Savoring Jesus in James
Martin Luther, the Reformer who famously (and unknowingly) ignited the Protestant Reformation by nailing his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, found solace in Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone in Christ alone. The gospel of Christ overwhelmed the German monk, and it transformed him into an ardent gospel enthusiast. Luther began to proclaim the gospel in every book that he wrote and in every sermon that he preached. He loved the good news of Jesus’s perfect life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection on behalf of sinners. The gospel was his lifeblood, which is why so many contemporary preachers (including me) love to read and quote Martin Luther.
If we agree with Luther, and more importantly Jesus and Paul (Luke 24:27, 24:44–47; 1 Corinthians 2:2; Colossians 1:28), we have to approach every text in the Scriptures with Jesus and his gospel in view. We cannot bypass the cross on the way to practical application or imperatives. But Luther’s love for the gospel did not keep him from misunderstanding one book of the New Testament. To Luther, this book seemed apathetic to the gospel. The letter of James appeared like a treatise on good deeds for hard workers rather than a letter of good news for weary souls. In the preface of his translation of the New Testament, Luther wrote, “St. James’s epistle is really a right strawy epistle, compared to these others [Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, and 1 John], for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” Luther rejected James because he found the words of the Lord’s half-brother lacking in the Jesus department. But was Luther right? Is James a New Testament letter with no Jesus? No gospel?
At the risk of speaking out against one of the greatest theologians and preachers the Church has ever known, I cannot help but to push back on Luther’s assertion and argue for Christ as the key to the book of James in the same way that Christ is the key that unlocks the entire Bible. But how does one preach Christ crucified while working through a practical, imperative-laden book like the letter of James? Can we uphold the gospel and remain faithful to James’s intent, something Luther did not find very likely?
Three reminders will pave the way:
Remember Biblical Theology
The Spirit of God did not give the Scriptures in their entirely in one place and time. He revealed the Bible progressively. Approaching every text as one piece in a progressively revealed unit will help interpreters understand where a passage fits within the grand narrative of the Bible. Many biblical scholars argue that the Scriptures follow the pattern of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. Using this framework, we see that James shows Christians how to live a gospel-centered life as new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). Even though he does not mention the name of Christ often in his letter (Jas 1:1), James teases out what it means to live a life transformed by the gospel. How does the good news of the gospel impact us daily? How do we live as new creations in a fallen world? James seeks to show us. As the New Testament Wisdom Literature, James works out a life of covenant faithfulness in a similar manner than Proverbs does in the Old Testament. James provides quite a few practical exhortations, but all of these fit within the biblical theological framework of the rest of the Bible, which means that exhortations to godly living flow out of a transformed heart. The gospel fuels the practical applications of James.
Remember Systematic Theology
Systematic Theology takes the teaching of the Scriptures and places it within digestible categories. In James, the author deals with the idea of false faith. Essentially, James argues that false faith is a pseudo faith that produces no works, but true faith is transforming. True faith leads to works that please God (Ephesians 2:10; James 2:17). Compiling the rest of the Bible’s teaching on the manner of salvation will allow the theological category of conversion and sanctification to inform the way we interpret James. Knowing the rest of the Bible’s teaching of the relationship of faith and works protects us from isolating James from the rest of the Bible. Systematic Theology allows Scripture to interpret Scripture. Works are not the basis for anyone’s standing before God. We are not declared righteous because of what we do, but rather because of the righteousness of Christ imputed to our accounts (à la Paul in Romans 5:1). However, the one who has been declared righteous will do good works. James shows no patience for those who claim Jesus is Lord but deny his lordship in the way they live. Systematic categories provide helpful boundaries for understanding the nature of James’s argument.
Reading James with an intuitive eye toward Jesus will illuminate the way you read the book. The applications in James are possible to obey because of the Spirit’s presence in the life of the believer, and imperfect obedience should not be praised. However, no one can perfectly obey James’s commands any more than the Israelites could obey the Law of Moses. But even in our failure, we have one who perfectly obeyed on our behalf. Tame the tongue, James says. Yes, really, do it! But remember there’s only one who always spoke in a sinless manner. Seek wisdom from above! Yes, do it, James argues. But remember the one who is our wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:30). “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door” (James 5:9; ESV). Yes, by God’s grace, walk in obedience, but also remember that the Judge is also the one who was willingly judged for you. Simply remembering Jesus as we read the letter of James will free us to allow our minds and hearts to make Christ-centered connections in James. He is the one who perfectly obeyed for us, and now through his Spirit’s presence in our lives we can follow his lead.
Luther said, “In my preaching, I take pains to treat a verse of Scripture, to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.’”[i] Good advice for preachers. When working through a book like James, let the Spirit-inspired words of James speak. Yet Luther also said of the faithful preacher, “He should lead [his hearers] to the well that is to the cross of Christ, then he will certainly be right and cannot fail.” Preachers will do well do heed Luther’s advice on both fronts. Stay faithful to the text, but always get to Christ. I would add to Luther’s exhortation to preach Christ…yes, even in James.
[i] Patrick Ferry, “Martin Luther on Preaching: Promises and Problems of the Sermon as a Source of Reformation History and as an Instrument of the Reformation,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 54 (1990): 273.