Repentance, Reconciliation, and Restoration

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:13-20 ESV

Back in the previous chapter, James wrote, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2 ESV). He accused his readers of two sins. The first had to do with allowing their unfulfilled passions to turn into covetousness and greed. Unable to get what they believed to be rightfully theirs, they were attempting to get it by force, even expressing a willingness to kill for it. But that raises the second sin of which they were guilty. They never made their request known to God.

These people were fighting amongst themselves because their unmet desires were producing uncontrollable jealousy and envy. Rather than expressing their so-called needs to God, they were taking matters into their own hands. And, on those rare occasions when they did manage to ask God for what they craved, they did so with the wrong motives.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. – James 4:3 ESV

James accused them of spiritual adultery because they displayed a greater love for the things of this world than they did for God. The things they so greatly desired were of more value to them than their relationship with God.

In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addressed a conflict between two women in the congregation.

Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. – Philippians 4:2 NLT

These two godly women were experiencing some kind of personal disagreement that had become apparent to the rest of the church members. And Paul called on the church to come to their aid so that their dispute could be resolved and their relationship restored. Then he addressed the entire faith community.

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7 NLT

There was no place for quarreling and fighting within the body of Christ. Jealousy and greed should not exist among believers because we serve a God who is fully capable of meeting all our needs. But we must never forget that God is not obligated to fulfill all our desires. At times, we treat God like a cosmic genie in a bottle by demanding that He give us whatever we wish for. But God does not exist to obey our every command and to fulfill our deepest cravings and desires.

Notice that Paul told the Philippians to make their requests known to God, but he didn’t promise them that all those requests would be fulfilled. Instead, he assured them that God would give them the one thing they needed more than anything else: peace of mind. God would replace their craving with contentment. Oftentimes, the things for which we ask God reveal that our hope is misplaced. We wrongly believe that our answered prayer will bring us joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. If we’re sick, we become convinced that healing is what we need most. If we are having financial difficulties, a sudden influx of cash will surely make all our problems go away. If we’re experiencing a relational conflict, we convince ourselves that if God would only change the other person, everything would be better.

But prayer is less about getting what we want from God than it is about us learning to trust Him. Prayer is the believer’s primary form of communication with the Father and it is intended to be a conversation, not a monologue. Too often, we craft our list of petitions and methodically communicate them to God, fully expecting Him to fulfill each and every request. And we base our belief in this make-a-wish approach to prayer on the words of Jesus. After all, didn’t He say, “Ask, and it will be given to you…” (Matthew 7:7 NLT)? And wasn’t it Jesus who promised, “If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you” (Matthew 18:19 NLT)? And didn’t He tell His disciples, “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22 NLT)?

But Jesus was not offering His followers carte blanche when it came to prayer. He wasn’t providing them with a blank check that obligated Him to give them whatever their heart desired. There is a sense in which our requests need to line up with the will of God and demonstrate faith in His greatness and goodness. We are not free to dictate to God what we have determined to be best for our lives. He is sovereign over all things, including our desires. Only He knows what we truly need at any given moment. In making our requests known to God, we are expressing our hearts and desires to Him, but we are also placing our hope in His providential plans for our lives. We are trusting Him to do what He deems best.

And that is the gist of James’ closing words to his audience. He wraps up his letter by calling them to pray. Rather than fighting amongst themselves, they were to take their problems to the Lord. If they were suffering, they were to pray rather than figure out ways to get out of it on their own. On the other hand, if they were experiencing joy and contentment, they were to offer up prayers of praise to God for His goodness and grace. If they were experiencing poor health, they were to call on the elders of the church and seek their wisdom and prayers.

James seems to be suggesting that there are some illnesses that are spiritually related. His instructions to call on the elders would indicate that there are times when there is more to a physical illness than meets the eye. Verse 15 seems to suggest that the one who is suffering may have unconfessed sin in their life?

Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. – James 5:15 NLT

We must be careful to not assume that all sickness is the result of sin. That was a false perception of Jesus’ own disciples. One day, they encountered a man who had been blind since birth, and they asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT).

They wrongly assumed that this man’s condition had been the direct result of somebody’s sin. He was suffering because someone had offended God. But Jesus corrected their misconception by stating, “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins…This happened so the power of God could be seen in him” (John 9:3 NLT). According to Jesus, this man’s blindness was nothing more than a perfect opportunity to display God’s power through healing, and Jesus went on to restore his sight. 

But James makes it clear that there can be a direct correlation between continued sickness and unconfessed sin.

Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. – James 5:16 NLT

James has already accused this congregation of committing spiritual adultery. They were displaying jealousy and greed, fighting and quarreling amongst themselves, and manifesting an inordinate love for the things of this world. They had offended one another. They were guilty of treating one another with contempt and unjust discrimination. Feelings had been hurt. The poor had been mistreated. The name of Christ had been damaged in the community. And repentance, reconciliation, and restitution was required.

And James insists that their less-than-ideal spiritual state could be changed for the better – through the power of prayer. And he used the story of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah, as an example.

Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops. – James 5:17-18 NLT

This story ties into James’ earlier statement: “The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16 NLT). Elijah was a righteous man who made his request known to God and his prayer was answered – in a spectacular and supernatural way. This one man, praying in tune with the will of God, had been able to summon a three-and-a-half-year drought. And then, at just the right time and in keeping with God’s will, Elijah brought down much-needed rain.

In order to understand James’ use of Elijah as an example of a righteous and prayerful man, you have to go back to 1 Kings. There we can see the spiritual conditions that led Elijah to pray for a devastating drought, and it all had to do with the ungodly leadership of the king.

Ahab son of Omri began to rule over Israel in the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign in Judah. He reigned in Samaria twenty-two years. But Ahab son of Omri did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, even more than any of the kings before him. And as though it were not enough to follow the sinful example of Jeroboam, he married Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians, and he began to bow down in worship of Baal. First Ahab built a temple and an altar for Baal in Samaria. Then he set up an Asherah pole. He did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him. – 1 Kings 16:29-33 NLT

The drought was intended as punishment for the unfaithfulness of Ahab. The king had sinned against God by leading the people of Israel to commit idolatry. By withholding rain, God was punishing His rebellious people and encouraging them to repent and return to Him. And the restoration of the rain was God’s gracious attempt to remind them of His goodness.

And James ends his letter with a similar call to repentance and restoration, so that the church to whom he wrote might experience the grace and goodness of God.

My dear brothers and sisters, if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

It’s clear from the rest of the letter, that there were some who had wandered away from the truth of God’s Word. They were living apart from the will of God and damaging the spiritual well-being of the body of Christ. And it was up to the entire congregation to take seriously the sin within their midst and call one another to repentance and reconciliation. Because unconfessed sin can result in spiritual death or separation from God and the community of faith. But repentance can bring forgiveness and restoration.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Living With the End in Mind

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. James 5:7-12 ESV

It’s all about perspective. If you expect this life to be a constant source of joy and contentment, you will always be disappointed with the results. Yes, Jesus did promise His disciples He came to bring them abundant life (John 10:10), but He also warned them that their earthly lives would be difficult.

