James: Misconceptions and Insights

I knew when I decided to take this tour through the book of James that I would receive comments, lots of comments, and I’d like to thank each and every one of you who took the time and effort to leave a comment. As I expected, they tended to run along general doctrinal lines. The truth is that certain doctrinal traditions have some difficulty dealing with James!

I received one comment that pointed out that Martin Luther took a rather dim view of James, for instance. True enough, as I recall, Luther complained that James was “an epistle of straw” because in Luther’s view James seemed to favor works over faith. He didn’t see that the gospel was to be found in James, a view I find rather amusing, but then Luther was a little touchy if he thought someone might differ with him on salvation by grace through faith. Well, maybe he was a little too touchy in seeing opposition where there was actually agreement.

A few of my Calvinist friends have left comments that, at least to me, seem to have an impulse to write rules from James’ teachings. Sorry, but I don’t see a rule book here. Ironic isn’t it? Luther and Calvin parted ways back in the Reformation…

What I’m really getting at here is that there are some misconceptions surrounding this book, and maybe that is why many modern-day teachers avoid it. Can Jesus be found in James? Well, let’s see… didn’t I write a “Bonus Post” on its connection with the Sermon on the Mount? Remember the chart? Every verse from James 1:2 through James 5:18 has a direct parallel in the Sermon on the Mount… and commentators say Jesus isn’t in James… that only leaves three verse without a direct parallel!

Does James really stress works over faith? ย Now be careful before you say that he does, remember the parallel with the Sermon on the Mount! If you’ve followed these posts you have seen that James teaches that salvation comes by faith, and that as Christians we put that faith into action, which is exactly what Jesus taught. It is true that James hasn’t used the “magic words” of certain teachers who came along centuries later, but the essence is the same, for there is no conflict between faith and works, unless you manufacture one yourself.

Here’s What I Think…

I’ve noticed over the years that some people love the way I teach, while others can’t stand it. The ones who love it, do so because they see things they had previously missed, while the others find it too personally challenging because their assumptions aren’t protected. There’s a really good reason for this, you see I was trained in communication before I was trained in theology. As a consequence, I didn’t adopt the usual methods used in theology. With communication, I learned to identify the persuasive structure of a piece and deconstruct it for the purpose at getting at the assumptions behind persuasion. Maybe you’ve noticed that all of the books we’ve gone through so far are persuasive in nature. ย James has an interesting persuasive structure, one that I haven’t found commentators discussing; he sets context backwards. By the way, this is a structure used effectively by really wise politicians sometimes, it gives them a surprise ending that destroys their opponents, as James has done… but then you’d need to read the whole thing to see it.

James gives us a whole bunch of moral teachings and then places priority on our relationship with Christ through intercessory prayer for one another: Love in action. Jesus said that the whole Law and prophets were fulfilled in the command to love your neighbor as yourself; James demonstrated this principle in action. If you approach Scripture the way many theologians do, you are looking for proof texts to plug into your systematic theology chart, and you miss this treasure “hidden” in the book of James.

I’d like to expand just a bit further in the next post, which will be the last in this series…

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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23 Responses to James: Misconceptions and Insights

  1. Steve B says:

    Many people have a problem with reading comprehension. This is especially true with scripture. Thy read a word or a sentence and for some inexplicable reason insert another word or phrase in its place. For example
    Luk_14:27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

    Many people read this and think Jesus is talking about salvation so they will tell others that to be a Christian you need to pick up your cross etc etc, whereas Jesus is only speaking about true discipleship. How many people need to learn to be mature before they can move on to discipleship and some mature faster than others. James is one of these guys who people read and they insert their own words and phrases in other words lack of comprehension.

    Just a thought I have observed down through the ages.

  2. Pingback: Love v Love – have I gone nuts? | Just me being curious

  3. paulfg says:

    Morning Don – Love your work. Soap box time again for me with a pingback! Sorry! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Bette Cox says:

    Many thanks, Don. My nutshell summation of James – Jesus says by their fruit you’ll know them… James says faith produces fruit.

  5. I must be reading the book of James wrong and have been for years. it is one of my top three favorite books in the Bible and my “go to” because I always see something I need in that moment. I never thought James stress works. I felt it prompts us to let our faith be revealed through what we do. I see it as love in action. Faith in action. Moving with God, not sitting motionless on a pew saying one thing an doing nothing that glorifies the Father. I just read a post about is worship what we sing or what we do?

    I find your post quite thought provoking (in a good way) since my church has no formal “Sunday school.” Thank you for making me look deeper into doctrine in a way I hadn’t before without the legalistic chains looming over me. Lilka

  6. Pam says:

    I also consider your discussion on James to be thought-provoking. It is time to look at and read the passages of Scripture within their context and lay aside our presuppositions. Doing this allows us to read the Scripture from a fresh view. I had a blog named a fresh look at the Word. This meant laying aside those interpretations and thoughts that we previously held on to, and seeing it in a new and different way. No…I did not twist the scriptures out of their context. That was just it…I wrote on the scriptures based upon their context. It was amazing how people received these lessons with new insight and encouragement. Keep up the good work, Don!

    • Don Merritt says:

      I’ve had a hunch for quite some time that if we really studied the Word in context, and checked the things we’ve always thought we knew at the door, must of the divisions within the Body would go away, at least on the Protestant side of the aisle. As is usually the case, the devil is in the details, and we don’t quite check all of our presuppositions at the door, and yes, that includes me! It’s not an easy thing to do is it? Yet even when we aren’t perfect about it, people see things clearly that they had missed before, so I’m going to keep on trying, and I know you will to! Thanks for the encouragement, and we’ll both just keep up the good fight for the truth and trust God for the rest!

  7. ” there is no conflict between faith and works, unless you manufacture one yourself.” So very true, Don.

    James has always been one of my favorite books. Maybe I like how logical it is, how simple it is, and how beautiful the message is. I have talked to people who discount James as a “works-based faith” book. And I have never seen that in his words. I’ve tried donning their spectacles of cynicism and can’t see the “angry rhetoric” they seem to so adamantly deplore. James is not an angry book. It’s a book filled with hope and guidance. It’s a book that mirrors Jesus’ teachings. It’s a book that says, “Because I have faith and love, I will show you that you love.” To me, faith without “works” is selfish. And Jesus was the most selfless man to walk the earth. How can we not want to emulate Him? How can we see His journey and His sacrifice and believe just saying we love and have faith is enough? How could we not want to be the best version of ourselves?

    I agree, Don, that those people who don’t like your teaching are simply suffering under some heavy stones in their heart. God will convict them and work with them on removing the stones. Keep teaching the way you know, because you are enlightening more people than you realize. Thanks for your series on James. And for all that you do for our church. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Elaine says:

    Love the way you teach and the comments are a learning experience as well! I see James as a wonderful book, worthy of reading over again frequently, and i see it as based on faith, not works. I believe when there is true faith, works will automatically happen; they go hand in hand. Looking forward to what comes next!Your blog is one that I look forward to daily.

  9. I, for one, am truly enjoying your teaching style. I am a long-time Christian with no theological training. I enjoy the insights you provide that I might never have discovered on my own.

  10. Skye says:

    I think you know I love the way you teach (at least I hope you do). I learn much from the exchanges, as well. You are a blessing, and I am glad you share your wisdom with us. Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚

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