Day 324: Be Doers of the Word

Psalms 95-97; James 1

The book of James was written by James the Just, the half-brother of Jesus. The book begins similarly to an epistle, but after the greeting, the rest of the book is a collection of wisdom sayings focusing on works of righteousness.

Thinking of James as a list of Christian proverbs is a helpful framework from which to read James – especially since he covers a broad range of topics throughout his book. He covers trials, temptation, poverty, blessings, anger, speech, obedience and social justice in the first chapter alone!

The main emphasis of this first chapter is for Christians to not just be hearers of the word, but doers as well (James 1:22). As we hear the word of God, our hearts are either hardened against it or softened under it. There really is no middle-ground… Our response to God (even on a daily basis) is either humble repentance and faith or a hardness of heart that leads to self-will. James is pleading with Christians who are experiencing great poverty and persecution to trust in the almighty God and submit themselves to His authority by acting in obedience to His word.

For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness (Psalm 95:7-8).

How will you respond to Him today? With indifference or defiance? Or with humble dependence and obedience? 

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:25).

Day 276: Take the high-road

Esther 7-10; Galatians 5

Esther concludes in dramatic fashion as she reveals Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews to the king. One of my favorite aspects of this story is how the foolishness of evil is revealed – especially in the ironic relationship between Haman and Mordecai. In the end, evil is defeated in the most humiliating of ways – as all of Haman’s evil plans come back on him!

But let’s turn our attention to Galatians 5, where Paul is continuing to persuade the Gentile Christians to not look to the law for salvation…

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. […] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love (Galatians 5:2; 6).

And then Paul clarifies himself…

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).

Paul then paints a vivid picture of how to live by faith. He instructs the Gentile Christians in Galatia to walk in the Spirit. He lists all the ways to live in the “flesh” and contrasts them with the fruit of living in the Spirit. The fascinating thing about these two lists is that they contrast the “works” we are able to accomplish in our own power with the “works” that the Spirit can accomplish through us. Do you see the difference? One list represents “our effort” and the other list represents “God’s effort.”

This is what we are able to accomplish with our sin nature at the helm: impurity, idolatry, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, envy (5:19-21). I took out the “bad” sins just so we can more easily identify with this list…because all of this list – even the “bad” sins I omitted – are present in our churches today.

Contrast this with what God can produce in us by the power of His Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control (5:22-23)….This is the way of faith.

When Paul says that we are “free from the law,” he is not saying we are no longer under moral obligation…No! We are to live a life surrendered to the Spirit – so that our lives can no longer be condemned by the law.

In a way, it’s a higher calling – made possible only by the Spirit’s working in our life!

Day 275: A false gospel

Esther 4-6; Galatians 4

The situation in Galatia is intriguing. Paul was originally detained in Galatia because of an unknown illness (4:13-14), so he took the opportunity to preach to the pagan Gentiles in the region. They received the gospel with joy and faith, and Paul left to continue his missionary journey. Then false teachers, trying to please the Jewish authorities, began to teach the new Gentile Christians in Galatia that they needed to also obey aspects of the Jewish law – such as circumcision and observing the holy days and festivals (4:10).

Paul was outraged! If the Galatian Christians received salvation through faith alone, then they should continue to live by faith alone! Adding requirements to the gospel makes it a false gospel… in essence, it is teaching that we are justified through works – which is impossible!

Paul continues to counter the false teachers by giving examples from the Old Testament that prove that justification has always been by faith and never by works (or the law). In Chapter 3, he pointed back to Abraham’s faith as an example (3:6) and also quoted from Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith” (3:11). And in today’s reading, Paul contrasts the two sons of Abraham – saying that Ishmael represented slavery under the law, but Isaac was a child of the promise…he represented faith.

And then Paul does something extraordinary… he tells the Gentile Galatians – those who used to worship pagan gods – that they are also children of the promise; consequently, they are not under the law (4:28)! This is amazing! And a truth that should set us free from works-righteousness and help us to embrace the gospel of grace.

