Is The Epistle of James Really all that Strawy?
I have had an uneasy relationship with the way application is typically communicated in evangelical preaching ever since the days I was drowning in depression and suicidal thoughts in the midst of the wreckage of my life and I had a notebook full of helpful steps and action points from years of Sunday sermons that when they mattered most helped the least.
So there’s that.
And out of the angst of the attractional church model and its heavy emphasis on “making the Bible relevant” and its promotion of a pragmatic Christianity, some in the “gospel-centered movement” have sometimes veered too much the other way, forgetting that to be gospel-centered does not mean to be law-avoiding. We are a people of polarization – we are on the pendulum swing. To avoid the attractional church’s cool legalism we end up unwittingly embracing a soft antinomianism.
It’s a bit like Martin Luther’s little parable about the drunken man on the horse, who, in order to avoid falling off one side, falls off the other. So that’s American evangelicalism: a drunken horseman.
The Scriptures commend the better way. A person made in the image of God born again into the image of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, bought and maintained by the gospel of grace and set free from the law of obedience and yet at the same time to the law of obedience in order to work and will according to God’s good pleasure.
Our Lord’s brother James gives us portraits of the gospel-centered Christian in his epistle. Like this one, for instance, in James 1:
My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. Because if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was. But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works—this person will be blessed in what he does.
If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself. Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
— James 1:19-27
It is the distinction between faith and works, and their relation to a sinner’s justification, which of course cornerstones Protestantism, by which we would mean biblical Christianity. And so the letter of James can feel a bit squirrel to us. Few preach it. Even fewer perhaps preach it well. Protestants wrestle with those stunningly direct words in James 2 about works making justification complete. Those of us who take gospel-centrality rather seriously, may feel keenly what Martin Luther meant when he called James’ letter “a right strawy epistle.” That was early in his ministry, and throughout his ministry he sometimes made negative remarks about the book, claiming that there was nothing of the gospel in it.
I don’t think that’s true, as I hope to show you shortly, but in any event, I think it may be helpful to read the book of James like it is the wisdom literature of the New Testament. Like Proverbs, for instance, James show us what the embodiment of gospel wisdom looks like, what a Spirit-driven followship of Jesus consists of.
In short, James’ appeal to works throughout the book is not a legalistic claim that justification is by works but that justification is authenticated by them – this is what I take him to mean by his use of the word “complete” in James 2.
And it’s a well-worn dictum now to understand the composite of the New Testament as teaching that we are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. “Faith without works,” as James says, “is dead.” Indeed it’s not really faith.
And here in chapter 1 he lays the foundation for the working dynamic in the rest of his book. His primary contrast in this passage is between the one who merely hears the word of God and the one who “does” it – a contrast between the hearer only and the doer.
v.22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only
How does one move from hearer to doer?
This is the question of biblical application. How do we “do application” in a way that is faithful to the Scriptures and representative of the biblical picture of obedience?
In other words, if we’re going to apply the word of God – in our preaching and teaching, and in our lives – what must we understand? At least three things:
1. Faithful application begins on the inside.
Notice that James’ initial focus isn’t purely behavioral. He’s referencing the doer’s character.
(v.19) My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger
These are behavioral traits, of course, but they have much more to do with the manifestation of a disposition than they do with practical application. He does go there, but not yet. He starts with what is on the inside. “An unwillingness to listen, a rashness to speak, a quickness to anger” – these come from (v.20) an internal anger opposed to the righteousness of God.
These qualities of character are in direct opposition also to the fruit of the Spirit, which includes things like gentleness, kindness, peace, patience, and self-control. I find it amazing how increasingly common it is today to see online and in our churches people claiming to defend the gospel who routinely demonstrate no character in step with that same gospel. Their ministry is all externals.
Faithful application, however, begins on the inside. With what? With, v. 21, the implanted word (received humbly).
In fact, “the word” is referenced 4 times in these verses: v.21, v.22, v.23, and v.25. The external that makes the biggest difference is the external word of God. The word from on high. The special revelation of the Scriptures breathed out by God and able to make us wise.
And so Paul says in Philippians 2:12-13, the salvation that we are to work out with fear and trembling has been worked in us by God. We work out what God has put in.
James here refers to the word of God like a seed planted in us that germinates. It’s referential to Jesus’ words about good trees bearing good fruit.
