A verse-by-verse exegetical commentary on the Greek New TestamentIntroduction
The letter of James is a highly practical work, simple and imaginative in its teaching. For this reason it is a very popular book with believers, although a book that has stirred controversy. Those who don't like the book, and Martin Luther was one of its strongest critics, argue that it promotes justification by works. Such a view, of course, is quite unfair. James simply proclaims that "faith is not true faith unless it is the motive power that produces Christian living", Mitton.
The structure of James
Address and greeting, 1:1
A call to genuine faith, a faith that yields good fruit
1. Instructions on trials and temptation, 1:2-18
Growing in Christian maturity, 1:2-18
2. Instructions on hearing and doing, 1:19-27
Be doers of the Word, 1:19-27
3. A sermon on partiality, 2:1-13
Favoritism forbidden, 2:1-13
4. A sermon on faith and works, 2:14-26
Faith without works is a dead thing, 2:14-26
5. Instructions on the tongue, 3:1-4:12
i] Taming the tongue, 3:1-12
ii] Disputes are of worldly wisdom, peace is of the wisdom from above , 3:13-18
iii] Disputes derive from worldly passions, 4:1-6
iv] Humility and slander, 4:7-12
6. Instructions on worldliness and wealth, 4:13-5:6
i] The danger of arrogance and self-sufficiency, 4:13-17
ii] The danger of wealth, 5:1-6
7. Instructions on general matters, 5:7-12
Patience in the face of suffering and oaths, 5:7-12
Concluding instruction, 5:13-20
The prayer of faith and the restoration of an erring brother, 5:13-20
In Luther's judgment, James is a chaotic work where the author just "throws things together". Modern commentators have tended to move from this rather negative view. Some, like Dibelius, see a semblance of structure (an examination of collected sayings on particular subjects and treatises on particular issues), while others, like Davids, or McCartney argue for a highly organized thematic work. Others head for the middle ground, for example, Moo identifies some key themes (testing, suffering) supported by supplementary themes (wisdom, Godly speech, faith, humility, the law, ..), which themes are intertwined in a series of major and minor relatively independent exhortations.
Author and date
Although the letter is ascribed to James, the identify of this person is unknown. Early Christian tradition had the letter written by James of Jerusalem, "the Lord's brother", but this has been questioned in recent times. It is often argued that the writer is not well acquainted with Paul's doctrine of justification and that therefore the letter must be a late composition, say 80AD (it seems likely that 1 Clement, written in 95AD, has a knowledge of James), but of course it could be early, say 40AD, written at a time when the church was primarily Jewish and as yet unaware of Paul's understanding of justification. If James of Jerusalem is the author the letter must have been written before 62AD when James was martyred.
It is generally accepted that James wrote to Jewish believers who, as the NIV puts it, were "scattered among the nations", ie. believing Jews of the dispora aligned to Hellenistic Judaism. There is evidence that the recipients face persecution, but their difficulties are often overstated. James seems more concerned with the world getting into the church than of the world oppressing it.
Up till recent times James has been classed as a general letter addressed to no specific church, nor addressed to a specific situation. As such it is more an ethical treatise than a letter, similar to 1 John. As noted above, James is virtually a collection of ethical exhortations (saying and sermons) arranged in a number of literary segments with only limited internal relationship and virtually no external relationship (other than some thematic interrelationship). Some commentators have argued that James is a highly organized thematic work, but this seems overly optimistic.
James is probably best classified as wisdom literature, in fact, what we have in James is a New Testament version of Proverbs in that it consists of practical advice for believers as they seek to live out their faith in an imperfect, and at times, hostile environment.
James reminds believers to practice their Christian profession. We live in a pagan world such that our faith will constantly be tested by secularizing influences. We must take on board God's Word and do it rather than adopt to the ways of the world: showing favoritism; destructive talk; quarreling; coveting; unbridled pleasure; .... A faith that does not issue in deeds is dead, so in humility before God we need to resist the evil one: be patient in suffering; speak the truth; pray; ... We must put our faith into practice for this is the path to fulfilment in life.
Faith and works
As already noted, Luther, and many reformed commentators, are suspicious of James since, against Paul who teaches that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law, Rom.3:28, James teaches that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone, 2:24. When we dig into the teachings of Paul and James we find that they are not as diametrically opposed as it would seem. At the center of James' argument is his contention that genuine faith issues in godliness, "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by works, is dead", 2:20. Paul would certainly agree, cf. Gal.5:6.
Given the new paradigm promoted by Sanders, Wright and Dunn, the new perspective on Paul, there is the suspicion that James, like so many of the Jewish teaches that Jesus had to contend with, is a nomist. A person may get into the kingdom by grace through faith, but staying in depends on obedience. It seems very likely that in Galatians and Romans Paul addresses Nomism (nomistic / pietistic Christianity), the heresy promoted by the members of the circumcision party (the judaizers), namely, that although a person is justified (set right before God, judged covenant compliant) on the basis of Christ's faithfulness ("faith of Christ") appropriated through faith, law-obedience ("works of the law" - obedience to the law of Moses) is essential to restrain sin and shape holiness (sanctify) for the maintenance of right-standing before God (covenant compliance) and for a believer to move forward in the Christian life and so appropriate the fullness of new life in Christ (the promised Abrahamic blessings - the gift of the Spirit, etc.).
So, is James promoting nomism? Paul claimed that all believing Jews accepted the proposition that "a person is not justified by observance of the law, but rather by the faithfulness of Christ (the atonement). For this reason we have put our trust in Christ Jesus so that our justification might rest on Christ's faithfulness rather than our own", Galatians 2:15. It would be absurd to argue that James didn't hold this most basic of Christian truths. Yet, has James then failed to apply this truth and joined with the nomists, teaching that for a believer law-obedience is essential for the appropriation of the full blessings of new life in Christ? This case can certainly be argued, but it is more likely that the issue simple comes down to one of perspective. James is explaining how to live the Christian life in a world affected by sin and so he puts the case that it generally goes well for a person who applies God's manual for life. Anyone who thinks it's going to go well for them because they have faith, apart from deeds, is a fool. A genuine faith, a justifying faith, a faith that rests on the faithfulness of Christ, issues in deeds; "faith without deeds is dead", 2:26.
James: FAITH = righteousness = blessings = WORKS
Paul: FAITH = righteousness = BLESSINGS = works
Paul's opponents: faith = righteousness + WORKS = blessings
James' opponents: faith = righteousness = blessings - WORKS
Bibliography: Commentaries - James and Jude
Adam, HGT, Baylor, 2013. Adamson, NICNT, 1976. Blackman, Torch. Blomburg, Zondervan Exegetical, 2008. Brosend, NCBC. Davids, NIGTC, 1982. Davids, NIBC, 1983. Dibelius, Hermeneia, 1975. German ed., 1964. Hamann, ChiRho, 1980. Hiebert, Moody. Hort, Macmillan, 1909, Cambridge digital, 2009. Johnson, Anchor, 1995. Kistemaker, Baker. Laws, Blacks, 1980. Mayor, Macmillan, 1913, reprint Zondervan, 1954. Martin, Word, 1988. McCartney, BECNT, 2009. McKnight, NICNT, 2011. Mitton, Marshall Morgan & Scott. 1966. Moffatt, MNTC, 1928. Moo, Tyndale, 1985. Moo, Pillar, 2000. Moo, EGGNT, 2013. Reiker, Anchor, 1964. Ropes, ICC, 1916. Ross, NICNT (London), 1954. Replaced. Sidebottom, NCB. Tasker, Tyndale, 1956, replaced. Vlachos, EGGNT, 2013. Williams, CBC.