“…the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when you will be scattered, each one going his own way, leaving me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” – John 16:32-33 NLT

Their lives on earth would be full and abundant because of Him. Their ability to have peace in the midst of troubles and trials would be a result of their relationship with Him and the promise of eternal life made possible through Him. The apostle Paul discovered the secret of enjoying a life full of joy and contentment even while experiencing all the difficulties that come with living in a fallen world.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

His strength to endure suffering and enjoy contentment came from His relationship with Christ. Paul wasn’t looking for satisfaction and security from the things of this world. He didn’t rely on circumstances for his joy or sense of self-worth because he knew that his hope was in Christ.

Yet, James knew that the believers to whom he wrote had not yet learned Paul’s lesson on contentment. In fact, James had to call them out for having placed their hope in the things of this world. Their insatiable desire for earthly pleasures had resulted in discontentment that led to division and strife.

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:1-3 NLT

So, James demands that they learn to be patient. They have their sights set on the wrong thing. Rather than seeking satisfaction from the things of this world, they were to focus their attention on the return of Christ. This life was never intended to be the end-all. Their earthly existence was intended to be a temporal state that would end in death and their resurrection, or culminate with the Lord’s return and their final glorification. Either way, their hope was to be future-based.

And James provides them with a simple analogy to help them understand their need for maintaining a hope-filled perspective.

Consider the farmers who patiently wait for the rains in the fall and in the spring. They eagerly look for the valuable harvest to ripen. You, too, must be patient. Take courage, for the coming of the Lord is near. – James 5:7-8 NLT

A farmer understands that the harvest for which he hopes is dependent upon factors that are out of his hands. As he waits for the day when he can reap the fruit of his labors, he must exhibit patient endurance and faithful hope in the God of the harvest. And in the same way, a believer must remember that his “harvest” is in the hands of God as well. His hope for a truly abundant life is based on the promise of the Lord’s return. And Paul reminds us that present suffering is no match for future glory.

what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:18 NLT

But waiting requires patience. And while we wait, we’re not to grumble and complain about our lot in life. There’s no place for greed or jealousy in the life of the believer because we are each an heir of the Kingdom of God. As the apostle Paul told the believers in Philippi, we have all the riches of His glory at our disposal.

…this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:19 NLT

A believer who makes a habit of complaining about their earthly circumstances reveals that they expect heaven on earth. They want the promise of abundant life fulfilled in the here-and-now rather than the hereafter. And James warns against expecting the good life in this life.

the Judge is standing at the door. – James 5:9 ESV

One of the things we have to remember is that the return of Christ will also bring God’s judgment upon the wicked and unbelieving. James is not suggesting that believers who complain and judge one another run the risk of forfeiting their salvation and facing eternal judgment. He is simply stating that those of true saving faith will not exhibit such godless characteristics. The apostle Paul wrote an extended explanation of how the believer’s life should differ from that of a non-believer.

Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?

But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness. There will be trouble and calamity for everyone who keeps on doing what is evil—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. But there will be glory and honor and peace from God for all who do good—for the Jew first and also for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. – Romans 2:3-11 NLT

James was calling his audience to repentance. He was warning them that their current behavior was out of step with God’s will and they needed to refocus their attention on the promise of the Lord’s return. And to help them understand their need for patient endurance, James provided them with two examples from their own Scriptures. First, he reminded them that every prophet of God had been required to suffer while doing His will. Their words were rejected and their lives were subjected to all manner of distress while they faithfully fulfilled their God-ordained mission. But their motivation was the reward that awaited them for faithful service to their Lord and Master.

Secondly, James brings up the story of Job, the great saint of God who suffered great loss and endured unimaginable pain in his earthly life. But James reminded them that, despite the seemingly unjust nature of his suffering, Job kept trusting God and was ultimately rewarded.

For instance, you know about Job, a man of great endurance. You can see how the Lord was kind to him at the end, for the Lord is full of tenderness and mercy. – James 5:11 NLT

Even when Job’s wife encouraged him to curse God and die, he was able to respond with confidence in the ultimate goodness of God.

“You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

Job kept trusting in the promises of God. He didn’t rejoice in his pain or refrain from seeking an explanation for his suffering, but he never stopped believing in the integrity and righteousness of God. And, ultimately, his faith was rewarded.

“James has been concerned to help believers to overcome the tendency to react like the world to the injustices heaped on them by the world. The world, by its very nature antagonistic to God and His kingdom, will continue to oppose God’s people. But if these truths grip the hearts of His people, it will enable them to overcome the spirit of worldliness by refraining from a worldly reaction to the world’s injustices.” – D. Edmond Hiebert, The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith

James ends this section with a warning against making rash or unnecessary oaths.

But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no, so that you will not sin and be condemned. – James 5:12 NLT

In essence, James is warning about making bargains with God. The idea behind oath-making was a promise made to God that came with expectations. You might refer to it as a quid pro quo. It would be like saying to God, “If you’ll bless me with great wealth, I will faithfully serve you all my life.”

It reminds me of the character, Wimpy, from the Popeye comic strip. He was famous for saying, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” In his attempt to fulfill his passion for burgers, he was willing to make an oath he never intended to fulfill. And James warns his readers against practicing such behavior with God. It is a dangerous thing to try and bargain with God. He doesn’t make deals. And this admonition seems t tie in with an earlier statement made by James.

…you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:2-3 NLT

Don’t try to make deals with God. He knows your heart and He can see through your thinly veiled promise to keep your end of the bargain. Instead, rest in His faithfulness and let your requests be based on His goodness. He knows what is best for you and you can trust Him to provide all that you need. And, in the meantime, keep your focus on the future, remembering that eternal life is the ultimate form of the good life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Subtle Snare of Self-Sufficiency

1 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you. James 5:1-6 ESV

It would seem that much of the conflict within the congregation to which James wrote had to do with the haves and the have-nots. There was obviously some kind of tension taking place between the wealthier members and those who were of less fortunate means. James has already addressed this cause of disunity several times in his letter.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. They will fade away like a little flower in the field. The hot sun rises and the grass withers; the little flower droops and falls, and its beauty fades away. In the same way, the rich will fade away with all of their achievements. – James 1:9-11 NLT

In chapter two, he addressed their problem of showing partiality to the rich while treating the poor with contempt. He even presented them with a hypothetical scenario that was probably more fact than fiction.

suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:1-4 NLT

James pointed out that those who attempted to flatter the wealthier members of their community were doing so for the wrong reasons. They were motivated by greed and hopeful of winning over the very ones who were making their lives miserable.

