THE LETTER OF ST. JAMES
The Essence of True Faith
Here James launches into the longest section on faith in his letter. Unfortunately because of Martin Luther's misunderstanding of the nature of faith, many Protestants who have followed in his train have had serious problems with this section in James. F.C. Baur, the infamous German NT Protestant scholar of the 19th century, so infamous that even Protestants don't like him, claimed that there was a real chasm between James/Peter and Paul with James/Peter promoting works and Paul promoting faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. The major conflict between Luther and Catholics does not revolve around faith versus works but rather around the actual nature of faith. For Luther, faith is mere assent, mere belief in what God has done in Christ. For Luther, works do not have to flow from such faith. In fact, one of his infamous quotes is
Such sentiment betrays a real misunderstanding of the nature of faith. Yes, while we are on this earth, I doubt any of us will attain to perfection, but for Luther to make such statements demonstrates that he fails to understand the goal of salvation, growth in conformity to the image of Christ. Paul as well as Peter and James emphasizes that true Christian faith must produce works; all the ethical sections in his letters demonstrate this.
TRUE FAITH INVOLVES DOING THE WORD (1:22-25)
James uses the illustration of a man looking into a mirror to make his point. When it comes to God's message about Jesus, most of us are like men. Normal men get up in the morning, get ready for work, check their looks in the mirror to make sure they won't disgrace their wives when they leave the house, and then take off for work, not thinking a second more about what they saw in the mirror. In a similar way, we just give a cursory glance at the mirror of the Word and then get on with real living. This is what we ought not to do.
Rather we are to be like some women I know who spend hours each day in front of a mirror to make sure they are drop-dead gorgeous when they leave the house. Throughout the day they will whip out the small mirror in their purses and double check to make sure they still look good. In the same way, we are to look long and hard at the mirror of God's message about Jesus, the perfect Law, the Law of liberty (more on this in chapter 2), and let it affect the way we look spiritually. This person shall be blessed in what he does because he is living the life of Jesus, being transformed into the very image of Christ.
HELPING THE DOWN-AND-OUT: THE TRUE PRACTICAL EXPRESSION OF FAITH (1:26-27)
Second, true faith consists in performing acts of charity. Jesus actually says that charity is an expression of true righteousness (Matt. 6:1-5). Although we will look in more detail at giving to the Christian poor in chapters 2 and 5, I just want to impress upon you how important Jesus says it is to give to Christian poor. The parable of the sheep and the goats is the climax of Jesus' teachings on the second coming. It is the last major teaching He gave while on earth. In it Jesus discusses that we shall all stand before Him in judgment on the last day. The sheep who go to heaven will be on His right, while the goats who go to hell will be on His left. What determines whether one is a sheep or goat? The way he or she has treated the Christian poor, not whether I had faith or not but how I treated the Christian poor. It is no small wonder that C.S. Lewis describes this as "the frightening parable" of the sheep and the goats. Many people who claim to be Christians are going to be in for a rude awakening on judgment day because of the way they have neglected the Christian poor, especially the Christian widow and Christian orphan who are suffering financially because of their lot in life. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we are going to be simply a hearer of this Word or a doer who focuses on showing charity to the Christian down-and-out, especially the orphan and widow.
This emphasis on caring for the down-and-out is not a new innovation of Christianity. Judaism for at least 1400 years before Christian emphasized on caring for the down-and-out, especially the orphan, the widow, and the resident alien.
When you read the 4 gospels, you do read some of the recorded teachings of Jesus. However, do you seriously think that the Sermon on the Mount was only 3 chapters long and lasted for only 20 minutes? I sincerely doubt it. That sermon probably lasted anywhere from 1-3 hours. The gospels are giving us Jesus' teachings in a nutshell. James, on the other hand, is giving us a fuller treatment of what Jesus actually said, or the way Jesus' teachings would apply to the situation in James' churches.
Why would wealth even be an issue in the earlier church? Weren't most of those in the church poor (1 Cor. 1:25-30)? Therefore, surely wealth wouldn't be a temptation for them. Although they were poor, they still might have been tempted to go after riches. More though is the problem in the next passage before us. Although we might be poor ourselves, we might tend to value those who are rich more than those who are poor. For example, I might want to cotton up to that rich person so that he or she might give me money. OR I might feel better about myself because I have a friend who is rich or because a rich person looks favorably upon me. This second scenario seems to be what is operating here. James has some frightfully harsh words on this subject.
