A Closer Look – The Letter of James, Part Three

We live in a time when faith is marketed, bought, and sold at the low price of listening in a comfortable church building for about an hour per week. Usually, even that participation is optional with the adage that God meets us where we are. Although that might be technically true, it is insufficient when it becomes routine for Christians to not physically come together — living independent from the body of Christ reveals the shallowness of our faith. In his letter, James opposes abstract faith.

James’ brand of faith is more difficult, yet more fulfilling than what’s being marketed today. What use is it if someone says she has faith but she has no works? Can that faith save her? In the letter of James we see usage of the words “religion” and “law.” At first glance, our modern-day usage of these words might not be found palatable, but this deserves a closer look for a more full understanding.

In James’ letter (and the Bible as a whole), readers find lots of commands that can simply and accurately correct sin. While reading through James Chapter Two, readers get the sense of what genuine faith is and how it manifests itself. But if we aren’t careful and without much thought, the beauty and clarity of these commands can lead us straight into legalism. James’ writing alleviates this by showing us that we can’t do these commands perfectly. We are given these commands so we might know them and the good they can do for us.

Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 1:21). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

James teaches us to turn to God for grace in our shortcomings and then also to say to ourselves that we should go ahead and try to live a genuine life — expressing real faith in word and deed. The Lord himself will give us the grace to increasingly live in this way.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 4:10). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The apostle Paul teaches us in his writings that justification is by faith alone, but this real faith proves itself by deeds. James never speaks of deeds we do in order to earn favors before God. That would be a works-righteousness approach to deeds. Instead, James always speaks of deeds as fruit produced by faith in Jesus Christ. Real, authentic faith shows itself in the ways James describes which include some genuine challenges for us as believers.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 1:17–18). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Yet, we are not saved by what we do. James is not teaching that we are saved by our actions. James has made clear in his writing that faith is something God gives, not something we muster up. This cannot be emphasized enough: We cannot manufacture salvation.

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 2:5). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The letter of James is a diagnostic tool for evaluating our own faith or for discipleship, but it can also serve as an encouragement to those who stumble on the path of performance — It does say that God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble. Always grace…in our failures, God extends grace.

“James continues his series of tests by which his readers can evaluate whether their faith is living or dead. This passage contains the composite test—the one test that pulls the others together: the test of works, or righteous behavior that obeys God’s Word and manifests a godly nature (see 1:22–25). James’s point is not that a person is saved by works (he has already strongly and clearly asserted in 1:17–18 that salvation is a gracious gift from God), but that there is a kind of apparent faith that is dead and does not save (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26). It is possible James was writing to Jews (see 1:1) who had jettisoned the works righteousness of Judaism but, instead, had embraced the mistaken notion that since righteous works and obedience to God’s law were not efficacious for salvation, they were not necessary at all. Thus they reduced faith to a mere mental assent to the facts about Christ. The truth that James emphasizes in this text and that the Word of God teaches throughout is that what we do reveals who we are. James is not speaking simply of beliefs and intentions in general but of the foundational belief of saving faith. The genuineness of a profession of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is evidenced more by what a person does than by what he claims. A person who professes Christ but who does not live a Christ-honoring, Christ-obeying life is a fraud.” – MacArthur, J.

We should be careful not to twist the entirety of James’ message of New Testament Christianity into one that would be more popular in our modern-day culture. A previous point James makes in 1:26-2:13 is that Jesus Christ produces mercy in his people, which changes the way they act and speak before others. Faith that has been transformed by the mercy of of Christ himself, true and acceptable religion, always expresses itself through love.

When tempted to consider the book of James one that would contradict Paul’s writing, the reader should remember that the Bible is the very word of God. Christians believe the Bible is true and coherent. It does not teach us things that are false. God’s Word does not contradict itself. So as to further confirm understanding we can find what would be the gospel of James in 1:18-21 and 4:6-10.

But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. 

 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jas 4:6–10). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

For James, our actions are connected to our relationship with Christ, as well as the message we send about Him to other people. The gospel itself more than just ideas; it’s really actions and choices. Would your personal faith fit James’ definition? If not, how might your actions need to change?

For further study: Read James 1:26-2:14.

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