18th September 2023

Perfect, complete, lacking nothing 

This study is the twenty-first in a series of studies on the books of the New Testament
 (James – read in 9 minutes)

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
James 2:26 (NKJV)

James can be a tricky book; Luther referred to it as ‘an epistle of straw’ relegating it to the end of his German translation of the Bible. He was not alone in struggling to reconcile the book’s focus on ‘works’ (though clearly not works of the law – Galatians 3:11,12) with his understanding of justification. 

Probably written by the ‘James’ who was Jesus’s half-brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church, it is addressed to, ‘the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad’ (James 1:1), referring to Christians who fled Jerusalem following intense persecution from the Romans, and the Jews – who still had the temple, and priests still offering sacrifices, still collecting money, still behaving as described in the gospel accounts. Only the apostles were left. It draws heavily on material from Christ’s teachings, particularly the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, and from Proverbs.

Early in the epistle James counsels his readers: ‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.’ (v.5). This echoes the writer of Proverbs who repeats the need to pursue wisdom: ‘…incline your ear to wisdom, And apply your heart to understanding; Yes, if you cry out for discernment, …Then you will understand the fear of the Lord…’  (Proverbs 2:2-5). James’s words introduce a whole raft of imperatives, about 54 direct instructions on how to live in the society they find themselves in – all underpinned by wisdom. It is essential for everything that follows, and central to James’s message. Wisdom is the starting point for understanding why we are to do some things and avoid doing others. 

This letter is more general than most of Paul’s epistles: it is not to a specific church with specific problems, and more easily applied to any community seeking to live a life that is in tune with Jesus – in the 1st Century or now. Using language that echoes Jesus’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’, James denounces hypocritical believers who say one thing: “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled” – without making sure their brothers or sisters have those things they need. (James 2:15-16; Matthew 7:9-11). It is a call for integrity, for believers to act according to their faith. He does this through many short, easily memorised lines: 

‘…let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath…’  (James 1:19)
‘…faith without works is dead…’  (James 2:26)
‘…Resist the devil and he will flee from you.’  (James 4:7)

James addresses favouritism versus love, genuine faith versus dead faith, words that praise God or cause pain. These opposing pairs set the ‘good work’ with a Godly outcome, against the ‘worldly work’ with a negative outcome. At a first reading it might seem that the standards laid down are beyond us, and maybe those early Christians felt the same. But at the end of his letter James says, ‘…the Lord is very compassionate and merciful…’ (James 5:11). We rely on that mercy and compassion, knowing that the fear of the Lord is the ‘beginning of wisdom’: not there yet – a work in progress.

Heavenly Father, we pray for the wisdom that James instructed us to pray for, not doubting your desire to bless us with understanding, so that we would see how to live a life in tune with our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Study by Maggie Mitchell

About the writer:
Maggie Mitchell attends the Northampton congregation of Grace Communion International and is Chair of the Pastoral Council

Local congregation:
GCI Northampton
Ecton Village Hall
78A High Street

Local congregational contact:
Maggie Mitchell
Email:  maggie.mitchell@btinternet.com

Word of Life contact: