Lying For The Lord
The epistle of James, throughout the centuries, has proven a challenge for even the most sincere Christians, (Martin Luther among them), because it puts faith to the test. If we agree we are saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ, then we would be wise to make sure our “faith” is the real thing.
James, to the displeasure of some, gives us a divine test. If you do have real faith, it will be seen in your good works. This is not “works-based” theology. It is just spiritual accountability. James even sketches out a withering picture of false faith. Picture a poor, shivering man coming to your door with a hungry family. You don’t do anything for them. You cheerfully call out ““Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and then shut the door in their faces.
People often miss the Bible’s dark comedy, but it’s employed here, as Jesus did with “blind guides falling into a ditch,” in a way that displays unbridled contempt for faith that is all for show, that produces nothing. You get the sense James, under divine inspiration, was tired of all talk and no shoe leather.
Charity, Obedience, Courage
When James speaks of good works, his examples speak to three different categories: charity, obedience and courage. Let’s consider “charity” first. In this age of a bloated state taking on welfare obligations that were once the near exclusive province of family and church, it’s possible we may not be called on, personally, to address as many shivering paupers on our door step. Moreover, the enormous wealth made possible by the Puritan work ethic itself and the Christian defense of private property, means that we might be a little cautious about the motives of pan-handlers in a prosperous society. We’ve all read stories about them making, in urban areas, an easy $200 to $300 a day. And most of us, if faced with a skinny, ill-kempt man on our door step, might check the front lawn for hypodermic needles later. None of those cautions are without spiritual merit. Paul lays down very strict guidelines for charity in 1 Timothy. Nevertheless, the Bible doesn’t tell us why Lazarus was impoverished, only that he was. We have an obligation to help, if our faith is real, and if we have the opportunity.
Next, James gives us an extraordinarily high standard of good works found in obedience, but the obedience mentioned isn’t to man, but to God. In referencing Abraham’s decision to obey God when He commanded him to sacrifice his only son, the son he loved, it’s a picture of supreme faith, because the command makes no sense to us. Indeed, it seems cruel, pointless, and contrary to promises made regarding Abraham becoming the father of a great nation. How would that be accomplished if Abraham offers his son as a sacrifice? We aren’t told what Abraham was thinking, only that he obeyed, and that this obedience demonstrated a faith that transcended human reason. Only God deserves that sort of abject obedience, and Abraham, of course, was reprieved of his awful obligation after the testing of his faith.
Lying for the Lord
The final sort of good works James describes involves a specific kind of courage, a willingness to defy earthly authority when it conflicts with God’s will. The prostitute Rahab had seen, from afar, God’s people approaching. She heard stories of the divine miracles performed on their behalf, and like the thief who recognized the King on the cross next to him, Rahab declared her allegiance to God, over earthly authority. Imagine the risks associated with lying to the Gestapo, or the Stasi, or to British officers on their way to Concord, or in the case of Rahab, lying to the pagan soldiers of Jericho, who would have remorselessly put her to the end of a spear as though snuffing out a rat. Instead, Rahab actually engages in a kind of double deception. She lies to the earthly magistrate, claiming that Joshua’s spies were not hidden in her home, and then she engages in dramatic deception. “Pursue them quickly,” she tells them, “for you will overtake them!” This is the example of good works the apostle James chooses to highlight.
This is worth considering because if you were to ask many pastors, people like John MacArthur, to describe “good works,” I don’t think a prostitute lying to the police would be the first thing that springs to mind. We live in an age of disobedience to God and abject obedience to man. I have high hopes John MacArthur will amend his history of preaching abject obedience to wicked magistrates. One of his sermons included this regrettably faithless admonition: “Now listen to this. It doesn’t matter whether your ruler is Caesar, Herod, Pilate, Felix, Fetus, Agrippa, Stalin, Hitler, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton, it doesn’t matter who it is, he says be subject, you teach them to be subject.” (Perhaps MacArthur’s encounter with tyrannical Covid authority in California has given him pause, because this sermon is getting harder to find online.)
But John MacArthur’s “abject obedience” standard is widely preached in the western world. Many church leaders wildly applauded the shuttering of churches, pastored by men who refused Covid edicts. The narrow proof-texting of Romans 13 is perhaps the most frustrating instance of God’s people failing to use the Bible to shine light on the Bible. “Rulers” are defined by their obligations: praise the good and become an “agent of wrath” against the wicked. If your “rulers” aren’t doing that, perhaps they are not worthy of your obedience. The Bible is chock full of so many examples they can’t all be listed: the Hebrew midwives, Ehud, Gideon, Daniel, the wise men, and Peter himself. Finally, as though divinely reaffirmed in the New Testament, we should all take a lesson in good works from Rahab the harlot: Defy unrighteous authority.