James: A Guide to Authentic Christianity
James’s short but incisive letter teaches what it means to walk in the way of wisdom that issues forth in authentic Christianity. James addresses a variety of topics related to the Christian life, including suffering, desires, speech ethics, anger, social justice, holistic obedience, wise living, and prayer. Each topic that James takes up contributes to a larger call to authentic Christianity and wholehearted commitment to God.
James 1:1-4 | Becoming Whole & Holy
Christians should consider trials an opportunity for joy, even though trials are never pleasant. Because God uses tribulation and trials to make us whole and holy, hardship can give way to happiness as God transforms our suffering into sanctification. For Christians, trials are not something intended to challenge our faith but to change us into more faithful followers of Christ.
James 1:5-8 | Request & Receive the Wisdom of God
God is extremely generous, offering wisdom to all who ask wholeheartedly seeking wisdom from above. This wisdom, defined as moral skill, will enable Christians to navigate their trials. However, a warning is needed: Christians should not ask God for wisdom while also hoping to find help from the world’s way of dealing with hardship. Instead, they should trust God and accept his wisdom that allows them to endure trials virtuously in imitation of Christ.
James 1:9-12 | The Counterintuitive Wisdom of God
Christians might be inclined to think that if they are living wisely, everything will go well for them—they will be wealthy, happy, and healthy! But God’s wisdom shows us that hardship and prosperity are meaningless metrics for evaluating our success in life because God will bless the poor and overturn the fortunes of the rich.
James 1:13-18 | (Mis)Interpreting Your Trials
Christians must avoid misinterpreting their trials, especially when they respond sinfully to the hardship they face. They may be tempted to think that God is out to get them, tempting them to sin. On the contrary, God is perfect, holy, and the source of every good thing. He is so good that he can transform death into life through the Word of Truth.
James 1:19-21 | Receive the Word of God
Christians must receive the Word of God by paying attention through careful listening to God. James pictures God’s Word as a seed that is planted in the soil of the heart. That soil needs to be kept free from the weeds of sin, especially the sins of hasty speech and outbursts of anger.
James 1:22-25 | Respond to the Word of God
Christians must not only receive the Word of God, but they must also respond to the Word of God. Instead of simply hearing the Word, they must put the Word into action by doing it. James draws on Jesus’s teaching, where doing the Word is associated with the blessing of belonging to Jesus’s family.
James 1:26-27 | Three Marks of Real Religion
Many people claim to be religious but fail to be Christian. Authentic Christianity involves (1) controlled speech (possible only through the transformation of the heart), (2) care for the vulnerable, and (3) moral purity. In every age of the Church, there is the danger of turning Christianity into mere doctrinal affirmation. James wants that doctrine to enliven acts of social justice (in keeping with the Old Testament prophetic descriptions) and holy living.
James 2:1-13 | The Sin of Favoritism
Favoritism is incompatible with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Faith and favoritism don’t mix because God often chooses the poor to become his kingdom citizens, because the wealthy are generally disinclined to contribute their wealth to kingdom causes, and because it is the wealthy who are most inclined to disparage Christ and his kingdom (James 2:1-13). There is a perennial temptation to validate Christianity through association with celebrities, politicians, and the affluent. But Christ’s kingdom is comprised of the meek and lowly of heart.
James 2:14-26 |Real Faith Works
Faith without action is a faux faith—it’s a counterfeit form of faith. Authentic faith is a living and active faith that demonstrates itself through good works. Authentic Christianity is not merely a matter of personal piety or spirituality. Although authentic faith is personal, it is never private. Instead, it transforms the whole person, working itself out in doctrinal fidelity, love for God, and love for others. Authentic Christianity involves the whole person (head, heart, hands) and infuses all of life.
James 3:1-12 | The Disproportionate Power of the Tongue
Teachers must especially use caution when it comes to the disproportionate power of speech, but every person should be careful in this regard. The way that a person uses speech indicates what is going on in the heart. Words function like a thermometer, revealing the state of the heart. The aim of Christianity is not to suppress speech but to renew it so that it brings life and flourishing instead of relational harm and spiritual death. No one can tame the tongue on their own. This can be done only through a transformation of the heart.
