James is a beloved book. Eminently practical, the epistle is full of vivid exhortations to godly living. It also offers concrete counsel on an array of issues: trials, poverty, wealth, favoritism, justice, speech, planning, prayer, and illness. Yet James’s clarity is a two-edged sword, for its call to biblical ideals proves harder to achieve than to understand. As it labels our failures, James is almost too penetrating as it demonstrates that we cannot obtain God’s favor by striving for holiness. In this way, James (1) describes the godly life, (2) reveals the extent of human sin, and (3) raises the question of capacity to please God. James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas 1:22). But can we? In fact, James demands an obedience that no one can render. We must resolve the tension between James’s demands and our inability to reach them.
If Paul were the author, he might explain redemption and justification. But James never mentions the cross or the atonement, never speaks of justification by faith or redemption. Indeed, the absence of these elements prompts observers to wonder where to find the gospel in James, especially since he mentions Jesus’s name just twice, in passing (Jas 1:1; 2:1). James does mention “faith” fourteen times, but eleven of them occur from James 2:14–26, which stresses that faith without deeds is dead (Jas 2:17, 26). So, we need to understand the way James presents the gospel.
How Does James Understand the Gospel?
With 59 commands in 108 verses, James has a zeal for obedience. Indeed, he says that following God’s word is a mark of living faith. This obedience is essential, James says: “Whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Jas 2:10; cf. 4:17). James names three marks of “true religion” and those marks structure much of the book. The truly religious do three things. They “bridle [the] tongue,” they “visit orphans and widows in their affliction,” and they are “unstained” by the world (Jas 1:26–27). Remarkably, James 2–4 then show that no one meets these standards. We must control the tongue, yet no man can tame the tongue (Jas 3:1–8). We must care for the needy, yet we are willing to wish them well and do nothing to aid them (Jas 2:15–17). And we must avoid the pollution of the world, yet our “passions” and quarrels prove we love the world (Jas 4:1–4).
If no one has true religion, then all are liable to judgment. Still, James says “mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13; 5:11). The climax of the epistle, James 4:6, explains how mercy triumphs: Given that no one properly or fully controls the tongue, cares for the needy, or stays unstained, God “gives more grace.” James reinforces the lesson in 4:10, commanding “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” This is the gospel according to James: No one consistently demonstrates true religion. Therefore, the Father, who gives good gifts (Jas 1:5, 17), gives the supreme gift—saving grace to the humble.
How Does James Relate to the Rest of the Bible?
Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and certain psalms are often called “wisdom literature.” James resembles wisdom books in important ways. James and Solomon agree that wisdom is a gift which we rightly seek from God (1Kgs 3:7–12; Jas 1:5–8). They also agree that we can work for wisdom. To gain wisdom, we meditate on Scripture and observe and meditate on the world. That is why wisdom literature often says, “I have seen” (Job 4:8; 5:3; Eccl 1:4; 3:10; 5:13; 10:5–7) or “Do you see?” (Prov 22:9; 26:12; 29:20). James also asks his reader to see the inexorable link between faith and works (Jas 2:22–24) and to see both how farmers work and how the Lord works (5:7, 11). James adopts elements of the wisdom style because he shares the interests of wisdom literature: genuine faith, the role of testing and discipline, the power and the perversions of speech, the lure and emptiness of wealth, and the contrast between righteousness and wickedness.
James also meditates on the teachings of Jesus. When James 2:8 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” he calls it “the royal law,” meaning it is the law of king Jesus. While Leviticus and Romans have the same command, Jesus says it repeatedly and declares that it summarizes the law (Matt 5:43; 19:19; 22:39). James often shows that he is immersed in Jesus’s teachings. Even if he does not quote Jesus, he adopts Jesus’s language and reapplies it for his church. For example, he says self-exaltation leads to humiliation (Jas 4:6–10 // Luke 14:11; 18:9). He directs us not to judge each other (Jas 4:11–12 // Matt 7:1–5). He says moth and rust destroy riches (Jas 5:2 // Matt 6:19). And he forbids oaths (Jas 5:12 // Matt 5:33–37).
In these ways, James seems to depend on other canonical books. This is especially significant if we recall that James never mentions the cross, the blood of Christ, justification by faith, or other themes that focus on the accomplishment of redemption. James assumes the story of Jesus the Redeemer, recorded in the gospels. He assumes the proclamation of forgiveness, reconciliation to God, and justification by faith, presented in Acts and Paul. He applies these lessons to his people. Concerned with dead orthodoxy, he calls for deeds that prove faith is genuine. He also urges his people to confess their sins to find forgiveness and healing (Jas 5:15–16). But as we have seen, the climax of James occurs in 4:5–10. After he completes his indictment of human sin in 4:5, James says, “But he [God] gives us more grace.” That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” The double mention of God’s grace at the rhetorical climax of the book shows that the gospel of James is the message of God’s grace for sinners.
