28 November 2014
Over the next few months, we’ll be covering the book of James in our Sunday preaching and in our community groups (click here to follow along with Sunday sermons). This post, and the previous post, give a short introduction to James.
What is James about?
Although a short book, James is incredibly hard-hitting. We’ve summarised its message in this series as, ‘What real theology looks like’. In five short chapters, the following themes are particularly emphasised:
God is highlighted as generous, unchanging, perfectly good, and gracious. He is the one lawgiver and judge (4.12).
James has a sustained focus on the coming judgement. ‘The Judge is standing at the door’ (5.9) and as such James is keen to spur Christians on to holy living. At the same time, the ‘already’ reality of Jesus’ Kingdom is emphasised in tension with the ‘not yet’; 5.3, translated ‘in the last days’, emphasises that the last days have already dawned.
Faith, works and justification
James is perhaps most famous for its apparent contradiction with what Paul has to say about ‘justification’: Paul teaches that we are justified by faith, yet James seems to say that we are justified by ‘works’ (see 2.14-26). On the surface of things, it appears we have a total contradiction – and this is partly what has caused James sometimes to be viewed with suspicion. However, we will see that James’ aim is to ‘resolutely oppose any form of Christianity that drifts into a sterile, action-less “orthodoxy”. As important and necessary as is “right belief”, it is much less than true Christian belief if it is not accompanied by works’ (Douglas Moo). Moreover, the same word used by Paul and James has a crucially different meaning in each place: we are declared righteous (justified) by faith (as Paul affirms, e.g. in Romans 4), and we are also shown to be righteous (justified) by our works (as James affirms). Thus, there is no contradiction, but rather a glorious and incisive challenge made by James that ‘faith, apart from works, is dead’ (2.26).
James is keen to help us have a right understanding of the place of God’s law in the Christian life. He says we must be ‘doers of the law’ (4.11) and maintains that ‘the whole law’ will be the standard of judgement (2.9-12), and failure to obey one part of it is to be guilty of all of it. He frequently uses the phrase, ‘the law of liberty’. James upholds the authority of the Old Testament law as fulfilled in Jesus’ teaching and work.
The Christian life
‘It is the condition of “doubleness”, man’s condition of being divided between his loyalty to God and the attractive lure of the world, that bothers James more than anything’ (Douglas Moo). It is this concern that links together so much of the letter, which might otherwise seem as though it is a fairly random collection of challenging sayings. Highlighting this ‘doubleness’, and showing how true theology is to be lived out in all areas, leads James to attend to speech, doubting, wealth, good works and faith, prayer, wisdom, and more.
Poverty and wealth
Biblical scholar Douglas Moo gives four helpful points of background to help us understand what James says about wealth and poverty, and our attitude towards them in the Christian life. Firstly, in the Old Testament, God has a particular concern for the poor and downtrodden; He is the ‘Father of the Fatherless and protector of widows’ (Psalm 68.5). Secondly, therefore God’s people must be concerned for the poor; one of the most frequent indictments against Israel in the Old Testament was that they had not cared for the poor (e.g. Amos 2.6-7). Thirdly, ‘the poor’ are often identified with the righteous, especially in the Psalms (see, e.g., Psalm 10); ‘economic lack and social persecution become closely related to religious piety’ (Douglas Moo). This leads to the fourth piece of background, namely that the wealthy are often identified with the wicked. In light of all these, James urges that care of the orphan and widow is ‘true religion’ (1.27) and warns of judgement to the rich (5.1-6), while calling Christians to wait for the Lord with patience for their deliverance (5.7-11). Note that James does not condemn the rich simply for being rich, but rather for the specific sins that they, in their wealth, are committing – including selfish hoarding (5.2-3), exploiting workers (5.4) and persecuting the righteous (5.6).