An approach to grace through the wisdom of James
It has been a long week since the Supreme Court struck down the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Responses included protests and threats, fear and anxiety, joy and exultation, determination and delight– both within the Church and in the broader secular culture. Extreme reactions to national issues are to be expected, but in the Church, we must be careful to let grace be our default. Regardless of position about any secular judgment or law, we who claim to follow Jesus must remember who and whose we are and our behavior must reflect that position.
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote a letter to the dispersed believers throughout Judea, many of whom had been made landless and powerless by a corrupt government. The political instability led to increasing violence, economic instability, and social stratification, culminating in the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. James’ advice to pursue peace amongst brothers and sisters in Christ is important for us to consider in the 21st century Church as well.
Who are we in Christ? James says we are the ἀπαρχή, the first fruits of creation, set apart through the propitiation of Jesus. Paul explains that we are justified by faith, at peace with God, standing in grace, and rejoicing in hope (Romans 5:1-2). God, in His great love, came to us in human form so that we might be reconciled to our Creator. Further, when James says “of his own will he brought us forth,” the word he chooses is βούλομαι, a word that incorporates a deliberate resolution for our salvation. He didn’t offer himself for His sake, but so that we would have a purpose as we pass through this world. In Jesus, we are the first-fruits, the part of the harvest that indicates what the whole season will be.
Our testimony shows the world Jesus– and if we act like unbelievers who are both in and of the world, how can we be holy? Jesus teaches us that the world will hate us because, while we may still be in the world, we are not of it (John 15:19; 17:16-17). We are being sanctified in Truth; our purpose is to draw others to the Truth. Sometimes that means holding back from speaking or acting in retaliation or in boasting. Grace manifests itself in loving responses, even when we disagree. Our role as first fruits may be one of the most important parts of our testimony of unity in the Body of Christ.
It is easy to justify our “righteous indignation” over court decisions with which we disagree. The problem with most cases is that they aren’t simple; there are nuances and shades of gray. If it was simple, it probably wouldn’t have required a series of court decisions to ratify or deny. Human issues are complex and complicated, our natural wills to self-promote against government decisions to control have always been in tension. This particular case, or set of cases, pitted life against life: which life is of greater value? How you answer that question for yourself may or may not be the same answer for some of your sisters and brothers. There is history and story and lived experiences that factor into how everyone answers that question.
Without diverting attention from James to this particular argument, we must be careful to avoid partiality, that is, dividing the Church into “us” and “them.” James refers to partiality based on socio-economic status, but it is equally vital to avoid partiality based on presumptions. We know that the One True Judge has already determined that when we show mercy to one another, He will show mercy to us. Yes, we are forgiven and justified already, but our sanctification is a life long process. We need all the mercy He offers as we muddle through complicated and trying circumstances. We need to show that same mercy to our brothers and sisters in the faith.
When we speak against our spiritual family because we disagree about social ills, we become divided within ourselves and we are dividers in the Church. And when the Church is divided, her ministry becomes weak and her testimony, OUR testimony, fails to demonstrate that we are indeed presenting the first fruits of the Creator. We who are new creations are ambassadors from Christ. It is from our lives and our lips that we model and teach reconciliation through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). We must speak the wisdom of God, even when we disagree.
Wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere (James 3:17). The reaction of the world to most controversies is selfish, violent, harsh, stubborn, full of hate, and lacking self-control. Christians must not be on such friendly terms with the world that they consider these ungodly reactions as legitimate. Grace can disagree with wisdom. Grace seeks out the glory of God. Grace thinks, reasons, and listens before speaking.
It is impossible to be humble when forcefully asserting an opinion. Being “right” on a divisive topic leads to arrogance and James calls that kind of boasting evil. When we speak against each other and judge each other, we are acting like the lost, not children of the Most High God. The word for judge, κρίνω, includes the idea of slander and condemnation. Who are we to speak in such a way to each other? What does that show the world of Jesus? How can we claim to be of one family, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism if we do not live our lives (and guard our tongues) through the Holy Spirit?
Disagreements are natural. None of us has all the information about any subject, which makes it all the more important to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20). How we treat one another is how the lost in the world make meaning of what it means to be a believer. When we disagree, we must do so in love, respect, and grace.
This world is not our eternal home. These bodies will waste away. The controversies of the secular world will eventually be forgotten or overtaken by a new dispute over who determines the value of a particular life. If we want to have credibility in our testimony of Jesus, we begin by showing what it means to be a Christ-follower. We love better than anyone in the world. We offer grace first. We remain steadfast in hope as we are sanctified day by day. We demonstrate our faith by our works and in our words to one another (James 2:14-26).
In due time, our patient steadfastness in grace will be rewarded. Even in agreeing to disagree over the nuances of living in this world, we can proclaim the gospel as the first fruits of Jesus and usher in a harvest of glory to God the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation of shadow due to change (James 1:17). Everything will be revealed on that glorious day (Luke 8:16-18) and we will live in the light of Jesus forever.
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