Preachers like me have let our churches down by emphasizing that God saves us by faith alone—”Just as I am without one plea/ But that thy blood was shed for me”—without also emphasizing that an important part of salvation is what happens after we believe: Through faith we receive a new birth by the Holy Spirit. We’re no longer slaves to sin. Yet we often live as if we still are. What’s stopping us from overcoming sin in our lives? That’s what this sermon is about.
Sermon Text: James 3:1-12
The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.
For the past two weeks, many of us have been following with great interest the news of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the Boeing 777 that left Kuala Lampur bound for Beijing and went missing somewhere in the Indian Ocean, along with the 239 people on board. We all want to know, “What happened? What went wrong?”
By contrast, let’s remind ourselves of an airliner crash not long ago about which we know exactly what went wrong—and all the things that went exactly right in order to save the lives of everyone on board. I’m speaking of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which left LaGuardia bound for Charlotte in 2009. Shortly after takeoff, the plane’s jet engines were disabled by a flock of Canada geese who had gotten in the way of its flight path—a potentially deadly coincidence.
Within the two or three minutes that remained before the plane crash-landed, the captain, Chesley Sullenberger III, “Sully,”and his copilot had to make literally dozens of life-or-death decisions—including where they could safely crash-land the plane in a densely populated area. The nearest airports were too far away, the New Jersey Turnpike would endanger too many lives. The safest option, Sully decided, was the Hudson River.And then it required incredible skill to glide the plane to a safe landing on the water.
There were probably 5 millions ways to get it wrong—costing the lives of everyone on board, if not other people in New York City—and exactly one way to get it right. Sully found that one way.
How did he do it? He had never crash-landed a plane before, or practiced this exact scenario on flight simulators. He didn’t have time to consult a manual or even think much about what he had to do. In order to be successful, his decisions and his actions had to be automatic. And he had to make them without freaking out or losing his cool.
Please notice: Sully’s success wasn’t a matter of doing what came “naturally”to him. After all, he wasn’t born knowing how to fly a plane, much less crash-land one.
There’s a funny song by Irving Berlin from the musical Annie Get Your Gun called “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.”The song is about how Annie Oakley’s family live perfectly happy lives even though they don’t have education or money—they just do what comes naturally. With some irony, Annie sings:
Cousin Jack has never read an almanac on drinking
Still he’s always on the spree
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally).
Sister Sal who’s musi-cal has never had a lesson,
Still she’s learned to sing off-key
Doin’ what comes naturally (doin’ what comes naturally).
As the lyrics of that song imply, “doing what comes naturally”doesn’t always serve us well. In fact, doing what comes naturally is often our problem—as the Bible teaches us again and again. In Romans chapter 7, the apostle Paul adopts the point of view of someone who is “doing what comes naturally.”He writes: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Paul says that when we “do what comes naturally”—apart from the saving and life-transforming grace of our Lord Jesus Christ—it’s as if we’re at war with ourselves: we want to be better people but we find something within ourselves—within our sinful, fallen human nature—resisting our best efforts, fighting back, causing us to fail.
And brothers and sisters, here is where preachers like me have let you down: We’ve told you again and again that God loves you unconditionally—“just as I am without one plea/ But that thy blood was shed for me”—that we’re saved by God’s grace alone and not by what we do. And that’s true…as far as it goes…But it doesn’t go far enough.
Because if that’s as far as we go, then we think to ourselves: “If I’m saved by God’s grace alone, not by what I do, then I don’t really have to do anything, even after I’m saved.”
So we don’t strive very hard to change our behavior—to become better, holier, more Christ-like people. We imagine that becoming holy—much less being perfected in love, as John Wesley would say—is just some sort of impossible ideal anyway—at least until we get to heaven. In the meantime, we’re just stuck in Romans Chapter 7, slaves to our sin, slaves to our fallen human nature, slaves who are trapped doing the devil’s bidding. We want to do good, but we can’t carry it out.
If we’ve bought into this destructive lie, let us hear the frustration in James’s voice when he tells us, in verse 10: “My brothers and sisters, it just shouldn’t be this way!”
It just shouldn’t be this way!
