Study On The Book Of James
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*The Material for these studies is from Reformed Expository Commentary and studies by Daniel Doriani and Jon Nielson, P&R Publishing, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.
Students of James puzzle over the place of verse 5:12 in the structure of the epistle. Its connection to the rest of chapter 5 is a challenge. Theologians who question the structural cohesiveness of James cite 5:12 as a prime example of its tendency to drop disjointed aphorisms into the text. As he often does, James meditated on a teaching of Jesus and made it his own (see. Matt. 5:34-37).
Although the wording differs at several points, James and Jesus see oaths the same way. Oaths are a convention designed to limit lying and deceit. We rarely use oaths or vows today. We reserve them for formal situations, such as testifying at court or taking office. Today, we use other conventions to restrain false speech when truth-telling is essential. We promise in personal settings and sign contracts in economic settings. Whether we consider oaths or similar conventions – such as vows or promises – truthful speech is the issue.
In the day of Jesus and James, a perversion of oaths had arisen. Instead of calling on God to assure honesty, people took oaths to avoid God’s punishment for dishonest speech. Rabbis artificially distinguished vows that invoke God’s name, and are binding, from those that do not, and are not binding. Whatever we swear by, Jesus said, it refers to God, for He created heaven and earth. If we swear by heaven or by earth (Matt. 5:34), we invoke God, for He created them both. All oaths call God to witness, for He created and sustains all things.
James flatly prohibits the use of oaths because even the honest use of oaths testifies that something is amiss in the community. If believers reliably told one another the truth, what need would there be of oaths to guarantee truth-telling? The greater the weight of a man’s oaths in the short run, the greater the doubt about his veracity in the long run. Instead, we should tell the truth so consistently that oaths become superfluous, a waste of words. The family of God should be so truthful that we never need oaths or vows to verify our words.
The topic of healing seems to arise abruptly in James, but it fits perfectly with the themes of chapters 4 and 5. You will recall that James promises grace to those who embrace gospel humility (James 4:10-5:6). Next, James proposes three antidotes to arrogance. Each reverse one of the sins of pride. We must not slander and judge our brothers (4:11-12); We do not plan presumptuously (4:13-17); The rich must not exploit the poor (5:1-6); If the rich exploit us, we wait until the Lord, the Judge, comes (5:7-12); We do not make proud plans, but take our joys and sorrows to God (5:13-18); If our brothers sin, we don’t slander; we correct and restore him (5:19-20).
So then, prayers for healing are part of the life of gospel humility. Yet James wants to do more than oppose arrogance one more time. He tells the church to pray in every setting of life, to take every concern to our Sovereign Lord. As James says: “Is any one of in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise” (5:13).
James 5 also describes various groups of people and when they pray. Individuals pray for joys and sorrows (5:13-14), elders pray over sickness (5:14-15), friends pray over sins they’ve committed (5:16), and prophets pray in time of need (5:17-18). Whatever our condition, whatever the circumstance, we should take it to the Lord in prayer.
Sick men and women call the elders as a group. They do not call those with a gift for healing; rather they call all to pray for healing. James says prayers of a righteous man are effective. Since the first qualification for an elder is holiness – not social standing or theological acumen – the prayers of elders are effective. The elders pray for healing, not for miracles. It doesn’t matter if a healing is quiet or splashy. True healings garner all the attention they need.
Elders anoint the sick with oil. The disciples used oil in their healing ministry at least once (Mark 6:13), but neither James nor Mark explains the purpose of the anointing. More likely, the anointing stimulated the faith of the sick person. Oil is a sign of God’s power to heal. Thus, the anointing has a spiritual meaning.
So, how sick does one have to be? James seems to have a major malady in view. The terms for the illness suggest something serious. The sick person is, literally, “weak” in James 5:14. In 5:15 James uses the stronger term kamno. It means “wear out” and suggests the weariness or exhaustion that often accompanies illness. It reminds us that sickness exhausts the spirit as well as the body. Pastorally speaking, this suggests that elders could lay hands on and pray for Christians who are afflicted spiritually. Depression, stress, and anxiety can wear us out more than some illnesses.
James 5:15-16 has both physical and spiritual healing in mind. We should seek more than a physical cure for more than physical problems. Physical healing is James’s main concern, but we must look past the body. The Lord wants His children to seek Him both when we prosper and when we falter. If sick, we should pray for healing. If seriously ill, we should seek the elders to pray on our behalf. But we are reticent to obey, for several reasons.
First, prayer for healing seems unscientific and naïve. If we get infections, we take antibiotics. If we have cancer, we seek chemotherapy. We think, “microbes and damaged genes cause illness, not sin.” Second, pride stops us. We feel embarrassed when we have to ask for help. But we ought to face our needs. If we can ask God for aid, we can surely ask men and women. Third, we fear disappointment. What if we ask – ask fervently – and nothing happens? We can’t bear the thought. We confess, in some abstract way, that God is powerful and effective. We expect Him to change hearts, but we cannot imagine that He intervenes to heal bodies today. So, our prayers wither away.
It is fitting that James starts to conclude his book with this invitation to prayer over every joy and sorrow. Expectant prayers manifest the faith that is so central to James. When we make our needs known and confess our sins. We endure our trials and live in gospel humility.
The last verses of James seem to initiate a new topic. But on closer inspection, they develop previous themes. First, if the family of God prays together when physical illness wounds a member, they should certainly work together if spiritual troubles threaten (5:19-20). Technically, James makes a promise: if someone restores someone who wanders from the truth, he “will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (5:19). More broadly, James tells us what to do if someone strays from the truth. That “someone” may of may not be a member of the visible Christian community. The phrasing – “My brothers, if one of you should wander” – inclines us to think of fellow believers, but James also had unbelievers in sight. Some had a vain faith; some had no faith at all (5:1-6). James says that when we see anyone stray, we should try to restore him.
The restorer’s goal is not selfish. He seeks to “cover a multitude of sins” not by overlooking sins committed against him. Proverbs does bless those who overlook personal offenses (Prov. 10:12; 19:11), but personal offenses are not in this context. The “covering” must then be God’s covering of sin. Therefore, Christians should gather their courage and speak – plainly and truthfully – to sinners, calling them to turn from sin and to the mercy of Christ.
The final thoughts of James unite several themes of his epistle. To pursue a sinner in order to win him to Christ is a proper response to a trial. It is a form of kindness to a brother, a proper use of speech, and it leads people to humble themselves before the Lord. James summons us to do the Word and reap the blessings. One more time, James reminds us that sin leads to death, and that the gospel, the word of truth, saves the soul.
James 5:12-20 Study Questions:
How might 5:12 – James’s command about oaths – be linked to his instructions about patience in the midst of trials and waiting for the Lord’s return? How might this command connect to James’s call to humility? What wrong attitudes or practices with regard to oath-taking might James be confronting?
What does James seem to be suggesting, in 5:13, about the proper times and occasions for prayer in the Christian life? How do prayers – in every season – demonstrate our humility and submission to God?
What kind of situation seems to be in James’s mind as he gives his instructions about special, elder-led prayer and anointing (5:14-15)? What is the context for this kind of prayer, and what are James’s specific instructions? What does 5:16 seem to suggest about the potential role of sin in issues of physical suffering that require prayer?
How does James demonstrate the power of effective prayer in 5:17-18? What point is he making to his readers? How do the final verses of James – 5:19-20 – connect to the previous discussion of effective prayer in the context of believers? In what way do those verses call the church to pray – and act – for the good of healthy hearts, lives, and souls?
Patience and forbearance hardly lead our lists of most desirable virtues. Yet Scripture says patience and forbearance are essential to the good life, the blessed life.
We need patience with petty irritations. We need patience when we face significant evils. It’s challenging to be patient with petty irritations, but it can be agony to bear with wickedness and genuine enemies. Yet patience with enemies is James’s first concern. He begins, “Be patient, therefore, brothers” (v. 5:7). James says “therefore” because the need for patience follows what he just said in 5:1-6. In the previous passage, James accosts the rich who hoard wealth (5:2-3), defraud laborers of their wages (5:4), live in self-indulgent luxury (5:5), and rob the poor of life itself (5:6). Our passage says we should be patient and stay strong because the coming of the Lord is near (5:7-8).
