The Gospel for the Rest of Us: How to Be Your Own God

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on December 4, 2016

James 2:8-13

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As you’re being seated, if you would take your Bibles and open up to the book of James, we’re in James chapter 2 this evening. We’ll consider our study of this wonderful New Testament book over the coming months. You’ll find our passage on page 1012 if you’re using a pew Bible. James 2:8-13. If you’re visiting, again, we’re glad you’re here. Thanks for being here tonight. We’d love to meet you afterward. Please don’t hesitate to come find one of us. Let’s pray together, then we’ll read James 2:8-13. Let’s pray!


Father, it’s hard to imagine, but something extraordinary is going to happen here in just a minute. You’re going to speak to us from a Word that was written thousands of years ago and yet it transcends space and time to meet us right where we’re at here, in Jackson, Mississippi, tonight. Would You please do that? By the power of the Holy Spirit, would You give every soul here what it needs from Your Word? We ask all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.


James 2 beginning at verse 8. This is God’s Word:


“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of our God shall stand forever.


Theologian R.C. Sproul, many of you may be familiar with him; he started Ligonier Ministries. Just a great preacher and writer. He told a story once of being on a train next to a young lady who had just gotten back from a spiritual retreat. Kind of one of those new age spiritual retreats. And she was so excited about what she had learned and she was explaining this to Dr. Sproul and the capstone of her whole experience was this. Those of you who’ve ever heard Dr. Sproul, he’s kind of gruff. She says to him, “And I learned that I am God!” And Sproul looked at her across the train and kind of looked around and leaned in and smiled at her and said, “You don’t really believe that, do you?” And she looked at him and said, “No, I guess you’re right. I don’t believe that!” We laugh, but what James does for us here this evening is to show us that in all of our lives there are times when we have wanted to be little gods. That’s what this section is about here.

Let me remind us of the context briefly. It’s been a few months since we’ve been in this book. This is a New Testament wisdom book. What James is telling you is that Jesus, who is wisdom incarnate, is available for everybody here. All you have to do is ask. The only way to miss the best wisdom ever is to be satisfied with where you are right now. If you’re satisfied with where you are right now, you’ll miss Jesus. But if you simply ask, He is available. That’s what this book is all about in a big picture. But two words summarize James’ message – genuine faith. He wants to ask and look and answer questions about “What does it mean to really be a follower of Jesus?” And let’s be clear, he is not writing to tell us how to be saved by doing. That is not the message of James. That is sometimes the reputation he gets; that it’s a book about how to be saved by doing. Actually, what the book is about is about what saved people do. That’s what he’s encouraging us to see and what he’s writing about. Now this section of James follows after verse 27 of chapter 1. He says, “What is real religion?” And he says it’s not to be tainted by the world. And he says, “What then is the great example of worldliness?” And 2, chapter 2 verses 1 through 13, show us this example of worldliness. It’s favoritism; showing partiality. And then in 14 to 26 at the end of chapter 2, he says, “Let’s talk about what faith and works look like in that relationship,” and we’ll begin that next week.


But here we are in 2:8-13. And did you notice that word I read five times? Law. Law. James is concerned here as he sets us up for 14-26 to talk to us about a proper understanding of God’s Law for the believer. So we’ll look at this text under two headings. Law and love in verses 8 through 11. And judgment and mercy in verses 12 and 13. So Law and love in verses 8 through 11 and judgment and mercy in 12 and 13. And the main point of this whole section is this – James shows us that partial people have hope, partial people have hope when we understand the relationship between God’s Law and God’s love. Partial people like us have hope when we understand the relationship between God’s Law and God’s love.


Law and Love


First of all then, Law and love. Right back there at verse 8. “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” James, again, is concerned for genuine faith and he begins by telling us that genuine faith fulfills this royal law. And he summarizes the second table of the Law, it’s called. David just finished preaching through the Ten Commandments in the morning. The second table of the Law is commandments five through ten – our duty towards our fellow man. And James summarizes that the same way his half-brother and our Savior, Jesus, did by saying, “If you want a good summary of those five commandments, it is, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And James says that’s the mark of genuine faith.


