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Effectual Faith in James and the Synoptic Gospels
by John Okulski
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During his earthly ministry, one woman, apparently moved by the teaching of Jesus, cried out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” (Luke 11:27) As per usual, our Lord redirected the focus of his hearers, saying "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." (Luke 11:28) In doing so, Jesus both affirmed the actions of his mother, Mary, and centered the attention of his listeners on that which is important. Mary was not blessed so much because of what Jesus did, but because she heard the word of God and obeyed. Likewise, Jesus empowered his listeners by showing them what it means to be blessed. Two decades later, James echoed the words of his Master, writing that “the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it-he will be blessed in what he does.” (James 1:25) Jesus went further, citing obedience to the will of the Father as a criteria for entrance into the family of God, saying “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my sister or brother or mother.” (Matthew 12:50) When James wrote that “faith without deeds is useless” (James 2:20), he echoed the words of his Master (Matthew 7:21) and we see the condition for effectual faith laid out plainly. The concern James had with “Faith That Works” (Study Guide, p. 3) agrees with other Scripture, particularly the synoptic Gospels, and sounds a clear warning to us, for “the absence of change (in conduct and character) is a symptom of a dead faith.” (p. 3) Given the words of Christ Jesus recorded in Matthew 7:21, we would do well to learn from both our Lord and from his servant James what effectual faith looks like that our faith might not be useless.

One of the prominent subjects regarding the issue of effectual faith that surfaces throughout the New Testament is perseverance through trials and it is the first subject touched upon in the epistle of James. James enjoined his readers to “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.” (James 1:2) He goes on to commend those who persevere through trials, for those who stand the test “receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12) Years earlier, when foreshadowing the trials of persecution his followers would face, Jesus uttered similar words, saying, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven…” (Matthew 5:11-12) In keeping with the theme of the New Testament (2 Ti 3:12, John 15:20), “James regards trials as inevitable.” (Study Guide, p. 17) Or, as Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was arrested me, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)

Yet, his language seems to incorporate more than the trials of persecution spoken of in 2Tim 3:12 and John 15:20. The readers of the epistle of James were “lonely, poor, and often oppressed.” (Study Guide, p. 16) As the Study Guide further relates (p. 16), James readers, primarily Jewish, fit neither into the Orthodox Jewish world, because they were Christians, nor into the Gentile world, because they were Jews. Given the repeated emphasis on suffering (see James 5:7-11), particularly when the trials his people faced are so often linked with poverty (e.g., James 2:5-7, 5:1-6, 1:9-11), it seems clear that the readers of this epistle faced sufficient hardship even were they not being dragged into court and facing repeated slander of their faith. (James 2:6)

Indeed, as the Study Guide points out, the temptations alluded to in James (1:13) refer not to diabolical suggestion, as such, but to the trials of “persecution, poverty, and calamity of any kind.” (p. 17) A reader of the Synoptic Gospels may infer that the those who followed Jesus and those who heard his Sermon on the Mount were also poor, afflicted, and oppressed. When the Pharisees called attention to the fact that many of his followers were “tax collectors and ‘sinners’” (Matthew 9:11), they exposed the outcast nature of his audience. Even the 12 “left everything to follow” (Matthew 19: 27) Jesus, indicating their own poverty. Yet, for all the hardship endured by those who followed him, Jesus never wavered in the standard to which he held his followers. Though he exhibited grace those who sinned (e.g., John 8:3-11), he also repeatedly enjoined his listeners to “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11) Indeed, the standard of moral excellence and heart purity to which he called his disciples is one to which they had likely not been held accountable previously, as the many “you have heard it was said…but I tell you” statements Jesus gives in his Sermon on the Mount imply. (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43) Poverty, persecution, and general hardship do not serve as excuses for sin, but as discipline through which we might learn obedience. (Heb 5:8) The call to perfection (Matthew 5:28) remains, and perhaps even intensifies, in the face of external difficulties.

As with his Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, James concerned himself primarily with faith in action, yet enjoins us to “purify our hearts” (James 4:8) in addition to the good deeds that might be evident to all. Indeed, when James commends his readers to show wisdom and understanding through their good lives, he also lets them know that their good deeds should be done in humility. (James 3:13) In a superficial sense, the Pharisees performed good deeds. They gave to the needy (Matthew 6:2), prayed (Matthew 6:5), and fasted (Matthew 6:16), but failed to exhibit the wisdom of which James spoke, for they did it as an outward display to be seen by men, not in humility. Instead, true wisdom is “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and sincere.” (James 3:17) Most, if not all, of these adjectives used to describe true wisdom refer to character traits, rather than specific actions, and thus highlight the fact that the life of obedience to which James calls us surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of law in righteousness. (Matthew 5:20)

One of the areas both James and Jesus stressed as an indication of true righteousness was the tongue. “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus said. (Matthew 12:34) James wrote similarly, saying that the tongue “…corrupts the whole body, sets the course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6) As the Study Guide suggests, the reason believers are commended to be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to be angry (James 1:19) may derive from our tendency to sin with the tongue. (Study Guide, p. 62) Ephesians tells us to not “…let any unwholesome talk come out of our mouths, but only what is beneficial for building others up” (4:29), which agrees with the contention of the Study Guide that “the tongue is an evil thing when used to promote anything but Godliness” (p. 62), and the message of James 3:3-12. The words of Matthew 12:36-37 remind of us the gravity of the issue, telling us that “men will have to give an account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned.”

