To those who use this in preparation for teaching the Lifeway “Explore the Bible” series: This outline contains the exposition for both October 21 and October 28. I thought that keeping the continuity of thought was important and so have included the texts for both weeks in this single extended exposition.
I. From Whom and To Whom (Verse 1)
A. James identified himself as a “bond-servant” of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Though this James grew up with his older brother Jesus, (Galatians 1:19), by grace he had come to see him as the Lord, the promised Messiah. In the context of the lordship of Christ, James is a bond-servant of God. He knows of no way to serve God except as a disciple and servant of Jesus. It appears that he was converted after the resurrection when Jesus appeared to him in particular (1 Corinthians 15:7), a marvelous manifestation of grace, even electing grace, to one who had doubted the claims of Jesus (John 7:5).
B. He writes to Jewish Christians of the dispersion, scattered throughout the Roman empire. James was particularly active in evangelism among the Jews along with John and Peter (Galatians 2:9). He served as the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), and was held in such high esteem that even false teachers sought leverage by identifying themselves as in agreement with James (Galatians 2:12), a false claim.
II. In their dislocation, these Jewish Christians were subjected to many challenges and trials. How were they to regard this in light of their having received the Messiah?
A. They are to regard trials as an occasion for joy (Verses 2-4).
- James shows his absolute commitment to divine sovereignty in the spiritual development of Christians when he admonishes these Jewish Christians to consider all of their various kinds of trials as unmixed joy. God is preparing his people for the holy climate of heaven and must wean them from infatuation with the atmosphere of this world. By trial, God teaches us to look above for our life, not around us.
- Literally, “the faith that is tested and proved genuine works itself out in patience.” Trials press out the dross and leave that which is tested and approved in our faith. Endurance in the faith and in the pursuit of godliness and heaven does not come from that which is ephemeral, flippant, worldly, or transient, but from that which is eternal, tested and proved to be genuine in our trust in God, his goodness, his purpose and his particular way in our lives. We want to be enduring and so we want our faith to be the real thing. The approvedness of faith does indeed foster the ability to bear up under the challenges of a faithless world.
- Steadfastness, or endurance, winds its way down the path that is obstructed by Apollyon, Vanity Fair, By-path meadow, Doubting Castle, and a host of mere temporary pilgrims; at the last, however, these will be cast aside and overcome because of the greater sense of glory that faith sees in the ultimate and eternal presence of God in his glory.
B. (Verses 5-8) They can make the best use of trial through submission to divine wisdom. When confronted with all the challenges to faith and perseverance, the true pilgrim knows that he must rely, not on worldly reasoning that has as its final goal satisfaction in this life, but on the revealed truth of God.
- As complex challenges arise the person of faith can be assured that God will grant wisdom for dealing faithfully with these. Since God’s purpose in redemption primarily is to glorify his name and honor his Son we may be sure that he will give to us unstintingly what is required to make us holy and reflect the perfect sonship of Jesus.
- Our ways are in his hands and, as Paul wrote in Philippians 2:12, 13, he works in us “both to will and to do according to his good pleasure.” God, therefore, not only controls providentially the events of our context, but he supplies the spiritual understanding we need to bring every thought captive to Christ, to progress in sanctification, to approve the things that are excellent (Colossians 2:2; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Hebrews 12:10, 11; Philippians 1:9-11).
- In Christ himself are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and understanding (Colossians 2:3); already he has given us Christ and thus poured out on sinners the supreme riches of heaven, to ask for wisdom, therefore is to ask that we “may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his suffering, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Philippians 3:10). When we ask for wisdom, therefore, we are not asking to be delivered from a trial but that the trial may be embraced with the intent of imitating Christ in his suffering for the glory of God and for the redemptive purposes of God.
- If we ask for wisdom without that particular commitment to the revealed will of God, that is, if we do not ask in faith, we show ambivalence about God’s purpose and reflect a desire to escape the trial without it having its proper sanctifying effect. We just want out! Such a person does not have a resolute determination to take up the cross and follow Christ. He has not embraced the confessional truth “If we endure we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).