But here’s the problem. Favoritism doesn’t do that. He spent, in the previous verses, talking to the congregation and to us about people who come in who are poor to this assembly and people who favoritism to the rich man and shame the poor man. And James says, “If you really fulfill the royal law you would do well.” And he’s doing it in kind of an ironic way because the implied part there of this verse is, “But none of you do. If you really do this, you would do well, but none of us do.” That’s his point. And he’s going to give us a concrete illustration of how we fail to fulfill the Law in the next verses. But for now, what he’s doing is this. He’s saying this royal law is the law of the kingdom; it’s the law for people who are following Jesus. And it’s a standard that is higher than we can possibly fathom. Keep that in the back of your minds as we work through this.


God’s Law Reflects His character

But here’s what James is also up to. He wants to show us that God’s Law and His love are not opposites. That’s hard for modern people because we think Law and love are two separate things. But what James, as a good Jewish man and writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is teaching us is this – all of the Law reflects God’s character. All of it. That’s his overarching theme here. Every bit of it reflects who God is. Therefore, the same God who tells us to love is the God who gave Law. They are not opposites. But we have a problem. And that’s what he goes into there, beginning at verse 9. He says if we show partiality we are committing sin.


Our Inaccurate View of God’s Law

And here’s the way we deal with God’s Law, I think, at least. This is how I do it. We tend to think of obedience to God’s Law like auto-correct when we’re texting. Okay? You kind of get it in the right area and then iOS 10 or whatever you have fills in the blanks. Right? So you say or type, “Igfthfu.” And it comes out like that when you say it or type is. And iOS 10 corrects it and says, “I’ll get it.” We kind of think of God’s Law that way. As long as we’re in the general area He’ll make up for whatever deficiencies there are. James says that that is a profoundly mistaken view of God’s Law, a profoundly mistaken view. And his examples prove our inaccurate that view of God’s Law is. He begins by saying if we show partiality or favoritism, which seems like such a little sin. Can’t we just picture somebody in the congregation James is ministering to saying to him, “Wait a minute James? All I did was not let this guy have the best seat in the house and you’re telling me I’m as bad as the guy locked up for murder? Don’t you think that’s a big extreme, Pastor James?” And James explains it this way. He says, “Here’s the deal. If you keep one law but break another, you’re guilty of the whole thing. So it really doesn’t matter if you’ve never committed adultery. If you commit murder, you’re still guilty of breaking all of the Law. Vice versa. If you commit adultery and you say, ‘Well I’ve never killed anybody,’” James says, again, “It doesn’t matter.” God’s Law is of one piece because it reflects His holy character; the character of the God who gave it.


Obedience to God’s Law is an All or Nothing Proposition

Now understanding this relationship of Law and love and how this all relates together will be hugely important as we come to the very famous section of James’ book next week. But notice what he’s saying right here. And this is also very important. James is not telling us this, which is often the way he gets painted. He’s not saying, “Here’s what the Law is for. You do your best and God makes up the difference and when you die, if you haven’t done as much bad as you’ve done good then you’re okay.” That is not his message!  James is not a legalist. He is not, again, teaching us how to be saved by our doing. Here is what he is saying. He is saying obedience to God’s Law is an all or nothing proposition. It is an all or nothing proposition. There is no middle ground. You obey all of it or you obey none of it. And that is terrifying because if you’re sitting here tonight and you’re anything like me, you read that and you get nervous because you see how often you don’t love your neighbor as yourself. You see how often you fail to complete and do what God calls us to do. And we’ll come back to that in a second.


There Are No Little Sins

Another thing, notice what James is saying here! He’s saying what seems like a small sin, favoritism, is actually a really big deal. What seems like a small sin is a big deal because, again, every part of God’s Law is God’s Law. So here it is in sum. There are no little sins. There are no little sins. That is the message of James right here. All or nothing obedience; there are no little sins. So here’s the question. Is there hope for partial people like us, people who show partiality by partial obedience? Is there hope for partial people like you and me? We’ll come back to that at the end.


Judgment and Mercy


In the second place, in verses 12 and 13 we see judgment and mercy. Look at those verses there. So James gives this example in verse 11. “For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’” If you do one or the other you’ve broken the whole thing. Then in verse 12, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” And he closes this section then on favoritism with this verse by telling us that we are to live like God’s children. In the first sermon we noticed that as he describes who we are, he says, “You’re slaves of grace.” That’s who he tells us Christians are. “You’re slaves. You’ve been made captive to God. You’re slaves to His grace.” And here in verse 12, he says, “Live like it. Live like the King’s children.” And therefore he’s saying to us the Law of God, the God who has adopted you, who has shown you grace, who loves you, the Law of God is not something to be detested but loved. That’s why he calls it “the Law of liberty.” That’s why the longest psalm in the Bible is a love song not about another person but about the Word of God. James says the same thing that we see throughout all the Scriptures. He says to us, “God’s Law is not something to be hidden away from, to be detested if you’re a Christian; it’s something to be loved. It’s a law that brings liberty.”


