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Faith Without Works? (James 2:14-22)

IntroductionWhat is faith?

Faith is a word that can mean almost anything nowadays.  It can mean optimism.  “Have faith” often just means “keep your chin up.”  Or “faith” can mean a sort of sentimentalism.  Some of you’ll remember a song from the early 60s:  “I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows.  I believe that somewhere in the darkest night, a candle glows.”  You might call that kind of faith “wishful thinking.”  The most recent survey of religious affiliation in Americans showed that fewer people are attending worship at especially mainline churches or synagogues or mosques.  One liberal Protestant minister who was interviewed said he wasn’t worried.  Many people of faith have chosen not to join a community but experience it through personal devotions, the environment, at book clubs or at the local coffee shop.  Now friends, if faith is what we share have in common with the outdoor-loving, non-church attending, coffee-swillers at Starbucks, the term has become meaningless.  Something that can describe everything describes nothing in particular. 

 

In the Bible faith can take various meanings.  Faith can sometimes be used as a synonym for the truth we believe.  In Jude we’re called to contend for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  There faith refers to the truth we believe.

 

But most of the time, faith is that trusting personal commitment that we have in God that involves receiving him, resting in him, and relying upon him, placing our very eternal lives in his hands.  Therefore in the Bible, faith is sometimes compared to eating and drinking Christ (John 6:47, 53-56), that he is the bread of life and the water of life, by which our souls and lives are sustained, which is also expressed in the Lord’s Supper.  Can you see Christ as your food and drink?  Or faith is said to be a matter of looking to Christ, looking unto Jesus (Heb 12:1).  Jesus reminds us of the bronze serpent that saved those bitten by deadly vipers (John 3:14-15).  Can you see yourself, turning away from your sins and keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus?  That’s faith!  Or it’s compared to receiving Christ, like opening a door and welcoming Jesus Christ into your home.  Paul says, “You have received Christ Jesus the Lord” (Col 2:6, see John 1:12).  Faith is called putting on Christ, and committing ourselves to Christ.  J. C. Ryle said that faith is the hand of the soul by which we take hold of Christ.  Faith is the mouth of the soul by which we feed on Christ.  Faith is the foot of the soul by which the righteous run to him and find safety.  And faith is eye of the soul by which we look to him and live. 

 

And this is what makes faith in Jesus Christ such a revolution in our lives.  The one whom we’ve laid hold of is none other than God the Son.  What we gain when we receive him is nothing short of new birth and his eternal life.  The work that he has done is nothing less than his own cross and his resurrection from the dead.  In other words, what we lay hold of when we put our faith in Jesus Christ are the mightiest things in the world, the greatest things that have ever occupied the mind or stirred the heart.  Faith amounts to uniting our hearts and lives with his, our purpose with his, our love with his, our hopes and dreams with his.  We become through his faith, his brethren, his servants, his soldiers, his subjects, and the children of his Father in heaven.  He has stolen our hearts, and we can never repay our debt of love.

 

We sometimes speak as if faith were an easy thing, as if the good news is the fact that instead of working our way to heaven we have only to believe!  Some people have even taught that Christ’s gift to us was to make entrance into heaven so much easier for us by making it only matter of faith and not of works.  But that’s no help at all!  The fact is, faith is the most difficult thing in the whole world.

 

How much faith do you put in Jesus in a day?  For example, how present to your mind is the knowledge of what he’s told you?  How convinced are you of what he’s said?  How much weight do you place in what he’s promised you?  Do you live your life moment by moment conscious of his presence, and of his love?  Is there a spring in your step and a thrill in your heart day after day because of the unsearchable riches of Christ’s grace to you?  How utterly and wonderfully different our lives and hearts would be if only we had more faith.  The fact is, we have very, very little faith most of the time.  And we are Christians!  You and I would scarcely recognize ourselves if we lived by faith every day!

 

Keeping God’s commandments isn’t the hard part of Christianity.  If you have sufficient faith, the obedience will naturally follow.  The hard work of Christianity is to offer to Christ a genuine, strong, and steady faith!  You see, faith is not an easy thing, nor a simple thing.  It is the most difficult and demanding thing there is:  to live in the absolute confidence of the presence, the word, and the promise of an unseen God!  But this is what makes all the difference. 

