So, I think I have some serious problems with the book of James.
There’s a part of me that wants to respect the text and the redaction process of the Bible. And there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel qualified enough to question the things I’m questioning. And yet, there are things James is saying in this letter that is too loud for me to ignore.
As we worked through James in the New Testament seminary class I’m taking, I felt as though I was in a wrestling match with the text. I’ve heard people talk about how James is the New Testament proverbs, and how it is a book of wisdom. In fact, James is popular among Christians. It’s a book many cite as they favorite in the Bible. Yet, I find myself wondering if the book should even be included in the biblical canon at all.
As this is a blog post, I won’t be able to account for every thought I have about the book, but I will discuss a theme in the book that feels theologically inconsistent with the rest of the Bible. So, with no further ado, let’s begin. Of course, you’re invited to weigh in below!
Grace vs. Works
This is probably the major issue I have with this book. Now, before I begin, let me state very clearly… I do not believe that Christians (who have received God’s grace) should be able to live any kind of way. The matter at hand for me is not that about how permissive sin becomes as result of grace. It is, rather, about the square-one of salvation, and understanding just how far God’s grace, extended through Jesus Christ, really goes.
While the “crown” language found in James 1:12 is alluded to in other books of the Bible, I find it significantly disturbing here. James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life.” There’s room for a couple interpretations here, granted. The text does not exclusively say the “crown of life” is the result of or reward for one’s steadfastness. But it’s certainly implied. The idea seems to be that only those who withstand trials receive life. An interesting theological position being that “all our righteousness is as filthy rags.” Grace, as I understand, removes our works from the “life” equation altogether. Steadfast or not, our trust in Jesus and his sacrifice is our ticket to life. Does that mean we should not be steadfast? Absolutely not. But does our ability to be steadfast factor into our salvation? Also, absolutely not.
But hey, it’s just one verse. Perhaps I am misunderstanding James’ meaning.
If we read on, in 1:27, James goes on to say, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” This statement, standalone, is not too bad. It could be interpreted that James is merely saying that God desires our lives to be pure (perfect) and holy (set apart from the world). To this, I can agree. But in light of the context, I am forced to look at the verse in conjunction with the theme of the book. And in that sense, I must admit that the Christian “religion” is not defined by any work we commit. Now, again, should we be attentive to the needy among us? Yes. Is our faith defined by such charitable acts. No. Christianity is founded on the gospel of Jesus. Thus, the most “pure” and “undefiled” version of Christianity is characterized by surrender, trust and faith in Jesus Christ.
I guess what I’m saying is that James seems to be putting our works on the same level as our faith in Christ… which is not a level Jesus should share with anything or anyone.
James does not allow us to give him the benefit of the doubt. If we continue reading, he asks in 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” James is clearly, it seems, trying to deal with “salvation” of some sort. I realize the audience of James was receiving persecution, and so some would say that he means something other than spiritual salvation in the text. But I’d beg to differ. James is undeniable mixing salvation and justification in his argument, which aligns his thoughts along the lines of spiritual salvation.
He says (in 2:17) that faith without works is “dead.” If by dead he means inactive or dormant, then I can partially agree with him. After all, if I have faith that a chair will hold me, but never sit in the chair, my faith is not cancelled. It is simply not active at that particular moment. If “dead” here means non-existent or “no more,” then James is suggesting that our works validate our faith. This is incorrect on a couple levels. First, I don’t act on everything I have faith in. In fact, sometimes act on things despite not having faith in them. Which leads me to my second point. My actions are not proof of faith at all. To suggest such a thing is to permit a judgment that we are in no position to permit.
Continue reading through chapter two, and James tries to support his claim that works are needed for justification before God by using Abraham and Rahab. He says Abraham’s faith was “completed” by works, and that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
For me, these are core ideals at odds with the greater meta-narrative of God’s story of grace and redemption. Again, I am not advocating that good works do not follow Christian salvation. I believe they can, and should. Jesus talks about this himself in Matthew 7:21-23. But also in that Matthew passage we find “works” are misleading. Prophesying and casting out demons by way of the Holy Spirit certainly sounds like “Christian” works, but they are not evidence of those who will “enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The level to which James allows works to influence the salvation experience feels incorrect. It seems to fly in the face of salvation through Christ, and Christ alone. We do not work to be born again, we work once we are born again. And we work imperfectly at that.
What are your thoughts on James? Do you feel his teaching flies in the face of grace, or is it complementary?
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