Prior to 1539, if one had said, “Turn with me to the first chapter of the Book of James,” there would have been a great rustling of pages in the congregation, with many puzzled looks. Up to that time, you would not have found the book where it is today in any English translation. Indeed, you would not have found the Book of James included among the New Testament books at all. This is because it was hidden away at the very back of the English Bible, along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. The obscure placement of this book is indicative of the initial reluctance the early church had accepting it and several other books into the canon of Scripture. Perhaps the greatest reason for this delay was due to the question of its authorship. Books that were most readily accepted into the New Testament canon were those written by apostles, whose doctrine and teaching accorded with other writings of the New Testament, and that were commonly regarded as Scripture by the churches as a whole.
James, as well as Hebrews and one epistle of John, is missing from the second century Muratorian Canon, a document which listed those books accepted as Scripture by the church as early as A.D. 170. Although other church fathers may have alluded to the Book of James, Origin, in his commentary on John, is the first writer to refer to the epistle by name and identify it as Scripture. Eusebius placed it among the disputed books, but accepted it personally and quoted it as Scripture. Its acceptance by Jerome and Augustine, as well as its inclusion by the Third Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, virtually assured its recognition as a part of our New Testament.1
During the Reformation, the Book of James again came under careful scrutiny due to the influence of Martin Luther. Luther’s view of this book was stated in his introduction to his New Testament, first published in 1522:
In fine, Saint John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, Saint Paul’s Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Saint Peter’s first Epistle—these are the books which show thee Christ, and teach thee everything that is needful and blessed for thee to know even though thou never see or hear any other book of doctrine. Therefore is Saint James’s Epistle a right strawy Epistle in comparison with them, for it has no gospel character to it.2
We should not press these words farther than Luther intended, for he is saying that “in comparison with these other Epistles,” James is a “right strawy epistle.” He himself also said: “I will not have it in my Bible in the number of the proper chief books, but do not intend thereby to forbid anyone to place and exalt it as he pleases, for there is many a good saying in it.”3
Tyndale was obviously influenced by Luther, for when he translated the New Testament, he placed the same four books that Luther viewed with suspicion at the end of his New Testament. In his prologue, however, he was more favorable than Luther regarding the value of these books.
Other reformers such as Zwingli, Beza, and Calvin readily and unhesitatingly accepted James on a par with other New Testament books. When Calvin wrote his commentary on the Catholic Epistles, he retained the order Luther had established but also clearly stated: “There are also at this day some who do not think it entitled to authority. I however, am inclined to receive it without controversy.”4
Even today there are those who would call the value of this book into question because they mistakenly suppose that there is some kind of conflict between James and Paul in their teaching on justification. More careful analysis of the teachings of both Paul and James shows that there is no discrepancy between their teachings. Hopefully, this will become apparent in our study of James.
I believe there is a lesson to be learned from Martin Luther’s response to the Book of James. First, we should understand Luther’s uneasiness regarding the Book of James. Luther was courageous in his stand for what we might call “reformation truth.” The Scriptures alone are the authoritative Word of God, and not the Roman Catholic Church. It is Christ alone who saves men from their sins, by faith alone, apart from works. The Roman Catholic Church appealed to the Book of James as the basis for some of its erroneous teaching. We can understand how Luther would tend to be hesitant about embracing the Book of James as the authoritative Word of God. Luther reacted so strongly to the misuse of the Book of James by the Catholic Church that he became somewhat suspicious of the book itself. Wrong interpretation of a scriptural text should not reduce our confidence in the biblical text itself. I think it would be safe to say that some of us have tended to shy away from texts that have been wrongly interpreted or applied.
Second, though he was a great hero of the faith for standing firm against the errors of the Roman church, Luther was not infallible. Luther was absolutely right in his opposition to the Roman Church regarding the authority of Scripture and the sufficiency of the work of Christ for man’s salvation. He was not right about everything, however. He was a man, and thus he had his strengths and his weaknesses. Being right in some very important points of doctrine did not make him right in every point. We must be careful not to look to Luther as our only authority in the interpretation of Scripture, any more than we should look to the Catholic Church, or to any other church, or to any other man. Being right in one point doesn’t mean that we are right in all points.
