James

The New Testament letter of James presents "faith" in a somewhat different light. The letter draws its inspiration from the law of Moses and uses the language of the law to argue for the importance of the way that Christians live. "What good is it, my friends, for someone to say he has faith when his actions do nothing to show it: Can that faith save him?" The author answers his question by asserting that if faith "does not lead to action, it is by itself a lifeless thing." The letter asserts that Abraham's "action, in offering his son Isaac upon the altar," is what justified him before God, not merely his faith. "Surely you can see," the author argues, that "faith was at work in his actions, and by these actions his faith was perfected?"

The author of James, however, agrees with Paul that those whose faith is tested by trials and suffering should rejoice, because "such testing" of their faith "makes for strength to endure." Moreover, endurance may lead one to "become perfected, sound throughout, lacking in nothing." Those who lack wisdom may ask God and will surely receive it. "But he who asks must ask in faith, with never a doubt in his mind."

Yet, it is action rather than talk that is the mark of faith. "If anyone thinks he is religious but does not bridle his tongue, he is deceiving himself," the letter of James asserts. The perfection that God desires is "to look after orphans and widows in trouble and to keep oneself untarnished by the world." The emphasis in James on the moral law, rather than the rituals and dietary restrictions of the Jewish tradition. Following the argument presented in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, the letter quotes as a summary of the law of Moses the commandment in Leviticus 19:18, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

It appears that this letter is written, in part, as a way of resisting the implications of Paul's argument for salvation through faith. The author tries to correct the notion that faith by itself is saving and urges that good works are obviously also required. Like Paul, the author uses Abraham to bolster his position but claims it was Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, not merely his faith in God, that was counted to him as righteousness. The letter attributed to James seems to represent the side of the argument within the early churches which gradually lost out, as power shifted away from Jerusalem to the congregations dominated by Gentiles and Greek-speaking Jews.

Of course, as noted, there are points of agreement between the letter of James and the writings of Paul. Furthermore, the letter agrees with Paul that "the coming of the Lord is near." Its readers are urged to be patient, as were "the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord." The author exhorts his fellow Christians to "pray for one another," reminding them that the prayers of Elijah were successful because "a good man's prayer is very powerful and effective." And it urges that the faithful submit to God who, as scripture says, "opposes the arrogant and gives grace to the humble." Those who are in error are not to be judged but are to be guided to repentance, as "the one who brings a sinner back from his erring ways will be rescuing a soul from death and canceling a multitude of sins."

The tradition of the church attributes this letter to James the Just, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Because the letter is written in excellent Greek and was most likely written after the death of James, the attribution is probably honorary. The fact that such an important leader in the church has only one letter attributed to him in the New Testament is evidence of his declining significance, especially in comparison to Paul. As the church became more Gentile, teachings with an emphasis on Jewish law became less convincing for Christians.

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016