Three tools for reading the letter of James
It doesn't have to be hard!
The letter of James is an exciting and encouraging part of the Bible. But reading it can, at times be a challenge, because James contains some aspects that don’t seem to fit with our understanding of the whole Bible.
At times when reading James, it can feel like James doesn’t believe in grace, and thinks that Christians need to work for their salvation! What?!
Actually, this isn’t the case at all. James definitely does believe in grace, but he also understands that accepting grace means your life will change.
If you’ve struggled to read the letter of James before, then here are some tips that will help you understand this book and take away what you should.
Here are the first three verses of James:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
Here’s what we learn from these verses about the context.
Firstly, James is writing to a Jewish-Christian audience (the ‘twelve tribes’). They know the Old Testament law and are trying to live in accordance with God’s will, knowing what they know of both the Old Testament and the teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. How does knowing this help us understand James? Well, we can assume that James’ audience understands the difference between what they used to believe (salvation through works) and what they believe now (salvation through grace). James is helping them to see that works still fit into a life honouring God - they just fit in a different place.
Secondly, these verses tell us that James is writing to a people under pressure, facing persecution and trials. How does this help us? Well, consider how you feel when you’re under pressure for your faith. Do you feel like hiding the behaviour that makes you stand out? I know I do! So James is encouraging his audience not to hide away the actions that will set them apart from others - he’s begging them to let the gospel shape their lives and actions so that others will see their faith, no matter what pressure they are facing.
One of the most helpful passages for understanding James comes in chapter 1, verses 22-25:
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
This passage really helps us to grasp why James is so big on Christians behaving a certain way. He believes that understanding the gospel not only leads to action - it requires it! Those of us who read the word and don’t act in response are as crazy as those who look in a mirror then forget what they look like. It just doesn’t make sense!
If you are a Christian, James is saying that you mustn’t just read the good news of Jesus, smile and say thanks to God, and then continue like nothing has changed. No! This good news must change everything. The perfect law of salvation through grace gives freedom, but it’s not freedom from doing good - it’s freedom to strive for godliness without fear of failure, and with the confidence that even when we fail, God is good.
When you’re reading James, I recommend starting by reading a passage that emphasises how we are saved first, such as Ephesians 2:1-10. Then, whenever you feel confused by what James is saying, refer back to that passage! This will help you remember the important truth that salvation is through grace and this leads to works in response. The order must never get mixed up in your head!
I recently studied James with my small group. My co-leader and I had planned to do James for a while, but then, praise God, we suddenly had two new people join our group - baby Christians! We realised that we didn’t want to confuse these new members about what Christianity is about, so we read the Ephesians passage in week one, and regularly referred back to it throughout the term so that we all got it straight in our heads: salvation is by grace and that leads to works.
With these three tools, you’ll probably find reading James a lot easier and less overwhelming! May God bless your study of this important letter.