My first number of years in Christ was as a legalist. I believed in “grace” but also believed that I had to be worthy of it. However, it was becoming apparent to me that I was unworthy. This realization tormented me. I had given myself to the Lord, but I had no assurance that He had given Himself to me, an unworthy sinner.
I therefore sought to make myself worthy of Him. However, the harder I tried, the more it became apparent that I was unworthy. Even if He did save me, I couldn’t help thinking that He didn’t like me very much. Instead, it seemed that He liked others better, since He was blessing them more than He was blessing me.
As result of this thinking, I resented the very ones I was supposed to love. I even secretly resented God but wouldn’t admit it to myself.
This led to utter despair. I was so broken that hope became a rare luxury. However, in the midst of my brokenness, Christ made His grace real to me. I began to see that none of us are worthy. That’s why Christ had to die for me, the Worthy One for the unworthy.
Afterwards, I no longer could tolerate the “do better, try harder sermon,” which had so afflicted me. I just wanted sermons that would tell me that it is all about what Christ had done for me and not what I must do for Him.
However, as I became more confident in God’s grace, I began to see that the Christian life was more than just receiving Christ’s grace. A healthy lake must be stream-fed, but it must also surrender its water. Of first importance, I had to receive grace, but I also had to pass it on, responding obediently to it.
Immediately after affirming grace – “the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21; ESV) – James launched into describing our necessary response to grace:
· But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
Being “doers of the word” isn’t an option. A true faith is an obedient faith, while a fruitless faith is a faithless faith, an imitation of the real thing. A real faith is a tree that bears good fruit (Matthew 7:17). If we trust in Christ, we will do as He instructs us.
As we grow in our understanding of grace, we become assured that if we confess our sins, He will forgive, cleanse, and readily appoint us a fresh start (1 John 1:9). This gives us assurance and gratefulness so that we can gladly serve Him, not because we fear that He will damn us but because we are confident that He won’t.
However, when we show no interest in being “doers of the Word,” we are deceiving ourselves if we claim that we know the Savior. According to James, a barren faith is a bogus faith:
· What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
Grace doesn’t relieve us of the moral requirements of the law, now called “the perfect law, the law of liberty.” We still mustn’t kill, and we must love our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). Instead, we “uphold the law” (Romans 3:31), but in a new way:
· You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code [of the Mosaic Law]. (Romans 7:4-6 )
To not uphold what the law is to damage ourselves and those around us:
· By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (James 3:13-16)
We all have such temptations. Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He didn’t give in to the temptation, and we must not.
Being a “doer of the word” is more than just an indication of a true faith. It is also a source of blessing, as James had written: “He will be blessed in his doing” (1:25, above). We will also suffer if we turn back from the Word.
Grace is the good soil necessary to bring forth the crop. However, good soil without a crop is useless, while a crop without good soil is a fantasy. We were saved and endowed with God’s grace for a reason – “that we may bear fruit for God” (Romans 7:4, above).
Consequently, I think that we need those “try harder, do better” sermons, but they all must rest on the solid foundation of knowing the grace of our Lord. Without this foundation, we will be pierced by many discouragements and despair.