The Message of James: the Practice of Faith
At times, the little details in a passage of Scripture loom so large that we can’t see the perianth for the petals (a botanist’s version of ‘the forest for the trees’). Often it’s easier to identify the point of a single paragraph than to summarize the message of an entire book, but grasping an author’s overarching message provides several benefits. A book theme highlights the order and coherence in what we might otherwise mistake as disconnected fragments. It helps us avoid the tendency to atomize a passage—to treat it and its individual phrases apart from its context. A book theme reminds us that both the divine Author and the human writer had specific objectives in mind that spanned an entire biblical book and that they wrote to achieve those goals. And it serves as “a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out” exegetically. On the other hand, it takes inductive analysis of a book’s separate parts to figure out what theme unites the whole.
The book of James bridges two worlds—Old and New Testament. Although it appears in the New Testament canon, it feels like an Old Testament proverb. If we omitted the only two references to Jesus that occur in James (1:1, 2:1), we might situate the book quite nicely among the Old Testament Wisdom books. It offers much practical advice—inviting the one who lacks wisdom to ask for it (1:5) in terms reminiscent of the early chapters of Proverbs. It also insists that the wisdom from above contrasts strongly with the wisdom of this earth (3:13–18). The practical orientation of James, coupled with its lack of attention to major New Testament doctrines, has led some Christians to minimize the importance of the book. Martin Luther, for instance, famously called James an “epistle of straw” because he felt it conflicted with Galatians. James stands apart from the Old Testament Wisdom books, however, in its emphasis on faith. The Wisdom books might point to the need for faithfulness; James points to the need for faith (1:3, 6; 2:1, 5, 18; 5:15), and it emphasizes that genuine Christian faith cannot remain idle (2:14, 17, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26).
Analyzing the distinct units of thought within James yields the table below. Although each paragraph in James demands that believers exhibit proper attitudes and conduct, they feel unrelated. Has James just collected disjointed pieces of fatherly advice? Hardly. The first four verses of James lay out a theme that carries through the book. James doesn’t urge his readers to strive harder to be good people apart from faith. Instead, he tells us that faith will undergo specific trials, and genuine faith responds to those trials in specific ways.
Units of Thought in James
|Consider the troubles that you face in life to be a cause for rejoicing.
|Face the pressures of uncertainty and ignorance by asking God for wisdom.
|Maintain a biblical perspective on self-worth.
|Endure temptation without falsely accusing God of trying to harm you.
|Recognize that God is the source of all good.
|Rest in the justice of God and wisely suspend your own right to judge.
|Intentionally apply what you claim to believe about Scripture to life.
|Generate external religious activity that reflects your true internal worship.
|View others impartially, discerning correctly.
|Seek a consistent response to the law of God.
|Produce good works.
|Accept the justice of God.
|Achieve a victory in speech that is not naturally attainable.
|Aspire to and acquires true wisdom.
|Recognize and remove the source of conflict—selfishness.
|Receive the grace of God by submitting humbly to the God of grace.
|Let God’s law, and not your own opinion, be the judge.
|Reject self-sufficiency and rest instead on the providence of God.
|Act justly because you recognize true values.
|Endure until Christ’s return.
|Follow God, not culture, in speaking the truth.
|Solve crises of faith biblically through the intervening prayer of spiritual leaders.
|Restore sinning fellow believers.
I am keenly aware that in discussing the attitudes and actions of faith I’m guilty of reifying (and personifying!) it. For those who view this as literary sin, I beg your pardon. Perhaps you could read “the one who truly has faith in God according to the Scriptures” into every instance in the table above, but that feels cumbersome in an outline of the book. The author of James also personifies faith since he believes faith can be tested (1:3), can save (2:14), can work (2:17, 22), and can be perfected (2:22).
James is concerned with what real faith looks like in terms of its attitudes and conduct. He communicates in practical ways what the First Epistle of John conveys in philosophical ones—there are evidences to prove the reality of one’s faith. Anyone can claim a label—there are those, after all, who deny Jesus’ virgin birth, divine nature, miraculous works, substitutionary atonement, and resurrection from the dead who still call themselves Christian. But James wants his readers to evaluate the faith that they claim to possess. Christians must assay the quality of their faith just as surely as a metallurgist ascertains the composition of the gold that someone wishes to sell to him. The message of James centers on a variety of tests for evaluating one’s faith. This allows us to reword each section to emphasize James’s distinctive message.
James’s Tests of Faith
|Faith considers the troubles that we face in life to be a cause for rejoicing.
|Faith faces the pressures of uncertainty and ignorance by asking God for wisdom.
|Faith maintains a biblical perspective on self-worth.
|Faith endures temptation without falsely accusing God of trying to harm us.
|Faith recognizes that God is the source of all good.
|Faith rests in the justice of God and wisely suspends its own right to judge.
|Faith intentionally applies what it claims to believe about Scripture to life.
|Faith generates external religious activity that reflects true internal worship.
|Faith views others impartially, discerning correctly.
|Faith seeks a consistent response to the law of God.
|Faith accepts the justice of God.
|Faith achieves a victory in speech that is not naturally attainable.
|Faith aspires to and acquires true wisdom.
|Faith recognizes and removes the source of conflict—selfishness.
|Faith receives the grace of God by submitting humbly to the God of grace.
|Faith lets God’s law, and not our own opinion, be the judge.
|Faith rejects self-sufficiency and rests instead on the providence of God.
|Faith acts justly because it recognizes true values.
|Faith endures until Christ’s return.
|Faith follows God, not culture, in speaking the truth.
|Faith solves crises of faith biblically through the intervening prayer of spiritual leaders.
|Faith restores sinning fellow believers.
This second table takes into account James’s overriding concern—what specific tests prove the genuineness of our faith? If one who claims to be a believer fails a particular test or even several, James does not exclude him from Christian fellowship or automatically assume that his profession is false. Instead, James urges believers to live in a manner consistent with a genuine, growing faith in God. Failure in most areas might indicate that one’s faith is defective. Failure in some areas means that there is room for improvement. And since a person of genuine faith desires consistent personal application, he will hear James’s pastoral concern as an encouragement to live faithfully.
The book of James provides practical, aspirational goals for a mature faith (1:4). The pastor, counselor, and teacher can use James to cast a vision of excellence before obedient believers, to call wayward believers to live in a manner consistent with their profession, and to warn false professors that their “faith” is not the kind of faith that saves. Acknowledging James’s overarching message allows us to see the unity and progress in a sustained biblical argument, and it provides a coherent outline for proclaiming the book in a way that connects faith and practice.
Brian Hand (PhD) is a professor of New Testament Interpretation at BJU Seminary. Over the past twenty years he has served in ministry as a teacher, deacon, elder, and pastor. He has authored four books and numerous articles.
 Those who like J. R. R. Tolkien will recognize these words from The Fellowship of the Ring.