James 1

James 1  •  26 min. read  •  grade level: 8
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James writes then after this double manner. He says “a servant of God.” Clearly there we have a broad ground which even a Jew would respect. On the other hand, to “a servant of God” he adds, “and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here at once would spring up a divergence of feeling among them. The mass of Israelites would of course altogether repudiate such a service; but James writes of both. Observe he does not speak of himself as the brother of the Lord, although he was, and is so styled “the Lord’s brother” in the epistle to the Galatians. It seems needless to explain that the James who wrote this epistle was not the son of Zebedee; for he had fallen under the violence of Herod Agrippa long before this epistle was written—at a comparatively early date. I do not doubt that the writer is the one called “James the just,” and “the Lord’s brother”; but with all propriety, and with a beauty that we should do well to ponder and learn from, he here avoids calling himself the Lord’s brother. It was quite right that others should so designate him; but he calls himself “the servant,” not merely “of God,” but “of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He writes, as seen, to the twelve tribes scattered abroad, and sends them greeting. It is not the salutation that the Epistles of Paul and the other apostles have made so familiar to us, but exactly the form of salutation that was used in the famous epistle of Acts 15 from the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, who wrote to the Gentile assemblies to guard them from yielding to legalism. And as he was the person who gave the sentence, it is not without interest to see the link between what was written on that day, and what James writes here.
The object of the Spirit of God was to give a final summons by him who held a preeminent place in Jerusalem to the entire body of Israelites, wherever they might be. This is evident on the face of it. Nor is this an opinion, but what God says. We are so told expressly. Controversy here is, or ought to be, entirely out of the question. The Apostle James it is who lets us know that such was his object in writing. Accordingly the epistle savors of this. No doubt it is peculiar, but not more so in the New Testament than Jonah is in the Old. As a whole, you are aware that the prophets addressed themselves to the people of Israel. Jonah’s special mission was to Nineveh, to the most famous Gentile city of that day. Just as the Hebrew scriptures are not without this exception, so in the New Testament you have another exception. What could better convict the narrowness of man’s mind, who would like to have it all thoroughly square according to his notions. As a whole, the New Testament addresses itself to the Christian body; but James does not. That is to say, in the Old Testament we have an exceptional address to the Gentiles; in the New Testament we have an exceptional address to the Jews. Is not all this quite right? One sees thoroughly, in the midst of the utmost difference otherwise, how it is the same divine mind—a mind above the contractedness of man. Let us hold this fast! We shall, find it profitable in everything, as well as in the word that we are now reading.
“My brethren,” says he, “count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trial of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” Thus it is at once apparent that we are on practical ground—the manifestation of godliness toward both man and God, that here the Holy Spirit is pressing this as the very first injunction of the epistle. “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” Temptations, trials (for clearly he refers to outward trials), are in no way the dreadful ogres that unbelief makes them to be. “We are appointed thereunto,” says the Apostle Paul. The Israelites no doubt found it hard, but the Spirit of God deigns here to instruct them. They were not to reckon trial a grievance. “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.” The reason is that God uses it for moral purposes; He deals with the nature which opposes itself to His will. “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience” (or endurance). “But let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”
And how is this then to be effected? Here is brought in another essential point of the epistle. It is not only a question of trials that come upon the believer when he is here below. Clearly he is in this place addressing his brethren in Christ. He does not simply look at the whole twelve tribes, but at the faithful; as we find in the beginning of the next chapter, “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.” So I think it is clearly here men capable of understanding what was spiritual. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.”
These are the two most important points pressed practically throughout the epistle. One is the profit of not enjoying the pleasant only, but the rough and hard that God sends for our good. Blessing now is not in ease and honor, but, contrariwise, counting joy in trial, accepting what is painful from God, certain that He never mistakes, and that all is ordered of Him for the perfect blessing of His own people. But then this leads the way, and makes one feel the need of wisdom from God in order intelligently and happily to profit by the trial; for, as we know, the blessing of all trial is “to them that are exercised thereby.” In order to discern we need wisdom. This he brings in: “If any of you lack wisdom.” There is thus the need of dependence on God, the spirit of habitual waiting on Him—of bowing to Him, and, in short, of obedience. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.” We shall see by and by whence this flows, but we have merely now a general exhortation.
“Let him ask in faith,” says he, “nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive anything of the Lord. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.” Thus he shows that faith supposes confidence in God, and that this doubtful mind, this hesitancy about God, is in point of fact nothing but unbelief. Accordingly it is a practical denial of the very attitude you take in asking God. It is blowing hot and blowing cold; it is appearing to ask God, when in point of fact you have no confidence in Him. Let not such a one, therefore, expect anything of the Lord.