- If the wisdom we want, however, is how to see through the trial the glory of God and more perfect conformity to his truth and his Son, God will richly supply such wisdom. He will work in us, sometimes secretly and sometimes with a sensed lifting of the soul, the joy of the faith-approving process. Those that seek wisdom of this sort are not “double-minded” and will come to sense the comfort of Peter’s revelation that “if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it be tried by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1: 6, 7).
- The unwillingness to receive present trial as a purveyor of eternal riches shows spiritual instability and an idolatry of status. We celebrate and fawn over the rich, the beautiful, the strong, the healthy, the influencers of this present age.
C. (Verses -12) They are to understand that divine grace renders one’s earthly position of little final importance.
- (Verse 9) Those in humble circumstances who know the gospel of Christ and who are in a time of affliction should rejoice in this time of exaltation in the light of eternity. They are being treated as sons of the king.
- (Verses 10, 11) -The rich person who has been brought to repentance from sin, lamentation over worldly pride, and faith in the crucified Son of God should find such humiliating spiritual operations a cause for rejoicing. He has been shown the transitoriness of all earthly and worldly exaltation. Riches and reputation pass away, and if we have prized it as constituting our identity, it is a great mercy to be stripped of such a destructive delusion.
- We must discern and embrace both the leveling and the lifting effects of trial brought into our lives for the sake of developing an approved faith. “And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).
- (Verse 12) – Hearkening back to verse 2, the joy of entering into trials, James now concludes that the one who perseveres under trial is blessed.
- He is blessed in that God has placed him in circumstances where eternity supersedes the present mistiness (see 4:13-16) in his perceptions and in his affections.
- He is blessed in that trials have come to give more clear manifestation that his confidence is in the unchanging purpose of God and not in the instability of a fallen world.
- He is blessed in that trial continues the work of approvedness which will show that he does not love the world and its fading glory, but he loves Christ in his infinite excellence, his redemptive love, and his future reign.
- He is blessed that the final end of an approved faith is a “crown of life,” which the apostle Paul calls a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous judge, will award” on that day to all who “have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).
D. (Verses 13-18) The process of perseverance brings out the distinction between the result of human sin and the operation of divine grace. James points to the reality of those who have made professions of faith but still are dominated by their fallen desires. He compares this with the holy purpose and effectual tendency of the word of God when embraced in truth.
- In the process of trials, temptations to sin may, and often do, arise. Sometimes these temptations may be very powerful as was the case with Peter in the court of the high priest (John18:15-18, 25-27). Since these trials arise in the daily administration of God’s providence, some may be tempted to blame God with their failure under trial. On the other hand, Joseph saw the distinction between the good providence of God and the temptation to sin that arose in the midst of this providence (Genesis 39:7-14). Each person must beware of turning the trial for approvedness into a temptation to sin.
- There are two fundamental errors in this way of thinking in a futile effort to excuse ourselves. First, this contention denies that God is holy; second, it minimizes our sinfulness.
- God is holy, eternally and immutability so. He warns against sin, punishes sin, and sent his Son to die under the curse of sin. He is himself the essence of holiness and thus cannot be tempted to do moral evil. Nor does he tempt any person to perform acts of moral evil. He has given the Law and does not entice his image-bearers to break it.
- Temptation to moral evil lodges itself in our considerations because of the wretchedness of the sin that dwells in us. Our own corrupt affections, desires against the holiness of God’s law and the holy pressing of the Spirit of God in us, bring forth sin. The maturing of a lust (any of the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21) is the proper cause of sin.
- When sin accomplishes its ultimate end, death is the result. When sin runs rampant and has free rein in a person’s life, when it is unhindered by the work of the Spirit, the wisdom from above, and the renewed conscience, judgment, and will of the person, eternal death ensues. Such a person is unrenewed and as Paul emphasized, “Those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21).
- (Verses 16-18) We must not allow the changeableness of our perceptions and our affections deceive us into making God in our image. In absolute contrast to the temptation to sin, God is the direct and proper author of all that is good, that is, intrinsically good. His “giving” arises from his goodness. The gifts that result from his giving are perfect; all of them are fitted to perform their purpose and have no flaw in them. Two reasons are given for the assumption of this perfection in God’s gifts.
