James: Source of Wisdom (Part 2)

David gave this talk at the Catalyst Festival in 2016, as part of a morning Bible Study series. Click here to download it, and click here for Part 1 in the series.


"If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. 27 Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favour some people over others?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonour the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you favour some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.

10 For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. 11 For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.

12 So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. 13 There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing,16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?

21 Don’t you remember that our ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?22 You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. 23 And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend of God. 24 So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.

25 Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. 26 Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.”  James 1:26 – 2:26.



As mentioned in Part 1, James is a collection of easily memorised “wisdom” literature, featuring a number of easily remembered “sayings” or “proverbs”.  James is a classic example of this type of literature, as is the book of Proverbs and much of Jesus’ own teaching (e.g. Sermon on the Mount).  That is why James is so helpful in many parts of the world today – where people think in this form; it is also why the easily remembered parts of the New Testament in the English language come from the Sermon on the Mount.  The teaching of James in this respect parallels often the teaching of Proverbs and of Jesus. For example, James 1:19, “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” compares with Proverbs 16:32a, “Better a patient person than a warrior,  one with self-control than one who takes a city.”  James 1:5-6  “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone.”, compares with Matt 7:7, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for.”, and Matt 7:11, “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.”, and Matt 21:21-22, “Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and don’t doubt, you can do things like this and much more. You can even say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. 22 You can pray for anything, and if you have faith, you will receive it.”

This continues in chapter 2 regarding Matt 5:3, “God blesses those who are poor…, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”, and James 2:5, Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him?”

Helpful literary devices in James include “Aphorisms” “a concise witty remark which contains a general truth” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. James uses many of these and they do help his teaching – “No doubt many aphorisms of James had been formulated and used by him in oral teaching before being used in the composition of the letter.” (Richard Bauckham) – familiar forms of this (all used by Jesus too!):

  • Blessings”- “God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12.
  • Whoever” sayings – For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”  James 2:10.  See also James 4:4.
  • If anyone” – “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” James 1:5.   “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.”  James 1:26
  • Synonymous couplets (like Old Testament poetry) – “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.” James 4:8.
  • Paradoxical – “Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honoured them. 10 And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them.” James 1:9-10a.
  • Motivational – “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. 20 Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” James 1:19b-20.
  • Where/There – “For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.” James 3:16
  • Future reversal (like “blessed are the meek”) – “Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him?” James 2:5.

We could give many other examples – but it is a good way to teach and to give for memory verses, and is how a majority of cultures share their wisdom.


TRUE RELIGION – James 1:26-27

How would you define true religion?  James defines it as 3 things that become important themes throughout his letter:

Guarding the tongue

Developed in chapter 3, where he says "don’t presume to be teachers", then gives a powerful description of the tongue used in anger or gossip (slander) or belittling people instead of encouraging them.  James shares three images:

  • Bit in horses mouth.
  • Rudders on ships.
  • Spark that starts a forest fire.

The tongue is used for praising God and cursing fellow men or even fellow believers. Today, it's not only what we say, but how we use social media – where attacks are a 21st century version of “shaming” – and is becoming a massive cultural issue.  Religion without “keeping a tight rein” on tongue is worthless (v26).


Caring for widows and orphans

Particularly personified the poor in Bible times, because they were those who were particularly defenceless in ancient cultures (and in many parts of the world today where there is no social security or similar system). Basically, it means true religion cares for the defenceless poor. Mercy and justice are involved.  Other Biblical examples on which James drawing:

  • Exodus 22:22 – “You must not exploit a widow or an orphan.”
  • Psalm 68:5 – “Father to the fatherless, defender of widows— this is God, whose dwelling is holy.” Probably why James brings in the fatherhood of God here.

What would be the equivalent today? Probably the refugee, as well as widows and orphans in poorer nations.