Third, Luther’s failure to accept the Book of James as fully authoritative and as a part of the inspired Word of God is not that different from what many Christians do. We all make choices regarding our interpretation of the Word of God. Those who are strongly convinced that the return of Christ will precede a 1,000-year millennial reign tend to ignore, avoid, or even deny texts that might appear to say otherwise. Those who are amillennial have no problem ignoring or explaining away texts like Revelation 20 (especially verses 2-7). Those who believe in limited atonement seek to set aside verses that appear to teach an unlimited atonement. And those who hold to unlimited atonement are tempted to set aside those texts that would seem to support limited atonement. Those who dislike Paul’s teaching on head coverings (1 Corinthians 11), or the submission and silence of women in the public ministry of the church (1 Corinthians 14:34-38; 1 Timothy 2:9-15) will find a way to set them aside. Charismatic Christians tend to overlook certain texts, while non-Charismatics may choose to overlook others. Like it or not, we are all somewhat selective in terms of the weight we give to various books and texts of the Bible.
If I happen to refer to the Book of James as a Catholic Epistle, please do not think that I am using the term “catholic” to refer to the Catholic Church, as though there were “Catholic” and “Protestant” epistles. The word “catholic” means universal. James is one of the seven epistles (James, I and II Peter, I, II, III John and Jude) that are referred to as the “Catholic” or “General” Epistles. These are (with the exception of II and III John) epistles that were not written to specific churches. They were written to a broader group of believers and not restricted to the church in any one place.
From James, a slave of God and of Jesus Christ.5
In his introduction to this book, the author identifies himself simply as James. This presents us with a bit of a problem since the New Testament refers to several men as “James.” For example, there is James, the son of Alphaeus, but we see little of him in the New Testament, and few would view him as the author of this epistle. Then, there was James, the son of Zebedee, and brother of John. He is unlikely to be the author since he died as a martyr in the year 44, as recorded in Acts 12. The third “James” is the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the most likely author of this epistle for several reasons:
First, the writer did not think it necessary to further identify himself. The Book of Acts presents James as a prominent leader of the church in Jerusalem. When Peter was miraculously released from prison and went to the house of Mary, he instructed his friends to go to James, and to the brethren (Acts 12:17). When Paul went up to Jerusalem after his conversion, he saw none of the apostles but James (Galatians 1:19). James presided over the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15. The prominence of James, the brother of our Lord, and leader in the church in Jerusalem, was such that no further identification was needed so far as he was concerned. James could have referred to himself as the brother of our Lord Jesus Christ, but I believe that humility and a sense of propriety restrained him from doing so.
Second, there are a number of striking similarities in the vocabulary of the Epistle of James to the speech of James at the Jerusalem Council as recorded in Acts 15. Just one example is the form of greeting found in James 1:1 and Acts 15:23. This greeting is not used by any other writer in the New Testament in the commencement of their writing.6
Third, this Epistle seldom speaks of the Lord Jesus, but is strongly influenced by His teaching. Doremus Hayes states: “James says less about the Master than any other writer in the New Testament, but his speech is more like that of the Master than the speech of any one of them.”7 Especially does James draw from the teachings of our Lord on the Sermon on the Mount. As another has written: “There are 2l similarities between the teachings of Christ and the Epistle of James. All but three of these refer to the Sermon on the Mount.”8 These similarities seem best explained by the conclusion that James, the brother of our Lord, is the author.
In a work such as that of James, it is especially difficult to determine with any certainty when the book was written since there are no historical incidents in the book itself to serve as chronological points of reference. As a rule, conservative scholarship has tended to view the time of writing as very early in the history of the church. Since James, the half-brother of our Lord, died in A.D. 62, the book must have been written prior to this time. Perhaps it was written before A.D. 50 and the Jerusalem Council, since neither the Council nor its decision is mentioned in this epistle. If so, this book is the earliest book of the entire New Testament. This would mean that James wrote before any of Paul’s epistles were penned, epistles that dealt with matters such as the relationship of Jews and Gentiles, or the revelation of the mystery of the church. Rather than viewing James’ epistle as contradictory to the writings of Paul – something untenable to Christians who believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures – we must understand this book within the confines of the doctrine of progressive revelation. The doctrines of Christology (the doctrine of Christ), Soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), and Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) were not yet spelled out clearly. James speaks little of these or not at all, for in the wisdom of God, it was Paul who would soon do this.9
I must admit that I do have a greater level of difficulty when interpreting and preaching from the Book of James, compared with Paul’s writings. Paul’s logic and writing style is more western; James’ style appears to be much more eastern. In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul uses what I call “linear logic.” Paul lays a foundation, and then proceeds to build upon this foundation. He moves from point “a” to point “b” to point “c,” and eventually to his conclusion. Often, Paul will begin by laying a doctrinal foundation (e.g., Romans 1-12; Ephesians 1-3), and then move on to the practical outworking of that doctrine (e.g., Romans 13-16; Ephesians 4-6). James is much more “circular” in his logic. He introduces a theme or topic, expands upon it, and then moves on to another topic – only to return again and again to the same topic, each time adding more detail. In chapter 1, James introduces the subject of riches and poverty (1:9-11). He then takes up the same subject from a different perspective in chapter 2 (2:1-26). The subject then is taken up indirectly in 4:1-10 and 13-17 and 5:1-11. James mixes his materials something like a baker adds ingredients to make a cake batter.
