James the straw apostle

Posted: October 13, 2011 by J in General

We evangelicals don’t seem to know what to do with the NT letter of James. Luther famously called it ‘the epistle of straw’. He actually questioned its place in the canon, because he didn’t find any gospel in it.

Some evangelicals get keen on James, but they tend to be the active, ministry minded types who frown on the slackness of the rest of us and like the way James gives us a lashing. The not-very-gracious types, in other words. Other evangelicals just try to avoid the letter.

What is lacking is Christians who are able to integrate James into their gospel faith, rather than doing a Jeckyl and Hyde, grace and law kind of split personality Christian act.

This stalemate situation has persisted for a long time. Here at The Grit we’re suspicious of this sort of thing. (We’re suspicious of many things).

Today I’m ready to question our problem with James. I’m just not convinced about it. The early church clearly felt ok about him – he’s in the canon. So what’s the problem these days?

Here’s what I’ve noticed: when I read James, I keep getting reminded of Luke’s Gospel. It seems to share many of the same preoccupations. After spending the last two years with my head in Luke-Acts, I am finding Luke-style gospel material all through James.

For example:

– the letter is written to the poor, the weak and the oppressed, facing painful trials: exactly the people Jesus includes in his new covenant when he comes down from the mountain (Luke 6). “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom …? ”

– these ones are to rejoice in being raised up by God (like in Luke 6:23), and set their hope on the crown of life that follows the painful trial. I.e. In James’s view discipleship takes part in Jesus’ story of death then resurrection. It is gospel shaped.

– James accordingly warns the rich and powerful and those who side with them that they are on the wrong side of the kingdom: the very people warned by Jesus (see Luke’s sermon on the mount, Luke 6).

– participating in Jesus’ kingdom is about siding instead with the poor and despised. This is of the essence of Christian faith: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, keeping oneself from being polluted by the (power-loving) world. ” Jesus’ habit of caring for these ones is emphasised throughout Luke-Acts: he saw this as the heart of his calling, for his gospel was ‘for the poor’ (Luke 4: 18f).

–  James refers to something Christians look at, which he calls ‘the royal law, the law of freedom’. Whose law do you think that might be? The king’s? Freedom is what Jesus announces when he comes as King of Israel, in Luke (Luke 4:18ff). Luke presents Jesus’ kingdom as  kind of new torah or law, a new mode of living (Luke 6). James describes the gospel in these same terms. The royal law of freedom is a brilliant way to describe the gospel of Jesus to a Jewish audience.

-here is James’s take on Christian life, in his opening paragraphs: “By his will he gave us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” In other words, God is restoring and renewing the whole creation by the gospel of Christ, and the church is the beginning of that future, now. Just like in Peter’s sermon, Acts 3:19-21.  NT eschatology is very strong in James.

– the gospel then is seen as God’s powerful word of salvation, unless it is resisted. Resisting it is, of course, what Israel did, rejecting King Jesus when he arrived at his city. In its nationalistic fervour and aggression Israel refused to receive his vision for a kingdom of peace (Luke 19:42). It preferred the path of strife and war, which it took soon afterwards. So James says “Therefore, get rid of all the impurity and abundance of strife by gentleness. Receive the word planted in you, which can save you…do not merely listen to the word…”

– so James’s gospel is a call to Jewish Christians to embrace the peace that Jesus preached. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  20 because our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

– for James the gospel word is deeply transformative. It brings change to all who receive it: “he gave us birth through the word of truth”. It effects new creation.

That’s chapter 1. The rest of the letter is pretty much the outworking of those themes.

– You can’t profess faith in Jesus and favour the rich, and neglect the poor. Faith that does that is dead. (ch.2)

– The peacemaking of the kingdom of God involves transforming the tongue, so that it no longer creates strife but friendship. (ch.3-4)

– The poor, oppressed, sick and troubled need perseverance to inherit the kingdom when the Lord returns. The rich will then be overthrown. (ch.5)

I’m not suggesting Lukan authorship of James! I’m suggesting that they are singing from the same song-sheet. Like Luke, James is totally on about understanding what God is doing bringing his kingdom through Jesus. He calls people to participate in that by truly embracing the gospel of Jesus. He’s on about letting that gospel do its transforming work so that we take part in the renewal of the creation. He especially challenges Jews about the ways they tend to resist this gospel. Just like Luke.

So anyone who doesn’t like James had better be prepared to deal with Luke also. And he wrote one quarter of the NT!


