Living Out a Living Faith

Posted: April 21, 2016 in James, Route 66, Uncategorized

Route 66: James, “Living Out a Living Faith”

“Just do it.”  The Nike ad is so iconic that the words instantly bring the advertising campaign to mind, even now 18 years after it was introduced.  Don’t talk about running or getting started with an exercise program, just do it.  Don’t talk about what you want to do differently, just do it.  Good advice!  We certainly need to know what it is we want to do (i.e. have a goal), but at some point we actually have to get to the process of getting it done.  If we don’t do it, it won’t happen.

A similar point is made with the book of James.  Faith is something to be done.  We are to know our faith, but faith is more than knowledge; it’s action.  Faith is practiced.  Faith is alive.  The idea of life is interesting by itself.  How do we know if something is alive?  It moves.  There is some sort of action taking place, no matter how miniature it might be.  Trees might not move, but they have living cells that engage in the process of photosynthesis, turning light into usable energy.  They have roots that absorb water to run through its entire trunk, etc.  An oak tree obviously doesn’t run laps, but it moves – it acts – it is alive.  Likewise with people.  We know people are alive when there’s movement.  At the very least, there needs to be a heartbeat and respiration…but if the heart & lungs move, there is life.

Faith needs to move in order to live.  We know what we know & we believe what we believe, but if what we believe with our hearts doesn’t manifest itself through our hands, we have a problem.  At that point, our faith might be dead, and that is exactly what James warns us against.

Who this James actually is, is an issue that has confused some.  James (or better translated, “Jacob”) was a common name among 1st century Jews, and there are four men named “James” within our New Testaments, just to prove the point.  One of those James’es was the father of Judas (not Iscariot – Lk 6:16), so he can be counted out.  Another is James the son of Alphaeus, also known as “James the less,” who was one of the apostles of Jesus.  Although some have tried to tie this James to the letter, it seems highly unlikely due to the lack of any mention of him apart from the general listings of apostles.  There is the other apostle James, the son of Zebedee, the brother of John.  He is also an unlikely candidate, as he was martyred by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2) in 44AD, which seems to be too early.

The final James (and most likely candidate) wasn’t originally an apostle of the Lord Jesus, or even a believer in the Lord Jesus while Jesus walked the earth.  It was Jesus’ half-brother James, who did not initially believe in his brother but later came to faith, perhaps after having received a personal post-resurrection visit by Jesus (1 Cor 15:7).  He rose to prominence with in the church at Jerusalem, eventually becoming its recognized leader (Acts 15).  It was to James that the newly-converted Saul of Tarsus went on his initial trip to Jerusalem (Gal 1:19), and Paul and James met together seemingly every time Paul went to the city (Acts 21:18).  It is this James who likely wrote the letter, which given the sparse identification of him in 1:1 makes sense.  Any other James would have needed to identify himself further to distinguish himself from James the just of Jerusalem.

As to when James wrote his letter, it seems to have been very early on in the history of the church.  In fact, it is quite possible that the epistle of James is the earliest-written document we have in our New Testament, and if not, the 2nd earliest after Galatians.  How can we know?  Several reasons.  First of all, James the brother of Jesus was martyred in 62AD, so that’s the latest possible date it could be written.  Second, the letter has a strong Jewish flavor.  It is addressed to the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” – very Jewish language.  James writes of the “assembly” (2:2) in terms of the Jewish synagogue.  Jewish allusions are prominent throughout, etc.  Not only does this make sense with James being the leader of the church in Jerusalem, but it also argues for an early date because there was a time there weren’t many Gentile Christians.  Initially, almost all believers were Jewish believers, which is implied in this letter.  Third, although an argument from silence, there is no mention of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15).  That council played such an important role within the life of the church (with James playing a key part!), it is inconceivable that there wouldn’t be at least some reference to it in the letter.  Considering that council took place in 49AD, it argues for an early date indeed.  The letter of James could have been written anywhere from 45-48, some suggesting even as early as 40AD.

