Ethical Dimensions of James

T. B. Maston  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 43 - Fall 2000

Introduction[1]This is an adaptation and an expansion of a section (pp. 257-67) of my Biblical Ethics (Waco: Word Books, 1967; currently published by Mercer University Press) and ts used by permission of the publishers.

The Epistle of James was evidently written to Christians in general but primarily to Jewish Christians. The author did not write to convert   or even to convince except to convince Christians that it was important for them to live their faith. There are numerous reflections in James of the teachings of Jesus and of Jewish wisdom literature. It is the most exclusively practical and ethical book in the New Testament. And since “the New Testament has a place for stubborn practical sense”[2]Floyd V. Filson, Opening the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952), 186. there is a place for James in the New Testament canon. That place, from the perspective of Christian ethics, is a particularly important one.

The book has been described as “a treatise against ‘Christian’ hypocrisy,”[3]Spiro Zodhiates, Tbe Work of Faith: An Exposition of James 1:1-2:13 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 7. This is the first of three volumes by the author on James. The others are entitled Tbe Labor of Love (2:14-4:12) and The Patience of Hope (4:13-5:20). “an ethical scrapbook,”[4]A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946), 96. “a tract on moral issues,”[5]Donald T. Rowlington, Introduction to New Testament Study (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 176. written “for the special purpose of recalling Christians to the agenda of their faith.”[6]James Moffatt, The General Epistles The Moffatt New Testament Commentary (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1928), 1. Still another author describes the book as “a coat of many colors…a manual of instruction …a Christian homily.”[7]Edward W. Bauman, An Introduction to the New Tertament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 147. It is primarily a series of exhortations without a sustained or unifying theme such as is so clearly evident in Hebrews, the book that immediately precedes it in our Bibles.

Since James is so exclusively ethical in its content we cannot comment on every specific teaching. This would require an analysis of almost every verse. This article will be restricted, in the main, to a discussion of passages of at least several verses with a central theme.


Doers and Hearers (1:22-25)

The author admonished those to whom he wrote to be quick to hear or to listen (1:19). They were warned, however, not to be hearers only but to show themselves more and more to be doers of the word (1:22; cf. Matt. 7:21, 24-27): “put it into practice” (TEV).[8]The Revised Standard Version is the translation of the Scriptures that will be used unless otherwise indicated. The following abbreviations will be used in the body of the article to refer to other versions: King James Version (KJV), The New English Bible (NEB), J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English (Phillips), Good News for Modern Man: The New Testament: in Today’s English Version (TEV), Charles B. Williams, The New Testament: A Private Translation in the Language of the People (Williams). Moffatt, modernizing the exhortation says, “When the sermon is done, it is not done; something remains to be done by the hearers in life.”[9]Moffatt, 26. Barclay similarly says, “That which is heard in the holy place must be lived in the market place­   or there is no point in hearing at all.”[10]William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 69. The word translated “doers” (poietes) occurs four times in the Epistle (1:22, 23, 25; 4:11) and only twice elsewhere in the New Testament (Rom. 2:13 and Acts 17:28, where it is translated “poets”­ Christians should be poets, creators of the beautiful). The statement by James about doers is typical of his continuing emphasis on Christian living. Anyone who hears or listens intently and does not do anything about what he hears deceives, deludes, or misleads himself (1:22); he does not deceive anyone else.

One who “listens to the message but never acts upon it” (NEB) or “without obeying it” (Williams) is compared to a man who “observes his natural face (“sees himself as he is” TEV) in a mirror…and at once forgets what he was like” (1:23-24). Mayor suggests that the imperfect knowledge gained through reflection in the mirror contrasts with the perfect knowledge of reality.[11]Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), 71. This is a reprint of this standard commentary using the revised third edition, published in 1913. It is possible, of course, that a good look in the mirror would not only reveal the superficial appearances of the natural face but also one’s moral needs as reflected in the ugly traces of sin on his face.

In contrast to the one who merely looks at his face in a mirror is the one who bends over or stoops down to look carefully or to fix his gaze (cf. John 20:5-11) on “the perfect law, the law of liberty” or “the perfect law that sets men free” (1:25, TEV). He looks beyond his face to the deeper needs of his life. One who perseveres or makes it a habit so to look will not be “a hearer that forgets” but “a doer that acts.”