 

Context

In the passage before us today, the ever-practical James teaches us about the power of faith.  And in his usual challenging way, he unmasks the emptiness of a powerless and fruitless faith.

 

Faith is the motivating factor for whatever we choose to do.  We get a drink of water because we believe it will quench our thirst.  We get in a car because we believe it will get us to where we want to go.  Even emotions are beholden to faith.  We feel fear because we believe something bad will happen.  We feel encouragement because we believe something good is happening.  Everything we say or feel or do comes from what we believe is true.  So what should we think about a faith that does nothing at all?

 

I read one preacher who said that faith and works are like two oars of a row boat.  If you just have one and not the other, you go in circles.  But that’s not right at all.  In fact, it illustrates the error that James is pointing out here.  You can’t have one without the other.  Faith without works, he says, is no faith, dead faith, the faith of demons which isn’t faith at all.  To say that faith and works are like two oars and you need both is like saying, in order to have a windstorm, you need two things:  a good wind, and the effects of the wind.  If you put those together, you’ve got yourself a windstorm.  That’s absurd.  For a windstorm all you need is a strong wind.  And if you have the wind, the effects of the wind will surely be there.  Dead faith is like dead wind.  What happens when the wind dies down?  What is dead wind?  It’s no wind at all.  And this is what James has to tell us today about faith:  dead faith is no faith at all.

 

You can see the effects of faith just like you can see the effects of wind.  You can see the trees bending and the leaves blowing through the air.  Likewise faith by its very nature is working faith.  It produces the works of service to God and others.  The faith that does not work is not faith—diabolical faith if you want to call it that, but surely not saving faith.  And a man who claims to have faith but has no works is, James says here, a fool.  So, the writer C. E. B. Cranfield put it, “The burden of this section is not (as is often supposed) that we are saved through faith plus works, but that we are saved through genuine, as opposed to counterfeit, faith” (cited by John MacArthur, Faith Works [Word], p. 148).

 

The next time we’re together we’ll consider specifically this matter of being justified by our works and not faith only, which will make a very good sermon to remember 500 years of the reformation.  Today I’ll simply say that we’re often reminded that James and Paul and Jesus and the rest have no disagreement at all on this matter.  We’re reminded elsewhere that James and the others certainly approved of Paul’s teaching that we’re saved by faith apart from the works of the law.  And Paul certainly approved of James’s teaching about people who have an empty profession of faith.  For example, Titus 1:16, "They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified [or worthless, NAU] for every good work" (Titus 1:16).  James heartily agrees.

 

And Martin Luther summarized it this way in his brief into to the book of Romans in his translation of the Bible:  “Faith is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God. (John 1:13). It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. He stumbles around and looks for faith and good works, even though he does not know what faith or good works are. … Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” (“An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522).

 

But more about Luther next time.  Today I want to emphasize the passage and the practical application of it.  For surely this is a very practical matter.  Any so-called faith that fails to give birth to a real Christian life isn’t good for anything, now or forever.  Let’s take up James’ challenge and draw a couple lessons for ourselves.

 

Illustrations of faith:  negative and positive

The structure of this passage is very straightforward.  James gives two illustrations of dead faith and two illustrations of real faith.  The two illustrations of dead faith are, 1) the talker in verse 16, and 2) the theologian in verse 19.  The two illustrations of real or saving faith are Abraham in verse 21 and Rahab in verse 25.  Let’s start with the first illustration: the talker. 

 

1. the talker

From Verse 14, "What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? … If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?" (Jas 2:14-16).

 

What do we learn from the talker in verse 15?  People may talk about what they believe, but clearly there’s no profit or power in a so-called faith that only talks.  Saving faith is more than something you say.  And claiming to have faith in Jesus does not make it so.  In verse 19, James takes us a step further.  “Not only is faith more than what you say.  It’s more than what you believe.”  Let’s go to…

 

2. the theologian

Verse 19, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!" (Jas 2:19).  You really believe.  Perhaps you have impeccable theology.  Congratulations, you may have diabolical faith.  Why, if you go through the Bible and read everything the demons said to Jesus, you would have a wonderful theological statement.  We have the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Augsburg Confession of faith.  We could produce the Demons Confession of faith.  Collect all the verses like Mark 3:11, “Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”  Every demon believes in the Trinity, the atonement, the day of judgment.  According to the latest survey I say, only 49% percent of Methodists believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.  But 100% of demons believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead.