If we are to follow James closely, we must define and distinguish his terms. First, “be patient” is used by James three times in verses 7-8. Patience is a passive virtue; it waits. We are patient, for example, when we wait for a wound to heal. Sometimes we can do nothing but wait. Patience, in this sense of the word, is the equivalent of forbearance or longsuffering. Second, James tells his brothers to “stand firm” (5:8) or more literally “strengthen your hearts.” This term is a bit more active. It is the sense of steely resolve. Third, James blesses those who persevere in 5:11. “Persevere” the verb; the noun “perseverance” describes the more active side of patience. Perseverance is resolve or determination to continue on the right course, despite difficulty.
James urges patience until the Lord comes, then commends the farmer who waits for rain and waits for the land to yield its valuable crops (v. 5:7). Disciples, similarly, must be patient and firm, because the Lord’s coming is near; the Judge is at the door (vv. 8-9).
James has condemned rich oppressors (5:1-6), but now he wants to tell his brothers how to endure their oppression and receive God’s blessing. As he says, “We consider blessed those who have persevered” (5:11). Here he mentions the first step toward perseverance: “Be patient” (5:7). To be patient is to forbear, to suffer through the oppression. Patience is a passive virtue.
The patient waits for “the Lord’s coming.” The Lord’s coming is His arrival. In the New Testament, “the Lord’s coming” or “the coming of the Lord” almost becomes a technical term for the return of Jesus Christ to end history and to judge mankind. James says that the Lord is coming, that His coming is “near,” and that “the Judge is standing at the door” (5:8-9). We will understand this best if we recognize that James is steeped in the teaching of Jesus, which he restates for his churches.
When James says Jesus is “at the door,” it puzzles us, since we assume “at the door” means “ready to enter.” We wonder how He can be ready to enter for two thousand years without actually entering. Peter answers this question in his second letter.
First, God’s scale of time is not the same as ours. For Him, “a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8). Second, if the Lord delays, from our perspective, He delays to grant sinners more time to repent (2 Peter 3:9). Third, the Lord will come suddenly, without final signs of waning. He comes like a thief in the night (Matt. 24:43-44; 2 Peter 3:10). There is no trigger, no line of preliminary events that must occur before Christ returns. So, when we hear that the Lord’s coming is near, it means that as far as we know, it could happen any day. Therefore, all people should prepare themselves for Jesus’ return.
By now, James has repeatedly commanded his churches to show patience and resolve. He has given a reason to follow his command; the Lord, the Judge, is near. Now again, he bids us suffer evil and oppression with patience, but now, instead of adding reasons for patience, he adds examples of patience (5:10-11).
“As an example of patience in the face of suffering,” the prophets “spoke in the name of the Lord” (5:10). When they had to rebuke Israel for sin, the prophets’ God-given message was often repugnant to their audience. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Amos all saw the people ignore their prophecies while Israel’s leaders were often hostile. Yet they bore that hostility with patience. More than that, they endured, that is they continued to prophesy. They continued to denounce covenant infidelity and evil deeds, even if they never saw the judgment they predicted. Still, we count them blessed because they heard and proclaimed God’s very words. They show us how to endure.
The reason for optimism in adversity is this: “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (5:11). Compassion and mercy are more than synonyms for love. The terms convey the visceral feelings, the deep-seated emotional feeling of love. God’s love is more than a dispassionate, detached interest in our well-being. Scripture chooses the language of emotional feelings to describe that love.
This passage offers us many reasons to persevere in the faith. It comforts us in several ways. First, it shows us the Lord. He is near. He is the Judge and comes to set all things right. Second, it reminds us of Job and the prophets, who persevered to the end in great adversity. Yet above all, James takes us to the fatherly heart of God. He abounds in love and He is sovereign still. Knowing this, whatever our troubles, we can endure. We can persevere to the end and know the full blessing of God.
James 5:7-11 Study Questions:
James uses several different, yet related, words as he calls upon his Christian audience to patiently wait for the coming judgment of God. He tells them to be “patient” (5:7-8), to “establish” their hearts, or stand firm (5:8), and to remain “steadfast,” or persevere (5:11). How are these words helpful, when used together, in forming a picture of the kind of Christians that James wants us to be? What subtly different meanings might these words carry?
What does James suggest about the coming of the Lord (5:8-9)? How are we to interpret his statements about the Lord’s coming, and how is James speaking in similar ways as other parts of the New Testament? What commands does James give (and what examples does he use) to guide our behavior in light of the imminence of the Lord’s return?
When James denounces hoarding, oppression, indulgence, and financial violence, he is not simply denouncing several random acts of wickedness. Abuse of wealth is the final mark of a life of worldly “wisdom” James described in 3:13-4:3. Abuse of wealth is another form of envy, coveting, strife, and grasping. More precisely, oppression is the last element in a series of offenses against gospel humility.
We have studied that James examines three sins of pride, three acts that fail to show humility before God. First, we can malign and judge our brothers (4:11-12). Second, we can make presumptuous plans about our future (4:13-17). Third, we can use financial power to oppress the poor and indulge ourselves (5:1-6).
James 5:1-6 assesses the last and most serious of these offenses. Oppression is public and detrimental to others. Further, the kind of oppression James describes involves systematic perversion of justice. It shreds the fabric of society. When James laments wage fraud (5:4) and the condemnation of the innocent (5:6), we enter the sphere of legal abuse. James’s rich people are perverting both the economic and the legal system of the land.
Echoing the voice of many prophets, James tells the rich to “weep and wail” (NIV) or “weep and howl” (ESV). The judgment of God is coming and will bring them misery. On the one hand, James does not condemn everyone who is rich. Riches are not evil in themselves. On the other hand, Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). The desire for wealth is often insatiable.
Material wealth only temporarily quenches the soul’s thirst for meaning and acceptance. Acquiring wealth to cure the problem of meaninglessness is like drinking coffee to solve the problem of exhaustion. It can mask the problem, but it cannot cure it. Riches cannot fulfill the quest for meaning, but those who live for wealth decide the problem is not wealth per se, but their insufficient wealth. Thus, devotee of wealth work harder and harder at the wrong thing. The desire for wealth becomes insatiable. If anyone thinks riches or social rank will satisfy his soul, he deludes himself.
Because material wealth is transitory, fleeting, and easily spoiled, hoarding is senseless. Nonetheless, materialists hoard. We should expect this, if money is their god. Yet, since money is a weak god – no god – we expect plans to store wealth for another day to fail. “Your wealth has rotted” is James’s theme. First, moths have eaten the fine clothes of the rich while they lie in storage (v. 5:2). Second, gold and silver “corrode” (v. 5:3). Literally, James says, the “rust.” This echoes words of Jesus (Matt. 6:19) and Isaiah (50:9; 51:8), who use rust and moths as metaphors for the weakness and transience of human treasure and strength.
James holds a specific complaint against the rich: they have defrauded their field laborers of their wages. As he says, “The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.” This could mean several things: (1) they pay, but after undue delay; (2) they pay less than they agreed, less than a living wage; (3) they refuse to pay at all. Biblical law emphasizes the need to pay fair wages to day laborers and to do so at the end of the day, because a laborer and his family would otherwise go hungry.
The rich think nothing can stop them. The poor seem powerless. They can only cry out to God: “The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty” (5:4). But “the Lord hears the needy” (Ps. 69:33). He stands “at the right hand of the needy” (Ps. 109:31). This is a social principle and a gospel principle too. James blesses the poor and preaches the good news to them.
Meanwhile the rich “have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence” (v. 5:5). They have “fattened [themselves] in the day of slaughter.” The Bible never censures the rich per se. But it often says that those who live for pleasure in this world will suffer sorrow in the next. God’s judgment brings reversals. James says the self-indulgent rich have fed themselves in “the day of slaughter.” The phrase “day of slaughter” may mean they sat by idly on a day when the poor were slaughtered. More likely, the point is caustic: they are fattening themselves up for the day of their slaughter.
The rich hoard, cheat, and indulge themselves. Worse yet, James says, “You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you” (v. 5:6). If murder is the most egregious sin among men, murder of unresisting innocents is most egregious among murders. As before, the murder is probably figurative. Yet by withholding their wages, the rich condemn the poor to poverty, even starvation.
