Tim Keller Sermon Notes — Series: James – A Faith that Comes Down to Earth — Sermon # 5: Grace and the New Birth

Sermon preached on November 5, 1995.

Teaching is based on James 1:16-18.

Please note that these sermon notes are provided only to encourage, and that any or all parts of the notes may contain errors or omissions, due entirely to the note-taker. Full audio of the sermon may be found at the Redeemer Sermon Store.

Intro: If you only read the first 15 verses of James—consider it joy to face trials, testing develops perseverance… maturity… brother in humble circumstances take pride… blessed is the one who perseveres under trial—you might think that he’s saying what Mel Brooks says in his book Life Stinks. James is very realistic. He’s a pastor. People come to him in all situations; if you’re a pastor or a policeman or a counselor, you begin to really realize that life is difficult.

James, up to now, has said, you have to be strong, you have to face it. The same sunlight that melts wax hardens clay. Difficulty seems to make some people softer, and some harder. The same troubles can make some people better and some people worse. James says meet them with discipline, faith, self-control.

It’s possible that people would eventually come to James and say, Where do you get the strength for this? Where do you get the resources? Sure, people don’t want to lose it when troubles come, but where do you get the strength for that?

If we look here we’ll see James saying, no, you can’t just suck it up and take it. You need something to get you through it.


I. There’s a motivation that you can have for Christianity (v. 17)

II. There’s a power you can have for Christianity.

I. The motivation

When James is saying here is close to what C. S. Lewis maps out in two places:

1) In a sermon called the “Weight of Glory”

2) In a chapter in Mere Christianity called “Hope”

This is his point: When you get into the presence of the good gifts of life (standing in front of the seashore, being with the person you’re in love with, listening to beautiful music) sometimes you get overtaken with the palpable sense that you’re in the presence of something that you’ve wanted all your life. When that happens, we say buy the music, build a house here, marry her. You go after the good gift; you say, finally. But what you’ll find is that the vision fades. You marry the person, you build the house, you even just take the CD home…. Like for example, sometimes there’s a passage in the music that points to something, there’s some sense in which it seems to embody something that you want, and every time the passage comes by there’s a sort of metaphysical thrill that consoles you. I have found that when you come back to the passage, you can’t get that again, because those things aren’t the light. They are the moon.

One night the moon might be enough to read by, but the next night it’s hardly there. These things are GOOD, but they don’t have in them the thing that we sense in them. Example: he heard a song in a movie that he remembered loving. He went home to find the record, and listening to it it wasn’t anywhere near as good as when he used to listen to it. He realized that the light is not in the music. The thing pointed to something else that he desperately wanted.

In “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis says that when you stand before the good gift (the woman, the seashore), after the landscape loses its celestial beauty, you suddenly realize that the beauty has smiled at you, but not welcomed you; it has not invited you into the dance…. Our lifelong nostalgia to be united with something that we feel we’ve not been connected…. The leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that we will someday be a part of that which we long for.

James mentions the Father of Light—this is what we long for, this is the light, this is the sun not the moon. James says, If you understand that, you’ll be able to get through anything.

Every good gift is from above: this means, get your friends together and have a great meal in front of a fire; go listen to a great piece of music—it doesn’t matter that Mozart was kind of a schnook; go see the wonderful seashore. These are good gifts, they’re all from God, they’re all good, every one of them. This is the doctrine of common grace. God pours talent and brilliance and beauty everywhere, not just to Christians. Every good and perfect gift is to be enjoyed.

BUT do not mistake these things for the reality to which they point, or you will be continually disappointed. The way Samuel Rutherford put it:

“Our little inch of time suffering is not worthy of our first night’s welcome home to heaven. When once Christ shall thrust your weary traveler’s head on his breast, you will find just the first one of his kisses will pay for 500 years of sore hearts. Oh my friends, don’t sell all this for Esau’s morning breakfast.”

Esau’s morning breakfast: He had the birthright, this inheritance, but he’s an impulsive man. He comes home one day and is so hungry that he tells Jacob to give him some stew, I’ll do anything for it. Jacob says, Okay give me the birthright, and Esau says, Sure, I’m starving to death, what good is it having an inheritance if I’m hungry?

We say, what an idiot! Who would do this? Answer: you and me.

When we marry the girl, or build the house, or take the job, when it doesn’t turn out, we say, “Ah, life sucks.” If you see these gifts as what they are, you’ll be able to enjoy them. If you don’t, you’ll become a bitter person. You have to look beyond, because you’re not after these gifts, you’re after the morning start.

Enjoy the good gifts, but don’t you dare sell the wedding supper of the lamb for Esau’s morning breakfast. Don’t sell the kisses of Jesus for kisses from anywhere else.

