As with most of my blog posts, this started with four paragraphs and somehow over the course of twenty-four hours morphed into a mini-sermon. This is a general overview of the book of James with a focus on certain aspects of his letter. To truly grasp and internalize this letter, I would recommend reading and studying the book for yourself. In fact, I would recommend reading James first, then reading this post. After studying James for two months, I wanted to share what I learned and motivate you to pursue deeper study. Read this post at your own leisure as we explore the fascinating and very convicting letter of James. Also, for the ease of your reading experience, I included the specific Bible verse reference at the end of each paragraph, in the order that the Scripture quotations appear. All Scripture is adopted from the English Standard Version.
James writes his letter to a Jewish Christian population as James was the head of the church in Jerusalem. These Jewish Christians were scattered amongst the nations proclaiming the Gospel. It’s interesting to note that James was Jesus’ half brother, yet never actually claims equal status with Jesus by toting around the “brother card.” In fact, he does the exact opposite, James humbly accepts his lowly position calling himself, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.*” It is speculated that James could have been the first book of the New Testament written, yet it was the last book admitted to the canon. With that idea in mind, James’ book may have broken the four hundred year silence between the Old and New Testaments. *(James 1:1)
As we see in the New Testament, the Gospel of Jesus is a message of grace. Because of the work of Jesus on the cross (New Testament), we no longer fall under legalism (Old Testament) to be seen as righteous in the eyes of the Lord. James is evidently rooted in the Gospel of Grace, he fully conveys that we are not subject to legalism.
We are sinners, we are imperfect. We NEED continual grace over our lives. We in no way can earn salvation, on this side of history, by obeying the Law and living righteous lives. Yet James still calls us to obey Jesus’ teachings and strive to live righteous lives. How to we digest this supposed dichotomy?
Notice the difference, we cannot EARN right-standing with God through legalism. Through faith, not works, can we be right with God. We proclaim this faith by admitting our sinful nature, believing Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and confessing Jesus as our Lord and Savior.
Therefore, James’ message does not contradict Paul’s New Testament message of justification by faith, it compliments it. James agrees with Paul in that, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.*” But James’ letter is not a touchy, feely, let me rub your back letter. James is a tough cookie. He doesn’t let the Christian stop their efforts after proclaiming faith in Christ. James emphasizes that the Christian walk of sanctification is not just an instantaneous moment, it’s a progressive experience. James does not let us skate by in disobedience under the pretext of grace. *(Ephesians 2:8)
Therefore, in his letter, he provides tangible and convicting means of growing. This Christian walk requires effort, sacrifice, struggle, perseverance, and above all, the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We are not to attempt conquering any of James’ charges by ourselves. We are to continually seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
As you read the letter of James, keep the message of grace in mind. James is a convicting book, it’s intended to be blunt and call to attention what makes us uncomfortable. As I studied through it, some parts were hard to swallow. Memorizing the book (see my recitation of James here) made it that much harder. I couldn’t just pick and choose which verses I wanted to hide in my heart.
With the message of grace and justification of faith as our foundation, let’s explore these convicting themes that are prevalent in James’ letter. For the sake of space, I listed where you can find them. I encourage you to open your Bibles and look up these specific verses.
- Our Human Nature. (James 1:14-15, 4:4-5, 5:5)
- Judging/Grumbling/Showing Favoritism towards others. (James 2:9-10, 4:11, 5:9)
- The Tongue. (James 1:26, 3:5-10)
- Works Must Accompany Faith. (James 1:22-24, 2:17, 2:24, 2:26)
I wasn’t joking, James is brutal.
But let’s look at two convicting verses from the “Human Nature” theme and then see what immediately follows them.
First, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” *(James 1:14-18)
God chose before the beginning of time to reconcile us to him by sacrificing his one and only Son on the cross for our sins. He gives us free will to accept this sacrificial gift. Unfortunately our human desire leads to sinful death, it’s humbling. But James tells us not to be deceived, in other words, there’s more to the story. Not only has God given us the ultimate gift, he continues to shower us with blessings, despite our sinful nature. Therefore, every good thing that we experience in our Christian walk is from Him! One of the most precious gifts God showered me with is my husband, Ben. While Ben may not be a “perfect” gift (humor intended). He was a gift to me and I, a gift to him.
