15:54 “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O Death, where is your sting?
O Hades, where is your victory?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
Those who wish to lead entirely selfish lives and still hope for heaven love to quote "For it is by grace through faith that you have been saved, not by works, lest any man should boast." Those who look forward to handing God their resumé delineating the 47 reasons why they deserve to be in heaven love to remind us that "faith without works is dead". The rest of us stand back confused. The truth is not in the middle as too many have come to believe. It's not some careful theological balancing act of just the right amount of grace and just the right amount of works all held together delicately but firmly by faith.
When Paul said our works have nothing to do with it he wasn't exaggerating for effect. There will be not one person who buys or earns heaven. James was also fully correct when he pointed out the lack of love in the church and said "faith without works is dead".
But please understand there is no contradiction. On the surface I fully admit it seems confusing. The great reformer Martin Luther escaped the whole delusion of buying heaven or buying God's favour. He learned to his great relief that "the just will live by faith". He found that in Romans 1 quoted from Habakuk in the Old Testament. As he kept studying he got to James and read that faith without works is dead and he bristled. He felt James was wrong. He called his little letter the Gospel of Straw for many years. He believed James was the source of the heresy that lead to the church selling heaven through indulgences. I am happy to report that Martin came to understand that James wasn't wrong. James was making a different point entirely.
Now back to the excitement of our text. Death is conquered! The sting (literally stinger, as in that of a bee) has been removed. Death is powerless. Jesus conquered the grave. Death was a byproduct of sin. Jesus was sinless. Sin was brought into effect by the law. Jesus kept the law perfectly. Death had nothing to say to Jesus. He came, He lived, He succeeded where Adam failed. He offers a new alternative to us. It is His gift to give. Not one of us can stare death in the face and claim sinless perfection. No resumé will suffice. Our only hope is "in the Lord". So why does Paul ruin the moment with talk of toil/work/labour? What is he talking about? If Jesus paid it all and all to Him I owe what can be added through any work of mine?
I'm glad you asked. The answer is nothing. Nothing can be added. Gifts can only be received. Once purchased they cease to be gifts and in the case of salvation and conquering death we have no way to pay even if it were for sale.
Are you starting to see it?
"But thanks be to God, who gives (see it's a gift) us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord (His work, not ours), knowing that your labour (what is our labour?) is not in vain in the Lord.
One day some church folk asked Jesus "What must we do to do the works of God?" Jesus replied "The work of God is to believe in the One whom He sent." John 6:29
The hard work of the Christian is to remain "in the Lord". It is to trust fully in His gift and add nothing to it. That is where we must remain, immovable and unshakeable. That's the labour that will not be in vain.
So what about James? What was he saying? He was saying this: A sunburn without burned skin is a farce. Anyone who is truly "in the Lord" will be changed by the experience. It's impossible to rest in the unselfish arms of the Almighty and remain selfish. That's all he was saying. The life of faith has an inevitable effect on a person. If there is no effect there is no faith. The problem for such a person is not that they lack works. It is that they lack faith. They haven't been melted and subdued by the Person of Christ at all. They are in a mechanical religion for selfish purposes untouched by the relentless love of God.
Run to Jesus. Stay with Him. Let nothing and no one move you from Him. The rest is all Him and it's indescribably beautiful. Death is even powerless in the face of our clinging to Him who is Life.