After many months, we’ve come to the end of the book of James. As I mentioned last week, Pastor Mike will preach next Sunday and then we’ll begin a season in John’s Gospel on September 4th. This morning, though, we’ll spend one more week in James, looking back at the big picture of the letter.
This sermon consists of revisiting three high level truths about James and then twelve main themes in James. My main hopes in doing this are:
- To fill in a few James-gaps from sermons you may have missed.
- Look again at what it means to have genuine faith in Jesus according to James, and encourage you to do so.
- Recap James’s description of what it means to live out our faith in Jesus, and encourage you to do so.
- Remind you of the great grace of God that is already working all of this out in those who believe.
Let’s pray that God would use this final James sermon to reignite (or ignite for the first time) our burden to follow Jesus wherever He leads and whatever it costs in the knowledge that, that is what we were made for and that He is more than worth it.
HIGH LEVEL TRUTHS ABOUT JAMES
As I mentioned in the introduction, I believe there are three high level truths about the book of James that drive the letter and are good for us to keep in our minds if we are going to take James with us as we ought.
James Was Jesus’ Half-brother.
First, James was Jesus’ half-brother. (Half-brother in that Mary was their mom and Joseph raised them, but Jesus was conceived—not by Joseph—but by the Holy Spirit). This is significant for two main reasons.
First, as everyone who has siblings knows, they see you in a very particular light. Having a front row seat on your life, there are few secrets. I love my sister and she loves me. She appreciates and respects my faith in Jesus. But having grown up with me, I can promise you, nothing I could say or do at this point would convince her that I am the sinless Son of God. The fact that James was convinced that Jesus was, is a really big deal. The fact that he was so convinced that he ended up as a key leader in the early Church and eventually died as a martyr is a bigger deal still.
But there’s another side to this as well. The second reason it is significant that James was Jesus’ brother is in the fact that he did not believe in Jesus as the Christ at first. John 7:5 tells us that “not even his brothers believed in him.” We’re not told why they didn’t believe, but we are told that it was only after Jesus’ resurrection that James became convinced of who Jesus really was. And this is significant because it’s not the kind of thing you’d lie about if you were trying to pull a fast one. The honest, often unflattering portrayal of the key figures in the Bible is part of what makes it so believable.
The first big truth about James that I want you to lock in and remember is that it was written by Jesus’ brother.
Not Hearers Only
The second big truth concerns the main thrust of James’s entire letter. It is a charge for Christians to obey God’s Word, not merely listen to it. Hearing God’s Word is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It’s necessary because we cannot know who God is, who we are, or how to live in a manner pleasing to God apart from God revealing those things to us. But knowing those things alone is insufficient because God reveals them to us in order that we might be transformed by them, not merely store them up.
For those reasons, James wrote, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (1:22-25).
You cannot rightly understand James, much less live in light of it, if you don’t understand that his primary aim is to remind his readers that God’s people do what the Bible says, they don’t merely hear it or study it or like it or believe it.
And that leads us nicely to the final big truth.
James Is a Book of Commands
James is a book of commands. There are between 55-61 commands (depending on how you count). That’s a lot of hearing to do; a lot of instructions to obey. But before we just turn them into a checklist, there are a few things we ought to keep in mind.
- It is good to obey. To be a Christian is to acknowledge that Jesus is King. That is why James began his letter by describing himself as, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ…”. There is more (as we’re about to see) to obedience in James, but there’s not less. Jesus is Lord and James is filled with commands that Jesus rightfully requires from His people.
- Obedience is a mature Christian’s highest desire because it is the path to fullness of life and joy. James means his readers to obey, but not merely because Jesus has the right/power to command. This is made clear in James from the very opening. James’s readers were suffering significantly because of their obedience to Jesus. While we might expect James to give them a few tips on how to minimize, mitigate, or even outright avoid their suffering, instead he calls on them to “count it all joy” (1:2). Christians must obey, but we do so in full assurance that every command of Jesus is a description of the one and only path to pleasures forevermore.
- No amount of obedience can ever make us right with God. James is emphatic about this in the middle of chapter 2. If you wish to be acceptable to God by obeying His law, you’d better keep all of it, perfectly (2:10-13). Of course, none of us can do that, which is why Jesus came, suffered, and died on our behalf. Christians obey because God’s favor is already upon us, not in order to earn or gain it. And that leads us to the last part of this last big truth.
- Every command of God is ultimately a description of what Jesus did for us and the work God is already doing in us. This is the heart of the commands of James and a Christian understanding of obedience. Every call to obedience is a reminder that Jesus already obeyed on our behalf because we couldn’t. And every call to obedience is a promise that God is already working that in us. What amazing grace!
To really appreciate and then live in light of this letter of James, we need to begin by getting our heads around a few big truths that it is built upon. Among them are the fact that James is Jesus’ brother, the main theme is one of listening to God’s Word and obeying it, and the commands in James are ultimately descriptions of the character of Jesus and the grace of God in us. From there, we’re in a good place to quickly move through twelve of the big themes in the letter.