Personal Freedom is Not the Highest Good

Let me see if I can make this clear by an example. Here’s what we’re told today. We’re told that the highest virtue in our society is personal freedom and the biggest place that shows up is in how we look at sexual ethics. Here’s what we’re told today in a nutshell. We’re told that more sex with more people is the best sex and that no sex until marriage and only within marriage is really no sex at all. That’s what we’re told. You see, freedom to do what you please with your body is the highest moral good that anybody can think of. That is why when we come with the message that we come with from the Scriptures about chastity, about sexual ethics from the Bible – one man, one woman for life – that’s why it falls so often on deaf ears. And let me say if you’re here tonight and you don’t agree with anything I’m saying, I would love to talk to you afterward, but just be patient and stay with me. Here’s the point that James is saying to us. Personal freedom is not the highest good. Because of this, here’s the deal, he says this. If you believe, if you understand what he’s saying here that obedience is all or nothing, the moment that you choose which part of God’s Law you’re going to obey and which part you’re not going to obey, guess what you’ve just done. You’ve made yourself a little god. You’ve made yourself a little god. You’ve said, “I’ve got the competency to judge which parts I’ll believe and which parts I can safely leave behind.”


Human Dehumanization

And the way that that’s going to show up in our lives today is, “Yes, Law is bad; freedom is awesome. All that matters is nobody is telling me what to do. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” If I could, without being snarky, let me ask you a question if that’s your view. How’s that working out for you? How is that working out for you? Let’s look at this view; let’s go back to that example of sexual ethics. Notice what’s promised freedom. More sex with more people. That promises so much freedom. “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do. I’m not going to live according to those old fashioned rules.” Do you know what that view does to you and to the people that you’re with? It dehumanizes both of you because when you make yourself a little god and set yourself up over God’s Law, you inevitably dehumanize yourself and other people. They become useful tools as long as they provide you pleasure, but after that, they are to be discarded. I can hardly think of something more dehumanizing than how we look at personal freedom as the ultimate good today.


Guardrails for Our Lives

And by contrast, here’s what James says about God’s Law for us. He says – think about it like this. When we lived in South Carolina, we would drive up to see Callie’s family in Lexington, Kentucky. And the way you get there from South Carolina is up highway 25 from Greenville, up through the mountains to I-26, to I-40, to 75. All through the mountains, through east Tennessee, beautiful areas like Knoxville and all these amazing places. But here’s the deal. It is a lot of mountain travel. We’re not familiar with that here in Mississippi! You get there quickly if you live in South Carolina or North Carolina. And when you’re going around these turns, especially if you’ve got a family with you, and there’s trucks flying by you, the thing that gives you comfort is on either side of you on those interstates are guardrails. Now imagine if this philosophy of personal freedom was applied to the way the highway department does its job and says, “You know, the greatest virtue is that you have the freedom to have no guardrails on either side of the highway.” That’s not freedom at all, is it? Because the thing that keeps us safe is those guardrails.


That’s what God’s Law is to us. It’s the guardrails for our lives so that we make it safely. God puts them up only to restrain us from killing ourselves. Not because He hates us, not because the restrictions are such that God’s Law is something evil or to be done away with. No, they’re like the guardrails on that interstate; it’s like the guardrails on that interstate. They keep us safe. That’s what James is telling us.


And then he draws one final conclusion. He says “judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy.” Here’s what happens as well when we make ourselves little gods. You see, if you think you’re competent enough to judge God’s Law, you’re going to think you’re competent enough to judge other people. This is why people who have this other standard than God’s Law – and this may be you. And I’m just saying look over your life, stay with me; this might be you. Look over your life and see if this isn’t the case. That you become a judgmental person. Because until you’re destroyed by God’s Law until you see how high the standard is and that you haven’t met it, you’re going to think you’re doing okay. You’re going to start comparing yourself to other people. You’re going to say, “I’m not as bad as that guy. I haven’t killed anybody. I pay my taxes. I’m a nice neighbor. I’m a good student.” Whatever it is, you’re going to inevitably become a little bit, even just a little bit self-righteous.