James teaches the church what it means to have true religion, to know Christ as Lord in all of life, and to humble ourselves and receive his grace when we fall short of our ideals.
“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
— James 4:10 ESV
I. Greeting (1:1)
II. Trials are a constant feature of the life of faith (1:2–15).
A. Trials bring maturity (1:2–4).
B. We need wisdom to pass the trials of faith, such as being poor or rich (1:5–11).
C. If we fail in a trial, we should not blame God, but examine ourselves (1:12–15).
III. God gives gifts, not temptations; his supreme gift is his Word (1:16–25).
A. The Word gives spiritual life and saves our souls (1:16–21).
B. If we truly hear the Word, we must do what it says (1:22–25).
IV. James offers three tests of true religion, which none pass (1:26–2:13).
A. The tests are control of the tongue, care for the poor, and no stain from the world (1:26–27).
B. James illustrates the three tests through a case of partiality (2:1–7).
C. We must heed the whole law because it comes from King Jesus (2:8–13).
V. Failing test 1: We do not care for the poor as we should (2:14–26).
VI. Failing test 2: We do not control our tongues as we should (3:1–12).
VII. Failing test 3: We do not shun worldly “wisdom” and desires as we should (3:13–4:4).
VIII. God gives grace to the humble, who know they fail the tests (4:5–10).
IX. Gospel-driven humility shows itself negatively and positively (4:11–5:20).
A. Believers do not condemn one another (4:11–12).
B. Believers do not make arrogant plans (4:13–17).
C. Believers do not defraud the poor (5:1–6).
D. Believers do wait patiently on the Lord (5:7–12).
E. Believers do take every joy and sorrow to the Lord (5:13–18).
F. Believers do strive to help one who strays (5:19–20).
James Brings Greetings (1:1)
The author of James was Jesus’s half-brother. Before the resurrection, Jesus’s brother did not follow him and even mocked him (John 7). But after the resurrection, Jesus graciously appeared to James. He believed and became a leader of the church (Acts 15). He humbly calls himself God’s servant and calls Jesus his Lord. The church is “the twelve tribes” because the church is the new Israel.
Trials Are a Constant Feature of the Life of Faith (1:2–15)
1:2–4 Life brings constant tests and trials. Trials often weaken people, but God designs them to create endurance and maturity. People commonly say trials increase faith or patience, but James says trials make us “perfect and complete.” Thus, a trial can be the remedy for any spiritual flaw. When trials are effective, believers will lack “in nothing.” Still, to “lack nothing,” we need wisdom to handle trials correctly.
1:5–8 If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God confidently, for three reasons. God is generous, he gives to all, and he gives without chiding us for our need. Yet we must ask sincerely, for genuine faith unites us to him. Doubt is superior to unbelief, and we should take sincere doubts to God, but it is better to have firm faith.
1:9–12 Before God, rich and poor, high and low, are the same—humbled and mortal. James blesses “the man who remains steadfast under trial,” promising him “the crown of life.” This crown is not a special gift for the highest achievers; the crown of life consists of life. God grants eternal life to all who “love him.” Thus, God blesses the man who perseveres in trials and promises to crown him with the resurrection life that disciples receive through faith.
1:13–15 God intends trials to strengthen us, but James knows people accuse God of tempting them and blame him when they sin. But temptation only entices us when we desire something sinful. We will never sin unless we desire to commit the sin. No one can be tempted to eat food that he detests. To be tempted by meat or cookies, I must want them. Similarly, I cannot be tempted to shout at someone or strike them unless there is hatred or animosity within me. The desire to sin, by shouting or striking in anger, is therefore driven by something within us, and believers should repent of such desires (1:14). Believers can and should resist their sinful desires, so they do not commit sinful acts (1Cor 10:13). By resisting sinful desires, we crucify the “old self” and end the dominion of sin (Rom 6:5–19). The resistance of sinful desire is important, since James warns that evil desires can lead to sinful acts and sinful habits. If sin grows sufficiently, it “brings forth death.” The call to resist or “mortify” sinful desires creates a challenge for those who live with chronic or ongoing temptations to sins such as lust and anger, for sinful desires are themselves sinful. It is sinful to desire to punch someone in the nose even if one never does it. This battle against sin is especially difficult when we combat disorderly, ongoing, unwanted desires connected to sex and addictions or compulsions. In such cases, we make two points that are not easy to reconcile: (1) believers must put evil desires to death, and (2) believers who face ongoing temptations are not doomed to live in perpetual sin. Like other believers, they have been “set free from sin” (Rom 6:14).
