The Book of James sometimes gets a bad reputation. Some people think it primarily is a book about “works” as opposed to “faith.” Of course, this is mostly correct. James does write a lot about “works.” He has a lot to say about what a Christian ought to do.
Some people are uncomfortable about this because James doesn’t put as much emphasis as other New Testament writers – Paul, for example – on the fact that we are saved by grace through faith. Our “works” do not save us. The great church reformer, Martin Luther, had these kinds of reservations about James.
And James wrote this, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). This bothers people because we like to say with the most simplicity that we are saved by faith alone – not faith accompanied by works, like James seemed to be saying.
Of course, this is easily solved. But I think there is more to the problem that we perhaps don’t recognize.
We don’t like the idea of legalism. To be a legalist, at least how I would define it, means there are certain things we must “do” in order to remain on the right side of salvation or to remain in the church. For instance, a legalist might say a person needs to attend church to be saved or to never drink alcohol or to dress a certain way.
Many Christians despise this idea – and rightfully so. We know God saved us by his mercy. Jesus accepts anyone who comes to him in faith. Legalists heap loads of guilt on people who recognize their imperfections.
A lot of us longtime Christians have seen legalism at work, and we know the dangers, and so a book like James is one for which we almost instinctively have to make apologies. We might say, “Yes, James said faith without works is dead, but he really meant …” And we explain what salvation is. We want to assure anyone who is listening that we aren’t legalists (like James, maybe).
But doesn’t Jesus want us to live a certain way? We really ought not to let our apologies get in the way of what James is saying. Isn’t sin a real thing, and doesn’t Jesus want us to reject sin? Aren’t there certain “works” that Jesus does require of the people who adopt his name, who call themselves Christians, and who join the household of God?
We know there aren’t any “works” required in order to be saved. The New Testament is clear about this. Anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13). But still, if Jesus doesn’t have a very specific way for us to live, then what was the point of teachings like the Sermon on the Mount, which are full of direct instructions from Jesus about things to do and things not to do?
A heart that is transformed by the grace of God ought to result in a life full of actions that also are transformed by the grace of God.
And so we know there’s a Christian way of life that we learn to live as we enter into the kingdom of God. I would add that this is why we have the church, the family of God, so we can be around people who can demonstrate this kind of kingdom living. And the church is more than good music and sermons produced so you can have a spiritual experience. No, the church is a people who are flawed but all moving in the same direction, toward Christ.
Some scholars think James wrote his letter in response to the apostle Paul’s teachings. James was the brother of Jesus and became prominent in the early church. The thinking is that James heard about some of Paul’s teachings – that there’s nothing a person must do to be saved, only believe – and then saw some so-called Christians who were not exhibiting Christian living.
And so James wrote a letter to correct some of the misconceptions about what it means to live a person’s life as a follower of Jesus Christ. Most of the other letters in the New Testament have a clear emphasis on the grace of God. And James came along and wrote, in essence, “But we ought not forget how Jesus would have us live if we really do trust in him.”
This isn’t legalism. But it does require us to put our focus squarely on the things that we “do” with our lives. I think James would want us to stop in our tracks and to evaluate whether our “works” match our “faith.”
Spend some time today considering how you would address that question in your own life.