Controversial James
Controversial James
by Rev. Stephen Fairweather, Ph.D.
Presented by
Saint Luke Evangelical School Of Biblical Studies
Used by Permission

The Letter of James contains one of the most controversial passages in the Bible. Most of the Bible speaks of the importance of faith. Examples are numerous, but let's refer to a few passages:

And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Genesis 15:6 KJV)

Then touched he their eyes, saying, According to your faith be it unto you. (Matthew 9:29 KJV)

Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: (Romans 3:22-24 KJV)

What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Romans 4:1-3 KJV)

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16 KJV)

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 KJV)

James, on the other hand, places emphasis on actions (or works), rather than on faith.

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18 KJV)

So who was James, and why is his letter included in the New Testament?

The only information we have from within the letter is in the first verse, where the writer identifies himself only as James (and so presumably was well known), and the letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes”, which normally refers to the Jews, and in this case to Christian Jews. The detail that those people are scattered among the nations would fit with the time of the dispersal of Jewish Christians that occurred after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1, 4, 11:19-20) where the Gospel was primarily preached to Jews.

Scholars generally tend to accept that the author was James the brother of Jesus, mentioned in Matthew 13:55, named by Paul as one of the Apostles in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:19) and considered one of the leaders of the Church there (Acts 15:13-21, 21:18).

Josephus, the first century Jewish Historian, describes the death of James in his Jewish Antiquities (Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1). James is named as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ,” and this is the first (currently known) mention of Jesus Christ outside the Christian writings. James, along with some others, was stoned. Eusebius, the third century Christian historian, refers to James as the brother of Jesus and a son of Joseph, and notes that the early Christians called James “the Righteous because of his outstanding virtue” (Book 2, Section 1). Other early Christian writings mention James. Ignatius (c.35 – c.107) mentions him more than once. Tertullian (160-220) refers to his martyrdom, and The Pastor of Hermas even refers to the letter of St. James being seen by some as legalistic in tone. There are many other references to men named “James” in early writings, but in some it is clearly the Apostle James, son of Zebedee and the brother of John (Matthew 10:2) who is discussed, and at other points it is uncertain which James is meant.

So, given that James was the brother of Jesus, and a leader of the Jerusalem church, why is it that his letter appears to contradict the rest of the Bible? Do we have to work to earn our salvation? Was the Protestant Reformation in vain?

Well, no. At no point does James say that our own actions can save us. What he does say is that if we believe something, then that belief will be shown by what we do. It's not enough just to say that we believe. Even the demons believe that God exists (James 2:19), but they don't worship Him.

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)? Jesus used this story when one of the legal experts tried to test Him. In the story, the injured man was passed by a priest and a Levite, but neither did anything to help him. It was the Samaritan who acted on what he believed, and so was a neighbor to the man. Jesus then told the man who had questioned Him to go and act on what he believed. Jesus also spoke of the separation of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), where those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick will be treated as if they had done these things for Christ Himself, while those who did not do such things will be considered to have abandoned Christ, and will be punished accordingly.

Rather than contradicting what Jesus and the rest of the Bible have said, James is putting it into practical terms. True faith will be shown in the believer's life. How a person lives and acts shows what he or she believes, regardless of the words they say. Anyone can claim to have faith, but it means nothing if it is not real belief.

James does not say that we do not need faith. Rather, he emphasizes the need for real faith, instead of just words. Deeds alone are not enough (James 2:18a)

The practical application of this in our lives can be painful. If we claim to believe one thing, while we really believe another, we are hypocrites. I'm not talking here about those times where we fail to live up to our beliefs, but rather those times when we don't even try. The Bible tells us that if we judge other, the measure we use to judge them will be used to judge us (Matthew 7:1-2). Do we preach forgiveness, but always hold grudges? Do we speak of Brotherhood on Sunday, and then discriminate against people during the week? Do we object to statues in church as idolatry, and then repeatedly skip worship to watch our favorite sports?

Many years ago my father had a Country & Western tape, which he played while driving. One of the songs had the line “You're the only Bible some people read”. This is what James is saying. Not “Faith isn't important,” not “Deeds can save you” but rather “Your faith comes out in what you do.”

James rightly points out that we cannot see faith in others. This makes it impossible for one person to know the faith held by another. All, however, can see how a person lives. As Christians, we are called to live by what we believe, and so let our light shine before others (Matthew 5:16).

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