It’s impossible to discuss the book of James without at least addressing a bit of the controversy that, historically, has surrounded it.  Martin Luther famously disliked the letter, calling it “an epistle of straw,” having disagreements with how James seems to argue against Paul.  Of course, even Luther knew that James didn’t directly contradict Paul – but when taken out of context (as some people do), it could very easily lead to that conclusion.

Actually, James and Paul find quite a bit of agreement.  When reading Paul’s own letters, he not only rights about our justification through faith, but also about the need to walk as people who have been justified.  IOW, even Paul acknowledges that Christians actions are just as important as Christian doctrine.  Thus James doesn’t contradict Paul; James complements Paul. (Something which we’ll see when we get to the text itself.)

That said, because of this sticky question (primarily, though there was also the question of authorship & which James wrote it), although the epistle of James was written extremely early, it was one of the later books to be fully accepted as canonical within the New Testament.  It was certainly well-known, but it was left out of the canonical lists until the 4th century, with Erasmus and (as we’ve seen) Martin Luther having their own personal doubts about it.  But again, it was known by the early church, being quoted by Clement of Rome (95AD), and 2nd & 3rd century church fathers.  And although some doubted its inclusion in the New Testament, others took up its cause, seeing its validity (Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, etc.).

What’s important for us to remember is that although it took a while for the church theologians to unify around James’ canonical status, all that the theologians & scholars did was to recognize the inspiration of James.  They did not confer onto it any special blessing.  The letter had been widely spread by the people of the church, used by the people of the church, and ultimately it was the church overall that saw the hand of God upon the writing.  That’s something beyond the task of a handful of church fathers & theologians.  James isn’t included in the New Testament because of the actions of a church council; it’s included because it was given by the inspiration of God.

The book of James is notoriously difficult to outline, with nearly every scholar doing it differently.  Some have argued that James doesn’t really have a structure at all, but is put together like the wisdom books of the Old Testament (like Proverbs).  Others see an incredibly intricate structure with recurring cycles of themes throughout the letter.  Perhaps the simplest structure is best.  Traditionally, the letter is divided into 5 chapters, and that serves our purposes well.

  • Personal Faith (1) – Trials and temptations are discussed, and the need to be doers of the word (instead of hearers only) is introduced.
  • Outward Faith (2) – How the church treats rich & poor is introduced, with the idea that this is an indication of what kind of living faith someone has.
  • Spoken Faith (3) – What we say is as important as how we act, and our words can inflict much damage, if we’re not careful.
  • Humble Faith (4) – A war of words can be traced to an overabundance of pride, and Christians need to be careful to remain humble towards God, others, and the future.
  • Ongoing Faith (5) – We don’t know much about the future, but we know this much: we will see God.  That ought to keep us sober in our actions, and patient as we await the Lord’s coming.

Personal Faith
Greeting (1)
The book begins with the briefest of introductions, but certainly one that is profound.  James simply calls himself a slave (bondservant = δουλος), but notice of whom he is a slave.  “…of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  James declares himself a slave of his own brother, grammatically placing Him on the same level as Almighty God.  If anyone needed to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is God, it would be the blood-relatives of Jesus…and they were.  James (and Jude & Mary, etc.) believed, and they worshipped & served Jesus as God.  That in itself is a strong apologetic for the faith.

James also addresses his audience: “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad.”  IOW, he’s writing to Jewish Christians.  Due to the early date of the letter, it’s unlikely that James has any thought of the church being the so-called “New Israel.”  There’s no indication that James has any replacement theology in mind.  Instead, it’s a sign that he’s simply addressing Jewish Christians, because most Christians at the time were Jewish.  Why were they scattered?  Obviously ethnic Jews had been scattered for quite some time, but Christianity truly began in Judea, going out from Jerusalem to beyond.  Again, we need to remember the early date.  The first time we read in the Scriptures of Christians leaving Jerusalem, it is after the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7).  It seems more than reasonable that the pastor of the Jerusalem church is writing to former congregation members who are now scattered throughout the Roman Empire.  He was concerned for them, just as any pastor would be, and he does what he can to spur them on to spiritual growth and maturity.

