what is James (the New Testament letter) about?
We came up with a suggestion for ‘James in one sentence’ – and it’s actually the second part of James 2:18…
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
The idea of our faith being intimately linked with our deeds runs through every chapter that we’ve studied so far. When I pass through trials, what do I do? Blame God, or trust the Father of creation who gives good things and purposes to bring redemption to all of his creation (Ch.1)? Religion is worthless if it is not about what we do: control our speech, care for the needy (Ch.1). When I see the world’s social stratifications in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate the injustice of the world, or express the values of God’s Kingdom (Ch.2)? If I am a teacher, what do I do? Act arrogantly, or lead and teach humbly (Ch.3)? In my relationships in the church, what do I do? Perpetuate quarrels out of envy, slandering others, or repent and seek the way of humility (Ch.4)? In the Reformed church faith and works have been held at too great a distance from one another. True faith is an obedient faith. Faith is about doing, not just thinking. Faith without works is dead (and so is works without faith).
The concept of wisdom is also important to James. It crops up in 1:5, 3:13, 3:15 and 3:17. But if we remember that wisdom is ‘living well in God’s good but fallen world’, we see that wisdom infuses the whole letter and underlines the same point about living out (through our deeds) the faith in Jesus Christ that we have embraced in our hearts. In fact, it is only those who follow Jesus Christ in faith who can gain this ‘wisdom from above’. We’ve noted at a few points in the chapters we’ve studied so far the closeness of what James is writing to the Sermon on the Mount. That, in essence, is a wisdom discourse from the lips of Jesus the wisdom teacher. Christians must reject the wisdom of the world (specifically here the jealousy and ambition of the world’s value system) and seek the humility of the wisdom that is pure and peaceable.
Finally, we discussed something else that has jumped out (for me at least) during our studies. This is a letter exhorting Christians to live out their faith in the context of the Church. Too often, an individualistic approach to, say, the control of the tongue is adopted when we teach this material. The context is the Church: leaders, teachers, the persecuted, the poor, the rich, the sick. And this is especially clear when we see that at the heart of the letter is an exhortation to those who have set themselves up as teachers: the ship is directed by a small rudder, and that rudder will bear a greater responsibility for its journey. May we who teach be given grace.