The word “condemn” suggests the law court. It is likely that the rich used the legal system to deprive the poor of their wages and lands. We must remember that in most societies in antiquity, as in many societies today, there was little concept of rule by impartial law. Those who had power and wealth on their side won in court, not those who had justice. The courts were governed by patronage, clan, and tribe, not objective justice.
James never condemns riches per se, but riches can lead to sin: (1) if they are accumulated through injustice (5:4), (2) if they are used for indulgence (5:5), and (3) if they breed insolence and lawlessness (5:6). The primary cure for these ills is to use wealth as the Lord prescribes. We must not hoard, for hoarding is wasting. We keep some for proper enjoyment, save sensibly for the future, and give much to the Lord and His work.
Another cure for these ills is to lift our eyes from material things. James says we are living in the last days (5:3). We are near the day of slaughter (5:5). The Lord is coming (5:7); indeed, His coming is near (5:8). By faith, believers are prepared and remain prepared for that day. When our hearts are right, we long for it. So then, let us not live like the godless rich, who grasp, hoard, and indulge themselves. Let us live out the conviction that the riches of this age are fleeting, and that our life with God is forever rewarding.
James 5:1-6 Study Questions:
Based on the opening verses of this passage (vv. 1-3), why might you argue that James is speaking mainly to wealthy people who are not genuine Christians? How does he address them (v. 1), and how is this different from the titles he has used before in the letter? What does James seem to anticipate about their future judgment?
What has happened to the riches and possessions of those who have hoarded them, according to what James says in verses 2-3? What warnings are implicit in the descriptions in these verses? How might James be subtly teaching about right investments and an eternal perspective on our possessions?
According to verse 5, what kind of treatment of people has played a major part in the growing wealth of the rich people James denounces? How does James introduce the presence of God into this verse?
While James 5:5 does not condemn wealth and possessions per se, what kind of attitudes and motivations does he denounce in the lives and hearts of wealthy people? What seems to be driving the men and women whom James confronts?
For at least some of the wealthy people that James has in view, their sinful behavior has not stopped at self-indulgence, or even at the oppression of the poor. What additional sins does James decry in verse 6? How does he characterize the “righteous” person who falls prey to the violence of the sinful rich person?
In the previous study we saw that the epistle of James comes to a climax with a precious promise: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (v. 4:10). We have so much reason to be humble that it really should be an easy command to heed. Vanity and pride lead to foolish deeds. We all have many reasons to be humble and could probably profit by listing them. Yet, if we read James 4 carelessly, it seems that James drops the topic of humility. In the next paragraphs, he condemns the sins of slander, false judgment, overconfident business plans, indifference to God’s will, and oppression of the poor.
At first glance, James seems to take up a string of social sins, in no particular order. Yet, if we read closely – and we should always read God’s Word closely – connections to humility emerge. We see that James follows his summons to humility with a warning against several sins of arrogance, against attitudes that contradict gospel humility.
The first sins, slander and judgment of others, are clearly acts of pride. For when we judge and condemn others, we appoint ourselves to a position over them. But what gives us the right to promote ourselves to that rank? Indeed, to take the post of judge is to usurp a role that belongs to God Himself. So, James asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?”
Second, anyone who says, “We will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” surely suffers from pride (v. 13). Anyone who says his travels and business ventures will certainly prove successful also presumes he can master his destiny. That, surely, is a proud thought. For God is Lord of history and we are not. James questions the self-appointed mastery of history: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (v. 14).
Third, it ought to humble us when we know the good and fail to do it (v. 17). Fourth, looking to the next paragraph, James 5:1-6 warns the rich against oppressing the poor. Oppression is certainly a sin of pride, since rich oppressors place themselves above the law that requires us to treat one another with justice. Oppressors, guided by envy and ambition, try to keep everything for themselves, even if they must defraud and oppress the poor to do so.
“Brothers, do not slander one another,” James begins, adding, “Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it (v. 4:11). We see again that James has an ear for sins of speech. And slander is a sin that fits the discussion of ambition. For slander is a way to promote oneself, a way to defeat a rival. So then, James forbids slander. The Greek word literally means “speak against” another. It might either mean to speak against someone truly or speak evil falsely. To gossip is to take a true story where it should not go. To slander is to create and spread false stories. Both gossip and slander are sins and cause real harm.
James quickly shifts from slander to the sin of judgment. Again, judgment can mean false condemnation of the innocent or improper condemnation of those who are truly guilty. We know what is wrong with false condemnation, but what is wrong with judgment of the actual sins of others? James says, “When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you – who are you to judge your neighbor?” (vv. 11-12). James says the one who judges his brothers judges the law.
Why does James oppose judgment? Judgments are necessary at times. For example, Scripture requires leaders to discern or “judge” when putative disciple commits a sin and refuses to repent. Leaders must likewise judge when a teacher is guilty of such an error or propounds such a falsehood that he must be confronted and possibly pronounced a false prophet and put out of the assembly. Jesus knew judgment is sometimes necessary. Thus, He told His disciples, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (John 7:24).
But, James says, there is usually no need to judge the words or deeds of another; we should attend to ourselves. That is Jesus’ point at the end of the Sermon of the Mount (Matt. 7: 1, 3, 5). In context, Jesus is not simply uttering a general principle. He knows that those who hear His teaching will be tempted to judge others, to point out how they have failed. He says: “Don’t do it. Don’t criticize others; attend to yourself.” Clearly then, much judgment involves a decision to take a position superior to another, to dominate them. Envy and ambition, the sins that most contradict humility, cause slander and judgment.
As he so often does, James gets at the sin of presumption through our speech (v. 13). This way of thinking forgets three things. It forgets our ignorance. We think we can plan a year in advance and come and go as we please, but we do not even know what tomorrow will bring. It forgets our frailty (v. 14). We think we can master our destiny, but our lives are as insubstantial and fleeting as the morning mist, that appears and disappears in hours. And presumptuous planning also forgets our dependence on God. Our frailty and ignorance lead to the conclusion that we should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (v. 15).
So then, it is still good to make plans. Planning is entirely proper as long as we confess that God is sovereign and that we are frail, ignorant, and dependent upon Him. The phrase “Lord willing” is no magical incantation. It does not ensure our humility. But the suffix “If the Lord wills” is helpful. It reminds us that our plans, even our lives, are as frail as mist. Thus, we plan, hoping that God will use the process so that our aspirations match His purposes.
There are humble ways to plan. First, planners dedicate their plans to God. Second, planners confess they need God’s favor. Humble planners know we can do everything right and still fail. Unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain (Ps. 127:1). We cannot even live unless God sustains us. Third, planners confess that whatever they achieve is through the gifts and favor of God. Some men inherit a thriving business from their fathers. But we are all heirs of God’s generosity. We may think, “But I have worked hard to hone my skills.” Perhaps so. But even then, we can ask if God did not guide our desires and nudge us toward godly aspirations. So let us ever be humble, rejoice in God’s goodness, and use our gifts for Him.
The last sentence of James 4 seems like an isolated statement (v.17). However, it links the section of proud plans to the section on abuse of the poor. We should always do what we know (vv. 1:21-25). James is also telling us not to forget God. As you plan, remember to say “Lord willing.” As you consider those who work for you, remember to treat them well by paying them fairly and promptly. For God sees you and protects them even if no one else does.
Yet there is one more thing. We can never fully do the good we ought to do. If we have nothing beyond these commands, James will drive us to despair. Therefore, we must remember the promise James so recently made, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (4:10). Indeed, humility is the way of the Lord Jesus. We remember that He humbled Himself by taking human flesh and enduring all the troubles that attend human life. Above all, He humbled Himself by dying on the cross. Yet that supreme act of self-denial led to His supreme glory, when God raised Him from the dead and crowned Him with honor. Thus, when James says “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up,” he bids us to follow the path of Christ. James bids us to join him on the path of gospel humility.
James 4:11-17 Study questions:
How do verses 11-12 fit into the broader context of James’s teaching about humility and pride? In what ways might humility and submission to God cut into our tendencies to be judgmental? How might genuine repentance and sorrow for our sin lead us to be merciful, patient, and gracious toward our neighbor?
