Living out the Gospel of the Kingdom
James 1:16-27; 2:14-26
Introduction: recovering the message of the kingdom
Where we all are
Every so often each of us will be confronted by the stark reality that things in this
world aren’t as they’re supposed to be. We’re communicated to regularly about all of the
ills of our community, city, state, nation, and world. However, every so often the distant
and theoretical wrongs “out there” will invade our own realities, our own lives, and we’ll
find ourselves thinking: why? Is it really supposed to be this way? The answer, of course,
We’re living in a broken world, a place that has been affected by sin, the
disruption of our relationship with God that started at the very beginning, with our first
parents Adam and Eve, and continues to this day in our own actions, the actions of our
society, and as a continual state of disrupted-ness toward God. Like Adam and Eve, we
attempt to cover ourselves and to hide from God, from ourselves, and from each other.
These moments of recognition, painful as they are, are really gifts from God.
They are instants, sometimes longer, in which we’re given the ability to step outside of
the world we live in and get a glimpse of something bigger, something better.
In those moments, our hearts tells us that we’re living with a deep-seated tension,
a nagging feeling that something’s wrong. Most of the time we’re able to ignore it.
Sometimes we’re able to tell ourselves we’re fools to notice it, certainly to change our
actions or lives on its basis. But every so often these deep longings for something more
break to the surface and we admit that we’re yearning for things to be put to right.
That state of “right-ness,” is often referred to using the Hebrew word shalom. It’s
translated “peace,” but it means much, much more than our English word. Wholeness.
Fulfillment. Tranquility. Well-being. All are shades of meaning for shalom. It’s what we
long for because it’s largely absent from our world and it’s our original state before the
entrance of sin into the human drama.
Shalom is the singular characteristic or mark of the kingdom of God. When God
is ruling and reigning, the result is shalom. Things are as they ought to be.
The prayer we prayed together just a few moments ago, a prayer that Jesus’
disciples have been praying for thousands of years, puts us in touch with the gap we’ve
talking about. Because things aren’t as they’re supposed to be, we pray: “thy kingdom
There’s a tension here. We know that God rules and reigns in the world. Scripture
affirms that God’s in control. But God reigns over a world in rebellion; a world that
consciously and unconsciously rebels against God’s rule and against God’s values.
So we pray: “thy kingdom come” because we know that in Christ, God has
invaded reality and is working to bring His kingdom, His rule, His shalom, in ever greater
We’re in the “in between times.” God’s kingdom has been initiated, but it has not
yet come to fulfillment. And for us, this means “things aren’t as they’re supposed to be”
much of the time.
Where we’re going
How does this connect with our reading from James?
Jeff White mentioned last week that James can be read as a commentary on Jesus’
Sermon on the Mount. An unpacking of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom directed to a
particular group of people struggling with a particular issue.
It seems likely that the issue that James was dealing with was a radical
misinterpretation of the teachings of Paul. Throughout his letters, Paul is careful to say
that we are saved not by our good works but simply by God’s grace. God chooses us not
because of who we are or what we’ve done or failed to do, but simply because God loves
James’s readers took this divine truth and corrupted it so that it became possible
for someone to claim to have faith and yet remain unchanged in terms of character and
actions. James calls his readers back to the teachings of Jesus who consistently taught
that the head and heart inform how we act.
This isn’t simply a moral code. It’s easy to think that if you read it in a way that’s
disconnected from Jesus’ teachings and Paul’s. No. In order to read this passage we need
to recover an understanding of the kingdom of God. Jesus uses the term “kingdom of
God” or “kingdom of heaven” throughout the Gospels to describe the in-breaking of
God’s rule in the world inaugurated by the Jesus’ birth.
The kingdom expresses itself through God’s calling of a people, Christians, to be
a people wholly devoted to Himself, a royal priesthood, a people who exist to the praise
of His glory as a new creation, “a new beginning for human life in the world,”1
Book of Order G-3.0200
The Confession of 1967, 9.31
The issue addressed in James isn’t so much: are you up to the standard? Instead,
it’s: to what extent is the kingdom of God in you? It’s not about actions so much as it’s
about identity. Whose are you?
