UNDERSTANDING

THE BOOK OF JAMES

 

A Study By

Gary Ray Branscome

 



The writer of the book of James was not only the half brother of Jesus, but also the president of the first Christian congregation at Jerusalem. Because he was thoroughly Jewish, was immersed in Jewish culture, and dealt primarily with Jews the book of James has been called the most Jewish book in the New Testament. Not only is it addressed specifically to "the twelve tribes," but it also refers to the place of meeting as a synagogue rather than a church (James 2:2, assembly, KJV).

Because James uses a different terminology than the Apostle Paul, his words are sometimes twisted to contradict what Paul taught. For that reason, my intention is not to deal with everything that James says, but to clarify those portions of the book which have been a stumbling block to some. As we examine the context of various statements you will see that James is not dealing with people who are openly wicked, as the cults usually assume, but with people who have accepted Jesus as the Messiah while still clinging to a legalistic worldview. Therefore, the problem being dealt with is not open disobedience to the law, but a worldview that is not in accord with faith in Christ.

CHAPTER ONE

While God never tempts anyone to sin, those who profess faith in Christ while continuing to seek righteousness by the law, often experience an unusually intense struggle with the flesh. Of course, we all have to struggle with the flesh to some extent. However, when we walk by faith [i.e. walk by the Spirit] God helps us by counteracting our fleshly desires (Galatians 5:17). Yet, when people seek to make themselves righteous, God cannot counteract their fleshly desires without deceiving them, for if He removed the struggle they would think that they had achieved righteousness by their own efforts. In other words, He allows them to experience a struggle with the flesh so that they will realize that, far from being righteous, their very nature is "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked" (Jeremiah 17:9). In doing this God does not tempt them; He simply withholds His help because of their own self-righteousness. Therefore, the crown of life that James speaks of, does not come as a reward for works, but is given to those who (because of the struggle with their flesh) come to see themselves as sinners in need of forgiveness (Titus 3:5). [Read James 1:12.]

Since the self-righteous would rather excuse their sins than admit that they are sinners, James addresses one of more pernicious excuses being used at that time, namely, the mistaken idea that God tempts people in order to test them. [Read James 1:13-15.] While that idea is nonsense, those who believe it assume that if God is tempting them He cannot justly condemn them if they yield. Of course, that idea is rooted in the deceitfulness of the heart, and amounts to nothing more than a convenient way of denying oneís guilt and need of forgiveness. However, because such excuses blind those who most desperately need to see their sin, James lays that excuse to rest once and for all with the words, "God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man" (James 1:13).

By adding the words, "Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed," James then indites our own sinful heart as the source of temptation, making it clear that all of the blame for sin lies with us, not God. [Read James 1:14.] Here the words of James mirror the teaching of Christ who said, "Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies" (Matthew 15:19). And because sin has its origin with man, the consequence of sin is the fault of man, not God. [Read James 1:15.]

Having made it clear that the blame for sin lies with us, James focuses on the fact that our own will and efforts play no part in our salvation. The words, "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above" tell us that our salvation is from above. [Read James 1:17.] And the words, "Of His own will begat He us" tell us that we are saved by the will of God, not by our own will and efforts. "Of His own will" God "begat" us "with the Word of Truth". [Read James 1:18.] Here the words of James parallel the teaching of both John and Peter. For John said, "But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). And Peter said, "GodÖ according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the deadÖ Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God" (1 Peter 1:3, 23).

Because our salvation is a free gift, James calls upon his readers to put off hasty words and quick anger (which are rooted in self-righteousness), and be "swift to hear, slow to speak," and slow to anger. He then reminds them that the wrath of man does not work the will of God, while calling on them to stop excusing sins (no matter how small they seem) and "receive with meekness [i.e. a willingness to acknowledge sin] the engrafted Word, which is able to save your souls." [Read James 1:19-21 ó compare verse 18 with verse 21 ó see John 5:17 and 7:1.]

I wish to emphasize the fact that in verse 21 James plainly tells his readers that it is the Word of God, not works, that brings salvation. Here the words of James parallel the teaching of both Jesus and Paul. For Jesus taught that those who receive the "Word" believe on Him, and the Apostle Paul said, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (Luke 8:13, John 17:20, Romans 10:17). What is being taught is that the Word of God produces faith and faith in Christ saves, for it is only through faith in Christ that we have access to Godís grace (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9, Romans 5:2).