In the next place he proceeds to show too how this works practically: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: but the rich, in that he is made low:”—such are the ways of God—“because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.” All that is founded on a mere temporary set of circumstances is doomed, and in no way belongs to the nature of God as revealed in truth and grace by the Son of God. Hence, therefore, God reverses the judgment of the world in all these matters, “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: but the rich, in that he is made low.” The reason also is given: “For as the flower of the grass” (which is mere nature) “he shall pass away. For the sun is no sooner risen with a burning heat, but it withereth the grass, and the flower thereof falleth, and the grace of the fashion of it perisheth: so also shall the rich man fade away in his ways.”
On the other hand, one may and should be “blessed.” Here we have the full contrast, and the reason why all this is brought in; for there is a perfect chain of connection between these verses, little as it may appear at first sight. “Blessed is the man that endureth temptation,” instead of being exposed either to the instability of unbelief which we saw, or to the mere dependence on natural resources which was next proved. The man that endures temptation, that accepts it and counts it joy, blessed is he; “for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him.”
This leads to another character of trial in inward evil, not in outward. There is a temptation which comes from the devil as truly as there is a temptation that comes from God, and is good for man. That is, there is a trial of faith, and there is a temptation of flesh.
Now it is clear that the trial of faith is as precious as it is profitable; and of this exclusively he has been speaking up to this point. Now he just turns aside to notice the other; and it is the more important to weigh it well because, as far as I know, it is the only place in scripture where it is definitely presented. Temptations elsewhere mean trials, not inward solicitations of evil; they have no bearing upon, nor connection with, the evil nature, but on the contrary are the ways in which the Lord out of His love tries those in whom He has confidence, and works for the greater blessing of those whom He has already blessed. Here, on the other hand, we find the common sense of temptation. Alas! the very fact of its being common proves where people are, how little they have to do with God, how much in common with the world. “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God.” Now he is touching upon another character; “for God cannot be tempted by evils,”—you must read it as it is in the margin,—“neither tempteth He any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.”
Thus it is not only that God is inaccessible to evil Himself, but He also never tempts to evil at any one time whatsoever. There is no such thought that enters the mind of God. He moves supremely above evil: this is the ground of the blessing of every child of God, which he will show presently, when he has finished the subject of evil that comes through man’s nature. Evil is from himself; for, as he says, “Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” This is not the way in which the Apostle Paul handles the matter. It is not that there is the very smallest contradiction between the two. They are perfectly harmonious; but then it is a different way of looking at the matter; and the reason is obvious, because what Paul treats of in Romans 7, which is the scripture I refer to, is not the conduct but the nature. Now, if you look at nature, it is plain that sin is there first, and in consequence of the sin that dwells in the nature, there are lusts as the effects of it. Here he looks at sin in the conduct, and accordingly there are evil workings within, and then the outward act of sin. Thus we see it is only, to say the least of it, a very great want of perception, and a dullness that certainly is unworthy—nay, worthy—of any person that sets up to judge the word of God—a shameful position for a creature—for a man—above all for a Christian to take. But it is here, as is the case everywhere, blindness and ignorance in those that set one part of scripture against another.
To this, perhaps, it may be said, “Do you never find a difficulty?” To be sure, but what is the place of any one who finds a difficulty in the word of God? Wait upon God. Do not you try to settle difficulties, but put yourself in the attitude of dependence. Ask wisdom, and ask it all of God, who gives liberally and upbraids not. He will surely clear up whatever is for His own glory. There is not a man of exercised soul in this building, or any other, who has not proved the truth of what I am now saying. There is not a man who has been led in any measure to the understanding of the ways of God that has not proved the very passages, which he once found so difficult when they were not understood, to be the means of exceeding light to his soul when they were. And therefore, haste to solve difficulties is really and practically a finding fault either with God or with His word; with His word, because it is deeper than we are; with Himself, because He does not give the babe the knowledge that would be proper to the grown man. Now it is evident that this is only foolishness. It is just the haste that hinders blessing and progress. However, nothing can be simpler than that which the apostle here describes and recommend to us, and nothing more certain.
Now we come to the other side. “Do not err, beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.” We have had the evil traced to its source, which is the fallen nature of man, no doubt wrought on by Satan, but without here bringing the enemy before us. We shall find this by and by, in James 4; but here he simply looks on man’s nature, and then he raises his eyes to God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” The first point therefore in the mind of the Holy Spirit here is to vindicate God at all cost, and this entirely apart from us. As evil comes from us, so all that is good comes from God; and not only is God the spring of every good—every good giving and every perfect gift being all from God—(the manner of it as well as the thing itself that is given); but, besides, there is no change in God, the creature in its best estate is nothing but change.
