In our midweek meetings at Sheffield Presbyterian Church (www.sheffieldpres.org.uk) we are going through the Book of James. Many are testifying that they are benefitting from this small New Testament letter. Perhaps one of the reasons why we are profiting so much from it, is because of our approach to the letter. What do I mean?
Many commentaries are quick to point out that the Book of James is a letter mainly concerned with practical instruction. For example Gordon Fee in How to Read the Bible Book by Book, wrongly in my view, puts forward that the material is ‘directed specifically at Christian behavior, rather than propounding Christian doctrine (398, Fee)’. Not only is Fee wrong but a lesson remains. If we get the idea of a theme for a Bible Book wrong, then it straightjackets our approach to learning other things outside of our presupposed conclusion of a books theme.
James is a pastoral letter. It is written for Christians in Christian churches among the Jewish diaspora. There does not appear to be a single dominant theme and some commentators teach that ‘it is more or less a random collection of ethical instructions for believers in general’. However, there are far more rich themes than just a set of ethical instructions. For example James 1:18 is in many ways a condensed summary of Ephesians 1:3-14. It reads:
Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (1:18).
This one verse teaches divine sovereignty over salvation, the necessity for the new birth, unconditional election and the need for Gospel preaching (the Word of truth). This Book is like a tree laden with rich doctrinal themes, some of which need to be badly recovered. In many ways a statement in the Westminster Confession (Chapter 11 'Of Justification') helpfully summarises some of the doctrines in James.
Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.
May I encourage you to read the Book of James with fresh eyes and with a desire to learn from this majestic epistle!