There is a tendency among evangelicals to misunderstand what following Jesus really entails. We think if we feel in our hearts that our relationship with him is good, it does not matter what we are doing in the rest of our lives. Pastor Glenn Packiam, however, says that true faith is inextricably linked to obeying God—and consequently to fighting for justice on behalf of others.
“Evangelicals are notorious for imagining that the gospels only contain a crucifixion story,” said Packiam in a sermon he preached Sunday evening. “The only thing we know about Jesus is that he died for our sins. That’s great, but he had a lot of things to say about how to live. He had a lot of things to say about caring for the poor and doing justice.”
What Following Jesus Truly Means
Glenn Packiam is the Lead Pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In his sermon, Packiam emphasized the importance of recognizing “the goal of gospel proclamation is faithful obedience.”
Preached form the second half of James 2 tonight.
The goal of gospel proclamation is faithful obedience.
We will never see the connection between the gospel and justice if we don’t understand the connection between faith and obedience.
— Rev. Dr. Glenn Packiam (@gpackiam) June 8, 2020
James 2:14-19 famously says that “faith without works is dead.” But Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
These passages might appear to disagree, but they do not, said the pastor. Rather, both agree that while our works do not save us, they are a confirmation of the genuineness of our faith. Packiam went on to explain that Paul and James are using the word “works” in different ways as they explain how to go about following Jesus. When James uses the word “works,” he means actions such as caring for the poor and helping the marginalized. For Paul, “works” refer to what he calls, “works of the law,” e.g., circumcision, dietary restrictions, and observing the Sabbath.
These are practices that distinguish the Jews from other people groups, but Paul argues that God’s people are to be set apart by their faith. And far from disagreeing with James, Paul actually agrees with him that true faith will express itself in works of obedience to God. In Romans 1:5, Paul writes, “Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.” Paul reiterates this idea in Galatians 5:6 and in Romans 16:25-26. “What is the goal of Paul’s gospel preaching?” asked Packiam. “To bring people into faithful obedience.”
Faith resulting in obedience is also the desire of Jesus, as we can see from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
If we are truly following Jesus, the result will be we will care about the injustices happening to other people. Said Packiam, “Faith is meant to work itself out. The goal of gospel transformation is not good Jesus-y feelings. It’s not personal piety and nice little inner affections. It’s transformation so that we become radical servants, radical lovers of people, the ones who serve and give and sacrifice and obey like Jesus did.”
When James explains what he means by a faith that is alive, the two examples he gives are pretty radical. First, he mentions Abraham, the father of the faith, who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac out of obedience to God. Then shockingly, James mentions Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who was willing to risk her life for God. James is actually implying that a woman who was not even Jewish and was not living a moral life understood more about faith in God than the people to whom he was writing.
So what does this mean for us as we pursue following Jesus? Packiam challenged the members of his congregation to evaluate what they are actually doing to accomplish justice. Earlier in his letter, James talks about the importance of there being no partiality in the body of Christ. If you agree with this, asked Packiam, what are you doing to tear down the walls of division that exist in the church?
“It’s very easy to say what you’re not,” he said. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m not a racist.’ Good. But are you empathetic? Are you listening? Are you working towards reconciliation? Are you considering ways to work for justice?”
Referring to the protests and unrest sparked by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others, Packiam said that even though he has lived 27 out of his 42 years in the U.S, “I feel like I’m walking in on a 400-year family fight.” We have a lot we can learn by trying to understand “what 246 years of slavery does to an entire group of people.”
Packiam also praised the congregation for their good works during the pandemic. “Faith in action looks like taking care of needs,” he said, “and I’m so proud of how you’ve rallied to this in these last 12 to 13 weeks.” The church has donated and delivered 12,000 pounds of groceries to people, and through their outreach to a correctional facility in Trinidad, Colorado, 160 offenders have come to Christ. The church next wants to send care packages to every inmate there. Living out one’s faith through good works could look like donating to that ministry, said Packiam, but it could also simply look like encouraging another person. “We’re all a little bit raw right now,” he observed.
The only way we accomplish any good work, stressed the pastor, is through the power of the Holy Spirit. Only God can produce the fruit of the Spirit in someone. And it is very important that we do not try to be the Holy Spirit for another person, but instead focus on how well we are listening to him ourselves.
Packiam closed with this challenge:
The invitation is for each of us to start each day and to say, “Holy Spirit, what do you want to do in my life today? Where do you want to lead me today? What step of obedience do you want to challenge me in today? What work of yours can I participate in today?” What if our invitation every day was, “Come Holy Spirit”?