Sermon preached on James 1:1-4 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/03/2021 in Novato, CA.
We rightly say that the Christian life is a life of faith. And yet what does that really look like? How does it affect your worldview and perspectives in life? How does it affect how you handle hard times in life – and even good times? How you does it affect how you view your circumstances, whatever they may be? How does it affect what you think about others? How does affect how you spend your time and money? How does it affect how you make your plans and set your life goals? What role does God’s Word actually play in your everyday life? I could go on and on.
What I’m talking about is how your faith is related to what we call your practice. How does your faith affect how we think and act? It’s the difference yet connection between doctrine and living. Or to say it with some big words, it’s the relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Orthodoxy means “right doctrine” and is about what truths we are confessing in our Christian faith. Orthopraxy means “right practice” and it’s about how our faith is lived out in thought, word, and deed. We in the OPC really get excited about orthodoxy – it’s even in the name of our denomination! But our right doctrine says we should also get excited about how we live. Right faith should inevitably lead to right practice.
I hope you will appreciate why I am starting off our new series today going through this connection between doctrine and living. The book of James is especially concerned with orthopraxy; about right living. But James recognizes and teaches that this flows out of our faith. James doesn’t delve into the depth of doctrine in the same way that people like Paul or John do in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe that doctrine. We do find doctrine here, in James, both stated and referenced. But it’s largely a book about the working out of that doctrine in our practical living. Let us be excited then to be able to wrestle through the kinds of questions I put at the start. Our Christian life is a life of faith – what all does that really look like? Our study through the book of James will give us many opportunities to consider that question.
By way of introduction, let’s begin our study of this book with some biographical details. That will be our first point for today. First, it is an epistle, a letter. Verse 1 tells us who it is to and from. It says it is from James. James is a common name of the time, so the fact that there is no other identifying note about this James suggests that it was a very well-known James. That really leaves us only three options for the early church. There were two apostles named James from Jesus’ twelve disciples: James, son of Zebedee, and James son of Alphaeus. Since James son of Zebedee was martyred by Herod Agrippa I pretty quickly, see Acts 12, he’s not a commonly held candidate. James, son of Alphaeus, being the lesser known of the two, is generally assumed the epistle would have noted it was him writing. The other option, and the best option, and the traditionally held option, is that this is the James who was also the brother of Jesus. That James took on a prominent role in the church at Jerusalem, as we see in the book of Acts. He is especially highlighted in Acts 15 in his role of presiding over the Jerusalem Council. That council was convened to address matters concerning Gentiles being included in the church. Early church writings complement what we have in Acts, recording that James was appointed by the apostles to serve as a bishop at Jerusalem until his martyrdom for the faith in approximately AD 62. So then, this traditional view of authorship is how I will be approaching the book.
As to its recipients, we see in verse 1 that that it says he is writing to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. After our 1 and 2 Kings series, I hope you can appreciate the literal reference there. The twelve tribes of Israel had been conquered and exiled by the Assyrians and Babylonians and thus had become scattered and dispersed all over that part of the world. The question becomes if James is using that language literally in terms of Jewish ethnic descent, or spiritually as a label to refer to the true church made up of spiritual Israel, all who believe in Jesus regardless of their ethnic heritage. Normally, I would tend to read references like this in the New Testament epistles spiritually, as a reference to the true church regardless of if they are Jew or Gentile. But it is typically thought that this letter was written very early on, maybe sometime in the mid-40s AD, prior to the Jerusalem Council and at a point with the church was still predominantly Jewish, ethnically speaking. Because of this, it is generally thought that James actually was addressing the literal twelve Jewish tribes in the Dispersion.
Please note that this doesn’t take away application for us Gentiles saved in Christ. Our study will show that there is nothing in this book that would be applicable to only ethnically Jewish Christians. Rather, we are reminded with great joy two wonderful truths. One, James’ writing to the dispersed twelve tribes has a wonderful redemptive-historical recognition. It notes that God in Christ Jesus has begun to gather up the scattered tribes of Israel and bring them back together in their Davidic Messiah, King Jesus. That was a promise prophesied in several places of Scripture, even as early as Deuteronomy 30. Two, this faith that God brought first to the twelve tribes of Israel, he has also extended to include us Gentiles who turn to Christ in faith. The end result is that God has united together one saved people in Jesus Christ as the true Israel of God. And so, as we’ll see, because we have been made part of this church of Christ Jesus, everything in this letter finds hearty application to us too.