 

Demon faith is a great example of dead faith because although there is an internal certainty of truth, and they’re certainly very sincere and earnest, and they even fear the judgment—“have you come to torture us before the time”—it’s obviously nothing like true or saving faith.  In the demons, it does not result in loving God, just like in talker it did not result in loving people.  You see how practical this is.  Listen, there are a lot of people who will miss heaven by 18 inches.  All the knowledge they need is there in their head, but it doesn’t make it down to their heart.  They have no love for Christ because there’s never committed themselves to him.  Their heart and mind and will are still their own.  As the old scholastics put it, fiducia is of the essence of fides, faith.  It involves the commitment of the heart and mind and will to your beloved.

 

So James says that clearly such people are lost.  Genuine, saving faith causes love in your heart, love for God and love for people.  True faith is more than what you say, and it is even more than the things you truly and sincerely believe.  Here are two negative examples, examples of a false faith – the talker who doesn’t love people and the theologian who doesn’t love God.  The rest of the passage gives two positive examples of saving faith – Abraham and Rahab.  Abraham is an example of someone who showed his love for God, and Rahab is an example of someone who showed her love to God’s people.

 

Ad I love it that James picks these two for his illustrations of faith, because every one of us fall somewhere in between.  At first these two examples seem as far apart as can be.  Abraham was a Semite; Rahab was a Canaanite.  Abraham was a patriarch; Rahab was a prostitute, and so forth.  They’re from very different backgrounds, but let’s consider their faith by what they did.  The third example here is…

 

3. Abraham

Abraham’s true faith was, of course, a working faith.  He cites the same verse from Gen. 15 that Paul cites about justification is by faith apart from works.  Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.  Here’s where Abraham was different from the other two, however.  Abraham the believer’s faith was evident.  Abraham too claimed have faith, and he was justified when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar.  More on that next time, but James was not saying that Abraham was saved on the day he offered Isaac by his justifying obedience, which is how Paul often uses the word in Romans and Galatians.  It’s in the common sense of being vindicated and proved right.  A claim is justified by evidence.  And his point is that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  Literally, his faith worked with his works.  Or as Hebrews 11:8 states, “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed….”

 

4. Rahab

Rahab said (Josh. 2:11b), “the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath.”  That was her verbal confession of faith.  She then saved the spies and committed herself to God and his people.  James’ point is that Rahab didn’t just say, “I believe in your God,” and then allow the king’s men to arrest the spies.  Rather, at the risk of her own life, she helped those men to escape and carefully obeyed their instructions about how she and her family could be delivered from the judgment of Jericho.  Her faith was not just empty words.  Her faith worked.

 

James (2:26) concludes with a brief analogy:  "For as the body without the spirit [or breath] is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (Jas 2:26).  If you see a body that’s not breathing, you rightly conclude, it’s a dead body.  If you see “faith” that does not produce good works, you rightly conclude, it’s a dead faith.  Works aren’t added to faith, just like if you see someone breathing, you don’t think, “That guy added breathing to his skill repertoire!”  No, breathing is an essential function and indicator of a living body.  No breath, no life.  So it is with works and faith.

 

Lessons

1. Working Faith versus Perfectionism

Now, maybe you say, “I’m very discouraged by this.  I’ve really blown it, as a Christian.  I’ve failed in horrible ways.”

 

Let me ask you this:  Since you’ve been a Christian, have you ever denied that you were married to your wife, so that she might be in danger from another man but not you?  Have you ever lied to a king?  Or have you ever let wife go with another man to join his harem?  Abraham did all of those things—twice.  “Was that before he was a believer?”  No, after.  What about when God promised he would have a son?  Since his wife was old and barren, he thought the best course was to sleep with the maid to get her pregnant.  My point is that supreme example of faith in the Bible is a man who had some major lapses in his faith.  Why would James pick a lying, cowardly, adulterer as an illustration?  Why not someone without any known sins or moral lapses we know about, like Daniel or Joseph?  It’s because in Abraham’s life and yours, working faith is not perfectionism.