What is this perfect (“flawless,” Williams) law which James also called “the law of liberty” or “the law that sets men free?” Evidently he was not referring to the Old Testament law or Torah. It seems rather that he identifies the perfect law with the law of love (see 2:8, 12), which is the fulfillment of all of the law (Matt. 22:40; Rom. 13:10; Gal. 5:14). This might explain why the perfect law can be equated with the law of liberty. The law of love is not and cannot be enforced by external compulsion. It “is a law of constraint rather than of restraint.”[12]R. J. Knowling, The Epirtle of St. James (London: Methuen, 1904), 33. It moves from within outward. It is a law, but a law to which one will respond more or less spontaneously if he has been brought into   union with the One who is love. As Moffatt so succinctly says, “The ethical hope of the age…was,” and still is, “in the obedience of the inward life to the law of divine duty.”[13]Moffatt, 29. The section in the Epistle on doing rather than just hearing is closed with the second of the author’s beatitudes: “He shall be blessed in his doing” (1:25; cf. 1:12).


Partiality and the Law (2:1-13)

This passage on respect of persons, partiality, favoritism, or snobbery is one of the most abidingly challenging and relevant sections of James. It not only challenges but poses a threat to color and culture conscious contemporary Christians and churches.

The section opens with an exhortation: “You must never treat people in different ways because of their outward appearance” (TEV). Phillips translates the exhortation as follows: “Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Mayor similarly says, “Do not you, who call yourselves believers in Christ, disgrace your faith by exhibitions of partiality.”[14]Mayor, 79. Moffatt sums up the matter by saying, “Belief in Christ is incompatible with any social favoritism.”[15]Moffatt, 32.

James applied his no-partiality doctrine to one particular area: the treatment of the rich and poor in the assembly of Christians. He doubtlessly had observed such partiality in some Christian groups. He said that if a rich man and a   poor man, evidently neither a regular worshiper, came to their meeting, possibly in a home, and the rich man was directed to a seat while the poor man was told to stand or   to sit on the floor, they were showing partiality. Notice the contrasts in the passage: “fine clothing” or “bright apparel” versus “shabby clothing,” “pay attention to” versus simply “say to,” “have a seat” versus “stand” or “sit at my feet,” “here” versus “there.” James very pointedly asked if such treatment did not “prove that you are making class distinctions in your mind, and setting yourself up to assess a man’s quality-a very bad thing” (2:4, Phillips). Milton suggests that “if the church member had given up his own seat to   the rich man, and himself been content to sit on the floor with the poor man, the situation would not have been so deplorable …but he too has a seat as well as the rich man.”[16]C. Leslie Mitton, The Epistle of James (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1966), 84.

In contrast God’s impartiality is revealed by his choosing those who are poor, from the perspective of the world, to be “rich in faith” and “heirs of the kingdom,” the only use of the phrase the kingdom (of God) in James. This does not mean that the poor are inevitably and universally men of faith and inheritors of the kingdom. The emphasis is not that poverty is advantageous, but that God is no respecter of persons and that his people should not be. In the purpose and plan of God rich spiritual blessings are available to the poor as well as to other men. The poor man, who was created in the image of God and who has the potential of rich spiritual experiences, is dishonored, insulted, or humiliated, when he is not treated with the same respect as the rich man.

Why should those of the Christian group treat a rich man with particular respect? Was it not the rich who oppressed them, dragging them (a word suggesting violent treatment-see Acts 16:19; 21:30) into court? Was it not the rich “who blaspheme that honorable name” – the name of the One to whom they belonged?

James then proceeded to relate “partiality” to the “royal law” or “sovereign law” (see Lev. 19:18); a law that applied to rich and poor. It was the royal or sovereign law because it was given by God and was “fit to guide a king, or such as a icing would choose, or even the icing of laws.”[17]A T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament Vol. 4 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933), 31. In the light of what Jesus (Matt. 22:40) and Paul (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-14) said it seems that the last of the preceding viewpoints would be the preferable interpretation: it was and is the royal, the sovereign, the supreme law; the essence or summary of the entire moral law. Partiality violates this law and is sin. Those who practice partiality “are convicted by the law as transgressors,” as those who have deliberately and knowingly stepped over or crossed over the line which marks the way in which they should walk.

