An Ethic That Shows No Law Can Provide Salvation

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

It’s common to think that the point of religion is to have the right laws and to follow them.  However, James 1:27 says “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”  This is a different definition of religion than we often think of.  Today continues a series based on this verse, focusing on the insufficiency of laws as a way to salvation.  Only by Christ’s fulfillment of the laws of God through His life, death and resurrection can we achieve salvation, or a restoration of a right relationship with God and with each other.

Which laws do I mean?  In the Old Testament, there are three types, which include what many people think of as “religion”: moral laws of what is right and what is wrong, civil laws about what to do when those laws are broken, and ceremonial laws that explain requirements for restoring relationship with God.  But also in the Bible are signs that all civil and ceremonial laws are provisional, or temporary and incomplete, even if they are designed by God.  They exist because man cannot keep the moral laws, which is where this post begins…

The Poor Among You
Consider these verses from the same chapter in Deuteronomy:
“But there will be no poor among you; for the LORD will bless you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:4-5
“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:11

Just a few verses apart, it says that “there will be no poor among you”, but then that “there will never cease to be poor in the land.”  It seems like a contradiction, but the two thoughts can coexist because the first one is conditional on full obedience of the law – “if only you will strictly obey…”  God knows His moral law is perfect, but also that our obedience is imperfect, which will lead to poor in the land.  So, He further commands that His people take care of the poor.  This second command shows that He provides additional moral and civil laws to help those who are hurt by the failures of people to follow moral law.  Every failure of His people throughout time was known to Him when He gave the law, but He gave it anyway because it was not intended as an ultimate solution.

Jesus also recognized that poverty would not be solved until we reach Paradise, after He comes a second time.  In Mark 14:7, He said “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”  He said this because His disciples were criticizing Mary of Bethany, who decided to use ointment worth a years’ wages to anoint Jesus rather than to sell it and help the poor.  The gospel of John singles out Judas as the accuser of Mary, but also says that Judas “said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.”[1]  Elsewhere, Jesus quoted Isaiah, who said “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me.[2]  What we now call “virtue signaling” is not new.  Throughout history, people have been better at promoting virtue in concept than in practice, and in others rather than in themselves.  Therefore, even if the law we have is perfect, we will never achieve its ends.

Ruth and the Civil Law
Second, the Old Testament story of Ruth shows that even a perfect moral law, perfectly followed, cannot solve every problem – specifically the problem of “orphans and widows in their affliction.”  In addition, civil law can only limit the impact of some problems, not eliminate them.  The civil laws for gleaning and levirate marriage are key to Ruth’s story, while providing examples of faithfulness in a broken society, are also reminders that society is broken in ways laws can’t fix.

Gleaning, provided for in Leviticus 19:9, 23:22 and Deuteronomy 24:19, is necessary because “there will never cease to be poor in the land.”  God commanded His people to leave the edges of their fields unharvested, so the poor could eat what was there.  Levirate marriage, defined in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, is necessary because there are widows and orphans in the world. It gives provision for widows by obligating relatives of the deceased husbands to care for, or even marry, the widow to preserve the family line and inheritance.  However, these laws didn’t prevent Naomi and Ruth from becoming poor, or from losing their husbands.

One aspect of Ruth’s story is that people of faith can rely on God’s provision, both through His civil law and through others who follow it, to make a tangible difference in a world where many ignore God’s law.  Good civil law can improve the conditions of the poor, the orphan, and the widow, if people also follow the eternal moral law of love.

Civil law is a provision for

a fallen world, not a pathway

to a perfect world.

Another aspect of the story of Ruth is how it keeps us “unstained from the world.”  The world wants us to believe that with enough time, effort, resources, cultural revival, laws, coercion, or whatever, that we can produce a widow, orphan, and poverty-free utopia.  But whatever its source, civil law is a provision for a fallen world, not a pathway to a perfect world.  There will always be widows and orphans as long as there is death, and no law can overcome death.

Jesus, Our Religion
For me, the power of thinking about James 1:27 this way is not that I come away thinking, “now I know what to do!  Let’s go!” but that I come away knowing there is no way any of us could possibly measure up to the standard God requires.  Every time we see someone left behind it is a reminder of our collective failure, evidence that we really don’t have the answer even to our own individual problems, much less a path to perfection for the world.

Fortunately for us, the book of Ruth ends with hope, in the form of a genealogy showing her as an ancestor of King David, and therefore an ancestor of Jesus Himself.[3]  Through His life, death, and resurrection, He overcomes both death and the cause of death – our inability to generate religion that is acceptable to God the Father on our own.  Only Jesus, in a perfectly lived life, seeking out and loving “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” fulfilled the requirements of “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father.”  He offered His perfect record to the Father in our place, so we could be accepted based upon His religion, not ours.  He fulfilled the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws in our place, providing a way to a world with no poor, no orphans, and no widows.

