It is hard to read the book of James and not feel deep conviction over the ways we fall short of God’s glory. Even James himself said that we all stumble in many ways (James 3:2), and this truth really comes into focus when we read his letter. I often joke that if James was alive today and simply read his letter during the sermon time, many churches would accuse him of not being Gospel-centered enough. How does this imperative-driven book provoke us to think more holistically about Gospel-centeredness?
Some theologians have wondered what James was trying to get his readers to understand. There’s a big clue in James 1:26-27: he discusses what it means to have a religion that is worthwhile. Throughout the letter, James addresses the relationship between saying we love God and living in light of that claim. He teaches that our actions are a reflection of what we believe. Even still, we are not saved by our works; rather, our works are the fruit that show the goodness of the tree as Jesus taught in Matthew 7:17-20.
In James 1:26-27, James gives a litmus test of how to determine if the religion we claim is worthwhile or worthless. He mentions three things specifically: our speech, our care for the marginalized, and our conduct in the world. As religious people, we might resonate well with one of these over the other. We might agree whole-heartedly that we should live holy and unstained from the world. Chapter 4 gives us some hard challenges to consider in that. While we might be tempted to judge our faith exclusively by this test, James has something more expansive in mind. Yes, we should live unstained from the world, but how we care for the marginalized is just as much an indication of the faith we profess. If we do not prioritize caring for the widows and orphans, James says our religion is worthless. The words of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46 echo here: his disciples will be by his side in Heaven because “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Throughout Scripture, the Lord has always prioritized care for those that are most vulnerable in society. This was built into the Law of Moses, Jesus lived it out and modeled it for the disciples, and the disciples followed his example in Acts and beyond. We cannot be blind to the vulnerable and say that we are followers of Christ. That is the provocative statement James makes!
If that isn’t hard enough, James also tells us that our speech shows the worth of our religion. He spends the bulk of chapter 3 diagnosing why our tongue can become the enemy to a worthwhile religious life. He even says in James 3:2 that if we don’t stumble in what we say, we’re perfect. What a bold claim! Jesus’s words from Matthew 12:36-37 echo here too. James is not trying to derail the grace-based message of redemption, and we can see how he assumes God’s grace in his exhortations. Just as the Proverbs focus on the practical life of the believer, though, James is taking a similar approach. As Martin Luther once said, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” Our conduct is a reflection of what we believe about the Gospel. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:27, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” There is an inextricable link between what we profess and how we live. They should be congruent. That is the message of James’ letter. Salvation in Christ alone through faith alone by grace alone means that we have works that reflect the kingdom of God.
This book of the Bible is one of my favorites. I never lack an opportunity for repentance when I read it. I see how much more I need the Lord to work in my heart, but I love when James gives us reminders like, “But God gives more grace.” (James 4:6) When we understand the source of life and salvation, that should free us to be honest about where we fall short. We need to consider the worth of the religion we claim. James gave us a reference point for this. Let it be that we would turn to the Lord and be renewed day by day so that we can be better representations of His kingdom.