The First Epistle or Real Faith


The epistle of James presents a number of difficulties to many Christians regarding the subjects of law, justification, faith and salvation. These difficulties are largely the fruit of their own making. Great and good men of the past have even called James a ‘man of straw’ because they thought that James’s view of justification contradicted that of Paul. Some have even gone as far as to doubt the epistle’s place in the canon of Scripture. In a moment, we will let the epistle speak for itself!

   What passes for Christianity in much of the western world has no place with James. An academic assent of the mind to the basic truths of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ and nothing more would meet with his withering retort "The demons even believe" to which he adds the solemn words "and tremble" (James 2: 19). Yes, demons believe but with them there is no moral change. Their works continue to be evil. Too many people today claim to be under the authority of the Lord yet go on much as they did previously. At best salvation and Christianity are to them little more than the ticket to heaven. Their lives are part and parcel of this world. To such James would say "Adulteresses, know ye not that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore is minded to be [the] friend of the world is constituted enemy of God" (James 4: 4). You are either the friend of the world or, like Abraham, the "Friend of God" (James 2: 23). You cannot be both. In this connection, it is sobering to note that this epistle is the only one that speaks of hell (see James 3: 6). So, who was this James?

The Writer

To answer, turn to another epistle, the last one in the NT, whose author describes himself as "Jude, bondman of Jesus Christ, and brother of James" (Jude 1: 1). Clearly, Jude does this to identify himself as one not well known with one who is well known, namely James. This can only be the James that we read of in Acts 12: 17; 15: 13; 21: 18; 1 Cor. 15: 7; Gal. 1: 19; 2: 9 and who held a prominent place in Jerusalem. He was the half–brother of the Lord Jesus according to the flesh (see Matt. 13: 55; Mark 6: 3) and, like Jude his brother, was unconverted before the Lord’s death (see John 7: 5). He could not be the James who was the brother of the apostle John, for that James was martyred very early (see Acts 12: 2). Many think that he was "James the [son] of Alphaeus" (Matt. 10: 3) since Luke describes one of the Twelve as "Judas [brother] of James" (Luke 6: 16—Jude being a contracted form of Judas). However, if this were the case, then both James and Jude would be apostles and there would be no need for Jude to describe himself in relation to James, for being an apostle, he would be well known himself. Finally, though not an apostle, James could have drawn attention to the fact that he was once the Lord’s half–brother but instead he calls himself the Lord’s slave: "James, bondman of God and of [the] Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1: 1). This is our author, but what about his epistle and to whom did he write?

Those Addressed

The general view of biblical scholars who accept the inspiration of James is that it is the earliest epistle in the NT. The present writer sees no reason to differ from this view as it is amply supported by the internal evidence. The problems that many have with the book largely stem from the failure to realise the significance of the company to whom James wrote. It was not written to Christians as such, nor even to Jews professing Christ (as with Hebrews and Peter’s epistles). Instead, it was written "to the twelve tribes which [are] in the dispersion" (James 1: 1)—that is, Israel complete according to God although scattered abroad. The nation of Israel is God’s earthly people: "And who is like thy people, like Israel, the one nation in the earth that God went to redeem to be a people to himself, and to make himself a name, and to do for them great things and terrible" (2 Sam. 7: 23; see also Deut. 7: 6; 14: 2; 1 Chron. 17: 21). As such, Israel has a unique place in the ways of God on earth. In keeping with this, the setting in James is earth, not heaven, and time not eternity. When James wrote, Israel had not been set aside (see Rom. 11: 15, 22) and the nation as a whole was still regarded as the people of God. In addressing the twelve tribes, James therefore takes them up on national ground, whether believing or not, and speaks to them as being all still under law. This is borne out by the history given to us in the book of Acts, for while there was no obligation for Gentile converts to Christ to keep the law (see Acts 15: 24), Jewish converts had not ceased to be Jews and therefore still observed the law (and were often zealous in doing so—see Acts 21: 20). The mixed character (believers and unbelievers) of those written to explains why there is no salutation from God as Father nor the Lord Jesus Christ and just the single word "greeting" (James 1: 1)—the shortest salutation in the NT. It also explains the later exhortation "Cleanse [your] hands, sinners, and purify [your] hearts, ye double–minded" (James 4: 8)—a command unique in the epistles. Again, those who had believed on Jesus as the Messiah had not yet been separated from the synagogue but still met there, even though they are viewed as an assembly having elders (see Acts 19: 8, 9; James 2: 2; 5: 14). Elsewhere James tells his readers that "the coming of the Lord is drawn nigh" (see 5: 8), but there is no evidence of the truth of Paul’s earliest epistle of the Lord as "our deliverer from the coming wrath" (1 Thess. 1: 10). Rather James views the Lord as coming as a judge: "Behold, the judge stands before the door" (James 5: 9). Again, the singing is just in "psalms" (v13); the addition of "hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5: 19; see Col. 3: 16) came later.