Thus there is a most complete vindication of God’s moral glory in this verse, contrasted with man in his weakness, and ruin, and evil. But he goes farther, and asserts—and asserting, too, in the most admirable manner—the truth of the sovereign action of grace. He has claimed this for God already; but now we come to see the application to us. It is not only, therefore, that God is good, but that He is a giver, and this of nothing that is not good, and of all that is good. Stainless in His holiness, and invariable in His light, God is active in His love; and as the fruit of this energetic sovereign love He does not bless merely, sweet as it is from Him. Blessing is altogether short of that which we know now in christianity—of that which even James treats of, according to his very broad and comprehensive epistle. In the bright day that is coming God will bless the creature. In the dark day that man calls “now,” God more than blesses—far more than blesses—those who believe. We are ourselves born of Him. He communicates His nature to the believer. He does so unsought, and surely undeserved. Undeserved! Why there was nothing but evil: he had shown this immediately before. There was nothing good from man’s nature as a fallen creature, nothing but good from God.
Then, let it be repeated, it is not merely good we see here, but a communication of His own spiritual nature; and this He is doing by the word of truth. Scripture is the medium. The revelation of Himself by which He acts on souls is accordingly here brought before us, no less than His own sovereign will as the source of it. “Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.” He means to bring in fullness of blessing by and by. This will be, as far as government is concerned, in the millennium; but, being only government, evil will remain to be controlled and kept down to His own glory. This could in no wise satisfy God’s nature, and so scripture reveals a time coming when all will be according to God. Then will be in the fullest sense His rest, when all question of His working and of man’s responsibility will be over, when He, entering into the result, will grant us to enter into His rest. Then shall we be not merely first-fruits of His creatures, but all in rest and glory according to the new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Meanwhile we who are thus begotten, the first-fruits, have the wondrous blessing here set forth. It is not merely that we are objects of this blessing. Alas how often a blessing has been given, and as often lost, being turned to His shame and men’s corruption.
God blessed, as we know, at the very beginning—blessed everything that He had made; but there was no stability in a blessing itself. To ensure stability, all must rest on one who is God as well as man, giving us a nature according to God. In those that are fallen there must be the communication of the divine nature; and this there is in Christ, and so there always has been. It may not be always consciously known, and it was not in Old Testament times; but in order that there should be a basis of immutable blessing, and of communion in any measure between God and the creature, there must be the communication of the divine nature. Of this, accordingly, James here speaks. How it links itself with Peter, and John, and Paul, we need not stop now to inquire. We see at once that he who could despise such an epistle as this is a man—not to be despised indeed, for God would not have us despise any as He despises none Himself; but certainly—to call forth pain and sorrow that such thoughts should ever have been allowed in a soul born of God and withal a servant of Jesus Christ.
Founded, then, on this, the communication of His own nature, with its moral judgment, we have the practical exhortation: “Wherefore, My beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear.” Hearing is exactly the attitude of dependence. Now one who is the servant of God looks up to God, confides in God, and expects from God. This is the place which becomes him that is born of God. “Wherefore, My beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak.” Speech is apt to be the expression of our nature—of ourselves. Be slow then to speak, swift to hear. Clearly he has God in view, and has His word before him, and that which would make His word understood. Let us, too, be “swift to hear, slow to speak.”
But another thing is to be heeded. It is not only that the nature of man expresses itself in the tongue, but in the feelings of the heart; and alas! in the wrath of a fallen creature. Let us be, then, not only slow to speak, but “slow to wrath.” You see at once that we have an exhortation founded on, first, the spiritual anatomy, if I may so say, of our nature, and then we are given to know the wondrous character of the new life that we have received by faith of Jesus Christ, and know to be ours, because we are “begotten by the word of truth.” Next, he gives the reason; “for,” says he, “the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
It need scarcely be remarked that it is no question here of the righteousness of God in a doctrinal sense. James does not deal with such matters; he never takes up the question how a sinner is to be justified. Therefore, certainly, he in no way contradicts Paul, any more than in what is said of faith, or justification; indeed he does not at all treat of the same question that Paul has before him. Where two persons really take up the same matter, and then give us contrary expressions, they of course contradict each other; but if they deal with two totally different points, although they may be ever so closely connected, contradiction there is none: and such precisely is the fact as to Paul and James in the matter before us, without saying a word of the inspiration which makes it impossible. They both employ the words, “faith,” “works,” and “justify,” but they are not settling the same question, but two different ones. We shall find the reason of this by and by, but I the more willingly make this remark in passing, in order to help any souls who find a difficulty; because it often proves a snare, particularly to those who rest over—much on verbal analogies.
Let us look to the grace of the Lord to understand the scripture. It is the habit of many, if they find the same expression, to give it always the same meaning. This is true neither in everyday language nor in God’s word. Here, for instance, we have the righteousness of God clearly in a different sense from that so familiar to us in the Pauline epistles. He is speaking of what is not pleasing to, because inconsistent with, His nature; and clearly the wrath of man is offensive to Him. It works nothing suitable to His moral nature. The passage speaks of practice, not of doctrine.