 

It’s what James is about to write at the beginning of chapter 3, just keep reading the next two verses.  "…We all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man" (Jas 3:2).  The evidence of working faith is not a life with no major sins.  The evidence of a working faith is what we read earlier from Philippians 3:

 

"Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  13 Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead,  14 I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  15 Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.  16 Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind.  17 Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern."  (Phil 3:12-17)

 

2. Working faith versus Decisionism

By decisionism I mean placing our hope and confidence in a decision in the past rather than a working faith.  ((Give my own testimony, perhaps you have relatives like this; 2 Peter 1 on adding to our faith to make our calling and election sure)).  Maybe someone led you in a prayer and told you, “If you prayed that prayer and really meant it, you’re saved, and don’t ever doubt it!”  So you walked away thinking that you got saved by praying a prayer and meaning it.  So years later when you have doubts, what you do?  The natural thing to do is to think back to that prayer and ask yourself, “Did I really, really mean it?”  So all of your security and all of your assurance is riding on how much you meant something all those years ago.  And that can be very unsettling, especially if your memory isn’t great and you don’t know how you felt last week, let alone 20 years ago.

 

And besides that, it’s a whole other sermon, but it’s very possible for a person to pray that prayer with all his heart and still not be saved.  Faith is not a matter of what you say, or even if you mean by what you say.  Whenever the Bible describes the demonstration of saving faith, it never says, “Think back and figure out how much you meant it when you prayed.”  It always tells us to judge the root by the fruit ((example)).

 

So if we know people who know the truth and even say they believe it, but it makes no practical difference, what they need is not encouragement to good works.  What they need is to gain real faith.  Deal with the root of the issue.

 

Conclusion:  I believe, help my unbelief!

And this is what we’re all to take from this:  God himself is to become our “exceeding joy” today (Psalm 43:4).  Our great need is to lay hold of Jesus!  Thirst after Him!  Rouse yourself to seek Him as your only source of hope and help.  Hope in God!  You shall again praise Him, he is the help of your countenance and your God!

 



Repentance and Reconciliation (Genesis 44:15-45:15)

IntroductionHow did Joseph avoid bitterness?

Joseph’s brothers hated him and couldn’t speak a kind word to him.  They were going to kill him, and at the last minute decided it was better to make some money by selling him off instead, so they sold him to be a slave in Egypt.  They wanted to hurt him.  As Joseph says later, they meant evil against him.

 

Have there been people in your life who’ve hurt you, sinned against you?  Maybe they haven’t ruined your life, but they’ve at least deeply affected the course of your life?  Betrayal, divorce, consuming self-centeredness?  Maybe some miserable circumstances in your life have come about by the sins of others against you.  We’re inclined to hate those who sin against us in this way.  And the Bible calls bitterness a root (Heb 12:15).  When bitterness takes root, it destroys people’s lives.  They lack joy, confidence, and grace.

 

Some of you may be struggling with those feelings right now.  Your pain may be from a recent situation, or it may go back for years.  Be warned.  Bitterness can destroy your life, especially your Christian life, and spreads to others.  To quote the rest of the verse I referred to a minute ago, beware “lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Heb 12:15). 

 

As long as we nurse our bitterness toward those who’ve harmed us, we’re as much as letting them harm us still.  Our hearts are damaged by the grudges we hold.  Bitterness holds our souls in bondage and turns us in upon ourselves, hindering God’s blessings from flowing through us.  And it’s tragic when we allow the evil that others have done to us to control our lives.  It’s like we invite them to go on hurting us month after month, year after year.

 

We turn therefore Joseph to learn how this man, who suffered so much, was not defiled by bitterness.  And not only that, he was able to go on serving God in difficult situations, so that he was able to reconcile his own hateful brothers both to God and to himself.  And that’s what we read about in these last seven chapters of the book of Genesis.  Let me first give you three points from this passage on not being overcome by bitterness, and we’ll see how God turns the hearts of the brothers, especially Judah, to himself as well.