What is the attitude that James seems to be confronting in verse 13? Is he teaching that planning for the future is evil? If not, what exactly is boastful and arrogant about the plans of the people he confronts (v. 16)?
How does James seek to remind his readers of the brevity and fragility of human life (v. 14)? Why is this a helpful reminder, and how ought this realization to affect our attitudes and prayers? How is this relating to the humility and submission that James has just discussed?
Repentance is the central theme in our passage, but to follow James’s message, we must locate it within his pattern of thought in 3:13-4:4. The topic of repentance develops James’s teaching on the two ways of life. Wisdom from heaven leads to a beautiful life, marked by peace and righteousness. Wisdom from the earth is marked by envy and selfish ambition and leads to a life marked by coveting, fights, quarrels, and infidelity toward God.
James teaches that envy is a common human trait. This indictment applies first to unbelievers, but James believes his entire audience needs to hear it. Anyone can fall prey to envy, even though it contradicts God’s original design. When God fashioned the human race, He gave us strong spirits, and active intellect, and a passion for significance. We hunger to do great things and will fight through obstacles to achieve great goals. But in our state of rebellion our passions and drives become unruly. Envy and selfish pursuits misdirect our energies. God made our spirits strong, but sin makes them wayward. We pursue selfish ambitions and covet our neighbors’ goods.
When God sees how we misuse the energy He grants us, He knows His grace is our one hope. His grace has a direction: “God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble.” In one sense, even humility is God’s gift. No one rejects his pride unless the Lord enables him. The Lord opens eyes so men and women can see the futility of living for themselves. Grace teaches us to trust in God, to rest in Christ, rather than the self. So, James commands us to humble ourselves before God.
James 4:6-10 begins and ends with a call to humility. To be precise, it starts with a warning that leads to a promise (v. 6). It ends with a command that leads to a promise (v. 10). Thus, the need for humility and the call to humility from bookends for our text. God gives grace to the humble, and we must humble ourselves before the Lord. The rest of the passage describes the life of humility.
James 4:7 with its call to submit to God, explains 4:6. Since God opposes the proud, we should submit to Him as an act of humility. The submissive can expect to receive grace. The rest of the passage describes key elements of Christian humility and of submission to God. Notice, as James writes, that humility has nothing to do with a shy or retiring personality. Powerful and exuberant people can be humble.
“Submit” sounds very passive in English, but the Greek concept is more active. To submit, in Scripture, is not to sit back and wait for God to issue orders. Submission certainly includes obedience to commands, but we also submit when we arrange our lives under God’s general direction. Obedience is certainly one element of submission. To submit is to recognize the lordship and authority of another.
Submission requires subordinates to bend their will to the will of their superior, even if that superior issues a directive that seems unpleasant or unwise and insists upon it. This does not mean we must do whatever a superior says. If an authority commands something that is contrary to the will of God, we must disobey man in order to obey God (see Acts 5:29). We obey God whenever we do His will. We submit when we obey a command that seems hard and strange. Such submission signifies that we have humbled ourselves before the Lord.
The next words, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (v. 7), begin to explain how we submit to God. James links submission to God with resistance of the devil. That is, to submit to God’s authority is to resist the devil’s authority. To submit to God is to order our lives under His authority. To resist the devil means we oppose, we fight back, we take a stand against the devil’s authority. To oppose Satan in this setting means to resist temptations especially to fight each other or covet (4:1-2). Curiously, Paul says one way to resist Satan is to flee from him, that is, to flee from his coaxing to sin.
So, we resist the devil by fleeing from temptations to sin. And when we flee from sin, the devil flees from us. Perhaps we should think of Jesus’ temptation here. After Jesus faced down three temptations, Satan left Him for a while, even though he would try again at a more opportune time (Luke 4:13).
When we hear “Come near to God” (v. 4:8), we might think of public worship or private prayers. “Come near” is sometimes the language of worship, but James has not been discussing worship. Therefore, “come near” could mean returning to God in covenant renewal after straying. We may “come near” to God after sinning (perhaps after succumbing to temptation). But “come near” and “draw near” means more than “repent.” We come near to God to worship Him, to serve Him, to meet Him, to seek help, and to gain assurance, as well as to repent. It is better to conclude that James is offering a far-reaching promise, a promise that other gods do not make. When we draw near to God, He also draws near to us (see Deut. 4:7).
If a sinner comes near to the holy God, he will naturally want to repent of his sins. James says, “Wash your hands” (v. 8). The hands represent actions or deeds. Next, he says, “Purify your hearts” (v. 8). The heart represents motives or intentions. James censures the “double-minded.” The double-minded lack integrity. They pursue two things at once – service of God and service of self. James has already warned about double-mindedness, saying that the double-minded man asks and gets nothing (1:8). He is unstable. But godly wisdom is pure; it has clarity of purpose. True believers are bent on one thing, to seek and find the Lord.
The desire for a pure heart leads logically to sorrow for sin. When sin is manifest, the righteous grieve. The Old Testament prophets said those who faced God’s judgment would grieve, mourn, and wail. More importantly, the prophets also invited the people to grieve, mourn, and wail before the judgment, as they returned to God (Joel 2:1, 12-14). Like Jesus, James says we can laugh now, at sin, and mourn later, over judgment. Or we can mourn now, over sin, and laugh later, at God’s grace (Luke 6:25). All too often, the world laughs about the wrong things. There is fleeting joy for those who indulge in sin and fleeting sorrow for those who break with it, but it is far better to mourn now for a season and rejoice forever.
The prophets often declare that the Lord humbles the proud. Yet James does not say “The Lord will humble you”; he says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord” (v. 4:10). Therefore, we do not wait for God or for circumstances to humble us. It is our duty to humble ourselves. James does not specify how we do this, but he does drop a hint in the phrase “before the Lord.” If we remember that all we do is “before the Lord,” if His holiness is our standard, it is easier to humble ourselves. But if we compare ourselves to others, it is far easier to avoid humility.
If we humble ourselves, if we admit that we sin, and that we are sinful, and that we cannot reform ourselves, then, James promises, the Lord will lift us up. This is the gospel according to James. James does not mention the atonement of Christ, the cross of Christ, or the resurrection of Christ. He states the gospel his own way, a way deeply influenced by the teachings of Jesus. James says there is a choice between two ways of life: a way of selfish ambition and a way of purity and peace. We can be a friend of God or a friend of the world. We can be proud or humble and repentant. When we grieve over our sins and turn to Him in faith, He will extend His redeeming grace. When we come to God in repentance and humility, He will forgive us and lift us up.
James 4:5-10 Study Questions:
What are some of the characteristics and actions associated with true humility, according to James 4:7-10? What does James seem to be teaching in these verses about the proper response to God?
What does it mean to “submit yourself” to God (v. 7)? How is resisting the devil related to submission to God?
What do verses 8-10 of this passage teach us about the way we approach God? What do we learn about the reality of human sinfulness?
If we return to verses 3:14-16, we see that worldly wisdom leads to selfish ambition and envy. Unchecked, envy causes disorder and other evils. James hopes his people live by God’s wisdom, yet he knows many in his audience live by the world’s wisdom. Therefore, he now describes the rivalry, pride, strife, even murder, that envy and ambition breed.
James 4:1 says worldly wisdom leads to fights and struggles. James says there are fights “among you” because of passions “that are at war within you.” Literally, the last phrase says those passions are at war “in your members.” In this verse, “members” means the members or faculties within one person, not the various members of the church. Selfish passions make believers wage war within themselves, as their desire to serve Christ and neighbor conflicts with the desire to serve self.
James 4:2 says that this internal conflict leads to external conflict. Whenever envy and selfish ambition create battles within us, they disrupt relations outside us. Quarrels and fights break out in the church and the family. James even says his readers “murder.” It is very unlikely that his readers were guilty of literal murder. The word for “fights” can refer to physical violence, but in the New Testament it usually refers to verbal conflicts or internal struggles. We speak the same way.
Of course, we, like James, know that it is necessary to fight some battles. We should fight for the unborn – politically, judicially, and in the hearts of men and women. We should fight for the truth. Sometimes refusal to fight reflects the vice of cowardice, not the virtue of peacemaking. But alas, far too many of our fights begin with selfish desires, not noble causes. As James says, we fight because of our “passions,” that is, the selfish desires that are often so disorderly.