And maybe we respond: “O.K., James, but how can it be any other way? You yourself say, when you’re warning us about the tongue, that no one can tame the tongue. If no one can tame the tongue, why bother warning us about it then? The tongue is going to do what it’s going to do; we’re going to say what we’re going to say; we’re going to hurt who we’re going to hurt. And we’re helpless to do anything about it! James, maybe it’s true that ‘it just shouldn’t be this way,’ but this is the way it is because this is the way we are. Right?”
Remember I said earlier that Captain Sullenberger was able to safely crash-land his airliner in the Hudson and save everyone’s life because he wasn’t“doing what comes naturally.”But if we could go inside that cockpit on that day, and see him in action while he was making these decisions and executing these tasks and skillfully gliding the plane to a safe landing, it would look completely natural.
But that’s only because we hadn’t seen the years of practice and discipline and hard work that turned these decisions and skills into habit and instinct.
Sully made it look natural, not because he was following his nature, but because he was following his second nature.
And that’s what we need—a second nature. And that’s what we have through saving faith in Jesus Christ: not simply the forgiveness of sins but a new and transformed nature. The apostle Paul writes about this in Romans 6. Paul is responding to some of his opponents who are slandering him. They’re saying, “Well, if you’re saved by faith and not by works, and it doesn’t matter what you do, then why don’t you just keep on sinning? The more you sin, the more God forgives you. The more God forgives you, the greater the grace.” As Paul puts it in Romans 6: “Should we continue sinning so grace will multiply?” Paul says, “Absolutely not!”“By no means!”It’s as if Paul were saying, with James, “It just shouldn’t be this way!”
All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it? Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.
We Christians who’ve placed our faith in Jesus and been baptized can walk in “newness of life”right now. We’ve received a new birth by the Holy Spirit. We have a new nature…a second nature. We’re no longer slaves to sin. The shackles have fallen off, our chains are gone, the prison door is open wide—what on earth is stopping us from walking through it? What’s stopping us believers in Jesus Christ from saying no to sin? What’s stopping us from saying not only, “It shouldn’t be this way,”but “It’s not going to be this way any longer!”I’ve got a new life in Jesus Christ, and get thee behind me, Satan, because I have the Holy Spirit, which means I have all the power I need to change!
I want to talk now about two important obstacles that often prevent us believers from successfully overcoming sin and disobedience in our lives.
The first obstacle is that we have no fear of the consequences of our sin. We don’t believe God would punish us for our sin. We don’t believe we could be judged for our sin.
But how can we believe that, when James issues this warning in verse 1 of this chapter? “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”He’s talking primarily to people like me. Preachers and teachers in church.
What that means is, in the final judgment, I’m going to stand before our Lord, and not only is he going to judge me, he’s going to judge me by a different, stricter standard than he judges many of you. That’s one consequence of answering God’s call into full-time ministry. God has given me this gift, and on Judgment Day, he will demand a careful accounting of how I’ve used my gift for his kingdom. “From everyone to whom much has been given,” Jesus says, “much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
In case you think I’m making too much of this judgment, consider what the Apostle Paul told the elders in the church at Ephesus when he was saying goodbye to them for the last time: “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” In other words, he says, “I’m not responsible for anyone’s eternal fate—whether they spend eternity with God in heaven or whether they are eternally lost in hell.”And why isn’t Paul responsible? Because Paul has used the gifts that God has given him to the best of his ability. He’s completed the task that God called him to do. He’s told his listeners everything they need to know in order to be saved. He can’t save them himself, of course—their response to the gospel is up to them. But he’s given them everything they need to make a decision, so their blood isn’t on his hands.
So, that’s how high the stakes are for me. I’m going to face the Lord’s judgment for how well or how poorly I’ve been a steward of the gifts that God has given me.
And so will you! We won’t all be judged according to the same standard, but we will all be judged. We’ll be judged, for example, for how well or how poorly we’ve been stewards of this church that God has given us here at Hampton United Methodist. Have we faithfully used what God has given us to share God’s love with people in our community?