 

1. Forgiveness comes through trusting in God’s goodness.

Hear Joseph’s emphasis in 45:5, 7, and 8.  Verse 5, “do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen 45:5).  Verse 7, “God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen 45:7).  And in case you missed it, verse 8, “It was not you who sent me here [that is ultimately], but God” (Gen 45:8).

 

This is a critical reason why Joseph is able to forgive so freely and graciously.  Joseph sees that behind all the hurtful sins of his brothers is the providence of God, the wise, just, loving, good, overruling providence of God.  God is the one who led me on this path for his purpose.  Do you see how he is assured himself and he assures his brothers of this truth?  Therefore, even though things didn’t work out the way he was expecting in life, even though they had sinned against him grievously, Joseph’s not bitter.  He’s not crippled by self-pity.  He believes in a good, sovereign God.  And if you believe in him too, you also can be freed from the evil people do to you.  You don’t have to live in misery and let those wounds from the past keep hurting you.

 

How was Joseph set free from that bitterness?  He remembered God’s overriding purpose in all that happened in his life.  That doesn’t excuse the brothers.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t need to deal with their sins before God.  But this knowledge sets you and me free.  We don’t have to be bitter or angry or resentful or feel sorry for ourselves.  The Lord is with us.  And we have a great father in heaven who’s even able use these cruel and wicked things people do for my good and the good of others and the world.

 

Joseph is saying, “I’ve learned that what ultimately controls everything in my life is not the evil that people do to me.  Ultimately, it’s God.  No matter what evil you intended in selling me into slavery here, God has used all these things to fulfill my good destiny.”  And Joseph says it wonderfully well at the end of the book in that justly famous verse, Genesis 50:20, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive” (Gen 50:20).

 

Now, you think, that’s easy for Joseph to say.  He became the prime minister of Egypt.  But dear friends, as I showed you last week, God has a much greater destiny for you too, and in a much more wonderful kingdom than that of Egypt.  And while Joseph languished in prison he knew not why, having only God’s promise in a dream that his brothers would one day bow to him, you have been given so much more than this.  You were told much more, and not in some dream.  You were given a much greater destiny that explains all that goes on right now.  Consider that similar justly famous verse Romans 8:28, spoken to you:  “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8:28-29).  What a destiny!  And God is using all the sins that come against you even now to fulfill this destiny, to make you into patient, gracious, humble, forgiving people, just like Jesus, just like Joseph.  God is using all those difficult people in your life that you might learn to love your enemies just like Jesus, just like Joseph.  In the same way that God used Joseph’s sufferings to test him and give him character and make him the chief servant of the crown, God is using all of your sufferings to make you gracious children of God most high, so that we may face tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword, and yet be able to say, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom 8:35-37).  Through such miseries, says Jesus, you are learning to “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45).  Can you see your destiny already?  Joseph couldn’t see it for years.  But you can.  And if you remember that, as I said a few weeks ago, “this is a test, this is only a test,” you too will grow in strength and grace and godliness and mercy.  Joseph did.  And you can see how letting go of the hurts and grudges in your life will let you rise above and show forgiveness, kindness, patience, and love, according to the will of Christ.

 

Joseph’s response wasn’t determined by the evil other people intended against him.  His response was according to the good that God intended for him.  Joseph’s starting point in life is that “God is at work in all things for my good.”  By trusting in God’s goodness and providence, you too can say with Joseph, “I’m not bitter.  I’m not vengeful.  It wasn’t you that sent me here but God.  God’s in control of my life, not you.  And I wouldn’t change what happened.”  Understand, then, that no matter what evil people intend to do to you, trusting in God’s good providence, you can see that they haven’t actually done you evil at all.  By the power of God who controls all things, they’ve actually done you good.

 

Do you feel like grumbling about your circumstances or about the people who mistreated you?  We all do, but only because we forget that God is the one who’s overruling all such things.  You probably don’t think you’re grumbling against God.  You say it’s other people.  But you’re forgetting who’s in control of it all.  You must come to the place where you can say, “That person meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, and I will remember and trust in His good purpose in all things.”