- First, they partake of the character of the giver. He is the Father of lights. As 1 John 1:5 emphasizes, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” As he himself is unchanging and undimmed in holy goodness by any shadow, so both his revelation of truth and his holy purposes are without flaw.
- Second, true believers have been brought forth according to God’s own irresistible will. The content of their faith and their submission to its transforming power have formed the true character of their understanding of God and the nature of his work in their lives. The power of the “word of truth” will not fail to accomplish its ultimate goal of transformation from corruption to heavenly holiness. Those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ, transformed by the Spirit of God, and informed by God’s inerrant revelation show forth in this as-yet-fallen-and-groaning world (Romans 8:18-22) the final redemptive purpose of God. Christians have the “firstfruits of the Spirit” and are themselves “a kind of firstfruits among His creatures.” Redeemed life has been placed in this world until the time when the world is dissolved and then renewed into the “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).
III. How does the Word of God operate to distinguish true grace from feigned religion? (Verses 19-26)
A. The writer looks at manifestations of spiritual life in the word from three perspectives. Virtually the entire discussion from here to the end is a tapestry (much like 1 John) of spiritual life built on these ideas and how one discerns the true life of faith from a mere sham of religion.
- Everyone must be quick to hear. James has in mind specifically the desire to receive and be transformed by the revealed truth of God. The truth of this word has been the instrument of the first instance of conversion and will be the continued instrument of transformation. Hearing and doing are indivisible elements of the effectual working of the word of truth in the life of a believer. Before any progress can be made in spiritual life, one must have an ever-growing knowledge, pursued in love, of the word of God.
- We must be slow to speak (cf. 3:1-12). Our words reflect what is inside us. We are so laden with sin, deception, bitterness, and self-promotion undetected by our unsanctified minds, that we should exercise caution in how and what we speak. Unholiness will bubble up from deep places in the soul when we give vent to words that reflect the unmortified flesh that clings to us. Where there is an abundance of words, sin in not lacking and the better part of wisdom is to remain silent until we have framed our language according to the goodness of the word of God, the wisdom that is from above (3:13-16).
- Slow to anger –One should keep a tight rein on his affections so that they not be overcome with the flesh. Although anger can be directed by spiritual rationality, even infinite holiness (Zephaniah 2:1-3; Zechariah 10:3; Mark 3:5; Ephesians 4:26), our fallen nature erupts most often in sinful anger (Ephesians 4:31; Galatians 5:20). James warns later that the tongue is “set on fire by hell” (3:6). Human anger, directed by human self-centeredness, only escalates conflict, loses sight of mercy and reconciliation and does not, therefore, serve the cause of God’s righteousness (20). Even as we are declared righteous in the gospel, so God works in us for the restoration of true heartfelt righteousness as a necessary sanctifying outworking of the gospel (Matthew 5:178-20).
B. He begins this interweaving of ideas by pointing to the true way of hearing the word.
- (Verse 21) Christians will fully embrace the purpose of the transforming word of God. Because he chose to give us birth, or bring us forth, by the word of truth (18), its power already has been established in our lives. Living and active and sharper than a two-edged sword, the word of God consistently operates in us to divide soul and spirit, bones and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart. It lays us bare before God’s eyes (Hebrews 4:12, 13) and keeps turning over all the remnants of wickedness in our hearts so that we might put it aside. The saving function of the word of God includes the sanctifying power of it.
- Justification by faith is what Paul set himself to defend when he warned the Galatians against “turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6). The “Good News” in particular is, that though we have sinned and are therefore under a curse and have forfeited any possibility of attaining righteousness by the Law, in Christ God has declared us justified. That is the gospel. Sinners under condemnation have been granted righteousness before God and sonship with God completely by the work of another. Nothing else, no contribution of ours no matter how holy, can contribute to the finality, utter sufficiency, and perfect righteousness of Christ’s work.
- At the same time, when God restores us to himself by justification, he begins the restoration of the image of God in us (Colossians 3:9, 10) by advancements in holiness. If this does not happen, we do not have grace (Hebrews 12:10, 14). “The word implanted” refers, therefore to the continued operation of the grace of God in removing the destructive effects of sin from us. Its effectual operation toward holiness necessarily extends from its initial power of showing us our absolute destitution of personal righteousness in bringing us to Christ. We are not saved if there is no operation of the word, by the Spirit, toward holiness, though we are not saved by any degree of holiness we reach in the sanctifying work of the Spirit.
