When we think of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Christ alone, the book of James isn’t the first to come to mind. James is no Galatians or Romans when it comes to that. But James does have something to teach us. James holds up a mirror, and we do well not to look away. James writes to Christians tempted to turn the Gospel into an excuse for sin and reminds us with Paul, who says in Romans 6:1-4, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Forgiveness doesn’t make sin all right. Sin cost the Son of God His life. That will never be all right. Forgiveness sends sin away; it doesn’t move in with it. The Gospel certainly loves to go slumming, but what it finds there, you and me, it makes temples of God. God’s goal isn’t rehabilitation. God doesn’t want to see a more handsome man in the mirror. God wants to see a new man. God makes a new man.
The cross doesn’t coach the flesh. It kills it. The Gospel doesn’t restructure; the Gospel resurrects.
The cross doesn’t coach the flesh. It kills it. The Gospel doesn’t restructure; the Gospel resurrects. If James was simply concerned with outward morality, he could have befriended the Pharisees, formed a club, or led a march. No, James is concerned that faith is living and breathing, and not dead. And this is what he means when he says that anger “does not work the righteousness of God” (1:20). The Greek is clear here: anger does not put into action the righteousness of God made our own through faith in Christ. In other words, anger isn’t with faith. As Jesus reminds us, we can’t serve two masters. And to that end, He takes the reins, as Luther reminds us in the Bondage of the Will, helpless as we are, ridden by the devil by nature and without Christ.
Sometimes we get the notion that we can make sin right. Sometimes we even use that term, “make it right.” But that’s an impossibility, no matter how religious our imagined remedies. Even reading one’s Bible doesn’t make sin right. It doesn’t even send sin away. Only Christ, the center and heart and message of Scripture, does that, and a Bible without Christ is hardly a book worth reading. In fact, it can be downright dangerous. Forgetting that is like putting a cheeseburger in a starving man’s mouth while you hang him.
Mirrors tell it like it is. Mirrors don’t flatter. Mirrors don’t hide anything. I still remember when my wife, Tricia, first started telling me my hair (I still had it then!) was getting really gray. I looked in the mirror, and, sure enough, it was true. I joked with my parish, which I loved and will always love, that I had one gray hair for each member and two for each of my children. So, off came the hair. But hiding the gray won’t make it go away. It just makes it less evident to others. The alcoholic can drink at the bar in full view, or drink at home in private, but he’s an alcoholic all the same. The problem is still there, and likely more perilous than if he were forced to confront it before others. Hiding the old Adam isn’t enough. Reforming him is still worse. A reformed sinner is still a sinner. A pious old Adam is a great friend of human religion but an enemy of the Gospel, satisfied as he makes us with our own righteousness and thinking.
Mirrors tell us about our lineage. When Grandma sees her grandchild, she says. “Oh, there’s sure a lot of his father in him.” The geneticist might reply, “Yes, fifty percent,” but Grandma means something different. She means that he looks like his father. If a child is mild-mannered and bookish like her mother, an uncle teases, “She is her mother’s daughter.” In both instances, the apple didn’t fall far from the family tree. Spiritually speaking, we’re all sons and daughters of our first parents, Adam and Eve. We need to know and remember that. But we also do well to remember Christ who was born of Mary, fulfilling God’s promise to Eve, and crowned with thorns, bearing Adam’s and our curse.
James doesn’t play games. He’s a common sense sort of guy, and we need guys like that, even as we need a Peter, a John, and a Paul. He pulls no punches, even though we might wish he would since the flesh doesn’t like being beaten and mortified. Yet James also reminds us, “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 due to change. 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” (James 1:17,18). As the day progresses, shadows move, as the earth orbits around the sun. Shadows become longer or shorter and point different ways. Our God doesn’t move, and our God doesn’t change, and the shadows He casts always point to the same place: the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Our Father who gave His Son for us is still our Father who gave His Son for us. He does not change, though we might have changed at times. He is still the One who gives new birth and every good and perfect gift. And what God has made alive, He isn’t inclined to let die—not after what He paid for it!
Mirrors can be brutal. When I look in them, I’m too often reminded of hair where I never had it before and no hair where I did, of extra pounds, of wrinkles, blemishes, and scars, of slowly dying. But we dare not stop there. We are the baptized, and so we do well to see our reflection in God’s water of life, the Gospel mirror, and to do so through the cross with which we were signed in our Baptism, as the benefits of Calvary were delivered to us, for free, unasked, unearned, but all ours. There we meet a child of God, redeemed, restored, renewed, forgiven, loved, living. We know what we were, and indeed what we still are according to the flesh, but God also insists that we see there what He declares us to be, what we are in Him, what we will be for all eternity. The Gospel is not an excuse for sin. Far from it! It is the end of sin. Sin has no claim—we are blameless! The Gospel is our freedom from sin. It is Christ in the mirror, Christ for me and for you.
The Gospel is our freedom from sin. It is Christ in the mirror, Christ for me and for you.