The Links with the Sermon on the Mount

The so–called Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5–7 was given by Christ to Jewish disciples, not Christians, and sets out the principles of the kingdom on earth as prophesied in the OT. It did not set aside the law as Matt. 5: 19; 7: 12 prove. That kingdom was still a possibility in the early days of Christianity (see Acts 3: 19, 20) and in keeping with this James asks, "Has not God chosen the poor as to the world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to them that love him?" (James 2: 5). That James wrote early is again seen by the simple fact that there are echoes of the Sermon on the Mount throughout his epistle. "Complain not one against another, brethren, that ye be not judged. Behold, the judge stands before the door" (James 5: 9) correlates with "Judge not, that ye may not be judged" (Matt. 7: 1). Again, is not "But let endurance have [its] perfect work, that ye may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1: 4) reminiscent of "Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt.5: 48)? The reader will find other comparisons in James 5: 1–3 with Matt. 6: 19, 20, James 1: 11 with Matt. 6: 30 and James 1: 6 with Matt. 7: 7–11. As already said, this kingdom, set out in Matthew, was still a possibility for Israel when James wrote his epistle.

The Time of the Epistle and its Theme

One of the great blunders of interpretation in the epistles is the failure to realise that the truth was not revealed all at once. While we have no certain knowledge of the exact date of each epistle, their contents provide sufficient information as to their general order of writing. From this it is clear that the full truth of the Assembly as the one body was not given until we come to the later epistles of Ephesians and Colossians. However, when James wrote, Israel was still regarded as the people of God and remained under the law. Hence to read "So that, my brethren, ye also have been made dead to the law by the body of the Christ" (Rom. 7: 4) into James causes confusion. With the exception of James 5: 13, 14, those written to were addressed purely in the light of the ministry given by the Lord concerning the kingdom when He was here on earth. There is certainly nothing that relates to Paul’s later ministry.

   What then is the subject that dominates this epistle and to which James returns to again and again? We do not have to go far before we read of "the proving of your faith" (James 1: 3). This is the essence of the letter, namely, that real faith is never alone (notice the word only in v22 and James 2: 24). Faith always has an inseparable companion called works. Now where is faith proved? It is proved on earth, not in heaven. It is proved in time, not eternity. To whom must faith be proved? It is men that need proof. God does not need the proof of anything for if He did, He would not be God. God alone sees faith. Men cannot see faith, but they can take account of the works that prove that faith is there. In this connection, it is important to understand that faith is not embodied in what a person may or not say. James has a lot to say about the tongue and its use in speaking, teaching, complaining, confessing and swearing (see James 1: 19, 26; 2: 12, 14, 16, 18; 3: 1, 2, 5, 6, 8–10; 4: 11–13; 5: 9, 12, 16), much of which is far from complementary! People say ‘Actions speak louder than words’ and this truth is brought out vividly in this epistle. However, James not only speaks of the proving of faith, but also that "the proving of your faith works endurance" and "let endurance have [its] perfect work, that ye may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1: 3, 4). These concepts of perfection, completion and wholeness (or their lack) occur again and again (see James 1: 4, 15, 17, 22, 25; 2: 10, 17, 20, 22, 24, 26; 3: 2, 3, 6) and contrast sharply with the shallowness of so much of that which claims the name of the Lord today.

