Study 2 The Theology of James
Before we get into the text we should take a few minutes to become familiar with the Theology of James. Christians have tended to read James as a catchall for whatever theological viewpoint they happen to be espousing, but the book is actually a lot more systematic than we get from a casual reading. In addition to the obvious importance regarding the relationship between faith and works, James gives us insights into God, prayer, temptation, and eschatology. James has a pastor’s heart and much of his theology is crouched in the language of practical Christianity so we sometimes miss the depth of his thinking, and instead concentrates on the application of his theology.
I would like to look at a couple of areas of Theology, which are important for us to understand as we read James. First is his view of God, which is the overarching theme of the entire book. James points out to us three important aspects of God that are imperative for a Christian to understand if we are to grasp the foundational principles that the practicality of the book is hinged upon.
First is the oneness of God. James is a monotheist as are all the New Testament writers. He draws from the old Jewish confession, “there is one God,” (2:19) as the foundation stone upon which his theology of God is based. And in chapter 4 he reminds us that, “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge,” and that of course is a reference to God.
But his theology of God goes even further because he sees God as having one intent and that is in His giving us what we need when we draw close to Him through prayer. He makes it clear in 1:17 that, “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, and coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow of change.” Again in 1:5 he writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.” We can draw close to God with the assurance that our prayers will be heard and our needs looked after because that is the great intent of God towards His children. Douglas Moo in his wonderful commentary, The Letter of James, writes, “The undivided nature of God is especially important to James because it stands in direct contrast to the deepest problem of human beings; their tendency to be divided in their loyalties, wavering between God and the world (1:8; 4:4, 8). Christians, James implies, need to be like God to overcome this sinful tendency; firm, unchanging, constant in purpose and affection.”
A second characteristic of God highlighted in James revolves around the jealousy of God. Though there is only one mention of direct reference to God’s jealousy (4:5) it is a theme that runs throughout the book. God does not share His people with the world and each person who sets out on the Christian journey must decide whether it is God that they want in their life or the world. They cannot have it both ways. Lastly, James ties his writings around the grace of God. Because God demands the exclusive devotion of His people, a requirement that is unattainable for us because of sin, God offers grace. Though James shows us the all-encompassing demands of God for His people, he also shows the grace of God that reunites us with God and covers our sins.
If we keep in mind while reading James these three basic attributes of God; that He is one and is one in intent for us, that He is jealous for us because He is our Father and wants the best for our lives, and finally that because we are a rebellious nation He offers grace, then we will keep out of the ditch of legalism.
We also need an understanding of the Law as James intends to use it throughout His book. Let me say that when we talk of grace, righteousness by faith, and faith we are often bombarded with quotes from James to, “give balance,” to the discussion. I wonder at times if people think James is somehow a rival of Paul and they must counter the grace of God with references to the works of a committed Christian. I unfortunately, find many Christians believing that salvation is a combination of both grace and works, but this is not what James has in mind when he talks of works.
It is only fair to state for anyone who has read James with care that nowhere in the book does he advocate obedience to the ritual laws of the Jews. He is interested instead in the ethical issues of the law that face his readers. Remember James is a practical book dealing with the real life situations of his readers. He is not some theologian in an ivory tower pouring over obscure writings trying to drag out the nuances and fine tunings of the law. Instead he sees the law in relationship to the life and needs of his church family.
Every bit as important to our study is the knowledge that a number of issues James deals with appear also in Leviticus 19, the home of the Old Testament “love command.” (Lev. 19:18) If you read Leviticus 19 you will see that the chapter rebukes a number of other things that separate us from God and our neighbors. It would seem that love is the overriding command that puts a halt to our mistreatment of our fellow man. This is very important for us to grasp for our study. If James relies on love to be the principle of how we treat the law, then we can make sense quite easily out of what James has to say regarding the subject of law keeping.
