Conservative and Liberal
Cantate Sunday| Rev. Rolf Preus April 29, 2018| James 1:16-21
Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:16‑21
Are Christians liberals or conservatives? If liberal means generous and free, Christians are liberals. If conservative means holding fast to the unchanging word of the unchanging God, Christians are conservatives. People who call themselves conservatives use the word liberal to refer to those who dismiss traditional biblical teaching in favor of new ideas that are old errors dressed up in new clothing. People who call themselves liberals think that conservatives are narrow-minded or even bigoted in their thinking. These words – liberal and conservative – become labels that are not always entirely accurate.
On the basis of today’s text, let us consider that Christians must be both liberal and conservative at the same time. We are liberal because God has been so generous to us. This is what makes us generous toward one another. We are conservative because God cannot change. This is why we will not permit any new doctrine to come into our minds or hearts to change what we have already received from God and confessed as God’s truth.
Christianity is a liberal religion. It confesses faith in a liberal or generous God. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights.” Every good and perfect gift is from our Father in heaven. You don’t have anything that is worth anything that God your heavenly Father did not give you. You can’t conserve what has not been given to you to conserve. God in his boundless liberality has given to us every good and perfect gift that we have. And, as our text goes on to say, with our Father in heaven “there is no variation or shadow of turning.” He doesn’t change. He won’t say one thing one day and change his mind the next. He won’t teach one set of standards of how to live in the 1950s and then teach a different standard of right and wrong in the 21st Century. There is no variation with God. There is no shadow of turning, as with the moon or the planets that rotate to give us different pictures or images. God always speaks the same truth because God cannot change. Truth cannot change. The liberal God who generously gives us every good and perfect gift is the unchanging God whose truth we must conserve and keep from becoming contaminated with human opinions.
To be a truly liberal Christian requires us to be unyieldingly conservative at the very same time.
Our text tells us that God chose to bring us forth or to give us new and spiritual rebirth “by the word of truth.” The word of truth is the word revealed to us by the Spirit of truth. Jesus promised to send him to the apostles. He promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles “into all truth.” He did. The truth from the Holy Spirit is from Jesus. The truth from Jesus is from the Father. The Father sent the Son. The Son sent the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit led the apostles into all truth. Those men wrote that truth down in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit is the Author of the Bible. Jesus said the Spirit of truth would guide them into all truth. There is no more truth to be revealed from the Holy Spirit than the truth the apostles wrote down in the New Testament. The Father sends the Son who sends the Holy Spirit who breathes into the Bible his own words of truth. This Bible declares Christ to us. It never changes its meaning. It never ceases to set sinners free with God’s good and perfect gifts.
The word of truth brings us the new birth. This is by God’s will. Our text says, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth.” The Bible says in 1 Timothy 2:4 that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” On the other hand, those who believe the gospel are born again solely by God’s grace, not by their own choosing. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) In our text we see that God, of “his own will . . . brought us forth by the word of truth.”
If the word liberal means free, who sets us free? We don’t set ourselves free! God sets us free by his grace alone. It is by God’s grace alone that we are born again. It is by God’s will, not our will, that we are born from above by the word of truth that is preached to us here below. The liberal God frees us by his will, by his choosing, by his power, by his grace, and by his grace alone. As we sing in the hymn,
Lord, ’tis not that I did choose thee,
That I know could never be.
For this heart would still refuse thee,
Had thy grace not chosen me.
Conservative Christians must conserve this truth. We are born again and become God’s dear children by God’s grace alone without any help from us. God makes the unwilling willing. Until he does so, we can only reject him, run away from him, and despise his holy word. But when God, “of his own will” brings us forth, he gives us new life. He enlightens us. He gives us new powers, new desires, and a new will. We become his firstfruits, and as his own produce he calls us to live a life that reflects what he has given to us.
Specifically, St. James mentions in our text, “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” Why do we not listen to others and why are we quick to express our own opinions and impose them on others? Why do we get angry when others won’t listen to us while at the same time we won’t listen to them? Do you know why? It is because we think we are more important than others are. Truly, we do.
But we are not. If only God’s children who believe in and conserve God’s word in its truth and purity would be willing to listen quickly and to speak slowly! How great it would be if conservatives became truly liberal. How many sinners burdened by terrible sins have been afraid to go to a Christian brother, or sister, or pastor because they were afraid of being judged? “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” How would you react if someone near and dear to you were to confide in you that he had committed a serious sin, perhaps a sin you warned about so many times? What would you say? Would you listen? How would you treat such a Christian?
One thing that has particularly grieved me throughout my ministry is how many Christians are willing to spend their hard-earned money on counselors who don’t even believe in the Bible. Why do they go? Is it because they think that a conservative, Bible believing parent, friend, brother, sister, or even pastor might be too quick to speak and too slow to listen? If you were to take a course in counseling, you wouldn’t learn anything of value beyond what the written word of God has always said. “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” This is what trained counselors are trained to do. If we fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and pastors would take to heart these simple instructions from God’s word, maybe we could help a sinner back into God’s gracious protection. How many women have had abortions and how many men have given themselves over to homosexual passion and have felt the guilt but have refused to seek out Christian help because they were afraid of how they would be treated by their brothers and sisters in Christ? So they run off to counselors who despise the blood of Jesus and the righteousness he won by going to the Father by means of Calvary’s cross. They seek the counsel of those who are swift to hear and slow to speak. They need a sympathetic ear. They need a friend. But they most surely don’t need a counselor who will lie to them and tell them that their sin doesn’t need forgiving or that their sin won’t condemn them before God.
The conservative God who cannot change is liberal with his grace to sinners who cannot change. He is so liberal with his grace that he can and does and will continue to change them. He sees and knows their pain. He who bore our sin in his body understands the filthiness of it. He loves those who have soiled themselves. We cannot imagine how much he loves them. We who are born again, born again by God’s word of truth, born again by God’s gracious will must love them too. We must be swift to hear and slow to speak so that when we do speak we won’t speak in anger but in love. God didn’t draw us out of death into life by speaking only in anger. He revealed his boundless love to us in the crucifixion of his Son where he died for our sins. There he won our hearts. He raised us out of spiritual death and bondage into the liberality of his grace. We conserve with every fiber of our being this gracious word from God.
The hymn for today – Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice – is one of the finest hymns ever written. It is somewhat autobiographical. Luther wrote it. He described his own spiritual journey from sin to grace, from hell to heaven. As we consider that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of lights, let us take to heart these precious words of this hymn:
But God beheld my wretched state
Before the world’s foundation,
And mindful of his mercies great,
He planned my soul’s salvation.
A father’s heart he turned to me,
Sought my redemption fervently;
He gave his dearest treasure.
This is the essence, soul, and center of the implanted word that is able to save our souls. This is the gospel that comes to us in our helpless need. This is the truth from the Spirit of truth. It covers our sins, washes us clean, pronounces us innocent, and presents us spotless before our God, robed in the white robes of Christ’s blood-bought righteousness. This is the word we conservatives conserve because this is the word that liberates us both now and forever. God implanted it in our hearts and it can and will save our souls. Amen.