Before looking at the last part of chapter one, I would like to reflect for a moment on the story of the Pharisee and the publican. [Read Luke 18:9-14.] We tend to think of the Pharisees as wicked people because of their opposition to Christ. However, the people James addressed his letter to generally thought of the Pharisees as righteous. Paul referred to the Pharisees as the "strictest sect" of the Jews (Acts 26:5). From the worldís point of view, if any of the Jewish sects prevalent at that time could be called "doers of the law" it would have been the Pharisees. And if any group of people were to be regarded as sinners it would have been the publicans. However, the story of the Pharisee and the publican makes it clear that God does not see it that way. Although the Pharisee was very strict in his observance of the law, In the eyes of God he was not a doer of the law because the law requires us to confess our sins, and he was unwilling to confess his sins (Leviticus 5:5). At the same time, God did see the publican as a doer of the law, because he confessed his sin and sought Godís mercy. What I am saying is exactly what the Apostle Paul was trying to get across when he said, "What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law" (Romans 9:30-32). It is important to understand this because many who read the phrase "doers of the law" assume that James is urging his readers to seek righteousness by the law (as did the Pharisee), and nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, he is urging them to stop acting like Pharisees and confess their sin (Luke 18:11-12). [Read James 1:22-25.]

James illustrates this truth by comparing the law to a mirror. The law shows the self-righteous their sins just as a mirror shows us our blemishes. However, the self-righteous (like the Pharisee) excuse whatever faults they see, and instead of repenting put the truth out of their mind while continuing to think of themselves as righteous people. James puts it this way, "If any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was" (James 1:23-24). Therefore, "a doer of the work" (verse 25) is not someone who tries to make himself righteous (as did the Galatians, Galatians 5:4), but someone who, through a right use of the law comes to see that he is a sinner, as did the publican. [Note: Those who truly have the Word of God in their heart will not deny their sin. Read 1 John 1:10.]

Before I understood the way of salvation I saw only works righteousness in the words of James. At that time, I was blind to what he is really saying because I was blind to the gospel. Instead of being willing to look at my sins I wanted to see myself as righteous, because I wanted to be motivated by the law in resisting the desires of the flesh. Therefore, whenever my shortcomings (such as disrespect for my parents) were pointed out, it just did not register and I would go my way forgetting "what manner of man" I really was (verse 24). I did not bridle my tongue, I simply convinced myself that words were of little importance, and went on thinking of myself as righteous. Thankfully, James strikes at the very heart of such self-delusion when he says, "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this manís religion is vain." [Read James 1:26-27.]

While those who seek righteousness by the law (as I did) think that they are religious, and may outwardly appear to be religious, they can only escape the conclusion that they will be damned by lowering the standard. And that is exactly what I was doing when I excused sins of strife and disrespect. At the same time, because such people motivate themselves by imagining that God is harsh and implacable, they are often harsh and implacable in their dealings with others, in spite of all the rules they keep. Since they do not know the mercy of God, they are not prone to be merciful, and their words are often hurtful and contentious. For that reason, James reminds his readers that, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." [Read Matthew 23:14.]

CHAPTER TWO

Because the Jews regarded riches as evidence of Godís favor, one of the problems that both Jesus and James had to deal with was "trust in riches" (Mark 10:24). Not only did the wealthy derive a false assurance of salvation from the fact that they had wealth, but even those who were not so wealthy tended to judge a personís standing with God by the amount of wealth he had. For that reason, James devotes the first section of chapter two to correcting that error. [Read James 2:1-10.]

James first makes it clear that discrimination is not in accord with the example of Christ, and then reminds his readers that in many cases God has chosen the poor and blessed them with the gift of faith, while the rich are hostile to the faith (Verses 6-7). That fact alone should make it evident that a personís wealth cannot be used to determine his standing with God. James then goes on to point out that discrimination is contrary to the commandment "Love thy neighbor as thyself" (verse 8).

Since the self-righteous tend to excuse certain sins (such as discrimination) by claiming that they are small, James lays that myth to rest once and for all with the words, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." [Read James 2:10-12.] He then goes on to illustrate that truth by pointing out that if someone never commits adultery but does commit murder, he has still transgressed Godís law (verse 11). While James does not go into depth, volumes could be written on that subject, for it strikes at an error that has deluded the self-righteous for centuries, and that is the error of partial righteousness. From Godís point of view there is no such thing as partial righteousness. When judged by the law of God, "There is none righteous, no, not one" (Romans 3:10). Those who think that their works make them fifty, seventy, or ninety percent righteous are under a delusion, for "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" in the sight of God (Isaiah 64:6). Just as a thief would have to be a fool to believe that the judge will commend him for the many crimes he did not commit, a person who thinks that God will commend him for the many sins he did not commit is equally foolish. Just as one crime will send a man to prison, so one unforgiven sin will send a man to hell.

As long as a person believes that the law makes him partially righteous he will assume that freedom from the law is freedom to sin, and that is a delusion. It is only when we see that the law makes us sinners and only sinners that we can see that freedom from the law makes us righteous (Romans 3:20 and 10:4). As it is written, "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (Romans 4:8).

WORKS VERSES FAITH

What I have said up to this point should make it clear that James was writing to people that were thinking and acting like Pharisees, even though they professed faith in Christ. [Remember: James just rebuked his readers for treating the poor as if their poverty was evidence that they were less righteous ó and such behavior assumes that works bring Godís favor, and thus riches.] Therefore, when James says, "So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty" he is telling them to start acting like people who have been freed from the law. [Read James 2:12-13.] Liberty is freedom from the law. They are to treat the poor as fellow sinners who also need Godís mercy, not as people who are less righteous. And that is why he adds, "For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shown no mercy; and mercy rejoices against judgment" (verse 13). Thus verse 13 conveys the same message that Jesus was trying to get across when He told of a servant who had been forgiven a great debt, yet refused to forgive a fellow servant even a small amount. [Read Matthew 18:21-35.]

For that reason, when James asks, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works?" He is asking, "What good is it to profess faith in Christ if you still think and act like a Pharisee? Such behavior only indicates that you do not really have saving faith at all." [Read James 2:14.]

James then illustrates that statement by comparing such a hollow outward profession of faith to telling a starving person that you hope he finds food, while offering him nothing to eat. Just as such empty well-wishing is meaningless, so a profession of faith by someone who continues to think and act as if a personís worth determined by his own righteousness is equally meaningless. [Read James 2:15-17.]

Therefore, when James says, "show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show you my faith by my works." He is saying, "You say you have faith, show it to me! I donít see the evidence. The evidence that I have faith in Christ can be seen in the fact that I no longer act like a Pharisee, Christ changed my life." [Read James 2:18.]

Knowing that some of his readers were acting like Pharisees because they never understood the way of salvation, and, for that reason, still thought that faith consisted of nothing more than belief that there is only one God; James makes it clear that such faith is not saving faith by saying, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble." [Read James 2:19.]

It is important for you to understand that in verse nineteen James is not talking about faith in Christ. No devil ever believed that Christ died for his sins, and none ever will! Therefore, when he says, "But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead," he is not saying that faith in Christ is dead, he is saying that a faith that leaves a person trusting in their own righteousness is no faith at all. [Read James 2:20.] The works he is talking about are not "works of righteousness which we have done," but the change in behavior that happens when a person who has grown up with works righteousness first comes to faith in Christ (Titus 3:5). Such a person stops justifying himself, stops rationalizing and denying his own sins, stops regarding some people as less worthy of salvation, and begins to be concerned about the salvation of both rich and poor alike.

In the remaining verses of chapter two James illustrates his thought by pointing to the example of both Abraham and Rahab. In order to understand what he is trying to say you need to realize that neither illustration has anything to do with works of the law or works of righteousness. [Read James 2:21-25.] On the contrary, both illustrations simply point to the effect of faith in oneís life.

For example: James refers specifically to the fact that Abraham "offered Isaac his son upon the altar" (verse 21). However, Abrahamís willingness to offer his son had nothing to do with works of the law. It should be obvious that the law does not require human sacrifice! Nevertheless, because the carnal mindset goes hand in hand with works righteousness, those who fail to understand what James is saying read obedience into this passage and in so doing totally miss the point. If Abrahamís willingness to offer up his son was a test of nothing more than obedience then God would have been tempting Abraham to sin, and James just made it clear that God never does that (James 1:13). In fact the mistaken belief that God tempts people to sin grew out of the errant assumption that God was testing Abrahamís obedience when He asked him to offer up his son. [Read Genesis 22:1.] Actually God was testing Abrahamís faith, and his obedience was an act of faith, not a work.