“Wherefore lay apart, all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” It will be observed how far it is from being an imposed law. Particular pains are taken to guard from this prevalent idea. A Jew would have been likely to have thought of it thus; for he naturally turned to the law as the one and only standard. But, on the other hand, James is far from leaving out the use of the law: we shall find it in this very epistle. Still he is careful in this place to show that the word deals inwardly with the man, that it is this implanted word, as he calls it, and not an external law, that is able to save the soul. The word enters by faith, or, as the apostle has it in Hebrews, is “mixed with faith in them that hear it.” “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” It is plain that we find ourselves throughout on the practical side of the manifestation by life. This is the governing thought and aim of the epistle.
“For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass.” He may have ever so clear a view of himself; he sees clearly what he is like for a moment; but he as soon forgets all. “He beholdeth himself, and goeth his way.” The image is faded and gone. He “straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.” Oh, how true is this, and how admirably drawn to the life! It is that glimpse of conviction by the truth that comes before souls when they are forced to discern what the spring of their thoughts is, what their feelings are when the light of God flashes over and through a man; but how soon it passes away, instead of entering in and abiding within the soul! It is the power of the Spirit of God alone that can grave these things on the heart. But here the apostle is exposing the absence of an internal work where intelligence is severed from conscience, and this he illustrates, as we have seen, by the man that gets a glance in a glass, and then all is gone directly his back is turned. Whereas there is power and permanence with him who fixes his view on “the perfect law of liberty.”
And here it seems seasonable to say that, so far from James being legal in the evil sense of the word, he is the inspired man who, at least as much as any other, slays legality by this very expression. For this end there is not a more precious thought nor a mightier word in all the New Testament. In its own province there is nothing better, plainer, or more striking. The reason why people often find legality in James is because they themselves bring it. They are under that influence in their souls, and accordingly they cloud the light of James with that which was meant to veil the guilty in darkness.
What then is the law of liberty? It is the word of God which directs a man begotten by the word of truth, urging and cheering and strengthening him in the very things that the new life delights in. Consequently it has an action exactly the opposite of that exercised by the law of Moses on the Israelite. This is evident from the bare terms “Thou shalt not do” this, “thou shalt not do” that. Why? Because they wanted to do what God prohibited. The desire of man as he is being after evil, the law put a veto on the indulgence of the will. It was necessarily negative, not positive, in character. The law forbad the very things to which man’s own impulses and desires would have prompted him, and is the solemn means of detecting rebellious fallen nature. But this is not the law of liberty in any way, but the law of bondage, condemnation, and death.
The law of liberty brings in the positive for those who love it—not the negation of what the will and lust of man desires, so much as the exercise of the new life—in what is according to its own nature. Thus it has been often and very aptly described as a loving parent who tells his child that he must go here or there; that is, the very places which he knows perfectly the child would be most gratified to visit. Such is the law of liberty: as if one said to the child, “Now, my child, you must go and do such or such a thing,” all the while knowing that you can confer no greater favor on the child. It has not at all the character of resisting the will of the child, but rather of directing his affections in the will of the object dearest to him. The child is regarded and led according to the love of the parent, who knows what the desire of the child is—a desire that has been in virtue of a new nature implanted by God Himself in the child. He has given him a life that loves His ways and word, that hates and revolts from evil, and is pained most of all by falling through unwatchfulness under sin, if it seemed ever so little. The law of liberty therefore consists not so much in a restraint on gratifying the old man, as in guiding and guarding the new; for the heart’s delight is in what is good and holy and true; and the word of our God on the one hand exercises us in cleaving to that which is the joy of the Christian’s heart, and strengthens us in our detestation of all that we know to be offensive to the Lord.
Such is the law of liberty. Accordingly “whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (or rather “doing”). There is, however, the need of attending to the other side of the picture: “If any man seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.”
Then the chapter closes with giving us a sample of what pure and undefiled religion is, but chiefly as we observe in a practical way—the main object and never lost sight of. There is, first, the “visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction,”—persons from whom one could gather nothing flattering to the flesh, or in any way calculated to minister to self; there is, on the other hand, the keeping one’s self unspotted from the world. How often one hears people in the habit of quoting from this verse for what they call practice, who dwell on the first part to the exclusion of the last. How comes it that the last clause is forgotten? Is it not precisely what those who quote would find the greatest difficulty in honestly proving that they value? Let us then endeavor to profit by the warning, and above all by the precious lesson in the word of our God.
In all that we have had the question naturally arises, Wherein lies the special propriety of such exhortations, or why are they addressed to the twelve tribes? Surely we may ask this; for those who value the word of God are not precluded from inquiring what the object is. Rather are we encouraged to ask why it was according to the wisdom of God that such words as these should be presented to Israel, and especially to such of the twelve tribes as had the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. James enters upon this expressly in the next chapter.