God Gives Gifts, Not Temptations; His Supreme Gift Is His Word (1:16–25)
1:16–18 The trials God sends can be gifts, if we receive them correctly. Indeed, God is unchanging in his generosity and “every perfect gift” is from him. His greatest gift is new “birth,” that is, regeneration, which God bestows “through the word of truth.” The phrase “the word of truth” means “the gospel” elsewhere in the New Testament. Ephesians 1:13 says “When you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, [you] were sealed” by the Holy Spirit (cf. Col 1:5–6). So, the gospel gives life.
1:19–21 We should always “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” But we should be especially quick to hear the gospel for it convicts us of sin. James contrasts the indulgence of anger with a resolve to hear and heed God’s Word. There is a place for anger against sin, as we see when Jesus cleansed the temple. But most human anger is trivial, misdirected, and selfish, so it brings no “righteousness.” By contrast, the Word convicts of sin. If the gospel grants us new life, we can and should “put away” sin that is “rampant.” The term “rampant” suggests fast-growing weeds. If we want to uproot sin, James says the first step is to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” That is, the first step is not to work hard, but to receive God’s saving truths and let them take root deep within. The power for moral reforms lies with God’s Word, implanted by his Spirit.
1:22–25 By God’s grace, we can become “doers of the word.” Church-attenders can imagine that they have acted meritoriously when they hear a sermon and nod in agreement. But it is self-deception and folly to hear about our transgressions and fail to remedy them. It is absurd to stare in a mirror, to see messy hair or a dirty face and do nothing to mend one’s appearance. Similarly, God’s Word is a mirror to our souls; it discloses our sin. It is more absurd to see our sins, forget them, and so do nothing to remedy them. When we gaze into God’s Word, his “perfect law,” we see that sin enslaves. When we reject sin, it brings freedom and blessing. For example, one sin, such as lying or getting drunk, often leads to another. Problems quickly multiply and entangle the sinner. But a courageous act of truth-telling is liberating and can lead to persistent honesty.
James Offers Three Tests of True Religion, Which None Pass (1:26–2:13)
1:26–27 James’s accent on “doing” leads him to single out three signs of true religion: controlling the tongue, watching over orphans and widows, and avoiding the corruptions of the world. Control of the tongue, which sins so readily, is a sign of God’s work in the heart. And “to visit”—that is to notice and care for the poor—is to show true religion, because the poor can give nothing in return. Strikingly, James 2–4 will show that no one controls the tongue, cares for the needy, or shuns the world as they should.
2:1–7 Although this section appears to shift to a new topic, the concern with “partiality”—treating people according to appearances, rather than their faith and intrinsic worth—develops James’s theme. James proposes a test case. Two men, one rich, one poor enter a gathering where one seat remains. An attendant, possibly seeking a potential patron for the church, follows his society’s norms and honors the rich man by seating him “in a good place.” When the attendant leaves the poor man standing up or sitting in a disadvantageous spot, he shows partiality. That violates the principles of true religion. The poor are perpetually told to sit on the floor; the church should be the one place where everyone is treated with dignity. Spiritually, everyone stands in the same place, as a sinner before a holy God. And everyone stands firm by the same means—faith in Jesus the Redeemer. To play favorites is to deny the gospel, in action if not in intent, for God chose the poor “to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.” The scene also embodies a violation of the signs of religion stated in 1:26–27. First, the attendant uses his tongue to humiliate the poor man. Second, orphans and widows represent the poor, and in this scene the poor are mistreated once more. Third, to honor the rich over the poor is to act like “the world,” which always curries favor with wealth and power. It is also absurd, since the rich tend to “oppress” the church and “drag you into court,” where the judge may be an ally in injustice. Finally, not many rich people are believers (1Cor 1:26–30), for the rich are proud, so that they “blaspheme” the Lord.
To play favorites is to deny the gospel.