Having said that James is somewhat circular in his writing style, I must go on to add that James is also very simple and concise in his writing style. Few of us fail to grasp what he is saying, though we may well be uncomfortable with it, because it is so simple, straightforward, and convicting.
To the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings!
One final word of introduction is necessary, pertaining to the recipients of this epistle. James addresses this work to “the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad.” By this I understand that he is writing primarily to Jewish Christians who have been dispersed from Jerusalem. In Acts 2:9-11, we read of all the distant places Jews had come from to observe the Feast of Pentecost. These folks had already been dispersed abroad, before the death of our Lord. When we come to Acts 8:1, we read of the persecution that resulted from the stoning of Stephen, and we are told “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.”
Surely when Jewish converts to Christ dispersed to far away places there were many questions that these new believers needed to have answered. We need to view this epistle as having been written during a very critical transitional period in the history of the church. This is at a time when Old Testament Jewish saints have come to faith in the Messiah, aware that they are living in a new dispensation, and that they are now participants in the New Covenant. How are Jewish Christians to relate their faith in Jesus Christ to their Jewish heritage? These things James begins to deal with from a Jewish perspective. Paul will also explore these matters from a more gentile-oriented point of view.
James chapter 1 deals with the way the Christian should handle adversity. His teaching should be understood against the backdrop of some false assumptions held by many Jews, including our Lord’s disciples. Based upon God’s covenant promises with Israel (Deuteronomy 28-31), individual Jews were inclined to expect God to invariably bless them materially in response to pious living. Conversely, they expected that those who did evil were to experience divine discipline in various forms. In short, they expected God to bless them for doing good and to punish others for their sin.
We see this mindset revealed by Job’s friends in the Book of Job. In truth, Job was being tested with adversity because of his piety, and not because of sin (Job 1:1-12). Job’s friends persisted in trying to force him to confess that his suffering was the result of some sin he had committed. If he but forsook his sin, they insisted, then God would again bless him. Asaph, the author of Psalm 73, had the same assumptions about prosperity and poverty, and he was frustrated and angry with God because the wicked appeared to prosper while the pious did not (Psalm 73:1-14). Even our Lord’s disciples bought into this thinking. When they came upon the man who was born blind, they revealed their wrong assumptions when they asked the Master, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?” (John 9:2b). James is going to give a very different perspective on the Christian’s attitude toward adversity.
2 My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.
First, I would have you note that James is telling us to expect adversity as the rule, rather than the exception. He does not say, “Consider it nothing but joy if you fall into all sorts of trials,” but rather “when you fall into all sorts of trials.” Peter likewise informs us that suffering should not surprise us (see 1 Peter 4, especially verses 12ff.). Adversity need not be sought; it will surely come our way. He says that we will “fall into” all sorts or trials, not that we must “jump into” these trials.
Second, James informs us that these trials will come in many different forms – “all sorts of trials” (verse 2). In my lifetime, I have experienced and observed many different forms of adversity. I have seen those who suffered financially. I have seen those who were very comfortable financially agonize over some physical malady within the family that no amount of money can solve. I have seen parents agonize over their children, and children agonize over their parents. Trials may come from one’s boss, or from one’s employees. Trials come in various shapes and sizes, but they all are a form of adversity.
Third, James instructs us that when we encounter these trials, we are to wholeheartedly rejoice in them, knowing that God has sent them into our lives as a part of His sanctifying process. These trials, James writes, are a testing of our faith. Adversity tests the strength of our faith:
If you show yourself slack in the day of trouble,
your strength is small! (Proverbs 24:10)
Adversity is like a stress test, pushing us up to and beyond our limits, so that we will recognize our dependence upon God, and call on Him for help in the time of trouble. Adversity is designed to produce endurance in our lives. And this endurance perfects us, so that we will become complete, lacking nothing.