Second, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But, he gives more grace.” *(James 4:4-6)
How scary to stop after verse 5? I we didn’t keep reading, we wouldn’t see the gleam of hope at the end. Grace. The message of the Gospel. We, as sinners, even as saved sinners oftentimes choose sin over God. Thus making us God’s enemy. But he gives more grace. Not just grace, but MORE grace. More grace to continually cover our mess-ups. This grace is sufficient to cover a multitude of sins. The one requirement. Repentance. A repentant heart is a heart covered in grace.
James not only sprinkles little glimpses of hope throughout his letter, but he also provides tangible direction that I’ve categorized into two main charges: Remain steadfast and Submit to God in humbleness.
Remain Steadfast: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” *(James 1:23-25)
I like to look at the mirror right before I walk out of the house. I want to make sure nothing is in my teeth, my hair looks somewhat tamed, and my shirt isn’t on backwards. But by the time I walk to the car, I’m thinking of something else besides the image I just saw in the mirror. I used the mirror for what I needed it for, then I left it at home.
But the one who looks into the mirror of freedom, the Gospel, and takes it with them in their day to day life is the one that will be blessed in his doing! As Christians we are prone to talking to talk, but not necessarily walking the walk. Choosing to carry this mirror of freedom with us is risky. Like James says, it requires perseverance and steadfastness. In fact, James opens his letter with, “Count it all joy, my brothers when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.*” In other words, by choosing to be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only, makes the Christian vulnerable to trials of various kinds. But God promises blessing and wholeness to this Christian who chooses to remain steadfast. 2 Timothy, goes one step further saying, “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.*” To summarize….doing the Word leads to trials which gives us an opportunity to demonstrate steadfastness, by remaining steadfast, God promises us blessings and completeness so that we may be capable of doing God’s good work on this Earth. *(James 1:2-4, 2 Timothy 3:17)
Submit to God in humbleness: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” *(James 4:4-10)
You should recognize this group of verses as we explored it earlier. Now we are going to examine the last section of it as it presents us with a unique charge: submission also known as humbleness. Remember that MORE grace we spoke of, who does God give it to? The humble. This is why reading the whole letter and truly knowing the context of the passage is integral to comprehensive and accurate Bible study. Then James shows us five ways to demonstrate humbleness.
- Submission to God. Yielding to the authority of God in every aspect of your life – your marriage, your family, your finances, your career, your sin.
- Resist the devil. The enemy enjoys putting road blocks up as we charge through on this progressive Christian walk. Withstanding the schemes and temptations of the enemy promises that the enemy will flee from you. As a child of God, the enemy can’t touch you. He likes to mess with you and find weak points to manipulate, but he runs in the name of Jesus.
- Draw near to God. I often hear people say, “I don’t feel close to God.” What happens if we choose to pursue him, despite our emotions in the moment? He will draw near to us. God gives us free will to pursue a relationship with Him, He doesn’t force Himself on us. Seek Him by talking to Him, spending time in His Word, no matter how guilty, shameful, or exposed you feel. I guarantee His peace will envelop you as He draws near to you.
- Cleanse and purify. “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” (2 Timothy 2:20)
- Mourn and weep. This verse caught me off guard, it didn’t make sense to me, especially in the context of these other verses. After some study, I learned that James is essentially encouraging us to be serious about sin – not to take sin as a laughing matter. There is joy in the Lord but there is no joy in our human, sinful nature. Let sin bother you, let God comfort you. The anguish of sin is humbling.
“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.*” There it is again, in the final verse of this section, humility. After James shares these five tangible ways to demonstrate humbleness, then he says what? What does God promise to us that choose humility? Exaltation! “Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation.*” We will be held in high esteem in God’s eyes by pursuing humility. What a wonderful, motivating promise. *(James 4:10, James 1:9)
That concludes our little adventure through James. I encourage you, as you read through this letter with fresh eyes and feel that tug of conviction, remember, firstly, the gift of grace and that you are justified by faith. But also know that, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.*” We can’t pick and choose which portions of Scripture we want to abide by. ALL Scripture is God-inspired, I love that 2 Timothy in the ESV says, “breathed out by God.” What a beautiful image to picture these words as God’s breath! *(2 Timothy 3:16)
The rest of that same verse says, “…and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.*” James’ letter is a great place to challenge your walk as it provides plenty of teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. We must remain steadfast and humble as we endure this training so that we can accomplish the good work God has commissioned us to accomplish for His Kingdom. *(2 Timothy 3:16-17)