We are beginning a new series going through the book of James. The title of the series is “Be Good, Do Good” and it will be an exploration of the fruit of the Spirit known as “goodness”, which refers to the rapidly vanishing vocation of virtue we are called to cultivate.
Before we get to the main text for today’s message, I think it wise to get a quick refresher on the fruits of the spirit from Galatians 5:
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
You caught that “goodness” is in that list of 9 qualities, or “fruits of the Spirit” that are proof-positive, irrefutable evidence that God is at work in us.
But what is “goodness?” Well, on some level, we all know what “good” is, just as we know what “bad” is. We know a good movie from a bad movie, we know good behavior from bad behavior (even if we don’t choose good behavior). We know what good tasting fruit tastes like, and we know what rotten fruit tastes like. Paul says, in a world where people are in love with the pursuit of badness, go for goodness.
Or, more accurately, if we walk in the Spirit, the spirit’s goodness will work its way out in us and overtake, and consume, and supplant the badness we’ve all let take root.
This is a critical point when we are talking about any of the fruits of the Spirit: they are never to be misunderstood as the result of human effort, as if we could simply “try harder” and become like God. These are not the fruits of human effort, but the fruits of the Spirit of God. They bloom and bud only when God is at work in us; the fruit of the Spirit, including goodness, can only be produced when we are walking in the Spirit.
We are talking about supernatural love, God-given joy, Spirit inspired goodness, and so on. The love, and joy, and goodness which are produced by walking in the spirit can never be produced by merely farming the flesh, because the source is heavenly.
In that sense, when we talk about the fruits of the Spirit, such as love, joy, goodness, etc, we are talking about completely different species and cultivars; we are talking not of ordinary love, but holy love, not temporary joy, but holy joy, and not earthly goodness, but holy goodness.
Because holy goodness is begotten of God, it uniquely resembles the goodness of God. The seed is holy. The root is otherworldly. The quality is unmistakably good, because it is begotten of God, not the flesh.
Now that we understand that this series is going to be an exploration of holy goodness begotten by the Holy Spirit, it takes on new form. It can no longer be limited to a list of expected good behaviors or a set of rules we should have learned in kindergarten. Those things are fine - and indeed, good behavior is part of the fruit of the Spirit of goodness. But there is far more to it than that, because we have just set the bar much, much higher. We no longer aspire to develop earthly goodness that will timidly keep us out of the principal’s office, but Spirit-borne goodness that enables us to boldly approach the throne of almighty God. Holy goodness, while it includes good behavior, is far more than a list of dos and don’ts. It calls for the transformation of every earthly virtue into a heavenly virtue.
The problem is that holy virtue can be easily faked. I can play fair, not kill, not steal, even do charity work and look after widows and orphans in the power of the flesh just as easily as I can in the power of the Spirit. To the outsider, they look no different.
But they are different indeed. For human goodness is always limited. It will run out of energy, run out of motivation, and run out of patience. But holy goodness will press on even when the human tank is empty, holy goodness is motivated by eternal values, and holy goodness is undyingly patient.
We must see to it that our goodness is the product of walking with the Spirit, and not merely squeezed out of the flesh.
One scripture that encapsulates what “holy goodness” looks like is 1 Timothy 4:12, where Paul urges his younger protege Timothy:
Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)
Notice that this goodness driven by the Spirit has an exemplary quality to it: it is an example for others to follow.
Look also at the list of qualities Paul chooses. The list isn’t exhaustive, but illustrative of what a good life looks like when the Holy Spirit is our source: we have exemplary, or holy, speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity.
We might add to this list things like integrity, charity, and prayer. But overall, we would do very well to use 1 Timothy 4:12 as a model to live up to. We can all resonate with the truth that the goodness of God at work in us is proven by good and exemplary speech, life, love, faith, and purity.
Those five qualities of holy goodness – good speech, good conduct, love, faith, and purity – thrive throughout one book of the Bible in particular: the book of James.
James was the brother of Jesus. Grew up in his house, played ball with him, wrestled with him, did chores with him… If any of the New Testament writers had deep insight into the goodness of God as made manifest in Jesus, it was James.
There are some who thought James shouldn’t be in the bible. Did you know that? Martin Luther in particular unfairly criticized James for emphasizing works over faith. But the truth is that most believers have found great comfort in the words of James.
James urges us to both be good and do good. To believe, and act on those beliefs. To love God and love our neighbor.
The book of James has served as a sentinel protecting holy goodness against false teachings that emphasize belief over action. For those who say it is enough to simply be good, James urges us to do good as well, telling us that faith without deeds is dead. At the same time, James offers a firm rebuke of those who might think it is enough to do good without being good. He challenges his readers to both inward and outward goodness. For James true religion requires both: doing the good work of Christ, such as caring for widows and orphans in their distress; but also being good by maintaining a pure and unpolluted lifestyle.
James lovingly exhorts us throughout his letter to both be good and to do good, to manifest the holy goodness of God in the way we live internally and externally. And it is interesting to me how often the themes of good speech, good conduct, love, faith, and purity arise in the book of James – the same good qualities Paul urged Timothy to develop.
And so as we are exploring James, we are also exploring the fruit of the spirit known as goodness.