From here, James launches into the meat of the letter…

Trials (2-11)
Any Christian goes through trials, and the Christians of the 1st century were no exception.  We’ve all asked the question “Why me?” and James seems to address that a bit.  Jesus promised that we would face trials and tribulations (Jn 16:33), which James affirms.  That doesn’t make them pleasant experiences, but it does mean we can count it all joy.  How so?  Change your perspective.  Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we can have faith.  God uses these trials in our lives to bring about spiritual maturity.  When our faith is tested, patience is produced (1:3).  When we need wisdom, we learn to ask God for it, trusting that He will give it abundantly (1:5).  Trials give us the opportunity to trust God in a way we might not do otherwise, forcing us to lean upon Him in faith.  Without trials, we lean on ourselves – perhaps even our own riches & abilities which wither & perish (i.e. the flower of 1:11).  When in trouble, we lean on God.

  • Common experience shows this to be true.  Make a short comparison of your prayer life when life is good, versus when life is hard.  When in trouble, we go to our knees – we spend time in the word – we seek God fervently.  When things are good, we coast.  That doesn’t mean we ought to desire troubles to come, or that troubles are anything less than troublesome, but God can and does bring good out of our troubles.  Times of trial can cause far more growth than times of ease.

Temptations (12-20)
External trials aren’t the only problems Christian face; we also struggle with internal temptations.  But just we can count it joy when we fall into trials, we can consider ourselves blessed when we endure temptation (1:12).  Notice, it’s not when we fall into temptation, but when we’re on the other side of it having relied upon the Lord.  It wasn’t the Lord who brought us into that temptation (1:13) – we do that well enough on our own.  But it is the Lord who brings us through it.  He gives us the strength and power that we need when He fills us anew with the Holy Spirit.

Our problem comes in when we don’t seek His Spirit, and instead start seeking our temptations.  God gives good gifts – every good gift (1:17); we are the ones with the evil desires (1:14).  The key to enduring temptation?  Seek the good things of God.  When your eyes are set upon evil things, change your gaze.  Look upon that which is good.  Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things."  Some temptations we flee by running out the door (per Joseph & Potiphar’s wife); other temptations we flee by purposefully changing our focus.  What you’re looking at, that’s what you’re dwelling upon.  Look to the good things of God, leaning upon Him and His righteousness (1:20).

True religion (21-27)
Putting all of this to action, James tells his readers to lay aside wickedness, seeking the “implanted word” (1:21) – i.e. the gospel.  Just as Jesus said to seek first the kingdom and His righteousness (Mt 6:33), so we seek Christ.  As we do, we do.  We act upon the truth of the gospel, living out what it is Jesus has done within us.  That’s why James says to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves,” (1:22).  Faith without works is an illusion, like an image disappearing from a mirror (1:23-24).  True blessing comes to the one who knows what he/she needs to do (i.e., from the law) and then does it.  It’s not a matter of earning salvation; it’s a matter of living out what we say we believe.  It’s one thing to know that Jesus wants us to be kind; it’s another to keep our tongue/words in check (1:26).  It’s one thing to desire in our hearts to honor God; it’s another to truly care for the people that God says He Himself cares about (1:27).

This isn’t legalism; this is common-sense.  Doing the works God desires us to do is the outward evidence of our faith (something James will get to in the next chapter).  God desires us to be doers.  Anyone can sit & listen; not everyone applies what it is they have heard.

Outward Faith
Favoritism (1-13)
The first example in “doing the word” (to paraphrase James) is in regards to partiality.  How do we treat the rich versus the poor?  Are those who are rich favored, while the poor are set aside?  James doesn’t inherently condemn those who were rich – there were several rich people among the church of Jerusalem, who went so far as to sell their belongings in order to feed the poor among them (Acts 4:34-35).  But by and large, it was the rich who were the threat to Christians; not the poor.  Those who were rich could afford to drag someone to court (2:6) – that’s not something a poor person would be able to do.  That being the case, why is there not more reason to honor the poor man?  Of course, neither one should be shown any partiality; all should be treated equally by the church because all are equal before God.