 

By the way, we’re also reminded here of the bigger picture about God’s good purposes that we often forget.  When people treat us badly, our tendency is to say, “O God, what are you doing in my life?”  But Joseph came to understand that what God was doing in his life was not primarily about him.  45:7, “God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (Gen 45:7).  God wished to use Joseph in the lives of others.  This whole thing wasn’t really about Joseph at all.  It was about saving many people. 

 

And this is the big picture we need to see.  Don’t become obsessed asking what God is doing in my life.  Understand that my life is frequently intended by God to be used for the blessing of others.  The answer to the question, “what are you doing in my life?” is usually found in someone else.

 

To give you one example, I guarantee that practically every ministry for people who’ve been abused or bereft or divorced or who have particular sins or temptations or addictions or anything else you can name—I guarantee you that all these ministries that help so many are largely staffed by people whom the Lord has delivered through such trials.  To give you another example, the most effective evangelists are often the ones who’ve been on the other side, and the people who speak most compassionately and effectively into the lives of others have been in the same situation themselves.  Probably other examples have already occurred to you.  But like Joseph, we should learn to view the trials of our life as a preparation for ministry.  Even our Lord was perfected as a high priest by the things that he suffered, that he might be able to sympathize with us.  If it was true for him, how much more so for us.

 

Sinclair Ferguson says, “We live in such [an] individualized me-obsessed world that we need to be turned outside in, as it were, to take account of the fact that I am not God’s only interest.  And God’s kingdom is not being built in order that it may be subservient to me, but my life is being employed in order that it may be subservient in His kingdom.”

 

And my main point, and a key point of the chapter is this:  Forgiveness comes from trusting in God’s goodness.  If God works all things together for our good, and through us for the good of many, you can let go of the bitterness.  “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:3-5).  Would you give up character and hope?  What would you change?  Will you not trust the goodness of your heavenly father who rules over all things for your good?  The second lesson I’d like us to take more briefly from this chapter is…

 

2. Forgiveness is an act of love and reconciliation

We’re not just called to forgive people.  We’re called in Christ to love them.  Forgiveness is only one expression of our love, and it’s the means by which we are reconciled in love to others.  To forgive others properly, we must love and seek reconciliation.  Joseph could have said, “I forgive you guys.  Now get out of my life!”  But we see in Joseph gracious love.  Joseph loved his brothers when they didn’t love him.  In spite of what they deserved, his heart broke for them.  Picture the touching scene.  Joseph says in verse 4, “Please come near to me” (Gen 45:4).  Verses 14 and 15, “he fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.”  And then, it says, “He kissed all his brothers and wept over them”  (Gen 45:14-15).  Reuben, Judah, his arms around them, his tears on their necks.  Levi, Simeon, all the brothers, embracing each other, their emotion unrestrained, heart to heart.  They’re not estranged any more.  There’s no bitterness, no resentment, no anger or division.  They’re all one.  And it says they talked together.  They speak of all that God had done, all that happened.  Early in Joseph’s life, we read that the brothers hated Joseph and couldn’t speak a kind word about him.  Now, our scene ends with the brothers talking, kissing, weeping, and talking some more.  Later in chapter 50, he reassures them that he will personally provide for them and their families (50:21).  His words of forgiveness proved themselves in his kind deeds long after the fact.  Forgiving words are nothing if they aren’t backed up by action and reconciliation.  If you say that you forgive someone, but you don’t act that way, you haven’t really forgiven.  A forgiving spirit shows itself in kind deeds and, so far as it depends on you, rebuilding love through reconciliation.

 

God’s forgiveness serves a higher purpose.  God forgives us so that we may be reconciled to him as his beloved children, that we might enjoy an intimate relationship with Him.  When we forgive others, it’s because we’re also seeking to restore a broken relationship.  To say, “I forgive you, but I never want to see your ugly face again,” is not to forgive as God forgives!  Of course, if the offender does not repent of sin, we can’t be truly reconciled or in a close relationship.  I realize that.  But even then, we’re still commanded to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us (Luke 6:27-28).  We shouldn’t sit with our arms folded, thinking, “When he comes crawling to me, begging for forgiveness, I’ll do it, but not until then!”  We’re called to go to our brother and be reconciled.  Forgiveness is just part of love, an act that reconciles estranged people.