- (Verses 23-25) Accordingly, Christians will look to have their lives and hearts as affected by the word of God as their minds.
- Those who are mere hearers of the word have deceived themselves concerning their state before God. Though cognitive apprehension and ongoing knowledge of the doctrines of Scripture are necessary, if there is no effect on the conduct, the knowledge is vain and “the last state has become worse for them than the first” (2 Peter 2:21).
- Instead, the true believer looks so intently in the word of God that he not only learns its doctrines and knows its propositions, but he discerns that its purpose is to transform his life. He sees the deformity that sin has produced. He sees the loveliness of Christ as he was “born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who are under the law.” The word produces a yearning for forgiveness, righteousness, and holiness.
- When he grasps how Christ honored the Law by his life and death, and that Christ’s work has set him free, the true Christian views the law in its perfection. Also, he now knows it as a law of freedom rather than a law of condemnation (Romans 8:1, 2). It was Jesus’ own submission to the Law that made him a fit Savior. Now, freed from its condemning power and its stringency as a covenant of works, the Law becomes the only pathway for healing of the soul and restitution of the image of God. The Law proclaims God’s prerogative over all of life and his right to our exclusive devotion and love. By conformity of our covenant Head, Jesus Christ, to its righteousness, we now have eternal life; it defines true righteousness by which our lives will be conformed to the environment of heaven. The person, therefore, who is not a “forgetful hearer but an effectual doer . . . . will be blessed in what he does.”
- James gives four practical and pertinent manifestations of the transforming power of the word. The one who has the word implanted will feel its effects in these ways.
- He bridles his tongue. James says that an unbridled tongue is a clear indication of a deceitful heart. Unbridled does not mean silent; James does not prohibit speech but points out that the tongue must be disciplined by the heart’s conformity to Scripture. (Again look at James’s warning against many being teachers – 3:1-12). A tongue that pours forth the poison of depravity, foolish talk ungoverned by Scripture does not have the implanted word. A bridled tongue will be led to speak truth to one’s neighbor (Ephesians 4:25), sing praises to God, work for the edification of those who hear, and will express desires for holiness. “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever; With my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 89:1, 2).
- He cares for those in need. James states with great clarity some of the defining aspects of true religion. The distress of orphans and widows will be a major concern. The Christian will work to find provision for those who are destitute of temporal security and daily needs.
- He avoids the swill of worldly persuasion and living. The Christian finds the glory of Christ so compelling and alluring, that he weans himself from the world and its false promises of happiness, success, and fulfillment. He has tasted that the Lord is good, desires the sincere milk of the word and so puts aside all malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander (1 Peter 2:1-3).
- (Verses 2:1-7) He discerns the insidious sinfulness of partiality and realizes that such judgment on the basis of worldly position is tantamount to a rejection of justification by faith.
- (Verses 2-4) If we prefer the rich in our congregations over the poor, we show that we are evil in our motivation and that we are focused on external appearance and immediate social and economic advantage. When we show honor and deference to the rich beyond that we show to the poor we demonstrate that we have focused on the passing glory of worldly appearance and have forsaken the biblical proposition, “For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24).
- God’s election of the poor and many without earthly credentials (1 Corinthians 1:26-29) shows that our preference because of status is ungodlike and a denial of our own unworthiness. If we received others because of a perceived worth and status in the evaluation of the world, we have failed to know the heart of all people and fail to affirm the goodness and mercy of God in saving sinners by pure mercy (Titus 3:2-4). The elect poor, though without status in this world, are, nevertheless, rich in faith while here, and heirs of the eternal and imperishable riches of the kingdom of God.
- There is an ultimate irony and evidence of the deep sinfulness and misdirection in preferential thinking. The intimidation of worldly status prompts one to curry favor with those who hate us and seek our destruction before the legal authorities for our faith. They hate the name of Jesus by whose death and resurrection power we have been called to salvation. At the same time, we have slighted those who love God, have been called by his grace, and are heirs of the eternal kingdom.