Martin Luther, the famous German reformer, read the New Testament in light of his love of justification by faith alone. When he came to the book of James he could not accept it as equal with Paul’s writings. In the preface of his translation of the New Testament, which he translated in 1522, he called James “a right strawy epistle,” or “an epistle of staw.” He once offered to give his scholar’s beret to anyone who could sensibly reconcile Paul and James on the subject of justification. He is responsible, more than any other figure in history, for the common misconception that James and Paul are at odds over the subject of justification by faith.
The book of James is usually considered as a treatise that emphasizes works above faith. However, works appears only 13 times in the book of James whereas faith is found 16 times and believe 3 times. If counting occurrences of words mean anything, James is more of an epistle of faith than it is of works.
Faith under trial (1:3)
“Knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”
Faith is the main spring of life. Without it one cannot please God (Heb. 11:6) nor be saved (Eph. 2:6,8). Faith is equally the activating force for living the Christian life. One who comes to God in faith comes into a life through an active, working faith. The genuineness of faith is determined only through testing. This results in patience. Peter said, “the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:7).
True Faith Rewarded (1:5-6)
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.”
It should be observed that James says it is wisdom for which a believer may pray — not knowledge or information. Wisdom is guidance in applying what one knows. Knowledge comes from God, but by revelation (Rom. 10:17). Wisdom to use that knowledge is derived through sincere prayer that does not doubt God’s promise to deliver. One must never doubt that God answers prayer. This passage puts the obligation on answered prayer on the one praying. The qualification is that he must never doubt that God will give what is requested — wisdom. Doubt may well be described as a critical state of mind. The original word is diakrinomenos. It describes a judicial hesitation and indecision which ceases once a verdict is rendered. It suggests also an internal dispute. Doubt renders such a prayer void. James adds, “Let not that man think that he shall receive anything from the Lord” (verse 7).
Impartial Faith (2:1-13)
“My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.”
Jesus Christ is the common denominator of mankind. There is complete equality in Christ, if one finds it nowhere else in life. Corneilus the centurion would be on equal footing with a raw recruit in the Roman army — in the church of Christ. Jesus warned against unloving, censorious, and severe judgment, but to the contrary said, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24).
Personal distinctions and preferences have no place in the church. The word discrimination makes us think of ethnic discrimination. While it is sinful to discriminate on the basis of race, it is equally sinful to discriminate on personal preferences, prejudices, personal dislikes, and the like. Much of the troubles churches face is based purely and simply on the sin of holding the faith of the Lord in respect of persons.
Faith that is Rich (2:5)
“Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?”
“Rich in faith” is not that ones riches consist in faith, but that faith is the sphere or region in which one is rich. “Rich in faith” is of the same construction as “the poor of this world.” Faith and the world are opposites. One who by faith comes into fellowship with God through Christ is enriched by being admitted into the kingdom of God, the church of Christ. Such a one leaves the poverty of the world behind.
Such passages suggest to the Christian just how deep his or her gratitude should be. Paul prayed for the Ephesian Christians that “The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come” (Eph. 1:18-21).
Saving Faith (2:14-26)
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?”
Saving faith is active. It is obedient faith. It is the faith that takes the word of God at face value, never questions it, and practices just what it teaches. It is the kind of faith that never balks at obedience to the commands of the Lord. Jesus came to the earth to seek and save the Lost (Luke. 19:10). The Hebrew writer tells us, “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb. 5:8-9). One can no more be saved, or stay saved, by faith only than one can fly with no wings (mechanical or natural). It is said that a man worked each day transporting tourists across a lake. On occasion he would present the Gospel and its in an unusual way. He had painted the word “Faith” on one of the oars of his rowboat and “Works” on the other. Far from shore, he would stop, then, beginning to row with only the one oar marked “faith,” he would cause the boat to go in circles to the left. Reversing the process, he would pull on the other oar marked “works,” and they would circle in the opposite direction. By this time bewildered passengers were waiting for an explanation. He simply quote James 2:24 and say, “You see, neither faith nor works can stand alone. They are twins that cannot be separated!” (James 2:20)
There is no contradiction between James and any other inspired writer on the subject of either faith or works. J. Gresham Machen offers a ssensible solution. He wrote, “The solution to the whole problem is provided by Paul himself in a single phrase. In Gal. 5:6, he says, ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; bur faith working through love.’ ‘Faith working through love’ is the key to an understanding both of Paul and of James. The faith about which Paul has been speaking is not the idle faith which James condemns, but a faith that works. It works itself out through love.” (Machen’s Notes on Galatians, page 220-221). (The Prayer of Faith (5:15).
“And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.”
Arthur Carr, in the Cambridge Greek New Testament for Schools and Colleges says, “The prayer which is based upon faith, which proceeds from faith.” So-called “Faith Healers” sometimes dismiss their failures by claiming the person they attempted to heal lacked faith. Yet this passage says the faith of the one praying determine the outcome. While we have no legitimate reason to rely on miraculous healing today, still we are to pray for the sick, infirm, and injured. When I was a boy, my father gave me a little plaque on which was inscribed, “Prayer Changes Things.” I believe that expressed truth. It is not only in harmony with God’s will for us to pray for the sick, not only effective when done in sincere faith, it is comforting to those for whom we pray to know we are approaching the Almighty in their behalf.
Truly, James is a book of faith, but not faith only. I close with a quote from John A. Bengel in reference to those who hold to the unwholesome doctrine of justification by faith only. “Here Scripture has prophetically stigmatized these degenerate disciples of (Martin) Luther, who ever call for faith only, not that of Paul, but faith isolated from works.” (New Testament Word Studies, Volume II, page 710). Faith in the full assurance of trust in God saves saint and sinner.