As implied by the aforementioned passage, and stated more explicitly by James 3:2, the proper use of the tongue is a sign of maturity, the very thing the readers of James’ epistles lacked. (Study Guide, p. 16) James argues that “trials of many kinds” (James 1:2) that his readers faced are occurring so that they may attain such maturity. (James 1:4) They may have considered themselves religious (1: 26) and may have performed religious activity, but lacked spirituality. (Study Guide, pg. 16) One may presume from the text that his readers engaged in gossip, slander (James 3:9), envy and bitterness (3:14), favoritism (2:1-4), lack of generosity (2:14-17), backsliding (5:19), and boasting. (4:16) While, as Paul notes (Phi 3:14), none may have achieved full maturity, the one who is progressing spiritually presses on toward the goal. He pursues the goal with humility, not boasting, knowing well how far short of the glory of God he falls. (1 Tim 1:16) The maturing believer does not boast (Luke 17:10), controls his tongue, gives generously to those in need, does not show partiality, and perseveres under trial.

Circumstances, therefore, however negative, ought not to dictate behavior, but serve as stimuli to perfect the believer in Christ Jesus. James, following the trend of the New Testament, considers trials a blessing, not a curse. (James 1:2) The maturing believer ought to have the same attitude, knowing well that he who perseveres under trial will receive the crown of life. (1:12) As the Study Guide implies, the true problem a believer faces is his own maturity, not the situation in which he finds himself. Like Jesus, James turns the table on what his readers might consider to be blessed. Jesus said “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20), while James said the brother in humble circumstances should take pride in his high position. (1:9) Neither Jesus nor James lowered the bar concerning conduct, but each permitted failed attempts. (James 3:2, John 8:11) Yet, we continually see that circumstances do not serve as a pardon for failure to conduct oneself in a manner befitting a child of God. Maturity, not the particular circumstances in which one finds oneself, dictate behavior.

Moreover, both Jesus and James point the way toward achieving maturity, the type of faith that endures through all trials. Everyone who hears Jesus words and puts them into practice will attain such maturity. (Matthew 7:24) Such believers are like a wise man who builds his house on a rock. Neither ran, nor flood, nor wind can topple the house, for its foundation is on the rock. (7:25) Likewise, when James spoke of the faith of Abraham, he claimed that his faith was made complete by what he did. (James 2:22) To complete our faith through action is not easy. Jesus said that the wise builder “dug down deep” (Luke 6:48) to establish a firm foundation for his house. James refers to the patience necessary to receive the crown of life, using Job as an example of the type of perseverance required. (James 5:10-12) Paul variously referred to the life of faith as a fight (2 Tim 4:7, 1 Tim 1:18, 1 Tim 6:12, 1 Co 9:26), a race (1 Co 9:24, 2 Tim 4:7), and warfare. (2 Co 10:3, Eph 6:10-18) The author of Hebrews enjoins us to run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb 12:1), while Jesus commands us to be both patient and persistent in our faith. (Luke 18:1-8) Thus, when James writes that those who obey the Word of God are blessed in what they do (James 1:25), he does not speak idly, nor does he speak in a vacuum, but of life in a world that is hostile to the very things to which his readers strove to obey, inhabiting flesh that likewise rebels against our strivings to be faithful (Matthew 26:41), yet the call to obedience remains.

James, however, does not leave us without weapons in his call to obedience. At the beginning of his letter, when speaking of the trials his readers were enduring, he encourages them to pray, asking for wisdom, for God grants wisdom generously. (James 1:5) Likewise, he concludes his epistle with a call to prayer, powerfully indicating its effectiveness through the example of Elijah, a “mere man” (5:17) through whom the very course of nature changed. As indicated in the Study Guide, “God deals with His children, not through absolute determinism, but by Divine providence, whereby he interacts with, and responds to, the prayers of the righteous.” (pg., 97) James wanted to assure his readers that prayers cause “many good things to happen that would not otherwise occur.” (Study Guide, pg 97-98) While James 4:3 supports the notion that “prayer itself has value only if accompanied by true faith” (Study Guide, pg. 99), prayer remains an effective and powerful weapon in the war against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 5:18) Like his Lord before him, James also demonstrated prayer in action, for it is noted that he was a “praying man”, one who “spent long hours interceding for the people.” (Study Guide, pg. 8)

Thus, we see that James both upholds Jesus words, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (Luke 11:28) and builds on them. As James also writes, “faith, by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) James agrees with Jesus that action, or good deeds, must be accompanied by heart change, for the actions of wise man must be done in humility, not simply performed. (James 3:13) Many are those who carry the appearance of righteousness, for even the false prophets of whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 7:15-23 performed what may be considered good deeds (7:22), yet the concluding words of Jesus in that passage, “I never knew you,” sound a terrible warning. (7:23) Heart-change, specifically the cleansing and purifying of the heart (Matthew 5:8, James 4:8) are called for by both Jesus and James, but that heart change must manifest itself in action, for “faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26) Such deeds, the evidence of faith, must also persist no matter the hardship endured. True faith survives tests, exhibits itself in slowness to speak, quickness to listen, and mastery over the tongue such that the words one utters promote only godliness. The man of true faith is merciful, impartial, peace-loving, submissive, considerate, and sincere. (James 3:17) He endures, persevering through trials, and though he may stumble in many ways (James 3:2), assists others when they stumble. (James 5:20) He also prays, depending on God for wisdom (James 1:4), provision (James 4:2), and every good and perfect gift. (James 1:17) Most of all, perhaps, he obeys, for Jesus told his disciples that “if anyone loves me he will obey my teaching.” (John 14:23)

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