2:8–13 In his imperatives, James directly communicates the royal law, the law of King Jesus. Jesus himself stated it on several occasions (Matt 19:19; 22:39; Luke 10:26), and James, like Paul, repeats it. This lets James show that favoritism is no petty sin. It violates both the law of love and the gospel. God judges all by the same law, redeems all by the same grace and by faith that rests in the Lord Jesus Christ (Jas 2:1). Further, all sins are major, for all violate the law of the King, who gave every commandment. The willful violation of even one law is disloyalty to the King and it makes one a “transgressor.” If someone objects that favoritism is a small sin, the kind that we can hardly detect, let alone avoid, James is unmoved. Even a small sin violates the King’s law and person, for “God is love” (1Jn 4:8).
Beyond that, James says, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” To break the law is not like taking one brick off a wall of bricks called “good deeds.” To break the law is like taking a brick and throwing it through a window. The reason, 2:11 explains, is that God spoke all of his laws. If someone does not commit adultery, but does murder, he still violates God’s will and the law that represents him.
If anyone chooses which laws they will obey, they remain their own God. God gave every law. If we think, “I will heed the law about adultery, but will not heed the law for murder,” then we are obeying only laws that we judge acceptable. If we obey laws only when they seem right to us, then we obey only when it meets our standards or suits our ends. This approach enthrones the self. If we pick and choose among the commands, we never really obey God at all. If we only obey laws that we find agreeable, and otherwise disobey, we make ourselves the final arbiter. In effect, we consult God, but we remain masters of our lives. Thus, obedience is all or nothing, we submit to God totally or not at all.1 Instead of acting like lords, we should remember that we are liable to judgment. This sounds frightening, except that, through Christ, “mercy triumphs over judgment,” for “the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (Jas 5:11).
Failing Test 1: We Do Not Care for the Poor as We Should (2:14–26)
James 2:14–26 shows that there is a “faith” that cannot save. That faith has kind words, but no deeds, which shows it is “dead” (2:14–17). James first asks “What good is it” or “What is the benefit … if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (2:14). That is, does every brand of faith save? James asserts that a faith that mouths the right words, but does nothing more, cannot save. A “faith” that affirms orthodox theology but has no actions or deeds is useless. James makes this point three times: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (2:17). Again, “faith apart from works is useless” (2:20). And again, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26).
2:14–17 James illustrates his teaching in four ways. First, faith without deeds of compassion for a needy brother does that brother no good. James describes a poor brother or sister. Their clothes are few or ragged, so they cannot keep warm. They lack sufficient “daily food” as well. Genuine faith meets these needs, but vain faith says “Go in peace, be warm and filled” and does nothing. On the last day, when Jesus judges mankind, he will mark whether we helped the needy. He will gather believers and say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Matt 25:36–40). True faith meets needs of brothers or sisters. False faith offers kind words and false benedictions. The blessing “Go in peace” is common in Scripture (Judg 18:6; Luke 7:50). It means “May God go with you.” But some mean “May God go with you, because I will not.” So religious jargon covers up a hard heart.
“Be warm and filled” could mean “You should take care of yourself. You look thin; you should eat more.” Alas, the poor man knows he should eat more, but he has no food. It could also mean “May God warm and feed you because I will not.” This is a bit like saying “You should ask God for food.” But perhaps the poor sister has been asking, and God expects us to become his agents. James already asked, “What good is it if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” He answers that it does not good for anyone. A faith that does nothing for a fellow believer is useless and dead. It has not experienced rebirth by the word of truth (Jas 1:18) or received the implanted word, which saves souls (1:21).
2:18–19 Second, demons have orthodox ideas about God and it terrifies them. Their “faith”—orthodox theological ideas and nothing more—is useless. Demons live in terror because they do not submit to God.
2:20–24 Third, Abraham’s faith did work “when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” and his “faith was completed by his works.” When James says Abraham was “justified by works,” he means that Abraham’s claim to believe was vindicated or validated, not that he earned his salvation. He knows that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Still, Abraham proved his faith was genuine by his works.
2:25–26 Finally, Rahab was “justified by works” when she cared for Israel’s “messengers” as they examined Jericho. She proved that her faith in the God of Israel was genuine when she risked her life for them. That demonstrated her loyalty to the Lord. Rahab, Gentile and prostitute, contrasts with Abraham in every way, except that her deeds also proved her faith to be real. In short, dead faith is content with words and ideas, but true faith is alive. It is the source of great deeds.
Failing Test 2: We Do Not Control Our Tongues as We Should (3:1–12)
3:1–2 The second test of genuine faith is control of the tongue (cf. 1:26–27). But alas, “no human being can tame the tongue” (3:8). The opening line is startling, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Teachers know more and are therefore responsible to practice what they know (4:17), but the immediate problem is that everyone stumbles and we especially stumble in our speech. We speak and write in haste, in anger, and in pride, and sin is often the result. Because teachers talk so much, they are most likely to fail. Even the great prophet, Isaiah, confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5).
