The letter of James contains much strong language about temptation, sin, law, judgment, and good works. I live in a part of Utah were 90% of the Anglo population is Mormon. Less than 2% would attend a Catholic or Protestant church. The Bible passage that Mormons here are lightning quick to quote to Christians who mention that eternal life is a gift, is found in James 2:17 and 26: "Faith without works is dead." James doesn't mention the death or resurrection of Jesus directly and may only mention explicitly the person of Jesus twice, and then only concerning his authority as Lord. Martin Luther ranked the books of the New Testament based on how clearly he could see the gospel in each one. Of course Romans was at the top of his list, and it may be no surprise that James was at or near the bottom. He famously said the letter of James was an epistle of straw, by which he meant that a Christian could get very little spiritual food by reading it. Many have wondered why James is even in the New Testament. Many have found it as dry as Luther declared it to be. Has it troubled you? I suggest that the fact that it is even in the Bible at all should cause us to pause and meditate much on the possibility that we are missing something—maybe even reading James upside down. The very early Christians must have seen significant value in it for it to still have had sufficient residual honor to be included in the canon long after their clarity had been lost. What lens were they reading it through that subsequent generations down to our day have not noticed? I suggest that James Denney, a theologian's theologian of a century ago, may have noticed something. as he wrote the following about the letter of James.
"If the name of Jesus is less frequently mentioned in James than in other New Testament writings, there is none which is more pervaded by the authority of His word." [all emphasis mine]
Hopefully we will explore what James Denney meant.
James: The Glory of the Law or A Serious Call to Human Obedience?
Is the letter of James focused on the honor of the moral law, including the surprise that the mind focused on that honor naturally produces right behavior in the individual? Or is James focused on communicating God's seriousness about people stopping their bad behavior, with of course a secondary lesson that a person who sins once is a lawbreaker [with the unmentioned implication of a subsequent need of salvation]?
I would like to set the context for James in the prophet Isaiah, who declared 750 years before James in a Messianic chapter:
"The Lord is well pleased for His righteousness sake,
He will exalt the law and make it glorious."
If the exaltation of the moral law is important to God, do you think it should be important to us? If God wants it to be important to us, do you think that neglecting or forgetting it is a big deal? Is it something He would like us to notice and take seriously? I would suggest that all of these are true and that all of James is about this point and its application. I also suggest that there are big surprises hidden inside this approach to James. If you happen to check in here over the coming months as I blog monthly through James, you will notice a very heavy dependence on the gospel of Isaiah. Words in James will be seen through Isaiah's use of those words, and, surprise of surprises, God's glad righteous favor will often seem to appear out of nowhere and be on center stage. James is an official messenger of the Lord of righteousness and grace. Would the Lord not have trained him well and inspired him? How strange then that his letter would not be about grace. Let's be honest and have the courage to assume that ALL the confusion is on our part and stop blaming James (and thus also God?). Let's patiently seek to find the keys he left for us that we might see and celebrate God's righteous generosity in every passage. I suggest that James is about the meaning of the gospel and not the events themselves. We will explore the interwoven connectedness of law and grace—and also their razor sharp distinctions.
Martin Luther rediscovered the apostolic teaching of righteousness by faith alone. Certainly we shouldn't think that Luther rediscovered all the diamonds of apostolic teaching that had been buried under church tradition and cultural bias. Could it be that there are many other blessings hidden in Luther's shadow just waiting for subsequent generations to notice? Many such have come to light. If the above approach to James happens to be correct, and I am convinced that it is, then one of the first surprises in James is a new understanding about what temptation is about—a way that removes all pressure to make excuses for failure, and that makes restoration simple and joyful. Is that possible?
What Is Temptation About?
"But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed." -James 1:14
This verse declares that temptation is being drawn away from something. What is that something? Is it about being drawn away from striving for right behavior or being drawn away from right moral thinking (true religion)? I suggest that it is the latter and that such is the theme of all of James, though the former seems to be what I commonly hear and read from Christians and non-Christians alike. One of the themes that will be commonly explored here is the connection between thinking and behavior.
An agnostic USU student friend complained to me that women were commonly blamed for the sexual temptations and problems of men. I suggested to him that such thinking was false because temptation was about being drawn away from something, and thus all fault was in self. He was shocked and intrigued, stating that he had never thought or heard of temptation as being "from something" and had only been aware that it was "to something." He liked the idea.
I suggest that James is all about proper moral thinking (true religion) that naturally results in good works (proper behavior) without partiality, competition, selfish ambition, judgmentalism etc. (verses 3:17-18) Our problem is that we think that James is exaggerating when he declares:
- that the one who looks intently into the perfect law [the standard that only perfect obedience is good] that brings liberty, and keeps looking there [never looking away, even for a moment]—not being a forgetful hearer but an effective doer—he will be blessed in what he does. (verse 1:25)
- that the one who keeps the whole law [always perfectly does what is right] and fails in only one small point, is guilty of breaking the whole law [is equally a lawbreaker with all others, including coveters, gossips, and mass murders]. (verse 2:10)
- So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. [the bold words are commands in the plural in Greek, meaning that they apply to all people. They apply always.] (verse 2:12)
- Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, [judging a brother by any standard other than perfection] speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.(verse 4:11)
Only recently have I surmised that James is about holiness not justification or evangelism.
Conclusion: Life is About Living in Goodness.
Do you want to do what is good? Then think what is good—that partial obedience is disobedience—that only perfect obedience is good. Doing this will leave you naked of any possibility of credit or hope in self and of any sense of need to pressure others to perform since they are naked like you. It will also turn you outside yourself for all hope and security. But isn't that where Christ is with the gospel of grace waiting compassionately and gladly to satisfy your every need? How did James know that and how did he know that we would know it, too? Welcome to the celebration of life in God's surprising goodness.