EXAMPLE OF ILLEGITIMATE EXPRESSION OF FAITH (2:1-13)
General Over-all Warning (2:1)
It surprises many Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, that once more James is using the word "faith"; in fact he uses it almost as many times in the first chapters of his letter as Paul does in the first 2 chapters of Galatians, the great book of faith in the NT. By faith here, James is not referring to the act of believing; rather he is referring to what we believe, especially what we believe about Jesus Christ. James claims that we cannot show favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor if we are to be consistent believers in Jesus. There is no way in the world that Jesus would favor a rich person over a poor person.
In the situation in James 2, it appears that the leader of the church is making a fuss over the rich man because he is poor and the visitor is rich. Verse 1 implies that the leader is fawning over the rich man because the rich man's presence gives the leader credibility. The rich man's presence makes the leader feel good about himself. The rich man gives the leader "glory." James condemns such an attitude. It is natural, it is even healthy to want glory. In fact Jesus appeals to that desire in the parable of the 10 talents (Matt. 25:21, 23). As followers of Jesus, though, we should seek our glory from Jesus. In fact James 2:1 literally says: "Do not hold your faith in our Lord Jesus Christ--the GLORY—with an attitude of personal favoritism!" Jesus and Jesus alone is to be our glory, not some rich person, not some powerful person, not some intellectual genius. A Christian who seeks glory from any source other than Jesus is contradicting the very faith he claims he holds to.
The Situation (2:2-3)
The Condemnation (2:4)
Second, James condemns them for being judges. It's not only that they were making bad judgments; they shouldn't have been judging anybody at all (see James 4:11). Just where do you or I get off judging anybody (Matt. 7:1)? God is the only legitimate judge, and when I start judging people like this, I have actually tried to replace God with myself.
Third, they are judges with evil motives. Most of us think that what James' listeners were doing wasn't all that bad because we would probably be doing the exact same thing. James is next going to show us just how wicked this action really was.
The Problems (2:5-7)
"Did not God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" God has placed great value upon the poor by making them rich in faith; the leader of the church has devalued those poor persons. The leader ultimately doesn't have a problem with that poor man; he has a problem with God. James reinforces this when he says that God has made the poor to be heirs of the kingdom. Again, the leader is going to have a real problem with God.
James is not saying that simply because you are poor, you are rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. He adds that they are rich and heirs because they love Christ. James is speaking in sweeping generalities here. On the whole the poor are the ones who tend to be rich in faith, while on the whole those with money tend to rely upon money than upon God. For example, recently I was talking with a Christian who makes pretty good money. When we were talking about going into certain kinds of ministry, he said he could never do that because those ministries didn't pay well. That is just the attitude that James is attacking here.
Problem 2: Honoring the Rich is Insane
"Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?" On a regular basis the rich oppress the poor. How many times do you hear of communities in which those in power try to keep wages low so as to protect their profit margins? How many times do you hear about rich business men who offer the poor great deals on objects they lust after—yet with a real sting attached to those deals, high interest rates? James is saying that the rich really do bite the hand which feeds them—the hand of the poor. Catering to such a person is both absurd and insane according to James.
Problem 3: The Rich consistently are Enemies of Christ
"Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?" The poor didn't crucify Jesus. It was the rich and powerful. James claims the leader of the church is actually catering to a representative of a group of people which actually despised and despises Christ. By fawning over the rich the leader is basically favoring those who despised Christ over Christ Himself. In that case the church has ceased to be the church.
Favoring the Rich Over the Poor is a Serious Infraction of the Law (2:8-11)
It is interesting that the example which James uses is that of murder ("Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder"). Moreover, the way James speaks this in the Greek implies that he is accusing the church of committing murder: "Now if you do commit murder—and you are committing murder!" Treating the poor the way the leader did in verse 2 showed contempt and hatred towards the poor. Hate, according to James' step-Brother, is tantamount to murder (Matt. 5:21-22). They are murdering the poor by their despicable treatment of them.