3:3–8 The tongue is a small thing with great influence. Like bits in the mouth of horses or rudders guiding ships, the tongue has outsized influence. We miss the point if we think James simply means we should control ourselves. He just said we cannot do that (3:1–2), and he will say it again (3:8). Neither is the point that control of the tongue is the key to all self-mastery. One can think: The bit controls the horse, the rudder directs the ship, so the tongue controls people. Therefore, to master the tongue is to master oneself.
This idea is appealing, since it gives everyone a prime task. But this view contradicts other Scripture. Above all, Jesus says our heart controls our tongue. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Thus, the good say good things and the evil say evil things (Matt 12:34). Since we will be judged by our words (Matt 12:37) control of the tongue is vital. But James 3 has another layer. The illustrations seem to have two elements: bit and horse, rudder and ship, tongue and human. But upon review, we see that each analogy has a third element, an agent of control, who exercises his will through a bit, rudder, and tongue. Riders uses the bit to direct their horses. Pilots use rudders to guide their ships. And humans direct their tongues to speak. If the heart guides the tongue, we cannot simply resolve to control the tongue. We must consider the heart, the source of all resolutions.
We will return to this, but first, James reiterates that the tongue has great destructive power. A conflagration can start with a spark, and the tongue can start a spiritual or moral fire that causes unrighteousness and sets fire to “the entire course of life.” Humans can tame all sorts of animals—hawks, elephants, and seals. They can control wind, fire, and the elements, but “no human . . . can tame the tongue,” despite its meager size. This may sound like a counsel of despair, but James hints that if no human can tame the tongue, since it is evil, perhaps God can. As he said earlier, “the word of truth . . . the implanted word” can conquer wickedness (1:18, 21).
3:9–12 Still, the tongue is mysterious, paradoxical. With it, we bless the Lord and with it we curse people made in his image. Can a tree bear two kinds of fruit? Can a spring “pour forth” both fresh and salty water? No. How absurd, then, if we use the tongue to bless others one moment and curse them the next. Our inconsistency should make us cry for God’s intervention. We should repent of sins of the tongue. We should not deny them, make excuses, or claim superiority to others. If we fall short in our speech, we should admit it and plead for the grace of forgiveness and the grace of power to begin, at least, to use the tongue correctly.
Failing Test 3: We Do Not Shun Worldly “Wisdom” and Desires as We Should (3:13–4:4)
3:13–16 This is an interlude linking the topics of speech and worldliness. In both passages, James presents two paths: Will the tongue bless or curse (3:1–12)? Will a person love the world’s wisdom or God’s wisdom (3:13–18)? James is not saying, “Choose well, friends. Follow the right path.” That is impossible. No one can control his own tongue (3:8). No one can control his passions or refrain from judgment or stifle all pride (4:3, 11–16). If God gives wisdom and rebirth through the word, then one can follow the right path (1:5, 18). In that context, James presents two ways of life, two kinds of wisdom. The wise show it by living a beautiful lifestyle, by meekness, humility, and a life marked by peace, gentleness, and mercy (3:13, 17–18). There is a second sort of “wisdom,” one that is “earthly, unspiritual, demonic,” and its marks are jealousy (or “envy”) and “selfish ambition” (3:14, 16; 4:5). Worldly wisdom grasps all it can get and resents those who have more. If there is no God, if there is nothing beyond this world and its sky, it is logical to seize all one can and spend it on oneself, even if it causes “disorder and every vile practice.”
3:17–18 But there is another kind of wisdom. It comes “from above” and is pure, peaceful, gentle, reasonable, fruitful, sincere, and righteous. One could study any of these virtues at length, but we can single out meekness and gentleness (3:13, 17). The world never chooses meekness, it chooses assertiveness and demands its rights. It pushes and bullies. Believers need not be shy or retiring and they can be bold and tough, but they do not insist on their privileges. If they demand, they demand for others. In dialogue, they are teachable, open to reason, slow to take offense, never quarrelsome. If they correct someone, they do so gently (2Tim 2:24–25). As a result, they attain that rare combination of righteousness and peace.
