Loving God And Living Today
March 25, 1984
I read to you these four verses from the Letter of James, the second chapter, verses which set before us the awesome responsibility of the Gospel. Please hear the Word of God. James 2, beginning to read at verse 14. “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace and be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself if it has no works is dead.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
He probably would not have noticed her had she not been crying. She was a young Black slave girl being sold at a slave market mid-way through the last century. She was terrified, and her terror expressed itself in tears. The man inquired as to her price. It was high because she was young and strong. Still, he took the money from his pocket, and without hesitation, he bought her. And then he said to her, “I have paid the price for you. Now I set you free.” He then handed her a document which she was to sign. And upon signing that document, she would have her freedom guaranteed for the rest of her life. She signed the document. And then she said to the man, “I shall serve you for the rest of my life.” “Oh, wait,” he said, “No, you don’t understand. I’ve paid for you. I’ve bought you. And as is my right now, I set you free. That document means that you may go wherever you want to go. You are free. Now go.” She said, “I know I am free. I shall serve you for the rest of my life.” The people in the crowd who had gathered about and were watching this remarkable scene began to plead with her to take her freedom and to go. She kept responding to them with three words repeated over and over again. “He redeemed me. He redeemed me.” And so she went to his house there to live. And she spent the rest of her life serving the one who had set her free. Even years later, when people would commend her for the service she rendered to this man and his family, always her response was the same, “He redeemed me. He redeemed me.”
That story is true. The man in the story was Abraham Lincoln. But that story is more than simply a true story. It seems to me that it is, in fact, a parable, a parable that teaches us something about loving God and living today. Now, anyone who has ever had the experience of being set free by the power of Jesus Christ will know the point that I’m working on. And yet I ask you for just a few moments to permit me to try to spell this out a bit more clearly.
I want to begin here with one of the great cardinal truths of Christianity. This is it: We cannot earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s one of the great cardinal truths of our faith. We cannot earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. Salvation is free. It’s given to us by God in Jesus Christ who has purchased our freedom. The Bible teaches us that all of us without any exception, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God. We are all encaptured in the enslaving power of sin. We have wandered away from the Father in Heaven, like the son in that story that Jesus told, the parable of the prodigal son. You remember that story?
I heard about a little bitty boy in Sunday school one Sunday. His teacher was telling him the story of the prodigal son. And just before she got to the end, she stopped, and she turned to this little boy, and she said, “What do you think that father is going to do to his son when his son comes home?” And the little boy replied without a moment’s hesitation, “He will probably bash him.” Well, that’s the way the world thinks. “He will probably bash him.” But that’s not the way Jesus thinks. So the good news of the Gospel is that when we return to God our Heavenly Father hand in hand with Jesus Christ, then we are received not with a bashing but with welcome, loving, and open arms. We are accounted righteous. We are acquitted. We are justified. That’s the great word from our tradition. We are justified. We are set free from the power of sin. Salvation is free. It’s a gift. We cannot earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
I love the funny story about the fellow who died and went to Heaven. He was met by Saint Peter at the gate. And Saint Peter promptly informed him that it was going to take 50,000 honor points to get into Heaven. Well, the fellow thought that ought to be a snap. And so he said, “I’ve got 40 years of perfect attendance at Sunday school.,” Saint Peter said, “Fine. That’s worth 2 points.” “2 points!” he exclaimed. Saint Peter said, “That’s right.” Well, he was a bit shaken. But he tried again. “I’ve been a Presbyterian elder for 21 years.” “Good,” said Saint Peter, “That’s worth 1 point.” “1 point!” Saint Peter said, “That’s right.” Well, he was really shaken now. But he felt that he’d save the best to last. So he said, “All of my life I’ve been a tither. And for the last several years, I’ve even gone beyond the tithe.” Saint Peter said, “Excellent. That’s worth 3 points.” “3 points!” he exclaimed. Do you mean to tell me that all of those things add up to only 6 points, and it takes 50,000 points to get into Heaven?” And Saint Peter said, “That’s right.” The man stomped his foot in disgust, and he said, “Nobody will get in there but by the grace of God,” and Saint Peter said, “That’s right.”