Treatment of the Poor Plays a Major Role in Future Judgment (2:12-13)
Now all of us want to be judged by the Law of Liberty because it is the Law of Grace and Mercy. We have trusted in Christ because we believe that God has given us His grace through Jesus. We want grace for us, for our own sakes. James says here that the bottom line is this: if we want to expect grace and pity from the Lord on that day, then we need to be showing that same grace and pity during our life time. The person, who has not shown grace and pity, specifically to the Christian poor, cannot expect to receive grace and pity from the Lord Jesus on that day.
If we took Jesus' teachings more seriously, we would not be surprised at what James has just said. In His last major teaching before His death, Jesus claimed that on judgment day He would separate all peoples into 2 groups: sheep and the goats. Whereas the sheep are headed for heaven, the goats are headed for hell. What determines whether you are a sheep or a goat? According to Jesus, it is the way you treat the Christian poor: "to the extent that you did it to one of these BROTHERS OF MINE , to the extent you did it to Me" (Matt. 25:40). When Jesus speaks of these "brothers of Mine," He is referring to Christians, and in this instance, specifically to the Christians who are poor. Jesus cannot be any clearer than that.
But why the Christian poor? Here is the new element Christ injects into helping the poor: a new motivation for helping the Christian poor. When we help the Christian poor, we are actually helping CHRIST! When we became Christians the Spirit of Jesus came to live within us—literally. He so identifies Himself with Christians that when we deal with Christians, we are actually dealing with Christ Himself. Paul says that Christians are Christ's body. In fact, we are so one with Christ that if a Christian man has sexual relations with a prostitute, he has made Christ enter into that sexually illicit relationship (1 Cor. 6:15). What led Paul to claim that the Christian is one with Christ? His encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. He thought that he was going to Damascus to persecute Christians. Paul got a serious wake-up call, though, when Christ appeared to him and informed him that instead of persecuting Christians, he was actually persecuting Christ: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?" (Acts 9:4). This identification of the believer with Christ became so real to the early church that eventually they were known as Christians, literally "little Christs." Now that is one-ness.
So why would my treatment of the Christian poor determine my eternal destiny? For a second, just think logically about what heaven is based on. It's not ultimately about streets of gold or of luscious fruit hanging from trees. It's being with Jesus and the Father forever and ever. Heaven is based upon what Jesus has done for us; it is based upon Him. If I don't like Jesus here on earth, do you really think that I will like Him in heaven? No. If I don't like Him when I see Him in other Christians, then I am not going to want to be with Him when I see Him face to face. It is critically important the way I treat other Christians.
Moreover, it is vitally important the way I treat Christian poor. First of all, because they are Christians, they are one with Christ. "But," you might ask, "can't I be good to other Christians and not be good to the Christian poor?" No. Two Christians have a flat tire; one is the mayor of the city, the other is a poor person. Which one should you help? The poor Christian. Why would you help the mayor? Is it because he is Christ in the flesh, or is it that he might use his influence to help you or that helping him gives you status? You don't get any of these things from the poor Christian—which is precisely the point. When you help the poor Christian, you don't get anything out of it for yourself, other than the realization that what you did you did to Christ. You truly did it because you believed you were doing it to and for Christ.
I experienced this the night the church I was attending showed the Christian movie Proof at the Palace Theater in downtown Corsicana. To make a long story short, a woman who claimed to be a Christian needed some help. Everything about her story seemed false, but I couldn't be for sure. After resisting helping her, I finally threw in the towel. "Lord, I don't know if she is legit or not. I am going to help her, though, because of You." She may have been a shyster. I don't know. All I know is that I felt relief when I made that decision. Have I ever seen that lady again? No. Did she help my career? No. Do I feel like I pleased the Lord? Yes. When it is all said and done, that is the only thing which mattered.
Be careful about justifying not giving to the Christian poor. "Oh, they are going to use it to buy steaks! Oh, they're going to use it for alcohol!" C.S. Lewis’ stepson Douglas Gresham tells the story of Lewis and a friend walking along the street one day when a beggar approached them asking for money. Lewis’ friend kept walking, but Lewis stopped and emptied his wallet, giving the beggar its contents. After rejoining his friend, his friend chastised him. “You shouldn’t have done that, Jack. He’ll only spend it all on drink.” Lewis replied, “Well, that’s what I was going to do with it.” We do not want to promote debauchery, but let us be careful that we are not using lame excuses to justify our not helping the poor. Too much depends upon this.