For many in the world, civil law is their false gospel, their hope of salvation.  But the Bible lets us know that in this world, we will always have poverty.  There will always be widows and orphans here.  However, because we cannot follow moral law perfectly, we need temporary civil law as a provision for a fallen world.  To keep society from falling apart until Christ returns and molds us into new creations that follow the moral law of love naturally, with no need for civil or ceremonial law.

Until that day, Christ rejects both the tyranny of, and freedom from, law as the answer for His people.  Any civil law – even that of the Old Testament – can only mitigate the damage of sin, but in many cases, the wrong laws can make the damage worse.  However, absence of, or rejection of, all law is not the answer because the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of a Kingdom.  Jesus said in John 8:31-32: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  This freedom is from the failed kingdoms of this world, but not license to reject His righteousness as our personal standard of behavior.

Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.[4]  His righteousness brings us into a Kingdom like no other, where to “Visit orphans and widows in their affliction” is the freely offered sacrifice acceptable to our Lord, and an example of what James refers to later in his letter: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.[5]

This is the 3rd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here

Next Up in This Series: An Ethic That Puts People First and Issues Second


[1] John 12:6
[2] Isaiah 29:13, Matthew 15:8, Mark 7:6
[3] Ruth 4:17-22
[4] John 14:6
[5] James 2:18

An Ethic That Applies to Every Society, in Every Time and Place

Photo by Free Walking Tour Salzburg on Unsplash

If Christianity is a message of salvation to all people, in all times and places, then the practices it recommends must apply in every situation.  The political and cultural societies we each live in today have only existed for a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of history, and people reading this post may be living in societies entirely different from the one I’m writing this in.

When James wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” he didn’t just mean “pure and undefiled” right here and right now, but that to an eternal God whose character doesn’t change, there is a religion that remains pure in all circumstances.  There is no expiration date on James 1:27.

To apply James’ words that way doesn’t mean he was using “orphans and widows” only as a metaphor for something other than actual orphans.  He does mean to take care of them.  But he was also using them as the best example of people unloved in his society and by the world – the ones who fell through the cracks of society, and that “to keep oneself unstained from the world” means that pure religion leaves nobody behind the way the world does.

The world has many people who believe perfect society is only a matter of time, effort, and ingenuity, and it also has many people whose very existence shows the folly of that belief.  This tension reflects human history all the way back to Adam and Eve, who had to decide whether the kingdom of God they already lived in was what they wanted, or whether they wanted to build a kingdom based on their own ideas.  This tension existed when Jesus ministered on earth in the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace” of the society He lived in.  The Caesars declared in what they called “gospel,” or “good news,” messages that they should be revered as gods for producing the most peaceful and prosperous society the world had ever known.  When Jesus came, all He had to do was walk down the street – any street – and find problems not being solved in Caesar’s great empire. [1]  Jesus didn’t shake his fist at the utopians in protest, He just loved those in need of love, exposing the immensity of the flaws that exist in any human system, and proving by example that His kingdom is better.

WWJD
So, when James says “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” he means to do as Jesus did – to seek out and care for those left behind by the utopian imaginings of the world, and its related denials that these people matter.  This does include literal windows and orphans, but it’s also whoever is left behind in your area of the world.  The people in your neighborhood, country, organization, or even your church that the system doesn’t notice because there is nothing worldly to be gained by noticing them.  In Jesus’ eyes, even Zacchaeus, a wealthy Jew in a Jewish society that valued wealth, was one of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” because nobody saw him as a person with a personal and spiritual need.[2]  These “lost sheep” Jesus referred to in Matthew 10:6 and 15:24 need to know “the kingdom of heaven is at hand[3] because this world’s kingdoms have failed them.

Each and every world system leaves some behind, proof that Adam and Eve made the wrong decision to go their own way.  There are always those who it is unpopular or uncool to pay attention to, even in your church.  Therefore, James calls us to love the unloved and the genuinely oppressed, whoever they are, wherever you are.  By definition, there’s no program to reach these people, because they are the ones who were missed.  It takes the actions of individual, loving people to reach them and that’s kind of the point.  Christianity is about the restoring of relationships, not systems.

But does this really apply in every time?  How is the ethic of James 1:27 eternal, while other ethics are not?

At the risk of oversimplifying (inevitable in a blog!), the difference is that worldly ethics depend entirely on “progress” – on a solution that is theoretical and in the future.  Those pursuing worldly utopia hope they will progress to a solution for the orphans and widows’ problem, but what about the widows and orphans of the past?   Or right now?  In a framework of Darwinian evolution, death is just part of the process and an inevitable circumstance we must except until we find a solution.  Death itself is the philosophical orphan or widow they don’t want us to notice.  A solution in the future has no real hope for people in the past or present.

In Christianity the solution already exists – it was available even to our first ancestors – and death is only the result of refusing to accept it. And in all times places and situations “love God and love neighbor” is the right ethic, epitomized by James 1:27 and to be consummated in Heaven.  All those who have ever turned to God and accepted His solution, in the past, present, and future, will see His salvation.  We don’t have to hope that someday our children, or their children, and so on, will be loved, and know love, perfectly.

Until mankind actually produces a utopia, it is unscientific to believe utopia is possible, but because Jesus exists and walked among us, it is scientific to say perfect love is possible, even in this world.  From this perspective, Christianity is only horrendous if false; other systems are horrendous if true.

Today you may live in the greatest empire the world has ever known, or the worst tyrannical state, or you may live in a country most people on the world couldn’t find on a map.  In every case, and all cases in between, there are orphans and widows among you because only the kingdom of God is a perfect solution and it will only be fully realized in Heaven.  Find them in their affliction and visit them, “And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” – Matthew 10:7

This is the 2nd post in a series on James 1:27, which began here, and continues here.

Next up in this series: An Ethic That Shows No Law Can Provide Salvation


[1] For more on this, see an earlier post, More Than Truth
[2] See an earlier post, A Man in Need of an Ally, for more on Jesus and Zacchaeus
[3] Matthew 10:7

A Called-Out People – Psalms of Ascent #7

After another long pause, we return today to the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), used as a liturgy for ancient Israelites traveling to Jerusalem for annual worship festivals.  The last post covered Psalm 122, where David wrote of the joy found in the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.  Next comes Psalm 123, which discusses the attitude of the journeying pilgrims to that LORD, and the attitude of the world to them as a result.  Here are the first 2 verses:

A Song of Ascents.

To you I lift up my eyes,
            O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
            look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
            to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
            till he has mercy upon us.”

Earlier in Psalm 121, the pilgrims lifted up their eyes to the hills, away from their circumstances, to seek the Lord and His help.  Here, the Psalmist emphasizes the Lordship of the Lord, who is “enthroned in the heavens.”  His people look to him as “servants” to “their master”, or as a “maidservant” to “her mistress.”

While the idea of treating the Lord as an actual lord to be served should be obvious, it often isn’t, even for our Biblical “heroes.”  In Acts chapter 9, when Jesus confronts Paul (who was still a self-righteous Pharisee called Saul) about persecuting Christians, Paul responded by saying “Who are you, Lord?[1]  Apparently stricken by the miraculous light and voice, Saul somewhat ironically calls Jesus Lord before he even knows it is Jesus, and while he was on the way to threaten and arrest Christians.  In Acts 10, Peter answers a command from Jesus by saying “By no means, Lord,”[2] as if basing his disobedience on the very lordship of the one currently telling him to do something!

Right up to modern times, the Lordship of Jesus remains hard to accept.  We would rather accept Jesus as Savior than as Lord, but the God who is one is also the other.  The two cannot be separated any more than I can ask my boss to keep giving me raises and time off, while I insist on ignoring my job.  If I wish for God to save me, but have no interest in what He wants to save me to, I might as well say “By no means, Lord,” or “Who are you, Lord?”  If I wish to live for eternity in a world without sin, I need to agree that the Lord can define sin and that sin, especially my own sin, is bad.

While making the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and reciting the Psalms of Ascent, the Israelites would testify to the other nations that 1) God, as Lord, does not take disobedience lightly, but also that 2) He has provided a solution to their inability to serve Him, as symbolized in the temple and its sacrifices.  Similarly, believers today gathering on a regular basis are a sign to the world that salvation is only to be found in another place, through sacrifice, and that it’s worth the effort to go there.  Since the time of Christ, God’s people have been called the “ekklesia,” a Greek word translated as “church” in the English New Testament.  “Ekklesia” literally means a “calling out” – a call into the kingdom of God under the Lord of that kingdom, and out of the kingdoms of the world.  This new kingdom brings hope for a future world with no sin, bought by the sacrifice of One Eternal, Perfect High Priest on a dirty cross.  In that world there will be no liars, no deceit, and no war.  No evil of any kind, or in any degree.

Therefore, church – even if only a few are gathered together – should be a place dedicated to reminding us of the sacrifice required, and provided, to give us this hope.  It should be committed to “preach Christ crucified[3] because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.[4].

