The Epistle of James may be the most misunderstood book in the New Testament. In this short series we have looked at some of the “troublesome” verses in James. Where others have found law and condemnation, we have found grace and freedom! In case you missed it, here’s a summary of what we’ve covered so far (click on the links to read the original posts):
It’s time to put this series to bed. We’ve covered a lot of ground but perhaps there is a verse in James that still troubles you. To help you I want to give you a simple key for unlocking the whole epistle. If you don’t have this key, James is a frustrating book. If you don’t have this key you may be tempted to dismiss James for one of the following reasons.
1. James is preaching salvation by works (so he shouldn’t be in the New Testament)
The problem with this excuse is that there is a grain of truth behind it. In a manner of speaking, Rahab was saved by works. If she hadn’t opened her door to the spies of Israel, she would’ve perished along with the rest of Jericho. But we misread James if we think our works make us pleasing to God. Jesus is pleasing to God. Our work is to believe in the one He sent (Jn 6:29). Our work is to be fully persuaded that He has made us eternally acceptable in the Beloved (Eph 1:6).
Rahab’s work was a fruit of repentance. We see the work, but God saw the change of heart. Along with everyone in Canaan, Rahab believed that God was angry with her. But then Rahab changed her mind about God and decided to trust in His mercy. She humbled herself and God lifted her up. God both saved Rahab (revealing His mercy) and then elevated her to the royal family tree (revealing His grace). Is this a message James preaches? Yes!
“God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble… Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up.” (Jas 4:6,10)
2. James is writing for Jews (so it’s not relevant for me)
This is a convenient excuse (particularly if you’re non-Jewish!) but it’s misguided. True, James does identify his audience as “the 12 tribes” of Israel (Jas 1:1). But the gospel is the same for both Jews and Gentiles – there is no difference. We are all one in Christ.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:28-29)
Who is a true Jew? According to Jesus it is someone who does the works of Abraham (Jn 8:39). According to Paul it is someone whose heart has been circumcised by the Spirit and not by the law (Rms 2:29). So if you are a Christian, then you are Abraham’s seed and James is especially relevant for you! You cannot dismiss it!
3. James was not aware of Paul’s gospel (so I know more than he did)
Several readers have written to me saying James was written early in the piece and before the gospel of grace was widely understood. The implication is, “we know the gospel better than James so we don’t need to take James too seriously.” Oh boy.
This excuse is convenient, dangerous, and based on a whole lot of “we don’t knows.” We don’t know exactly when James was written. (On my shelf are several authoritative sources that date James anywhere from AD45 to 150.) We don’t know for sure whether James was written before or after Romans, Galatians or Colossians.
It doesn’t matter a whole lot when James wrote his letter. The real question is this: Was James acquainted with the gospel of grace? As I have explained in this series, I believe he was. And one thing we do know for certain was that he and Paul met on more than one occasion (see Acts 15, 21, Gal 1:19). Luke wrote about it one of these meetings:
“The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God.” (Acts 21:20)
These weren’t just social visits. Paul said he went to Jerusalem to set before the James and the other leaders “the gospel that I preach” (Gal 2:2). It is true that Paul was the boldest, most prolific preacher of the gospel in the New Testament. But he certainly wasn’t the only preacher of grace. To dismiss an entire book of the Bible on the basis of things we don’t know is reckless. I don’t recommend it.
The key to James
As we saw in Part 1 of this study, there is absolutely no chance you can come under law if you read James through the finished work of the cross. But that’s only half the story. To rightly interpret scripture we also need to consider the audience. Yes, James is writing for Jews and yes that means you even if you’re Japanese or Javanese. But the key to understanding James is this: he has two messages for two audiences. Parts of James are written for saints and other parts are written for sinners.
Like every good preacher, James knows he’s addressing two groups of people. Sinners are rebuked for being adulterous friends of the world in chapter 4, while saints are reminded of their righteousness in chapter 5. Sinners are exhorted to humble themselves and submit to God, while saints are exhorted to pray and turn sinners around. For sinners, Rahab is held up as a model unbeliever. She was living under condemnation but she was smart – she repented. For saints, righteous Abraham is held up as model believer. The issue for him was not salvation but an inheritance which belongs to all of us who are fully persuaded that God will do what He said.
If you’re a saint, it’s silly to think that James is writing to you when he says, “cleanse your hands, you sinners,” (Jas 4:8). And if you’re a sinner holding out against the grace of God, then don’t think James is speaking to you when he writes about the prayers of righteous men (Jas 5:16). Praying doesn’t make you righteous. Jesus does!
Perhaps the best reason why some folk have trouble with James is that they don’t know where they stand with God. Instead of hearing what James has to say to them, they’re getting mixed messages. Another reason is that try and unlock James with an inferior key, such as the three listed above.
Unlocking the Bible is not hard provided you have the right key. Jesus is the key. We need to read the Bible in light of what Jesus has done. You are either resting in His finished work on the cross or you’re not. In either case, the Bible has good news for you! But the message for those in Christ is not the same as those who are rejecting Christ.
There is life and health in the word of God, but you will come to grief if you swallow medicine that was meant for others. Don’t read the Bible to learn what to do. Read the whole Bible – including James – to discover Jesus.