Also important to our understanding of the law are the qualifiers that James often places upon the law. He calls it “the perfect law of liberty”, ”the royal law”, and “the law of liberty.” Though these were common usages amongst the Jews, James gives them a different context because he sees the law through Christian eyes and not ritualism and legalism. For example the love command is called, “royal,” in chapter 2:8 because it is the chief law of His Kingdom. We will look at a whole series of nuances regarding this aspect of the law throughout the book.
James also understands the law as a guide to Christian living. It is in this area of the law that men like Martin Luther rejected the book because they saw this aspect of the law as a contradiction to the plain teachings of Paul on justification by faith. But, was that fair of Luther, or did he simply not understand the use of the law in James because of his reactions to legalism and a law- based religion? One of the fun aspects of our study will be trying to figure out how the law relates to the grace of God.
Another interesting concern in James that has an important connection to our own day is his concern with wealth and the poor. He shows us that God has a particular concern for the poor, and God’s people are called upon to care for the poor. As well the poor are associated with the righteous, which is a theme that runs throughout the Old Testament. We will look at the theology of wealth as we wind our way through the book.
One of the great reasons for James writing his book was to help his readers have a deeper understanding of the Christian life. Paul understands that his readers are sinful beings who struggle with temptations and often fail, but that doesn’t keep him from calling them to a higher standard. Moo writes, “James’s well-known insistence that believers not just hear, but do the word of God and his demand for a ‘faith that works’, reflect the same concern. Obedience to the ‘law of liberty,’ must be heart-felt and consistent. And God’s law focuses on love for the neighbor (2:8). Therefore, ‘pure and undefiled religion’ will manifest itself in loving concern for the helpless in society (1:27), in a meek and unselfish attitude toward others (3:13-18). It will renounce discrimination and not speak evil of others (4:11-12).”
I read this statement of Moo’s over a number of times because it made sense of the whole issue of law and works and the Christian life. I was saying amen to every word of the quote until I came to that last statement. I find myself a very opinionated person who often believes my thoughts and my beliefs are always right and anyone who disagrees just doesn’t understand the issue. It becomes easy, for me anyway, to put that person’s views down, not on the merit of the issue, but on the simple ground that I think I know better. Often, I am not discrete in my views and say things about people to friends that are not helpful or uplifting. I find the result is that I become negative and I often drag others down with me. My pastor has been talking a lot lately about how God is in control and doesn’t need us to run around fixing every little mistake we think we see, and that has had an impact upon me. What would the body of Christ look like if we all pledged to not speak evil of others or situations around us, but instead to take everything to God in prayer, wait upon Him for answers and then work in a positive spirit for the betterment of each others spiritual life? If you take a moment to look at 4:11-12 you will see that James is talking about not loving our neighbor and this is the law that we are breaking.
How many times have I been slammed over the head with this text by well-meaning brothers who believe this is talking about the Ten Commandments when in reality James is talking about the law of liberty and love that motivates and guides the Christian life? Of course the commandments are wrapped up in that command to love, but they are no longer written on stone but in the heart of the born again Christian. To love your neighbor is not something you can check off each day on a pad of paper, but instead it becomes an attitude of respect and love that is imbedded within the heart by the Holy Spirit.
Another major theme is the relationship between faith, works and justification, but I think we will have a better understanding of their relationship as we look at the texts themselves.
In summary, James is concerned with the theology of God and the role of law within the life of a Christian. Both the theology of God and the law are important to their relationship with the Christian life. Our morals, our ethics and our entire walk with God depend upon our understanding God’s plans for us, and the expectations of the Christian life as it relates to the law. Love within the life of a Christian flows outward towards those in need and how we treat the poor says a lot about the condition of our heart. There is no law that makes us love; instead it is an attitude that comes from the changed heart. The Old Testament law was written on stone, but the law of love is written in the heart by the grace of God. All of this leads us to the question; how do we then understand grace, law and justification? Do we see James through the eyes of Luther and dismiss it as a second rate book or are we willing to accept it as every much scripture as Romans and let the Spirit lead where He will?