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God’s Grace in the Book of James

The book of James is known especially for its emphasis on good works (faith without works is dead). Martin Luther disliked James because he saw little of God’s grace–an emphasis of the apostle Paul in books like Romans and Galatians.

But James does portray a graceful foundation for his emphasis on good works. In 1:17-18,21 he mixes agricultural and “birth” metaphors to point to God’s gifts (grace) from above. The “word of truth” of 1:18 becomes the “implanted” word in 1:21; and this “plant” produces “first fruits” (God’s new “creatures,” who are “brought forth” or “birthed” by the word of truth).

So through the word of truth implanted from above, the (heavenly) “Father of lights” gives the “perfect gift” that produces new creatures, new children (of the Father), who receive with meekness the implanted word from above (1:17-18). This Father’s gift–that enables the birth of new children and empowers them to become new creatures–is especially what Paul means by “grace.” For both Paul and James, grace is God at work, producing new life in new children (of God).

This divine word of truth is able (powerful) to save (the souls of) God’s new children (1:21). God’s grace here is not primarily mercy (or forgiveness); this grace is God working in us to save us from present selfish desires and sin, and from eternal death. Those receiving this good and perfect gift from the Father of lights will not waver in darkness.

Wisdom for Christians with trials

James 1:2 calls for Christian brothers and sisters to count it all joy when they suffer various trials. James adds that as one suffers, this tests one’s faith, and can lead to remaining patient and faithful servants of God (1:2-3). Such trials can thus be tests–yet could also be temptations.

In 1:12-14 James speaks of both trials and being tempted. The temptations are especially connected with selfish desires (1:14-15). These desires can lead to sin. The preceding context of 1:11 would link evil desires with the pursuits of the rich. The problem is that much religious wisdom of the world thinks God wants to bless them by giving them the desires of their heart, desires such as escaping the trials of poverty and humiliation from the rich.

Presently, poor Christians face humiliation (from the rich); but James says their future will be exaltation from God, the crown of life (if they remain faithful until death) (1:9-11). As for the rich that now thrive on earth, they and their exalted status on earth will pass away like the flowers that bloom and then wilt under the bright sun. They will be brought down and humiliated in the end (by God).

Poor Christians who have this wisdom, can accept their present humble status on earth with joy. If they lack wisdom, they should pray and God will give them wisdom from above (1:5-6). And God will generously give them “without reproaching” (1:5). God’s gift does not include words of humiliation about lazy or undeserving recipients, in contrast to the miserly gifts of the rich.

Asking in faith means asking without doubting (1:6), without being “double-minded” (1:7-8). The pure in heart seek faithfulness to the mind of God. The double-minded are driven by strong “waves” and “winds,” seeking to follow the wisdom of the world as well as the wisdom of God. Even much of the religious wisdom of the world asks God to remove trials, to give them the (greedy) desires of their heart, to help them succeed in the world.

But such ambitions and desires are temptations, and do not come from God (1:13); they come from one’s own greed (1:14). While the old covenant of Moses promised prosperity if Israel would be faithful, Jesus–like the later prophets of Israel–exposed the greed and oppression of Israel’s rich and powerful. A true prophet is a poor prophet who speaks truth to wealth and power, and suffers the consequences.

So James is calling his readers to join him in being a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1). James and his brothers and sisters are a new family, with one Father, God, and with one Lord, Jesus Christ. While the ruling fathers and lords of earth pursue their selfish interests, at the expense of much of the rest of the earth, poor and persecuted Christians can pray for and receive wisdom from their Father and Lord that enables them to overcome temptations to pursue their own selfish interests and to remain joyfully faithful to the one true Lord.

Wolves pretending to be sheep

In Matthew 7:15 Jesus warns his disciples about false prophets: these religious prophets seem to be admirable “sheep,” so righteous and holy; but they are actually hungry, greedy “wolves.” Their admirable public acts–giving alms, praying, and fasting–are done to impress other people (see Mt. 6:1-18). Impressed people can then be manipulated into serving them and their greedy interests–personal status, family wealth, and national power.

These “alpha dogs” should not be honored or revered, despite their elevated positions and power in churches that adore them. Disciples should judge them rightly, according to their fruits (Mt. 7:16-20). These dogs might speak of Jesus as “Lord,” but are they doing the will of Jesus’ Father in heaven? (Mt. 7:21). False prophets will even try to fool the final Lord, claiming they were good disciples (Mt. 7:22). Bowing before the final judge, they will boast: we prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and did many miracles in your name. But the Lord will respond: I never knew you; for they were evildoers; they did not obey his commands (Mt. 7:23).

So it is possible for religious leaders to speak beautifully in Jesus’ name, and to do impressive acts in Jesus’ name. But it’s all a show, a dramatic performance that will lead their admirers to follow them as revered ruling fathers or lords, supporting them generously and loyally. True disciples of Jesus, who revere the one Father, the one in heaven, must be more discerning; for Jesus came not to be served but to humbly serve, associating with and helping those who had little to offer him in return. Jesus’ lowly disciples will not join or support wolf packs.

Prayer: Pursuing God’s Good Gifts

In Mt. 7:7, Jesus tells his disciples to “ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Then, in 7:11, Jesus adds that their Father in heaven will give good things to those who ask him.

What might these good things be? Disciples of Jesus need to be able to focus on the things of God rather than the things of men–pursuing the former, not the latter. In Mt. 6, Jesus has referred to things of men: anxiously pursuing what they will eat and drink (the richest food possible) or what they will wear (the most expensive clothes) as well as other treasures on earth, above all “mammon” (wealth). In contrast to those, Jesus has focused on the good things of God: seeking God’s kingdom (“your kingdom come”) and righteousness (“your will be done”), rightly pursuing simple daily bread for all the heavenly Father’s family and kindly forgiving anyone who sins against them.

To pursue God’s kingdom is to ask for the Father’s kingly power to come and empower good actions of Jesus’ righteousness. Disciples of Jesus who are seeking and asking for these good gifts will be given them, will find them. The Father’s kingly power comes above all through the gift of the Holy Spirit–“to those who ask him” (Lk. 11:13). And Jesus righteousness is found in the fruit of the Spirit: love (that joyfully shares bread and peacefully forgives enemies), the love that includes joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

In Mt. 7:13-14 Jesus contrasts two ways or roads: their gates or doors lead to destruction or “life” in the end. Jesus’ little kingdom of righteous disciples has a narrow gate and road compared to the large kingdoms of earth. Most will prefer the wide gate and easy road of their kingdom of earth and its “righteousness.” Only a few in each kingdom of earth will pursue the narrow gate and road of the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness. The few who find the narrow way will be those who seek it; and the few who find the narrow door will be those who knock at it.

Judge not?

Jesus’ statement, “judge not, that you be not judged,” (Mt. 7:1) is one of his most memorable sayings. But it is usually remembered by those who think Jesus was never judgmental. Jesus, however, is here warning disciples again (as in Mt. 5:21-26) about not condemning one’s brother or sister, one’s fellow disciple–in this case, because of a mere “speck.”

If a disciple sees a “speck” (a small sin) in a brother’s or sister’s eye, and condemns that fellow disciple, then the disciple judging has a “log” (a big sin) in his own eye. Such condemnation will result in his own judgment (from God). In 5:22 Jesus said a disciple who calls a brother a “fool” (that is, condemns a brother as someone who is not part of the family of God) is in danger of the judgment of hell.

Jesus calls the judging disciple (with the “log”) a hypocrite, associating him with the hypocrites (scribes and Pharisees) in the synagogues. Later (in Mt. 23:23) Jesus will strongly judge such hypocrites: they make “mountains out of (small) molehills;” they overvalue specks like tithing the smallest garden plants while neglecting weightier matters like justice, mercy, and faith. This is like straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel (see 23:24). These hypocrites (“actors”) perform dramatic scenes of denunciation, based on a speck of evidence.

In the early churches, minor issues like eating certain foods, celebrating certain days, or performing circumcisions led some Christians to condemn others (for example, see Acts 15:1-5, Rom. 14, and Col. 2:16-17). Of course more modern churches have similarly condemned other churches because of minor issues such as details about the best mode of baptism or the proper way to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The obsession with such specks also overlooks Jesus’ judgments against the significant injustice/unrighteousness of those like the scribes and Pharisees: for example, they use public gifts to the poor for their own self-glory (see Mt. 6:1-2), and show no mercy to Jesus when he compassionately feeds poor disciples or heals the sick on the sabbath (Mt. 12:1-14).

Treasures: Either in heaven or on earth

In Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus contrasts treasures on earth with treasures in heaven. He tells his disciples not to store up treasures on earth. Those treasures will not last: moths or other insects destroy treasured clothes; thieves break in and steal treasured possessions.

The word treasures suggests expensive clothes or jewelry, luxurious houses, or lots of land or money. If one is focused on those treasures, their heart (their thoughts, wants, and joys) will pursue and take pride in such treasures.

In contrast, pure hearts focused on the treasures in heaven would sell or give away expensive treasures on earth in order to show mercy to the most destitute. Jesus commands this for all disciples in Luke 12:33, in order for them to have treasure in heaven. Heavenly treasure for the pure in heart will be to see God in heaven (Mt. 5:8); heavenly treasure for those who show mercy will be to receive mercy from God (Mt. 5:7).

For many American disciples, a change of heart will mean “downward mobility”–though usually not destitution–rather than the upward mobility of a greedy world. Instead of seeking more expensive houses or cars or land or clothes or jewelry, disciples will sell expensive treasures and live more simply. They can then give generously to the most destitute; even some of the poor have modest means to help the most destitute.

Since numerous charities and philanthropies pay social workers and administrators middle-class salaries using donations for the poor, it is better to give to the destitute directly–or via someone who gets paid little or nothing for helping. This would mean seeking out, and getting to know, some of the poorest people, both near and far; and it could mean discovering (and enabling) those who quietly and sacrificially care for them. James 1:27 says pure religion reaches out to visit and help widows and orphans (examples of the poorest poor at that time).

Temptations

Jesus ends his “Lord’s prayer” by telling disciples to pray, “do not lead us (to enter) into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Mt. 6:13). The Greek article (the) is before the word evil, so the emphasis seems to be on the evil (one), namely, Satan, as in Mt. 13:19 (“the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown”).

Righteous disciples are to be wary of the evil one, who wants to lead them into sin by entering into his temptations. So they ask their heavenly Father: “keep us from entering into temptation.” Jesus later uses similar words in the garden of Gethsemane when he tells disciples to watch and pray that they may not enter into temptation (Mt. 26:41).

The main temptations would be to ignore or to disobey what Jesus has emphasized in the prayer that ends with these words about temptation and the evil one. Just before these final words of the prayer, Jesus has told them to pray for forgiveness of those who sin against them, and for “our” daily bread. Thus the evil one would like nothing better than to turn their thoughts and deeds to revenge against those who have sinned against them (like the disciple who used his sword to cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest in Mt. 26:51, after failing to watch and pray in Mt. 26:40,43,45).

Or instead of a concern that “our” whole family of disciples have daily bread (so that those who have more can share with those who have little), Satan can tempt disciples to think that their abundance of bread simply shows they are the truly blessed ones–and suppose that the destitute are simply irresponsible. Or Satan can tempt disciples to think that the desires of their heart are what matters to God, and ignore what Jesus has taught God’s desire (will) is, that should be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Or Satan can tempt disciples to think that their earthly kingdom, and its national interests, are just as important to them as Jesus’ kingdom of heaven; and similarly they think their earthly ruling fathers, especially the national fathers, are to be revered almost as much as their Father in heaven.

The way to overcome such temptations is to realize that praying for God’s kingdom to come includes the request that God’s kingly power would come and enable disciples to overcome the evil one. Then the Holy Spirit will come and empower disciples to do the will of their Father in heaven, rather than the will of the evil spirit on earth.