But we mustn’t think that God has forsaken those of Jewish heritage. ABSOLUTELY NOT! God has opened the gates of heaven to all who turn to Him in faith!

We see a picture of extraordinary faith in today’s reading from the Old Testament, as Esther, puts her life in God’s hands and acts on behalf of the Jewish people…

Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai, “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:15-16).

This is the kind of faith that pleases God… a self-sacrificing sort of faith, that surrenders everything into God’s hands. Self-justification through good works is an arrogant affront to God. The love of Christ is what compels us to good deeds because our salvation has been accomplished through his perfect work on the cross! When we add anything to the gospel, it becomes a false gospel!

Day 274: Faith & Law

Esther 1-3; Galatians 3

Today, we move on to the book of Esther – which is unique in the fact that it is the only book in the Bible which never mentions God by name. But God’s hand is woven throughout its pages – in the faith of the main characters as they trust Him for their very survival.

Today’s chapters serve to introduce us to the main players of the story. Mordecai and his cousin Esther, faithful Jews living under the gluttonous Persian king, are foiled by the evil and vain Haman who plots the annihilation of every Jew throughout Persia! This dramatic story will continue tomorrow, but for now let’s turn to Galatians 3…

Remember, Paul is writing to the churches throughout Galatia because even though they accepted the gospel of salvation through faith, they were being tempted by false teachers to add aspects of Jewish law to their new Christianity. We would call this “legalism” in our modern circles. Whatever you call it, it’s wrong!

Paul makes his argument stronger by pointing out the fact that Abraham was justified by faith before the Law was given. In other words, justification by faith trumps the law!

But if it’s impossible to be saved by observing the law, this leads to the question… why did God give the Law? This is a great question because the answer reveals a meaningful truth…

The purpose of the Law is to display the holy character of God and establish the standard for righteousness. So when we compare ourselves to this holy God and this perfect standard, we can respond in one of two ways… self-justification or repentance.

Consider Adam. He had one law. Just one. And Adam had the chance to repent immediately after he had sinned in the garden… But Adam chose self-justification instead of repentance. He made excuses. He did not own his sin and ask for forgiveness.

So what is our response when we break God’s law? Will we justify ourselves and make excuses for our sin? Or, will we own our sin and ask for forgiveness? In other words, will we repent?

Repentance and faith levels the playing field. No nation, gender or race has preferential treatment – for all have sinned, and all need to be saved. The covenant of grace is powerful enough to save anyone.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:28-29).

Day 273: Humble faith

Psalm 132; Psalm 147; Psalm 149; Galatians 2

yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Galatians 2:16).

This is the crux of the gospel…and one of the hardest principles to live by – both for the first-century and modern-day Christian.

When Paul uses the word, “justified” he is referring to the legal term, “justification” which means “declared righteous.” Justification is binary… you’re either justified or you’re not, you’re either innocent or guilty. There are no “in-betweens” – no gray areas.

In order to be justified by the law, one would have to keep the whole law perfectly. And the only person to ever do this was Jesus.

When we inevitably fail to keep the law, we can choose one of two responses: Self-justification or humble repentance.

Knowledge of God’s loving-kindness can help us choose the humble path…

The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. The Lord lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground (Psalm 147:1-2;6).

The Psalmist doesn’t say, “The Lord lifts up the righteous,” he says, “The Lord lifts up the humble.” It’s interesting that the psalmist chooses the word “humble” as the antithesis to “wicked” in verse 6.

But if you think about it, humility is closely tied with righteousness – the kind of righteousness that comes through faith!

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:20-21, NIV)

We don’t want to make Christ’s death meaningless by trusting in ourselves to obey the Law, do we? No! That’s preposterous! Our only hope is to turn to the Lord in humble faith – trusting that Christ’s perfect life and sacrifice are all we need for the salvation for our souls.