Faithful application begins with the spiritual nourishment of the word from outside put into us, not with good ideas generated on the inside that we work outwards. The heart must be right, or the works will be worthless.
By the way, this means for those of you who preach, if your weekly time with the Scriptures is purely for utilitarian use in your sermon, and not at the same time for personal nourishment in the Spirit, you are not a faithful doer of the word. We have enough preachers who use the word. What we need are preachers who believe it – who feed on it, who dwell in it, who ingest it. As Charles Spurgeon said:
Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expressions, or the historic facts; but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.
And then Spurgeon goes on to commend John Bunyan:
Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him.
Preacher, if I cut you, would you bleed bibline. If I stabbed you in the stomach, would the Scriptures spill out like guts?
As Paul writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of God dwell richly in you…”
Quick(ness) to listen, slow(ness) to speak, and slow(ness) to anger – These are character issues, not primarily skills. Which means James is commending our bringing our hearts first to the work of application.
Do you bring your heart to the word of God, or merely your minds?
If you’re not relating to Christ through his word as a real person in need of the grace you hope to deliver, but are constantly in “ministerial technology” mode you’ve (v.22) deceiv(ed) yourselves
Some ministers get so busy using the word, they never stop to see that they believe it.
Faithful application begins on the inside.
2. Faithful application emerges from the centering gospel.
The gospel is here in the text. It lies latent under the surface, like an aquifer of grace, similarly to the way grace runs under the fertile soil of Proverbs. I mean, look at v.18, right before our focus passage:
“By his own choice he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
Look at verse 18, Martin Luther!
And this grace keeps springing up through the ground in little bubbling brooks, as in vv.23-25.
James makes an observation about the hearer and the doer and their sense of identity.
(v.23-24) if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like someone looking at his own face in a mirror. For he looks at himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of person he was.
The kind of looking here is not a superficial looking, by the way. It is an “attentive kind of scrutiny.” This is not someone who’s not paying attention when the word is before their face. This is the people in your church services who are awake, alert, taking notes, singing the songs, shaking hands, sticking around to ask how people are doing, and then go home and live like God is worthy of 1 day a week’s attention.
James says “It’s like they’ve forgotten who they are.” They are living according to a different identity.
Doing flows from being. Who or what you believe yourself to be will direct how you live. So if you’ve been living a defeated, dreary, weary Christian life
To see ongoing change in what we do, we have to experience the ongoing change in who we are. And the law by itself cannot change who we are. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can do that.
The law on its own has only the power of condemnation. It shows us what to do and – make no mistake – it means for us to do it. But the power to obey can only come from the only thing the Bible calls power – the Holy Spirit working through the good news of Jesus Christ’s sinless life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection.
And if you are sending your people out every week to a war to fight driven only by commandments and no gospel, you send them out to fight a war that’s already over.
Don’t just tell them what to do for God; tell them who they are in Christ.
The gospel must be at the center of our efforts of obedience, at the center of our application, driving it and shaping it.
Get the mirror contrast from v.23 in v.25:
25 But the one who looks intently into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer who works—this person will be blessed in what he does.
Why do I say that the gospel is the center? Because this man commended by James doesn’t really stop looking. He doesn’t walk away from the word, he keeps staring at it. He “perseveres” in it. He’s “looking intently.” Kent Hughes points out that he word used here is the same one used twice in John chapter 20, to describe both Peter and Mary Magdalene bent over and looking into the empty tomb.
The fixation is on “the perfect law of freedom,” by which I think we can take James to mean the whole of the Scriptures, not just the law of commandments but the word of Christ – there could be no freedom without the word of Christ.
To call the law perfect is not simply to say it is itself perfect – though it is, because it reflects the very holiness of God – but to say that it has been perfected – completed, fulfilled – by the Son of God himself, who has come in the flesh to obey it perfectly. And to call this perfect law freedom is not to say that we are made free by our adherence to it, but that we are made free by its adherence TO US – indeed, to be justified by faith in Christ is not simply to receive the pardon for our sins but also to receive the imputation of the perfect righteousness of Christ.
The doer who is blessed is the one who perseveres in the word of freedom, who perseveres in the gospel.
