September 21, 2015
“I decided to start a discount religion.”
That’s what Dogbert said to Dilbert in a cartoon by Scott Adams. What’s a discount religion? Here is Dogbert’s explanation: “The tithing would only be 5% and I’d let people sin as much as they wanted.”
During this exchange, Dilbert is sitting up in bed reading a book. Through it all, he never says a word. In the third frame, Dogbert gives his own conclusion:
“The only problem is that I don’t want to spend time with anyone who would join that sort of religion.”
That sounds like the kind of religion most people already have. In an article called Many Beliefs, Many Paths to Heaven?, USA Today painted a picture of what most Americans believe about who goes to heaven:
Most American religious believers, including most Christians, say eternal life is not exclusively for those who accept Christ as their savior, a new survey finds.
Of the 65% of people who held this open view of heaven’s gates, 80% named at least one non-Christian group — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists or people with no religion at all — who may also be saved, according to a new survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
The survey confirms what we’ve known for a long time. American churchgoers are really nice people who aren’t into the details of theology, especially the part about who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Clearly we’ve got a lot of “cafeteria Christians” who pick and choose what doctrines they will believe. When they come to the “religious cafeteria,” they say things like, “I’ll take the love of God, but I’m going to skip that stuff about judgment and hell.” They get an extra helping of “Diet Discipleship,” but they want no part of loving difficult people or taking up your cross. That’s too hard for them.
Many people are “cafeteria Christians”
Dogbert is right about one thing. Discount religion is a pale imitation. Why would you want to hang around people who don’t want the real thing?
In his little epistle, very likely the first part of the New Testament ever written, James warns us about discount religion. Talking a good game isn’t enough. It’s what you do that matters.
Discount religion is a pale imitation
In James 2 we come up against a subtle form of discrimination that shows up in how we treat people who aren’t like us.
They don’t look like us.
They don’t talk like us.
They come from a different background.
They probably come from a different social class.
They may speak another language.
They could be immigrants or refugees.
They might be widows or orphans.
They could be prisoners or drug addicts.
They may look shabby to us.
They might smell funny.
Will we love them anyway? That’s the question James wants us to ponder. If we are going to ditch discount religion in favor of genuine Christianity, we must rediscover the three things James mentions in James 2:8-13.
1. We Need More Love
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (vv. 8-9).
What, exactly, does James mean by the term “royal law”?
He’s telling us this command comes with divine authority. By quoting Leviticus 19:18, he reminds us that “Love your neighbor as yourself” is not just good advice. It’s a command from the King.
Recently we’ve had a lot of discussion about what it means to be a Christian as America becomes increasingly “post-Christian” and in many ways “anti-Christian.” The current case revolves around a county clerk in Kentucky who because of her Christian conscience refused to put her name on a gay marriage license. As a result, she went to jail for five days.
We live in a “post-Christian” world
I mention that simply to illustrate the huge difference between the worldview of the Bible and the moral standards of society in the 21st-century. America would be better off returning to the traditional definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. I will work toward that end, speak out for traditional marriage, vote for candidates who pledge to uphold traditional marriage, and so on. But I am under no illusions about the difficulty of the task. I am also aware these “social issues” are considered divisive today. That’s true. They are divisive. Sincere Christians disagree on how we should speak about these issues to the larger culture.
That’s where James becomes incredibly relevant. No matter what may happen in the political realm, we are still called to love our neighbor. Period. Full stop. The good news is, we don’t need a Supreme Court decision to do that. No nation in the world has passed a “love your neighbor” law. This takes us entirely out of the realm of politics.
No law can keep us from loving our neighbor
In context, James is thinking about orphans, widows, and the poor. No law of man can force us to love them. No law of man can keep us from loving them. Since this is “royal law,” it cannot be overturned by the Supreme Court.
In verse 9 James explicitly called favoritism a sin. The particular Greek word means to “regard a face” or to “judge a face.” Recently, one presidential candidate derided another one by saying, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” That offers a perfect example of the sin James warns against. Isn’t it amazing how these ancient words remain relevant in the 21st-century?
If you don’t know what else to do, love your neighbor!
If you don’t know what else to do, love your neighbor. Does that mean loving the person who lives next to you? Sure, it includes everyone on your floor, in your condo, on your street, or in your dormitory. But we don’t need to limit it that way. Your neighbor is anyone whose path you cross whose need you are able to meet.