Our pursuit of selfish desires becomes so severe that we find we cannot bring ourselves to pray about them. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (v. 2). This sounds odd, since believers can always pour out their requests before the Lord (1 Sam. 1:15). Yet James understands how difficult it is to present selfish requests to the Lord, regardless of the intensity of the desire. The heart is free when we pray for friends and family, for the kingdom and the church.
Too often, the uncertain Chrisian ceases pray. Let us ask ourselves: Do I harbor a desire that is so far outside God’s revealed will that I am ashamed to mention it to Him? Am I shoving it under the bed, into the basement, hoping God will not see it? So, we fail to pray. Yet, James says, some do pray “that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). God denies the request, because we ask wrongly, wickedly. He will not answer a prayer that aims no higher than the belly. Paul says, of the enemies of Christ, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19 ESV). Why would God answer the prayer of a believer who wants to live like an enemy of Christ?
When James says, “You adulterous people,” he makes a specific accusation. The charge is spiritual adultery, not spiritual fornication, because the people are joined to Christ. They are married to Jesus, but they run after other gods. This endangers their relationship, their marriage, to Him. This is the language of the prophets who charged Israel with adultery. Faithless Israel sought to worship both the Lord and the Canaanite gods of fertility and prosperity, so Christians attempt to pursue both God and the world. James says that this is not vacillation, it is adultery.
James censures adultery, but he even objects to friendship with the world (v. 4:4). We use the word “friend” lightly, when we really mean “cordial acquaintance.” But in antiquity, as today, true friends shared a mindset and an outlook on life. They shared interests, values, and goals. They saw life in much the same way. They shared goods as necessary. They cared for each other and worked together effectively because they agreed how the work should be done.
Christians are friends of God in this high, restricted sense. Earlier, James said believers are “unstained by the world.” That is, we can be friendly toward anyone – showing kindness and concern. We should be good neighbors and good coworkers. But in the deepest sense of “friendship,” we cannot be friends with the world because we reject its values. God’s value system is different. In His eyes, all humans have honor, since He made all in His likeness. Therefore, we are not God’s friends if we define people by their acquisitions, their merit, and their “station.” We must not adopt the values of our culture. We cannot be loyal to the culture and to the kingdom. Their values clash. To try to serve both systems is adultery. Yet the Lord, like a good husband, woos His faithless wife instead of seeking divorce.
James brings his indictment or worldly wisdom and selfish ambition to its climax with a probing question (4:5). Notice that when James writes “Scripture says,” he is not quoting one passage. No Old Testament text says, “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.” James is condensing the entire biblical theology of the fallen human condition. He turns our minds toward sinfulness, not one particular sin. The analysis and the indictment read: “The spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely.”
James’s point is that Scripture rightly testifies that human history is one long story of intense envy and selfish striving. In other words, human history is largely a record of misdirected energies. God has endowed humans with a drive to achieve, to taste glory. But alas, we put our energy in vain projects, and we fan selfish desires. Instead of aiming for success, we are content to watch someone else fail. Is this what God intended us to make of our drives and talents? Surely, God gave humans a desire to do great things, but we ought not be motivated by envy or satisfied by a taste of our latest desire. God granted us the capacity to yearn, to desire, to dream for higher purposes. He did not give us our energy, our feistiness, to spend it defeating others and plundering their goods. No, God made us for glory, to aspire to the glories of loving God and blessing our fellow humans.
But James does more than diagnose the human problem: he announces the fundamental solution: God gives grace. He resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (4:6). James does not describe how God has sent His grace. He does not say that God the Son humbled Himself and gave His life for us on the cross, then rose from the dead in victory over sin. James assumes that his Christian readers know how Jesus accomplished the salvation from which God’s redeeming grace flows. Now God extends His grace to the humble who believe in Him.
The gospel of James suggests a test of our spiritual condition. What are your longings? Is your spirit filled with selfish or ambitious cravings for things, for experiences, for fame, for power? Or do you pursue simpler but equally misguided goals – mere prosperity and tranquility, spiced up by pleasant leisure activities, punctuated by an occasional exotic high point? There is no harm in dreaming large dreams. Goals prompt us to do our best. But dreams can be egotistical too. If examine ourselves, we may find sinful cravings and envy.
James says, we must choose between two ways of life. There is the way of ambition, grasping, and pride, and the way of repentance and humility, which leads to peace with God, then with mankind. True repentance is more than feeling sorry. The penitent man acknowledges the sin at hand. A reader of James should repent for the sins James singles out: pride in knowledge, hearing the word but doing nothing, the reckless speech that will say anything to get a laugh or gain an advantage, the desire to fit in with society rather than to stay unpolluted by it. If we humble ourselves in genuine repentance, God promises to forgive us and exalt us with Christ.
James 4:1-6 Study Questions:
How does James seem to use the word “passion” in verse 1? What are the results of the kids of “passions” that are at war within each one of us? What does this teach us about our sinful nature?
In verse 2, what does James suggest that we ought to do about our desires? Why is this such a better alternative than fighting and quarreling? What might James be suggesting that we often forget about God?
According to verse 3, there is a wrong way to ask God about our desires. What wrong motivations do we sometimes bring to our prayers, according to James?
What does the phrase “adulterous people” imply about James’s understanding of his readers’ relationship with God (v. 4)? In what ways might “friendship with the world” be likened to spiritual “adultery,” in the way James is describing it?
How is verse 5 a good summary of the human condition? How could this explain much of human history, including the rise and fall of leaders and nations?
How might verse 6 offer the solution to the sinful battle within every human soul? How does this verse direct us to respond? What does it tell us about God, and how is it a hopeful verse to conclude this passage?
Life constantly lays choices before us. Many are mundane: If we say yes to salmon at a restaurant, we also say no to chicken, beef, and every other meat. To order one dessert is, in a way, to reject all others. More seriously, to marry one woman is, as the vows declare, to forsake all others – every other woman in the world. To say yes to parenthood is to say no to a simpler life. Taken together, our choices of food and drink, of vocation and avocation, of marriage and parenthood, set our direction for life.
The same principle applies to our moral and spiritual life. We do not choose a spiritual direction the way we choose chicken over beef, but Scripture does say we face two paths for life. Jesus says there is a broad road that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life. We can call Jesus, “Lord” truly or falsely. We can build our life on sand or on the rock, that is, on Christ (Matt 7:13-27). James presents the same idea in different terms. He says there are two ways of life, two kinds of wisdom. One wisdom is from the earth, even the devil; the other is from heaven (James 3:13-18).
In verses 13-18 James sets us the climatic indictment of human sin in James 4. There James says that his people desire, kill, and covet. In James’s list of sins, envy has a central place. Envy is the enemy of Christian living. It is the opposite of grace, for it wants to grasp rather than to give. Envy is the opposite of caring for the needy. Envy sees only its needs and desires. Envy thinks other people should care for themselves. Left to ourselves, we all live for ourselves and envy what others have. Yet God doesn’t leave us to ourselves. Before he develops his indictment of human sin in full, he presents two ways of life. We should choose the way of wisdom, yet we do not have the power in ourselves to do so. So, by grace, God’s wisdom comes down to us (3:15, 17).
James says that anyone who is wise and understanding shows it by his good life, by deeds that reflect wisdom. The way of wisdom is the way of humility. True wisdom is gentle, meek, humble. If we walk in the path of wisdom, we know that our wisdom is “from above” – a gift of God (v. 17). Humble faith, a faith that comes from heaven, is the source of the wise life. We tend to think of humility, gentleness, and meekness as personality traits, but they are more. A gentle person need not be feminine and a humble person need not be shy or retiring. A gentle man can be bold and tough.
James says envy and selfish ambition drive are of the devil (vv. 14-15). Fools despise humility. Envy and selfish ambition drive vices that are opposite of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:19-23). Paul’s “works of the flesh” feature social sins such as hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy. The fruit of the Spirit is equally social. It includes peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness.