We’re certainly all equal in regards to guilt.  Just to break one point of the law is to stumble in the entire thing (2:10).  But because this is the case, showing favoritism is not a “lesser evil”; it is evil itself.  Instead, God calls us to love our neighbor – that truly is the royal law (2:8).  God calls us to show mercy, in order that we ourselves would be shown mercy – that is the law of liberty (2:12-13).

  • It might be good at this point to do a quiet gut-check.  Have there been times lately that we might have shown undue partiality?  Or we might call it discrimination.  Have we been guilty of looking at one person as more “deserving” than someone else?  May God help us see people as He sees us: simple sinners in desperate need of salvation.  We all need the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; we just tend to express our needs and failings in different ways.

Faith and works (14-26)
With the example given, James brings it home.  Faith needs to be acted upon.  He already wrote of being doers of the word – now he describes how it’s done.  Faith isn’t telling a hungry man to be blessed; it’s to bless him by feeding him (2:15).  James 2:17, "Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

  • Vs. 17 is so often taken out of context to try to push a liberal social agenda or some other political goal.  (And in the interest of bi-partisanship, the right often does the same thing with different Bible verses that suits its own cause.)  Yet we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The warning against dead faith isn’t a warning not to oppose any social justice legislation that is placed upon a nation; it’s a warning to individual Christians to put our faith into action.  If we say we believe, then act like we believe.  If we say we’ve been transformed by the love & grace of Jesus Christ, then our lives ought to look as if they’re transformed by Him.  The proof is in the pudding.  A working faith is a living faith.

It is this whole concept that so many people have mistakenly seen a contradiction between the writings of James & the writings of Paul.  On one hand, James says that faith without works is dead, and he uses the example of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar as an example of a working faith.  James even goes so far as to write: James 2:24, "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only."  At first glance, that would seem to be a direct contradiction with Paul, who (writing later to the Romans) uses exactly the same example of Abraham to argue that we are justified by faith alone.  Romans 4:2–3, "(2) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (3) For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”"  Is this a contradiction?  Absolutely not.  James and Paul can both use the same example of Abraham because they’re talking about two sides of the same coin.  Abraham believed God, and God accounted to him (imputed to him) the righteousness that Abraham could never earn on his own.  His faith was vividly displayed when he placed his only son upon the altar, trusting that God would never let His promise fail.  The righteousness of God was given when Abraham believed; it was apparent when Abraham acted.

  • The point is simple: a faith that saves is a faith that works.  Faith that is alive is lived out.  Scores of people raise their hands during evangelistic crusades, yet never live a single day as a Christian following that point.  Are they saved?  No…at least, not for most of them.  They walked in a pagan & left a pagan.  They simply had a brief instant of spiritual clarity in-between.  Those who are truly saved demonstrate fruit at some point.  Some bear fruit slower than others, but there’s still fruit.  If there’s no fruit, there’s no evidence.  If there’s no evidence, there’s no salvation.
  • BTW – Paul affirms exactly the same thing!  After writing so eloquently of a person’s justification by faith alone in Romans 4-5, he writes of the need to be dead to sin in Romans 6-8.  He writes of us being living sacrifices to God in Romans 12, and basically living as holy, humble, loving Christians in Romans 13-15.  To the Galatians, Paul writes passionately of being justified by faith alone in chapter 3 (using the same example of Abraham, Gal 3:6-7), but goes on to write in chapter 5 about walking in the Spirit & not fulfilling the lust of the flesh.  IOW, Paul was just as emphatic as James of the need for good works.  Praise God that we are justified (delivered from our past sins) as a result of the work of Christ alone, and all we need do is have faith in Him to receive forgiveness!  But may God keep us from the heresy of believing that works are not needed in the lives of believers!  Faithful works are evidence of faith-filled hearts.

