Comments and Observations
The millennial generation in your church will love the Epistle of James, because it presents the Christian faith as less of a head trip than as a way of life. Indeed, James is so filled with practical instructions for Christian living that Martin Luther famously called it a “right strawy epistle… for it has no gospel in it.” He didn’t mean that James has no place in the sacred canon. Rather, he meant that compared to, say, Galatians and Romans, there was little in James about the pre-eminent doctrine of the Reformation, justification by faith alone. Indeed, James’ words about faith in chapter 2 seem almost a direct contradiction of that famous Pauline doctrine.
As a very early Reformer, it is understandable that Luther would be hyper-sensitive to the alleged absence of that all important doctrine. But justification by faith alone is not the sum total of the gospel. A few years after Luther began the Reformation, John Calvin had broadened the church’s understanding of salvation with his doctrine of “double grace.” “Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father, and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.”
In other words, the gospel is about more than justification; it is also about sanctification. This insight, of course, was not Calvin’s invention. It is exactly what Paul meant by adding Romans 6 immediately after Romans 5. And it was what John was getting at in his famous assurance of pardon in I John 1:9, where our faithful God will “forgive us our sins and cleanse us from us from all unrighteousness.” Think of how the beloved old hymn, “Rock of Ages,” puts it: “be of sin the double cure, save from guilt and make me pure.”
So, as we begin our study of James, let’s be sure to emphasize that we are preaching gospel here—the good news of sanctification. This is who we are saved to be and what Christ by his Spirit enables us to be. Just as the Ten Commandments are introduced by the Good News of deliverance from the house of bondage, so this very Jewish letter assumes our deliverance and calls us to live as liberated people (cf. James 1:25, “the perfect law that gives freedom”).
But some scholars have claimed that there is so little mention of Jesus here that it is a real stretch to call this a Christian letter; it’s more like an extended riff on Torah. It seems incontrovertible that this letter was addressed to a Jewish audience (cf. James 1:1, “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations”). Of course, it is possible that James means that address in a more spiritual sense. He may be addressing the Christians who scattered out of Jerusalem after persecution began in earnest (Acts 8). Even if that is true, there is no denying that James feels pretty Jewish, much like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed, many scholars hear many echoes of that Sermon in James.
In fact, that is a helpful way to think about the place of Jesus in James. Though Jesus is explicitly mentioned only two times (1:1 and 2:1), James is filled with the teaching of Jesus. Thus, it is Christ centered in a different way than Paul’s letters. If Paul preached a Christ who was a priest and a king, James presents Christ the prophet and teacher. The Christ who offered himself up a sacrifice for our sins and now reigns over all things for the church also teaches us how to live as redeemed people under his rule. James is fulfilling the Great Commission, making disciples by “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” So we can preach on James as part of our disciple making ministry.
As I just pointed out, it is addressed to people who were scattered among the nations, a minority whose faith was sorely tempted by the glittering vices of the world and whose very existence was an irritant to the glitterati of the world. Lured by riches and lashed by the rich, these poor Christians struggled with the question, “How shall we then live in a world filled with dangers that threaten us and deceptions that lure us into inconsistent Christian living?” What does it mean to be faithful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? In other words, James is tailor made for this generation of Christians. It is a kind of survival guide for pre-modern and post-modern Christians.
But be careful. Though it is filled with very practical instructions, it is not simple “how to’s.” Here’s what I mean. As you preach through the teachings of Jesus here, don’t ignore the doctrine under the surface. In today’s pericope, for example, James concludes his discussion of the deep problem of theodicy. If we are to rejoice in trials because God can use them to complete us, do such trials come from God? And if that is true, then is God the author of the temptation that trials often bring? And if he is, what kind of God do we worship then? No, answers James, temptations do not come down from God; they well up from within us. God only sends down good gifts to us. After all, he is the Father of lights, who never changes in his covenantal determination to do us good. Obviously, I have abbreviated my explanation of the theology in those opening verses of our pericope, but you see how thickly theological James is beneath the surface.
One of the great problems with preaching on James is the apparent lack of connection between the various sections. It feels like one “and” after another, like a string of pearls connected by only the thinnest of threads. And that may be the case sometimes. But other times, there really is a connection that will help you preach a coherent gospel message. Take today’s reading for example.