Partiality or respect of persons not only violates “the royal law”; it is a violation of all the law. One who fails or stumbles in one point of the law “has become guilty of all of it.” One cannot choose the laws he wants to obey. The unity of the law is grounded in the unity of God, the Law­ giver. The law is an expression of one will. Sin basically is disobedience to that will. And since God’s will is an expression of his nature, any violation of any law of his is a sin against him. Partiality is such a sin. For James “the Law was the embodiment of the divine will summed up in the supreme ethical principle of love to one’s neighbors.”[18]Moffatt, 36. James appealed to his readers to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (2:12). This law “is not laxity but a strict ethical rule of God, and we shall be judged by our adherence to its supreme principle of brotherly love or mercy.”[19]Ibid. This law of liberty involves not so much external statutes as inner virtues.

While James applied the no-partiality doctrine or principle only to the treatment of rich and poor, the principle itself is general and universally applicable. In so far as individual Christians or churches show partiality in their treatment of those of different classes, cultures, or colors, they are not measuring up to the expectations of their Lord, who showed no partiality. One reason partiality or the making of distinctions is bad is the fact that it destroys the unity of the Christian group.


Faith and Works (2:14-26)

More logically and smoothly than usual, James moves from his emphasis on no partiality in the faith to the relation of faith and works or good deeds. He opens the section with two closely related questions: (1) “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? The emphasis here is not on the nature of faith but on the word “says,” the claim that one may make that he has faith. (2) The second question is “Can that faith save him” (NEB)?

Through illustrations and summary statements James proceeded to answer his own questions. He first gave the illustration of a “brother or sister” who was ill-clad and hungry. He was possibly still thinking of the poor man who was slighted in the congregation. He assumed that a member of the church family had turned aside such a needy brother or sister by saying, “Go in peace, (“God bless you!” TEV) be warmed and filled,” without giving the things that were needed. He then asks, “What does it profit?” and concludes that similarly “Faith by itself, if it has no works is dead.” Or, as Mayor suggests, “Just as a compassion that expends itself in words only is counterfeit” so is a faith that is fruitless.[20]Mayor, 99. The New English Bible suggests that faith, “if it does not lead to action …is in itself a lifeless thing”; “it is not merely outwardly inoperative but inwardly dead.”[21]Ibid. A faith that saves is a faith that works.

James then entered into a conversation or argument with an imaginary opponent. To this one he said, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” There is “no proof of the reality of faith other than the fruit it produces.”[22]Mitton, 109. Some consider this statement of James as little more than a paraphrase of the words of Jesus: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).

As an evidence that “faith apart from works is barren,” idle, or unproductive, James cites the cases of Abraham and Rahab. Abraham, for example, proved his faith in God by the offering of Isaac his son. Thus Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works,” or “faith was at work in his actions, and…by these actions the integrity of his faith was fully proved” (NEB). Phillips, in a typical paraphrase translates the statement as follows: “Can’t you see that his faith and his actions were, so to speak, partners?” Faith ripens or matures in obedience to God. Faith and works or good deeds are a unity in one’s relation to and experience with God. James, concluding his use of Abraham as an illustration, summarizes the relation of faith and works as follows: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

There follows a brief illustration of Rahab, who would be farthest removed in many ways from Abraham, but like Abraham her faith was proved genuine by what she did.

The personal conclusion of James to the entire discussion was as follows: “As the body is dead when there is no breath left in it, so faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse.” (NEB). He was not belittling faith; he was insisting that it be a real faith. His emphasis was not on the necessity for works, rather it was on “the inseparability of vital faith and works.”[23]James Hardy Roper, The Epistle of St. James The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1916), 219. Faith is not real if it does not have enough life and vitality to produce fruit.

Possibly a brief statement should be made about the seeming conflict between Paul and James regarding faith and works. Paul, for example, used Abraham to prove that one is justified by faith apart from works (Rom. 4:1-25), while James used him to prove that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Both of them quote the statement about Abraham that he “believed the Lord; and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. Rom. 4:3; James 2:23). A reading of Romans and James will reveal, however, that they were using Abraham for different purposes. Paul was producing proof that “a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28; cf. Gal. 2:16). In contrast, James was not concerned with the works of the law but works or good deeds in general. Also, he suggested that the offering of Isaac was the proof of the validity of Abraham’s justification by faith, which took place some years before. Notice that James says that Abraham’s “faith was completed by works, and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God…”‘ (2:22-23). The primary concern of James was with sanctification and not justification. Progress in the former is evidence of the latter. In other words, for James the only kind of faith that saves or justifies is a faith that is meaningful enough to produce fruit or good deeds.

