Chapter 1

“Faith That Works”: A Letter from James

This state of Missouri in the U.S. has an unofficial slogan that appears on its license plates: “The Show-Me State.” This is meant to describe the character of Missourians, who are conservative, cautious, and unwilling to believe without adequate evidence. If there is a “show me” epistle in the New Testament, it is James. James says, “Don’t just tell me about your faith, show me by your actions.” True faith is more than just saying you believe. It is a heartfelt trust in God that results in a transformed life.

Who Was James?

The author of this letter identifies himself by the Greek name Iakōbos, which is translated in our versions as “James.” This is the same name as the Hebrew Ya-aqob, or “Jacob.” There are a number of people named James/Jacob in the NT:

(1) James the son of Alphaeus was one of Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15). But since this James is never mentioned except in the lists of disciples, he is unlikely to be the author of this letter.

(2) James the son of Zebedee and the brother of John was one of the “inner circle” of Jesus’ disciples and so much more prominent than James the son of Alphaeus. But this James was martyred by Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2) around A.D. 44, probably too early to be the author of this letter.

(3) The most likely candidate for the author is James, the half-brother of Jesus. No other James in the NT was well known enough to be identified simply as “James” (1:1). According to Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3, Jesus had four brothers, James, Joseph, Jude and Simon, and at least two sisters. James, like his brothers, did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5) until after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). But James quickly became a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church. He was visited by Paul on Paul’s first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion (Gal. 1:18–19), and it was James who pronounced the decision at the Jerusalem Council that Gentiles were saved by faith alone, rather than through circumcision and keeping the Law (Acts 15:12–21). Because of his piety James became known as “James the Just.”

We know very little about James’s later ministry, but we do have an account of his martyrdom from the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus reports that during the interim between the Roman governorship of Festus and Albinus (around AD 63), the newly appointed Jewish high priest Ananus saw a chance to move against the Jerusalem Christians. He had James and some other leaders arrested, tried before the Sanhedrin, and stoned to death. Ananus’s unlawful actions disturbed many of the more moderate Jews of Jerusalem, who respected James for his piety. They complained to the governor Albinus, who deposed Ananus as high priest (Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1).

Audience and Purpose

James addresses his letter to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1). The “twelve tribes” is almost certainly a reference to Jewish Christians. James writes to the “true Israel”— those Jews who have accepted Jesus as their Messiah. But what is the “scattering” or diaspora? In the book of Acts, Luke reports that following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7), “a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (8:1). James, as the leader of the Jerusalem church, continues pastoral care over this flock, encouraging them to authentic Christian living.

James has sometimes been called the Proverbs of the New Testament because it contains short proverbial sayings for godly living like the OT book of Proverbs. Another characteristic of James is its many parallels with the teachings of Jesus, especially those found on the Sermon on the Mount. Compare the following passages:

Topic James Jesus
Joy & blessing in trial James 1:2, 11
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds… Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial, because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life…
Matt. 5:11–12
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven…
Producing fruit James 3:10–12
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be… can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
Matt. 7:16–18
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistle? … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
Peace-makers James 3:18
Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
Matt. 5:9
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Oaths James 5:12
Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear — not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.”
Matt. 5:34–36
But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.

While the wording is seldom identical, the concepts are strikingly similar, showing that James was very familiar with Jesus’ teaching.

Some Key Themes in James

Wisdom to Face Trials with Joy (1:2–18; 3:15–18). The scattered people of God were experiencing persecution and trials, something not uncommon for those who have had to flee their homes. James calls his readers to an attitude of joy in suffering (1:2). Joy doesn’t mean being happy all the time; it is rather a deep contentment that comes from trusting God.

Joy doesn’t mean being happy all the time; it is rather a deep contentment that comes from trusting God.

Trials can be joyful because they have a purpose, which is to develop perseverance. Perseverance, in turn, develops Christian maturity, which enables believers to face new trials with success (1:3–4). Persevering through trials requires wisdom, the ability to make good and godly decisions. James says God will give his people this wisdom if they simply ask in prayer, that is, depend on him for it. But they need to ask in faith, without wavering (1:5–8). The wisdom that comes from God, James says, results in an attitude of humility and actions that are not selfish or envious, but rather pure, peace-loving, considerate, merciful, impartial and sincere (3:15–18).

Riches and Poverty (1:9–11; 5:1–12). Many of the trials James’s readers were experiencing apparently came from the disparity between the rich and the poor. James warns against the danger of riches and of treating the poor with contempt. God will exalt the humble and will bring down the proud (1:9–11). James warns of coming judgment against the rich who oppress the poor: “You have hoarded wealth in the last day… You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter…” (5:1–6). He encourages the poor to be patient in the face of suffering, because God’s judgment is coming (5:7–8).

Showing Partiality (2:1–13). Economic disparity can result in an attitude of favoritism. There is a tendency to honor the rich and powerful since they can provide favors, and to despise the poor and powerless. James affirms that God shows no partiality and commands his readers to treat one another with the respect due those created in the image of God.

The Destructive Power of Words (1:19–20, 26; 3:1–12; 4:1–12). Like a wildfire, words of gossip and slander can do great damage. James warns believers to be careful what they say, since the tongue can be a deadly weapon (3:3–4). Teachers are especially accountable (3:1), since their words can lead people to truth or grave error. The antidote to harmful words is to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19–20).

Faith and Works (1:6–8; 2:1–26; 5:14). As a book of wisdom, James calls his readers to walk faithfully with God and make good and godly decisions. In line with this, James says it’s not enough just to say you believe. That faith must be backed up by a change in lifestyle. “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17).

Some have suggested that James here contradicts Paul, since Paul so strongly asserts that we are justified by faith alone, apart from works (Rom. 3:28). But there is no contradiction here, since James and Paul are addressing different situations. James is using the word “faith” in the sense of mere profession (“if someone claims to have faith…”; 2:14). It’s not enough to say you believe, he says, true faith will result in a transformed life. By contrast, faith for Paul means trusting in God alone for salvation, rather than trusting in one’s own merit, ancestry, position or status.

Paul and James also use the word “works” differently. When Paul says, “by the works of law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:19), he is referring to pre-conversion works, attempts to earn salvation on your own. When James speaks of works, he is referring to post-conversion works, the evidence of salvation in a changed life. Paul would certainly agree with James that true salvation will show itself in behavior (see Eph. 2:8’10).

Finally, the two authors use the word “justify” differently. For Paul justification is a legal term, meaning that God, the righteous judge, declares us to be righteous on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross (Rom. 3:24). For James, “justify” means to “prove righteous.” Abraham’s faith was justified, or shown to be authentic, by his actions (James 2:21).

So Paul and James are dealing with two different situations in the church. Paul is responding to those who are claiming that salvation comes through one’s own good works or through the works of the law, meaning Jewish identity markers like circumcision and keeping the Sabbath. “Absolutely not,” Paul says, “salvation comes through Christ’s work alone.” By contrast, James is dealing with complacent Christians who are saying that once they make a profession of faith, they can live any way they want. “Absolutely not,” James says, “authentic faith will result in a changed life.”