In assuring us that God doesn’t tempt us, James emphasizes that God only gives good gifts to his children. One of those gifts, indeed, the greatest of those gifts is spelled out in verse 18. “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we may be a kind of first fruits of all he created.” (Note, again, the compressed theology here: election, regeneration, Scripture, eschatology. And note the thematic interconnectedness. In verse 15, desire gives birth to sin, while in verse 18 the Word of truth gives new birth.) The key word in verse 18 is “word.” Everything that follows is a variation on that key word. Another connector here is the word “deceived” which we hear three times. This whole section is about being deceived in matters of words or speech. The great deception is thinking that merely having and hearing the Word is enough to be truly religious. No, says James, we are truly religious only if we actually obey the Word in the way we live in the world.
In verses 19-21, James does a kind of pre-emptive strike against the streams of words that spew out of everyone’s mouth. You can’t even hear the Word that gives new life (let alone do it), if your mouth is always open and your ears are closed because you are so angry about your favorite causes. The sound of our own voices can drown out the Voice of God in his Word. What an important word for our age of “talking heads,” who are all mouth and no ears! In this contentious political climate, Christians needs to hear this word from the Lord. We get so involved in the arguments about the “issue du jour” that we don’t hear the Word of the Lord. Becoming justifiably angry, we don’t “humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.”
What’s more, says verses 22-25, we must do more than listen to the Word; we must do it. If we merely listen and don’t obey, we deceive ourselves. To show the folly of such behavior, James uses this famous analogy of the mirror. If we hear but don’t act, we are like the woman who looks at herself in the mirror, but doesn’t act on what she sees. She doesn’t comb her hair, doesn’t put on lipstick, doesn’t straighten her blouse. She walks away and promptly forgets what she has seen, because she didn’t act on it. Only when we act on what we hear in the Word will we be truly liberated from the flaws that ruin our lives. When we do “the perfect law that gives freedom,” we will be blessed.
Describing the law in those terms may seem to conflict with some of Paul’s negative words about the law, but James is surely echoing Jesus’ words about knowing the truth and being free in John 8 and his insistence on the continuing validity and value of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. (And Paul was condemning only the attempt to be saved by keeping the law, not the gratitude driven obedience of the law by a saved people.)
James has one more thing to say about obeying the Word. There’s one more kind of verbal deception to which Christians might fall prey. We can think of ourselves as very religious people if we do most of what we hear in the Word. But, says James, if we don’t keep a tight rein on our tongues, we are just kidding ourselves. James has much more to say about our tongues. What we think of as a little harmless little sin (“sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me”), James says is a fatal flaw. An out of control tongue renders our religion worthless.
Then comes this lovely definition of true religion. Religion is not just talking a good line about the Word. It is walking a fine line in the world. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” We need to be careful about how we walk the fine line drawn in this verse. It’s the kind of Scripture loved by Enlightenment humanists like Benjamin Franklin, for whom loving God simply meant loving humankind. All theology is simply ethics, and ethics of a certain kind, a social justice kind of ethics. James surely doesn’t mean that this is all there is to religion. He means that fancy talk cannot substitute for real action.
It is important to see that he doesn’t limit religion to social justice or to individual morality, as many commentators on this verse do. The action he calls for is dual. In fact, it is polar, the opposite poles of religion in our Christian world today. Pure religion is about getting involved with the real needs of the world (orphans and widows as representative of the defenseless and marginalized) and staying away from worldly pollution. Large portions of the church choose one pole or the other. So some liberals are passionate about social justice issues, while some conservatives are all about personal morality issues. Democrats focus on defending human rights, while Republicans want to defend unborn babies and heterosexual marriage. While he doesn’t speak directly to the controversial issues of our day, James is very clear that we can’t choose on side of pure religion over the other. Our religious words must be matched with lives that care about social justice and personal purity. To think otherwise is to be deceived.
Writing to a Denmark filled with “Christian” people who didn’t act very Christian, Soren Kierkegaard told this little parable. Once upon a time, there was a land inhabited only by ducks. Every Sunday morning, the ducks got up, washed their faces, put on their Sunday clothes, and waddled off to church. They waddled through the door of their duck church, proceeded down the aisle, and took their familiar places in the pews. The duck minister entered the pulpit and opened the duck Bible to the place where it talked about God’s greatest gift to ducks—wings. “With wings we can fly. With wings we can soar like eagles. With wings we can escape the confines of pens and cages. With wings we can become free. With wings we can become all God meant us to be. So give thanks to God for your wings. And fly!” All the ducks loudly quacked, “Amen.” And then all of the ducks waddled back home.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 30, 2015
James 1:17-27 Commentary