With those biographical notes about this book in place, let me now turn to use our verses for today to illustrate the theme I said we find in this book. I’ve stated that James helps us to see how our faith is actually put into practice and lived out. Today’s verses help demonstrate that through the concept of how trials in life test our faith and that in turn matures us as Christians. You might recall that back in March of last year, when all this shelter in place stuff started happening for COVID-19, that I preached on these verses. I pointed to how this passage calls us to consider such trials as a reason for finding joy because of the sanctifying effect they have on our faith. Well, I don’t want to simply repeat what I preached on then. Rather, I want us recognize how these verses are also thematic for the whole book of James. James wants us to put our faith into action, and these opening verses show us just that.
So then, let’s dig into our second point for today and start looking at what it says about faith being tested. This is in verse 2. Notice the context for how our faith is tested. It speaks of the various trials we’ll experience in life. The word here for “trials” in the Greek can be translated as both “trials” and “temptations”. It’s a word with a broad range of meaning. It can refer to outward circumstances that test how we will respond. It can also refer to inward enticements of the heart that try to lure us away from righteousness. Since verse 2 speaks of “various” such trials and temptations we should presume it has all these differing things in mind. So many things can try and test and tempt us in life.
James goes on to say in verse 3 that these trials will test our faith. The idea of testing here is to prove if something is genuine. In other words, when the trials and temptations come, we will either demonstrate by how we respond to have a genuine, lively faith. Or we will show from our response that we have a dead, counterfeit faith. Next chapter will delve further into such notions of genuine faith versus dead faith, but we also see it here in the context of trial and temptation. Such testing will help reveal whether your faith is real or not. To clarify, I’m not saying that a genuine faith means you pass every test perfectly, as if you always respond righteously when a test comes. That is not possible, this side of glory. But is our faith operative through the test? Is our faith wrestling through the test as we determine how we will respond to the test?
We can certainly imagine tests that come on false believers that reveal they really don’t have true faith. For example, we could imagine someone who claimed to be a Christian but really they were only involved in church because they liked the social benefits. But then say persecution on Christians starts coming from society. Maybe the social benefits of church are outweighed to that person by the troubles they face from society for professing Christ. A false believer in that circumstance will likely conclude it is not worth claiming to follow Jesus. And in that case, they will end up renouncing the faith, and their “faith” will not have passed the test. That is just one example where false faith can be exposed by trial and temptation. And it’s an example that James touches on in chapter 2.
Another example would be if you struggle with a particular sin. Let’s say you struggle with temptations to speak kindly. Let’s say you typically go around tearing people down all the time with your words. Let’s say God’s Word keeps confronting you and yet you keep rejecting it and ignoring it. You won’t acknowledge that you are in the wrong. You just hard heartedly claim to be a Christian and are content to live in your sin. If you really have no life of faith speaking against the sin in your life, such testing would expose the deadness of your faith. In fact, after a while, in such an example, you probably will just get tired of Christians and God’s Word confronting you on your sin and will probably just drop the charade altogether and just renounce your supposed faith. This too is an example that James touches on in chapter 3.
So then, there are various trials and temptations that can test whether someone’s faith is genuine or not. Again, this doesn’t mean that a tested faith that is genuine always responds in the righteous way to a test. A test of your righteousness is simultaneously a test of your faith. You might fail the test from a righteousness standpoint but past the test from a faith standpoint. This leads us then to our third point, then, to understand that a genuine faith, when tested results in endurance and steadfastness of the faith.
This is stated in verse 3. It says that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. This is a fruit of the testing. It’s implied here that it’s talking about genuine faith. True faith endures the test. True faith that is tested and tried produces steadfastness of faith through the trial. That’s why you might fail the test in terms of what righteousness would demand of you, but you might pass the test in terms of your faith still clinging to Christ and his forgiveness and grace. You might learn a tough lesson through the trial should you fail to do what you should have done. You might be encouraged in the grace of God if you did do the right thing when tested. Your faith itself might be challenged and impurities in your faith exposed in the trial and refined away through the process. But if your faith remains through the trial then it not only has shown its genuineness, but steadfastness has come from it. And that is a good thing!