The Bible never praises selfish ambition, but to be accurate, we must say the Bible praises what we might call aspirations. For example, we should aspire to a quiet and productive life (1 Thess. 4:11), We should aspire to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:9). Paul aspired to preach the gospel where the name of Christ was unknown (Rom. 15:20). So, it is fine to have goals or aspirations. We may have goals for the development of our gifts, for our family, for the lost, or for growth in wisdom or righteousness. God blesses those who have a passion for social justice. Everyone who is energetic, everyone with a taste for life, has ambitions. The Lord simply wants them to be godly, not worldly.
James has just described earthly wisdom and its miserable fruit. Now he describes wisdom from heaven and its blessed fruit. Like true faith, true wisdom is identified by the quality of life that it produces. It is “first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (v. 17). This verse shows that James expects wisdom to produce results. The phrase “good fruit” makes us think of external deeds, but most of the verse describes character traits. Purity is an innocence and moral blamelessness that embraces all other traits. The pure are separate from the world.
The next three terms – “peace-loving,” “considerate,” and “submissive” – are linked, in Greek, each word begins with the same vowel and each has a similar ending. But the three also stand together by their contrast with the strife, selfish ambition, and boasting that mark worldly wisdom. Taken together, these three Christian virtues characterize a church marked by peace and cooperation rather than strife and competition. Following this trio, James lists another set of virtues that are a little more loosely related.
“Full of mercy and good fruit” signifies that spiritual virtues produce results. Mercy is the general term for acts of undeserved kindness. Jesus both showed mercy and commanded mercy. Like Jesus, James stressed the need to show mercy. “Good fruit,” in turn, is the consequence of these deeds of mercy.
There is uncertainty about the best translation of the next term. Leading scholars and some translators believe the word translated “impartial” in the NIV and ESV is better translated as “unwavering”. It seems that James means unwavering for a couple of reasons: First, James commends unwavering loyalty to God later in this section of his epistle (4:7-8). Second, unwavering makes a better pair with the next term, “insincere” (literally, “not hypocritical”) James’s virtues form clusters. The opening trio “peace-loving, considerate, and submissive” all point to a unified church, and the final pair both indicate a wholehearted faith, a faith without wavering or hypocrisy.
The effect of these traits of wisdom is peace and righteousness for the family of God. If earthly wisdom brings strife, the wise man brings unity and peace. Righteousness flourishes when God’s people seek peace. God fashioned us to flourish in an atmosphere of peace. Clamor and noise, conflict and competition, bring out the worst in us. Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1).
James is clear. We must show wisdom, be gentle, and avoid selfish ambition. We should shun envy because it devours our souls. Still, a question remains. Since we all have a competitive side, since we all tend to fix our eyes on those who have something we want, how can we free ourselves from envy? If believers struggle with envy and godless ambition, it is because we fail to see our status as beloved children of God.
Faith begets a wisdom and a gentleness that let us say: “God has given me the talents I have, whether great or small. He has given me my place in life, whether prominent or obscure. Whatever my lot, I know God will bless me and I can serve Him faithfully.” These thoughts, born of faith, create peace. They liberate the godly aspiration that is free of envy. They give us peace and they sow peace in our community. They show that we are living in the light of the wisdom from above.
James 3:13-18 Study Questions:
How does the passage you are studying today follow logically from the passage you studied in the past lesson (James 3:1-12)? What case does James seem to be building in chapter 3?
According to 3:13, what kind of a life results from a commitment to wisdom? How does “meekness” contrast with the descriptions, actions, and attitudes that follow in 3:14-16?
What are the fruits, or results, of wisdom that in not from above, according to verses 14-16? Why might this be? Why do you think he chooses to mention these specific sins and vices in these verses?
Why might James still refer to earthly wisdom as a kind of “wisdom” (v. 15)? How might worldly approaches to wisdom have a kind of order and logic to them?
In verse 18, James’s concluding comments about God’s wisdom have to do with its final benefits and results; this peace-loving wisdom of God produces “a harvest of righteousness.” How might living according to God’s wisdom have disproportionate effects beyond one’s individual life? What other Scriptures might James have in mind as he writes these words?
The problem James now addresses is, who can control the tongue? Control of the tongue is one of the tests of true religion that James lists at the conclusion of his first chapter. James has already appealed to believers to live their faith by praying for wisdom, listening to the Word, and acting on it. Almost immediately James hints that it may be difficult to prove one’s faith is genuine. It is far too easy to offer kind wishes – “keep warm and well fed” (2:16) – and do nothing to help. The hints of poor performance in James 2 become a plain declaration of human inability in James 3. James 1 says a religious man must “keep a tight rein on his tongue” (1:26). Yet now James says, “No man can tame the tongue” (3:8).
James opens chapter 3 with a warning that alarms teachers everywhere (3:1). Paradoxically, every time a teacher rises to explain this verse, he invites judgment on himself. It is true that only qualified people should teach. It is also true that some people get a thrill from standing before an attentive audience. But these points are not the topic of James 3. James’s theme is that we must tame the tongue but cannot do so. Teachers make an excellent test case of the issue. They are especially vulnerable to failures of speech because their role demands that they speak so much.
James does not accuse teachers of being especially wicked: “We all stumble in many ways.” No one can control his tongue. If anyone could, he would be faultless and perfect, “able to keep his whole body in check.” The tongue daily demonstrates both our sinfulness and our inability to reform ourselves. Failures of the tongue are frequent and public, hence undeniable. Scripture has long used sins of the tongue to describe human fallenness. For most of us, our mouth is our undoing (Prov. 18:6-7).
James uses three analogies to illustrate the influence of the tongue. The tongue, he says, is like a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, and a fire among trees (3:3-5). The tongue rests in the human mouth mush as the bit is in the horse’s mouth. In both cases, a small thing moves and controls a large body. The tongue is like a rudder of a ship. Just as a small part of a ship turns the whole, so the tongue has great influence on the whole person. The tongue is like a spark of fire in the woods. Even as a small spark can start a great fire, so the tongue can set fire to relationships or communities.
The idea that we should work hard to master the tongue because it is the key to all self-mastery, is appealing, in one way, since it directs human effort to one central task. Unfortunately, this view runs against the rest of Scripture. Jesus does not say “control the tongue and you control all.” He says your heart controls your tongue and speech (Matt. 12:33-35). James agrees with Jesus; the heart moves the tongue. Therefore, we cannot simply decide, by a resolution of the will, to control the tongue. For the heart controls our resolutions.
James rightly says, “The tongue…is a fire” (3:6a). Its propensity to gossip and its capacity to suggest sin establish it as a source of great wickedness. It stains the whole body. It sets all of life on fire “and is itself set on fire by hell” (3:6b). James describes the tongue in three ways: Its character. The tongue is a microcosm, a concentration point of this world’s evils. James says the tongue is “a world of evil among the parts of the body” (3:6a). Its influence. It corrupts “the whole body,” that is, the whole person. James says, “It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire” (3:6b). Its allegiance. In one sense, the evils of the tongue flow from the heart. In another sense, James says Satan himself gives the tongue its destructive power. Hell sets the tongue on fire (3:6b). If we wonder why the tongue generates so much trouble, James answers that it is set on fire by hell.
James begins the next text with the word “for.” That shows he is explaining what he just said. By this we know the tongue is enflamed by hell: mankind can tame anything but the tongue. Every kind of animal “can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:7-8). The tongue is restless, unstable, and liable to break out at any time. It is half-tamed at best.
James says two things: The tongue has vast influence, so we ought to control it. Yet no human can tame the tongue. This is a paradox: James says we must do something that we cannot do. There are two ways to approach this problem. First, we can soften James’s message. He means it is almost impossible to tame the tongue, therefore we must redouble our efforts. This view says: Since the tongue is the key to holy living, we must bend every effort to control it, for if we do, we control all. James’s illustrations seem to support this view. Just as a bit turns a large horse, just as a rudder turns a large ship, so the tongue the lives of men. The second view interprets James rather literally. It says: It would be good to tame the tongue, but James says we cannot. Therefore, we must turn elsewhere for help. No one has sufficient self-control to govern his tongue: “We all stumble in many ways” (3:2). “No one” – no mere human – “can tame the tongue” (3:8).
The tongue is hopelessly inconsistent. It blesses God one minute and curses mankind the next even though God fashioned mankind in his likeness (3:9-12). Such behavior is absurd as a spring that pours out both fresh and salty water, as absurd as a single tree bears both olives and figs (3:11-12). Yet the tongue is like a spring that vacillates between salty and clear water, or like a tree that bears peaches one day and papayas the next. James says simply, “My brothers, this should not be” (3:10).
