The letter from James has not always been appreciated by all the leaders of the church. Martin Luther thought it was of little value. His reasons were (1.) it didn’t seem consistent with Paul and (2.) it failed to mention Luther’s chief concern of salvation by grace alone. Luther’s primary reason for viewing James to be inconsistent with Paul was James contention that faith without works is dead. However, careful examination of the context reveals that James is not inconsistent with Paul, as we will discuss in a later lesson. Indeed, James does not specifically mention “salvation by grace alone.” He did not because his key concern was not with nonbelievers who needed to hear about salvation, but with believers who had already experienced salvation but were failing to stand firm in the faith. Standing firm in the faith is a significant problem in all ages. What James says, about spiritual immaturity and how to overcome it, is particularly pertinent for believers’ today.
Commentaries and Scripture
Scripture quotes unless otherwise noted are from the English Standard Version (ESV) of The Holy Bible, Crossway Bibles, 2001. Commentaries Used: James, Douglas Moo, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press (1985), Expository Notes on the Epistle of James and Peter, H.A. Ironside, Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. 1947, Growing Slowly Wise (Building a Faith that Works), David Roper, Discovery House Publishers, 2000, Living Insights New Testament Commentary, James and 1&2 Peter, Charles R. Swindoll, Tyndale House Publishers, 2014.
Background For Understanding the Letter from James
This discussion is intended to provide both general guidance and specific points of reference that will be referred to and added to from time to time. The broad issues in this letter are spiritual immaturity and how to achieve spiritual maturity. James approaches the problem with a series of no nonsense examples.
People often confuse age and maturity. There is a significant difference. Not everyone grows “up” as they grow old in the sense of becoming a mature adult. That is true spiritually, mentally, and to some extent physically. Spiritual maturity is a vital issue. Failing to mature spiritually impacts all relationship based activities.
The Value of Testing by Trials
James wrote this epistle to motivate his flock to strive for spiritual maturity. In verses 1:3-4 he says, “… for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Situations which stress faith are also opportunities for developing steadfastness and growth in understanding. Believers who have difficulty remaining steadfast in faith in the face of the stress of trials are a special concern of James. He has keen insight into such problems. His instruction for dealing with them are applicable today.
Spiritual maturity does not happen automatically. Developing a mature faith requires intentionality and effort to understand. It requires deliberately cooperating with the Holy Spirit as He graciously works to transform us into a likeness of Christ. James informs, instructs, and challenges us to be people of integrity, people of mature character, with minimum weak spots.
Things God Must Do and Things He Enables Us to Do
Paul in Philippians 2:12-13 warns that believers should, “… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Believers are to intentionally work out the implications of salvation. That is possible only because God is at work within them. There are things only God can do (like salvation), and there are things He enables us to do (like resist temptation). He insists we do the things he enables us to do. There is great danger of we misunderstand which is which. Trying to do that what only God can do is frustrating and can lead to disasters. Failing to do what God enables us to do leads to spiritual immaturity.
Similar Message From Peter
We see a similar message in in 2 Peter 1. Peter says that it is possible to be a born-again believer and yet be totally ineffective and unproductive in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then he describes how to avoid that horrible situation.
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”2 Peter 1:3 – 10
God Gives to Believers the Potential for Everything Needed for Life and Godliness
God has granted believers everything pertaining to life and godliness. That provision, which occurs at regeneration, I believe is through something like spiritual DNA. Think of what physical DNA is and means. The first cell which will ultimately become a human being contains all the information necessary for growing and developing from that one cell into a mature person. The information in the DNA of the first cell is a combination of DNA from the father and mother and describes a new unique person.
The DNA information is latent. It is made manifest step-by-step as the baby develops in the mother’s womb. When the baby is born, the DNA instructions continue to direct its development from infant to adult and all through life. My concept of spiritual DNA is that it works in an analogous manner. At spiritual rebirth, each believer receives spiritual DNA from God which will provide everything needed for development into a mature spiritual adult. The spiritual DNA information is latent and will be made manifest step-by-step. Spiritual food supplies the spiritual nutrients needed for growth and development directed by the spiritual DNA.
