James Presents A Faith That Works
As with all Scripture, it is essential to identify the intended audience to better appreciate God’s purpose. God’s message is always tailored both to the audience and the needs of the time. We see this often in our Lord’s conversations – how differently He spoke to Nicodemus and the woman at the well. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Protestant tradition has relegated James’ epistle to second class status. Luther, failing to discern God’s audience and purpose, disparagingly called it “a straw epistle.”
Initially the message of the resurrection went to the Jews. Peter’s first three addresses confronted them with three points: the resurrection as proof that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 2:36); the national guilt of Israel in crucifying their Messiah, yet God’s willingness to forgive and fulfill His covenant promises (Acts 3:19); and salvation as only being in Jesus (Acts 4:12). The nation refused to receive these truths; yet God continued to call out from them a people for Himself. The book of Acts closes with Paul giving one last offer to the Jew before turning to the Gentiles.
It is in this condition that James, by the Spirit of God, wrote his epistle; not just to the believers among the Jews, but “to the twelve tribes … scattered abroad” (Jas. 1:1 KJV). In James’ day, the Jewish believers went to temple, gathered in synagogues, and carried out many of the functions of the Law. It was this situation that led James to address these words to his people, to bring them to an understanding of the truth.
He began by presenting himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” It was not enough to serve God through the Law, traditions, or sacrifices; they must see the centrality of the person of Jesus in God’s plans. Once this was established he moved into their current condition and God’s purpose in it. Believing Jews were a persecuted people, both by the Roman world around them and by their own nation. But God’s design was to use this testing to produce in them the quality of faith they need. Through patient enduring, God’s work would be done in perfecting their faith.This was hard for the Jewish mind to understand. Having been raised to understand that earthly prosperity is the sign of God’s blessing, how could it be that their trials were not a sign of His displeasure? But James led them into wisdom and pointed them to God, much as Asaph was led to see God’s purposes and “their latter end” (Ps. 73:17). Hence, God caused them to see that now is not a day for man to glory in who or what he is, for all his glory is as grass. Rather than earthly prejudices, God’s wisdom must guide our thinking. Don’t be double-minded, looking to earthly things as indicators of God’s blessing. Rather, look to Him in faith. James concluded this section of his epistle with a blessing – not that a man is in trial, but that he endure that trial as from God’s hand to receive a blessing from Him far exceeding the earthly blessing we so cherish (Jas. 1:12).
In the remainder of this chapter (Jas. 1:13-27), James developed the consequences of this right thinking regarding the testing of God. In the face of trials a man cannot blame God for his failure in them. To use his failure as an opportunity to accuse God and excuse himself is not proper. James makes it clear that a man’s failure is due to giving in to his own lusts. However, God has great blessing in store for those who walk in His ways: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights” (1:17). Do we really believe this,? If we only understood God’s great work in begetting us according to His truth, our lives would be characterized by adherence to His truth. Obedience, then, is not to an impersonal Law, but to God’s living truth. We then look into God’s heart to know Him, rather than into God’s Law to know about Him. Being a doer of the word shows that we have gazed into God’s truth, seen Him there, and walk away changed, living in the liberty that grace gives. Being only a hearer of the word means I have gazed into God’s truth and not seen Him. Hence, I walk away unchanged. If our faith really comes from God (not from others’ ideas or traditions) and we see Him developing it through circumstances, then our service will reflect that reality.