Notice that James chides our inconsistency, even though he knows no one can consistently control the tongue. He rebukes us because the duty of watching our words remains. Since a small statement can cause great harm, we must guard our speech. We must strive to bless God and mankind with our tongues. James doesn’t solve this riddle in this passage. For the moment, he leaves us in tension until sometime later, in 4:6-10. In 4:10, James resolves his riddle when he promises that God will exalt all who humble themselves before Him. That is, if we humbly admit our inability, He will graciously forgive us.
Even before we reach that moment, other Scriptures teach us this about our inability: We cannot control the tongue, but God can. Even with the Spirit’s help, the taming is only partial. Yet it is real and more potent than our efforts at self-mastery. Once we realize that God can control what we cannot, we can properly face the failures of speech that reflect the failures of the heart.
Good works and holiness please God. But God, as a faithful husband, loves His bride, flaws and all. In this supremely important way, our moral achievements count for nothing. They neither earn God’s love nor guarantee it. There is no deed, no accomplishment, that makes God suddenly notice us or favor us. He loves us for His own reasons, not for our own merits. Yet, if we love the Lord, we do aspire to holiness.
We all stumble and utter words we quickly regret (3:1). Yet we strive to please God, whom we love. We do this even if our failures do not jeopardize that love. When we fail, we petition God for grace to renew and purify us, as we appropriate His grace. We live without fear, knowing God will not disown His children for their lapses. Even in failure we remain confident that if we believe in God, He has given us life by the gospel. The gospel word, implanted in us, saves us. Our tongue may be inconsistent, but our status is not. Our “performance” does not affect God’s love for us. By God’s grace, let us use our tongues to bless the Lord and to bless mankind, whom He made in His image.
James 3:1-12 Study Questions:
James begins this passage (vv. 1-2), by issuing a warning to those who teach, before discussing the dangers of the tongue for the remaining ten verses. What is the connection between the “teacher” and the “tongue”?
Given the three specific pictures that James uses to describe the tongue in verses 3-5, what are we supposed to grasp about the tongue?
Verse 6 is packed with particularly insightful teaching about the tongue. What does this verse remind us about the tongue’s role in evil? What do we learn about the tongue’s influence? In what sense can the tongue be linked with “hell” itself?
To what in nature does James compare the tongue in verses 7-8? How is this verse convicting? What does it teach about sinful human nature and our ability to control ourselves by our own strength?
How does James call out hypocritical uses of the tongue in verses 9-12? According to James, does it seem like any human being is completely free from this kind of doublespeak? Does he offer any hints of hope, with regard to the tongue, to his readers?
In what ways does this passage call us to repentance? What truths about God has James already taught, earlier in the letter, that give guidance for how to move forward with this recognition of universal failure in our words and speech?
“Justified by works” is not a phrase evangelical Christians use much. The apostle Paul says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Yet here James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). What does James have in mind?
Remember that James is on a quest for true religion, not religion that simply says, “God is one” (v. 19) and affirms the elements of the orthodox theology. True religion works. It hears the law and obeys. It helps widows and orphans in their distress. False religion is ineffective manward; it offers the needy wishes, nothing more (vv. 15-17). It is also ineffective Godward (vv. 18-19). It knows God as King, but not a Savior, so it offers no peace or comfort.
False religion takes religion classes in a university. True religion seeks the living God. False religion analyzes the historical and social contexts of the Bible. True religion studies Scripture itself to hear the very voice of God. False religions know what Christian creeds assert about God. True religion knows God Himself. False religion is dead, because it knows Christianity, but not Christ. True religion believes and prays and works. James 2 contrasts true and false faith in four case studies: Case 1 shows that false religion is useless with mankind (vv. 15-17). Case 2 shows that false religion is useless with God (vv. 18-19). Case 3 shows that true faith is useful with God (vv. 20-24). And case 4 shows that true faith is useful with mankind (vv. 25-26). We examined the first two cases in the last study. We will examine the last two cases in this study.
James invites his readers to consider the “evidence that faith without deeds is useless” (2:20). The evidence is this: Abraham was considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar (2:21). In our last study, James said false faith helps neither one’s neighbors (2:15-17) nor one’s relationship with God (2:18-19). The lively faith of Abraham contrasts with the fecklessness of false faith. When Abraham believed God, it led to wondrous works.
James is aware that Genesis 15 teaches justification by faith; he cites the passage in James 2:23. Even if James wrote his epistle before Paul wrote Galatians and Romans (as many scholars believe), he knows that Paul taught justification by faith. He knows Abraham looked to the stars, believed, and thus was justified before God. But James also knows that Abraham’s faith demonstrated its vitality by its works.
So, Paul and James agree. In God’s court, believers are justified the moment they believe. When they trust in Christ as Lord and Savior, their sin is laid on Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to them. Yet works also justify in this secondary sense: they vindicate God’s declaration that we are right with Him. They prove that we are alive in Christ. When we say a believer is justified by faith alone, we mean that the believer adds nothing – no works – in order to earn or gain God’s favor. Good works are necessary – not a condition prior to salvation but a consequence following salvation. Just as a healthy fruit tree by its very nature necessarily bears fruit, so a genuine believer necessarily performs good works as the fruit of a new nature. Real faith is effective Godward.
James likes illustrations. He surely had his audience with him when he chose Abraham to illustrate that real faith works and is effective Godward. Abraham was a hero of the Jewish people. He was the father of Israel, their George Washington. Many regarded him as the most righteous man in history. But James’s readers might not have been so receptive to his next illustration. James introduces Rahab the harlot as evidence that genuine faith is effective manward.
Rahab is a surprising example, since she is a minor and unsavory figure, who contrasts sharply with Abraham. Abraham is the father of Israel, a male, and a great patriarch. Rahab is a Canaanite, a foreigner, and a disreputable prostitute. Yet Rahab illustrates real faith, for an intellectual conversion to orthodox ideas would not have saved her. She had to act. See Rahab’s story in Joshua 2.
Unlike Abraham socially, yet like Abraham spiritually, Rahab showed real faith works. Intellectual belief in God would save neither Rahab nor the spies she sheltered. Action spared both Rahab and the spies. If Abraham demonstrated that real faith is effective Godward, Rahab showed that real faith is effective manward. Small deeds make a big difference. Timely works adorn and verify a profession of faith. James says, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25). She did not earn her salvation, but her works did vindicate her potentially dubious claim to believe. Her works publicly announced that she was indeed a God-fearing woman.
James does startle the educated Christians when he says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” and “Was not also Rahab justified by works?” (vv. 2:21, 25). Even if we know James doesn’t contradict the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, we wonder why he chose language that appears to contradict Paul.
Consider James’s audience. He wrote for Jews who took pride in their theological knowledge. They tended to think their heritage and knowledge guaranteed them God’s favor. James wrote for the kind of person who, today, might tell a pastor: “Don’t bother me, I’m already a Christian. I’ve been baptized, catechized, and sanitized from most major sins. Leave me alone; my faith is my private affair.” James hoped to undermine false confidence in an orthodox confession. If Paul wrote to give comfort to those who were afflicted by guilt, then James wrote to afflict those who found false comfort in their assent to orthodox theological ideas. In that setting James says: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (vv. 2:24, 26).
Paul, by contrast, ministered primarily to pagans with no clear ideas about God, and only secondarily to Jewish Christians who were perhaps confused about the relation between faith and works. Paul addresses the questions: How shall Gentiles enter the church, with or without the laws about circumcision, food, and association that separated Jews from other peoples? Must Gentiles keep the laws that established a Jew’s identity in order to be saved? Does one gain entry into the kingdom by faith alone, or by faith plus certain works?
In that setting Paul says, “One is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Again, “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16). Paul corrects spiritual athletes who try to climb into heaven by their achievements. He roots out all false requirements for salvation.
But James has a different target audience. He speaks to people who grew up with biblical religion but never claimed it personally. They assume that their heritage, their knowledge, and their respectability guarantee God’s favor. In today’s terms, James addresses people who say: “Leave me alone, I am already a Christian. I’m a decent person, I have a family, I attend church and assent to the orthodox creeds.” For that situation, James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 2:24). He urges self-inspection: Do you prove your faith is real by deeds of sacrificial love?