Making Manifest God’s Provision
Making manifest the things necessary for mature spiritual life takes time and proper spiritual nutrients. At any stage in mortal life, no believer will have made manifest all that God has provided. God’s provision is real, but He has left it to us to participate in making it manifest. The Holy Spirit indwells each believer to guide and enable the process. Peter says the latent gift contains all we need for life and godliness. We are to develop the gift step-by-step. After regeneration, justification, and receiving the Holy Spirit (all of which is God’s action alone), we are to step-by-step participate in adding to God’s gift of faith an increasing measure of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, and brotherly affection. As we add these measures of grace, we will be enabled to be effective and fruitful in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The provision for life and godliness has been made, but we must choose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to make manifest that which has been provided.
Grieving, Quenching, or Walking in Step with the Holy Spirit
Right relationship with the Holy Spirit is vital. From Paul’s writings we know it is possible for us to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19), or keep in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:25 NIV). The life choices we make determine whether we are “in step” or “out of step” with the Spirit. To be filled with the Holy Spirit requires intentionality on our part, deliberately focusing attention on Him, and deliberately making choices that cooperate with His work as He transforms us into a likeness of Christ.
Importance of the Spiritual Heart
The overwhelming importance of our spiritual heart in determining how we live our life is stressed in many places in Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that lust for a woman was adultery in the heart and that like murder and anger in the heart toward another, will be subject to judgment. In Romans 12 Paul tells us that our minds need transforming. I think he means our “mission control” center needs transforming.
The gift of faith which accompanies regeneration engages and changes the entire inner person (intellect, emotions, and will). Because the inner person determines outward behavior, true faith also engages and changes outward bodily behavior like speech and actions. Thus, it is accurate to say true faith engages and changes the entire person – body and soul.
Intellectual Faith as Faith Without Works
People talk about “intellectual faith” as being cold and useless, describing it despairingly as “mere head knowledge.” More generally, faith which engages only a portion of the inner person is incomplete and inadequate. True faith engages intellect, emotions, and will. Faith based on any set of one or two of the three major subdivisions of the inner person is incomplete and inadequate. Thus, a purely intellectual faith, a purely emotional faith, an emotional intellectual faith, and a volitional-intellectual faith, etc. all represent incomplete faith. James is especially concerned about willful action. Unless the will is engaged faith at most involves mere thoughts, emotions, and words with no action. That is what James means when he talks about faith without works being dead. A faith without works is not a true faith because it does not engage the entire inner person. True faith engages the entire inner person and impacts the outer person. True faith is trust in and commitment to God which engages the intellect, the emotions, and the will resulting in obedient thoughts, speech, and actions.
Like faith, love is grounded in commitment and trust. Love is an overarching quality of the spiritual heart which actively involves the intellect, emotions, and will. People tend to ascribe love to the emotions, but love is at least as much a matter of the will and intellect. Love is perhaps best described as a commitment to work for the best interests of the beloved no matter what the circumstances. Paul describes attributes and attitudes of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4 – 7: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”These characteristics require active involvement of the will and intellect.
Speech, especially unguarded speech, is an observable indication of the state of a person’s heart (intellect, emotions, and will). In Matthew 12:34 Jesus said the mouth speaks out of the abundance or overflow of the heart. Controlling the tongue is a major task which cooperates with the work of the Holy Spirit in transforming our heart. In a related way, we cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work when we do as Paul instructs in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” All acts of deliberate obedience to God’s Word are cooperative acts.
Biblical Models of a Believer’s Relationship with God
In some ways the relationship between God and His people is utter simplicity, yet in other ways it is supremely complex and involves a great deal of mystery. Scripture reveals a number of conceptual models which can be used to aid understanding our relationship with God. Here are some Scriptural models – Living stones in a building, parts of a body or cells in a body, potter and pot, branches of a vine, shepherd and flock, teacher and disciple, relationship between a man and a woman in marriage, family, Lord and servant, citizens of the kingdom, and redeemer and redeemed. Each model reveals aspects of the relationship. There is some overlap between the models, but they are surprisingly different. Each model has its place in our thinking and in interpretation of Scripture. We are to use all the models as appropriate. No one model conveys the whole picture. The models are simple, yet complex. In one or more of the models each of the following attributes is highlighted: Covenant structure, mutual dependence among believers, all believers in utter dependence on God, love, discipline, Headship, subjection to one another, etc.