 

Forgiveness involves a commitment on your part:  to refuse to bring up the offense to use against him, to refuse to talk to others about the offense, to refuse to dwell on it yourself, with a view to being reconciled to the offender as far as possible (Jay Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving).  When God forgives, he says, “I will be their God, and they shall be My people … and their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb 8:10-12).  Forgiveness is an act of love and reconciliation.

 

3. Forgiveness depends much more on you than the other person

The path to being reconciled to someone from whom you’re now estranged usually begins in you and your attitude.  I know what you’re thinking:  What about what they did?  What about their attitude?  Obviously, at some point their attitude also has to change for reconciliation to be complete.  But one very effective way to bringing others to change is, as in the case of Joseph, showing others how graciously and lovingly you respond to the sins committed against you.

 

We’re taught to take the initiative in reconciliation, as Joseph does here.  Jesus says, “if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24).  Again he says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother” (Matt 18:15).  And in many such passages, we’re told to take the initiative.

 

Our right attitude is the path forward, and an essential part of any reconciliation.  The relationship between Joseph and his brothers would never have been restored if Joseph had harbored a rotten attitude.  His forgiving, kind, loving, caring, pleasant attitude, in spite of the horrible rejection and harsh treatment he had received from his brothers, opened the way for them to be reconciled to him.  Remember, also that it’s the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).

 

We’re each responsible for our own attitude before God.  You at least can have the joy and peace of Christ in your heart, and you can work for the same for others.  You can’t deal with the other person’s attitude directly, but you can change yours.  It’s clear here that Joseph had forgiven his brothers long before they came to a place of repentance. 

 

I realize that if Joseph’s brothers had refused to repent of their sinful ways, there could only have been a strained truce, at best.  Not every relationship will work out as neatly as this.  But when your attitude is right, and you are forgiving and pursuing reconciliation for God’s sake, it does force the issue on the other person.

 

Conclusion“I am Jesus!” (Acts 9:5).

In conclusion, I’d like to talk about a greater forgiveness, and to call your attention to the life changing words at the beginning of chapter 45:  “I am Joseph!”  What did it mean for these brothers suddenly to be face to face with the one whom they’d sinned against so greatly?  And then to hear such words of forgiveness and grace?

 

Many of us here today have experienced just such a moment.  For myself, it wasn’t actually a single moment, or a single meeting.  It was a more gradual awakening—but it was just as life-changing.  But the result was the same.

 

These words, “I am Joseph,” remind me of one of the more dramatic moments we find in the Bible.  There was a day when Saul of Tarsus was traveling along the road as an enemy of Christ, his heart full of hatred and bitterness toward the Christians.  But on that day there was a meeting that forever changed his life.  He heard the words he could scarcely believe, “I am Jesus” (Acts 9:5).  And these words were likewise followed by words of grace, assurance, and forgiveness.  And those words changed his life.

 

We too have heard this voice.  And as we look back, we can see the same gracious love while we were yet estranged.  He knew us when we didn’t know him.  He loved us while we were yet enemies.  And though he seemed perhaps at times to treat us harshly, he was full of mercy and goodness.  And he reconciled us to himself and to our God and Father.  And now we can see the overruling plan of God.  We can see the wise, controlling hand of our Father working everything together to bring us to the point of humble repentance.  And we too have experienced this glorious outcome.  As we knelt, frightened and guilty and ashamed, the one on the throne opened wide his arms and said, “Come near to me.  I am Jesus.”  And whoever comes to me I will by no means cast out.  And he wept with us and talked with us in mercy and kindness.

 

And if you’ve not had this blessed experience, it is available to you right now.  Though you’ve sinned grievously against him, though you’ve not known him, yet he has known you.  And he has suffered, not for himself, but to save many people alive as it is this day.  Turn to him and be saved.  He says, “I am Jesus.”

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