Understanding James

Writer's note: I am supposed to post this on a Facebook thread, but it's beyond 8,000 characters so FB forbid me. But Because I do not want to waste all that I have written, I'm putting it on my blog and will just paste the link on the thread later. :)


James 2:14-26 is truly an interesting and controversial passage. In order to understand it more clearly, it's good to remember the historical context of the letter. It was written by James, the brother of Jesus and a leader of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). He addressed it to the "twelve tribes scattered among the nations (v.1)." The "twelve tribes" obviously refer to the 12 Tribes of Israel, thus, James was writing to all the Jewish Christians who are scattered all over the known world at the time. We know that the recipients are Christians from James 2:1 and 5:7-8.

These two information are very telling: 1) The Letter is written for Jewish Christians and 2) the recipients are Christians already.

Being Jewish Christians, it is important to note that these people whom James is writing to came from a faith system that is entirely based on the Law or good works. Jews think that by observing the Law, they will be able to gain their salvation.

This belief is exactly what Paul was trying to answer in his letter to the Romans. Note in Romans 3:20, Paul categorically states: "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his (God's) sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin."

Paul clarified to Jewish Christians in Rome (the same category of people James is writing to) that they will not be declared righteous or holy or worthy of God's salvation by observing the Law or fulfilling all the good works or the do's and dont's of the written code.

Instead, the Law was put in effect by God so that "we become conscious of sin." That is, by having the Law, we are supposed to realize that we cannot reach God by our own merit. In a more practical level, we can ask, "If I can be saved by my good works, how much good works do I need to do in order to be counted worthy by God?"

Or if we can be more simplistic and assume that we only have the 10 Commandments to follow, can we honestly say that we are able to fulfill each and every commandment from the moment of our birth to the time of our death? This is to be the standard because James himself says in James 2:10, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it."

He pointed out that even if we are able to fulfill much of the Law or the 10 Commandments, even if we can do considerable amount of good works, if we fail in even just one or we sin even just once, it's as if we have broken each and every law.

This is the heavy burden on the shoulders of the Jews in the past. Each person who decides to attempt to reach God by way of good works, also puts on his/her shoulder the impossible task of fulfilling the entire Law using his/her own strength as a human being.

Actually, if we consult Isaiah 64:6, we will even be confronted by a more glaring truth. The verse states, "All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags" to God. Filthy rags here in the original Hebrew language refers to used sanitary napkins. That's how dirty our righteous acts are in the sight of God.

But why does He abhor our good works? Why does God see our righteous acts as filthy rags? The answer goes back to Genesis. The moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God, they took upon themselves a "sinful nature." From that moment on until this present time, "the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin... (Galatians 3:22)."

Because of this, all that we do, even the righteous acts in the sight of men, are being tainted or marred by our sinful nature. That's why when God looks at our good works, He cannot accept them because they are polluted by sin. This is His attitude because "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5)."

We can have this illustration. We compare our good works to a bottle of mineral water. Then, we compare ourselves with the sinful nature to a rusty pipe. The good works in themselves are good, perfect and clean. But when we, sinful men and women (rusty pipes) do the good works, that is, we pour the pure water through the rusty pipe, the once clean water or perfect good work becomes polluted. We can no longer drink the water because of the rust. In the same way, God can no longer accept the good work because it is contaminated by sin.

We see, then, that God does not want tons and tons of good works because all these will just be contaminated by our sinful nature. Instead, He desires that we, rusty pipes, be cleansed. He wants to get rid of our sinful nature so that the good works that we do can be acceptable to Him.

How can we be cleansed of this sinful nature? Or in the words of Paul in Romans 7:24, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"

Jesus has an answer. When He was talking to Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, Jesus categorically stated, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (or born from above) (John 3:3)." Jesus is not saying that unless we become members of a born-again group, we will not see His kingdom. Not at all.

Instead, He emphasized that we need to be reborn spiritually because this is the only way we can start all over. This is the only way for us to get rid of the sinful nature of the past and and acquire an new, clean and holy nature. This truth becomes clearer in Jesus' repetition in vv. 5-6, "“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit."

To be born of water simply means to be cleansed and purified from sin as in Ezekiel 36:24-27. And to be born of the Spirit means to acquire a new spiritual nature/standing in God... to become righteous in God's sight. We need to be spiritually reborn to get rid of the sinful nature.

How can this be done? Paul continued on his discussion in Romans 3:21-22, "But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe."

He is saying that the right way of gaining righteousness, the right way of acquiring a new spiritual nature, the right way of being reborn was finally revealed. Righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.

Notice how Paul excluded works in his answer. He is echoing Ephesians 2:8-9 all over again. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast."

Now, you may be thinking, "So does this mean that even if I sit idly in my room, lie down in my bed all my life and do nothing, as long as I have faith in Jesus, I am saved?"

We have to continue with verse 10, "For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." God has prepared good works for those who will be saved because these are the evidences of their new nature. But again, the good works are not the means to acquire the new nature. Instead, they are the results of the new nature. A person who possess saving faith in Jesus will prove his/her salvation by doing the good works which God has prepared in advance for him/her to do.

Jesus has this same point in mind when He warned people about false prophets: "Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:16-20)."

A truly saved person will bear good fruit. It is a contradiction to see claiming Christians drowning in a lifestyle of sin. All they have may be lip-service, a faith that's only skin deep, unable to save.

This is also the entire point of James 2. James is warning the Christians to examine if they really have saving faith in Jesus. If they do, this faith should lead to visible products like the fruit of the Spirit and good deeds.

I know that we all desire to please God through our works of kindness to the poor, compassion for the needy, love for the orphans, care for the sick among others. But bear in mind that Hebrews 11:6 says, "And without faith it is impossible to please God..."

This is so, because good works done by a person who is not yet saved by his/her faith in Jesus Christ are like filthy rags for they are marred by sin.

Finally, when we turn to the most famous passage in the Bible, we are also exhorted that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes (puts their faith, trusts in, surrenders to) in him (Jesus) shall not perish but have eternal life."

I pray that these things will be of help to everyone. :)
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