Wrestling with James


Lately I've been spending a lot of time in James because of the material I'm writing for work. While it mainly has to do with the discourse features involved, it's re-invigorated old interests I had when I once wrestled in my teens with the theology James espouses. tumblr_m6mc4clBOy1qznd0so1_500

I think I ended up walking away with a dislocated hip, but no victory pat on the back signifying that I'd won. So it's been with hesitation that I've wrestled my way back into understanding James. Nonetheless, I resolved to know it through and through (a fool's hope?), and am now coming out on the other side with some new perspectives. No, not on Paul, and no, not quite as "revolutionary" as Wrights. But new perspectives, on my own part, at least, with what James was saying so many moons ago.

In the next couple posts, I think I'll share some of these new thoughts. (Disclaimer: they're probably not new to you, but I've always been late in the game when it comes to finding out what everyone else already knows)

What does James (2:14) mean when he says:

What is the benefit, my brothers, if someone says that he has faith but does not have works? That faith is not able to save him, is it?

Well, for me, the big kicker is trying to figure out what it is that we're saved from. Because of our Pauline disposition, we might see the word "save" and automatically think "justification". And while this is even a kosher correlation to make in James' letter (who also links the two, cf. James 2:21), they seem to refer to different situations, though the same words are used.

  • While Paul was concerned with initial, forensic justification; James seems to be concerned with medial/final, authenticating justification.
  • Similarly, Paul is concerned with salvation (or deliverance) from the penalty of sin; while James is concerned with salvation (or deliverance) from both the power of sin (James 1:14–15, 21) and a final harsh day of judgment (James 2:13).
  • For Paul, faith alone is the ticket to the justification and salvation which he speaks of. For James, it is faith and works. (To be remembered, is that Paul speaks of works of the law, while James speaks of works of mercy.)

Here's my synopsis:

For James, and as a believer, if you want to escape the final day of judgment (2:13)—with more than the skin on your teeth, "as though through fire" (I Cor 3:15)—then you better not rely on faith alone. Accepting the message only opens up the door for the potential to be saved from this (James 1:21, viz. "which is able"). But we musn't fool ourselves: we've got to be "doers of the message" (1:22). If you want to ensure salvation from the final reckoning, and you want mercy to reign on that day in your favor—then you better have shown yourself to be righteous through acts of mercy, specifically toward those God cherishes (James 1:27; 2:5) and not lived a life of judgment (2:4) showing partiality (2:1). That type inactive, listen-only faith is useless (2:20). It's dead (2:17)—and it (understandably!) won't save you from judgment (2:13–14).

While at one time I was not so sure that James and Paul would get along that well if they were sat side by side, now I'm quite sure that they would heartily recommend each other's teachings. And I think you'll find that they do, if you look hard enough.

Please push back. Ask questions. Share your insights.