Keep oneself from “worldliness”

Meaning ungodly worldview in lifestyle that characterise man away from God. See also “You adulterers! Don’t you realise that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?  I say it again:  If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God.”  James 4:4. However:

  • There are two misunderstandings of this Scripture:
    • That we are not to be friends with worldly people, but Jesus was described as the “friend of sinners”. Jesus went to their parties, he went to where people were, he mixed with the ordinary people, he mixed with those looked down upon by the religious.  His first miracle was at a wedding party – he was involved in ordinary things of life.
    • Or we think it relates to externals, like dress etc but worldliness is rarely described that way and even where it is it relates to the flouting of wealth (1 Tim 2).
  • Being friends with the world is an inward issue. For example in Chapter 4 it means fighting for what we believe in a wrong attitude and strongly criticising others.

Of course this is not all there is to true religion! “Jesus does not define generally what religion is, but reminds us that religion without the things he mentions is nothing”.



 As we looked at in Part 1, there were 2 types of rich people referred to in James, “business” believers and the oppressive landowners who were unbelievers. Most of James’ readers would have been relatively poor, but not the defenceless poor for whom they were to care.  In Biblical times, there were really three categories of people economically (and this largely true throughout history  - until the advent of capitalism and the industrial revolution which produced a “middle class”):

  • The rich.
  • “Ordinary” people – had just enough to live on, didn’t really expect to become rich but “prospered” by having enough.
  • The “poor” – usually defenceless, oppressed or fell on bad times (crop failure or famine).

Here a gathering of the Christians was envisaged – it's the only time word “synagogue” is used for a church meeting – eventually the word “ekklesia” because the normal word, but James was writing very early. Probably most were sitting on the floor with some on a few chairs.  Can we see a parallel today with a rich visitor and poor visitor to the church being favoured differently in the seating?  Acts of favouritism is a general expression – though it's given specific application here – it could be based on any external factors, dress, skin colour or general physical appearance; God is impartial – perhaps referring here to Lev 19:15, “Do not twist justice in legal matters by favouring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.”  James describes it as both discrimination and judging with evil thoughts – quite strong language.  Three reasons are advanced why we should not discriminate:

  • God honours the poor (v5)
    • Remember a shame/honour culture, where it would have been revolutionary thinking to say with Paul too “the parts (of the body) we think are less honourable we treat with special honour”.  This is very important in the context of honouring one another within the body of Christ today – yes, we honour leaders, but also need to be careful to honour (in the world’s eyes) the dishonourable.  James is stressing the attitude of Jesus.  God delights to shower grace on those the world has discarded – this doesn’t mean he is against the rich per se; they can be saved too, but we're not to favour them.
  • Don’t fawn on those who are persecuting you
    • Most of believers would be either very poor or just getting through – they were being persecuted (not for their faith but their status).
  • It violates love for your neighbour
    • Jesus had already extended love for your neighbour in his parable of the Good Samaritan. Discrimination violates the law of love – described here as the “law that gives freedom” or the “royal law”.  It is not the Old Testament law, but is the law or principle of the Kingdom (v5) of God which is to be reflected in us.  “Extending James' principle, the love command also requires that we enthusiastically welcome into our church meetings people from other races and that we give as much deference to people with no status in the community as we do to famous politicians, actors or athletes… Christians are to build among themselves a genuine counter culture, in which the values of the Kingdom of God rather than the values of this world are lived out”.  We must avoid a celebrity culture in the church.

James also speaks about “Breaking the law”. To do so in one point is to break the whole law.  We cannot choose.  Fulfilling the law has two meanings.  Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial law and the law that distinguished between Jew and Gentile, so that no longer applies, but he also fulfilled the overall standards of God’s will – to love God and neighbour – which is also to be fulfilled in us. “Keep” is same word as “fulfil” here in James.  No longer is God’s law a threatening burden but a law of liberty – because God has liberated us from sin and given us the Spirit – the “implanted word”.  James 1:21.

James, similarly to Jesus - warns that if we are not showing mercy to others we will not receive mercy.  “Mercy triumphs over judgement” (another proverb) – Is it that the mercy of God that through Christ gives escape to those who would be judged?  This is true elsewhere in the New Testament and may be part of it – but probably more that the mercy we show demonstrates that we have a heart made right by God’s grace (which leads us to the next section).



This is the controversial section in James which caused Luther difficulty and seems apparently to contradict Paul’s teaching on faith and works. James first links it with the care for the poor issue - dismissing the poor with “words” but doing nothing - and uses that as an analogy of how faith by itself without action is dead or useless.

James uses a popular form of literary device of that time (used by Paul too in Romans 6 & 7) of the “diatribe”. We often use that word wrongly today to describe a sort of “rant”.  A “diatribe” is a form which introduces an imaginary other person with whom James can carry on a conversation as a means of instruction.  So the objector says faith and works need not go together!

James is not arguing that works/actions must be added to faith but that true faith will inevitably result in works. It is like a “test” to show genuine faith.

However, James’ polemical style does raise questions. Is he directly opposing Paul’s view of justification by faith alone as Luther thought?  Is the foolish man Paul himself?  It can't be, because James is writing early, so he would not have seen Paul’s letters.  He is probably rather opposing an early form of a misunderstanding of what Paul taught – a “slogan” Christianity with “faith alone justifies” as its hallmark.  Slogan Christianity is still dangerous, as we can sometimes see with the terms “born again , or even “evangelical” in the USA today.

The word translated “deeds” (NIV), “actions” or “deeds” (NLT) is an important word. Greek “ergon” – “work”, “action”, “accomplishment” – in New Testament is used for behaviour with ethical or religious consequences.  James' second question “can such faith save him?”, requires the answer “no”.  It is referring not to faith per se but to “that” faith which is just mentioned – the sort of faith that does nothing (the KJV translation is unhelpful here – “Can faith save him?”).

Faith that lacks actions is inherently defective. James responds to his imaginary opponent in verses 18 and 19. “I can’t see your faith if you don’t have good deeds” (NLT), but probably goes beyond that as the verb can also mean “prove” or “demonstrate”.

He also uses an extreme argument – showing how even demons believe God exists and they “shudder” in fear; “you foolish man” – is typical of the style of a diatribe. Foolish, literally “empty”, means a lack of understanding.

James also uses the example of Abraham. To Jews,  Abraham was the great example of great moral virtue in his deeds.  James goes beyond this to refer to the obedience of faith illustrated in the story of Abraham and Isaac – the great test of obedience which Abraham fulfilled.

The problem is that word “justify” (dikaioo) is used in different contexts. It is used by Paul to denote God’s verdict of “innocence” pronounced over the sinner who trusts Jesus Christ in faith.  However, it's used differently in other Scriptures (O.T. and by Jesus, such as in Matt 12:37 - for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”) to describe the conduct expected of a disciple.  It's also used to mean “demonstrate to be right”. For example, “The Son of Man, on the other hand, feasts and drinks, and you say, ‘He’s a glutton and a drunkard, and a friend of tax collectors and other sinners!’ But wisdom is shown to be right by its results.”  Matt 11:19.  This is possibly what James means.  So, Abraham is “shown to be right” but, I prefer the first alternative – our deeds prove we are justified by faith.

In v22, James is still in diatribe mode, addressing his imaginary opponent – which we can see because “you” is singular. Faith and works in synergy – (Greek word used here).  Abraham’s faith was made complete – i.e. reached its intended goal.

James is addressing different issues than Paul by quoting Gen 15:6. Paul sees it chronologically (before circumcision); James sees it as the obedient sacrifice of Isaac as “fulfilling” the faith of Abraham.

In the context “faith alone” does not mean “only faith” in the Lutheran sense but faith on its own is bogus faith because no actions result.

V24 – “You” is plural – James addressing his readers again. Making his point clear to them.

Rahab is an interesting choice of an example of faith and works. Rahab was a prostitute but had become convinced of God’s mighty acts (“No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below”. Joshua 2:11) and nobody would have known she had believed without her actions in hiding the spies (or envoys – “angelos” – according to James).  So James uses as an example a respected patriarch and an obscure Gentile woman of low moral conduct.

James rounds off with a summary (v 26 – “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.”). The body without the Spirit (breath) ceases to be.  So faith without works ceases to be.  So James is not arguing that works have to be added to faith, but the right kind of faith is a faith that works.

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