And Jesus says this to us here. He says, “If that’s how you think about things if you live in a constant lifestyle of, ‘I’m okay,’” He says, “Judgment is without mercy,” because merciful people don’t come from self-righteous roots. Merciful people spring from the rich soil of God’s mercy. Or put another way, the more you know of the mercy of Jesus because you’ve been wrecked by God’s Law, the more you know of that mercy, the more you will show of that mercy. And if you’ve never experienced that mercy and your lifestyle is one of, “I’ve got this. I don’t need God. I’m going to do things on my own,” Jesus says, “Well here’s what you can expect. You want justice? You want things to be fair? I will deal fairly with you and it will not be pleasant,” and Jason just read to us from the children’s catechism.


But the Gospel teaches something totally different. Again, it says if you’ve known the mercy of God you understand this if you understand nothing else. None of us here has been impartial. None of us here have loved our neighbor as ourselves. Therefore, all of us are destroyed by this Law. All of us are undone by it. And all of us are driven to say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” And when we end up there, that’s when you end up in verse 13 the last half. “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” God’s mercy triumphs in Jesus. By His cross, we who should get judgment get mercy while He who was the Law incarnate and therefore love incarnate, gets judgment. That’s what James is saying.


There’s No Such Thing As a Little Sin.

So what does all this do for us? Here’s the point. Again, there’s no such thing as a little sin. Maybe we think a second look at somebody who’s not our spouse our sliding that credit card again when we know we don’t need to spend that money or even that third helping of ice cream, we don’t think it’s a big deal. But James is saying all of it is a big deal to us. And whenever we excuse our little sins, what are we saying? We’re saying, “I am a little god. I got this. I can do it on my own.” And here’s the question. How do you know what your little sins are? How do you know where you’ve become a little god? Let’s get at it from that angle. How do you know where you’ve become a little god in your life? Here is the surest test. What irritates you? I mean, gets under your skin quickly. I’m willing to bet, if you’re like me, it’s not a righteous irritation. You’re not irritated because people aren’t believing the Gospel. You’re not irritated because giving to world missions is down. You’re irritated because you took a little bit longer to get to work. You’re irritated because the kids interrupted you yet again while you’re trying to get something done. What irritates you?


And whenever we’re irritated that way, what are we saying? We’re saying, “God, I don’t need You. I like my schedule my way. I want to be a Burger King Christian. I want it my way, right away, and if anybody or anything else gets in that way they’re going to feel the wrath of me, the little god. So that’s where it shows up in our lives. What irritates you? The only solution for little gods who excuse little sins, people like us, is a fresh taste of the living God who never excuses any sin. That’s what we need. We need a fresh taste of the living God who excuses no sins. But that’s terrifying. That is terrifying. Is there hope for partial people like us?


And here’s James’ answer. Did you see how he framed this section of his letter? It opens with an impossible command. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Does anybody want to raise their hand in here tonight and say, “I’ve done that? I’ve done that perfectly. I’ve done it with a right motive, a right standard, and a right goal. I have done that!” Does anybody here want to say, “Yes, that’s me?” It begins with an impossible command and then James ends with unfathomable grace. Do you see how he put it? “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” As we’re going to see in the next couple of weeks, the big debate in Church history is – are James and Paul at odds with one another? Does Paul have one Gospel and James just comes and totally refutes it in James 2:14-26? No, no, no. They both have the same view of God’s Law. They say that it’s a good thing but only when you understand what it’s for, my friends. And that’s why James ends where he does. The only way to understand God’s Law rightly is to begin by admitting that you’ve never kept any of it, that you are not a basically good person; that as you sit here tonight listening to me, one not basically good person is talking to a lot of not basically good people. That is the starting point for the Gospel. You have not kept this Law. I have not kept this Law. There is no hope for partial people if the only way to heaven is through full obedience to this perfect Law of liberty. No hope whatsoever.


But here’s the amazing thing. Once you admit this, once you say, “That’s me. Me too. I’ve done that,” what God’s Law demands His love provides. What God’s Law demands His love provides in Jesus. Think about it. Is there any better example in the history of our sad, fallen, human race of somebody loving His neighbor as Himself than our Savior? The people everybody forgot about, the people who James’ congregation would have asked, “You stand over here.” Those were His people. And not only did He love His neighbor as Himself, He loved His enemies better than they ever could. That’s us. What does Paul say? “While we were still His enemies, He died for us.” Have you stopped and thought about that recently? That apart from Jesus, there is enmity between us and God. There is no hope. There is no reconciliation. There’s no way to raise the white flag and say, “Enough God!” No, enmity! Totally and completely between us and God if Jesus isn’t our Friend. And He is. He’s the one who out of every person who’s ever lived – here’s what I want you to realize – there’s only been one person in the history of the human race who’s ever kept the Law of God perfectly and His name is Jesus. He’s the only one. Everybody else fails – you fail; I fail. No one else is even close. He’s the only one. He’s the only hope then for partial people like us.