Why do we stumble at James? Why can’t we find the gospel there? Seems to me we’ve got a straw man, rather than a straw epistle. Anyone who can’t hear the gospel in this epistle, has a problem.

Martin Luther’s disappointment with James casts some serious doubt over the great reformer’s understanding of the gospel. And how about the church movement he sparked off (ours)?

  1. mike w says:

    ok, so I’ll get round to my james post soon, but there is one thing I would add, and that is all of this is grounded in God’s generosity in James.
    He is the giver who gives without reproach. He is the source of all good gifts, in whom there is not a shadow of change. His gift of life by the word of truth should lead us to trust that he will give again and again. He gives wisdom for life and will give the crown of life at the end. I think this is at the heart of James use of Abraham, having recieved from God, he trusted God to provide. This drives the eschatology, since our world is full of evil, we can either write that into the character of God ‘god tests me’ or hope for the return of the giver.
    The whole book can be summed up, you do not have because you do not ask. At the heart is mercy and light, all the reprimands are about people not reflecting that mercy and light, and so showing themselves to be darkness.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Hadn’t realised you were planning one, brother! Apologies. Great comment though. The Father of light from whom every good gift comes down, the faithful Father in whom is no change.

    We so often say ‘God is sending this test/trial to me.’ But, as you point out, James pushes us the other way. God is the rescuer from trials. Instead of resignation and stoicism, our trials should provoke heart-felt prayer for deliverance, ‘with loud cries and tears, to the one who can save us from death’ (cf Hebrews 5:7). To our kind and generous Father.

    Nice one Wellsie.

  3. mike w says:

    we are working through James at church. In the evenings, the youth minister and I are kind of team teaching, so we get an hour together each week to kick ideas around. James is a great letter, full of transforming mercy.
    After one of the weeks, our smallest congregation spontaneously (over morning tea) donated $1000 to a member of the community (not church) diagnosed with terminal cancer.
    They rejoiced to do it too.
    James rocks

  4. mike w says:

    Thanks for the Luke bits.
    We have been reading the sermon on the mount with James, but the Luke connection is almost clearer.

    We’ve also made a deliberate strategy of using parallels in Paul for every passage, so that when we get to the end of chapter two, no one is thinking ‘Paul and James disagree’

    • Jonathan says:

      I can see you’ve given a lot of thought to this James series. Esp. to our evangelical problem with the thing. Nice. It’s time James got rehabilitated. I agree, it rocks.

      I like your strategy of making links with Paul. Can’t help thinking of Galatians 2:10:

      They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do.

      The cool thing about the Luke connection is that the themes are in the narrative throughout Luke-Acts. It’s Luke’s big picture stuff that resonates so well with James.

  5. I think James confronts our way of presenting the gospel and our understanding of the interaction between grace and the good life.

    When we present the gospel, we try and convince people they are only worth two cents, and then we give them a dollar. We call that grace. First they need to know they don’t deserve it, then we give it to them.

    I reckon James (and Jesus) just walks up to strangers and gives them a million bucks.
    As we receive such an extravagant gift, we know we don’t deserve it, in fact we are convicted of our own lack of mercy and generosity and grace. God speaks and acts toward us with the law of mercy, the law of freedom. That is his way of being, and as we accept it, it becomes our way of being too.

    • Jonathan says:

      Yeah, why do we feel that need to persuade people they are undeserving before they can receive God’s grace? We don’t behave like that with gifts or blessings we ourselves give. Are we trying to protect God from something? Being taken for granted maybe? i reckon he can take care of himself without our protection.

      And yeah, it makes sense that we might learn the ways of grace from experiencing God’s grace. But it’s going to be pretty hard to learn if God’s grace has come to us in such an ungracious way!

  6. I’ll post the sermon when I can whip up a full text version of what I actually said

  7. Dan W says:

    Sorry to butt in and add a comment which is way less thought through than yours, but…

    I used to think that the gospel basically told me how I was saved from the eternal implications of sin. Then I began to realise that actually Jesus saves me from the necessity of actually committing sin, today! I’m actually free to be a proper human the way I was always meant to be, and the way Jesus reveals. And that’s good news.

    I don’t hear that sort of thing preached often enough. But I think that’s part of where James is coming from. If you aren’t living the ‘free life’ then your faith in the generous Giver is dead. You’re not free.

  8. mike w says:

    very nice dan w.

  9. Mike Wells says:

    argh, that is an awesome title!!! Wish we got that before we started the series.

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