James 2 says true faith manifests itself in works of service to man and of obedience to God. In other words: False faith offers no service to fellow man. It offers warm wishes, nothing more. False faith offers no obedience to God. As with demons, orthodox theology does not save. True faith offers obedience to God, as Abraham proved. True faith offers costly service to fellow man, as Rahab proved.
The good deeds, flowing from faith, vindicate us, declare that we do belong to Christ. It is no legal fiction, no technicality, that releases us from the condemnation we deserve. The righteousness given to us by God is also coursing through us. So, God is right to permit us to enter His heaven, His presence. Neither faith not our works are the basis of our salvation. But living faith does work, says James. Living faith saves.
James 2:20-26 Study Questions:
Why does James describe faith apart from works as “useless” (v. 20)? To whom is it useless (see vv. 21-23)? What is this teaching us about true faith and about God?
James 2:22 says that Abraham’s “faith was complete by his works.” What is James’s teaching about Abraham’s obedience? Using verses 20-24, how would you explain the connection between Abraham’s faith in God and his obedience to God?
Abraham’s obedient works were directed toward God, as vindication of his true faith. But toward whom were Rahab’s good works directed (vv. 25-26)? What important truths can we learn from this?
How was Rahab’s help of the Hebrew spies inextricably linked to her genuine faith in God? If she had not helped them, what would that have said about her faith? Would Rahab’s faith in God been evident, or even genuine, apart from her actions?
A pastor spoke to a young lawyer who had visited his church several times. He was very interested in obtaining eternal life. He admitted that he was a sinner and needed a savior. He believed Jesus is the Son of God and that Jesus endured crucifixion, then rose from death to win life for all who believe. Then, although they were not talking about money at all, he added: “But there is one idea I can’t stand – tithing. I don’t make that much money now, so it’s not a big issue yet, but in a few years, I’m going to be making a lot of money, and there’s no way I’m going to give away 10 percent of it. I could never give away that much money.” Is this man a Christian? Will his brand of faith unite him to Christ, so that he gains eternal life?
That is the question James addresses through much of his epistle. He states the question starkly in 2:14. This question addressed a real issue in James’s church, and it remains a real issue today. Many of us know people like the lawyer. They accept the biblical diagnosis of the human condition. They understand how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection remedy their estrangement from God. They go to church from time to time. They like to read and talk about spiritual things. They know the central teachings of Christian faith. They are pleasant folks. They seem to live decent lives, though they may indulge a vice or two. When conversation turns to Jesus or what happens after death, they sound like believers. They adhere to orthodox, evangelical theology.
Yet there is nothing distinctively Christian about their behavior. They may be decent neighbors and may perform a little community service. But there is no real self-sacrifice, no costly obedience, no good deed that goes against their grain, nothing that challenges their well-designed life.
When James 2 asks what is the benefit of that kind of faith, he is preparing his concluding remarks on a topic that already gained his attention in chapter 1. The next passage, 2:1-13, maintains the theme. James’s concern for the treatment of the poor, begun in 1:27, continues in 2:1-6. Compassion for the poor includes care for their spirit. We treat then with the dignity they deserve as humans and Christian brothers. James tells his readers their treatment of the poor is no trivial matter. It is part of the “royal law,” to “love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). James closes the section by telling his readers they will be judged by the law (2:12).
Perhaps some in the church were surprised to hear that they were still liable to judgment. They thought they were saved by faith and therefore free from judgment. But James, as a true pastor, shredded their false sense of security so they could see themselves as they really were.
James begins the process with a question: “What good is it [or “What is the benefit”], my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (v. 14). That is, does the kind of faith that affirms orthodox theology, but produces no distinctively Christian deeds, save? Does that faith lead to justification before God the Judge? It is an old question: Does every brand of faith save? Is there a faith that does not? Does an evangelical confession of faith, with nothing more, make one right with God?
These are contemporary questions. When James faced it, he answered directly. There is a “faith” that does not save. It is the faith that adheres to orthodox theology but has no actions. The literal translation of verse 14b is quite stark: “Faith can’t save him, can it?” In Greek, there is a way to ask questions that shows the author anticipates the answer no; James uses that form, making his position clear: No, “faith” cannot save the person who has no works.
Once James states his theme – that faith without works cannot save – he illustrates it with four case studies. We will consider two in this study and the last two in the next study. Case #1: Faith without deeds of compassion for the needy brother does that brother no good. Thus “faith without works is dead (vv. 15-17).
Here James sketches a realistic scene with great economy of words. He pictures a brother or sister who is poor, even by ancient standards. When James says someone is “without clothes” (v. 15), he doesn’t mean naked. More likely “without clothes” indicates someone is wearing only an inner tunic (underwear) or is dressed inadequately. His clothes are either few or ragged, not enough to keep warm. He lacks “daily food,” as well. He has not yet received the answer to the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Either he is hungry that day, or, more likely, he chronically lacks food.
Jesus says genuine faith meets the needs of the poor. It is not content to say, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but do nothing. Real faith knows that on the last day, when Jesus judges all people, He will mark whether we did or did not help the needy whom we met (Matt. 25:36-40). The kind of faith that offers warm wishes and trite advice is no good on the last day (Matt. 25:41-43).
James anticipates a plausible objection to the message of verses 15-17. Someone will view faith and good works roughly the way we view spiritual gifts. James lets an imaginary critic speak: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds’” (v. 18). James replies, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (vv. 18-19).
The objection says faith and works are like spiritual gifts; some have one, some have the other. Faith is even called a gift in Romans 12:3 and 1 Corinthians 12:9. Works are never called a gift, but Peter does divide spiritual gifts into two categories, gifts of speech and gifts of service (1 Peter 4:11). As the objection sees it, those who offer food and clothing to the hungry and the ragged have a gift for good works. So someone will say, “Good works are for those with the gift, but my gift is knowledge or faith, not action.
If someone says, “I believe in God,” James replies, “I will believe you have true faith when it manifests itself in deeds.” That is, if someone claims to have faith, but only has orthodox theological ideas, it proves nothing. James uses the “faith” of demons to illustrate his point. Demons have at least some orthodox theological ideas. They are monotheistic. They believe that there is one God and that Jesus is His unique Son. Yet demons are tormented and terrified by their beliefs. They shudder when they think of God. They are not saved by their theological orthodoxy. The truth torments and terrifies them, for they do not add love of God to their “Knowledge” of Him.
Millions have a dead, orthodox faith. They attend church frequently and know the gospel intellectually. They even live morally. But the thought of meeting the eternal God creates terror. John says perfect love (for God) “drives out fear” (1 John 4:18). True faith, faith that knows and trusts God as He presents Himself in the gospel, casts out servile fear. It grants peace with God, a desire for His Word, and the capacity to put away sin – a capacity that shows itself in stronger relationships and better behavior at work and at play.
James’s critique of false faith feels like bad news. But as the next section of James will show, there is good news too. Real faith does express itself in acts of love. It does care for the needy. Christians so not simply grit their teeth and resolve to keep more laws. New behavior flows from a new heart. We fail so often. But real faith does lead to good deeds. They are the fruit of new life in Christ.
James 2:14-19 Study Questions:
In verse 14, James points to the insufficiency for salvation of a certain kind of faith, when he asks, “Can that faith save him?” Is James questioning the doctrine of salvation by faith? Why or why not? If not, what is he affirming quite strongly in this verse?
What comments does James’s imaginary character make to the brother or sister who is lacking food or clothing (vv. 15-16)? What attitude seems to lurk behind these comments? What does this person “who says he has faith” fail to do?
What point is James making in verse 17 about “faith by itself”? Does such faith actually exist? Describe in your own words what such a kind of “faith” might look like in today’s context.
What motivation seems to be behind the objection that James anticipates in verse 18? In what way does this objection seek to make a separation that James immediately rejects as invalid?
How would you characterize the belief of the demons in God, which James mentions in verse 19? In what sense do they “believe” in God? What do they lack, as part of this belief?
What in this passage seems objectionable – or dangerous – to you? Why do you think that is the case? What reactions does James intend to draw out from his audience?