James forces us to look at ourselves – and at the process of sanctification – in an entirely different light. So many people think of themselves as basically okay, except for their sin. They admit that they need Jesus to forgive their sins, but they feel that the rest of their life does not need any radical change. Some would even go so far as to assume that they are just a great big bundle of human potentiality. They may need God for salvation, but in some way they foolishly suppose that God really needs them. “If only God would save a man like ___________, just think of what he (or she) could do for His kingdom.” The truth is that we have nothing to offer God, and that we need everything from Him. When we think that we are sufficient in and of ourselves, we deceive ourselves. God brings adversity into our lives to show us our deficiencies, and as we see these deficiencies, we realize that we must cry out to God to supply what we lack. The entire Christian life is a process of recognizing our deficiencies, and seeking His grace to supply our needs. The process of sanctification is never completed in this life, but when we are complete, we will lack nothing, because He has amply provided for our every deficiency. To resist and detest adversity is to resist the sanctifying and perfecting work of God in our lives. To rejoice is to embrace His perfecting work in us.
5 But if10 anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 since he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
As I have indicated by the footnote in verse 5, the “if” is not really “iffy.” James assumes that everyone is deficient in wisdom. If there is ever a time when our lack of wisdom is apparent, it is when we are in the midst of adversity. We need wisdom to rightly assess our situation and to determine our response to it. At times like this, we need divine wisdom, which we do not possess within ourselves. It is the kind of wisdom which God possesses, and which He promises to give to those who ask for it. Many of our teenagers wear a bracelet that reads: WWJD. This stands for, “What would Jesus do?” Isn’t that the question we all need to ask? Isn’t what Jesus would do in our circumstances the wise thing we should do? James goes on to encourage us to pray for wisdom by assuring us not only that God will answer our prayer for wisdom, but that He will do so without shaming or humiliating us. This is because He is glorified when we confess our dependency and His sufficiency. God delights in the fact that we express our dependence on Him.
James sets down only one condition and that is that we pray in faith, without wavering. It is never wrong to pray for wisdom, and there is never a time when God will not grant us that wisdom – except when we ask with an inner wavering. This wavering is a vacillation between one thing and another. I’m not sure that I really like the word “doubts” here. Is James suggesting that this person doubts God will answer his prayer? Perhaps, but frankly I doubt it. In verse 9, James tells us that this wavering fellow is “double-minded,” literally “two-souled.” This term is found only twice in the New Testament, and both times it is in the Book of James. Notice the second instance of this term in James 4:8, in context:
6 But he gives greater grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.” 7 So submit to God. But resist the devil and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and make your hearts pure, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn, and weep. Turn your laughter into mourning and your joy into despair. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you (James 4:6-10, underscoring mine).
In chapter 4, James is talking about pride and humility. God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (verse 6). The saints are encouraged to submit to God and to resist the devil (verse 7). They are to humble themselves before the Lord, who will exalt them (verse 10). They are to grieve, mourn, and weep. To be double-minded in chapter 4 was to waver between submitting to God or to the devil. It would appear that it was to waver between humility and pride (pride being a very devil-like characteristic). Thus, it would seem that the choice was between drawing near to God in adversity, or arrogantly going one’s own way, which is also Satan’s way. I therefore understand that what James is saying is that we had better not ask for wisdom from God unless we are also willing to follow the wisdom He provides. God will not “cast His pearls before swine;” He will not reveal wisdom to those who are not committed to follow it.
By inference, then, we can see that faith manifests itself in stability, steadiness in the midst of life’s storms. But a deficiency of faith manifests itself in instability. The one who lacks faith bounces hither and yon, blown about by the winds of adversity, as well as the winds of false doctrine (see also Ephesians 4:14). Faith rests assured that God is in control, and that adversity has come from His loving hand, to build us up in His strength. Faith rejoices in adversity, because it is for our good, and for His glory.
9 Now the believer of humble means should take pride in his high position. 10 But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow. 11 For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away. 12 Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
In turning to wealth and poverty, James has not really changed subjects. In the Jewish mind, wealth was the measure of one’s piety. The pious were expected to prosper, while the wicked were to suffer. This is why our Lord’s story of the “Rich man and Lazarus” in Luke 16:19-31 was so shocking to the Jews who heard it. James wants both the rich and the poor to see their circumstances from an eternal perspective. Note, however, that James indicates to us that there will be both rich saints and poor saints, and both of them are exhorted to respond to their circumstances in a godly manner. He does not accept the premise that the pious prosper and the wicked suffer.