Spoken Faith
Dangerous words (1-12)
Our faith is evidenced not only by our deeds, but also by our words.  Here, James isn’t writing so much about doctrine, but regarding how we speak to one another.  How do we use our tongues?  If we desire to teach the word of God, it is good, but it is sobering – we will be held to a stricter judgment (3:1).  Our words can be a blessing or a curse.  As James illustrates, our tongues are like miniature rudders steering a ship, or tiny campfires that can consume a whole forest.  It doesn’t take much to make a big difference.  Thus, we ought to be extraordinarily cautious with how we speak.  The old rhyme says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  But it’s wrong.  Words can and do hurt…and they can leave scars that last a lifetime.  As Christians, we use our mouths to praise God – so we ought not to use them to curse others (3:10).

  • The good news for believers is that not only is there forgiveness for the times we use our words wrongly, but there is healing for the times we ourselves have been wronged.  Go to the Lord Jesus, and ask Him for His help with your words.

Dangerous wisdom (13-18)
In chapter 1, James wrote that we can ask for wisdom & trust that God will give it.  There is Godly wisdom, and there is worldly wisdom, and we need the discernment to distinguish between the two.  Worldly wisdom is demonic (3:15) – it’s self-seeking (3:16).  Godly wisdom is pure & full of mercy (3:17).  It seeks to make peace with others, as we serve the Prince of peace (3:18).  All of this goes hand-in-hand with how we use our words & how we demonstrate our faith.  A Christian with a living, vibrant faith will use words that honor God, and reflect His character & wisdom.  Anyone can claim to be a Christian, but if their words sound like total pride & carnal selfishness, perhaps their faith isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be.

Speaking of pride…

Humble Faith
No pride (1-10)
Pride also works against a living faith.  Selfish pride keeps us seeking our own pleasures, which causes war and contentions between brothers and sisters (4:2).  We could simply ask God for what we want, but instead we become selfish and seek selfish, worldly things (4:3-4).  When we do so, that’s a sign we’re headed for trouble.  Instead of exalting ourselves and our desires in selfish pride, we ought to humble ourselves as we seek God (4:6).  When we humble ourselves unto God, we kill our own pride, we resist the devil, and we draw near to our Gracious Savior (4:7-8).  Do you want to deal with strife among believers?  Step one is to humble yourself.  In our pride, we want the other person to bow; God calls us to the opposite.  First, humble yourself, and let God take it from there.

No judging (11-12)
Pride and judgment (or judgmentalism) go hand-in-hand.  To “speak evil” of another brother, looking down on them for not keeping the commands of God the way we think they ought to keep them is to elevate ourselves above the law.  We make ourselves judges of the law, rather than subjects of it.  IOW, we put ourselves in the place of God, the one true Lawgiver (4:12).  Only God can save, and only God can condemn; Christians ought to leave the judgment to Him.

Be careful here not to get the wrong idea.  Some people would rip James’ words from his context (just like they do with Jesus, when He says “Judge not, that you be not judged,” (Mt 7:1).  Christians are to judge right & wrong.  We are to distinguish godliness from evil.  We ought to strive for the good, and help others understand the truth of God.  What we cannot do is condemn someone to hell.  We cannot pass judgment over their soul.  We can speak evil of actions, but we ought to be extremely careful not to speak evil of people.  Sinners act like sinners, and we’re all sinners.  The only difference between Christians and non-Christians is that we have been forgiven of our sins because of the grace of Jesus, and we have been given new life and the Spirit of God.  Non-Christians need His grace just as badly as we ourselves needed it.  So don’t judge them; love them with the gospel!

No boasting (13-17)
Just like we cannot judge someone’s eternity, we cannot grant anyone (or ourselves) another day.  We have no power over the turning of the earth, or the days of someone’s life.  With that in mind, we need to be careful not to boast about the future.  We ought to be cautious in making promises we cannot keep.  We don’t know if we’ll be around tomorrow, so we need to be careful in making promises about tomorrow.