…the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

It seems that some of the believers were inviting their affluent oppressors to visit their worship services where they treated them like celebrities. But in doing so, they were discriminating against the poor whom God had chosen to extend His grace and mercy. In fact, James reminded them that God had chosen the poor to be rich in faith. Not only that, they stood to inherit the Kingdom God had promised to all those who love him (James 2:5).

In chapter four, James addressed the curse of self-confidence. He pointed out that there were those who somehow believed that they were in control of their own lives.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” – James 4:13 NLT

This describes a person of means, someone with the financial resources to relocate to another city in order to set up a new business. Only a person with substantial capital could afford such a costly and potentially risky proposition. But just because they have the financial wherewithal to pull off such a grandiose plan doesn’t mean they should. James warns that their sense of self-sufficiency was a bit presumptuous because they had no way of knowing what the future held.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

The problem with having ample financial resources is that it can create a sense of autonomy and an attitude of independence from God. James wanted the wealthy to understand that their capacity to make things happen could cause them to replace God’s will with their own, and that would be a risky proposition. So, he encouraged them to put their money and their means at God’s disposal, to do with as He saw fit.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

It was Jesus who said, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money” (Matthew 6:24 NLT).

Money is amoral and not inherently evil. But it can become a source of temptation and a means of living outside the will of God. Rather than waiting on God to confirm His will through the provision of resources, the wealthy can formulate and fund their plans independently. It is this propensity for prideful self-sufficiency that James addresses in this section of his letter. In a rather prophetic and unapologetically harsh tone, James calls out the privileged class. He doesn’t seem to be differentiating between believers and unbelievers but is pointing out the fate of all who use their wealth for unjust purposes. And he is unsparing in his criticism.

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver are corroded. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This corroded treasure you have hoarded will testify against you on the day of judgment. – James 5:1-3 NLT

To a certain degree, James is also addressing the have-nots within the local congregation by opening their eyes to the less-attractive side of financial independence. They all aspired to have more. They longed to experience all the pleasures and benefits that money could provide. But James wanted them to understand that wealth could be both a blessing and a curse. It is as if he had in mind the words that Paul wrote to Timothy.

…people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:9-11 NLT

With wealth comes great responsibility. And the rich to whom James referred were guilty of abusing their responsibilities by taking advantage of the less fortunate. They were lining their pockets by defrauding their employees. They were increasing their wealth by fleecing the poor and defenseless. But James warns them that their immoral and unethical actions had not gone unnoticed.

For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. – James 5:4 NLT

This is a direct reference to the Mosaic law, where God warned His people against abusing their less-fortunate laborers.

“Never take advantage of poor and destitute laborers, whether they are fellow Israelites or foreigners living in your towns. You must pay them their wages each day before sunset because they are poor and are counting on it. If you don’t, they might cry out to the Lord against you, and it would be counted against you as sin.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-15 NLT

James is continuing to remind his readers that faith is always tied to behavior. That’s why had told them, “Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it” (James 4:17 NLT). To know the will of God and then fail to carry it out was nothing less than sin and worthy of His judgment. To claim to have faith in God but to live in disobedience to the will of God rendered your faith lifeless and impotent. There was no evidence of transformation. And regardless of whether someone was wealthy or poor, they had an obligation to demonstrate the sanctifying nature of their faith through acts of righteousness. In this passage, James is simply supporting what he said earlier in his letter.

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. – James 2:17 NLT

And James declares that the wealthy to whom he referred had more than proven the lifeless nature of their faith. Their works gave testimony to the worthlessness of their so-called faith in Christ.

You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you. – James 5:5-6 NLT

James is merciless in his condemnation because of the serious nature of the problem. He seems to infer that the unethical actions of the wealthy had resulted in the deaths of innocent people. Whether James is speaking hyperbolically or literally is unclear. If these affluent landowners were guilty of underpaying their employees, it could have easily resulted in the starvation of some of the more destitute among them.

“. . . for day laborers it was very serious not to find work or not to be paid. For this reason James personifies the salary, seeing it as the very blood of the exploited workers crying out pitifully. The case was the same for the peasants. The peasants die because they pour out their strength in their work, but the fruit of their work does not come back to them. They cannot regain their strength because the rich withhold their salaries. Therefore James accuses the rich of condemning and killing the just (5:6).” – Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works is Dead

Our behavior should be a reflection of our beliefs. The presence of wealth or poverty should not determine the nature of our lives. For the Christ follower, the indwelling Holy Spirit should be the motivating force behind our every action and activity. The apostle John provides a much-needed reminder that we should emulate Christ in all that we do. His love for us should show up in our love for others, and be evidenced by our willingness to use every resource at our disposal to benefit those around us.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. – 1 John 3:16-19 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

His Will, Not Mine

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:11-17 ESV

James had strong words for those who claimed to be Christ-followers but failed to live in obedience to God’s commands. That kind of behavior was unacceptable because saving faith always results in sanctification, the Spirit-empowered transformation of the believer into the likeness of Christ. The apostle Paul’s informed the believers in Thessalonica of his ongoing prayer for them:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

The New Living Translation words Paul’s request this way: “Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way…”

Both James and Paul had high expectations for the believers to whom they each ministered. There was no room for spiritual apathy or complacency. God’s gift of salvation was not intended to be viewed as a ticket that gained the holder entrance into some future state of glorification. While eternal life is the final reward for all those who place their faith in Christ, there is also the present reality of our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ.

Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, who were primarily Gentiles, and reminded them that there had been a time when their hearts were incapable of seeing the truth. It was as if they had a veil over their eyes that prevented them from recognizing the gift being offered to them in Christ. Their condition had been just like that of the Jews in the days of Moses. He had delivered to them God’s law but they had been unable to understand or obey it.

…the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT

Little had changed over the centuries. Even Paul, a Jew himself, recognized that his people still lived in a state of spiritual darkness, unable to see or receive the truth concerning Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Then he reminds the Corinthians believers that they had come to faith in Christ because the Holy Spirit had removed the veil of ignorance and apathy.

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT

Not only had they experienced freedom from sin and condemnation, but they had begun the process of transformation into the likeness of Christ. And all those who are being conformed to His image should reflect His character. That is the whole point behind James’ letter. He is demanding that his readers embrace the life of holiness to which they had been called by God. They were free in Christ, but they were not free to live as they pleased. Their behavior was to be in keeping with the Word of God. Obedience to God’s law was non-optional. And he made that point perfectly clear.

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. – James 4:11 NLT

And James appears to have the Mosaic Law in mind. He is calling believers to live in keeping with the commands of God as found in the book of Leviticus.

“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.

“Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.

“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.

“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin.

