The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2000-2001

The Works of a Vibrant Faith
James 2:1-27
Works or Grace

During college, I was the student-leader of a fellowship group that conducted a very aggressive evangelism campaign on campus.Once a week we would share our faith using a tract entitled The Four Spiritual Laws.Evangelism on a predominately Mormon campus was a challenge.No matter how we tried to avoid the topic, the conversations would migrate to the Scripture passage from the book of James—faith without works is dead.We were prepared.We would counter with passages from Paul’s letters to the Romans and Ephesians.

For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”(Romans 1:17)

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—(Ephesians 2:8)

The conversation would then dissolve into a polemic discussion about the importance of works in salvation.The Church of the Latter Day Saints believes in a works righteousness doctrine of salvation.They contend that while Christ’s death on the cross allows us the opportunity to enjoy immorality, we must do certain things before we can experience eternal life.On their website they state:

To make His Atonement fully effective in our individual lives, we must have faith in Christ, repent of our sins, be baptized, receive the Holy Ghost, obey God's commandments, and strive to become like Him.[1]

Notice the opening phrase, to make “his atonement fully effective.”According to Mormon doctrine, Christ death is not enough until we do something.Unless a person obeys the commandments of God and strives to become like him, they will not enjoy all the benefits of eternal life.

Cheap Grace

I can appreciate their concern.The Church in North America is plagued by inconsistency between what it says it believes and what it does.Several years ago, a Roper Poll discovered, that 33% of the American people profess to have had a born-again type experience in Jesus Christ.But when these same 33% were tested on what difference this conversion made in their lives on the issues of driving while intoxicated, marital fidelity, and drug usage, the results showed no quantitative difference to those who have not had a born again experience.[2]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer who suffered martyrdom for his leadership in the Christian resistance movement against Nazi Germany accused the German church of suffering from “cheap grace.” He coined the term in his book The Cost of Discipleship.Bonhoeffer believed that the church had cheapened salvation.Those good Lutherans attended church, baptized their children, read their Bibles, prayed, and contently rested in the assurance of their salvation sealed by their baptism.According to Bonhoeffer, the gospel had little impact on their daily lives making them ill equipped to discern and resist the lies of Nazism.

The German pastor and theologian believed that Christians by their very nature were a people who not only professed faith in Jesus Christ but also committed their lives to following their Lord in faithful obedience. Bonhoeffer convincingly argues that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to live a radically different life.The brother of Jesus, in his letter to Jews scatter all over the world, affirms that message.

The Reality of Judgment

I would suggest that the problem lies in a misunderstanding of God and the process of salvation.The consensus in our cultural is that God is a loving God and a loving God would not condemn anyone to an eternal punishment.We should believe in God, try to do the best we can by being nice to everyone, and God will reward us with a better life.However, Scripture contains many passages that talk about a coming judgment upon those whose faith is superficial as measured by the lack of charitable deeds for the poor.

Jesus warns his disciples to be careful of false prophets.He tells them that on the final Day of Judgment many will come and say, “Lord did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform miracles?”(Matthew 7:22) But his answer to them will be, “I never knew you, away from me you evildoers.”Later in Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about the coming judgment.He says that all the nations of the world will be brought before the Son of Man.He will divide them into sheep and goats.To the sheep, he will offer them an inheritance that was prepared before the foundation of the world.To the goats, he will cast them from his presence into an eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46).Even Paul, the apostle of grace, speaks about a pending judgment, “…for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil (Romans 2:7-9)”

The Fruit of Salvation

Do these passages mean that we must perform good works to earn our salvation?Absolutely not!But as one commentator wrote, “If faith is only intellectual, only expressed in religious practices, it will not save.”[3]John Calvin stated in his commentary on the book that James is saying, “Unless thy faith brings forth fruits, I deny that thou hast any faith.”[4]For Calvin and other reformers, ‘works’ were the signs that a life has been transformed by the power of God.Religious piety and charity were the visible marks displayed by a person who has already received the gift of salvation not pious deeds to earn our salvation or a greater reward in the afterlife.