And it’s true. We cannot earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven. And that’s a good story because it reminds us of that truth, but it’s a bad story because it does suggest to us that we can earn some points when the Scriptures teach us exactly the opposite. The fact of the matter is not only can we not earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven, we can’t even earn our way towards the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a gift. God, in Jesus Christ, says, “Here. I love you, and because I love you, I offer it all to you in My Son.” That’s what the Bible teaches us, that salvation is not something we do for ourselves. Salvation is something that is done for us. That’s one of the great cardinal truths of our faith. We cannot earn our way into the Kingdom of Heaven.
But that leads me to share with you a second great cardinal truth of Christianity. Here it is. We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves us is never alone. That’s what James is trying to say to us here in this passage which I shared with you a moment ago. James says, “Faith without works is dead.” Now, James is not implying or suggesting there that we get to Heaven, our redemption depends upon those good works that are added to our faith. No, not at all. James knew better than that. He knew that we are saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ through our faith, that and that alone. But James also understood that that faith which is in us, if it is a genuine faith, is going to inevitably lead us to commit ourselves in service to the Lord Jesus Christ, like the slave girl of long ago. “I shall serve Him for all of my life because he redeemed me.”
Now, there are so many people who haven’t yet grasped that truth, and they make a perilous mistake because of it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls them the victims of cheap grace. They see grace as having no obligation, no discipleship required because the account is paid in advance and paid in full. Everything is taken care of. “It doesn’t matter what we do in life,” they say, “Grace will cover it all.” But that’s wrong.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say that God’s grace is not cheap. It is costly, costly because, he says, that grace, when received by a human being, compels that person to submit to the yoke of Jesus Christ and to follow that Christ for all of life. Keith Miller comes at the same truth and says it this way. “Salvation is free, but it is not cheap.” It’s like the song we used to sing when I was at church camp: “If you’re saved and you know it, then your life will surely show it.” Or like Augustine said, “Love God, and do as you please.” There’s grace free. But here’s the kicker. If you love God, then you will please to do what God wants you to do. James says, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and without food, and one of you goes to that person and says, ‘Go in peace. Be filled and be warmed,’ without giving to that person the things needed, then what does it profit? Faith by itself without works is dead.”
Some years ago, Charles Sheldon wrote a remarkable little book called In His Steps. It has since become a classic of Christian literature. And I think it’s a classic for good reason. It’s the story of a minister who one Saturday morning was in a hurry on his way down the street, anxious to continue the preparations for his Sunday sermon. And he happened to pass a poor, bedraggled tramp on the street. He simply moved right by the man and on to the task at hand. The next morning, Sunday morning, the congregation is assembled for worship. And as the worship service began, suddenly, this poor, bedraggled fellow – he was, in fact, an unemployed printer with a heart condition. This poor, bedraggled fellow got up and staggered down the aisle and interrupted the whole service and addressed the preacher and the congregation by saying, “Why is it that you claim faith, but when someone has need, you pass by on the other side? What kind of faith is that?” And in that moment he fell in the grip of a heart attack.
That incident comprises just the first two chapters of the book. But you see, something happened in that place that day. Some of the people in that congregation were so profoundly impacted by that experience that they made the decision that they would attempt to walk the rest of their lives in the steps of Jesus. They would do what he did. They would serve as he served. They would love as he loved. And that’s what they did. And the rest of that book is the record of their remarkable accomplishments. That book is a classic because it makes the point that while we are saved by faith alone, the faith that saves us is never alone.
That’s tough for some of us because, you see, some of us make what we believe to be a sincere commitment to Jesus Christ in our lives, and then we go on to give ourselves to worship and to prayer and to attending Sunday school and to studying the Scriptures, but then it all somehow stops right there. We never get beyond that point. We never get on to offer ourselves in meaningful service to the Kingdom of Christ and the world. We stop short of glory. And that’s the point that James wants us to understand. Don’t stop short. Christ hasn’t called you to move part of the way with Him but all the way with Him. Like the slave girl, we’re to cry out, “I shall serve Him all the days of my life because, because He redeemed me.”
