The unit for February 2021 is “James,” and the theme is “Faith with Action.” Our lesson writer, Dr. Mark Scott, shares, “Some things just belong together—love and marriage, horse and carriage, and faith and action. The ‘blue jeans Christianity’ of the Epistle of James makes that abundantly clear. Students will learn how deeds are evidence of genuine faith, how mercy trumps judgment, how the tongue can bless or curse, and how friendship with God is maintained by single-minded devotion to God.”
(This lesson treatment is published in the February 2021 issue of Christian Standard + The Lookout. Click here to subscribe to our print edition.)
Lesson Aim: Live out what you claim to believe.
In February we move from the wisdom literature of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (January’s lessons) to the wisdom literature of Jesus’ brother James in his Epistle to the “twelve tribes” (Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire). It is correct and right to begin the year with our feet on the ground and our wheels on the road.
In his book Letters in Primitive Christianity, William Doty claimed the contents of letters in the ancient world were divulged in the first major paragraph following the salutation. In other words, the opening full paragraph became a window to the rest of the document. But in the Epistle of James the opening paragraph is the whole first chapter. This early New Testament letter focused intently on the unity of hearing and doing. The theme is mentioned in James 1 and then traced in several spots later in the book. Hearing and doing are inextricably linked.
Doing Steers Clear of Deception
Wisdom in trials is obtained by asking God for it in faith (James 1:2-12). Trials can make us steadfast while temptations can defeat us (1:12). But those temptations never came from God (1:13-18). God desires for us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. This kind of hearing and doing will produce the righteousness of God and allow the implanted Word to save us (1:19-21).
Humans have an amazing ability to deceive and be deceived. We seem to have the gift of duping ourselves. James made a bold statement—i.e., hearing this “implanted word” and not doing it creates self-deception. James even offered an illustration for how this worked. An image in a mirror does not last long. A mirror has no memory. A person who looks in a mirror and quickly forgets is like a person who hears the Word and refuses to obey it. We get spiritual amnesia if we do not do what the Word says. Paul also used a mirror metaphor to discuss the difference between what is temporary and what is permanent (1 Corinthians 13:12).
But there is a way to steer clear of this deception. Look into the gospel (the perfect law, also called the royal law in James 2:8, 12) and obey the Word. James again gave us some things “to do.” We are to keep a tight rein on our tongues—a subject developed more fully in 3:1-12. We are to look after (visit in such a way as to care for) orphans and widows, and we are to live in a moral manner that is above reproach (i.e., keep from being polluted by the world). Hearing and doing are so connected that they keep us from being deceived.
Doing Gives Evidence of Faith
James’s discussion of how the poor are treated sometimes goes under the radar (1:9-11, 27; 2:2-5, 15-16; and the largest section, 5:1-6). He also taught about partiality (2:1-13) and “doing our faith.” But the ethical issue that drove the doctrinal discussion about faith and works was the treatment of the poor.
As we survey this well-worn passage, we see the subgenre of the text, the argument of the text, and the examples in the text. James propelled his argument by asking questions and providing dialogue. There are six questions in this section (e.g., “Can such a faith save them?”) which give rise to three pretended dialogues (e.g., “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed”). It’s interesting to note the biblical examples in the text of Abraham and Rahab are the same ones Paul used in other places (Romans 4; Hebrews 11:31). Maybe Paul and James are not as far apart as Martin Luther thought. James even reached into the jaws of Hell to make his point. The demons believe, but they do not “do.” The biological example of faith and works concerned the body and the spirit (i.e., human spirit).
Some have observed that faith alone appears once in Scripture, and in that verse, James 2:24, it states that faith alone cannot save. This is indeed one of the great paradoxes of the Bible. We are saved by grace but judged by works. All the imperatives of the Bible matter, but none of them, in and of themselves, save us. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), but faith has to be real and genuine. James’s conclusion is hard to miss. Faith without action is dead (James 2:17) and faith without deeds is dead (2:26).