Today, we begin with James 1:1-18.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
9 Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. 10 But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. 11 For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
Please take note of a few key points:
First, James wants us to understand that trials of all kinds are God’s design for developing holy goodness in us by pruning away doubts and distractions. [bulletin] In other words, trials and temptations are a key part of God’s design to cultivate holy goodness in us. James makes it clear that we should not say it is God who tempts us, because God does not want us to fail. But God does use the trials and temptations we face to refine us; to prune away those things that are dead or distracting, and to make way for new life to take shape.
James uses gardening imagery throughout this passage. In verse 10 he talks about rich people as wildflowers that grow quickly but are withered by the scorching sun of adversity. In verses 14 and 15 he talks about the seed of unchecked desire that germinates and grows into sin and suffering. But James also presents us with a positive alternative: God’s word of truth germinating in us and giving birth to new life in verse 18.
When James uses gardening imagery, he makes it clear that there are two types of plants: those that are rooted in the world, and those that are rooted in the word of God. For plants rooted in the world, life’s trials are a scorching heat wave that will burn away everything that is false – which, tragically, is everything they are.
For those who are rooted in the word of truth, however, even fiery trials make us stronger by pruning away all that is dead and dying in our lives, yet leaving us planted firmly in the stable soil of the goodness of God. James has two types of seed in mind. The seed of sinful desire, which produces a crop of endless suffering, and the seed of faith in the word of truth, which produces a lifegiving harvest.
The theme that trials produce perseverance is sprinkled throughout this passage. James covers several types of trials: trials of bewilderment (what he calls “lacking wisdom” in verse 5), trials of doubt in verse 6, trials of humbling poverty in verse 9, trials of humiliatingly fleeting wealth in verse 10, and finally the trials of desire, temptation and sin in verses 13-15.
Second, James insists that holy goodness is characterized by integrity. He uses phrases like “double-minded” and “unstable” to describe a person who constantly nurses their doubts. In verse 6 he accuses those of us who cherish and coddle our doubts of being “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” And James takes special care to point out that God is not a God of “shifting shadows” in verse 17.
This will be a recurring theme for James: that integrity and single-mindedness are essential for living a good life. James will keep coming back to this throughout his letter: if we want to cultivate a life of holy goodness, we cannot be double minded, serving two masters, one foot in heaven and one foot in the world.
Integrity simply means being undivided, of a single mind and purpose. The word “integer” in arithmetic has the same root. It means a number that is not a fraction; a whole number. We, too, if we want to have integrity, are to remain unfractured, unbroken, and undivided in our loyalty to God.
Another word we use for those who are double minded is “hypocrite”: it is a scathing rebuke we levy against those who say one thing and do another. Throughout his treatise on what it means to live in the goodness of God, James makes it clear that who we are on the inside must be who we are on the outside – that our faith must proceed in lockstep with our deeds. James will insist that the perfect goodness of God given to us demands that we both be good and do good, and that these two elements of goodness must remain indivisible.
Third, and finally, James reminds us that the source of all true goodness in us is the perfect goodness of God. James says that every good and perfect gift originates, not from hard work or education or personal development, but from one source: the only perfect and holy source, the Father of lights.
A truly good life may only develop by being rooted in the holy goodness of God. Our goodness must be begotten by, and inspired by, God’s perfect goodness. James views God as the eternal source who desires to give good gifts – including the gift of holy goodness – freely to all who sincerely desire it. If we lack wisdom, James says God will provide wisdom – all we have to do is ask. James says that God, as the source of all perfect goodness, provides every good and perfect gift that we need in order to walk in joyful obedience to Him.
This truth reveals an even more profound principle, which is that God is for us, and not against us. He wants us to be fruitful and enjoy the life He has for us, and not become entangled in sin and suffering. James insists that God will give us wisdom when we ask, and good and perfect gifts when we seek to do His will in our lives. There could be no greater champion in our lives than God himself. May we always remember that even though God opposes the proud, He gives grace after grace to the humble.
I apologize for the longer introduction at the beginning of today’s message. But I hope this will get us off on the right foot as we spend the next several weeks looking into the fruit of the Spirit goodness as revealed in the letter James wrote to us long ago. I encourage you to reread today’s passage, and even scout ahead in James and look for those three themes: 1) Trials of all kinds are God’s design for developing holy goodness in us by pruning away doubts and distractions, 2) Holy goodness is characterized by integrity, and that 3) God’s perfect goodness is the source of all true goodness in us.
We will pick it up from here next week. At this time I’d like to invite the worship team to come and lead us in a song that stands the test of time, “Surely Goodness and Mercy”, and as they make their way to the platform, I’d like you to consider how to personally apply these key principles with some questions I’ve put in the bulletin.
First, there is the question of inward application: is God pruning me? Trials are designed to help us grow to full spiritual maturity. We must ask ourselves: Are my ACTIONS in line with my BELIEFS?
Then there is the question of upward application: Is God my source? This question is meant to draw us closer to Him. And the burning followup question we should ask is this: Am I convinced that God is FOR me, not AGAINST me?
And finally, I’d invite you to thoughtfully consider the outward application: Do others see God working in me? This applies to our relationships with one another, with our neighbors, coworkers, friends, and even family. Do the people who know me believe I have INTEGRITY?
As we ponder these questions while we sing this song together, may we be reminded that we cannot produce the goodness of God in our lives through sheer force of effort or willpower. We need to rely on the perfect goodness and mercy of God to see us through every valley of trial and temptation, and to lead us into the fullness of His life and the virtue of His goodness.