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

“You must obey all my decrees.” – Leviticus 19:15-19 NLT

While these commands had been given by God to the people of Israel as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land, James insists that they were still relevant and required for his 1st-Century audience. God’s will regarding the interpersonal interactions between His people remained unchanged. And James warns his readers against cherry-picking which laws they wanted to obey.

…your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. – James 4:11 NLT

In order for them to practice partiality and justify their fits of anger against one another, they were having to play fast and loose with God’s law. If nothing else, they were violating the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And they were disobeying the command of Christ.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” – Jonn 13:34 ESV

These people had made a habit out of judging one another. They were hyper-critical and harsh in their treatment of one another. But James warns them:

God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor? – James 4:12 NLT

They were guilty of violating every command found in Leviticus 19:15-19. It was as if they had chosen to put back on the veil that the Spirit had removed. They were willingly closing their eyes to the truth of God’s Word and living in disobedience to His will for them.

In a sense, they were acting as if they were large and in charge. They had decided that they wanted to be the masters of their own fates and the captains of their own souls. And this shared sense of autonomy and self-determination was doing great damage to the body of Christ. And James warns them against trying to play god. Their desire to control their own fates was not only misguided but impossible. And James points out just how ludicrous their attempt at self-sovereignty really was.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:13-14 NLT

Their power was limited and their ability to predict the future was laughable. While they could make grandiose plans, they had no idea what tomorrow would bring. In fact, they had no guarantee they would live long enough to see the next day. So, James provides them with an alternative perspective.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

This all points back to the issue of holiness. As followers of Christ, they were to recognize their new status as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom. They were no longer of this world. They belonged to God and were expected to live according to His will and not their own. They could make plans, but they were to hold them loosely and always remember that those plans must be in keeping with God’s will.

The apostle Paul constantly encouraged believers to recognize their new identity in Christ.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

And Paul made it clear that this set-apart status as God’s temple applied to the corporate community of faith, not just the individual believer.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? – 1 Corinthians 3:16 NLT

The temple of God in Jerusalem had been set apart for His use. It was intended to be His earthly dwelling place. And it was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the holiness and purity of the temple through constant obedience to God’s laws. A believer’s body belongs to God. It is the temple or dwelling place of the Spirit of God. And God expects us to keep His house pure and set apart for His use. The same thing is true regarding the body of Christ, the church. According to Paul, it too is the temple of God and its holiness should be diligently maintained. That’s why James pleads, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT).

They needed to do some serious house cleaning. They had allowed the temple of God to become impure and uninhabitable. Unconfessed sin had made God’s dwelling place unacceptable. And their individual battles with sin had done serious damage to the faith community. So, James closes out this chapter with a call to obedience.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. – James 4:17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Father Knows Best

1  What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 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. James 4:1-10 ESV

James ended the last chapter with the declaration, “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16 ESV). Now, he reveals what lies at the heart of the problem. He discloses the root cause behind the jealousy and selfish ambition that are wreaking havoc on the congregation to whom he is writing.

James appears to drop the pastoral tone of his letter and takes his readers to the proverbial woodshed with a strongly worded disciplinary message. He calls them out and airs their dirty laundry right in front of them. He has received word of their unhealthy penchant for quarreling and infighting and is more than a bit unhappy about it. As a congregation, they have allowed their love for the world to take precedence over their love for one another.

He has already dealt with their practice of showing partiality to the wealthy and influential within their fellowship. This blatant display of favoritism was rooted in greed and jealousy. While flattering and fawning over the well-to-do, they were dismissing and mistreating the less fortunate among them, all in a vain hope that the rich would somehow reward them for their actions. There was an ulterior motive behind their attempt to give the high-capacity donor the best seat in the sanctuary.

Evidently, their worship services had become a competitive event, with everyone jockeying for position and fighting for prominence. But, sadly, their infighting was a byproduct of a much more serious problem. They were suffering from a heart condition. James reveals that the cause behind their quarreling and fighting was internal, not external.

What is causing the quarrels and fights among you? Don’t they come from the evil desires at war within you? – James 4:1 NLT

The pleasures or desires to which James refers are evil because they drive human behavior until they are fulfilled. They are like an addiction that incessantly demands its needs be met, regardless of the price or consequences. These evil desires were worldly and out of step with the godly wisdom that God offered.

…the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. – James 3:17 NLT

But James describes a far different atmosphere within this local body of believers.

You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. – James 4:2 NLT

There was no evidence of peace, gentleness, mercy, sacrifice, or selflessness. Their “fellowship” had become a hotbed of strife and destructive self-promotion. Everyone was operating by the myopic mindset: What’s in it for me? The love of self had replaced God’s call to love one another. And James has already told them “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8 ESV). Yet, they were actually making love of self their highest priority. All in a vain attempt to satisfy their individual cravings for power, pleasure, and prominence. And James rebuked them for trying to take matters into their own hands. Rather than taking their needs to the Lord, they were trying to fulfill them through worldly and ungodly means.

Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. – James 4:3 NLT

Even when they did pray, they did so with the wrong motives. They asked God for those things that would bring them personal pleasure and satisfaction. And He refuses to answer those kinds of requests.

This is where James pulls no punches and displays his disgust for their ungodly behavior. He accuses them of spiritual adultery. They had proven themselves to be unfaithful to God by unashamedly flaunting their love affair with the world. And in doing so, they had made an enemy of God.

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:4 NLT

The philosophies of this world stand diametrically opposed to the will and the ways of God. Satan, the prince of this world, uses every weapon in his arsenal to tempt the child of God to abandon his relationship with the Almighty. His goal is to lure the believer into a life marked by unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. And he cleverly uses the pleasures and perks this world has to offer as bait. He knows we crave significance. He fully understands our need for self-importance. He is well aware of our insatiable appetite for forbidden fruit, and he is more than willing to offer us whatever our heart desires – in exchange for our affections.

When Satan tried to distract Jesus from His God-ordained mission, he made Him a highly tempting offer.

Then the devil took him up and revealed to him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. “I will give you the glory of these kingdoms and authority over them,” the devil said, “because they are mine to give to anyone I please. I will give it all to you if you will worship me.” – Luke 4:5-7 NLT

But Jesus refused. Instead, He reminded Satan that God alone is worthy of worship.

“You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” – Luke 4:8 NLT

And Jesus would later warn His disciples about the danger of duplicity in the life of a child of God.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. – Matthew 6:24 NLT

God longs to have an unbroken relationship with each of His children. He is a jealous God who will not tolerate infidelity and unfaithfulness. He has displayed His unparalleled love by sending His Son to die in our place and by placing His Spirit within our hearts. He has more than proven His love for us and expects us to return the favor. And through His grace, He makes it possible for us to say no to the overtures of the world and the temptations of the enemy.

