Wednesday, October 12, 2011

New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 42: “Pure Religion” Epistle of James

New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 42: “Pure Religion”  
Epistle of James


Many people mistakenly believe that one of the two apostles named James wrote this epistle.  Instead, most scholars agree  it is James the Just, the brother of Jesus, and the first bishop of Jerusalem who is believed to have written the letter of James.  He was prominent in the early Christian Church and mentioned by Jesus (Mat 13:55; Acts 21:15-25; 1Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19, 2:9). Scholars differ over whether James, the brother of Jesus, actually wrote this epistle or not.  There are four theories regarding the epistle: 1 - that James wrote it before the Pauline epistles, 2 - that James wrote it after the Pauline epistles, 3 - that it was written by James, but then reworked later by another person, and 4 - that it was entirely written by someone else.  Other scholars, in noting that a simple Jewish man could not have had such an extensive writing knowledge of Greek, argue that James may have used a scribe to assist him.

Martin Luther denied the sacredness or apostolic authority of the epistle of James, calling it an “epistle of straw” because he felt it argued against his interpretation of Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace without any works.

While James’ epistle is probably written to the Jewish Christians, it  clearly is a statement that moves beyond the Jewish Christian discussions of circumcision, temple attendance, and animal sacrifice, and to a new way to understand religion and the Christian’s personal responsibility to God, the Church, and mankind.

Key Themes

Rather than a normal letter format, the Epistle of James is more likely a series of wisdom sayings, belonging to the same form of wisdom literature as Proverbs, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon.  James tends to discuss a topic, stray from it, then later return to it.  Still, there seems to be a few key themes involved.

Three main themes are: 
  • True Religion (1:1-27) 
  • True Faith (2:1-3:12) 
  • True Wisdom (3:13-5:20)

Minor themes include:
  • Living a Faithful Life - not only having faith, but living the faith one has.
  • Dealing with Trials.
  • Abiding the Law of Love.
  • Speaking with wisdom.
  • The Proper use of Wealth.

If any of you lack wisdom...
James 1:5-6

Isn’t it interesting that the epistle loathed by Martin Luther and that inspired continual disagreements between Catholic and Evangelical Christians is the one that would lead a young farm boy into the greatest theological discovery of the 19th century?

That the fourteen year old boy, Joseph Smith, confused by the various arguments among the factions of his day, was moved upon by James’ words to ask God for wisdom and the answer to the question: which , if any, of all the sects is correct?

As Joseph discovered, the answer cannot come from an appeal to the Bible. Regardless of claims by many Christians, the Bible has answers, but interpretations of those answers are so complex that two different people can read the same passages in the Bible and come up with very different answers.  That Martin Luther loathed James’ epistle shows a severe difference in understanding the same gospel of Christ.  Either James and Paul agree or they do not agree on faith and works (to be dealt with below).  If they do agree, then Luther should not have loathed James. If they do not agree, then there is no real way to appeal to the Bible for a method to bring the two back together.

So, how do we get to the truth, or close to it, if an appeal to the Bible leads us to as many interpretations as there are Bible readers?  Only an appeal to the Source of all truth can help us approach nearer to the intent of the original author of the scriptures: God.

In such an act, this young man who essentially was a “blank page” (as Bible scholar Johannes Munck noted of many of the Old Testament prophets), got more than he bargained for when he took up James’ promise that God will give liberally.  God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith and prepared him, as they had prepared ancient prophets, for the holy calling of prophet.

Although most of us do not have huge visions of God and Jesus, we can be guided by the Spirit of the Lord into a better understanding of truth, of a better interpretation of the Bible, and a witness of the Lord Jesus Christ as our personal Savior.  But we must “ask in faith, nothing wavering.”  We must have a true and real intent as a condition to receiving an answer from God.  For the doubter, the answer will be nothing. They will get the answer they expect.  But for the person who keeps and open mind, and believes God can reveal his will to him, will approach closer to God’s truth.

Personal revelation is necessary in a living Church.  That personal revelation requires us to have faith and to have an openness to the things God will teach us. Otherwise, God will leave us alone, with the things we think we already know.

Pure Religion
James 1:27, 2:1-13

“Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.”

Here, James is teaching the Jewish Christians that there is a new way in which we serve God.  Animal sacrifices and the many rules for being clean and undefiled do not show our worthiness, but how we treat the poor and needy.  

Many Christians fail miserably on this very short list given by James.  So many are focused on the world and their personal lives that they forget to care for the poor and needy.  So important is this concept that Isaiah and other prophets condemned Israel more for this than for any other evil.

It may be that James had ancient prophets in mind in giving such a teaching.  To be “unspotted from the world” gives us a new definition of being clean.  While anciently, Jews would perform cleansing rituals to be clean, today we have our own requirements to remain without blemish.  In Psalms 24, the Lord asks,

“ Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Psalms 24:3-4).

This ties us into the temple ceremony of purity and holiness.  The ancient temple was the place to give one’s alms and offerings. It was also the place where one sought cleansing by sacrificing animals and washing in pure water.  The priests were washed and anointed in order to purify themselves prior to service in the temple.  Pure religion makes us holy and unspotted, so that we may stand in holy places, even in the presence of God in his holy place, the temple.

Faith without works is dead...
James 2:14-26

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?....Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only....For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”

Herein lies the problem Martin Luther has with James.  

For Christians, Justification means that through the blood of Christ and our faith/repentance in the atonement, we are made guiltless.  Once we are guiltless, we are freed from death and hell.  For LDS Christians, justification is what brings us out of Spirit Prison hell and into Paradise. We no longer are on the chopping block for Outer Darkness as a son of perdition.

The problem is that James insists that with faith must come works, otherwise we cannot be justified.  How can that be reconciled with Paul?

First, there is a difference in audiences.  Paul’s audience usually were Gentiles, and often Gentiles that were not yet Christian.  Paul’s explanation of justification in Romans was to explain to potential converts how they were to escape death and hell - through faith and grace alone, Christ’s blood would save them.

Here, James is speaking to those already members of the faith.  He is taking them to the next level of justification, what we would call sanctification.  Already saved from death and hell, we still need to develop a level of faith befitting the level of reward we seek from God.  Traditional Christians generally believe that there are a variety of rewards in heaven. Latter-day Saints also believe this, and separate them into levels of heaven (cf 2 Cor 12:1-4).

Sanctification was dealt with in my discussion of Romans, and I’ll refer you to that blog post. The gist of it is that we must move from “grace to grace” receiving “grace for grace” until we obtain a fullness of grace (or stop on a level of grace we feel is sufficient for ourselves - see D&C 93).  As we develop faith, which is developed through obedience, we become more holy and are more infused with the Holy Spirit, being sanctified to ever higher levels of holiness until we become holy even as Christ is holy.

For James, it is necessary for us as believers to demonstrate our faith through abiding works.  Remember, Paul stated that without charity, all other things are dead (1 Cor 13).  For James, without serving others with loving works, our faith is dead as well.

Had Martin Luther understood the Bible by asking greater wisdom of God in prayer, perhaps he would have thought better of James.


Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision:

Epistle of James - early christian writings:

Epistle of James - wikipedia:

Epistle of James - Catholic Encyclopedia New Advent:

Epistle of James - Theopedia:

My discussion of Paul’s calling and prophets as a  “blank page” from Johannes Munck’s book:

No comments: