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James

12.17.2010

James is my wife’s favorite book, putting her boldly in opposition to Martin Luther, who was so uncomfortable with it that he questioned its canonicity.  The same element which so offends Luther is likely the one which inspires my wife: James’ emphasis on living out the faith, being doers rather than just hearers of the Gospel.

There is an undeniable tension that exists between James’ repeated exhortations to works as an integral part of faith and Paul’s thesis that we are saved by grace through faith alone, not through works.  The tension is most often eased by saying that works are the proof of faith, the fruit that will be manifest if faith is real.  This satisfies theologically and ties James and Paul both together with Jesus’ analogy of the vine. 

However, I find this explanation lacks something in terms of real life.  To whom are works proof?  God doesn’t need it, and men are not reliable observers.  Is the acceptance of grace by a dying man invalid because he did not have an opportunity to fulfill it with works?  What even counts as works?  Does conviction count as works or only physical actions? 

Despite the chronological placement in my reading plan, there are many that suspect that James wrote this book prior to most of Paul’s writing.  James, the brother of Jesus, was head of the church in Jerusalem, and his letter is clearly influenced by Jewish thinking about the law and righteousness.  By this, I mean that there’s an assumption of capability in his exhortations to be obedient and loving.  There isn’t the same recognition that you see in Paul that the law is impossible or that we do what we hate and don’t do what we ought. 

In that sense, I think James has a more simplistic view of faith.  This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but he has a way of preemptorily dismissing questions and doubts about what to do or how to do it.  In other words, James presents faith as an impossibly high standard with little tolerance for imperfection.

I invite any, like my wife, who are defenders of James to answer some of these questions and demonstrate how James interacts with, coheres with, and/or balances the Pauline tradition of grace, mercy, and sanctification.

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