James told his readers that they should show evidence of fruit in two particular areas of their lives—their treatment of one another and their treatment of the poor.In their community life, he cautioned them against showing favoritism to some.The literal meaning of the Greek word implies making decisions about people based upon their clothes.The word is plural, so it could apply to a wide range of discriminatory practices.We are not to show partiality to any one because God is impartial in his dealings with us.He does not look upon the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the status of our job, or our family name.

James would have learned this great truth from the Old Testament.In the book of Deuteronomy we read 

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes.He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.(Deuteronomy 10:17,18)

And from the section of Leviticus from which James quotes in v8 the famous “love command,” we read

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.(Leviticus 19:15)

James is trying to convince the church that they were not to make any decisions about another person based upon an external factor.

Clarence Jordon, the founder of Koinoinia Farms once lashed out at a church for its judgementalism based upon external apparel.Speaking from the pulpit, he announced, “If a woman enter this church dressed like a Saturday night hooker, you probably wouldn’t talk to her or worse ask her to leave.But if a man entered the church wearing and expensive three piece suit you’d make a Deacon.”[5]Jordon’s concern was that the church would assume that the wealth person was respectable.Yet, he may have accumulated his wealth through unethical or even illegal business dealings.

Clarence Jordon was a prophet and author.He paraphrased the New Testament into a book called the Cotton Patch Gospel. Koinoinia Farms began in 1942 and was one of the first interracial communities in the south.Jordon sought to live out the teachings of Christ long before the civil rights movement raised the consciousness of America.You may not have heard the name Clarence Jordon or Koinoinia Farms but you undoubtedly heard the name of one of its ministries—Habitate for Humanity.Koinoinia Farms was building houses for the poor long before Millard and Linda Fuller joined.

While we would like to assume that we are people who do not show partiality or discriminate, I wonder.Consider your circle of friends?How many are different from you?When a new person attends church, do you show the person who dresses in grubby jeans the same attention as the one who is wearing the latest styles?How friendly are you toward people of different color or nationality at work?How often do you mistrust someone solely based on the clothes they wear or their race?James reminds us that since we serve a God who offers his love to everyone, we are to be who show no partiality.

A Concern for the Poor

The second concern of this church leader is for the poor.James believes that we cannot merely say that we have concern unless we are willing to provide for their physical needs.James does not allow us to sidestep our responsibility by claiming limited resources or overwhelming demands.

I would like to illustrate this point by inviting the children to come forward.(Wait for them to leave their seats and gather on the chancel steps.)I would like to divide you into two groups.Those of you who arrived first please stand on my right and the others to my left.I want to compliment you earlier arrivals by offering you a treat.I appreciate your promptness and quick response.(Pass out one small bag of Skittles to each child, then dismiss the first group.)I also want to thank the other children who came up to the front.Your participation in this sermon has been very helpful and so I want to shake each of your hands to show my gratefulness.(Dismiss the second group and wait for them to return to their seats.)

Now I have a question for the second group, do you believe that I really appreciate your participation?

It is easy to say, have a great day, isn’t it?Sometimes that is how we treat the poor.Some are hungry, some are homeless, and some need a job but all we offer them is our prayers and a warm handshake.We can easily create excuses for our lack of response.Poverty always has more than one cause.We can blame the person for not working hard enough.We can claim that we have limited income and mounting bills.We may assume that they are all valid reasons but James makes it clear, there is only one kind of response that will produce security on the Day of Judgment.

We as a congregation will have an opportunity in a few weeks to apply this sermon by participating in the CROP walk, an event designed to raise money for the hungry.Our young people will be walking and they will need sponsors.We should also seriously consider joining them in walking. By our participation, we show our concern for the issue.

A Meaningful Faith

In a few moments, we will read together a Creed from the early church.The words remind us what we believe.James tells us that unless we are willing to put those words into action, the words and our faith are dead, it is meaningless.

[1] Online:,8672,889-1,00.html, September 5, 2003.
[2] Brett Blair, Sermon Illustrations, 2002 citing Christian Century (107 [31 October 1990], 990)
[3] Peter H. Davids, James, NIBC, Ed. W. Ward Gasque, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1989), 64.
[4] Calvin, John. Calvin's Commentaries: James. electronic ed. Logos Library System; Calvin's Commentaries, Jas 2:18. Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998.
[5] Source long since forgotten.

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Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390