James’s epistle has persisted as, perhaps, the foremost theological paradox with which a studious disciple of the Word can be engaged. The “faith and works” conundrum in James’s letter presents ample opportunity for an assortment of spiritual oeuvre examining the apostle’s argument and its place in the canon of Scripture and the narrative of redemption. In C. C. Newman’s article on “Righteousness” in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, it is intimated that the Old Testament influence on the Epistle of James is evident of James’s endorsement that “‘faith’ is a necessary but insufficient basis for enjoying salvation.”1 Newman asserts that James’s polemic on “faith and works” in James 2:14–26 stems from a radical misunderstanding and misuse of James’s readers of the Pauline gospel of justification by faith alone. To be sure, the contextual setting of James’s letter is, indeed, a forceful critique of mistaken views of the gospel and its resulting influence in the life of a believer. But be that as it may, Newman wrongfully concludes that James’s diatribe on “faith and works” intends to bespeak a dichotomy between “initial” and “final” justification.
The works which accompany one’s faith do not “complete” one’s faith. Neither do they “finalize” the declaration by which one is made righteous. Instead, they exist as the confirmatory byproducts by which the beloved of God are chiefly known. The “means of justification” are not one’s “complete and utter commitment to God,” as Newman avers.2 Indeed, rather, the means of justification are unmistakably and unequivocally located in the person and work of Christ. One’s faith is completed and finished in the incontrovertible objective fact of Jesus Christ’s vicarious death and victorious resurrection. “A living faith,” writes Pastor Robert Hiller, “comes, not from mustering up the energy to work harder, but by the work of the Holy Spirit who, through the Word, grants us Christ and all His benefits.”3 This fact is not lost in James’s epistle, as much as that might appear to be the case on a cursory reading of the text.
By the same token, the gospel is no anarchist’s dream. The forensic pardon of grace is not a license for lawless or languid spirituality. “The ethical foundations of Mosaic law,” J. D. Charles affirms, “are in no way set aside” in the aftermath of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.4 Such is the inference of James’s insistence on the uselessness of faith divorced from works. (Jas 2:18–22) Such, too, is the apostle Paul’s conclusion in his letter to the Romans. After extinguishing even the slightest notion of human ability to procure the righteousness of the law (Rom 3:9–28), Paul similarly preserves the utility of the law in the life of faith. “Do we then nullify the law through faith? Absolutely not!” Paul exclaims. “On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (Rom 3:31) For James, and for Paul, sola fide by no means exempted one from the ethical or social obligation to demonstrate what was spiritually and forensically true because of faith in Christ. “Rather,” Charles continues, “they retain their full force in the life of the Christian community.”5 Indeed, as Robert Hiller maintains, “faith is not an excuse to abandon love.”6
To that end, James upholds several notable Old Testament figures as exemplars of faith throughout his epistle. Abraham (Jas 2:21), Rahab (Jas 2:25), Job (Jas 5:11), and Elijah (Jas 5:17) figure prominently in the letter, all of whom are credited righteousness because of their fervent faith in the Lord. This James does not to establish a mode of venerating ancient Jewish characters as those to whom Christ’s followers ought to exult, but as those who rightly (though, indeed, imperfectly) exemplified the necessity of faith and the concomitant duty of works in tandem. In them, the church is given a robust spectacle of faith having “its full effect” (Jas 1:4) and “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) in those who are particularly imbued with the wisdom and peace of God through his Spirit. (Jas 3:17–18) Each Old Testament reference, therefore, is given to augment James’s readers with a splendid yet specific view of their place and purpose as God’s people.
“The audience of James,” R. W. Wall determines, “consists of those whose primary identity appears religious and eschatological rather than ethnic and national; that is, they form a spiritual people whose life is guided by God’s word and whose destiny is the realization of God’s promised blessing.”7 From the exemplary pattern of Abraham to the promiscuity of Rahab — from the adversity of Job to the humanity of Elijah, all exhibit a faith by which they are inhabited and incorporated into God’s narrative of redemption. The blood-bought invitation for salvation by the work of God’s Son is given to both Jew and Gentile, who are then, likewise, duty-bound with the same obligation to demonstrate the efficacy of salvation to their Jewish and Gentile counterparts. They are, therefore, interpretive specimens with which the faith of the church is concretized. (Jas 1:2–4, 12; Gal 3:27–29) “Much of the illustrative material in James, for example,” writes J. D. Charles, “consists of moral exhortation to endure as the people of God.”8 The believers James addresses, along with contemporary readers of his epistle, are then made to have their faith fortified by the paradigmatic cogency of grace, which declares one righteous and enables one to epitomize the righteousness of God in the world.
C. C. Newman, “Righteousness,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 1056. Emphasis mine.
Robert M. Hiller, Finding Christ in the Straw: A Forty-Day Devotion on the Epistle of James (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2020), 58.
J. D. Charles, “Old Testament in General Epistles,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 837.
R. W. Wall, “Letter of James,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 548.