If you read the account given in Genesis 22:1-18 you will find that Abraham (in verse five) said to his servants, "I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you." Those words of Abraham make it clear that he did not expect his son to remain dead! For that reason, his willingness to offer up his son did not stem from some morbid sense of obedience, but from faith that his seed would be offered up for the sins of the world, die, and rise again. As it is written, "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:17-19).

Once this is understood you can see that what Abraham did simply revealed the faith that he already had before he did it. His actions were a demonstration of that faith. And that is why James goes on to say, "And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness." [Read James 2:23.] Abraham believed that his "seed" would die a sacrificial death for the sins of the world and rise again. That is why he was willing to offer up his son, and that is the faith that was imputed to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:4-6).

Therefore, when James goes on to say, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only," he is not saying that works of the law justify (Romans 3:28). Instead he is saying that a true and living faith will make a difference in what we do ó or how we treat people. [Read James 2:24.] If you have trouble seeing this, keep in mind the fact that James is rebuking his readers for acting like Pharisees (verse 3). That being the case he is certainly not trying to get them to be more legalistic. Instead he wants them to start thinking and acting in terms of faith, and the proof of what I say can be clearly seen in the next verse. [Read James 2:25.]

If James was talking about works of the law, works of righteousness, or "obedience" Rahab the harlot is the last person he would hold up as an example. As a prostitute she not only did not keep the law, she was an open sinner. Yet James says, "Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?" That statement should make it obvious to any thinking person that the works James is talking about are not works of righteousness, or "obedience"! In fact, James specifically focuses on one specific work, namely her act of hiding the spies (or messengers) and helping them to escape, and the law says nothing about hiding spies. If you read the account of Rahab given in the Book of Joshua (chapter 2), you will see that she hid the spies because of what she believed regarding the God of Israel (Joshua 2:9-11). Therefore, what Rahab actually did, without even realizing it, was to put her faith into action. She simply did what anyone who has faith does naturally and effortlessly, often without realizing it, simply because they believe. Paul never called such actions "works" (Romans 4:5), and I believe that James only called them works to make a point ó that is, to reach and wake up those who had a false faith.

In other words James wants his readers to think of faith, not only in terms of what is believed, but also in terms of how what is believed changes our worldview, thus influencing our actions and decisions. Therefore, the works that he is talking about are not something extra besides faith, but something that will be present automatically if a person really has faith, absent if they do not. And that is exactly what he is saying when he says, "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." [Read James 2:26.]

For that reason, in order to have the works James is calling for, we must first have true and living faith. Once we have that faith the works will come automatically as the fruit or by-product of that faith. In other words, acting like one of Godís sheep will not make us one of His sheep, but once we become one of His sheep, through faith in Christ, we will act like one of His sheep. Works cannot make a dead faith come to life any more than they can make a dead soul come to life.

THOUGHTS AND COMMENTS

Because Paul equates the law with "bondage" while James refers to it as a "law of liberty," it should be obvious that they are not talking about the same thing (Galatians 4:9 and 5:1, James 1:25 and 2:12). A careful examination of the context reveals that Paul is talking about those who seek righteousness by the law, while James is talking about those who, through the law, come to see their sin and need of forgiveness (Galatians 5:4, James 1:23-25). Therefore, whether the law brings bondage or liberty depends on how it is used, and it only brings liberty when it convicts us of our sin, pointing us to Christ for forgiveness. In fact that is exactly what Paul was saying when he said, "Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith." [Read Galatians 3:24.]

Therefore, when James says, "faith without works is dead" do not assume that adding works to a dead faith will make that faith alive. That idea does not come from the Bible, but from the deceitfulness of the human heart. A dead faith plus works is still dead! Actually the people that James was writing to had all kind of works. Because they were Jews, they probably performed a number of works that you would not even think of. However, those works were not the kind of works that James was talking about. He was not talking about works of the law, and he certainly was not trying to get his readers to be more legalistic than they already were. He was talking about the change of behavior that happens automatically when a person stops thinking that works make a person righteous, and starts trusting in Christís righteousness. If a person has such a faith it will make a difference in his life. If he does not, imitating Christian behavior will not give him faith.