Does this mean James is teaching us not to plan?  No.  He’s teaching us not to procrastinate.  James 4:17, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin."  If you know to do something good & God-honoring, then do it while you have the chance.  Don’t say you’ll do it tomorrow, because you have no way to guarantee you’ll be around tomorrow.  If someone’s hungry & you have food, give him the food right then – don’t procrastinate & boast how you’ll eventually get around to doing it.  Be practical – be humble – be active in what God calls you to do at the time He gives you to do it.

With that in mind, there is a future we will all face, which is the subject of chapter 5…

Ongoing Faith
Be prepared for judgment (1-6)
To those who were possibly unrepentant in their pride and partiality, James called them to the carpet.  Obviously being far-removed from the people to whom he was writing, he had no direct knowledge of local events – but it’s possible that he had heard of stories of what may have been happening among Christians outside of Jerusalem.  Just like Paul sternly called the Corinthians to repentance, so did James with his readers.  Those who were rich and oppressive needed to remember that they would one day be judged.  Not by James, nor any other Christian (as he warned against doing in Ch. 4), but by Almighty God.  The “Lord of Sabaoth” (Lord of Armies) heard the cries of the oppressed, and He would bring judgment (5:4).  As the writer of Hebrews reminded his own readers, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God,” (Heb 10:31).

  • The judgment of God is a sobering thing…and it’s supposed to be.  Even as believers, we will be judged.  Not in regards to punishment for sin, but for reward.  Why place ourselves in the position where we will have to give account for our chosen sin?  We will have to look into the eyes of our Jesus one day, and answer.  Be mindful of the future judgment!

Be patient for deliverance (7-12)
James spoke to the oppressors, but he also spoke to the oppressed.  The evil rich would one day face the judgment of the Lord of Armies, but that same Lord would come as their Deliverer.  They (we) needed to be patient for that day. (5:7)  The coming of the Lord is indeed at hand, though we do not know the day or the hour.  We simply need to be expectantly ready.

Lest we get prideful, James reminds us that even those who are oppressed still face our own judgment.  Thus the exhortations not to “grumble against one another” (5:9).  Instead of grumbling against each other, or even against our oppressors, we need to pray for patient endurance.  Job endured terrible trial, and he was blessed by the Lord for doing so (5:11).  We are to be the same way.  Don’t grumble, don’t oppress – just be truthful, and simple in your own promises as you wait upon the Lord.

Be prayerful in the meantime (13-20)
Finally, as we look towards the coming of the Lord in power & judgment, we still have a life to live here on earth.  James wraps up his letter giving several practical exhortations to the church.  He wrote a lot regarding on what a living faith looks like in regards to personal relationships, but what about corporate life as a church congregation?  That’s what he briefly addresses here.  We can pray for those who suffer – anoint the sick with oil, asking God for healing.  We can confess our sins to one another, helping each other deal with honest struggles, bearing one another’s burdens.  All the while, prayerfully taking everything to God.  Prayer works in ways that may be mysterious to the minds of men, but it works nonetheless.  As James points out, there was nothing special about Elijah, except the fact that he was a faithful man of God who prayed.  Nothing stops us from doing the same.  Pray for yourself, and pray for others, as we all help one another repent from sin and humbly follow the Lord Jesus.

For James, faith isn’t theoretical; it’s practical.  What we confess as doctrine needs to be shown in our practice.  That’s not complicated – it’s not legalistic – it’s simple common sense.  Those who are saved act as those who have been saved.  Whether it’s through physical demonstrations of love to those who are poor, or whether it’s through our words as we try to build one another up rather than tear each other down – we do the things that Jesus has saved us to do.  We move in our faith, and our faith shows that it is alive.

Because James is such a practical book, it can sometimes be a pretty convicting book.  Maybe there are some ways that you know your faith has fallen short.  You’ve seen opportunities to demonstrate Jesus’ mercy pass you by, or you know of ways your tongue has been used to curse rather than bless, etc.  Let’s spend a few moments tonight silently seeking the Lord to reveal those things to us, so that we might confess them to Him and receive His forgiveness.  Let’s also be sure to pray for the determination to actually obey.  When it comes to faith, we want to “just do it.”


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