It has never been very difficult for me to understand James’ words to the poor man, instructing him to take pride in his high position. After all, Jesus said,
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
The story of Lazarus and the rich man tells it all. A few years of doing without is nothing, compared to an eternity of bliss.
But what of the rich man? How can James say that he is to take pride in his humiliation? What is his humiliation, and how can he take pride in it? James tells us, I believe:
10 But the rich person’s pride should be in his humiliation, because he will pass away like a wildflower in the meadow. 11 For the sun rises with its heat and dries up the meadow; the petal of the flower falls off and its beauty is lost forever. So also the rich person in the midst of his pursuits will wither away.
The rich man’s humiliation is his earthly demise. When Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), he was expressing a universal truth for every believer. I am reminded of our Lord’s words in Luke 16:11:
“If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches.”
“True riches” are not earthly riches, but heavenly riches. If “true riches” are heavenly riches, then it is our earthly demise that opens the door to true riches. It should not just be the poor who look forward to heaven then, but also the rich, because there is where our true riches await us at our arrival:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are protected through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 This brings you great joy, although you may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. 7 Such trials show the proven character of your faith, which is much more valuable than gold—gold that is tested by fire, even though it is passing away—and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 You have not seen him, but you love him. You do not see him now but you believe in him, and so you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 because you are attaining the goal of your faith—the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9, emphasis mine).
Doesn’t this sound a great deal like the first verses of James? Our inheritance is not earthly, but heavenly. This is what the Old Testament saints had to learn as well:
13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16, emphasis mine).
And so the rich man is to realize that his earthly wealth is paltry, in comparison with the heavenly wealth that awaits him. Since it is his earthly demise that takes him to heaven, the rich man exults in his death, his humiliation.
It’s something like this. Suppose that there are two men. The first has a 16-foot wooden rowboat, with a 25-horsepower motor. The second has a rubber life raft, powered by oars. Both men are assured that when their boats wear out they will inherit a 120-foot luxury yacht. The man in the rubber raft obviously is eager for the day when he can leave his raft behind and possess his yacht. But so is the man with the wooden rowboat. As his 16-foot boat grows old, and begins to leak, its owner rejoices in the boat’s demise, because he knows that the time for him to possess the luxury yacht is drawing near.
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death. 16 Do not be led astray, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. 18 By his sovereign plan he gave us birth through the message of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
It isn’t difficult to see a connection between adversity and temptation. In the midst of adversity, we may be tempted to think or act in a sinful manner. Many folks wrongly conclude that times of stress somehow justify ungodly responses. There is a sinister dimension to the words, “I am tempted by God.” It is one thing to say, “The devil made me do it;” it is quite another to lay the blame on God. You can see how one could twist reality to come to such a conclusion. Their distorted logic would go something like this:
God is sovereign; He is in control of everything.
God is the One who brings adversity into the lives of His people.
God has brought adversity into my life.
In such times of adversity, I am tempted to act in an ungodly manner.
If I yield to this temptation, I sin.
Therefore, God is the source of my temptation.
If I fail, it must be God’s fault, because He led me into temptation.
It seems to me that verses 13-18 take up the subject of the double-minded man, mentioned in verse 8. The double-minded person wavers between humble submission to God and prideful disobedience. It is that proud disobedience which seems to underlie the logic that blames God for our sin and names Him as the source of our temptation.
James speaks in very absolute terms in verses 13-18. He says that one should never blame God for the temptation we face. He also says that God cannot ever be tempted by evil, and that He never tempts anyone with evil. God tests us, but He never tempts us.11 Temptation, James tells us, comes from deep within us, and not from God. Jesus made this clear as well:
18 He said to them, “Are you so foolish? Don’t you see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot make him unclean? 19 For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out into the sewer.” (This means all foods are clean.) 20 He said, “What comes out of a person makes him unclean. 21 For from within, out of the human heart, comes evil ideas, immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. 23 All these evils come from within and make a person unclean” (Mark 7:18-23).
I like this quotation by John Owen, which I received by way of e-mail through “Christian Quotation of the Day”:
“Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before.”
John Owen (1616-1683)
The God who cannot be tempted (because there is no sin within Him, which responds to temptation) does not tempt, either. Temptation comes from within the one tempted. It begins with desire, and when this desire is facilitated, the fruit it bears is that of sin. And sin results in death. Sin and death are the result of a sequence of events, all of which begin with a desire which is not proper, and which is not rejected and resisted.
