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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Cultivate a Christian attitude to the future
Text:James 4:13-17 (View)
Occasion:New Years Eve
Topic:Our Calling

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 121

Hymn 54:1-4

Hymn 54:5-8

Hymn 64 (Confession of faith)

Psalm 115:1,6,7

Scripture readings: Luke 12:13-20, James 3:13-4:17

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

So here we are at the end of another year.   We’re just about to flip our calendars over to the new year.  Last year at this time, I’m sure you had all kinds of plans.  How did they work out?  I imagine that some of them came to be while others didn.t 

Whatever may have happened in the year gone by, I’m sure many of us have made some plans for this new year too.  Young people have their plans, and so do those of us who are older.   We’re all thinking ahead to what we hope the new year will bring.  We make our plans.    

And that’s a good thing.  There’s nothing at all wrong with making plans.  The question is always:  what’s the attitude with which we make our plans?  Do we do it along the lines of Proverbs 16:9, “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps”?  Or do we do it without regard for God and his rule over our lives, the universe and everything? 

That’s really the question posed by our text here this evening:  you who are bought with the blood of the Lamb, what’s your attitude to the future?  It appears believers haven’t always had the attitude they should.  James saw that in some of the congregations dispersed among the nations.  He either saw or heard reports that those who claimed to be believers lived in such a way that they disregarded God and his rule.  These believers needed to be shaken from their complacency and arrogance.  They need to hear the call to wholeness.  That’s why the Holy Spirit moves James to write this letter:  “so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4).   “Perfect” and “complete” speak of wholeness, being the way God intended you to be.  And that includes cultivating a Christian attitude to the future. 

I preach to you God’s Word with this theme:

The Holy Spirit calls you to cultivate a Christian attitude to the future

Such an attitude:

  1. Disdains foolish pride.
  2. Embraces the wisdom of faith. 

Some of the believers originally addressed by our text appear to have been merchants.  These merchants could travel without much difficulty, so they were well-off.  They’d be what we today would call entrepreneurs. 

Now these merchants were said to have a certain type of attitude.  That would be expressed in statements like the one James quotes in verse 13, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.”  This showed that these merchant types, these entrepreneurs, believed themselves to be in control of their lives.  They decide for themselves where they’ll go, when they’ll go, how long they’ll stay and what they’ll do there.  We’ve decided we’re going to go and that’s that.  Our lives are in our own hands and God doesn’t belong.  He may be out there somewhere, certainly nice to have him around if you’ve got a crisis, but really he’s irrelevant to what I’m going to do tomorrow.  Remember:  this is being said and thought by people who claim to belong to Christ. 

It amounts to what we call “practical atheism.”   Atheism basically says there is no God. There’s out and out atheism that doesn’t believe in God at all and aims for some kind of consistency.  But then there’s also practical atheism where someone says they believe in God but then their lives are inconsistent with their belief.  For all practical purposes, they live the same way as the atheist.  Believing in God doesn’t make any difference in their lives.  That’s what’s going on with these merchants.   Practical atheism.

It’s these people that the Holy Spirit is telling to listen up here.  They have to listen up because their attitude is one of pride and that’s something that can’t be tolerated.  James already brought his readers down to earth in verses 6 and 7, “Submit yourselves therefore to God.”  He says it again in verse 10, “Humble yourselves before the Lord….”  Humility is an essential part of the Holy Spirit’s call to wholeness and maturity in James.  Now with our text we find more of the same call to humility, although it’s worked out in a different way. 

There’s pride among these merchants claiming to be believers.  That pride needs to be rebuked.  So James does that exact thing in verse 14 of our text.  Our translation says, “Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.”  Another way of translating that is:  “You by your very nature don’t even know what will happen tomorrow.”   In other words, you’re just a human being.  You’re a mere creature who can’t look ahead and say what’s going to happen.  Quite bluntly:  you’re not God.  You’re the creature, not the Creator!  Isn’t this a message just as much for today? 

Years ago in Canada, I remember reading in the newspaper about a young man going around to the public schools and telling the young people that they’re all they need.  They just have to be strong in themselves.  You don’t need drugs or alcohol, but you also don’t need God.  All you need is you to make it in this world.  But isn’t that the lie that was told from the beginning?  Satan said, “Adam and Eve!  Get up on your hind legs and forget about God!  You don’t need God – you’re strong in yourself.  You shall be as God.”  The temptation to that kind of thinking is always there, also for us. 

That’s why we need to have a humble appraisal of who we really are.  We need to see ourselves as creatures who are dependent for everything upon our Creator.  That means we also have to have an accurate knowledge of who God is.  He’s the one in control.  He’s not some kind of vague higher power we determine for ourselves.  God isn’t a clockmaker who’s wound up the universe and just sits back and lets it run on its own.  He’s not mostly absent, stepping in only when necessity requires it.  God isn’t a deity who takes risks, who is subject to time and chance, and has his hands tied to do anything about what is evil in the world.  No, Scripture reveals to us that God is the omnipotent (all-powerful) ruler of the universe who’s involved with every detail of it.  Whatever he decrees comes to pass – it must because he alone is God.  There is nothing above or beyond him.  So you can say what you want, but if God calls your number tomorrow, it’s up.  You can make all your plans with whatever attitude you want, but the LORD brings everything to pass.  He ordains it and he also works it out. 