4:1–4 Wisdom from above is a rare commodity because “passions” or sinful desires govern so many people. Passions cause quarrels “among,” that is, between people, because they first cause conflict within everyone. Imagine a family with limited resources. Suppose the husband wants new sports equipment while the wife wants new kitchen equipment. Each hope to be a good spouse, but both want what they want. They therefore experience war internally and perhaps externally too. At worst, worldly, self-exalting “wisdom” stirs quarrels, fights, and even murder—typically through hateful words, but sometimes through literal murder or war.
The line “You do not have because you do not ask” is for self-proclaimed believers. They desire things, but knowing their desires are selfish, they dare not even ask, as if they imagine God will then not know how egotistical their desires are. But if they realize that God knows their hearts, they do ask and God says “No” because they “ask wrongly,” seeking only to gratify their “passions.” For a believer to live for selfish passions is spiritual adultery, not ordinary sin. It is “adulterous” because the disciple claims to love God but has another lover—their desires. James again presents a choice: one can be a friend of God or of the world. To befriend the world is to become an enemy of God. In this passage, “the world” does not refer to God’s good creation, but to the godless way of life that excludes God at every turn (John 14:27; 15:18–19). In Scripture, friends share values. One cannot befriend God and befriend those who hate him.
God Gives Grace to the Humble, Who Know They Fail the Tests (4:5–10)
This section is “the gospel according to James.” James 4:4 concluded that everyone must choose between friendship with God and love of the world. Alas, unaided human nature will choose the world every time, and humans will fail the three tests of true religion. They will not help the needy or control the tongue, and they are stained by the world (Jas 1:26–27). This would leave the careful reader in despair if the next verses did not offer hope. Since “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6), James’s survey of human failings prepares us to receive grace. Indeed, the passage concludes by citing Jesus: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (4:10, from Luke 14:11; 18:14).
4:5 The Greek of this verse is very difficult to translate. There are three main riddles. First, is the “spirit” the Spirit of God or the human spirit? (The original Greek is not capitalized, but that is no proof, since Greek rarely used capital letters.) Second, is “spirit” the subject or object of the sentence? Third, is the “jealous yearning” mentioned in the ESV positive or negative? When we sift through these option, two attractive translations emerge:
1 “He [God] yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us” (ESV).
2 “The spirit he made to dwell in us envies intensely” (CSB, older editions of NIV).
Both translations begin with “Scripture says.” Neither quotes a particular verse. Rather, both encapsulate a great biblical theme. Both translations fit the context, and both are true. God does long to recover the spirits of men, for he created them and promised to redeem us. But it is also true that the human spirit is full of envy. James just said as much in 4:1–4 and the whole sad story of human sin is largely one of envy and striving, beginning with Cain and Abel.
4:6–8a Whichever translation is correct, we know that God gives grace to the humble, to those who are not good enough or religious enough to please God. We must, therefore, submit to God and draw near to him by repenting, believing, submitting, and loving him. To yield to God is to fight against the devil. We do this by resisting temptation, especially when it goes on and on. We resist evil thoughts (anger, self-pity, self-righteousness) and evil desires (greed, lust). The devil is a fierce foe, but he runs from God and his people eventually.
4:8b–10 Next James breaks into poetry: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” This means we repent of evil deeds and thoughts and offer all faculties to him—hands, heart, and mind. There is a godless way to mourn, for example, when one gets caught in crime or loses one’s wealth. But it is good to mourn over sin. That includes our personal sins, the sins of our age, such as abortion and social injustice, and the sins of humanity since Adam. The proper response is humility. We do not wait for personal tragedy or the weakness of age to humble us, we humble ourselves now. Then God lifts us up, by the gospel.
It is good to mourn over sin. That includes our personal sins, the sins of our age, such as abortion and social injustice, and the sins of humanity since Adam.
Gospel-Driven Humility Shows Itself Negatively and Positively (4:11–5:20)
James 4:11–17 explores and expands the meaning of humility. The tone can be rough, as James asks deflating questions: “Who are you?” (4:12) and “What is your life?” (4:14). James 4:11–5:6 warns against three sins. All are sins of pride or arrogance. They oppose the humility he just commended.
4:11–12 First, believers do not condemn one another. To “speak evil” or slander and judge a brother is to take a position over them, to dominate them. Furthermore, to boast and to presume upon the success of one’s plans is to think that one masters the future and can surely accomplish whatever one wishes (4:13–17). Third, to oppress and to defraud laborers of wages is a sin of pride, for it despises ordinary laborers. It also embodies envy and selfish ambition (3:14) by striving to keep everything for oneself, regardless of the call of justice (5:1–6). Humble people know that God is the Judge, and that he determines the future, even the length of human lives (4:15). He hears the cries of the oppressed (5:4–5).
