Monday, September 19, 2005

The Summary of the Law is Love

This is my personal summary of Dr.Rev.Stephen Tong's preaching on James 2:8-13 on 18 September 2005

Verse 1-8 teaches us that we cannot judge based on outward appearance. The value of human being cannot be covered by the exterior.

Love of God and love for others cannot be segregated. A person cannot say that he loves God and then does not love his neighbor. Similarly, a person cannot truly love his neighbor if he does not love God. From God's love to us, we love Him. From our love for Him, we love others. The summary of the law is Love.

In verse 9, it is defined very concretely that when we show favoritism, we sin against the law. But which law are we breaking? If we see things as separate rules and actions, we cannot see how showing favoritism explicitly breaks any of the commandments which guide our relationship with men (commandment 5-10). We must see the general principle of the law and understand the organic relationships among all the commandments. As the principle behind the law is to love our neighbor as ourselves, we have surely broken the entire law when we judge others based on their external appearance.

We can see the unity between Paul and James' theology in that both summarize the fulfillment of the law as love to our neighbor. The difference between Paul and James' theology is the manner they expound their theology but the essence is the same. Paul begins from the most holy place and then lead people to the outer courts. James begins from the outer courts and slowly lead people to the most holy place. So Paul begins with the true faith while James begins with the good works which are the result of true faith. One teaches us how to live as a human before God while the other teaches us how to represent God before men. But both grasp correctly the essence of the law.

We do not solve problems to the root by executing actions or fulfilling the law superficially as rules. This can be done without love and it is still not fulfilling the law. Once we understand that the essence of the law is love and learn to love our neighbor, we fulfill the law. This makes the difference between superficiality and having a full picture and a right understanding.

While in verse 9, we are taught to see things from full picture, in verse 10 we are led to see the detail. That is, if we break one law, we break the whole law. It is definitely not encouraging us to break all the laws since breaking one means breaking all. It means that every single law is in order and is organically related to one another. It also tells us that none of us can fulfill the law, therefore we cannot rely on ourselves and this opens our heart to depend upon and to receive God's grace.

Christians understand that the sins they commit which they are not aware of are far greater than the sins which they are aware and confessed. In reformed understanding, the idea of perfection is from motive, not from quantitative actions. We know that it is impossible for us to fulfill the law. It is an attitude towards perfection that makes us constantly feel imperfect, therefore it is a dynamic pursuit as we await our Lord's return and perfection itself is not a state that can be attained in this life.

The Law is awesome. Through the law, we understand God's holiness and our proper relationship and our responsibilities towards one another in society. The law given to us is built upon God's love for humanity. But we tend to misuse it and use it to demand on others. It does not mean that the more we hear God's Word the more we will get closer to God. The contrary can happen too if we begin to use it as a tool to demand on others.

If we know we are going to be judged by the law, we should speak and act like one that will be judged by the law rather than using it to impose on others. The law is not to make us self-righteous but to let us correct ourselves.

So we find ourselves in this paradox. We cannot obey the law and we are not supposed to disobey too. Ultimately, the law tells us that God is holy and good. It leads us to know our sinfulness and our inability to meet His standard. Then we become submissive to His righteous judgment and are convicted guilty as charged. At this point the purpose of the law is fulfilled. Behind this law, we see the highest will of God, that is, Salvation! This surpasses the content of the law and cannot be fulfilled by the law. It is God's eternal will, which is His love that gives mercy to forgive sinners. In this, we see the relationship between law, good works, salvation, mercy and righteousness.

Verse 12 talks about the law that brings freedom. Does the law constrain? Yes. Does the law give freedom? Yes. This is a very paradoxical thing. The law constrains us from sin, indulgence and barbarianism. It does not give us the freedom to sin. But it gives us the freedom to enjoy true life. There is bondage in false freedom and there is true freedom in the constraint of the Truth. Self-centered freedom is suicide and it is really destruction that we brought upon ourselves by our own will so we can properly call it our freedom.

Finally verse 13 says that mercy triumphs over judgment. Old Testament prepares the way to the New Testament. Judgment paves way to forgiveness. Jesus says that if our righteousness does not surpass that of the Pharisees, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. The righteousness of the Pharisees consists in this, on one hand they falsely think they have fulfilled the law so they become self-righteous and on the other hand they take the law they themselves never fulfill and use it to impose on others. Their righteousness cannot save.

Jesus Christ on the other hand, was obedient and fulfilled the law completely, and He did not demand others to fulfill it because He knew we have no power to do it. So He fulfilled the law on our behalf and extends mercy upon us. In Him, we receive mercy, which triumphs over judgment. His righteousness is the righteousness that saves!

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

God's vs. Men's Valuation System

This is a personal summary of Rev.Dr.Stephen Tong's sermon from James 2:1-4 on 4th Sept 2005

If we only seek things upwards and our hearts never go downwards towards those beneath us in love, our pursuit does not represent godliness. This would mean that the motivation of our pursuit is still very self-centered.

In taking care of the needy, there is also another spiritual mistake in seeing ourselves as dispensers of grace. In this way, we see ourselves as superior and others survive because of us so indirectly we despise people made in the image of God and take God's glory for ourselves.

When we can suffer without falling into the state of self-pity and can give without feeling superior, it is an honorable spirituality. Self-consciousness is very important in some aspects, but in other aspects like this one, the less conscious we are the better we are. Similarly if we love the Lord and we think that we love Him more than others, there is an inward thought that we are more righteous than others therefore our problem begins here.

After the French revolution, people realized that the greatest evil was done in the name of religion although outwardly they might appear to be doing good works. Philosophers then tried to understand the meaning of ultimate good. True goodness is not a tool or a medium, but is the objective and the motivation in itself. Our love for God is also this way. It has to be the end in itself or else it is not true. Our love, righteousness, justice and mercy have to be the motivation themselves.

Therefore James reminds us that we are to do good works, but at the same time to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. If we don't watch our motivation in this matter, in our goodness we will be in a worse state than the world.

In chapter 2, James began by addressing “my brothers”, which means the church. And he said, “As believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't be respecter of men.” It is a contradiction to know the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ and still be a respecter of men.

The Lord Jesus is indeed glorious. He is God in the flesh. He is the Word-Incarnate. He was humbled on earth and there was no comely appearance with him. But in eternity, He is worshipped by angels.

The writer is reminding the readers whether they knew that their Lord is glorious. Knowing that our Lord is glorious, how should Christians look at one another? If the church does not treat one another based on the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, worldly decadence will infect Christian fellowship where the high will look down on the low.

James began with faith. He said that based on the faith we have in our glorious Lord, the right actions should reflect, that is, that we do not show favoritism. If we truly believe, how should we behave? How do we judge and evaluate a person's value? We are easily deceived by our eyes as we tend to look at status and outward appearance. In judging this way, we are guilty of injustice, evil motive and misrepresenting our glorious Lord. We need to learn from our Lord. He always honors a person as a human being made in the image of God first, before pointing to his problems.

Humans look at the phenomena, but God looks at the essence. Humans looks at the material things but God looks at our ethics.