against it, we have James 2 who says that faith without works is dead.

What gives?  Is faith just in our mind?  Just a set of beliefs that we think?  In other words is faith “not works”?

Or is faith without works dead?  Meaning, if faith is just a set of beliefs in our mind, is it an empty, worthless faith?

Is Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 a contradiction of James 2:14-26?

I think we need to look at Abraham a bit more.  Turn to Romans 4, and let’s take a deeper look at Paul’s description of Abraham’s faith.

Read verses 1-3.  Paul says Abraham believed, and God credited righteousness to him.

Paul explains this in verses 4-5.  Read this. We employees understand what Paul is saying.  How many of you are hourly employees?  You work one hour, you earned one hours pay.  How many of you are salaried?  You work and do your job, and you receive your pay.  But when you believe in God, you haven’t done any work, you haven’t earned anything, you deserve no pay, no grace.  And this is where grace comes in.  Though you don’t deserve it, God credits you his righteousness anyway.  That is grace, received by faith, not by works.

Paul talks about this a bit more, but jump down to verse 18.  Here he really gets to the heart of the matter.  He explains that though Abraham was old, as good as dead, “he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith!”  He was fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised, and this is why it was credited to him as righteousness.  What is more, we can ALL have God’s righteousness credited to us the same way if we do what Paul says in verse 24-25.

“Believe in God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.”

Now jump down to Romans 5, and let’s keep reading.  Read verses 1-11.  This is the message of salvation in Christ that is the by grace through faith.

Praise God!  Though we are sinners, God loves us, and through faith in Christ, we can be forgiven!

Remember what Paul said Ephesians 2:8-9? We are saved by grace through faith, not by works.  There Paul is describing faith at the moment of salvation.  We might say this is where a relationship with God starts.  But note what Paul says, it is not by works.  Jesus had to do the work.  We cannot earn our salvation.  We have to place our faith in what Jesus did through his life, death and resurrection.

But how do we place our faith in God?  Let’s review what we have learned so far.

We have seen the intellectual side of faith:

  1. I believe that God exists.
  2. I believe that I am separated from God because of my sin.
  3. I believe that God graciously forgives my sin through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection.

But there is also a physical side of Faith:

  1. God, I give my life to you, and I want to know you, to serve you, to live for you. You are now my leader, you show me how to live.
  2. And then you actually make life choices based on God’s pattern of life, most clearly displayed by Jesus in the Gospel. A life of faith is a life that says “Jesus, teach me how to live.”