Those who slander and judge also usurp God’s prerogatives. Those who condemn others, by citing the law, imply that they alone know how the law applies. But of course, God gave the law, and he alone fully understands it. He is therefore the one Judge. He can “destroy,” but it is good for those who love to judge others to remember that God is also merciful and “is able to save.”
4:13–17 Second, believers do not make arrogant plans. Like the rich farmer of Luke 12:13–21, the boastful planner almost looks innocent, initially. The Bible never condemns planning or trade or profits. But to declare “we will make a profit” is to claim knowledge, even mastery, of the future. The plan to make a profit may be another instance of the world’s selfish ambition (Jas 3:14). More importantly, it forgets that the Lord knows and determines the future. Meanwhile, we do not even know if tomorrow will bring a hurricane or a catastrophic change in markets. We do not even know if we will be alive tomorrow. Our lives are as fleeting and insubstantial as the morning mist on a lake. Proud planners forget that they depend on God. Everyone should say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” To think or say otherwise is arrogant and boastful.
Proud planners forget that they depend on God.
5:1–6 Third, believers do not defraud the poor. Oppression of the poor is a singular act of pride. If we should stop judging our neighbors (4:11–12) and remember that God is sovereign over the future (4:13–16), we should certainly stop defrauding our neighbors and remember that God judges the rich who oppress the poor. No one stands above God’s law and justice.
As James boldly denounces injustice, he sounds like Isaiah, Amos, or other prophets of old (cf. Isa 5:8–12; Amos 5:11–12; Mic 2:1–3). Throughout the first chapters, James addressed “my brothers” (Jas 1:2; 2:1) and “my beloved brothers” (1:19). But now he seems to address unbelievers, warning “Come now, you rich,” weep over the misery that is coming. They will lose their wealth to decay. Their garments, so precious at that time, will rot. When James, like Jesus, says their “gold and silver have corroded,” he knows that gold and silver neither rust nor corrode. He means gold and silver might as well be iron for all the good they do the person who gains them by fraud. Indeed, hoarded wealth will testify against the rich on the last day, for the very existence of the hoard shows that they failed to be just or generous. Those who get rich by oppressing others face judgment. The rich that James condemns oppressed their laborers by withholding the wages they need to live from day to day. If the landowner will not heed their cries, the Lord will.
When James says the rich “fattened” themselves in “a day of slaughter,” he describes a terrible reversal. They had their servants fatten animals for the day when they would slaughter them for their feasts. But by persisting in iniquity, they have fattened themselves until they are ripe for slaughter. The Bible never condemns wealth in itself. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David, and others were wealthy through God’s favor. The problem is wealth gained by injustice and used for self-indulgence. At worst, the rich “condemned and murdered” the righteous and the innocent. Murder is an appropriate term for their acts, since they could cause people to starve by failing to pay wages. Beyond that, the hatred that leads a landowner to defraud his workers is a form of hardness that amounts to murder in the heart.
5:7–12 Fourth, believers wait patiently for the Lord. James already said we are living in the last days (5:3). The Lord is coming, and he is near. That promise lets us be patient in adversity. As a farmer works, then waits for rain, so believers must be patient and steadfast, like Job. Even today, however, the thought of the last day should shape our daily conduct. For example, believers should not “grumble against one another,” for grumbling is a form of judgment, which is the Lord’s prerogative. The prospect of God’s judgment should also lead us to be careful with our words, for they will be evidence on the last day. We should be so reliable that the need to take oaths disappears. Then “yes” will mean “yes,” period. Regardless, the Judge will soon come to the impenitent. But we do not fear that day, since “the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
5:13–18 Fifth, believers take every joy and sorrow to the Lord. This passage deservedly gains attention for its teaching on prayers for healing, but that topic fits within James’s broader interest in promoting prayer in every circumstance. He exhorts us to praise the Lord for every blessing and to petition him in every sorrow.
5:13–16 A serious illness is assumed here. James pictures the elders coming to the sick person and praying “over him,” perhaps hinting that he is bed-ridden. James uses a generic word for “sick” in 5:14 (astheneo), but “sick” in 5:15 translates kamno, which means “worn out” and applies to exhaustion in body or spirit. Illness can bring weariness or depression and that is also a reason to pray. James recommends a call to the elders, for they are men of prayer. They pray in faith over the flock they oversee and love. James does not call for prayer by those with a gift for miracles; he calls for elders, expecting God to hear and believing God can raise up the sick. Jesus did occasionally heal large crowds that contained many unbelievers (John 6), but in one-on-one encounters, the sick person or family or friends always expressed faith (Luke 5:20; Mark 9:23–24). The Lord does not hear a convocation of skeptics who hope for magic.