That’s further clarified when James asks a question:  what is your life?  Who are you?  What’s your stature in life, in relation to the universe and everything?  You can have your own answer to that question, but the right answer comes from the Scriptures and James gives that answer.  You’re just like some steam coming out of a kettle, a mist.  It’s there for a moment and then it’s gone.  Try to hold on to it.  Try to bottle it up.  Unless you’re a pretty sharp scientist, it’s pretty well impossible.  That steam or vapour is there one minute and then it’s gone.  In the big picture, that’s the extent of your existence.  Your life will come and go and there’s nothing you can say or do about it.  You may think you’re in control of your life, but you’re deluding yourself.  It’s pure foolish pride.  You can pretend God doesn’t have any say over your life, but if you do that, you’re just being a fool – even more so if you claim to believe in Christ.  So the Holy Spirit’s message to these foolish merchants is:  smarten up and get back to reality.

Fools deny reality.  They don’t fear God and respect him for who he is.  The fool plods along being self-deluded.  That can’t be the way of those who claim to believe in Jesus Christ.  In his earthly life and ministry, our Saviour was utterly dependent on God.  He did that to save us from God’s wrath, but also to shape our lives right now.  He was consistently depending on God, acknowledging God.  Those who are united to him through faith are going to grow in the same kind of dependence and acknowledgement.  True faith in Christ leads to that.  True faith in Christ leads to growing humility, wholeness and maturity – all because you’re connected to Christ who possesses those things.  Those who unrepentantly follow the way of sinful pride are not on the way of humility, wholeness and maturity – rather they’re what James would call double-minded.

That comes out even further in verse 16.  Literally it says that these merchants are boasting in their arrogances.  They boast and brag and in so doing they add insult to injury.  It’s the height of conceit.  They’re very open about their pride – they brag about it:  “Here I am.  I’m a Christian, but I don’t need God except maybe on Sunday or in emergencies.”  Maybe they even joke about it.  The creature is sticking his nose up at the Creator and refusing to acknowledge the truth that God is in control.    

An illustration will show how foolish this really all is.  It’s an illustration that was used a long time ago by one of my favourite theologians, Cornelius Van Til.  He was on a train traveling from one city to another.  As he sat on the train, he looked across and saw a young girl, maybe 1 or 2 years old sitting on her father’s lap.  She kept slapping her father in the face.  Without her father’s lap, the little girl couldn’t have slapped her father in the face.  It’s the same way with these conceited merchants in our text.  Without God’s rule over their lives, sustaining them from day to day and giving them life, breath and everything, they could never make these arrogant statements.  The very fact of their lives betrays the utter foolishness of what they’re saying and the attitude in which they’re carrying out their daily lives. 

Now this isn’t only utterly foolish – it’s also wicked, evil, sinful.  That’s the message of the parable we read from Luke 12.  What that rich man did wasn’t only foolish, it was also wicked.  God calls him a fool and then demands his life from him – judgment waits for those who make all their plans for themselves and forget about God.  That’s what James says as well:  all such boasting is evil.  In other words, God sees it and it displeases him, it makes him angry. 

So brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit is teaching us here that we have to disdain and hate this type of foolish thinking, just like God does.  As we stand on the threshold of this new year, we can’t get have the idea in our heads that we’re the masters of our own destinies.  Such thinking is foolish and therefore also wicked.  We were purchased with a heavy price, nothing less than the life of God’s own beloved Son.  Recognizing that, we ought to be thankful.  Thankful living means tossing out pride and arrogance in the way we live and also the way we plan.  You can make your plans for the new year, but make your plans with a Christian attitude which embraces the wisdom of faith.  That’s the second thing we want to see in our passage this evening. 

Wisdom is an undercurrent everywhere in the epistle of James.  At the beginning, in chapter 1, James commands, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God…”  That makes perfect sense in relation to the over-riding theme of the letter.  It makes sense because wisdom is indispensable to that wholeness or maturity to which the Spirit is calling those who believe in Christ.  That’s even clearer when we see how James works with the book of Proverbs.  Verse 14 seems to be an allusion to Proverbs 27:1, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.”  The Holy Spirit wants these merchants, and all believers, to reject the path of foolishness and embrace the path of wisdom. 

That wisdom has its starting point in faith.  Psalm 111:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Faith in God and in his only Son whom he sent into this world to die for the sins of his people.  If you want to be wise, that’s where you have to start.  True wisdom is knowing the right thing to do or think in every circumstance of life.  It’s the application of divine truth to human experience.  That true wisdom isn’t something you can have apart from true faith. 