But His grace is only available to the humble. The presence of pride blocks the flow of God’s grace and prevents us from experiencing the fulness of His love. As long as allow our love for the world to lure us away from God, we demonstrate that we really don’t need or want what He has to offer. Our desire for worldly pleasures indicates that He is not enough. He cannot satisfy our deepest longings or fulfill our insatiable passions. We know what we want and, if He won’t give it to us, we will seek it from the world. And the apostle John warns us about seeking our satisfaction from the things of this world.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And James gives us the key to rejecting the enticing allure of the world: Humility.

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:7-10 NLT

God knows what is best. His will for us is always right and His love for us is always pure and selfless. But we have to trust Him and believe that He knows what we need. The world is about to steal our hearts and affections. It offers us a range of tempting treasures and pleasures designed to appeal to our sinful natures. But they are empty promises that never deliver what they offer. Instead of pleasure, they produce pain. In place of significance, they leave the gaping hole of futility and despair. Rather than joy, they produce a fleeting form of happiness that disappears as soon as the pleasure fades. But when we humble ourselves before the Lord and rest in His love for us, we find fulfillment, joy, satisfaction, and the immeasurable honor of being His child.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

You Reap What You Sow

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13-18 ESV

Back in chapter one, James encouraged his readers to seek wisdom from God.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. – James 1:5 ESV

And he added that God is the source of all good gifts.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. – James 1:17 ESV

Through their relationship with Jesus Christ, the Christians to whom James wrote enjoyed access to the indwelling Spirit of God and the life-transforming truth of the gospel. According to James, a Christ follower is to be characterized by obedience to the word of God. It’s not enough to hear it; you have to live it out in everyday life.

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

And James pointed out that a person who claims to be spiritual but fails to control their tongue is practicing a hypocritical and powerless form of religion.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

James described the tongue as a powerful and virtually uncontrollable source of destruction – even within the body of Christ. With his lips, a believer can declare his faith in Christ and then turn around and spread vicious rumors about a fellow Christ-follower. Ironically, the same tongue could be used to glorify God and vilify other believers.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:9-10 NLT

Now James explains how to determine whether you are operating according to godly wisdom and displaying an understanding of God’s will and ways. It’s all in how we behave. Our outward actions reveal whether we are walking in step with the Spirit of God. The things we say and do are the most accurate barometers of our spiritual health. They provide irrefutable evidence of the condition of our hearts. That’s why James demands that Christ-followers put the wisdom of God into practice through humble obedience to His will.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. – James 3:13 NLT

The apostle Paul stressed the non-negotiable nature of the Spirit’s involvement when it comes to living a godly and honorable life.

So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

And Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the one who provides us with the power to tame the tongue and produce the fruit of righteousness.

…the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT

The Spirit is a God-given source of wisdom and supernatural strength, and His primary role is to guide and empower believers as they navigate the sometimes difficult path from salvation to future glorification. And Paul would have us remember that the Spirit wants to influence every area of the believer’s life – from his attitudes and actions to the words that come out of his mouth.

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. – Galatians 5:25-26 NLT

And James points out how easy it is to try and mask our lack of godliness through deceit and lies. When we fail to live in obedience to the Spirit, our lives inevitably produce a whole range of destructive deeds and Paul provides a shocking but incomplete list of them in his letter to the Galatians.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division,  envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

We’re either living in step with the Spirit of God or giving in to the desires of our own sinful natures. And it’s fairly easy to determine which path we have chosen based on the “fruit” our lives produce. That’s why James warns against attempting to cover up our godless lifestyle through lies and deceit.

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. – James 3:14-15 ESV

When the wrong fruit appears in our lives, we’re tempted to cover it up by portraying ourselves as super saints and spiritual rock stars. We posture and pretend, trying to convince others of our superior spirituality. But all the while, we are living a lie. Yet we end up excusing and justifying our behavior and, in doing so, we display a form of wisdom that is anything but godly. Driven by selfish ambition and jealousy, we rationalize our behavior and promote a brand of wisdom that comes from the enemy and not God.

Jesus gave a perfect example of this self-righteous but self-deceiving kind of wisdom when He told the following parable to His disciples.

Jesus told this story to some who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else: “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 NLT

The Pharisee was self-deceived. He wrongly viewed himself as spiritually superior and worthy of God’s praise. But Jesus declared him to be a self-righteous and pretentious hypocrite whose pride left him unjustified before God. He had lived this lie for so long that he eventually believed it to be true. He went home believing he was fully accepted before God, but he was wrong.

You can attempt to disguise the jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart but, in time, it always makes itself known. And James states that “wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind” (James 3:16 NLT). In other words, those two traits are never alone. They’re always accompanied by other, equally disturbing “fruit” that produce death rather than life. 

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. – James 3:17 ESV

God’s wisdom, which is available upon request, is capable of producing a host of outcomes that positively impact the life of the recipient and all those around him. It produces a desire for peace rather than jealousy and strife. In place of self-promotion, it displays a heartfelt concern for the well-being of others. It is reasonable rather than contentious and confrontational. It manifests itself in mercy toward others and produces fruit that is for their benefit. Godly wisdom allows no room for favoritism or partiality. It fosters unity and encourages an atmosphere of humility and selfless service to others.

James’ point is clear. Those who seek the wisdom of God will receive it. And when they avail themselves of it and live in obedience to it, it will produce a harvest of righteousness. The wisdom from above is fruitful but it must be cultivated by those whom God has chosen as His caretakers. If we obey His Word and live in keeping with His Spirit’s guidance, we will “plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18 NLT).

The apostle Paul reiterates this promise of fruitfulness when we choose to avail ourselves of God’s wisdom. But the choice is ours and we must make it every day of our lives.

You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:7-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Worthy Words

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 11 Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? 12 Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. James 3:1-12 ESV

It was Jesus who said, “It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth” (Matthew 15:11 NLT). He was responding to Pharisees and the teachers of religious law who had accused the disciples of eating food without having properly cleansed their hands.

“Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” – Matthew 15:2 NLT

In response, Jesus accused these men of putting a higher priority on their man-made traditions than they did on the Mosaic law. They were guilty of violating the commandments of God. In fact, He put them in the same category as their disobedient ancestors whom God had accused of infidelity and unfaithfulness.

“These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.” – Matthew 15:8-9 NLT

Words matter. What we say with our lips reflects the condition of our hearts. And Jesus succinctly summed up the problem of the hypocritical religious leaders of Israel when He said: “the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you” (Matthew 15:18-20 NLT).

In this chapter, James picks up on this same theme by pointing out the dangerous nature of the tongue. In doing so, he is simply continuing his emphasis on the importance of works, which are the visible manifestations of faith. For James, anyone who claims to have faith but fails to display any tangible evidence to back it up is only fooling themselves. Their faith is dead and lifeless.