And why is that good news? Because friends, Jesus is never partial either in His judgment or His grace. He is never partial either in His judgment or His grace. If you reject Him, He will be impartial in showing you justice. And let me assure you, you do not want that. All of us should be clear here. We should never say, “God give me what’s fair.” I don’t want what’s fair. What’s fair is the children’s catechism question we just heard, for all of us. He’s impartial in His judgment, but when you come to Him, as I said at the beginning, He’s so available. All you have to do is ask Him. When you do that, you’ll find that His impartiality extends far beyond His judgment. He’s impartial and free in showing grace to anybody who comes to Him, anybody. Wherever you are tonight, He will meet you where you’re at and praise God He won’t leave you where you’re at. But He will meet you right where you’re at. You don’t have to clean yourself up, you don’t have to say, “I’m going to do better, try harder, and be nicer this week and then I can come back and think about following Jesus.” He says, “Follow Me when you’re stained with sin. Follow Me when you’re in the middle of being a partial, judgmental, harsh person.” That’s all of us.


The most self-righteous, judgmental person I know is married to Callie, has three girls, and lives in Belhaven. He looks at me in the mirror every morning. That’s the most self-righteous person I know. That’s all of us. And Jesus comes to destroy that. And how does He do it? He does it by keeping the Law perfectly in our place and then saying, “By simple faith in Me, that perfect, Law-keeping record becomes yours.” Can you fathom that? If you’re a Christian here tonight and somebody asks you, “Are you perfect in God’s sight?” you’d better answer with a ready, “Yes!” Yes, you are! You’ve got the record of Jesus given to you. It’s His mercy and His grace that gives that to you so freely. And that’s the way He wins us to Himself. And He says, “Now, by faith, in simple faith in Me and faith alone, that record is yours!” And now, now that Law that used to strike terror into your heart is something to write a love song about. It’s something to write the longest psalm in the Bible about. That’s what James tells us. All you have to do is admit that you need Him.


When I graduated from the University of South Carolina, one of the things my dad gave me was a couple of sets of books. One of them was the great books series of Harvard, and the other was The Complete Works of Winston Churchill, and then the excellent biography of Churchill by Manchester. And so my dad was always a big Churchill guy; that’s what he gave me to read about leadership. And so Callie and I, a lot of our friends have been talking about this series, “The Crown,” and so we finally sat down to watch this. And John Lithgow plays Churchill. He’s tremendous. It’s amazing to see into that guy’s life. But there’s this scene in “The Crown” that we saw recently that speaks right to what we’re talking about here this evening. Newly minted Queen Elizabeth goes to see her grandmother, Queen Mary. She’s just had this crisis in the government, she’s felt like she’s not done enough like she’s taken the wrong side and she knows it’s a politically unstable environment so she goes to her grandmother and here’s what Queen Mary says to her. She says, “To be impartial is not natural, not human. People always want you to smile or agree or frown. The minute you do, you will have declared a position, a point of view, and that is the one thing as Sovereign that you are not entitled to do.”


Did you hear what she said? “To be impartial is not natural, not human.” Let me say, I think Mary was right. I think you know she’s right. All of us are partial people – partial in our favoritism; partial in our obedience. And that’s one of the wretched effects of the fall, but here’s the beauty of the Gospel. The impartial Judge, Jesus, has obeyed fully for partial people like us. So Mary’s right. To be impartial is not human, but neither is grace. Neither is grace. It’s not human; it’s divine. It’s from Jesus, and that’s why there’s hope for partial people like us. Let’s pray!


Father, we desperately want to know how to obey You, not because we’re afraid like slaves who will be punished when we break a law, but because we’re Your children. You’ve adopted us at the cost of Your Son’s blood. Would You help us this week to love Your Law? May we say in truthfulness, “O how I love Your Law! It is my meditation day and night.” And would we live according to it, for the glory of King Jesus? Give us understanding. We pray in His mighty name, amen.

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