Who is my neighbor? Jesus told a famous story that answers the question (Luke 10:25-37). The question is not “Who is my neighbor?” but rather “Will I be a neighbor to my neighbor?” Much tougher question. You never know when you’ll meet a “neighbor” in your life. It could be someone in your geometry class, an immigrant family from Somalia, the postal worker who delivers your mail, a woman desperately ill who asks for your prayers, your hairdresser, a basketball coach, the fellow who sits next to you on the plane and won’t stop talking, a friend from your college days, a widow who feels forgotten and alone. The list never ends because everyone could be my neighbor. Will I be a neighbor to them?
Will I be a neighbor to my neighbor?
It starts with simple kindness.
It extends to greeting them.
It includes welcoming them to your church.
It means getting to know them.
It could mean driving them to the hospital.
It might mean sending them an encouraging email.
It may mean giving them physical or financial aid.
It may cost you time you planned to spend elsewhere.
It certainly means broadening your circle of friends.
None of this is easy, in part because you are only one person and there is only so much you can do. You have 168 hours per week, same as me. Your time, energy and resources are limited. We can’t get equally involved in every situation. But that’s no excuse for not getting involved at all.
We must love our neighbors even when it hurts. That’s the Royal Law. Ponder these famous words, attributed to the Quakers:
I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.
There will always be plenty of ways to show love if only we are willing.
Would you like to please the Lord this week? Ask him to help you love your neighbor. Pray that you will see your neighbor, that you will reach out to him, and that you will love him as you love yourself.
2. We Need More Honesty
“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (vv. 10-11).
“What’s the biggest challenge you face?”
Someone posed that question to the leader of a worldwide ministry. No doubt the questioner thought the answer would be, “Dealing with people,” or “Having to raise so much money,” or “Figuring out how to make the hard decisions.” But the leader gave none of those answers. Instead, he answered this way:
“My greatest challenge is always the man in the mirror. If I can only keep him straight, then the rest of my job is not so hard.”
That strikes me as an honest answer, along the lines of, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We all face the same challenge of dealing honestly with our own shortcomings. It’s always easier to make excuses, to pass the buck, and to blame others for our own problems. In this case, James wants us to face our own tendency to excuse our sin by saying something like, “Well, I’m not such a terrible sinner. I could be a lot worse.”
It’s always easier to make excuses
It’s true. We could be worse. After all, we haven’t broken all of the Ten Commandments. That’s certainly true for most of us, at least in the literal, outward sense. But the Bible says that to break any part of God’s Law is the same as breaking all of it. Verse 10 says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” The Ten Commandments are like a ten-link chain stretching from earth to heaven. If you break one of those links, it doesn’t matter how well you keep the other nine. To break one is the same as breaking them all.
This was driven home to me when our children were young and I was watching our two younger sons while my wife went shopping with our oldest son. She hadn’t been gone long when I heard a loud crash from the backyard. Before I could even get out of my chair, my youngest son ran inside and said, “Mark broke the glass in the screen door.” Then before I went outside to check it, Mark came running up and said, “Don’t worry, Dad. I only broke part of it.” “Which part was that?” “The part down by the corner.”
When I went outside to check, there was a hole about the size of my fist in the lower right-hand corner of the glass. What had happened? Well, the boys had gotten into my golf clubs and were practicing their swings. Evidently Mark’s aim was not much better than mine since he sent the ball right through the screen door. But, he assured me again, it was okay since he had broken only part of it. I patiently explained to him it didn’t work that way. If you broke any part of the glass, it was as if you had broken it all since the whole thing had to be replaced. It’s the same way with God’s law.
We can’t substitute one sin for another
We can’t substitute one sin for another. We can’t say, “I didn’t commit adultery, so it’s okay if I rob the bank.” Obedience in one area can’t make up for disobedience in another area. There’s no such thing as being a “moderate” sinner. That’s like being a “little bit” pregnant. You’re either a sinner or you’re not. If you break any part of God’s law, it’s as if you’ve broken the whole thing. You can’t repair the situation by trying to make up for your sin in other areas. God won’t accept that solution. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are; you still stand in need of God’s grace.
We need more honesty about our true condition. If we were more honest, we wouldn’t make as many excuses, and our lives would be more pleasing to the Lord.
3. We Need More Mercy
“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (vv. 12-13)
Note that James uses three different terms for “the law” in this passage:
The “royal law” (v. 8) points to the source of the law.
The “whole law” (v. 10) points to the extent of the law.
The “law that gives freedom” (v. 12) points to the aim of the law.
When the King tells us to love our neighbor, we can’t make excuses and hide behind partial obedience. But when we obey, we discover mercy that delivers us in the Day of Judgment. Someone may object and say, “I thought our sins were judged when we trusted Christ.” That’s true, but we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where what we have done will be evaluated by the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:10). If we want mercy in that day, we must show mercy now. If anyone stumbles over this concept, they should read the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, which Jesus spoke to his own disciples. In the story, the shock was not that the first man refused to forgive the second man.