Jesus did occasionally heal large crowds that contained many unbelievers, but in one-on-one encounters, the sick person or family or friends always expressed faith. The Lord does not hear a convocation of skeptics who hope for magic.
James presents a process. The elders gather to pray. They anoint with oil, which can be a symbol of God’s Spirit in Scripture. Oil is also a balm (Luke 10:34), which suggests that we may seek both medical and spiritual care for illness. There is also self-examination, with confession of sin, for some illnesses are (for example, the fruit of alcoholism or promiscuity) and some are not the result of sin (John 9:1–2). The phrases “the prayer of faith” and “the Lord will raise him up” require careful thought. There is a time for believers to die, to go to “be with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8), so we cannot say that every prayer of faith will result in healing in this life. The Lord heals everyone eventually and will raise up all believers when he returns (John 6:39–54).
So, we should not think, if we only have enough faith, healing will come, now. Healing may come in the future. In other words, prayers for healing are not the same as the appeals people made to Jesus in the gospels. He performed miracles that announced his deity and redeeming purposes, and he always fulfilled his purposes. That said, in every church, elders should gather to pray. We should expect God to act. This writer has seen many healings, some radical and immediate, others gradual.
5:17–18 The elders are “righteous” men with powerful prayers. This does not mean they are perfect. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ, they strive to live out their new nature. James cites Elijah, a prophet with potent prayers, yet a man “with a nature just like ours.” He stumbled, as we do, yet God heard Elijah’s prayers.
5:19–20 Sixth, believers strive to help one who strays. James concludes pastorally, with a call to restore “anyone” who “wanders from the truth.” From a human perspective, we “save his soul from death,” but from God’s perspective we participate in the work of Christ, who covers our sin and defeats it.
The pastoral elements of James 5:13–20 provide opportunity to reflect on James as a whole. As the epistle urges Christians to live out their faith in Jesus, it sounds like a sermon. James often uses direct address, calling his readers “my brothers” (3:12) or “my beloved brothers” (2:5). Yet he can also chide his audience as “adulterous people” (4:4) or “you rich” (5:1). He constantly asks rhetorical questions that prompt readers to stop and think (2:4–7; 2:14–21; 3:11–13; 4:1–5, 12–14). He also raises and answers objections his readers may have (1:13; 2:18; 3:13; 4:14; 5:13–14). An imaginary figure speaks on four occasions, either to articulate a godless perspective toward poverty (2:3) or the needy (2:16) or business plans (4:13), or to object to James’s teaching (2:18).
By letting imaginary objectors enter into his epistle, James implies that he hears, even welcomes, the thoughts of unbelievers or doubters and is glad to answer them. At the same time, he expects his readers or hearers to be receptive. He warns that they must not merely listen to the Word. Once they know it, they should do what it says (1:22). Later, he warns that whoever “knows the right thing do” must do it. Sins of omission are just as culpable as overt sin (4:17; 2:14–17).
James even shows godly impatience with the church. He charges them, “Do not be deceived” (1:16) and asks “Do you not know?” (4:4). James also engages his people with abundant illustrations, using horses, springs of water, boats, fire, mirrors, farm work, flowers, mist, travel, and more. He creates vivid images: desire becomes pregnant and gives birth to sin (1:15); demons believe and shudder (1:18). The rich howl, riches rot, and metals eat flesh like fire (5:1–3). Finally, James uses thought-provoking paradoxes: tests are a joy (1:2); the rich should boast in their humiliation (1:10).
James employs his rhetorical powers to reach a goal—to stir believers to live by faith in Jesus, the Lord. Genuine believers act like friends of God (2:5, 23). They follow his will and his Word. If they fall short, they plead for grace. As James says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10). That is the gospel of James.
Blomberg, Craig L. and Mariam J. Kovalishyn. James. ZECNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Doriani, Daniel M. James. REC. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007.
Moo, Douglas. The Letter of James. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.
Moo, Douglas. James: An Introduction and Commentary. TNTC. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1985.
Morgan, Christopher. A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010.
Motyer, Alec. The Message of James. BST. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985
Endnotes & Permissions
1:1 James, a servant1 of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
Testing of Your Faith
2 Count it all joy, my brothers,2 when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
9 Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass3 he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.
12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 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.4 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
Hearing and Doing the Word
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.