Though the Scriptures do not specifically mention Lent, it has a longstanding tradition in the Church closely derived from the contents of Scripture. As Christ prepared for Good Friday and the Resurrection, so too the Church tethered to the life of Christ through the liturgical calendar follows her Lord into sin’s death and resurrection life. The biblical narrative moves the Church to emulate and therefore externalize the narrative of her Savior’s journey to Jerusalem to accomplish redemption where something is lost (sin) and something is gained (resurrection life). Lent simply engages the Church and also each Christian in the rhythm and patterns of sanctification — death to sin and the pursuit of holiness. Lent fosters an intensive time for the baptized to live as the baptized according to the pattern of Romans 6:1-7.
The season of Lent began very simply as a time of preparation for Easter or, synonymously, resurrection life. This is the driving force behind Lent: The Christian practicing the future of resurrection life in the here and now. And this was a legitimate pursuit because Holy Baptism brought resurrection to the human spirit in this life with the resurrection of the body in the life to come.
The Epistle lesson from James suits the motifs of Lent quite well. Although verses 12-18 stretch over two different paragraphs, they sustain the theme of tested faith. James makes it clear he is taking about Christian trials: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (1:2). As the conversation advances, verse 12 concludes what preceded it declaring, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love Him.” The content comports and the very same vocabulary provides closure to verses 2-11.
Still, it is a good launching point into 13-15 since the teaching deals with trials.
James first sets the parameters for all discussions regarding theodicy: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one” (1:13). The doctrine and explanation flank each other in this verse. The what and the why are right there. While God may and does test one’s faith and life, yet He does not tempt with sin. He does not allure and entice toward ungodliness but rather permits and provides avenues for the testing, that is, the strengthening of faith.
Why? Why test faith? Think of any engineering project. Engineers put things to the “test” to ensure it can withstand greater and greater trials. For us, the greatest trial will be death, that is, actually dying. Faith must be strong because it seems like death has the last word. But it does not. Christ does. To believe and live by that requires faith. Such faith is not merely for ourselves but to also help those we love to face the same. It is the iron of faith sharpening iron.
Faith must be strong because it seems like death has the last word. But it does not. Christ does.
Temptation, however, is another story. Verse 14 discloses the origins of temptation, the sinful self. Inordinate self-love, self-justification, self-gratification, and self-aggrandizement, yes, these come from our own desires (1:14). The consequences follow: “Then desire when it is fully grown brings forth death” (1:15). Those are ungodly desires, sin, and death. Missing from this trajectory is faith in the Christ who redeemed us and gave us His Spirit so we might not “be deceived” by the things that lead to sin and death. Abiding in the Word and walking in the Spirit is the truth antidote to the poison of sinful desires.
Here we have the negative aspect of Lent. Namely, putting away sinful desires, and so, mitigating their consequences. In their place we have the positive or contributive aspect of Lent: Striving for resurrection life in the here and now, since we have been baptized and gifted with faith and the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ. Thus, verse 17: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of change.” The good and perfect gifts of God are, summarily, the Son and the Spirit. The good gifting of God is a result and revelation of His character. He is the promise-making, promise-keeping God, always.
The good gifting of God is a result and revelation of His character. He is the promise-making, promise-keeping God, always.
There is a Trinitarian theology of gift to be explored here in the same way there is a Trinitarian theology of communication. It is what theologians call a “first theology” — something basic to understanding God and the phenomena of creation and redemption. The Giver, the Gift, the Given, the Perfect Giver (God the Father) gave the perfect gift (God the Son), through the perfect means (conceived of God the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary). The perfect One comes as perfection through perfection.
And God gives the good and perfect gifts to us and for us. Therefore, verse 18 declares it is from the love of God and of His own grace that He saves us in the way of truth, dispelling all deception and temptation. “Of His own will He brought us forth by the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.” God wants us or, better, desires us to be His own. So, He liberates us by the truth. Christ is that truth (John 14:6). So, too, our sanctification — the opposite of sinful desire — is by the truth (John 17:17). This is a marvelous text for the first Sunday in Lent, preaching themes of sin and grace, deception and truth, loss and gift, death and life.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in James 1:12-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach James 1:12-18.