It’s not that these people are devoid of actions or activity. But their behavior fails to measure up to God’s righteous standards. They were guilty of treating one another unfairly by showing favoritism to the rich and influential. They were claiming to love their neighbor while treating the poor among them as second-class citizens.

Now, James focuses his attention on the importance of their words. Like Jesus, James stresses the pedagogical nature of human speech. He even warns his readers to avoid becoming teachers within the body of Christ because God will hold them to a high account.

…not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. – James 3:1 NLT

Jesus had accused the Pharisees of “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9 ESV). Through their words and actions, they were instructing the people of God to disregard His commandments. And Jesus warned His disciples, “ignore them. They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch” (Matthew 15:14 NLT).

The problem, according to James, is the uncontrollable nature of the tongue. It may be small but it’s extremely powerful and has the potential to do great damage. The words that come out of our mouths can leave a wake of destruction in their path: Hurt feelings, destroyed relationships, damaged lives from deceptive doctrines, ruined reputations, and apostate believers.

All this destruction is due to a simple muscle called the tongue. And James stresses the minuscule yet massive influence of this seemingly insignificant part of the human anatomy. He compares it to a tiny bit that allows a rider to dictate the actions of a horse. It’s like the small rudder by which a pilot can control the direction of a large vessel and determine its final destination. In comparison, “the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things” (James 3:5 ESV).

The issue here is that of control. A bit and a rudder are used to determine direction. They have the power to direct and influence something far larger than themselves. In the same way, the tongue, though small, can be used to influence others in both a positive and negative way. To fail to recognize the tongue’s potential for destruction is dangerous. James compares it to a tiny, insignificant spark that can set a whole forest on fire. And just to make sure his readers understand the comparison, James adds:

…among all the parts of the body, the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

Think about what James is saying. The human brain is considered to have the processing power of a super-computer, yet it requires the tongue to communicate its thoughts and impressions. A thought unexpressed by the tongue remains trapped in the mind. But words, both spoken and written carry great power for good and evil. And unlike horses, dogs, lions, and other animals, the tiny tongue remains uncontrollable. No matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to tame the tongue. And James paints a rather bleak picture of the problem, describing the tongue as “restless and evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8 NLT).

But his point seems to be that, without God’s help, the tongue will continue to be a destructive force in the life of a believer. We have no innate ability to control what comes out of our mouths. We can try, but eventually, our words reveal the true condition of our hearts. Remember what Jesus said: “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). It begins with thoughts and ends with either actions or words. And what makes our words so dangerous is their power to influence others. That’s why James stressed the tongue’s power to teach. While others may not mimic our evil behavior, they may be influenced to listen to our words and follow our instructions. And James provides a convicting example of how the tongue can negatively influence the body of Christ.

Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. – James 3:9-10 NLT

This ties back to the problem of favoritism and partiality. The believers to whom James was writing were guilty of treating some within their fellowship with disdain – and all while they were worshiping God together. With their lips, they were praising Yahweh and denigrating their neighbors at the same time. And James calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! – James 3:10 NLT

Their words and works were ungodly and unacceptable. With their tongues, they were doing irreparable damage to the body of Christ. And James points out the illogical and seemingly impossible nature of this kind of behavior among followers of Christ.

Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring. – James 3:11-12 NLT

They had been redeemed and renewed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. They were new creations and had received new hearts and enjoyed the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit. They had the God-given capacity to live in keeping with His will and according to the example of Jesus Christ.

The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of the life-transforming grace of God made possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-5 ESV

In his second letter to the very same congregation, Paul stressed the all-encompassing nature of God’s sanctifying grace.

…just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, and in the love we inspired in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. – 2 Corinthians 8:7 BSB

According to Paul, the tongue could be tamed. Through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the believer’s speech can be purified and his words can be sanctified so that the body of Christ is unified and strengthened. Like the great king, David, we can ask God to help us tame the tongue so that our words produce good and bring Him glory.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
    be acceptable in your sight,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. – Psalm 19:14 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Justification of Works

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. James 2:14-26 ESV

For James, faith in Christ was to be a life-transforming experience that manifested itself in tangible and practical ways. He opened this section with the rhetorical question: “how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?” (James 2:1 NLT). Saving faith should be sanctifying faith. It should change the way we live and how we interact with others. There is no place for favoritism or partiality in the life of a Christ follower.

James was concerned with the double standard that existed among his audience. As believers, they were claiming to “obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (James 2:8 NLT) But, in reality, they were guilty of favoring some people over others and, in doing so, they were guilty of breaking the law. In other words, they were practicing a hypocritical kind of faith. It was the same brand of faith Jesus accused the Pharisees of practicing.

“The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show.” – Matthew 23:2-5 NLT

According to Jesus, the Pharisees were guilty of being both law keepers and lawbreakers. They were looked up to for their expertise concerning the law of Moses but they regularly violated the very laws they were supposed to uphold. They said one thing and did another.

And James asks his audience a probing question designed to expose the hypocritical nature of their own relationship with the “royal law.” These people were familiar with “the golden rule.” They knew that they were expected to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. This was the clear teaching of Jesus. In fact, when the Jewish religious leaders had asked Jesus to expound on what He believed to be the greatest of all the commandments, Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NLT).

Love God. Love others. Those were the two “greatest” or most important commandments of God. They were inseparable and completely interdependent. It all begins with love for God. Once we understand who He is and what He has done for us, the natural response is to express our love and appreciation to Him. But one of the greatest expressions of our love for God is our willingness to love all those whom He has made – especially our fellow believers.

The apostle John described the symbiotic relationship between our love for God and others.

We love each other because he loved us first. If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

Faith is a lifestyle. It changes the way we live. It doesn’t simply save us from future condemnation and reserve a place for us in the Kingdom of God. Through the power of the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God, it transforms our behavior in the here-and-now. It frees us from our captivity to sin and empowers us to live as sons and daughters of God, exhibiting the new hearts and new natures He has bestowed upon us.

James believed that true saving faith would be impossible to hide. It would show up in everyday life and manifest itself through daily interactions with others. He even provides a hypothetical scenario where faith should show up but doesn’t.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

What we have to understand is that, for James, love for others is a tangible expression of a believer’s faith in God. If someone believes in God and knows that God requires that His children love one another, that individual will express His faith in God through obedience to His commands. He will love as he has been loved. He will demonstrate His love for God by becoming a conduit of God’s for others. But that love must be practical and not just a form of lip service.

Words of love are important but they won’t fill an empty stomach or clothe the naked. To claim to love your neighbor while failing to lift a finger to assist them is the highest form of hypocrisy and a blatant display of faithlessness. Why? Because it reveals a lack of transformation and a glaring absence of sanctification. Someone who claims to be a follower of Christ but who fails to model his life after Christ is living a lie.

That’s what leads James to state, “you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). And James knew that there would be those who blamed their lack of brotherly love on their temperament or personality type.

Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” – James 2:18 NLT

But James wasn’t buying that excuse. He countered, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:19 NLT). Without the evidence of outward love, faith remains invisible to the human eye. You can claim to believe in God but, for James, that was insufficient. Even demons believe that God exists but they have no capacity to live godly lives. They can fear Him for who He is but they are incapable of showing love for Him or anyone else.

There are some who claim that James is contradicting the teachings of the apostle Paul, who proclaimed, “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). Paul makes it quite clear that no one can earn their way into God’s good graces through human effort. Salvation cannot be attained through obedience to the law or adherence to a set of religious standards. And James would fully agree.

But James is simply suggesting that saving faith produces fruit in the life of the believer. It results in a radical transformation of the heart that manifests itself in tangible expressions of sacrificial love and service to others. Saving faith shows up because the life-transforming power of God can’t be held back.

And to prove this point to his Jewish audience, James uses two Old Testament characters as illustrations. First, he directs their attention to Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. He recalls the fateful story of when God ordered Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. And he notes that Abraham faithfully followed through on this difficult command, preparing to take the life of his only son and heir. But God intervened, sparing Isaac from death by providing a ram as a substitute. And James stresses that Abraham’s actions that day were an expression of his faith in God.

Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete. – James 2:21-22 NLT

And quoting Genesis 15:6, James concludes, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.” Abraham’s faith in God showed up in an outward sign of obedience. He believed in God and was willing to do whatever God called him to do – even when it made no sense. And as James states, “his actions made his faith complete.”

Next, James uses the familiar story of Rahab the harlot. She was a pagan woman who expressed her belief in the God of Israel by providing protection for the two spies who sought refuge in her home. In return for her act of kindness, she asked that she and her family be spared when the city was destroyed by the Israelites. And what motivated her request was a belief in the superiority of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.

“…the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below. Now swear to me by the Lord that you will be kind to me and my family since I have helped you. Give me some guarantee that when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families.” – Joshua 2:11-13 NLT

Rahab believed in God and put her faith to the test by trusting in the integrity and honesty of the two spies. She protected them and helped them escape and was rewarded for her efforts. Her faith had been accompanied by works, and she was saved.

And James sums up this whole lesson on faith and works with the statement: “Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works” (James 2:26 NLT). He is not suggesting that his audience is made up of non-believers. He is not questioning their salvation. He is simply stating that their faith in Christ should be accompanied by good works that evidence the transformative power of the gospel. A lack of fruit is evidence of death, not life. An individual who claims to have been transformed by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit but whose life fails to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit is as good as dead spiritually. He is like a physical body without breath, a tree without fruit, or a cloud without rain.

For James, it was simple. Faith, while invisible to the human eye, could be easily demonstrated by outward actions. That’s why he so confidently asserted, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds” (James 2:18 NLT). According to James, works may not earn your way into heaven, but they will prove you belong there because they give evidence that you are a child of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Fatal Flaw of Favoritism

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13 ESV

James ended the previous section of his letter by inviting his readers to take a long, close look at themselves in the mirror to determine the true nature of their spiritual condition.

For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 NLT

The Word of God requires obedience. Intellectual assent is not enough. Knowledge without application is nothing more than hypocrisy.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

So, James provided a practical and timeless illustration of the Word applied to everyday life. He raises the ugly specter of partiality within the body of Christ. And there is an interesting, yet subtle, connection between James’ warnings about practicing partiality and their handling of the trials of life.

Back in chapter one, James mentioned two different groups of people who comprise the church: the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. – James 1:9-10 NLT

Now he expands on the potentially contentious relationship between these two disparate groups. Their coexistence within the church is a potential time bomb that threatens to destroy the corporate unity of the fellowship. And, sadly, many of the trials of the less fortunate are due to the inequitable and unjust actions of the wealthy and influential – even within the body of Christ.

There was a common misconception in James’ day that the wealthy were blessed by God. Their affluence was seen as a sign that they had found pleasure with God and had been deemed to be more spiritual. At the same time, poverty was viewed as a curse from God. Despite James’ earlier statement, most people saw no honor in being poor. That condition was to be avoided at all costs. And if you could somehow escape your impoverished circumstances, you should do so without delay.

This errant perspective on wealth and poverty was negatively impacting the health of the local congregation to which James wrote. They were allowing a spirit of unjustified favoritism to influence their daily interactions, and it was motivated by the potential for personal gain. When the church gathered for worship, the wealthy were being treated as first-class citizens and given the best seats in the house – all in the hopes of securing their favor. But James questions the motivation behind their actions.

…how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? – James 2:1 NLT

And he doesn’t sugarcoat his assessment of their problem. Instead, he goes straight to their practice of partiality in worship.

…suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:2-4 NLT

James introduces a real problem within the church by presenting it as a thinly veiled hypothetical situation. It’s as if he is saying, “So, for instance, let’s just say a rich man comes into your church and you show him preference over a poor man…”

James isn’t suggesting this scene could happen; he was subtly declaring that it already had. And he declares that this kind of unjustified partiality was motivated by prejudice and pride. They were guilty of judging one another based on an unrighteous standard.

“The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: ‘You have, haven’t you?’ The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (1:8).” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on James

The practice of partiality is a form of prejudice. It elevates one individual over another based on a false set of external criteria that have nothing to do with the individual’s true value or worth. Rich people are not inherently more spiritual or worthy of honor. Poor people are not to be treated as second-class citizens simply because their clothes and financial status don’t measure up to some arbitrary social standard.  James was warning his readers that they needed to view one another the same way God does.

When God commissioned the prophet Samuel to find the next king of Israel, He warned His servant not to be taken in by the outer appearance of the candidates.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Just because someone looked like a king didn’t mean he had the attributes necessary to fulfill the role of king. God was more interested in the inner character of the man than any external traits he may have displayed.

But how easy it is to judge one another based on an arbitrary and inconsistent set of standards that have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or holiness. This led James to remind his audience that many of them had come to faith in Christ while in a state of abject poverty. God had chosen to redeem them, not because they were wealthy and influential, but based solely on His grace and mercy.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? – James 2:5 NLT

God didn’t reserve salvation for the well-to-do. He didn’t send His Son to die only for those who measured up to some worldly standard of worth and merit. No, Jesus came to offer the gift of salvation to all those who were humble enough to admit their need for it. He spent the vast majority of His time on earth ministering to the poor and disenfranchised. He reached out to the dregs of humanity – the tax collectors, prostitutes, maimed, blind, demon-possessed, and even the lowly and despised Gentiles.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:7 ESV). Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with financial status but it has everything to do with humility and an awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Eternal life is not reserved for the wealthy and well-off. It is the gift of God made possible through the death of His Son and is available to any who will receive it in humility and faith – regardless of their earthly status or social standing.