MAIN THEMES IN JAMES
In my very first sermon I mentioned six, broader themes. Here, I mean to shorten and separate them to cover more ground, in less time, and with a bit more nuance. And all of that, once again, to help us lock in, love, and live out all the goodness that God has for us in this letter. My strong encouragement is for each of you to pick one or two of these themes and hold on tightly to them.
- God uses every trial in a Christian’s life as an instrument for our growth in godliness. He also rewards everyone who remains faithful through trial with the “crown of life” (1:12). For those reasons we ought to consider our trials as “all joy” (1:2-4). That is not to say that God uses trials to tempt His people or entice us to sin. God cannot be tempted and he tempts no one, James wrote (1:13-16). Therefore, when we suffer and are sick, we pray; entrusting both to God who reigns over them for glory and good (13-18).
Coming to truly believe, trust, and even delight in this principle will make more of a difference in our lives than almost anything else we might do. We live in a world marred by sin. That means we live in a world where suffering is inevitable. Therefore, if we will receive God’s promises regarding suffering, we will be able to navigate in a manner that will truly stand out and show the unique power of the gospel.
- God’s people need wisdom to navigate this world, God has all wisdom, and God delights to give it to those who seek it from Him (1:5-11). True wisdom comes from above and produces “good conduct” (3:13) that is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere,” and it produces “a harvest of righteousness” (3:17-18). Fake wisdom comes from demons and produces “bitter jealousy,” “selfish ambition,” boasting in falsehoods, “disorder, and every vile practice” (3:14-16). James wanted his readers to know that there is no comparison between the wisdom of God and the “wisdom” of the world in either its source or effect. James calls on us to know and pursue the wisdom from above for all of life.
- Temptation to sin comes to Christians when the lingering effects of our old sin nature well up inside us. That is, temptation comes when something deep in us promises things it cannot truly deliver and delivers things we’d never want (1:14-15). This is especially true, James wrote, with regard to sinful fights and quarrels among Christians. When we love things more than people, we’ll be willing to harm others to get what we want from them (4:1-3).
The main point here is that while our sins have been entirely paid for by grace, through faith in Jesus, their effects will not be entirely driven from us until heaven. If we’re not careful, therefore, we’ll give in to their wicked enticements instead of holding fast to the promises of God. James helps us with this.
- God only gives good gifts to His people, and good gifts come only from God (1:17-18). This is not to say, of course, that hard things don’t happen to Christians, that non-Christians don’t often mean well, or that Christians don’t do genuine good at times. But it is to say that everything God does—painful or pleasant—is good for those who love Him. As we saw in the very first point, even the most severe trials Christians face are good gifts in that they are means of sanctifying grace. At the same time, God alone is truly good. People do good, therefore, only when we act as conduits for God’s goodness to flow through us. James wanted his readers to understand that anything good that flows out of us ultimately from God, so that we’d continually look to God for that which only He can provide—for us and others.
- Godly people listen first and most. We are slow to speak. We are even slower to anger (1:19-20). And when we do speak, God means us to be very, very careful (1:26). This is true for every Christian, but it is especially true for those who are teachers (3:1-12). In the end, James calls the tongue “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8) and he commands his readers not to “speak evil against one another” (4:11). Above all, when we do speak, we ought to speak plain, simple truth (5:12). We are not to speak in ways that are wishy-washy, unscrupulously ambiguous, or intentionally false. Our yes’s are “yes” and our no’s are “no”.
Simply, our words flow from our hearts and have great power. To hang on to James, therefore, means understanding that we ought to grab ahold of every word that forms on our lips and do two things with them. First, we need to consider what kind of heart inclination they grew out of. And second, we need to prayerfully swallow those words that were produced by something rotten and only let out those flowing from love.
- Godly people continually work to put off sin and to walk in righteousness. We see that in 1:21 and other passages, but maybe most clearly in 4:7-10. “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” As I mentioned earlier, no person can earn God’s favor by sufficient obedience or sufficient sin fighting, but no one can rightly claim to be in God’s favor if we are not growing in our hatred for sin and our desire to put it to death within us.
As we leave James, then, let’s take with us a reminder of the sinfulness and destructiveness of sin, and therein a fresh determination to work to put it off wherever we find it in us and put on that which is good.
- James tells us that the greatest form of Christian obedience, the kind that most honors God, the thing he wants us most to hear and obey, is the charge to care for the most vulnerable in society—especially orphans and widows (1:27). Similarly, James is emphatic about the fact that favoritism is bad. It is of the devil. Ungodly people evaluate others based on external factors like appearance and wealth. Ungodly people consider others in light of what benefit they might provide. But godly people love everyone, and especially the poor and needy, not because they are worthy, but because God loves us apart from any worthiness in us (2:1-9). Likewise, ungodly people hoard stuff up for themselves, even at the expense of the vulnerable, while godly people lay their lives down for those in need (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) (5:1-6).
