Doers of the Word: James

The author of the Epistle of James was probably not the James who was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, John’s brother. That James was martyred very early, probably in a.d. 44 (Acts 12:2). The author was probably the James who was one of Jesus’ “brothers” mentioned in Matthew 13:55. (The Hebrew word translated “brothers” can also mean “cousins” or “relatives”.)

Since God’s people were scattered—or dispersed—over the whole world, James, Peter, John, and Jude all wrote “general epistles”, that is, letters “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1) rather than to any one local church, as Paul did in most of his letters.

James’ letter is like the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament: full of maxims and practical advice about living. It is not primarily doctrinal and does not have a systematic outline. But its unifying theme is 1:22: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers.”

The most famous and important passage in James is 2:14–26, about faith and works. Martin Luther denied that James belonged in the Bible because he could not reconcile James’ emphasis on works with Paul’s emphasis on faith.

But faith and works are not opposites. That is James’ whole point! They are complementary. James’ point is that a faith that does not produce good works is not true faith, but dead faith (2:17), like a tree that produces no fruit.

Actually, James’ point is very clear and simple. It is not a contrast between faith and works but between a real faith, a faith that works, and a false faith, one that does not. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” We do not see a living plant’s roots, only its fruits. Others cannot see your faith, for it is invisible. They can see only your actions, which show your faith as a tulip flower shows you that a tulip bulb has taken root.

The apparent contradiction between James, who says that we, like Abraham, are justified by works (2:21), and Paul, who says that we, like Abraham, are justified by faith (Rom 4), is explained by looking at the context. Paul’s context is the relationship between the believer and God, while James’ context is the relationship between the believer and his neighbor. God sees your faith; your neighbor sees your works. Faith justifies us before God; works justify us before our neighbors.

A further explanation is that James means by “faith” only intellectual belief. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (2:19). But Paul means by “faith” (in Galatians and Romans) something more than belief. He means accepting Christ into your soul and thus into your life, where it produces good works as its fruit.

In more technical terms, Paul is contrasting faith with law as a way to be justified, while James is contrasting a faith without works with a faith that works as a way to be sanctified. Paul is asking how to be saved; James is asking how to be holy. Paul is asking how to get to Heaven, James is asking how to live on earth.

In any case, the “bottom line” is that faith and works are two aspects of the very same reality: the new birth, the supernatural life of God, which enters the soul by faith and comes out as the works of love. “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (2:22, emphasis mine).

James also mentions ten other things that faith does: (1) it endures sufferings and trials, (2) it obeys the word of God that it hears, (3) it overcomes favoritism and prejudice, (4) it controls the tongue and gossip, (5) it gives us wisdom, (6) it separates us from the world, (7) it makes us submissive to God, (8) it resists the devil, (9) it puts us in God’s presence, and (10) it waits patiently for Christ’s Second Coming. James never teaches works vs. faith or works instead of faith. From beginning to end, the letter is a tribute to faith, but to a faith that works, like the one described in Hebrews 11.

Some unique features of James include the promise of the supernatural gift of wisdom (1:5), the holistic interpretation of the law (2:10–11), a scary verse for teachers (3:1), an answer to what is the most dangerous and uncontrollable organ in your body (3:3–12), the solution to the puzzle of the origin of war (4:1–3), and the scriptural basis for the sacrament of the sick (5:13–18).

Memorable reiterations of doctrines taught many other times in Scripture include the passages of 1:2 (on suffering), 1:17 (on grace), 4:4 (on worldliness), 4:7–8 (on dealing with the devil), 4:8 and 5:8–9 (on purity of heart: see Kierkegaard’s great title, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing), 5:13–15 (on playing God vs. trusting Providence), and 5:12 (on straightforward, simple honesty—if only the “nuancers” would read that and Matthew 5:37).

Each of His apostles emphasized a different aspect of Christ. James, like Mark, emphasized His practicality. This is the epistle theoreticians and scholars like the least and need the most.

Kreeft, P. (2005). You Can Understand the Bible: A Practical Guide to Each Book in the Bible (pp. 290–292). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

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