The book of James is one of the most beloved books of the New Testament because of its street-level practicality. Its applicational nature is further enhanced by its frequent word pictures and everyday illustrations that can seamlessly translate into vivid and relevant sermons for our people. While these features can make navigating through James’ seem straightforward, expounding such a practical book does come with some potential potholes to avoid. Here are a few tips to help us faithfully explain the text.
Mine the Text, but don’t Undermine the Text
The simple and straight forward truths of James can sometimes lead us to focus on individual verses rather than entire passages. Certainly, there are times that principles can be isolated for personal encouragement or exhortation. For example, we should be quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19), we should care for widows and orphans (1:27), and not everyone should become a teacher because of the heightened responsibility (3:1). But expounding individual verses is not always sufficient exposition. Instead of mining the text for truths, we can undermine the truth of the text.
Proof-texting is the most obvious error when verses are isolated from their context (i.e. justification by works based on 2:21). But the more common, and perhaps most costly, pitfalls are often more subtle. For example, when we focus on individual verses we can miss the intended emphasis of the text (i.e., praying for wisdom as a general principle [1:5] vs. praying for wisdom in trials [1:2–8]). In addition, preaching a practical principle based on an individual verse can relegate the Scriptures to a self-help manual (i.e., start doing or stop doing). Likewise, an isolated theological principle can lead to a misunderstanding of an important doctrine (i.e., forming a doctrine of prayer based on 4:3). And, ultimately, when we isolate verses we also present a poor model of personal study for our listeners to learn from and follow. Therefore, when preaching James, we must remember to preach passages, not principles.
Explain the Illustrations, but don’t Expand the Illustrations
James uses metaphorical language throughout his epistle and his illustrations provide word pictures that communicate eternal truth in relevant ways. What else would you expect from Jesus’s half-brother? As preachers, we don’t have to overcomplicate it by looking for ways to expound on the illustrations. It’s always more important to be clear instead of clever. The divinely inspired images of waves, flowers, mirrors, rudders, fires, springs, farmers, throughout the letter are intended to perfectly illustrate what God desires to communicate. Leverage the embedded examples to expound the truths of the passage.
But, we must also be careful not to press the illustration beyond what it is intended to communicate. Allegory, inflated meaning, or nuanced understandings of the textual illustrations may sound great, but they can ultimately distract listeners from the primary truths that the illustrations are intended to clarify. James provides these windows to shed light on the truth, but when we expand the illustration too far we actually open the window and import meaning into the text that ultimately clouds the truth.
Expound the Gospel Life, not the Good Life
Much of James’ instruction is straight forward and direct. There are plenty of commands that flow from his admonition to be “doers of the word” (1:22). James also affirms the significance of obedience and the “entire law” (2:10). In addition, he often provides real-life examples of how the truth should be applied. Whether its examples of true religion (1:26–27), prohibiting preferential treatment (2:1–9), providing for those in need (2:15–16), or boasting about tomorrow (4:13-17), James offers practical instruction for a godly life. As preachers, we must be careful to handle these practical instructions in a biblical way. James is not simply advocating for a moral lifestyle. But, if we’re not careful, we can be guilty of preaching behavior modification rather than Savior modification.
The underlying foundation of the obedience James promotes is “faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” (2:1). Genuine faith in Christ will produce good works as evidence of a transformed life (2:14-26), but it is Christ’s work on our behalf that is credited as righteousness through faith (2:23). James is careful to clarify that God’s law is a “law of liberty” (1:25; 2:12), not a law of legalism. True obedience is only possible when enabled by God’s grace and empowered by God’s Spirit in humble submission to the Lord (4:5-10). We must be careful to consistently remind our people of this truth as we explain the practical admonitions of James’ epistle.
Scott Pace is Associate Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Preaching, Associate Director of the Center for Preaching and Pastoral Leadership, and the Johnny Hunt Chair of Biblical Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.