And to serve Jesus Christ means to serve others. We learn that from Him and from His own life. You see it so clearly in that instance. You remember the time when Peter and James and John accompany Jesus, and they went up to the top of the mountain. And there Jesus experienced what we have come to call the transfiguration. He was suddenly, right before their very eyes, transformed into nothing less than the shimmering glory of God Himself. It was a marvelous spiritual moment, a spiritual high. It was such an extremely exhilarating moment that Peter and James and John wanted to prolong it. They wanted Jesus to stay right there. “Let’s stay and drink the glory of God,” they said. “Let’s stay on the mountaintop.” And Jesus said, “No. No. Go,” He said. “Go with me back down to the valley, back down to where the people are, the people who need me.” And there in the valley, there was waiting a troubled father and an epileptic boy. You see, Jesus wanted to make the point very clear that yes, in the course of our spiritual pilgrimage, there will be those great mountaintop experiences, those moments when we are wrapped in the glorious presence of God. And thank God for those moments. But if those moments do not then lead us back down into the valley, back down into the work and the service of the kingdom, then those moments are wasted. They’re useless. They’re worthless.
James was right. “Faith without works,” he said, “is dead.” Dead as a doornail. We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves us is never alone. Two great cardinal truths of Christianity. And on the basis of those two great cardinal truths, I want to invite you, each one of you this day, to make this the cardinal truth of your life. Faith is offering yourself for Christ because He offered Himself for you. You see, faith is not something that we can put in a bottle and store on a shelf. It’s not something that we can lock away for safekeeping in a safety deposit box. It’s not something that we do off in a corner all by ourselves. No, faith is much more than that.
It’s rather like our TV set. You know how your TV set works. It has both a horizontal and a vertical hole, and if either one of those holes is not properly tuned, then the picture is scrambled. You can’t see it. That’s the way faith is. If we have only the vertical holes, only that of prayer and Bible study and communion with God without at the same time having the horizontal holes of reaching out in love and service to the people in need of this world, then our faith is scrambled. It’s all out of focus. You can’t see it. You can’t live by it. It’s worthless. It’s useless.
Faith is not something that we can hoard to ourselves. If we try to hoard it, it will die. That’s why I believe it’s so important for us, as a congregation, to be the heart of the city, the heart of this city, Christ’s heart for this city. Geographically speaking, we are already that. We are the heart of the city, right square in the middle. I want us to be so much more. I want us to be the great beating, loving, caring heart of this city. I want us to be the life-giving, life-changing, life-protecting heart of this city. I want us to be Jesus Christ to the people of this city and far beyond it. And that we can do, for Jesus Christ calls us to offer ourselves in service. It doesn’t matter how insignificant that service may seem to you. Jesus Christ will use it to make a difference, whatever it is.
You see, my heart breaks because I know as you know that out beyond those walls or out beyond the walls of wherever you are sitting watching this service on television, out beyond those walls, there is a world that is hurting and dying, a world that is starving and bleeding, weary, diseased, hate-filled, fear-stricken. And Jesus Christ calls us to have a heart for that world. He says to us, “If you want to love God and live, live today and live forever, then feed the starving and bind up the bleeding and give rest to the weary and encourage the fearful and overcome the hatred with love.” I shall serve Him. I shall serve Him for all of my days because He redeemed me.
So several years ago now in Braithwaite, England, there was a fire in a home occupied by a father and his son. The mother had died some years before. The father was left to care for this little boy. When the fire started, the father managed to get out of the house, but the little boy was on the second floor. He was trapped. A man happened to be walking by. The man’s name was William Dixon. William Dixon saw what happened, saw the flames, saw the boy in the second floor. He ran across the yard until the house, and there he crawled up the drainpipe on the outside of the house, crawled up the drainpipe until he reached the second floor, grabbed hold of the windowsill, pulled himself through, got the little boy, and carried him to safety. Now, understand that the fire inside the house was so intense that that drainpipe was literally red hot so that as William Dixon climbed to the second floor on that drainpipe, he burned his hands hideously.
A few years later, the little boy’s father died. The little boy, now an orphan, was made a ward of the state. He was placed for adoption. Three people petitioned the court to adopt the little boy. The first person was the school teacher who was so impressed with the little boy’s intelligence. And from her testimony on the stand, it was quite obvious that she was superbly qualified to be his parent. The second person to petition the court was a distant cousin of the little boy. And in his testimony on the stand, he talked about the necessity for blood relationship to take precedence over all other concerns. The third person to petition the court was William Dixon. He took the stand, and the court awarded him the custody of the little boy. On the stand, William Dixon never uttered a word. He simply stood there and held up his hands.
People will never believe that we belong to Jesus Christ until they see our hands. And why should they? Faith without works is dead.
So will you say it today down deep in your heart right now? Will you whisper it along with me? I shall serve Him for all of my life.