For an epistle so often characterized as legal, James mentions faith many times. Why? For one, the characterization is false, being born of misunderstanding. James was led by the Spirit to touch a most sensitive part of the Jewish psyche – the belief that being sons of Abraham after the flesh was enough. The Lord himself said they should not depend upon that, since God could raise up sons of Abraham from the stones. James was seeking to destroy this notion, too. Don’t just add Jesus to an already false belief system; rather see Him as the center of a new one. This whole chapter deals with the reality of faith. How does a Jew, raised with all sorts of false notions and traditions, know that faith is real? Just what does this “faith in Jesus” look like? Our Lord said we would be known by our fruits (Mt. 7:16). God knows our faith without seeing our fruits since He can see into the heart – but we cannot. Let’s look at a few characteristics of this faith as James presents them.Faith evidences itself in how I treat those around me. Do I look only on the outward and judge a man based on what I see? Do I differentiate my treatment of others based upon this judgment? If I do, then I have violated the royal law of love. If I have “respect of persons” I have made myself a judge over the Law. If my actions and attitudes have violated the Law, then imagine what this will reap in the spiritual realm! What does this indicate regarding the character and quality of my faith? James addresses this in verses 14-20. Of what value is my faith if no works come forth from it? The example he gave is of a person in need being given a spiritually high-sounding, yet useless response – one that God would never author. James wrote that if a man say “thou hast faith and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18). I cannot show my faith without works, yet I can show the character of my faith by my works.
James took two examples from the Old Testament to highlight this point. If we look at what Abraham did in the offering of Isaac and remove faith from it, his action was abominable. Yet, when we add faith to the equation one sees the beauty in what he did. Likewise, Rahab could be accused of being a traitor to her people in helping the enemy escape. Yet, when we add faith to the equation, one sees what motivated her – not a desire only for personal preservation, but a desire for the God of Israel. After 40 years she still held on to this faith. These two examples show the interplay between faith and works, how faith guides works, and how works show forth the character of the faith behind them.
However, the greatest test of how much this faith has a hold on my life is not in my treatment of others, but in my bridling of self. Galatians 5:22-23 lists the fruit of the Spirit, the last one being self-control. I believe it is last because it is the hardest to attain. James 3 deals with bridling the tongue. We should not look at this as merely learning to keep one’s mouth shut. Our Lord has stated that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34). Also, He stated that it is not what goes into the man that defiles the man, but what comes out of the mouth (Mt. 15:18-20). To Him, the tongue was the way the heart fully expressed itself.The problem in this equation, then, is not the tongue itself, but the heart behind it: “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing … these things ought not so to be. Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?” (Jas. 3:10-11). In this example we see something that does not occur in nature, but does occur in us, because of the wickedness of our own hearts. The problem of the tongue is a heart problem. After laying out quite clearly the problem of the tongue, James asked, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you?” That one will show his meekness through his behavior.
Moses is said to have been the meekest man on earth (Num. 12:3). When he wanted to give water to the people of Meribah God told him to speak to the rock and the water would come forth. Instead he railed at the people and struck the rock. Later, he was refused entrance into the land, not because he struck the rock, but because he did not glorify God in his words. Meekness is the principle God brings out here, as His means of bridling the tongue. If I am meek, then I give place to God. If I am not meek, then I go forward in my own strength. What results? A heart full of pride has this result: “Ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts” (Jas. 3:14). Spiritual wisdom leads to meekness and results in peace.
In contrast to one who sows peace is one who sows to his own lusts. Chapter 4 develops the themes of lust and worldliness. In chapter 3 we saw that God’s wisdom is pure and peaceable, whereas the world’s wisdom is sensual and devilish. Lusts that war in our members can never be satisfied, but lead us into friendship with the world. James even equates friendship with the world as spiritual adultery. The principle which leads to worldliness is pride. If I desire a place in this world – distinction, applause, honor or other such things – I center my thoughts upon self rather than God. The world has nothing real to offer, but God gives grace. Worldliness is born of pride, but God resists the proud. If we humble ourselves before God, He will exalt us. Notice that pride leads to evil speaking, judging, self-promotion, and boasting.
The Jews equated earthly prosperity with God’s blessing. James has shown how seeking earthly prosperity leads us away from God rather than towards Him. He concluded the section on worldliness (Jas. 5:1-6) with a warning and its terrible consequences: misery, corruption, loss and abuse of others. In contrast, we are called to a life of patient endurance while we await the coming of the Lord. James shows that our resources are in God. Do we need endurance? Look to God, not to oaths. Are we afflicted? Look to God in prayer. Is any sick? Ask the elders to anoint and pray for God to heal. It is only as we see our lives moving towards the Lord and away from this world that we can rejoice in the midst of faith’s trials and find in Him our all in all.By Gib Warrick
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.