Marriage as a Covenant Relationship
Christian marriage is a covenant relationship. The husband, as head, commits to provide for his wife’s spiritual and physical needs – to give his life for her benefit if necessary. The wife commits to be subject to husband not in a slave to master sense but as equals before God who voluntarily and deliberately take upon themselves the assigned roles designed by God.
Historical Setting for James’ Letter
There was an ongoing and often brutal persecution of Christians. Fear of persecution was a serious problem among believers. Fear of suffering had caused many to hide or even to deny their faith or at best to retreat to a faith that existed only in words, not in deeds. True faith seemed to be vanishing as Christians were hunted down and killed or simply scared into silence. James’ letter is designed to prod true faith out of hiding and inaction.
James Basis of Comparison for Spiritual Maturity
As James writes about spiritual immaturity, what is his basis of comparison? What does he think constitutes a spiritually mature person? His reference book was of course the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament. The Old Testament has a lot to say about the kind of character that pleases God. David’s Psalm 15, for example, gives a concise description of practical behavioral qualities arising from the character of a true believer. James was no doubt familiar with this Psalm.
“O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? 2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; 3 who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend; 4 in whose eyes a vile person is despised, but who honors those who fear the LORD; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; 5 who does not put out his money at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved.”Psalm 15:1
The words “tent” and “holy hill” are Hebrew idioms referring symbolically to the place of God’s presence. The “tent” or “holy hill” is the place of spiritual intimacy with God. The question David asks is: What kind of person can dwell in God’s holy presence? Who can maintain intimate fellowship with the Lord? In other words, what are the qualities of a godly person? Both Psalm 15 and James’ letter deal with issues related directly to our “temporal” experience of salvation and only indirectly related to our “eternal” inheritance.
Many commentators find 10 or 11 characteristics of a godly person in Psalm 15. However, it is probably better to think of the Psalm as Hebrew poetry which uses several variations of parallelism. Formats of parallelism include simple repetition of an idea, contrasting statements, and the form of “not only this but also that.” With that perspective, in Psalm 15 we see 6 couplets each of which contains an independent concept.
People whose behavior pleases God will have at least the 6 behavioral characteristics listed in the psalm. These behaviors indicate overall character plus the speech, conduct, values, integrity, and use of money resulting from such character. (1) A spiritually mature person walks blamelessly and does what is right (that is, they are upright in character and actively engaged in righteousness). (2) A spiritually mature person speaks truth in their heart and does not slander with their tongue, (3) does no evil to his neighbor nor takes up a reproach against his friend (signifies how we are to treat people), (4) despises a vile person but honors those who fear the LORD (signifies how we are to regard people’s behavior – answers the question to whom do we look to as role models), (5) swears to his own hurt and does not change (signifies integrity by always keeping oaths – being faithful even when it hurts), (6) and does not put money out at interest and does not take a bribe against the innocent (signifies a right understanding of the value of people and money). It is the inward qualities of the heart that produce the characteristics of interest to David and James.
Identity of James and Date of Letter
About 15 – 20 years after the resurrection (i.e. about 45 – 50 AD), James wrote this letter dealing with the practical issues essential to living as a Christian. James is the Lord’s half-brother. Matthew 13:54-56 names James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas as brothers of Jesus and mentions sisters but does not name them. James appears to have been an unbeliever until after the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 tells us the resurrected Lord visited James. From that moment on, James appears in Scripture as a different man. At the time of writing, James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He writes to the converted. He writes about practical realities of day-to-day problems encountered by those trying to live the Christian life in a time of harassment and persecution. James emphasis is, “If you say you believe, why act as though you don’t?” That is a lament that I suspect every one of us has cried out. Lord, if I am saved, why do I keep doing things I know are wrong? The Apostle Paul (Romans 7:24) even near the end of his life felt precisely the same way.
James saw believers being impatient in the face of difficulties, talking but not living the truth, failing to exercise proper control over their tongue, fighting, coveting, and trying to outdo each other in gaining material things (sounds familiar, doesn’t it). James recognized these as problems arising from spiritual immaturity. Lack of spiritual maturity remains a huge issue today.