Studies in James: The Purpose of the Epistle (Part 2)

While some do not feel that the Epistle of James has a main point, there are actually three themes that weave themselves together to ground the purpose of the letter: wisdom, integrity, and community. In a previous post we explored the theme of wisdom; here we will examine how James emphasizes the concept of personal integrity. Integrity in James means Christians live a faith-filled response regardless of the circumstances of life.

Authors have used various words to describe this theme in James: wholeness, consistency, or character. Each has a different flavor but they are all getting at this same idea that believers are to live-out their faith in every circumstances. Throughout the letter James commends obedience, endurance, and faith in times of trials. He also condemns “double-mindedness” and general hypocrisy. He wants these believers to see and understand that the Christian faith is a lifestyle, not merely a religious duty. He presses this point home in two key ways.

Consistency is Contrasted with Double-mindedness

Throughout the letter James addresses the subject of doubt, inconsistency, double-mindedness, and general hypocrisy. He emphasizes that the true believer does not say one thing and do another (2:14-26; 3:9-12). He does not attempt to live as a friend of God and a friend of the world (4:4). “To be double-minded,” writes Christopher Morgan, “is to have divided loyalties and indicates covenant unfaithfulness” (A Theology of James, 57). This is not just doubt in the general sense that we use the word, it is more than that. James warns that it is like being a “wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6). A double-minded man asks things of God but does not believe he will receive from God (v. 5-7), i.e. he doesn’t really trust and believe God. The Scriptures, elsewhere, speak to this idea of loving God with your whole heart (Ps. 119:2; Matt. 22:37), as opposed to a double-heart (Ps. 12:2; Hos. 10:2), or attempting to serve two masters (Matt. 6:19-34). Consistency will pursue God wholly, with undivided loyalty, and a single-minded devotion. He alone is God and is worthy of our complete consistent faithfulness.

The person with integrity demonstrates this type of commitment regardless of the circumstances. Even when trials come he does not turn from following the Lord but displays “steadfastness” (1:2-4). Trials will test our faith, but the true believers embraces the testing of our faith for it will lead to greater growth in godliness and blessing (v. 12). 

Consistency is Contrasted with Religious Duty

James does not denigrate “religion.” Sometimes Christians, in an effort to highlight the difference between true relationship with God and mere formalities, will denigrate religion and religious activity. James doesn’t do that, but he does highlight “pure and undefiled religion” (1:27). He shows that there is a difference between mere religious activity and a corresponding heart of love and obedience towards God. Some may keep the letter of the law, but they hearts are far from God. While James commends the “hearing of the Word” (1:21), he feel the need to stress the practice of the Word more than merely hearing. He wants these Christians to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only” (1:22). For him, pure religion is the practice of compassion and kindness towards orphans and widows (1:27). In fact, a faith that is not accompanied by action is a “dead faith” (2:14-26). If your faith does not lead you to live differently it is a useless faith. Integrity calls us to live differently because of what we believe.

We have noted that integrity leads to blessing (1:12). But James says it outright, “he will be blessed in his doing” (1:25). This language of blessing really echoes the teachings of Christ in the Beatitudes. In his sermon, Jesus states that those who actively work out their faith in life are “blessed.” Blessed are those who are “poor in spirit,” mourn, are meek, who “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” those who are peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for His sake (Matt. 5:3-12). Blessing comes not from mere religious belief, but from actively living out that belief. 

For James, true believers demonstrate their faith in a life of integrity. This is not about perfectionism. James knows that we are all struggling sinners (James 3:2). Yet, his call is for a faith that displays itself in works of obedience, charity, and faithfulness. He urges these believers to repent of their pride, hypocrisy, and worldliness. Integrity matters for people of faith.

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