When James says, “Do not be led astray, my brothers and sisters. . .,” he indicates that when we see God as the source of our sin, we have been terribly deceived. God is not the source of any temptation, but He is the source of any and every truly good gift. This God who does not tempt and who gives good gifts is immutable – He never changes. As James puts it, “there is no variation or the slightest hint of change” (verse 17). The God who is good and immutable is also sovereign (verse 18). It was through God’s initiative that we were brought to life, through the instrument of His Word (verse 18). If there is any basis for faith and stability, it is in knowing that God is good, that God is unchanging, and that He is sovereign. The good work which God began in us by saving us, He most surely can be expected to finish (see also Philippians 1:6). God is going to redeem all creation, which has suffered the curse as the result of the fall, and man’s salvation is a prototype, firstfruits of the subsequent salvation or restoration of “all things” (see Romans 8:18-25).
19 Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters! Let every person be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. 20 For human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. 21 So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves. 23 For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. 24 For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. 25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does. 26 If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile. 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
God sends adversity our way to perfect us, as James indicated in verses 2-4. Adversity reveals our deficiencies, and God graciously provides for our needs in times of trial, producing maturity and wholeness (without deficiency). While God uses adversity to perfect His saints, adversity often brings out the worst in men. Not only are we more prone to anger and harsh words, we may strike out in anger. No wonder James has already warned us about blaming God for tempting us (verses 13-18).
James has already assured us that when we lack wisdom and ask for it in faith, God will give it to us (verses 5-7). That wisdom will often come from the Word of God, but it may also come from those who can give godly counsel from the Word, often from those who have endured such affliction themselves (see 2 Corinthians 1:3-7). We should therefore be quick to hear and to heed godly counsel. Conversely, we should be slow to speak and slow to anger. How easy it is to “blow up” in times of adversity, saying and doing things that are foolish and hurtful.
Some people have learned that anger is a way of manipulating others. How many children today get their way by throwing a fit? Anger actually does work, in that it intimidates others, or makes them feel guilty, so that they give in to us in an unhealthy way. Human anger may produce sinful results, but James tells us that it will never achieve God’s righteousness. The flesh never produces righteousness, and human anger is a manifestation of the flesh:
16 But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh; for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, 21 envyings, murders, drunkenness, carousings, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another (Galatians 5:16-26).
We have two choices as Christians. Either we may surrender to the passions of the flesh, which lead to death, or we may surrender to the implanted Word of God, which “is able to save our souls” (verse 21). James has just told us that it is the Word of God that was the instrument of our conversion; now he tells us that the Word of God is the instrument of our sanctification. As you can see, I understand the expression “able to save your souls” as a reference to the present aspect of our salvation. There is a past dimension (our initial conversion), a present dimension (our sanctification), and a future dimension -- our ultimate perfection (when we go to be with Him; see 1 John 3:2) – to our salvation.
Merely hearing God’s Word is not enough. Even studying and comprehending great portions of the Bible is inadequate. The Bible is a book to be read, and practiced, just as our Lord taught:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. . . 24 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house; but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was a tremendous fall!” (Matthew 7:21, 24-27).
“If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).
Jesus used very strong words when He rebuked the scribes and Pharisees. Perhaps the most common term He used to describe them was “hypocrites!” They said one thing and did another. They believed certain things to be true, but they did not act accordingly:
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:1-3).
James does not wish this to be true of the saints, and so he urges them to hear the Word of God and to heed it, by putting it into practice. He then articulates two primary areas of application, which I believe are very instructive. The first area of application is personal. He characterizes a saint as looking carefully into the Word, and when he or she does so, the Word reveals them for what they are, as we see also in Hebrews:
12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow; it is able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from God, but everything is naked and exposed to his eyes to whom we must render an account (Hebrews 4:12-13).
The Word of God exposes all of our sins, all of our weaknesses, all of our needs. If we are to be doers of the Word and not just hearers, then we must do something about those sins that our study of the Word reveals. To study the Word of God without applying it is useless and foolish. When we study God’s Word and heed it, then we are blessed in what we do. If we do not apply the Word in our deeds, we miss much of God’s blessing. James leaves us with just one specific area of personal application at this point (though he will take up the subject of the tongue later on – see chapter 3): keeping reign on our tongue (verse 26). We appear to be going back to verse 19 and to James’ instruction to be “slow to speak.”