There is no contradiction between James and Paul. Paul usually but not always used the word “works” to refer to conduct required by the Jewish law, while James used the word to refer to conduct demanded by the nature of the Christian life. Paul at times used the word “works” in much the same sense as James. When he did the word “good” was usually attached (see 2 Cor. 9:8; Col. 1:10; 2 Thess. 2:17; 1 Tim. 3:1). He even suggested that the purpose of salvation, which comes by grace through faith, apart from works, is “good works” (Eph. 2:10). Barclay sums up not only the position of Paul and James but of the New Testament in general when he says that “we are not saved by deeds; we are saved for deeds; these are the twin truths of the Christian life.” He further says that Paul’s emphasis was on the first truth and James’s on the second. They “do not contradict each other; they complement each other.”[24]Barclay, 87. Again he says that “faith and deeds are opposite sides of a man’s experience of God.”[25]Ibid., 92.


Use and Abuse of the Tongue (3:1-12)

James, in a somewhat epigrammatic way, had previously spoken of the tongue. The Christians to whom he wrote should be “quick to hear, slow to speak” (1:19). He also had said: “A man may think he is religious, but if he has no control over his tongue, he is deceiving himself” (1:26, NEB). It is in chapter three, however, that he discusses most fully the tongue.

He opens this section with the general admonition: “Let not many of you become teachers…for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.” He follows this with some exhortations concerning the use of the tongue not only by teachers but by others. He opens with a general confession that includes himself: “We all make many mistakes” or “All of us often go wrong” (NEB). This, in turn, is followed with the statement: “If any one makes no mistakes in what he says he is a perfect man, able to bridle (“control,” TEV) the whole body also”- “of all faults those of the tongue are the hardest to avoid.”[26]Roper, 228. The bit in the mouth of a horse is used to guide the entire body of the horse. The implication is that the tongue, in like manner, controls the whole body of man; “It is with men as with horses: control their mouth and you are master of all their action.”[27]Ibid., 229.

The tongue is also compared to the rudder of a ship. The rudder is quite small, but it is used by the pilot to guide the ship, although the latter may be large and the winds may be strong. “So the tongue is a little member,” but it can control the whole man. It can boast “of great things.”

Next James compared the tongue to a fire. He said, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire?” He then added: “and the tongue is a fire” (cf. Prov. 16:27; 26:18-22), it sets “on fire the cycle of nature” and is “set on fire by hell.” The latter portion of this expression is translated in a particularly graphic way in the New English Bible. It is as follows: “It keeps the wheel of our existence red-hot, and its flames are fed by hell.” The tongue is also called “an unrighteous world among our members” which stains or pollutes our whole being or body. It is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison,” and cannot be tamed by any human being, although we may properly conclude that it can be tamed by God.

How tragically true, as James says, that the tongue is used to bless or sing the praises of “the Lord and Father”­ the highest function of the tongue-and also to curse men, “who are made in the likeness of God.” James tersely concludes “My brethren, this ought not to be so.” This statement is followed with some rhetorical questions which close the section. These questions point out that it is just as inconsistent and inconceivable that the tongue should be used both to bless and curse as it is for both “fresh water and brackish” (“bitter” Phillips) to flow from the same spring or for a fig tree to bear olives or a grapevine figs (cf. Matt. 7:16). Also, it is just as inconsistent as it would be for salt water to yield fresh water. “It is a moral incongruity for blessing and cursing to come out of the same mouth.”[28]Robertson, 45.


Wisdom and the Good Life (3:13-18)

Wisdom plays an important part in the Epistle. Mayor claims that James gave to wisdom the “same prominence as St. Paul to faith, John to love, Peter to hope.”[29]Mayor, 36. This is one reason, but only one, that James is frequently compared to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, particularly to the book of Proverbs.

The passage in chapter three concerning wisdom is a brief but a very rich passage. James introduced the new topic with a question, a technique which he frequently used (cf. 2:14; 4:1; 5:13). The question was: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The question was possibly addressed directly to the teachers or would- be teachers among them, although there is nothing in the paragraph that would not apply to all Christians. Boasting about one’s wisdom, teacher or otherwise, would prove that he did not have real wisdom, the wisdom that comes from God. Just as faith must prove itself by good works, so the wise man will show or prove his wisdom by “his good life” or “right conduct” (NEB). As Robertson says, “Actions speak louder than words even in the case of the professional wise man.”[30]Robertson, 46.

Typical of James, as was true of Jews in general, his interest in wisdom was practical and not theoretical or intellectual. For him “wisdom was an endowment of practical usefulness. It was the power to discern right from wrong and good from evil.”[31]Mitton, 27. This practical emphasis is seen in his discussion of both earthly and heavenly wisdom. There is a wisdom that is earthly, unspiritual, and devilish or demonic. This wisdom is characterized by “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” and the boastful spirit. The presence of these qualities produces or at least implies the presence of “disorder and every vile practice” or “evil of every kind” (NEB ).

On the other hand, there is a wisdom that comes from above. It is God’s gift to his people. That wisdom produces and is evidenced by the good life. James, in what one author calls “the moral ‘pearl of great price'”[32]Lindsay Dear, An Outline of New Testament Ethics (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1949), 263. spells out some of the matchless qualities of the wisdom that comes from above. These qualities are comparable in beauty and depth to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), the characteristics of agape (1 Cor. 13:4-7), and the description of the new nature (Col. 3:12-14). The wisdom that comes from God is first pure; “first in rank and time.”[33]Robertson, 47. It is first of all pure because of the close relation of purity to God. It is the man with “clean hands and a pure heart,” who shall “ascend the hill of the Lord” and “stand in his holy place” (Ps. 24:3-4). It was Jesus who said that it is the pure in heart who shall see God (Matt. 5:8). No wonder James said “first pure.”

There follows six or seven more qualities of the good life. They describe the kind of life that proves that one has the wisdom from above. Such wisdom is “peaceful, gentle, and friendly” (TEV). It “conciliates and unites.”[34]Mitton, 140. The one who has this wisdom is “open to reason,” is “approachable” (Phillips), or “willing to yield” (Williams); the opposite of stubborn, or unbending. This wisdom, and hence the man who possesses it, is “full of mercy (or “compassion”) and good fruits” or “deeds of practical help to others.” Finally, the one who has the wisdom from above is “without uncertainty or insincerity,” which Phillips translates as follows: “with no breath of favoritism or hint of hypocrisy.”

In closing this section James suggested, at least by implication, another contrast between earthly and heavenly wisdom. Righteousness and peace are products of the wisdom from above. This is in contrast to the jealousy and selfish ambition of earthly wisdom, which result in disorder and every vile practice. Teachers, or others, who have the wisdom from above will sow in peace and will be instruments of peace. This will be one aspect of the good life, which will show or prove that they have the heavenly wisdom.


Rich and Poor (5:1-6)

James gave recurring attention to the rich and to a lesser degree to the poor. For example, if the rich man boasted it should be “in his humiliation,” because he will pass away in the midst of his pursuits, like the grass, which is withered by the scorching heat, and the flower whose beauty fades or perishes (1:9-11). As dis­ cussed previously, James warned against preferential treatment of the rich man in the congregation or assembly. Also, he reminded the tradesman of the uncertainties of life, telling him that he is “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (4:13-16).

The latter warning provides the immediate background for the most pointed and fullest statement by James concerning the rich. His opening words are: “Next a word to you who have great possessions. Weep and wail over the miserable fate descending on you” (NEB). In words that sound like the Old Testament prophets, he spells out, to some degree, the nature of their “impending miseries.” Those miseries relate to the three types of wealth that were known at that time: foodstuff, garments, precious metals. Typical of the prophet of God, the judgment was so real that James says, “Your riches have rotted [foodstuff] and your garments are moth-eaten [garments]. Your gold and silver have rusted.” Mayor calls these verb tenses “prophetic perfects.”[35]Mayor, 154. The rust from their gold and silver that they had gotten unjustly and hoarded selfishly, will be evidence or a witness against them. They have become so identified with their wealth that James, speaking metaphorically, says that the rust from their wealth will eat their flesh like fire. They laid up treasures, but they had “piled up wealth in an age that is near its close” (NEB).

The rich were condemned by James not only because they had hoarded their wealth; they had also been unjust in getting their wealth. They had withheld or “kept back by fraud” the wages of the laborers who had mowed their fields.[36]The Old Testament law says, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, …you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down …; lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you” (Deut. 24:14-15; cf. Lev. 19:13). Those wages cried out against them. Also the cries of the laborers or harvesters had “reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” “This name for God has a special note of majesty about it…the same God, who created the sun, moon, and stars, and who orders their courses …is also deeply concerned about the just treatment of the poor and insignificant, ready to defend them from injustice and punish the wrongdoers.”[37]Mitton, 180.

Still another charge against the rich was that they lived “in wanton luxury” (NEB) or “in luxury and self-indulgence” (Williams). They had fattened themselves “like cattle” (NEB), and just as was true of fatted cattle “the day for slaughter” had come (NEB), possibly a symbolic phrase for the judgment of God which would come upon them.

A third and closing thrust was that the rich had condemned and killed the righteous or innocent who offered no resistance. The implication is that God knows and he will judge. This is suggested by the following verses: “Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord…. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (vv. 7-8). James, in common with Paul (Rom.13:11-12; 1Cor. 7:29), Peter (1 Peter 4:7), and John (1 John 2:18), lived in the expectation of the coming of the Lord. The culmination of the kingdom for them was imminent.


Additional Admonitions

Chapters two and three have been discussed in their entirety in the preceding sections. The “additional admonitions” in this section will be gathered from chapter four and from the portions of chapters one and five that have not been discussed.

The ethical dimensions or nature of James is evident in two summary statements found in the book. The first of these, which is possibly the more familiar verse in the book, is as follows: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (1:27, I(JV). Moffatt says, “A pure, unsoiled religion expresses itself in acts of charity and chastity-the two features of early Christian ethics which impressed the contemporary world.”[38]Moffatt, 30. Another verse which might be considered a summary statement is as follows: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (4:17).

James admonished his readers to rejoice when they met “various trials.” They could know through their own experiences that the testing of their faith will produce steadfastness or “breeds fortitude” (NEB). In addition, when this steadfastness or fortitude is permitted to do its work, it will move them toward perfection or “will go on to complete a balanced character that will fall short in nothing” (NEB) (1:2-4; cf. 5:11). Again, James said the man was blessed or happy who endured trial, “for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown [the victory wreath] of life which God has promised to those who love him” (1:12).

The readers were challenged not only to be “slow to anger” (1:19) but also to “put away all filthiness and rank growth of wickedness” or “all that is sordid, and the malice that hurries to excess” (1:21, NEB). They were not to covet (4:2) nor to speak evil against a brother or to judge their neighbor (4:11-12). Neither were they to “grumble…against one another” or blame their “troubles on one another” (5:9, NEB), a continuing human weakness. “Above all” they were not to swear or “use oaths” (NEB). James says, “When you say yes and no, let it be plain ‘Yes’ or ‘No'” (5:12, NEB; cf. Matt. 5:33-37). They were to cleanse their hands and purify their hearts (4:8). They were   to humble themselves, remembering that God “gives grace to the humble” (4:6) and exalts them (4:10, cf. Matt. 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14).

James warned those to whom he wrote about wars and fightings among themselves (4:1). Mayor suggests that war “denotes any lasting resentment” and fightings “any outburst of passion.”[39]Mayor, 133. James also warned them against “friend­ ship with the world” (4:4). Such friendship or “love” of the world is “enmity to God” – “whoever chooses to be the world’s friend makes himself God’s enemy” (4:4, NEB). Such a one is an unfaithful creature or an adulterer. How can the preceding be made compatible with the fact that God loves the world/ There is a sense in which God’s child not only can but should love the world, but it must be a love that stems from and is similar in kind to God’s redemptive love for the world. The love or friendship condemned by James is a love for the things of the world, a friendship   that means compromise for the Christian and unfaithfulness to God.

In the closing chapter, in addition to the things previously mentioned, James appealed to his readers to be patient, longsuffering, or literally long tempered “until the coming of the Lord” (5:7). He cited as examples of patience the farmer (5:7) and the prophet (5:10). The closing exhortations, all of which have some ethical overtones, are to pray over and anoint the sick (5:14), to confess their sins (5:16), and to restore wanderers to the faith (5:19-20).


Personal Conclusion

The basic moral concepts and the ethical exhortations of James are as relevant for Christians of the twentieth century as they were for the Christians of the first century. There are some elements of a basic ethic in James, although the major emphasis is in the area of applied ethics. In this, as well as in other ways, the book is rather closely related to Jewish wisdom literature, particularly to the book of Proverbs. In the field of applied ethics the major emphasis is on personal morality in contrast to social morality. The latter, however, is not entirely lacking.

While the pressures and temptations of first century Christians were distinctive in some ways and to some degree, the problems Christians face remain, in the main, the same from generation to generation. This stems, to a large degree, from the fact that human nature has never basically changed. For this reason, the contemporary child of God needs to hear the admonition of James to be “slow to anger,” to be patient, and to have the qualities of character that Paul called the fruit of the Spirit. Likewise we should heed the exhortation not to covet, nor to speak evil against a brother or to blame our troubles on someone else. All of us should seek to be so stable in character that our yes would be yes and our no would be no. And how desperately we need to heed the warning about friendship with the world. Furthermore, when the attention of our nation and our world is being focused on poverty and the hungry, starving masses of the world, we need to hear with renewed clarity the first portion of James’s statement concerning pure and undefiled religion: “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” Also, when we are caught up in a per­ missive morality that seems to have no limits, we need to heed the second portion of that summary statement: “keep oneself unstained from the world.” Or, to use Moffatt’s translation: “A pure unsoiled religion expresses itself in acts of charity and chastity.” And let us not forget that both charity and chastity are needed. It is necessary that personal morality and social morality or social outreach should be joined together if the Christian is to live a full-orbed life for Christ and his fellowman.

Surely all of the major emphases in James are needed in the contemporary period. Few if any Christians have learned how, if it can be learned, to control the tongue. Entirely too many of us still use the same tongue to praise God and to curse man, who has been created in the image of God.

Do we have the heavenly wisdom and its attendant qualities of the good life? How fully are those qualities revealed in our daily contacts with loved ones, neighbors, friends, and people in general? If we were to grade ourselves A, B, C, D, F what grade would we give ourselves on purity, peacefulness, gentleness, friendliness, reasonableness, and mercy or compassion? How prevalent are righteousness and peace in our lives, qualities that are the products of the wisdom from above? These questions have been asked simply to underscore the relevance of the message of James to the lives of contemporary Christians.

Similar questions could be raised about hearing and doing. All of us will surely admit that we hear much more clearly and accurately than we do. This is true in every area of our lives. Our major weakness is not our lack of knowledge, although there is a real need in this area. Our knowledge is far ahead or beyond our practice. One of the best assurances of additional knowledge, particularly in the moral and spiritual areas, is a fuller conformity to the knowledge we now have.

The gap between our knowledge and our practice is also underscored by what James had to say concerning faith and works. There has been entirely too prevalent a tendency among Christians generally to separate faith from works. These belong together. There is a sense in which they are dependent on one another. Neither is complete without the other. How grateful all of us should be that James is in the New Testament. The same emphasis on works is found in the teachings of Jesus and in the writings of Paul and John, but James points up the place of works, or good deeds in a particularly graphic way. The more our emphasis is on salvation by grace apart from works the more we need to hear the words of James that faith without works is dead.

A comparable warning is needed by the church or the Christian group as well as by individual Christians. The church’s practice falls far short of its preaching and teaching. What James says concerning faith and works is distressingly relevant for contemporary Christians and churches. What he says might properly be considered a part of a basic ethic although it is operative in the applied area. At least we can say that the proper relation of faith and works is foundational in the whole area of applied ethics. It sets forth a general concept that is universal in its application.

The proper relation of faith and works is applied in a particular way to the practice of partiality or respect of persons within the Christian congregation or group. James applied the no-partiality doctrine to the treatment of the rich and poor. There are some Christians and some churches that need this emphasis. Too frequently we are more interested in reaching for our church those who can do something for our church than those who need in a particular way the ministry of our church. The latter in most cases are the poor and underprivileged.

The basic concept or principle of impartiality or “no respect of persons” applies to any man-made and recognized distinctions among people. Who would dare say that this message is not needed by many of us as Christians and many of our culture and color conscious churches!

One reason for the entirely too prevalent culture consciousness by Christians and churches is the fact that our churches have become to such a large degree middle class and to a lesser degree upper class institutions. The warnings that James addressed to the rich and his words concerning the poor would be strikingly appropriate for many in our churches.

While James does not have the doctrinal depth of Romans and Galatians and may lack the basic guidelines for the Christian life of 1 John, nevertheless, it is doubtful if any book of the New Testament is more thoroughly and abidingly relevant for everyday Christian living. There is enough in it to challenge us and our churches to the end of the journey. Let us not only be readers or hearers of the message of James; let us also be doers of what he says!


Category: Journal Article
Tags: ,

Share This Article:  

Southwestern Journal of Theology
To download full issues and find more information on the Southwestern Journal of Theology, go to