By Pastor Glenn Pease
A contemporary author who loves mysteries describes his frustration when the mystery gets too great. A friend gave him a mystery book to read, and soon he found himself deep in the midst of the sinister plot. "Imagine my consternation," he says, "as I came to the end of the unraveling of the mystery to find the last page had been torn out. The final lines of that next to the last page went like this: 'What was it that Mrs. Daisy Dick had seen when she looked through the window of the tower-that had torn from her that last terrible shriek of protest, that cry of No! No! as she plunged to her death on the flagstones beneath?'" She plunged, and the reader was left hanging in the air because the conclusion was missing. That was more mystery than he cared for.
The letter of James begins with a mystery also, and this mystery is one that has caused a great deal of frustration. Many have found it hard to be happy with the unknown. Thousands of pages have been written about the mystery. It is the same mystery that you would experience if you received a letter signed James. If you only knew one James, the mystery would not be difficult to solve, but if you knew several by that name it could be quite a task to figure out which one it was who wrote the letter.
This is the mystery which has faced scholars all through history. Nobody but the God who inspired him to write knows for sure which James of the New Testament wrote this letter. There are four men by the name of James in the New Testament, and each of them has been made to be the author of this letter. Some argue that it could have been a James not mentioned in the New Testament at all. Tradition has attributed this letter to the James who was the brother of Jesus. He opposed Jesus until after the resurrection. Jesus made a special appearance to His brother when He rose from the dead, and James became a believer and a dedicated leader in the church at Jerusalem. Paul called him one of the pillars of the church, and though he was not an Apostle, he was for many years the head of the home church of Christianity.
The vast majority of scholars through history agree that the evidence supports this tradition. James writes with the authority of one who lived with the Master of the art of living. This letter is more like the Lord's Sermon On The Mount than anything else in the New Testament. You might think it is a waste of time to dwell on who the author was, but not so. Thousands of hours of the time of the greatest Christian scholars in history have been consumed in struggling to solve the mystery of who James was. If you are not convinced of the authority of the author, but believe he was just some godly man writing down some pious advice, it will undermine the value of what God is saying to you in this letter.
This happened to Martin Luther, and to many others. He did not consider the letter of James to be equal with the other Scripture written by the Apostles. He called it an Epistle of straw, and when he published his Bible in German, he put James in the back, and he didn't even list it in the contents. He influenced many others including Tyndale to follow the same pattern in their Bibles. Luther did not reject James, but he made it second class Scripture. There is an extremely value lesson to learn from Luther's attitude toward the letter of James. It is a lesson that can help us avoid the folly of many of God's greatest servants.
First we have to understand why Luther had the attitude he did. Luther was a reformer in constant conflict with the Catholic church leaders. Luther's main theme was justification by faith. Luther emphasized the need for personal faith in Jesus Christ; a trust in His atonement, and His shed blood for forgiveness of sin. The death and resurrection of Christ, and faith in the Christ who died and rose were the foundations of his Reformation theology. The letter of James does not deal with these things at all. It does not mention the blood of Christ, or His death and resurrection. James does not emphasize faith, but his focus is on good works. He even says that faith without works is dead. The opponents of Luther used the book of James constantly in their debates with him. The result was that Luther looked upon James as a hindrance to the doctrine of justification by faith.
Luther did what Christians are always in danger of doing in reaction to controversy. They blind their minds to the fact that the whole Bible is the Word of God. The greatest tragedies in Christian history are those who come about because Christians pick and choose which parts of God's revelation they are going to live by. Every time this happens it produces a kind of Christianity which is a perversion. All cults are based on selected Scriptures instead of the whole counsel of God. No church and no Christian will ever have the kind of balance that leads to true godliness and Christlikeness until they can accept all the Scripture as their authority for faith and practice.
Luther could not see beyond his conflict, and rise above it to incorporate the practical emphasis of James on works with his emphasis on faith. The result was Lutheranism in Germany and surrounding nations came to a point where dead faith dominated. Luther had God's truth about faith, but he didn't have the balance of God's truth about works, and because he failed to listen to all of God's Word his movement was not all it might have been. It was the dead orthodoxy of Lutheranism that led to the formation of other evangelical denominations, which would not have been necessary had Luther listened to James.
If we can learn from Luther's mistake, we can find God's best instead of His second best. Do not reject anything in God's Word just because it seems to contradict, or conflict, with a truth you hold to be precious. Do not ignore parts of the Bible that are misused and abused by cults and extremists. Jesus said we are to live by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God. All Scripture is inspired of God and profitable, and not just the parts you like best. If you pick and choose, you will be an unbalanced Christian. What you have may be good, but it will never be God's best.
All of this relates to the letter of James because it is a part of the Bible which has suffered from attack and abuse. Many have ignored it in building their Christian lives. Those who have studied it, however, have found that it does not at all conflict with Paul, but, in fact, adds to, and compliments Paul. James is not writing to help Christians formulate doctrine. He is writing to help Christians make doctrine practical. James is a man of action, and his letter is on how to put faith to work. It is practical from start to finish, and you cannot criticize him for not saying anything about basic Christian doctrines, for that was not his purpose in writing.