To answer that question, we’re going to look at two things:
1. Living out the Good News of the kingdom
2. The complexion of true religion.
Our text is James 1:19-27; 2:14-26 (TNIV)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick
to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because anger does not
produce the righteousness that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth
and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you,
which can save you.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it
says. Those who listen to the word but do not do what it says are like people
who look at their faces in a mirror and, after looking at themselves, go away and
immediately forget what they look like. But those who look intently into the
perfect law that gives freedom and continue in it—not forgetting what they have
heard but doing it—they will be blessed in all they do.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein
on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion
that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans
and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the
….What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if people claim to have faith
but have no deeds? Can such a faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is
without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep
warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is
it? In the same way, faith by itself , if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’
Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I
do. You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is
useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when
he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were
working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the
scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to
him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that people are
justified by what they do and not by faith alone.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous
for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
Let us pray
Living out the Gospel of the kingdom
With these words, James is giving us a diagnostic tool that we can use to see how
much of the kingdom has gotten inside of us; to what extent we’re living in light of the
values of that kingdom.
Deconstructing other kingdoms
As we come face-to-face with James’s words, it’s important for us to remember
that we’re not living in a vacuum. The kingdom of heaven isn’t the only kingdom that’s a
reality. Paul, in Ephesians, talks about “the ways of this world” and of “the kingdom of
James is written to Jewish Christians. They would have understood this dilemma
since they were a minority religiously within a minority culturally. Their Jewish-ness
taught them that their religious identity was to be a gentle protest (or witness) to non-
Ephesians 2:2, TNIV.
Jews expressed by marking themselves as YHWH’s people: circumcision and obedience
to the law being prime examples. They were different and visibly so.
We too have to be sensitive to the fact that there are all sorts of forces working to
shape our minds and souls. Paul, in his writing and teaching, was always analyzing,
prying, and bringing Scripture to bear against aspects of culture and society, ways of
being and doing, that resisted the message of Jesus. He described his ministry as existing
to: “…Demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge
of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 4
to understand our times, our culture, our society, and expose those places where it rebels
against the Gospel.
Envisioning the new (alternative) community
We do that in community, the church. We’re part of a new community, an
underground group of followers of the true king of the universe. We’re people of the
kingdom called to live out the values of the kingdom in a place where those values very
often meet with resistance.
James highlights this in verses 21-27.
Like many of the other writers of the New Testament, James uses the metaphor of
clothing to communicate a spiritual truth. It’s difficult to pick up on this in our
translation. He writes: “get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent…”5
Other more literal translations of the NT translate verse 21: “put off all filthiness
and rampant wickedness.”6
The idea is casting aside dirty clothing, discarding it. When
1 Corinthians 10:4, TNIV
James 1:21; similar usages include: Ro 3:12; Eph 4:22-25; Col 3:8; Heb 12:1; 1 Pet 2;1
we are united to Christ, we are to cast off all of those behaviors that defined our character
before Christ. We are asked to stop doing the things we once did and embark on a
journey of being re-formed into the likeness of our Lord.
The Word-formed soul (“perfect law that gives freedom”)
Verse twenty-one shows us how this happens. James tells us to: “humbly accept
the word planted in you, which can save you.”7
What does James means? James is building the words of God through Jeremiah:
“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they
will be my people.”8
Here’s what that verse means: The Holy Scriptures become a permanent part of
the Christian, guiding her actions and shaping her understanding of herself and the world
she is a part of. They become something deeply meaningful and lovely to us: a perfect
law that gives us freedom because it shapes and guides us.
James isn’t talking here primarily about conversion. At conversion we receive and
believe the word about God. This isn’t the end of our relationship with the word, instead
it’s a new beginning. Using Jesus’ imagery, the Christian is to be “good ground,” fertile
soil in which the word can grow.9
What about when this doesn’t happen? James is quite frank. Those who hear the
word and yet aren’t changed by it are like a person who glances into a mirror and
immediately forgets what his true face looks like. This person’s encounter with the word
James 1:21, TNIV
Jeremiahs 31:33, TNIV
has been shallow, a glance, a superficial look. This can be contrasted with a steady gaze,
a drinking deeply of the law.
Such a hasty glance is a dangerous illusion. It’s potentially fatal. How easy it is to
experience a little bit of Jesus, a hint of grace, and mistake it for the totality of the
Gospel. “Obedience,” Calvin wrote, “is the mother of the true knowledge of God.”10
The complexion of true religion
What is true religion?
