Today I have been asked to preach at Mt Hawthorn Community Church on James chapter 1 – the whole chapter in twenty minutes! I have decided to focus on the last three verses of the chapter and have titled the message “Real Religion, Genuine Faith.”
I don’t know if Pastor Peter has been following my posts on James or not, but I am very much looking forward to this opportunity to share this chapter with God’s people. Though twenty minutes? That would be a miracle! Add to that, that I have not preached since June last year… Please God, let it not be rubbish!
Roof story – looked okay but was not. The roof structure lacked integrity, being flawed, internally compromised. Integrity refers the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished; a sound, unimpaired, or perfect condition. What you see is what you get: it is honest, it is true.
James, too, is concerned with that which is true. He is very concerned with true Christianity, genuine religion, authentic spirituality, a faith which has integrity.
As I understand matters, the letter of James derives directly from James the Just, James the brother of Jesus, James, leader of the early Jerusalem community of Jesus-followers, James who identifies himself as a servant of God, James the martyr. If he did not directly pen the letter, perhaps his words were collected and edited after his death and formed into the letter we now read. I think, however, that a good case can be made that James did write the letter, and did so to members of his community who had been scattered by the persecution that arose after Stephen’s martyrdom, suffering poverty and alienation as refugees in an unfamiliar environment, especially perhaps, at the hands of other Jews who will not accept these followers of a ‘false messiah.’ If this is true, then we have in this letter a link to earliest Jewish Christianity, as well as a very early understanding and adaptation of the teaching of Jesus, which suffuses this letter from start to finish.
James, then, was writing as a faithful pastor to a scattered, poor and distressed Jewish-Christian community. We can see something of his concern for true religion and authentic spirituality in 1:25-27.
But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
What, essentially, is James about? He is concerned about real religion, genuine faith and authentic spirituality. That is, he is concerned about the kind of faith that is expressed in doing, in action, and not simply in customary religious practices. For James, religious devotion which does not issue in practical holiness is worthless. Love of God which does not issue in love of neighbour is worthless. Religious faith which does not trust in God or persevere under trial is worthless. Real religion does has devotional and doctrinal dimensions, undoubtedly. But it is also communal and ethical.
The Perfect Law
James begins this climactic section of his chapter with a reference to “the perfect law of liberty.” In verse 18 James has told his listeners that they have been “born again,” “brought forth” by the Father of lights, the good and generous and gracious God, giver of good and perfect gifts. The word James uses is astounding, a word used only of pregnant women. No doubt God’s gift of birth stands in contrast to that birth seen in verse 15. Sin “gives birth” to death, but God gives us life. God’s people are brought forth as the first fruits of a new creation by the Word of truth. This phrase is used in Ephesians and Colossians as an expression to mean the gospel. Through the gospel we have heard the story of Jesus, of his life and death and resurrection; we have believed, and believing, we have been “born anew.” Born into a new life so much so that the old has passed and the new has come.
Therefore James continues in verse 21, “Receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.” Not only do Christians commence with the Word of God, they continue by it. “One shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” According to Jesus, believers are to live by the Word of God. Not only are we to hear and receive the Word, but we are to become doers of the Word of God (v. 22), allowing God’s Word to speak to us, counsel us and guide us, direct us and shape us, and orient our lives toward the presence, the purpose and promises of God. The “forgetful hearer” simply “goes his way,” the word having no enduring impact or effect on his daily life.
And so we come again to verse 25: “But the one who looks into the perfect law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts (or, a doer of the work), he shall be blessed in his doing.” James, in this verse, shifts his language from Word to “law,” and from being “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” What do these shifts mean? Quite simply, James emphasises the call and the demand of the gospel. In chapter two he will bring this out with great clarity: “faith without works is dead.” The gospel is not simply the promise of salvation in and through Jesus, but also the call to follow him. Many commentators believe that James considers that Jesus’ teaching constituted the law made new, that the “law” here refers to Jesus’ ethical teaching.
James’ own letter reflects this: his first chapter is full of imperatives (13-15 in all; see v. 19):
- Count it all joy (v. 2)
- Let endurance have its perfect work (v. 4)
- Ask God! (v. 5)
- Ask in faith! (v. 6)
- The lowly are to rejoice in their exaltation (v. 9)
- The rich in their humiliation (v. 10, assumed)
- Let no one say (v. 13)
- Do not be deceived (v. 16)
- Be sure you know this! (v. 19)
- Be: quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger (v.19)
- Put off! (actually a participle, but imperatival; v. 21)
- Receive! (v. 21)
- Be doers! (v. 22)
It is clear that for James, real religion, authentic spirituality, is a matter of obedience to the Word of truth, the gospel, the teaching of Jesus, the Word of God, and that such obedience is crowned with blessing, both now “in the doing,” and with a crown of life in the age to come (v. 12).
Playing the Long Game
Notice too, that James speaks of persevering in the Word. This kind of steadfastness and endurance is also commended in verses 3-4 and 12, where the steadfast person is declared blessed. James knows that life is tough, especially for his readers. Even so, he counsels them to find their joy in God, to stand firm under trial, to seek God in faith-filled prayer, remain steadfast in the face of temptation, refuse to blame God for their troubles, and most of all, become a fully Christian community, the firstfruits of the new creation, devoted to God’s Word.
In verse 4 James commands: “let endurance have its perfect work, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
To persevere is to take another step, go another round, to keep plugging away, to plod on, putting one step in front of another. It does not require any special talent to persevere, but it does require character; it does require a community. The “you” James is addressing is “all of you, together.” When the people of God form a community of acceptance, encouragement and care, those in it are strengthened and enabled to persevere. They still must persevere themselves, of course, but do so in the context of support, affirmation and accountability. They do so also, in light of God’s promise: “for when they have stood the test they shall receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
Notice two things:
- The tests can be external or internal, and possibly, the internal tests are the most difficult;
- That in front of perseverance is hope, and underneath it is love for God. We stand fast, stand firm and stand together because we love God and trust in God’s promise. James is convinced that God is trustworthy, good, gracious and generous, single-minded in his goodness. It is on account of God’s goodness that we can have faith.
Real Religion Revisited
Finally, James identifies three characteristics of “real religion” —the kind which goes beyond the performance of a few religious practices that do not have any enduring impact on our daily existence. These three characteristics are his major concerns and will be picked up in the rest of the letter.
James does not have an abstract interest in the tongue: one scholar has noted that there are 29 imperatives in this letter directly addressing speech ethics. This is a primary concern of James,’ and will occupy the main part of chapter 3, as well as re-appearing in chapters 4 and 5. But again, James’ interest is not abstract; he is concerned about the use of the tongue because of power to destroy the community of God’s people. Verses 19-20 are not just the kind of homely advice one finds in Readers Digest! They are directed against those in the community who are at war with one another, expressing anger and malice toward one another, quarrelling and fighting with one another, and as Paul says, biting and devouring one another. Sins of the mouth tear down the people of God. Failure to bridle the tongue, to speak wisely and with respect and care undermines genuine spirituality.
James’ second characteristic of real religion is compassion—love in action, hands-on, sleeves-rolled-up care for the vulnerable in our midst. Just as God visited his old covenant people in order to rescue them, so God’s people are to visit and care for those in need. Widows and orphans were amongst the most powerless groups in the ancient world. It is, of course, legitimate to extend the metaphor in our age and location to those who are in need, though they may not be widows and orphans. I have been greatly challenged by Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this verse:
Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.
He will deal with this issue at length in chapter 2, and it, too, will re-appear in his final chapter.
Finally James zeroes in on our own moral purity and personal holiness. He calls his listeners to keep themselves “unstained from the world.” James is not a dualist; he believes that this is God’s world. God the “Father of Lights” in verse 17, is the universal creator and father. Nevertheless, the “world” is here seen in its fallenness, in its organisation against the will, the ways and the wisdom of God. In verses 13-18 James warns his listeners against the perils of temptation and sin: sin is a hunter out to capture its prey; sin is conceived and grows up and brings forth death. “Be not deceived,” says James, but rather, “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness.” It is clear that James envisaged a decisive turning away from sin, sinful patterns of life, and concrete sinful practices. What kind of sins? Some commentators suggest he is focusing on sexual sins in vv. 14-15, but this is probably to over-interpret the verses. No doubt he would include these too. But his emphasis in the letter focuses on interpersonal sins, especially those of the tongue, selfish ambition in the community, and those which oppress or fail to give due heed to the poor. There is a real engagement in the world and yet at the same time a genuine separation from its values, commitments and practices.
So true religion is a life in Christian community, compassion for the vulnerable, and personal holiness, all arising from a persistent practice of the Word of God, and grounded in faith in God and love for God.
What about You?
- Have you accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ?
- Are you a “doer who acts,” a “doer of the work,” one who perseveres in the “perfect law of liberty”?
- Could you use James’ three categories of real religion to do a quick check-up on the state of your own spirituality? Is it authentic? Is it the kind of religion that is pure and undefiled before God? Does one of the categories require your serious attention? What can you do about that this week?