Calvin points out that God does not require every man to handle the same arguments. Paul was chosen by God to deal with certain aspects of God's truth. James was used to communicate other aspects of God's truth. There would be no point in the letter of James if all he said was what Paul had already said. James did not fail because he wrote nothing of the cross or resurrection. It was not his purpose to do so, and every man is to be judged according to what his purpose is, and not according to what others think his purpose should have been.
Let's begin our study of this letter then with the assurance that whoever James was, he was a channel through whom God spoke in his day, and through whom he continues to speak today. Some will not like James because he speaks too frankly on subjects where all Christians have some big hang-ups. He will step on all or our toes before he is done. He will hit all of the major weaknesses and sins of the Christian life, and he will hit them hard.
Doremus Hayes, one of the greatest Bible teachers of all time, writes in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "There are those who talk holiness and are hypocrites; those who make profession of perfect love and yet cannot live peaceably with their brethren; those who are full of pious phraseology but fail in practical philanthropy. This epistle was written for them.....The quietists who are satisfied to sit and sing themselves away to everlasting bliss ought to read this epistle until they catch its bugle note of inspiration to present activity and continuous good deeds. All who are long on theory and short on practice ought to steep themselves in the spirit of James."
If true doctrine was enough to be an adequate Christian, James says that the demons themselves would be perfect Christians, for they believe that God is one. The demons acknowledge Jesus as the Son of the Most High in the Gospels, but they believed the truth and tremble says James in 2:19. Their theology doesn't do them or anyone else any good because it is truth not obeyed and practically applied. If one's creed does not control one's conduct, his creed is not worth the paper it is written on. Many will feel the wrath of God who had a beautiful creed, but who never learned the lesson of James to put it into practice. James wants to see saints in shoe leather, and not just in stained glass windows. The Christianity of James is Christianity in action. It is above all-practical.
One of the greatest problems the church has struggled with all through history is that of getting Christians to act like Christians. It is no problem to get them to talk like Christians, and to believe doctrine like Christians should, but it is a battle to get them to act like Christians should, and that is why James is such an important part of God's total revelation. It wakes us up to the realization that all our belief, and all our words are dead and useless unless they lead us to practical action that does some good. Action is what makes faith come alive. All the Christian talk about faith, hope, and love are only theory until action makes them real to life.
C. S. Lewis captured the essence of the message of James when he wrote, "Do not waste your time bothering whether you love your neighbor or not; act as if you did. As soon as you do this you find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him." We so often fail to be Christian because we want to get the feeling we love someone instead of acting on God's Word, and finding that out of action love comes. James says that theoretical Christianity is not the religion of the Bible. If your religion is not practical, it is not biblical, even if everything you say if from the Bible. We need to recognize that we cannot wait until we feel like being Christian. We need to just go ahead and act like a Christian should, for it is being a doer of the word that really matters.
James is a great believer in prayer. Tradition calls him camel knees because he spent so much time on them in prayer that he developed calluses. However, he does not hesitate to blast away at all the superficial ideas of prayer that many Christians have. Prayer is not always answered, and he makes this clear. Prayer can be abused and misused. Prayer that does not get results is of no value. Nothing counts with James which is not practical, and that even includes prayer.
James has such a love for the practical because that was the emphasis of his Lord and brother Jesus Christ. You remember when the rich young ruler came to Jesus, and he acknowledge that he had kept all the commandments from his youth, but he asked Jesus what he still lacked. Jesus knew he was a good man, and a reverent man. Jesus loved him, but he said that he still lacked one thing, and so he said, "Go and sell what you have and give to the poor." Jesus said that he had a beautiful religion, but it lacked practical application in life that helps solve some human problem. The young man went away sorrowful because he just couldn't see getting so practical that would cost him a great deal. He wanted religion to be a comfort to him, and to give him assurance of eternal life. He didn't want a religion that made him get out of the ivory tower of his pleasant isolation from the sufferings of others, and do something about it. That, however, is the only kind of religion that is Christlike, and the only kind of Christianity we find in James. You don't just pray for a man who is hungry, you give him something to eat.
James condemns all the pious religion of those who say lovely things and believe glorious things, but who do not do the practical things that help meet human needs. If James was going to be stranded on a deserted island, and he could only have one book with him, he would not likely say, as most Christians would, give me the Bible. James would likely choose a book about survival or on how to build a boat so he could get back into the stream of life where he could be a channel of truth and love into the lives of others.
James is theology in action; a creed in conduct, and a call to practice what we preach, and to walk the talk. Vance Havner said, "We do not actually believe any more than we are willing to put into practice." A study of this letter will reveal, not what you believe, but whether or not you really do believe what you say you believe. Bob Harrington said, "What this nation needs is a better me." That is practical theology. It is what we see in Paul when he spoke his first words when confronted by the Living Lord. He asked, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" That is the question the whole book of James urges us to ask daily.