Christians, through the centuries, have had a love/hate relationship with the book of James. Theologians and scholars often hate it because of its pithy sayings, lack of logical structure and its seemingly contradictory message (when compared with that of Paul) of salvation not being by faith alone (see James 2:24). However, the everyday Christian, often rejoices when they reach the book of James, having pushed through the complex theological sentences and thoughts of Paul, there is a sense of relief reaching James, and a sense of freshness that comes with the practical advice he offers us.
James is just so helpful! He deals with the practical matters of enduring trials, showing favour to the rich, showing mercy to the needy, controlling the tongue, being friends with the world and praying for one another (and many other things).
In a sense, that famous statement, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17 and 26), really summarises James’ message to his readers. The point of James’ letter to these Christians is that: You cannot have faith, and yet, not have works, because such ‘faith’ (if it can even be called that) is dead. Such ‘faith’ is false, a sham, a shadow, a hoax. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no works?” (2:14) That’s the point isn’t it. If you don’t have works, then it is merely a claim to faith. Merely an empty profession.
In order for faith to be real, it must be shown (2:18). Just as Abraham showed his faith by offering Isaac on the altar (2:21-23). Just as Rahab showed her faith by receiving the spies and sending them out by another route (2:25). Just as the wise and understanding person must show it “by their good conduct” (3:13). Faith that cannot be shown by works, is worse than the faith of demons, who at least shudder (2:19)! Such ‘faith’ is good for nothing (2:14 and 16), dead (2:17 and 26) and foolish (2:20).
Practically, this means that Christians cannot hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ (faith), and yet, show favouritism to the rich (works) (see 2:1-13). Christians cannot claim to have faith (faith), and yet, simply send needy people away with well-wishes (works) (see 2:14-26). Christians cannot praise their God and Father (faith), and yet, curse those who are made in his image (works) (see 3:1-12). Christians cannot claim to be friends with God (faith), and yet, be friends with the world (works) (see 4:1-6). Christians cannot claim that God is sovereign (faith), and yet, make plans without according the Lord’s will (works) (4:13-17). Christians cannot honour the Lord Almighty (faith), and yet, live on earth in luxury and self-indulgence (works) (5:1-6).
To do such things would be to be ‘double-minded’ (see 1:8 and 4:8). It would be like having two minds, two souls. One mind which worships God and another which does not worship God.
And so, James calls his readers to be perfect. “Let perseverance have its work, in order that you might be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (1:4) That’s what James wants. He wants his readers to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Another verse: “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.” (3:2) James wants his readers to control their tongue, to “never be at fault in what they say”, because if they can do that, then they will be perfect!
James is calling his readers to perfection. But, let me tell you, I am not perfect. Just ask my wife! And so, we can be thankful for the last two verses of James: “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (5:19-20) That’s the Gospel which James offers us today. He is calling his readers to perfection, but the Gospel is this: if you are not perfect, and yet, you turn from the error of your ways, you will be saved from death and your sins will be covered.