James contrasts the false religion of the “mirror glance” with the true religion that
enacts the Gospel. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to
look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted
by the world.”11
True faith expresses itself by action. When the Good News of the Kingdom is
implanted in us we respond in a way that echoes the Good News in our situation, a way
that is consistent with the Kingdom of God.
Faith and deeds in salvation
This begs a question: what role do works play in making me right with God?
We’ve hinted at the answer to this all along: none. Good deeds are the manifestation of
true faith, not the cause of it.
Institutes, I.6.1 quoted in Moo, 82
James 1:27, TNIV
This is at the heart of James’s message as well. We need to get it right because it
strikes at the heart of our relationship with God.
So many followers of Christ find themselves tired and worn down because “good
works” have been used to leverage participation in church programs and activities. So
many of us want desperately to be changed and to live out the Gospel, but find ourselves
instead compelled into a frenetic pace of life that allows no time to be with Jesus.
So many of us are doing good works, but not because we have been enlivened to
them by the Spirit of Christ. We’re striving to fulfill what we believe is a duty and the
right thing to do and Jesus doesn’t have much to do with it.
On the other hand, so many of us have bracketed Jesus into a small “spiritual”
part of our lives, Sunday mornings at worship and in the car with praise music. Jesus
doesn’t help us understand our culture, our deepest values, or our sense of life calling.
We don’t do anything for Jesus because we’re “saved” and works have nothing to do
with it, right?
James blows all of these conceptions out of the water.
Faith and Justification: In perspective
So let’s clarify the relationship between our believing and our actions, the most
practical of questions.
James has an imaginary conversation with someone who is advocating that belief
alone will save him. James’ response is that the type of faith that does not produce
change, good deeds, is not the sort of faith that is sufficient to save.
James isn’t saying that faith doesn’t save us, only that the type of faith exhibited
by his conversation partner doesn’t.12
In short, James and Paul are in agreement. It is faith that saves us, but the faith
that saves us is a faith that by it’s nature produces change within us that cause us to do
good works, to express in the textures of our lives the values of the kingdom. “Paul
denies that works can have any value in bringing us into relationship with God; James is
insisting that, once that relationship is established, works are essential. A faith that lacks
these works cannot save.”13
Imagine the love that binds together a husband and wife. On the day of the
wedding, how do you know that the love that exists between bride and groom is the sort
of love that will lead to a lifetime of marriage?
Let me ask the question another way, one that gets more to the heart of what
James is describing. Is the sort of love between and man and a woman that fails to
express itself in words and gestures of affection, in personal sacrifice, in mutual
submission, in steadfast fidelity, is this sort of love the sort of love that leads to lifelong
marriage? You get the point. There are different types of love and there are different
types of faith. Not all loves produce happy marriages neither do all faiths save.
As James points out, it is the sort of faith that manifests itself in obedience that is
able to save us. Abraham’s life, his belief, was shown to be authentic by his faithful
action in being willing sacrifice Isaac.14
Likewise, Rahab’s life, her belief, was shown to
be authentic by her faithful action in assisting Joshua’s spies.15
Summation: faith without deeds is dead
James isn’t interested in simply providing a moral code the obedience to which
will guarantee salvation. Far from it! James is calling followers of Christ to a degree of
self-awareness in the presence of God.
The point of James’s counsel is to remind us that we are saved by faith, the sort of
faith that always produces change and growth and alteration in our character, our hearts.
Why? Jesus calls us to follow him and in so doing calls us into a new community, the
church. We become members of the body of Christ, a new society and model of God’s
redemptive purpose in the world.
And we become agents of reconciliation, living out and expressing through our
lives the values and qualities of the kingdom of God. This means that our behaviors, our
personalities, our view of the world, are being changed and formed and shaped by our
identity as followers of Jesus. Where this isn’t happening, James warns us that we may
have a defective faith.
Yet at the same time, we’re aware of our limitation and the limitations of the
world of which we’re a part. And we pray, like the disciples: “Thy kingdom come!”
Lord, in ever increasing measure bring the reality of your way to the broken world of
which we are a part. In His grace, God will use us to do just that.
See Joshua 2