And this is why the primary application point of the Christian sermon should be the invitation to “Repent and believe.” If you’re looking in the Bible for your homiletic, to see how they did “practical application” in their preaching, that’s the consistent application point – “repent.” Repent and believe.
Faithful application emerges from the centering gospel.
3. Faithful application terminates on God’s glory.
What makes the difference between a faithful doer and a legalistic doer? They’re both working. They’re both doing good works. But the faithful doer is working for the applause of God alone. The world offers no safe harbor in its fame, acclaim, or credentials.
In fact, this is the chief issue, I think, with the untamed tongues on social media. There is a need to promote or assert one’s self. So many of our social media soapboxers and bone-pickers claim to be concerned with God and the truth, but they don’t seem to take into account copious amounts of Scripture about what a Christlike disposition looks like.
James even says:
26 If anyone thinks he is religious without controlling his tongue, his religion is useless and he deceives himself.
Instead, he commends (v.27) “pure and undefiled religion before God the Father.”
And what are the chief application points of that? What are the 5 steps to that?
Why does James hold out widows and orphans as the objects of pure and undefiled religion? Because they have nothing to offer you. They can do nothing for you.
You can remind yourself of this vital truth by spending time with people who can do nothing for you.
On my visitation circuit I used to make a regular stop at the nursing home to see a woman named Nellie Fitzgerald. Nellie was a member of our church. She had no family in the church. Nobody knew if I was seeing her or not except Nellie herself. And she was in her 90s, blind in one eye, and constantly referred to me by my predecessor’s name. Even Nellie didn’t know I was seeing her!
But I would go and sit across from her chair which looked out a big window over the parking lot. And I’d read the Bible to her and ask her about her childhood and all sorts of things.
Do you want to invest in something that lasts? Give your time to people who can do nothing for you. They can’t fill a pew. They can’t fill the offering plate. They can’t talk you up to anybody. But they can remind you of the beauty and the bigness of Christ’s precious church.
One day the previous pastor let me know that Nellie likely only had a few days left. So I visited her that night. She didn’t look well. Slumped over, breathing with much labor, coughing, she welcomed me, but she didn’t recognize me. She began referring to conversations we hadn’t had, picking up trains of thought mid-stream that didn’t make any sense. I could see that she was going.
So I held her hand. I prayed for her. I read 1 Corinthians 15 to her, the whole long thing, and she sat in silence. When I was done, I said to her, “Jesus loves you and is proud of you, Nellie.” I told her that even though her body was weak, she was strong as Jesus inside. She looked at me and began reciting Psalm 23 perfectly, in the King James of course. When she was done, she recited it again. Then she said, “Jesus died for me. I love my Jesus.”
Sometimes I don’t know what “joy inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8) means, but at that moment I did. I had no words. So I just squeezed her hand gently and smiled at her through tears and sat there. That’s what you do in the presence of greatness.
Nellie passed away 3 days later.
No fanfare. No gold star for good pastoring.
In fact, I’m probably nullifying my treasure in heaven just telling you about it.
So why do it? Why visit widows and orphans, and why conduct any aspect of ministry that few will notice, that do not have an evidential ROI?
Because there are more important things than doing big things for God.
God’s glory is bigger than you.
And when we look at the perfect Doer of God’s will — the God-Man himself — we see that he spent an inordinate amount of time with people who could do nothing for him. He prioritized people in the margins, people with no social capital, no cultural currency, no clout, no power. He spent time with these kinds of people to the point that all the “important people” began to criticize him, accuse him, even hate him. That’s how invested in the “wrong sort” of people he was.
And thank God for that. Because that’s you and me.
So faithful application is not about self-improvement or self-actualization. Don’t tell your people that if they do steps 1-4 this week, they’ll have a successful life or a healthy marriage or a fat bank account or any other soft legalism quasi prosperity gospel. Tell them the gospel has set them free from working for God’s approval but to working for God’s glory.
If we obeyed for credit, we deem Christ’s sacrifice insufficient. But we don’t even get to take credit. The gospel empowers our works, so he gets the glory. As Paul writes, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.” They’re not even your ideas!
Let your light shine before men this way: that those who would see your good works would glorify not you but your Father in heaven.
Faithful application begins on the inside
Faithful applications emerges from the centering gospel
And faithful application terminates on the glory of God.