James shows that the Word’s power is seen in the life lived
It might be straightforward enough to attempt an exposition of the letter of James. Such an attempt would include a portrait of the original author, a historical reconstruction of the churches to which James was writing, an explanation of the letter’s main themes and so on. While all of this is undoubtedly useful James would, I believe, be disappointed.
This letter is not simply for discussion or bible study. It is everywhere accompanied by an insistence on “doing”. We might enjoy reading the musical score of a great composer, but to hear it played by an orchestra is to appreciate the purpose for which it was originally written. In performance the score finds its true end. Similarly by performance (or “doing”) of James’s teaching we begin to encounter the lifechanging power of the Word of God. We can no longer remain detached from the text. Wise Christians never simply know the gospel; their lives are a performance of its beautiful melodies.
Scholars have suggested that following the introductory greeting of verse 1 the key ideas of the letter are to be found in the subsequent verses (1:2-18).
James’s main reason for writing is to urge the churches to maturity (1:4).
His readers were experiencing various kinds of trials (1:2). While not described in detail, some were probably experiencing severe poverty illustrated by the pressing need for food and clothing (2:16); others were being slandered and oppressed (2:5-6); still more were being financially exploited (5:1-11). James urges them to rejoice, recognising that God was at work in them producing perseverance and ultimately the goal of Christian maturity.
These stressful trials were to be met with believing prayer for wisdom, knowing that in the end God would bless those who endure by rewarding them with the crown of life (1:2-12). Maturity is not perfection, since James elsewhere is conscious of indwelling sin. Rather it is a well-rounded character showing likeness to Christ in every part (“complete, lacking in nothing”, vs.4).
One way of visualising this description of the Christian life is as a cycle. Trials (coming in various guises and on many
occasions) test our faith producing perseverance which in turn is needed to achieve maturity (1:4).
How does God use these trials and what are we to think about them?
James nowhere suggests that suffering in itself is good. It isn’t! Indeed much suffering is directly linked with evil, and we cannot rejoice in that. But God uses trials for our good. Hence James calls upon his readers to “consider it pure joy” (1:2).
Since suffering is not inherently good, we must seek to alleviate it where possible. We are not to resort to pious words and say to the sufferer, “look on the positive side, God is using this for your blessing”. Rather we are to respond by assisting those who are vulnerable in society (“orphans and widows”, 1:27); by showing respect for the poor (2:1-4), by feeding the hungry (2:15) and so on. This is the “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” (1:27).
The opening section of James is bracketed by two cycles. As we have seen, the first is a cycle of life leading to maturity. James, however, goes on to describe a second cycle – a cycle of death. Both are produced by trial. Ironically the same circumstance that God uses to lead us forward can, when not met with faith, lead us away from maturity (1:13-15).
The abrupt change of topic from trial (1:2, 12) to temptation (1:13) would not have been such a puzzle to the first readers of the letter as it is to us. In fact the two different words in English come from the same word in Greek . Also, in practice, it is hard to distinguish trials from temptations. Every adversity which calls for faith can equally evoke unbelief. Do we respond to trial by saying, “thank you Lord for this opportunity to grow in grace”, or do we complain and say, “God is against me!”? Do we praise Him or blame Him? Too often in the midst of trials, faith falters or fails and we blame anything or anyone, even God Himself (1:13). Trials can so easily mutate into temptations and the evil desires within our hearts, once inflamed, set in motion a second undesirable cycle where sin is conceived, which finally gives birth to death.
The benchmark of maturity is set by God’s law which is described as “the perfect law that gives freedom” (1:25; 2:8, 10). This law is a gift from above of a good and wise God. Its wisdom is unlocked through believing prayer (1:5), active obedience (1:22), diligent study (1:25), and humble application (3:10).
The place of obedience or “doing” the law is essential in the battle for maturity. The Christian life is not lived by feelings but by fulfilling God’s word. We must not be afraid of doing our duty toward God. Loving obedience to His commands, seen as the fruit of genuine faith, does not overthrow grace. Sinclair Ferguson has written that “evangelicalism has become so sensitive to the heresy of ‘boy scout Christianity’ (“I promise to do my best, to do my duty…”) that it has truncated
the Christian gospel to a half-Christ (Saviour, but not Lord) and a half-salvation (blessings, but not duties).” Love for God and obedience are two sides of the same coin.
The churches addressed by James had many who sought the role of teacher (3:1). While what is written about controlling the tongue applies generally to all Christians, it is directed particularly to those who teach (3:2-12). The church is a place where a teacher exerts a disproportionate influence for good and evil, therefore the greatest care is to be taken over who is appointed. The teacher’s trademark tool is speech, and because words are extraordinarily powerful they can help or unduly hinder the goal of maturity.
Teachers convey “the word of truth” which is used by God to regenerate the heart and bring salvation (1:18, 21). A responsible teacher is to teach the church certain truths: how to respond to trial (1:2-18); to listen and obey God’s word (1:19-27); that genuine faith always issues in works of love (2:14-26); to stop in-fighting (4:1-12); to endure oppression, looking to the coming of the Lord (5:1-12); and in the meantime to live in caring fellowship (5:13-20).
When James frequently urges good works from his reader he always grounds his ethical demands in God and the future.
Knowledge of God drives his exhortations. Hence, the command to pray for wisdom in trial is traced to God’s generosity (1:5-8). The command not to blame God goes back to His transparent goodness (1:13-17). Recognising His impartiality is the great motive not to play favourites (2:1-7). It would be a productive exercise to go through the entire letter in this way,
seeing how each of the different attributes of God relate to our conduct.
The future also looms large in James’s ethics. Persevere in trial because by doing so you will receive the crown of life (1:12). Don’t keep on yielding to temptation because it will lead finally to death (1:13-15). Your ambition to be a teacher should be tempered by thoughts of a stricter judgment on the last day (3:1). Don’t speak evil of others because one day you will stand before the one who is the lawgiver and judge (4:12). Don’t grumble against one another because Jesus is coming soon (5:9).
James knows that we can do good things for the wrong reasons. The good works of the Pharisees were criticised by Jesus because they were wrongly motivated (Mt. 6:1-18). They practised their faith publicly but were motivated falsely by the need for recognition. “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them,” said Jesus.
When doing good is motivated by self interest instead of God’s glory we are no longer worshipers but idolaters. Self is on the throne. What distinguishes mere morality from holiness is that the latter is rooted in our relationship to God. Knowing and loving Him are the great incentives to Christlike maturity. Even so, come Lord Jesus and bring to perfection what you have begun!
Tony Bird lectures at the Presbyterian Theological Centre, Melbourne, and has had a commentary on the book of James published by Evangelical Press, entitled “Practice Makes Perfect”.