If there is one thing I like about James, it is that his writing is incredibly simple and straightforward. There are always those, like the lawyer in Luke 10, who want to quibble over details (10:29), but the Bible speaks so plainly that this is really hard to do. Why is it that so many seem to think that spirituality is measured by the quantity of our speech, while the Scriptures frequently instruct us to be quiet (see also 1 Corinthians 14:26-38; 1 Peter 2:18—3:7)?
If the first area of application is directed toward one’s self, the second area of application is directed toward ones’ neighbors, and in particular, those who are in need:
“Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).
How often we wish to use our Bible knowledge in other ways. We prefer to teach our neighbors, even when they don’t wish to be taught. We prefer to correct our fellow-believers, because their understanding of the Word is not identical with ours. We may prefer to point out the sins of others. There certainly is a proper time for teaching and preaching and even rebuking, but here James tells us that the proper application of the Word is to come to the aid of widows and orphans. (You will recall that when Jesus rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for being hypocrites in Matthew 23, He specifically mentioned that they pray long prayers, but steal widows’ houses (23:14)). The real test of religion is how one who is strong deals with those who are weak. The biblical model is that the strong use their strengths to minister to the needs of the weak.
James begins with the personal application of the Word – taking heed to its mirror message; he then moves to the public application of the Word – caring for the widows and the orphans in their affliction. But James then moves back, once again, to the personal application of God’s Word: we are to keep ourselves unstained from the world (verse 27).
As I read the Book of Hebrews, I see the author being greatly concerned about his readers, who are Jewish Christians. Their identification with Christ has brought them considerable persecution, and for some time they have endured. But as time has passed, there are some who appear to have begun toying with the idea of falling back by keeping step with the world. The writer urges them to persevere and to endure:
32 But remember the former days when you endured a harsh conflict of suffering after you were enlightened. 33 At times you were publicly exposed to abuse and afflictions, and at other times you came to share with others who were treated in that way. 34 For in fact you shared the sufferings of those in prison, and you accepted the confiscation of your belongings with joy, because you knew that you certainly had a better and lasting possession. 35 So do not throw away your confidence, because it has great reward. 36 For you need endurance in order to do God’s will and so receive what is promised. 37 For “just a little longer” and “he who is coming will arrive and not delay.” 38 “But my righteous one will live by faith, and if he shrinks back, I take no pleasure in him.” 39 But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls (Hebrews 10:32-39, underscoring mine).
James seems to be saying the same thing the writer to the Hebrews says. They are to endure adversity with a stability that is grounded in faith. They are not to waver between loving and serving God and loving this present world. They are to deal with the sins that the Word reveals, and they are to avoid the sins that the world urges us to enjoy.
As we conclude our study of the first chapter of James, let me point out some areas of application.
First, James is about faith, and not just about works. Luther was wrong if he feared that James emphasized works to the exclusion of faith. James does have a lot to say about the relationship of faith and works, and rightly so. But what I wish to point out here is that James begins his epistle by talking about faith. Trials are a testing of our faith (1:3); and in order to obtain wisdom, we must ask God in faith (1:6). James does not talk about saints being saved by works, but about God giving us birth through the message of the truth (1:18). Let us never forget that James believes in salvation by faith every bit as much as Paul.
Second, there is no place in true religion for an “upper story faith.” I fear that this is one of the great failings in the church today, especially for those of us who live in the “buckle of the Bible belt.” How easy it is to intellectualize our faith, rather than to incarnate our faith. It is easier to study the Bible than to obey it. It is easier to debate points of theology than to evangelize our lost neighbors, or to care for widows and orphans who are in need. As Christians, we may make much “todo” about the Word, but we often fail to do that which the Word clearly commands. Knowing God’s Word is not enough. Doing God’s Word begins with taking a good look at ourselves – seeing our own sins and weaknesses and dealing with them, and then moving on to look out for others.
Third, adversity is to be joyfully embraced as God’s good work in our lives. It is clear from our text (and many others) that no adversity comes into the life of the Christian that has not been purposed by God. He does not allow us to suffer in order to destroy us, but to chasten and strengthen us. He promises to supply the wisdom we need to respond in a godly manner to our suffering. He assures us that our afflictions are for our good, as well as for His glory. For this reason, we are to rejoice in our afflictions.
This is much easier to say than it is to do. How are you doing with adversity? When affliction comes your way, what is your response to it? Do you see it as from the hand of a loving God, purposed for your sanctification? Do you rejoice in it? Do you seek to learn what it is that God purposed to accomplish in your life through your trial?