Those who interpret the book of James to contradict the writings of Paul place themselves under condemnation, for the Bible plainly says, "If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them" (Isaiah 8:20). Therefore, because the Apostle Paul says, "We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law," we can be certain that when James says, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only," he is not talking about the works of the law. [Compare Romans 3:28 with James 2:24.] Likewise, because the Apostle Paul says, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us," we can be certain that James was not talking about works of righteousness (Titus 3:5). As you read the book of James, if you keep those facts in mind and pay close attention to the context you will come to the same conclusion that I came to. Namely that the works James is talking about are not something extra besides faith, but something that will be present automatically if a person really has faith.

The danger inherent in interpreting the words of James to contradict Paul becomes evident as we read the book of Galatians. For the false teachers who troubled the congregation at Galatia were teaching faith plus works (Galatians 3:3). God certainly did not see that as a small matter, for His inspired judgement was to pronounce a curse on all who held to that error. As it is written, "though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursedÖ whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace" (Galatians 1:8 and 5:4).

The problem that James was dealing with was that of a false faith, and that problem is still with us today. Many who outwardly profess to be Christians actually have a false faith. Some see faith as nothing more than blind acceptance of church dogma. Others believe that Christ lived and died while having no comprehension of the fact that He died for their sins. Some see Christ as nothing more than a great teacher, while others think that it is faith itself, any faith, that saves. However, when Paul says, "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" (Romans 4:5), the phrase, "Believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly" defines what he means by "faith". Furthermore, the word "ungodly" makes it clear that we can only have that faith if we see ourselves as ungodly. Therefore, true faith is relying on Christ for justification, and that is not the faith James was talking about (James 2:19).

One reason that the carnal mind finds it very difficult to understand the relationship of faith to works, is because it tries to reverse what is said. For example: If the Bible says that sin brings damnation, the carnal mind reverses that by jumping to the conclusion that we are saved by not sinning. While the carnal mind sees such thinking as logical, it is not really logical because it assumes something that is not true. Sin may bring damnation, but the Bible makes it clear that we are saved by grace alone. Likewise, willful sin may bring condemnation, but that does not mean that avoiding willful sin will keep us from being condemned. To those who think only in terms of works it may look that way, but it is actually repentance, not works, that frees us from all condemnation (Romans 8:1). And true repentance consists of both contrition (sorrow for sin) and faith (personal faith in Christ).

Because our faith, hope, and assurance of eternal life is our confidence that we are saved by what Christ did, not by what we do, it is impossible to trust in both Christ and works, for the minute we trust in works we stop trusting in Christ. Therefore, those who think they need works in addition to faith, donít really believe that faith in Christ is enough, and that is unbelief not faith.

CONCLUSION

Although the Apostle Paul made it perfectly clear that, "A man is Justified by faith without the deeds of the law," when those who have a legalistic worldview learn that James said, "by works a man is justified and not by faith only," they assume that the words of James negate what Paul said (Romans 3:28, James 2:24). They then feel free to ignore Paulís warnings against trusting in works. However, a careful study of what was said, reveals that Paul and James were talking about two different things. When Paul spoke of faith he was referring to faith in Christ. In contrast, the words, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble," make it clear that the faith James regarded as "dead" was not faith in Christ. Likewise, when Paul spoke of works he was referring to works of righteousness, or obedience to the law. In contrast, the words, "Was not Rahab the Harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way," make it perfectly clear that the works James had in mind were not works of obedience, or righteousness, but what we would call the fruits of faith (James 2:19, 20, 25). In short, James was not saying that we need works of righteousness in addition to faith. Instead he was saying that if a person truly has faith in Christ it will make a difference in their life.

Since James is mentioned in Scripture and was a well-known figure in the apostolic church, early church leaders knew of his book. However, it was not regarded as Scripture until Athanasius added it to the list of sacred books in 367 AD. Even then the church at large did not accept it until it was shown that it could be understood in a way that agrees with the teaching of Paul, and I have just demonstrated how that is done. Nevertheless, false teachers have destroyed many souls by pitting the words of James against the gospel and twisting them to support the false doctrine of works righteousness.