If there’s no God, your life is meaningless—you’re just protoplasm. If there is, then the wedding supper of the lamb means everything.

People: Well, I believe there is a God, and he says what I should and shouldn’t do, but I want this person’s kisses right now. What good is the wedding supper of lamb if I want this right now.

Don’t sell the morning star! Don’t sell the wedding supper!

Your motivation for giving yourself to God is HIM.

I once saw a preacher, preaching through Revelation, the One who overcomes will be given the morning star. The preacher didn’t go Greek, give background, he said: I haven’t the slightest idea of what this means, but I can’t wait for it. Because you can’t break down the morning star! You can’t break down the wedding supper of the lamb.

If this isn’t real, there’s nothing worth being heroic for. If there is a God and we can know Him, then NOTHING is worth losing Him for.

So: that’s the motivation. Christians on the one hand aren’t ascetics, they enjoy life, but on the other hand, there’s nothing they’d not give up for Him.

II. The Power: To be born again

You need a power. Verse 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created.

All I can do at this point is summarize. There are people who say, Yes, I know born-again Christians, and most of those people make me nervous. It’s a kind of Christianity, right?

That’s not what this says—it says that us Christians are born-again. The brevity of the reference here shows that this is just something that everybody knows.

There are always people who say Oh my goodness, to have this sort of cathartic experience of “born again” isn’t necessary, it’s just about following the golden rule, following the sermon on the mount, turn the other cheek, do unto others, etc. The important thing is just to live a good life like that.

That’s such a hopeless, naïve thing to say.

Do you know what the Sermon on the Mount means? Anybody who really reads that will have two responses.

1) This is just common sense. The world will only be a good place if everybody does this.

2) The second right response is that this will bring you down to the dust and you’ll say unless I’m born again I will never do this. We know that we couldn’t possibly live like that.

So the first we learn here is that there’s some sort of outside thing that comes in and empowers us. The next thing is that it’s a humbling thing.

Have you seen anyone physically born lately? They’re very immature when they’re born. You can say, okay honey, let’s get dressed and come home, but they don’t. They’re babes and they’re helpless. This is saying that if you want the power to deal with life, you start from the bottom. It doesn’t matter how many PhDs you have. You come as a babe. You have to receive this new life and start with baby steps. It takes a terrific amount of humility. Just the metaphor is saying that if you want this power, you’ve got to start at the very bottom.

This is saying that you’re born again through the word of truth.

On the one hand, it’s saying you go by the truth—but the truth becomes something alive in you. It’s not just an experience or a set of rules, it’s a truth that come inside you and becomes part of you. Look at veggie life, animal life, and human life. If a human goes back to being animal, you feel they’re dead; if an animal goes back to veggie, you see it as dead. What’s the difference?

Sensation. Plants can sense their environment, but they don’t have the senses. Animals can perceive the environment through the senses, but they can’t distinguish between justice and tragedy, right and wrong. Every level of sensation moves you into a higher level of life. Eternal life, when born again, means you are ushered into a new level of life.

It doesn’t mean your IQ goes up, but it means that things that were once theoretical and nonsense become solid. The mercy of God, the crown of life, the morning star. Did anything stir in you when I spoke of these things, or did you say, this is stupid? The way you know if you’ve been born again is if these things become real, begin to affect you.

You will never deal with the difficulties of life unless it becomes real to you, becomes solid, not just theory. A person might say, all my life I believed Jesus died on a cross—but then they began to affect me! When you say, Thou O Lord are the shield for me, you’re my glory and the lifted of my head—does your whole life flash before your eyes? Or do you say, Nice song.

It’s not that you get smarter, but once-theoretical things now console and move you.

Conclusion: In Jane Eyre, there’s a place where she’s being tempted, the married man’s physically incapacitated wife, the guy says, Come and live with me, Jane says, While he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitors against me. They clamored loudly, O comply! Think of his misery. Love him, console him… Still indomitable was this reply: I care for me, and the more unstained by him, the more I will respect myself. I will hold to the principles I well received when I was sane. They are for times like this when body and soul rise against them…. If at my individual convenience I abandon them, what good would they be?

I don’t know if Jane Eyre is being depicted as a Christian here, but the truth is, when truth becomes that real to you.

Because the shield is beaten, I’m whole; because it is splintered, I’m in one piece. When David said thou are the shield for me, He had no idea how true it would have to be. Christ took our blows. That’s truth. That’s reality. So you should be able to say, when your veins are running with fire, you’ll have to rely on truth as a living power in your life.

In fact, life doesn’t stink.


About davestuartjr
Dave Stuart Jr. is a full-time teacher who writes about becoming better, saner teachers at He is a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband to Crystal, and a father to Hadassah, Laura, and Marlena.

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