Salvation, Justification and Righteousness

There are four references in the epistle to salvation (see James 1: 21; 2: 14; 4: 12; 5: 20). Now in considering these, it is important to realise that of the 500 or so occasions in the Bible where salvation is spoken of, the vast majority have to do with earth not heaven and with time not eternity. In the first reference in James, we read of "the implanted word, which is able to save your souls" (James 1: 21) where the "implanted word" has been done by the sovereign work of God ("according to his own will"—v18) and the resulting salvation is eternal. By contrast, in the last reference to salvation (see James 5: 20), the action is clearly that of man (see a similar Scripture in 1 Pet. 4: 8) and has to do with his present position on the earth. As for James 4: 12, the salvation (and destruction) referred to there is general for it is the action of God Himself as lawgiver. This leaves us with "What [is] the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him?" (James 2: 14). Carefully notice the wording of the question. It is not ‘if any one have faith, can faith save him?’ for that would have demanded an affirmative response. What has been left out are the words "say" and "but have not works". It is one claiming to have faith ("say") but not having the works to substantiate his claim. The actual question posed by James is "What [is] the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him?" (v14). This sort of question clearly demands a negative answer. Who is this person saying it to? To the world, to men. Men and the world cannot see faith, only the works generated by faith. Many understand James 2: 14 to mean that a faith without works cannot be a faith that provides eternal salvation, but while this is certainly true (see Eph. 2: 10), the context of the passage is faith and salvation before men. It is the works of faith (see the examples in vs. 15, 16) that distinguish the believer in the world and, so separate and preserve him from it. I stress this because salvation in Scripture always involves separation, irrespective of its particular aspect. Thus, the first time the word salvation is used to describe a past event (Gen. 49: 18 is future) is when God separated Israel from Pharaoh, the Egyptians and Egypt at the Red Sea (see Ex. 14: 13) and thus saved them. The same pattern is seen in the rest of the Bible—whether for time or eternity, salvation invariably involves separation. In James 2: 14, as in Ex. 14: 13, it is salvation as regards one’s position before men as in the world but as distinct and separate from it. God alone sees faith; men cannot see faith—only the outcome of faith, namely works. In the view of men, the distinction between believer and unbeliever is seen by works. If there is no distinction, there is no salvation. Following this, James adds the matters of justification and righteousness in vs. 21, 23, 24, 25, not (as you might think) as a result of faith, but of works. Now justification is simply a declaration of righteousness. Here, if it were of faith it would be before God, but as it is of works (that is what is done), it is what is apparent to men. For justification and righteousness, James gives the examples of Abraham and Rahab and what they did. Faith must always have its inseparable companion of works otherwise "faith without works is dead" (vs. 20, 26; see also v17)—just "as the body without a spirit is dead" (v26). The concept of righteousness naturally leads on to the subject of law and how James deals with it.