James wants his readers to reject foolish pride and follow the way of humble submission to God – we see that in verses 6 and 7.  And so instead of making prideful boasts about what you’ll do and the fact that you’ll do it apart from God, one ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”  You see, it’s one thing to admit your life is transitory.  Even unbelievers will admit that “all we are is dust in the wind.”  That admission isn’t enough.  You also have to admit that God is the One in control.  That’s where the Holy Spirit wants to bring us here in our text.  He wants to bring us to the way of wisdom.

It seems simple:  instead of foolishly living without recognizing God, just say “If the Lord wills, we’ll do this or that.”  So do we need to say, “If the Lord wills” every time we make a plan?  Everytime we make a plan for the future do we need to add some pious words to be obedient to this text?  There are a couple of things we ought to consider. 

First, we have to see that our text isn’t about outward appearances.  Rather, it’s the attitude that the Holy Spirit is addressing.  What lives in the heart is most important.  Of course, that’ll have an effect on what appears outwardly – it can’t be any different.  A good tree can’t help but produce good fruit.  So that’s the first thing we have to take into account. 

We also have to remember that there are many examples in the Bible where our Lord Jesus himself didn’t do this.   Our Master Jesus made plans, talked about plans he had, yet he didn’t do this.  Same with the apostles.  That only underlines where this text is aimed:  it’s aimed at your heart, at your attitude.   

That attitude ought to be one of humble submission.  Believers have to recognize and acknowledge God’s ruling role in their lives.  If we recognize that and live accordingly, then it should also be clear to others around us.   Believers have to show in their lives both before God and neighbour that God is the one in complete control.  We ought to have the attitude that only if God wills it will it come to pass.  We’re not forbidden to make plans, but we have to do at in a conditional manner.  That’s why Christians sometimes use the abbreviations D.V.  D.V. stands for the Latin expression “Deo Volente,” which means “God willing.”   D.V. is based on our text.  

Now to be clear, we don’t have to add that every time we say something or make a plan.  However, it should always be our attitude.  It’ll also come out at times.  It has to.  So there can’t be boastful plans or speaking about the future.  We can indicate a lot about our attitude in our way of speaking.  We can meekly speak of doing something in hope, I hope to do this or that.  And certainly, on occasion, it wouldn’t hurt to explicitly speak of God’s will.  That can also be a powerful witness to others showing how we don’t have our lives in our own hand, but we embrace the wisdom of faith.  The attitude is the most important, and when the attitude is right then the fruits of that right attitude must be there to see.  It must be clear, most of all to God, that we see ourselves for who we really are and that we see God for who he really is.  That would be the approach of humility. 

And so also our plans for the new year have to be made with Deo Volente in our minds and on our hearts.  It’s not a given that we’ll do this or that tomorrow or next year.  God is in control on his throne.  You may plan, but don’t be surprised or disheartened when things turn out differently than you planned.  If you approach the new year with the humble wisdom of faith, then it won’t be that way.  We all wish each other a blessed new year, but there’s the possibility that the coming year will be a tough one.  Maybe it will bring difficulties and challenges.  There may be disappointments in store for some of us.  There may be mourning and grief at the loss of a loved one.  You might lose your job.  Maybe marital or family difficulties await you.  Maybe there’ll be struggles with your health, whether physical or mental.  What then?  What good will foolish pride do you when any of these kinds of difficulties come?  But if you embrace the wisdom of faith, you also have the means to handle any disappointments God may allow to come your way.  If you humble yourself and trust in God alone, then you’ll also turn to his Word and be reminded that even though a situation is so difficult, the Lord is always there with us and for us – because in Christ, because of Christ, he is our loving Father who never lets go.  So loved ones, resolve to embrace that wisdom of faith and through it cultivate a Christian attitude to the new year. 

The Holy Spirit will give us the strength we need to do these things.  The same Holy Spirit reveals one more thing in the last verse of our text, verse 17.  After all this, he wants to make something clear about ignorance.   We’re told it’s sin if we’ve heard the message and go on claiming ignorance.  There are sins of commission – where we sin by doing something that’s wrong.  Then there are also sins of omission, where we sin by failing to do something that’s right.  Here we’re speaking of a sin of omission.  James has outlined how to have a Christian attitude to the future.  He’s shown the right thing to do.  And with knowledge of the right comes the responsibility to do it.  So you’ve heard the right thing from the Holy Spirit.  You’ve heard the call to cultivate a Christian attitude to the future – now go and do it!  Do it through the Spirit out of thankfulness for the riches of salvation in Christ.

Loved ones, we need a Christian attitude to the future for the new year.  That’s what we need for the rest of our lives.  So brothers and sisters, fellow believers:  renounce yourself and your foolish pride.  Embrace the wisdom which begins with the fear of the Lord.  That’s the way to a blessed new year.  Make your plans for this new year, make them for tomorrow, but do it with the Christian attitude which recognizes God’s good rule in this world.  We don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.  It’s the same God who sent his Son to be our Saviour.  That God is good, loving, and in control.  We can trust him.  AMEN.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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