Just yesterday, some of us did something we’ve never done: we walked up to complete strangers and handed them a small package of Kleenex at the Yellow Pollen Festival. We did this for one simple reason: to share God’s love in a practical way. I love what one person posted on our church Facebook page: “Thank you very much! Right before I ran into one of you I was trying to use a baby wipe. The Kleenex are wonderful!” Isn’t that awesome? I know this was a small gesture, but we stepped out of our comfort zone and shared God’s love with 320 different people yesterday—320 souls who, like each one of us, need the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And there were some of you who’ve probably never before deliberately witnessed to your faith in Christ, yet you got out there and did it! Praise God!
But speaking of witnessing, James would agree that there are few things that harm our witness as much as our tongues…the words we use.
Just this past week, I was reminded of this in a painful way. Several times over the past year I’ve gotten into online arguments with a fellow United Methodist pastor who, like me, keeps a blog. In the “small pond”of United Methodist bloggers, this pastor is a big fish! I don’t know him personally; he’s in a different state. Now, I believe our argument is over some important theological questions. And I believe he is wrong and, frankly, that his ideas are harmful to the cause of Christ. But I couldn’t control my temper when I was arguing with him. While not vulgar, my language was sarcastic and demeaning. If he were standing in front of me, I’d just as soon punch him in the nose as shake his hand. I was seething with contempt for him. Finally, one commenter posted this: “Brent, you make a lot of very good points in this post and others, and your contributions are adding a lot of value to this blog by drawing attention to other points of view. However, I think your points can stand on their own without getting personal. Thanks!”
And she was exactly right. I responded back to her with this: “I decided this morning to back out of this blog because I can’t change my tone. I’m not the Incredible Hulk, but when I read this blog, I feel like my skin is turning green, and I don’t like this angry and defensive person I become. I’m not that person, or at least I’m trying not to be.”And I apologized to my fellow pastor.
Let’s face it, this blogger is my enemy. And I feel like my cause is just. I feel righteously angry. But you know whose cause was perfectly just and who was perfectly righteous? Jesus. And you know what he did to his enemies: he let them beat him, mock him, scourge him, nail him to a cross. While they cursed him, he blessed them and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”And he loved his enemies so much that he died for them, receiving the punishment that their own sins deserved.
And if you grasp that gospel truth, then there’s no way, James says, that you can bless God while cursing others—even those people who are your enemies. Because you understand that you yourself were an enemy of God—yet God loved you so much he gave his life for you.
In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says that while we Christians often talk about failing to “live up”to what we believe, the truth is, we will always only live up to what we believe—or live down to what we believe.
In other words, if we won’t tame our tongues, and if we won’t do other things our Lord commands us to do, it’s because we don’t believe Jesus.
Willard says that while we’re happy to trust in Jesus for our salvation, we often aren’t willing to trust Jesus when he tells us how to live our lives! Why? Don’t we think that in addition to being the way, the truth, and the life, and God’s only begotten Son, Jesus is also the smartest person who ever lived? And that we should listen to him because he knows what he’s talking about? That obeying Jesus means not only heaven when we die, but a new and better quality of life right now—an abundant life, a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
Don’t you want that kind of life? If you do, will you join me in praying this prayer:
“Lord, I know that what you’re telling me to do through your Word is hard. I know that all your words about denying myself, and putting other people’s interests ahead of my own, and giving away so much of my time and money to serve you; making prayer a top priority in my life; keeping myself sexually pure; loving my enemies; taming my tongue, sharing the gospel with others; reaching out in love to the least among us—I know that all these things are hard. And they don’t come naturally to me. But I’m going to do them anyway. Because the idea of not doing them, which means failing to obey you, is out of the question. It’s unthinkable.
“I repent of the ways I’ve often failed to take your Word seriously in the past. I repent of all my sin. I know that I will still stumble, as James says in verse 2. But when I do, by the power of your Spirit, I’m going to repent, and get right back to serving you.
“I’m not obeying you because I believe that by doing so I’m earning your favor, earning my way into heaven. I don’t need to earn it; you’ve made me a child of God by your grace alone; not because of anything I’ve done.
Instead, I’m going to do all these things out of gratitude for what you’ve done for me and because I trust that you know best. Only help me trust you more.
Thank you, Jesus. Amen.”
 Romans 7:15, 18-19 ESV
 Romans 6:2-4 CEB
 Luke 12:48b NRSV
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 134.