The Law of Liberty

The word law occurs 10 times in the epistle (James 1: 25; 2: 8, 9, 10, 11, 12; 4: 11, 4: 12). Ten is the number of responsibility (as in the ten commandments) and when James wrote, Israel as a whole was still under the responsibility of the law. However, there were those of the nation who had believed on Jesus as the Messiah and had been born again. To these James refers when he says, "According to his own will begat he us by the word of truth, that we should be a certain first–fruits of his creatures" (James 1: 18). If faith is real, then it will have been preceded by a work of God in the soul. While essential for all men, it was most applicable to those whom James was writing to, for the Jews made much of their natural birth (see Matt. 3: 9; John 8: 33) and tended to rest upon it. Now in new birth we are "partakers of [the] divine nature" (2 Pet. 1: 4) and this new nature delights in the will of God—as in "I delight in the law of God according to the inward man" (Rom. 7: 22). Law applied to an unregenerate man is a law of bondage but applied to one begotten of God it becomes a law of liberty. This is not an external law like that of Sinai. In James 1: 25 and James 2: 12 there are no definite articles before the word law and in Greek this makes it characteristic, indicating the nature rather than what is specific or definite. As such the word law simply means an unvarying principle. To borrow an example from another: "If I tell my child to remain in the house when he wants to go out, he might obey, but it is not a law of liberty to him: he restrains his will. But if I afterwards say, Now go where you want to go, he obeys, and it is a law of liberty, because his will and the command are the same—they run together". This is what James refers to when he says, "But he that fixes his view on [the] perfect law, that of liberty, and abides in [it]" (James 1: 25). Note the words "abides in it" for the believer will be judged, not by the ten words of Sinai but "by [the] law of liberty" (James 2: 12)—that is, how well we have answered to the will of God. But what of the other references to law in the epistle?

The Second Commandment

To understand those references, let us consider an incident in the Gospels. In Mark 12: 28–34, the Lord was asked which commandment was the first and, in response, He quoted from Deut. 6: 4, 5. He then added "And a second like it [is] this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is not another commandment greater than these" (Mark 12: 31). For this second commandment He quoted Lev. 19: 18. Neither quotation was from the words of Sinai in Ex. 20. To this, His questioner replied, saying "Right, teacher; thou hast spoken according to [the] truth. For he is one, and there is none other besides him; and to love him with all the heart, and with all the intelligence, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self, is more than all the burnt–offerings and sacrifices". The Lord, in response, "seeing that he had answered intelligently, said to him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God" (Mark 12: 32–34). In Matthew’s account the Lord added "on these two commandments the whole law and the prophets hang" (Matt. 22: 40).

   It is this second commandment that James fixes on throughout his epistle by firstly showing with an example that "respect of persons" (James 2: 1) infringes "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (vs. 1–8). This is what he calls "[the] royal law" saying "If indeed ye keep [the] royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well" (v8). It is the royal law, not only because the Lord linked it to the kingdom saying to His questioner "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God" (Mark 12: 34, my emphasis) but because all the laws of Sinai that refer to men are governed or ruled by it and thus subservient to it. If a man loves his neighbour as himself, he will not steal from him, bear false witness against him etc. James applies this royal law a second time in chapter 4 saying "Speak not against one another, brethren. He that speaks against [his] brother, or judges his brother, speaks against [the] law and judges [the] law. But if thou judgest [the] law, thou art not doer of [the] law, but judge. One is the lawgiver and judge, who is able to save and to destroy: but who art thou who judgest thy neighbour?" (vs. 11, 12). Once again, these words recall what the Lord taught regarding the kingdom in Matt. 7: 1: "Judge not, that ye may not be judged". James does not refer to the first commandment anywhere in his epistle because that is Godward whereas the ministry in his epistle is manward and relates to the expression of faith in works before man.


Failure to take account of those to whom this first epistle in the NT is addressed is what causes many of the problems for today’s readers. James wrote to the dispersed of Israel, who remained under the law and were still viewed as the people of God on earth. This is witnessed to by the many indirect references to the Sermon on the Mount—teaching addressed to Jews only and in view of the kingdom on earth according to OT prophecy. Despite this, the challenges that James throws down are relevant today and apply to all who claim the name of Christ, Gentile as well as Jew. This is because the essence of the epistle is the reality of faith and the consequences that flow out from that in our lives down here—for the setting is time and earth rather than eternity and heaven. Thus, if the actions of one who professes belief do not correspond with what he says, then his witness before men is valueless, and a question mark must be placed over the reality of his faith. It is very sad to see Christians not only in the world but behaving as if they were of the world and it is to be feared that where there are no works then all they really have is just words.