The ancient Israelites could seek help in many hills, but there is only one LORD.  All hills are part of our world’s circumstances and can only provide us with more of what we already have, except for one hill.  Our help comes from this hill in particular – the one called Calvary on which Christ was crucified.  But the Bible also says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,[5] and Psalm 123 ends with:

“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
            for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
            of the scorn of those who are at ease,
            of the contempt of the proud.

The kingdoms of the world, and those who have faith in them, have contempt and scorn for those who follow another way.  When we return to this series, Psalm 124 explains that our Lord has not left us alone.  In His mercy, He provides us help and comfort as we await the coming of His kingdom in its fullness.

Amen.

If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the Psalms of Ascent series, the first post is here, and each post links to the next at the bottom.


[1] Acts 5:5
[2] Acts 10:14
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:23
[4] Acts 4:12
[5] 1 Corinthians 1:18

Casting Mountains into the Sea

The last post focused on Jesus’ withering of a fig tree on His way into Jerusalem and how it was a sign of the eventual withering of those who reject God’s authority by not bearing fruit where fruit was needed.  Today we return to Jesus’ explanation of how the tree withered so fast: “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” (Matthew 21:21-22)

Jesus does not say “any mountain,” but “this mountain.” Which mountain?  Since they were returning to Jerusalem, a city built on a hill, it is likely that He is talking about His purpose in going there.  He was about to overthrow the authorities of the world on the cross, including that of the Jewish rulers, but also the Roman Empire.  As I wrote in an earlier post: “Only in hindsight do we know what Jesus already knew at the time: in AD 66, Rome would invade and level the city of Jerusalem, including desecrating the temple.  In 410 AD, Germanic tribes would sack the city of Rome and eventually overthrow the empire of Pax Romana.”

By causing the fig tree to wither quickly, Jesus showed His disciples that anyone who rejects His authority will inevitably wither.  What He demonstrates in a limited way instantaneously, He will fulfill completely eventually, but certainly.  Through our faith we bear our own cross rather than blindly following the authorities of the world.  If we act in faith, our actions outlast every authority of this world.  Thus, our faith moves mountains!

Being “on the right side of history” means doing the right thing in light of eternity, not doing what is popular in the fleeting, present moment or imagining some future opinion poll’s judgement on the present day.  The popular view may often seem like the easy way, but the authority of God, which tells us to love Him and love our neighbor in every circumstance, is the only way to bear fruit that lasts.  Following God may make us popular, or it may not, but seeking popularity should not be a reason for doing things.  Popularity is ok as an outcome, but not as an objective.  For the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, seeking popularity initially made them unable to commit to anything, but eventually led them to crucify God Himself.

In my case as a blogger and in many areas of anyone’s life, there are constant temptations to do what is popular.  Many of the “followers” of this blog are other blogs asking me to pay for advice about how to get more attention; to improve my “metrics.”  Other forms of social media want us to focus on “likes” and other verifications of our popularity.  However, only a life lived knowing that God, our Maker and King, knows what is most beneficial for us and fruitful for His people provides the wisdom we need to find true fulfillment.  The lesson of the fig tree reminds everyone that a quest for popularity might only lead to a withering of their ability to bear real fruit for eternity.

We close with these two verses:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” – Isaiah 40:8
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” – Mark 8:35

Flashback Friday: More Than Truth

Last June, I posted “More Than Truth” about how the media are “trying hard to weaponize you and I” with their own particular, filtered versions of what they call truth.    Proverbs 14:21 says “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor,” yet we are bombarded by stories grouping people into neighbors we should love and those we shouldn’t because they’re somehow causing the problems of the world through their political or other affiliation.  I struggle with the right balance, and I know others do as well, especially when the voices get louder.  The “Us vs. Them” mentality is everywhere, and while I generally stay away from commenting on daily news flow on this blog, this one couldn’t wait until Rewind Wednesday.

How should the gospel of the kingdom of God impact how we live in this bitter and chaotic environment?  Please read “More Than Truth” which is linked below, which makes a case that we must prioritize some truths over others, and that we also must not allow ourselves to “weaponized” by particular versions of truth.  Proverbs 14:20 – “The poor is disliked even by his neighbor, but the rich has many friends.” – is as true as Proverbs 14:21, but it too can weaponize if taken out of context and used as a prescription, not just a description.  “The wrong truth can make us despise our neighbor, or to support the wrong gospel.”

Don’t let the daily roar of news distract you from the love God has for you and for the people you will interact with face-to-face today.  Instead, pray that you may bring the eternal love of God into the pain of today’s world in a very real way.

Eternity matters, but life is hard. Therefore encourage each other today!