This article is part of the Why Study the Book? series.
An Oft-Cited, Yet Challenging Book
Of all the books in the New Testament, James is perhaps the one that gives Christians the most difficulty. We simply don’t quite know what to do with it!
On the one hand, James’s letter is certainly one of the most quoted books of the entire Bible. It’s filled with famous phrases that often make their way into Christian conversation:
- “Faith produces steadfastness.”
- “God cannot be tempted.”
- “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.”
- “Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
- “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
- “Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
- “Faith apart from works is dead.”
- “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”
On the other hand, James is also full of passages that have left Christians scratching their heads. Does James have it out for rich people? What is the point of anointing a sick person with oil? What is the prayer of faith? Is James teaching that if you just have enough faith, God will always heal?
Then there are even larger, and more pointed questions. Why doesn’t James talk very much about the cross? Does he understand the gospel the same way the rest of the New Testament writers do? And isn’t he explicitly arguing with Paul in chapter 2 about the relationship between faith, works, and salvation?
The Key Verse
Those are all important questions. It helps, however, to realize that the primary message James is driving in this book is that a Christian’s faith in the gospel should work itself out in a life of obedience. As he says in James 1:22, believers in Jesus should not just hear the word and believe it, but they should also do what it says!
The gospel of Jesus—which James understands deeply and affirms completely—results in a new life of obedience when a person believes. That’s James’s message, and when we understand it, his book will no longer be confusing to us, but rather a stirring exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called!
James is an intensely practical book, filled with exhortations to Christians about the way they should live their lives now that they have been given new life in Jesus. It is filled with allusions to and quotations of the teachings of Jesus, and it includes more imperatives per word than any other New Testament book. For these reasons, James has been called “the Proverbs of the New Testament.”
James is therefore highly relevant to the Christian life. Unlike many of the other books of the New Testament, James’s aim is not to give a theological presentation of the gospel. Rather, he writes his book to those who already believe the gospel, and his goal is to help them live faithfully as followers of Jesus.
There are many different and seemingly disconnected themes in James—perseverance under trial, riches and poverty, wisdom, the danger of the tongue, prayer, faith and works—but what ties them all together is James’s desire to take the teaching of Jesus and apply it to the Christian life.