THE LETTER OF ST. JAMES

The Essence of True Faith
Part One

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James 1:22-2:13

INTRODUCTION

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

    If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign (Letter 99, Paragraph 13).

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)

    19 This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
Instead of a life of sin, James claims that our lives are to be lives of faith, faith seen in letting God's Word guide our lives. All this talk about the Word, the message about Jesus, can lead to a major misunderstanding. James had commanded us to listen more to God's Word about Jesus and speak less. The danger lies in that we might be content only to listen. Listening should not be the goal; listening which leads to doing should be the goal. Yes, I am to listen to God's message about Jesus; however, I am to listen so that I will know what to do.

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.

    By using the illustration of the mirror and the image in the mirror, James is most likely alluding to Gen. 1:27 in which God claims He made man in His own image. By looking constantly into God's Word, we see the image of God, the way we are supposed to be. Constantly looking at that image greatly increases the likelihood we will be transformed into that image.
One day in the morning staff prayer meeting, when I was working in a local church, I prayed that whenever anybody came into the church office, they would leave feeling like they had been in the presence of Jesus. One assistant said: "Whoa! Now that's pressure." Yes, it is pressure; however, it should be the goal not only of office staff but also of every Christian. It can only be accomplished whenever we give the kind of attention to God's message about Jesus that James describes.


HELPING THE DOWN-AND-OUT: THE TRUE PRACTICAL EXPRESSION OF FAITH (1:26-27)

    26 If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. 27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Because St. James will go into more detail on both of these topics in chapters 2 and 3, we will just lightly touch on them here. First, true faith expresses itself by bridling our tongue. According to James the person who does not bridle his tongue and yet claims that he worships God is deceiving himself. He has lied to himself. Second, James claims that that the worship which proceeds from this kind of faith is worthless. He had might as well stay home on Sunday mornings instead of going to worship.

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.

What Christianity adds to the topic of helping the poor is not a new innovation of helping the poor but rather a new motivation for helping the Christian poor. We shall see what that new motivation is in the next section.

    Too seldom do Christians appreciate what happens to them when they become united with Christ by means of His Spirit. Through baptism His Spirit not only comes into us; He also unites, even identifies us with Christ. Paul dramatically brings out this identification of the Christian with Christ when he claims that the Christian who has sexual intercourse with a prostitute actually has forced Christ Himself to have sex with that prostitute (1 Cor. 6:15). Later he will say that when you sin against a Christian brother, you are actually sinning against Christ (1 Cor. 6:12).
Although I have studied and taught James on previous occasions, I feel like this time is truly the only time I have really heard James, that is, that I have come to a real understanding of what James is saying. What made the difference between this time and previous times? Before teaching James this time, I participated in an in-depth study of the teachings of James' step-brother, Jesus. All of a sudden I feel like I understand what James is saying in his letter because I processed what his step-Brother had said earlier. James is basically giving us an in-depth study of Jesus' teachings.

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)

    My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.
In just a moment James is going to present to us a situation in which a poor man and a rich man enter into the local church. When the rich man enters, the head of the church will fawn all over him, whereas he will basically dismiss the poor man. James commands that we stop such treatment: "My brethren, do not hold your faith in your glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism" (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)

    2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,”
The situation confronting the church is that in which both a rich man and a poor man enter the house of worship [in Greek the word is "synagogue"; it is very likely that the early church continued to meet in the local synagogues on Sunday mornings (this argues for an early date for James)]. The attendant fawns all over the rich man and has him sit in a place of honor, an attitude for which Jesus condemned the Pharisees (Matt. 23:6). The poor man comes in and is told either to stand instead of sit or to sit at the footstool of those sitting on the bench which ran along the walls of the synagogue. (The footstool would have been another bench which ran beneath the bench the rich worshipers sat on, a place of degradation.)


The Condemnation (2:4)

    4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
James condemns such behavior: "Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?" First, James condemns them for making distinctions among themselves, especially on such a superficial basis. The word "distinctions" in the Greek resembles the word earlier translated "double-minded." It has the idea of one foot in heaven and one foot on earth, claiming to be God's son and yet not acting like it, claiming to love Jesus and yet sticking Him at your feet when He approaches you as a poor Christian.

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)

    5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
Problem 1: It Goes Totally Contrary to the God’s Values

"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)

    8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
Now the first response many Christians are going to have is this: "Oh, it's not really that big of a deal that I would show favoritism to the rich. I mean, it's not like I went out and committed adultery. Besides we are all human and we are all saved by grace." (James will deal with this last statement in verses 12-13). First of all, showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor is breaking the law of liberty. (Just what that law of liberty is and just how important it is that we keep it James will discuss later in verses 12-13). There are no small laws and major laws. Any law you break within the law of liberty is just as big as any other law. Why? Because contrary to popular opinion, there are not many laws; there is just only one law. For example, whenever you speed and get a ticket, the officer will say, "You broke the law," not, "You broke a law." The law, especially God's Law, is one, a unit, not many. Why? Because the same God who said: "Don't commit adultery" also said "Don't commit murder." If you commit adultery but don't commit murder, you have still gone against the Person who said not to commit murder. Violating any law violates the Law-Giver, no matter how big or small we think the infraction is.

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)

    So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty; for judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment [condemnation].
One day we are all going to stand before the Lord in judgment. What standard is He going to use to judge us? There are 2 options: the Law of Moses or the Law of Liberty, the Law which produces liberty and freedom.

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.