I’ve been reading the book of James recently. It packs quite a punch for being only five chapters long. It has a strong, sometimes pithy message on some of the practical aspects of Christian faith.
The author calls himself “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (v1:1, NKJV), and there’s not much else to indicate who this was. According to Wikipedia, the majority of scholars believe that he was the brother of Christ, but this is not certain.
In the same verse, James addresses himself to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”, which suggests that his epistle is intended as general ‘wisdom literature’, rather than correspondence with a specific party. The general tone of the book seems to be in keeping with this.
The thing that has always struck me about the book of James is its intense practicality, and emphasis on active faith. In 1:22-25 it says:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
James clearly has little patience for people who profess belief in Christ, or even those who actually believe, but do not act on their belief. His famous statement in 2:20 that “faith without works is dead” leaves little room for doubt that faith requires action, and he gives numerous examples of this, both positive and negative. In 1:27, he says that “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
Martin Luther, one of the great defenders of the doctrine of righteousness by faith famously declared James to be a ‘straw epistle’ (see History of the Christian Church, book 4, chapter 7). He felt that James was promoting righteousness by works, and even questioned whether his letter should have been included in the biblical canon.
With all respect to the great reformer, I’d suggest that seeing a ‘righteousness by works’ doctrine in James is to miss his point. James actually talks about faith a lot. In chapter 2, verse 23 he says that “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness”. This is a clear assertion of righteousness by faith, but this follows a reference to Abraham willingly offering up Isaac as a sacrifice – an act of faith.
I think it’s clear that James was talking to people who believed in righteousness by faith. He was pointing out that faith is not passive or inactive. Going back to 2:14-7, we see the theme of charity again, where he draws on the absurd saying:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
He does not say that the action saves the Christian. What he does say is that faith without action is no faith at all, just as having a charitable thought for someone is useless in comparison to the act of charity.
Faith without action is lazy and cheap. It achieves very little, and is actually worse than having no faith at all, because it lulls us into a false sense of security. Words about believing in Jesus Christ as our personal Saviour are nothing but nice-sounding noises when they are not backed up by a life lived according to God’s will.
True faith is active. It works to meet the practical needs of others. It ‘walks the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’.
James takes this concept a lot further when he talks about humility and the fair treatment of others. I’ll get into these in another post, but one thing I’m taking away from this study is the need to really live what I believe.
True faith doesn’t just happen in my head – it happens in my whole life.