James 3:13-18 | Real Wisdom
Authentic wisdom is demonstrated through Christlike gentleness. In the world system, the point of “wisdom” is to gain enough knowledge and savvy to get your own way and to exercise power over others. But this is wisdom from below—it’s a counterfeit form of wisdom, just as faith without action is a counterfeit form of faith. True wisdom is defined by moral virtue and results in peace instead of the exercise of power over others; it produces a harvest of righteousness instead of self-righteousness.
James 4:1-10 | Our Hearts & The Heart of God
For most of the letter, James has pointed out the hypocrisy that is found so often in Christian communities. Although Christians everywhere claim to be authentic, very often, their actions betray the opposite. Now, James reveals that the biggest problem: the heart. Our sinful hearts are the biggest problem. The answer is not a list of rules to follow but to see the faithful heart of God and humbly repent. Because God gives grace to the humble, he will exalt all who humble themselves before him.
James 4:11-17 | The Sin of Practical Atheism
Jesus brings people to God, allowing them to know and love him and, more importantly, to be known and loved by him. Still, Christians can sometimes operate as if they do not know God or even recognize his existence, living as practical atheists. Practical atheists replace the Word of God with their own law as they become judgmental toward others while at the same time violating Christ’s commands (hypocrisy and legalism combine here). They also ignore the will of God and live without conscious dependence on him.
James 5:1-6 | The Sin of Materialism
James has already warned his readers against idolizing money. Now, he writes a stern warning against those who do as a way of reminding Christians of the severe judgment on materialism. Materialism regularly fuels human exploitation and will be met with God’s judgment on the final day. In the present, however, consumerism has a way of producing misery as money and materials deteriorate, consuming those who consume all that they can acquire.
James 5:7-12 | How to Suffer Well
James begins the ending of his letter with another call to suffer well, returning to the letter’s opening topic. He instructs that to suffer well, Christians should patiently wait on God, refuse to complain about believers, follow the good examples of God’s people who have suffered well (especially the examples of the prophets and Job), and commit to God completely, trusting him to transform their suffering into sanctification.
James 5:13-18 | Prayer in All Seasons
Authentic Christianity is infused with prayer. Although it is sometimes difficult to believe in the power of prayer, the Bible is filled with examples, like that of Elijah, that testify to prayer’s powerful effects. Christians should pray in every season of life and in every situation. In times of suffering, Christians should pray for wisdom and endurance. In times of happiness, Christians should offer prayers of praise to God. In times of sickness, Christians should call for the elders for prayer and anointing with oil. Christians should pray in every season of life, but they should pray as part of a community of confession. Authentic Christianity includes mutual confession of sin, where believers confess their sins to one another, intercede for one another, and declare God’s forgiveness that is promised to the penitent.
James 5:19-20 | A Community of Mutual Accountability
Most New Testament letters end with a benediction or a word of blessing as the author imparts the grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead of imparting grace and peace, James instructs believers to keep each other accountable so that the community will be defined by grace and peace as sinners are restored to God and to one another. Embedded in these instructions is the hopeful promise that God, through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit, offers forgiveness to all those who repent.
For Further Study
Gilbert, Greg. James: A 12-Week Study. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.
Wright, N. T. with Phyllis J. Le Peau. James: 9 Studies for Individuals and Groups. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.
New Testament Surveys
Campbell, Constantine R. and Jonathan T. Pennington. Reading the New Testament as Christian Scripture: A Literary, Canonical, and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020.
Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016.
Wright, N. T. and Michael F. Bird. The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.
Blomberg, Craig L. and Mariam J. Kamell. James. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
Moo, Douglas J. The Letter of James, 2nd ed. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001.
Nystrom, David P. James. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997.
Bauckham, Richard. James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. New Testament Readings. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Chester, Andrew and Ralph P. Martin, The Theology of the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Davids, Peter H. A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude: Living in Light of the Coming King. Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014.