Fourth, God is always to be praised for the blessings He gives, for all true blessings are from Him. These blessings include those things that are a source of pleasure for us, and those which are painful.
Fifth, God is never to be blamed for our failures in the midst of our afflictions. God tests us, seeking to purify and strengthen us; He does not tempt us. In the final analysis, temptation comes from deep within each of us. We never fail because God has not provided a way of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13), but rather because we choose not to take it.
Sixth, there is a very important lesson for us to learn from James regarding suffering, prayer, and faith. How sad it is that some teach that God is obliged to deliver us from (or out of) suffering, if we simply have enough faith. How tragic it is to see someone in their last moments of life, agonizing about their lack of faith, because they have believed that God would deliver them if they only had the faith to believe and claim it.
Chapter 1 of James hits this error head-on. First, James does not portray suffering and trials as an evil, from which the Christian should seek to escape. James does not even encourage his readers to pray that God would deliver them from their trials. Quite differently, James urges his readers to joyfully embrace their trials, knowing they are from God and for a good purpose. We are told to pray when we fall into various trials, not for deliverance, but for wisdom. We are assured that our prayers requesting wisdom will assuredly be answered, and without any rebuke, if we but pray in faith. A lack of faith is what keeps us from wisdom, not from deliverance from our adversity.
Do you see how far apart James is from those who believe that they can, by faith, claim a healing or deliverance from pain, and be assured of getting what they request? James says that those who are facing trials should pray, and that their prayers must be in faith. But they are not assured of an escape from pain and suffering; they are assured of receiving divine wisdom. Those who wrongly suppose that the Bible guarantees an escape will find that James speaks rather of endurance. Let us align our theology and our prayers with the theology and teaching of James.
Finally, I wish to say to anyone who has never received the forgiveness of sins and assurance of eternal life that adversity may be a blessing to you by turning you to Christ. Listen to these words from the psalmist and from our Lord:
67 I used to suffer because I would stray off,
but now I keep your instructions.
71 It was good for me to suffer,
that I might learn your statutes.
75 I know, LORD, that your regulations are just.
You disciplined me because of your faithful devotion to me (Psalm 119:67, 71, 75).
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil on account of the Son of Man!
23 Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, for your reward is great in heaven; for their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort already.
25 “Woe to you who are well satisfied with food now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
26 “Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets” (Luke 6:20-26).
In the Gospels, how many people came to Jesus whose lives were free from trials? There were a few folks, like the rich young ruler. But as a rule, the people who came to Jesus were those who were in dire need. They may have been infirmed, or they may have sought help for a friend or family member. But they were typically people who had no other hope than Christ. When accused of associating with sinners, Jesus responded that He, like a doctor, had come to heal the sick, and not to work with the healthy (Luke 5:31-32). The trials of life are often the instrument God uses to show us our desperate need for the forgiveness of our sins and the power to live a life that is pleasing to God. Now, as in our Lord’s day, adversity may point us to Christ as the One who can forgive our sins and gain us entrance into heaven. If you have never acknowledged your sin and your trust in Christ alone for salvation, I urge you to do so now.
Teach me. O God, to use all the circumstances of my life
today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness
rather than the fruits of sin.
Let me use disappointment as material for patience:
Let me use success as material for thankfulness:
Let me use suspence as material for perseverance:
Let me use danger as material for courage:
Let me use reproach as material for longsuffering:
Let me use praise as material for humility:
Let me use pleasures as material for temperance:
Let me use pains as material for endurance.
John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer 12
1 For the acceptance of the Book of James into the New Testament canon, cf. Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), pp. 359-360.
2 R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 14.
4 John Calvin, The Catholic Epistles, ed. and trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, MDCCLV), p. 276.
5 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
6 For other similarities in language, cf. Alexander Ross, The Epistles of James and John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), pp. 14-15.
7 Doremus A. Hayes, "The Epistle of James," International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Chicago: The Howard Severance Co., 1937), III, p. 1562.
8 Gary L. Card, "The Relationship of the Epistle of James to the Sermon on the Mount" (unpublished Master's thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1965), P. 36.
10 In the Greek language, this is a first class condition, assumed to be true.
11 I must point out here that it is the same Greek word that is translated both “test” and “temptation.” The context determines which meaning is intended. In this context, it is quite clear to the reader that God does “test” us, but He never “tempts” us.
12 Christian Quotation of the Day, September 14, 2000, Feast of the Holy Cross.