Unforgiveness should never surprise us in a fallen world.
People get angry and hold grudges all the time.
Many people live for years, locked in a cage of bitterness.
The shock of the parable is that the man who had been forgiven so much was unwilling to forgive a man whose debt to him was so much less. You see, we are like the unforgiving servant. We stand before Almighty God with our sins piled up like a mountain. The mountain is so tall we can’t get over it, so deep we can’t get under it, so wide we can’t go around it. That’s every one of us. Our sins are like a $500 million debt we could never pay in our lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes. We come as debtors to God and we say, “I cannot pay.” God who is rich in mercy says, “I forgive all your sins. My Son has paid the debt. You owe me nothing.”
No wonder we are so angry and bitter
Then we rise from the pew, leave the communion table, and walk outside. When we see a man who offended us, we want to grab him by the throat and say, “Pay me right now!” No wonder we are so tormented. No wonder we are so angry and bitter. No wonder we have problems. No wonder our friendships don’t last. No wonder we can’t get along. We have never learned the secret of unlimited forgiveness.
You may say, “I want justice.”
Fine. You will have it, and then you will regret it.
James says the unmerciful person will receive “judgment without mercy.” J. B. Phillips gave us this paraphrase, “The man who makes no allowances for others will find none made for him.” If I want the Lord to show mercy to me, then I must show mercy to others. But it doesn’t start with me. We could really say it this way:
Because God has shown amazing mercy to me in Christ, I will show that same amazing mercy to others so that mercy will be shown to me in the last day when I stand before the Lord.
Mercy triumphs over judgment every time I show the mercy of God to others.
I called this sermon “Discount Religion,” in part because of the Dilbert cartoon I mentioned, but mostly because we all have a tendency to “discount” the challenging parts of the Christian faith. Sometimes that involves doctrines that are unpopular. Sometimes it involves the nitty-gritty demands of King Jesus. If we are to practice genuine Christianity . . .
We need more love.
We need more honesty.
We need more mercy.
From Alabama to India
As I ponder the matter, I believe the application of this sermon lies inside each heart. Are we willing to think about our own attitudes? We all come from a particular culture that gives us a personal history with its own traditions and preferences. It’s no use telling me to think like a woman from Bangladesh or a man from Tanzania. I can’t fully identify with someone raised in Beijing or in Nairobi. I look at life differently from someone raised in Iran. I have my own upbringing that gives me a certain way of looking at life. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in Russellville, Alabama, which makes me a Southerner. I’ve been married for 41 years to a Montana girl I met at a Christian college in Chattanooga, Tennessee. We’ve lived in Texas, California, Texas, Illinois, Mississippi, and now we’re in Texas for the third time. Our three boys were born in California and Texas. They are all grown and married and living in Chicago, California, and China. We have six grandchildren. Through our 41 years together, Marlene and I have traveled to all 50 states and over 30 countries on six continents.
A long way from Alabama to India
That personal biography shapes who I am. Along the way, I’ve become a big believer in the value of travel because it stretches you to look at the world in a new way. It’s a long way from a small town in Alabama to the 21 million people who inhabit Mumbai, India. The cultural difference is greater than the geographic distance. When I traveled to India with our oldest son Josh a few years ago, we got a look at life vastly different from anything we had known in America. We experienced the genuine hospitality of the Indian believers and saw the difficulty they face in living for Christ in a Hindu nation. We didn’t understand the language or their culture. The Indian way of doing church is not the same way we do it in the US. We didn’t recognize the songs they sang. We couldn’t follow along with the Scripture they read. Josh and I are both taller than the average Indian, so we stood out in every possible way. But for all the difficulties and all the differences, we felt loved and welcomed, exactly as James said it should be in the church.
So the question we have to ask at this point goes something like this. Realizing our own background and culture and heritage, and understanding we have our own preferences about how things ought to be done, are we willing to submit those things to the Lord so that we might be set free from the sin of favoritism?
That’s a long question, isn’t it? But it really comes down to something quite simple. Will we submit ourselves to the Lord and to his Word? If we won’t, we have sinned against those who are different from us. And we have sinned against the Lord in whom there is no favoritism at all.
If we show mercy (as mercy has been shown to us), then we will receive mercy. This is the promise of God. But if we judge harshly, if we play favorites, if we look down on those who seem less fortunate or beneath us or “not our kind,” then we face the harsh judgment of God. We’ll get justice, but we won’t be happy about it. But if we have learned mercy through the grace and kindness of our Lord Jesus, then judgment will be disarmed, and we will learn what our Lord meant when he said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”