By: Daniel Goepfrich
Growth through Trials
James 1 begins very abruptly with a short greeting and quick encouragement. These believing Jews had been displaced from their homeland and had lost their close-knit Christian family. Even though their immediate persecution had stopped, they found themselves facing a new persecution that was both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian. They were certainly tempted to give up their faith to blend into their new communities as much as possible.
James offered them three reasons to not give up and, instead, to embrace the trials they were facing. First, he knew that their trials would cause them to become stronger in their faith and more dependent on God (James 1:2-8). This dependence, visible by their growing wisdom in approaching that persecution, would continue to stabilize them and their faith. Second, even though their persecution was temporary, he knew that their spiritual growth would be eternal and will be rewarded by God himself (James 1:9-18). He reminded them that God does not tempt us with evil intent; that comes from our innate sinfulness. Instead, God gives good gifts to help us grow, which is his unchanging plan. Third, he wanted these trials to drive them back to the Scriptures, which would point out specific areas in which they needed to grow (James 1:19-27). James warned them to not get angry over their circumstances and ignore this reflection, but instead, use the opportunity to live out Scripture teachings, especially in their interaction with each other. Loving their fellow Christians in tangible ways would help them grow in and through their difficult times.
Loving Your Neighbor
James 2 continues James’ focus on doing good works, especially to the poor mentioned in James 1:27. There is no place for class warfare within the Christian community (James 2:1-13). What a person owns or wears should not affect his place in the assembly. Wealth was often considered to be God’s favor on a person, but James meant to correct that mistaken concept. James gave Moses’ and Jesus’ command to “LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF” the title, “THE ROYAL LAW” (James 2:8). There is no higher love than that of unselfishness and watching for the interest of others (see Philippians 2:1-8).
Verse ten is often misunderstood to mean that “all sins are the same in God’s sight.” James’ point that “ONE WHO…FAILS IN ONE POINT HAS BECOME GUILTY OF ALL OF” the law does not mean that all sins are equal. The law itself, with its levels of punishment, proved that some sins are weightier than others. James’ point was that a person could either be completely right with the law or a law-breaker, but not both, and that not loving one’s neighbor is as much a violation of the law as adultery and murder, even if they did not carry the same punishment. Lesser crimes, like prejudice, were still violations of God’s perfect standard.
Faith and Works
The rest of chapter two contains one of the most debated passages in the New Testament. Having been saved because of Paul’s teaching of justification through faith alone in Romans, Martin Luther famously disregarded James as apparently teaching justification through good works. The key to proper interpretation is found in James 2:22-23. By quoting Genesis 15:6, James and Paul both agreed that a person is saved through faith alone; however, God did not mean for faith to stand alone. Genuine saving faith should produce life change that results in good works (although not every saved person matures as they should), which “perfect” or “complete” that faith (James 2:22). Thus, faith and good works work together, not for salvation, but in salvation. Faith is just the first step in the life-long process of spiritual maturity.
Each Thursday, DPH runs a Chapter-by-Chapter blog by Daniel Goepfrich, progressing readers chapter-by-chapter through the New Testament. This series is taken from New Testament Chapter-by-Chapter, published by Trust House Publishers, a division of DPH. Daniel serves as Pastor of Oak Tree Community Church in South Bend, Indiana, and blogs at www.TheologyIsForEveryone.com
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