Yet, James accuses his audience of dishonoring the poor by showing favor to the wealthy. Then he reminds them of the ludicrous nature of this kind of behavior.

…you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

They were treating the poor like social pariahs while honoring the very people who were oppressing and mistreating them. What would possess these people to show favoritism to the very ones who were causing them trials and troubles? The simple answer is greed. They hoped to gain something from the flattery of their more well-to-do foes. Perhaps if they treated their rich guests with dignity and respect, they might return the favor. After all, the wealthy had resources and wielded great influence in the community, and the poor were nothing more than a burden on the faith community.

But James warns that this kind of logic was not only dangerous, but it was also ungodly and in violation of God’s law.

But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:9 NLT

James specifically mentions one particular law: “the royal law according to the Scripture” (James 2:8 ESV). Then, just to make sure they understood what he meant, he quotes the law for them.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” – James 2:8 ESV

Again, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus affirmed this “royal law” when He stated, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Jesus was not recommending the practice of preferential treatment in order to get a preferred response. He was promoting the practice of equity and selfless love. We are not to love based on what we get out of it. Christlike love is not a form of quid pro quo where our love is reciprocal in nature. It is not a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back kind of equation. Yet the practice of partiality is almost always selfish and self-centered. 

To drive home his point, James reminds his readers of the importance of every one of God’s laws. They were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. And he uses the rather absurd example of murder and adultery. They weren’t free to commit murder just because they had never committed adultery.

the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT

God expected His children to keep all of His laws, including His royal law to love one another. So, favoritism had no place in the household of God. As far as God was concerned, partiality was a sin and unacceptable behavior among His chosen people. And James provides them with a stern reminder of how God views those who receive His undeserved mercy but refuse to share it with others.

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. – James 2:13 NLT

And once again, James seems to be echoing the words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7 ESV

The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of just how important it is to live according to God’s standards and not the world’s. There is no place for partiality in the family of God.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Words Matter

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 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. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:19-27 ESV

One of the most common responses to unwanted and unexpected trials is anger. The intrusion of difficulties into our comfortable lives can cause resentment that ultimately turns to rage. And far too often, our anger can be directed at God for having allowed the trial to disrupt our otherwise comfortable circumstances. But James cautions against being too quick to lash out at God when facing difficulty.

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. – James 1:19 NLT

James suggests that we take a deep breath and thoughtfully consider how best to respond when a trial comes our way. Pointing our fingers at God in anger will do little to solve our problem and even less toward producing righteousness in our lives.

Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. – James 1:20 NLT

Anger may be a normal and natural response to unexpected difficulties, but when directed at God, it can be a dangerous game to play. The prophet Isaiah also warned against the danger of unjustly accusing God when things don’t go quite the way we want them to.

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

Isaiah goes on to recommend a much more reverent and respectful attitude toward our Creator God.

O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. – Isaiah 64:8 NLT

So much of what James is saying in this opening chapter of his letter has to do with perspective. That is why he recommends that we ask God for wisdom when facing trials. We need the divinely enabled capacity to see our trials from God’s vantage point. And that includes the ability to maintain a healthy perspective regarding our Creator-creature relationship with God. He is the potter, we are the clay. We have been formed by His hand and He has the sovereign right and responsibility to do what He deems best for our lives.

When writing to the believers in Rome, the apostle Paul utilized Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay in order to remind his readers of God’s sovereign authority.

…who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why did You make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use?  – Romans 9:20-21 BSB

But James would have us understand that our anger when facing trials and difficulties comes from the inside out. In other words, the trial itself is not the problem. It is simply the trigger that produces our unrighteous reaction. That’s why he encourages an ongoing process of purification and sanctification in our lives.

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. – James 1:21 NLT

Long before the trial ever arrived, we should have been doing some serious house-cleaning and soul-searching so that we might be better equipped to respond in reverent reliance upon God. James is recommending a life of dependence upon the sanctifying power of God’s Word. The gospel doesn’t simply save us; it produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives. The apostle Paul referred to it as the fruit of our salvation.

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:9-11 NLT

According to James, this life-transforming “fruit” can save our souls. He is not referring to salvation from eternal condemnation. In other words, James is not teaching that anger expressed in the midst of trials can cause a believer to lose his salvation. He is simply warning that any form of unconfessed sin in our lives will have detrimental consequences. That’s why he tells us to “get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives” (James 1:21 NLT). But too often, we allow our distaste for any form of discomfort in our lives to produce anger and resentment. And rather than seeing the trial as a God-ordained test to purify and cleanse us, we simply demand that the difficulty be removed.

“We pray for safety instead of purity because we do not see impurity as dangerous.” – George M. Stulac, James

God speaks to His children through His Word. He uses it to guide, direct, convict, and encourage them. But James warns that it isn’t enough to hear God’s Word; you have to obey it.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

Hearing the Word without applying its truths is like glancing in a mirror and then walking away. Whatever flaws and imperfections the mirror may have revealed will be quickly forgotten once you walk away. Whenever the Word reveals an area of your life that needs attention, you must deal with it immediately – with the Holy Spirit’s help.

James reminds us that obedience to the Word of God comes with a blessing.

…if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. – James 1:25 NLT

This process is an ongoing one. The Christian life is a constant exercise in self-assessment and Spirit-empowered reformation. And the Word of God is the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to transform our lives by removing all the remaining filth and evil from our lives. And this process will continue until our final glorification.

James concludes this section of his letter with a rather stern warning against hypocritical behavior. And nothing reveals hypocrisy in the life of a believer quite like a trial. We can be going along quite well, displaying a form of righteousness that has everyone believing we are some kind of super saint. But then an unexpected and unwanted difficulty rears its ugly head and our facade of faithfulness comes crashing down like a house of cards. And, according to James, it is our verbal reaction to trials that exposes our hypocrisy.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

James seems to have had firsthand experience with this topic because he will revisit the problem of the tongue later in his letter.

…the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

As far as he was concerned, the tongue is the Christian’s primary roadblock to sanctification. It may be small, but it can cause a great deal of grief and sorrow. And it is an accurate barometer of our true spiritual condition.

…if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. – James 3:2 NLT

What James says next seems contradictory or out of place. He shifts from discussing the need to control our tongue to describing pure and genuine religion.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

What’s his point? It would seem that James is trying to differentiate between religion that is nothing more than lip service and actual sacrificial service to others. Not only can we use the tongue to curse and rage at the presence of trials. We can also use it to project an attitude of spiritual superiority by professing our allegiance to God. But James would suggest that words are not enough. In fact, in the very next chapter of his letter, he will expand on this hypocritical tendency and the need to walk the talk.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

We need to put our words into action. True faith is life-transforming. It changes our lives as well as all those around us. it puts shoe leather to our religion and provides a practical expression of the sanctifying power of God’s Word.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.