James has helped the Church, even our church, see the simple goodness of foster care and adoption more than any other book in the Bible. I cannot even imagine how many kids and families have been blessed by the Church throughout history by simple obedience to James 1:27. Even as we leave James, let’s continue to allow it to drive us toward care for the most vulnerable among us.
- Faith apart from works is dead (2:14-26). This is tied to James’s main thrust (be not hearers only), but it’s also a more specific claim. “Be not hearers only” is a charge to Christians who have grown lax in our obedience. This teaching, that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” addresses the very nature of salvation. In essence, James taught here that genuine salvation always produces good works. In other words, in this short passage James indirectly answered the question of how we can know for sure that our faith is real (and not like that of demons or those Jesus will deny knowing). We know by the resulting change in affections, attitudes, and actions. Where those things are not increasingly becoming more like Jesus, we do not have good reason to believe our faith is genuine. And all of this is because the grace of God that results in genuine conversion also results in genuine transformation, every. single. time. The order, timing, and rate of our transformation will vary, but the fact of our transformation won’t when our faith is real.
Grace, please take this principle of James with you. Thank God for the good fruit you see in yourself and others and the assurance of salvation that it brings. And where fruit is sparse, turn it to God in humility and faith, find someone to pray for and with you, remember the promises of God, and walk in the Spirit’s power.
- Worldliness and godliness are incompatible (4:4). James earnestly wanted his readers to know that everyone has a greatest love—something we love most. And the only options for that greatest love are God or something God has made. To love the things God made the most is to be friends with the world and enemies of God. To love God most is to be friends with God and in a place to rightly love the things of the world. Along these lines, James told his readers that it is folly to love or trust in wealth. Their value and protection always fade and eventually fail. They always, eventually corrode and rot. Whether now in repentance or in eternity in condemnation, all who have placed their trust in financial security will “weep and howl” (5:1-2).
Grace, the enticement of the world often seems innocuous and even desirable. James reminds us that this is a lie. Anything that presents itself as above, even with, or even within 100 billion miles of God in its ability to satisfy and bless is a lie from hell. James repeatedly pleads with us to remember this that we might not be duped. Take this with you, Grace.
- God is in charge (4:13-17). Another key theme in James is the fact that God is God. That is, He is always actively governing the universe. Because He governs in fairly predictable ways, there is discernible order, science works. and making plans is often wise. But rightly living in a world governed by God means not merely functioning based on patterns we discover in God’s governance. It also means trusting in God, not the rhythms He’s created. James leaves no room for functional deism or practical atheism. “You do not know what tomorrow will bring” … therefore, “you ought to say, ‘if the Lord wills, we will…do this or that…” (4:14-15). Everything else is boasting, arrogance, and evil (4:16).
Let’s take this with us as well. Let’s resist the ever-present temptation to trust in God’s ordering rather than the God who orders. James gives us great help in this.
- Christian love looks different than worldly love. In the eyes of most, love means making a big deal out of me. Similarly, when we say we love someone, what we usually mean is that we like the way they make us feel. The point is that the normal, non-Christian idea of love is self-centered and selfish. The kind of love God has for the world and the kind He calls us to is different. Its aim is always for the greatest good of another. This begs the question, of course, of what is the greatest good for others. In the highest sense, the answer is always the same: it’s God. God is the greatest thing for all things. Therefore, love in its fullest sense always points people to God through Jesus Christ. But love also, always takes specific forms as well. One specific form named by James is, counterintuitively (as we saw last week), addressing sin in one another. The basic argument is this: if God is what we need most, and sin is by definition opposed to God, calling people to turn from sin and to God is at the very heart of true love.
I’m not going to re-preach last week’s sermon, but I do want to remind you that taking James with you means loving one another as God defines love, not as you or they do. Loving others means laying your life down to bring them what the need most, not what you most want from them or what they most want from you. I’m so thankful that our church does that in so many ways. May we continue and even grow in that all the more.
- Finally, the last big theme in James is that Jesus is coming back and will set all things right (5:7-11). “…Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (5:8), James wrote. In this knowledge, James called God’s people to be patient and gracious in our trials and suffering. We are to be willing to endure mistreatment in the knowledge that God will make all things right. True and complete justice will prevail in the end. Not one single act of injustice will be left unrighted. This will happen finally and fully when Jesus comes back and so we can live today in a kind of freedom and hope that looks strange to those who do not have that hope.
There you go, Grace. James is yet another expression of God’s kindness, another description of His grace, and another reminder of our need for that which only Jesus can provide. To rightly receive James is to be amazed by the goodness of God, to trust in His transforming power inside us, and to give ourselves to living as He made us to. For James’s readers, as for us, this is meant to be done within Christian community and for the glory of God. What a gift this is. May we receive it with all the thankfulness, gladness, earnestness, and hope it offers. May we, by God’s grace, be doers of the Word of God and not hearers only.