Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The God Who Brought Us Forth - James 1:16-18

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 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 firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:16-18)

James provided the text of the sermon I heard on Sunday (see the last post), and since then I've been reading it quite a bit. Here's a book that has always been one of my favorites, but which I've neglected in the last few years usually because I was focusing so much on Paul. What a treasure I've ignored! This book is rightfully considered to be the "Wisdom literature" of the New Testament (for that of the Old Testament, see Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms). It is strikingly practical, and the whole letter is filled with insights into both the 'how' and 'why' of the Christian life.

Here we see something of the 'why.' James has been talking since verse 2 about endurance under trial, insisting that we should "count it all joy" when we "meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (1:2) He picks this up again in verse 12, when he points to the reward of that steadfastness: "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." Trial, we find, is a gift from God, though it is not God himself who is doing the tempting (v.13). It is a means by which a) our faith is strengthened, and b) we receive an inheritance from God as a reward for our obedience. Because of these two outcomes, we understand our struggles in a whole new way - every bit of difficulty we encounter in life; every trial, decision, conflict, and even every failure, is a small stage in a God-controlled process, one of sanctification and growth. It is quite remarkable to consider the fact that God is altogether dead-set on making us into better people. Nothing can stop it, not even our failures! Because of this our trials are a gift, and not only a gift
, but one in which we take delight (hence, "count it all joy," in v.2), precisely because we know it will ultimately lead to a) our faith growing stronger, and b) our inheritance in God's kingdom.

It seems like such an odd bit of advice to most, and I'd say I know very few Christians who truly delight in the testing of their faith. It is invaluable to do so, however, because when you are facing trials with joy above all else, you find yourself better prepared to face the trials themselves. Do you face your struggles with joy, with delight? And do you endeavor to look at every twist in the path God places before you as a gift from him? What radical trust this calls for!

But James is clear that such trust is very well-placed. "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers" (v.16) - he doesn't want his listeners to misunderstand the nature of the trials they are facing. "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." (v.17) We can have confidence in a God who tests us because this God is the same, always. This sameness is the grounds of the assurance James wants to offer us in the very next verse: "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." Here is a place where things grow tricky for many Christians, because this last verse forces us to re-examine the way in which we understand our salvation. How do you understand it? According to James, God "brought us forth." Salvation is his act in us, not our act in ourselves.

Do you see the way in which that gives us assurance? James is telling us that this God, the God "with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" is the same God who saved us, who "of his own will brought us forth by the word of truth." Or, as Paul puts it, "we are his workmanship, created ['brought forth,' you could say] in Christ Jesus for good works" (Eph. 2:10). Both James and Paul are affirming the very biblical doctrine, that "Salvation is of the LORD." (Jonah 2:9) It is "not of ourselves, lest anyone should boast." (Eph. 2:9)

C.H. Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of the 19th century, said it like this: "Salvation is the work of God. It is He alone who quickens the soul 'dead in trespasses and sins,' and it is He also who maintains the soul in its spiritual life. He is both 'Alpha and Omega.' 'Salvation is of the Lord.' If I am prayerful, God makes me prayerful; if I have graces, they are God's gifts to me; if I hold on in a consistent life, it is because He upholds me with His hand. I do nothing whatever towards my own preservation, except what God Himself first does in me."

Do you understand your own salvation? Have you ever considered what it means that God "brought us forth by the word of truth" (the gospel of Jesus Christ), and that this happens "of his own will"? (v.18) It is not a concept fit for someone who is determined to be his own master! Not only that, but it also speaks volumes about who God is and how he feels toward those whom he saves. Imagine it, and ask yourself if it could be true, that God so loved you, simply because he wanted to, that he chose you in him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and that because of the great love with which he loved you, even when you were dead in your traspasses he made you alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved! (2:4-5) If this is true (and I'm inclined to believe it is), I can think of no greater news the world has to offer.

What this also implies, beyond the love God has so absolutely for his children, is that if we have faith in God, nothing can keep us from him. If James is right and our salvation depends not on ourselves but on God who "brought us forth by the word of truth" and did so "of his own will" (v.18), and if he is also right that this is the same God "in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (v.17), what is the formula we end up with? The God who is unchanging and unalterable has brought us forth by the word of truth, and nothing can stop him from doing it - what remarkable assurance! Paul discusses this in Romans chapter 8, in a passage many hear preached in churches regularly, but usually hear it offered without the full context. "And we know," says Paul, "that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:28) This is essentially the same thing James is saying when he writes that "the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." Everything, even the darkest trials, contribute to the sanctification and growth of believers in Christ. All things - even bad things - are working together to build us into what we are going to be for eternity.

Paul goes on: "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son... and those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified." (Rom. 8:29-30) There is an unstoppable process by which God is going to "bring us forth by the word of truth," and nothing can thwart it. This is exactly what Paul says in conclusion: "What then shall we say to these things [this process from foreknowledge to glorification]? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?" (v. 31-32)

God brought us forth by the word of truth according to his will, and if that is so, what can put a stop to it? Nothing! Paul and James are in perfect agreement here, and this argument provides the basis for the end of Romans 8 that is so often quoted: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:35, 37-39) What remarkable news, and what good reasons we have for believing it! Our unshakable God has brought us forth by the word of truth, and nothing will stop him from saving us, because even those things that try so hard to harm us ultimately contribute to our growth, our strengthening, our endurance, our steadfastness.

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness." (James 1:2) What trials? The very trials Paul discusses - tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, height, depth, and anything else in all creation that may try to separate us from God. They fail to separate us; in fact, the sufferings accomplish exactly the opposite of what they intend - they make us flee to God for refuge, lean on him to give us rest, and in doing so produce the steadfastness of a faith that relies on God utterly. What a magnificent God we must have, who can bring us safely through whatever the world serves up for us (as he did for people like the Apostle Paul, who suffered nearly every trial on that list).

If you are reading this and have never believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, I invite you to ponder the assurance that these promises offer. James tells us, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him." (James 1:5) Come to Christ - ask God for wisdom to receive him, and you will look back and realize that in fact God of his own will has brought you forth by the word of truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, to be a new creation through faith. It is something you may lean upon always, because it is the eternal decision of a God who is the same always. He is always love, always sovereign, and always at work for those of us who have faith in him. May God give you the grace to ask, and receive.

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