As our passage goes on to say, steadfastness under trials also over time brings its own fruits too. That’s what verse 4 goes on to say. Verse 4, “And let steadfastness have its full effect. The language about steadfastness having its full effect is literally about letting steadfastness do the full work it will do in us. It’s saying, let steadfastness finish its job because when it is complete, there will be wonderful fruits that come from steadfastness. So, verse 4 goes on to explain. “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” When it says “that you may be”, it’s speaking in terms of the goal and final outcome of the steadfastness. The steadfastness that is developed through your faith being tested is going to keep working in you to make you into something perfect and complete and lacking in nothing.
The language of being “perfect” speaks of spiritual maturity. It’s the idea of finishing what has been planned. It’s like if you are doing a puzzle, you look on the box for what the final outcome will look like. When you start, it’s just a heap of pieces. Over time, the intended image slowly begins to be seen. When you are finished, the puzzle is “perfected” in the sense meant here. The final product is what was intended. It’s reached its intended state. God uses trial after trial to produce steadfastness in us and in turn grow us in spiritual maturity.
The language of “complete” here is complementary to the idea of being “perfect”. The word for “complete” has to do about being “whole”. You are spiritually complete, intact, not missing any parts you are supposed to have. Again, this is like the puzzle analogy. It’s a horrible thing when you finish the puzzle but find you are missing a piece. But God says that his work in testing our faith is so at the end we won’t be missing any pieces of our spiritual puzzle. We’ll be whole.
Just to make sure we don’t miss the point, these ideas of perfection and completeness are complemented with this language that we won’t be lacking anything. This is obviously in regards to our final outcome. The end goal for us spiritually in a tried and refined faith, is that we won’t lack any good thing our hearts need. James gives us an example of the kinds of things he has in mind in the next verse. We didn’t read it today, but verse 5 goes on to say that if we find that we lack wisdom, we can ask God for it. That’s same Greek word for lacking in verse 5 and verse 4. In our final state of Christian perfection, we won’t lack anything our souls need; we’ll be perfected in wisdom, and knowledge, and righteousness.
To clarify, we won’t reach such a state of perfection in this life. The complete perfecting of the believer is only realized in glory, in our resurrection life. In theological terms, we call that glorification, when God completes his work to renovate our souls. But this passage reminds us that God begins that perfecting work here and now. And he does it through trials and temptations. He uses those things to test our faith, producing steadfastness, which over time grows us in godliness. This is what we call sanctification and it’s a lifelong process for a believer.
This is in fact what we find Jesus talking about in the Sermon on the Mount as well. Remember, Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.” By the way, this is something we’ll see a lot of in our study of James. James draws a lot of material directly from Jesus’ teachings, more than any other New Testament epistle; especially from the Sermon on the Mount. Well, when Jesus said, “Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect,” we can appreciate that in two senses. First, we can recognize how we fall short of that standard and look to Jesus for forgiveness and grace – which is exactly why Jesus died on the cross, so that he could grant forgiveness to all who believe on him. But second, we can then recognize that this perfection is the goal God in Christ has for us his children. We strive for it in this life, by his grace, and through trial and tribulation. And God will complete the work in his perfect timing.
Do you see how this all goes back to what the start of verse 2 says? We can count it all joy when the trials and troubles come. Not because they are easy or fun. But because of how God uses them for our sanctification. And if we can count and consider them all joy, then we can and should praise God in these circumstances.
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, today’s passage reminds us that faith is at work through trial and temptation. Faith helps us know how to think about those trials. Faith spurs us on in such trials. Faith puts troubles into the right context and perspective. Faith learns and grows through such trials, even when faith itself finds its weaknesses being exposed through the trials. Faith is put into practice in trial and temptation.
My faith was especially tested a lot last year. Maybe yours was too. I wish I could say that I always passed the test in terms of the righteous response. But by the grace of God, when we struggle to pass the tests, may our faith learn from those mistakes. And in faith let us look to keep learning what our faith should have us think, say, and do regarding whatever trial is before us.
And so, may this new year of 2021 and this series in James recommit us to walk by faith, think by faith, and speak by faith. Let us have a renewed commitment this year to what the Christian faith really is all about in terms of our practice. Let’s get excited that this year not only about orthodoxy but also orthopraxy! Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.