By Justin Borger with assistance from Generous Giving staff
James’ letter, written “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations,” contains an array of practical teaching on living the Christian life. In just five short chapters, James touches on a host of different issues: From perseverance to prayer to partiality to taming the tongue to active faith to warnings about wealth and encouragement for the poor, James’ letter calls Christians to work out their faith in the essential details of everyday life. Some have argued that James’ emphasis on the necessity of good works conflicts with the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone. However, the apparent differences dissolve when their respective audiences and contexts are taken seriously.
Our study of James consists of two parts. In the first section, readers will find our stewardship study notes. These notes analyze, in a passage-by-passage fashion, the implications of the book’s teaching for Christian generosity and related issues. The second section consists of short essays describing the book’s major stewardship themes. These notes and essays are not intended to be comprehensive explanations of James’ goals in writing this book, nor do they exhaust the book’s possible applications in matters related to stewardship and generosity.
While Generous Giving’s Bible study material will aid anyone who is searching the Scriptures for guidance, they may prove especially useful as sermon helps for pastors and as a resource for teachers, advisors and lay leaders interested in obeying and teaching the message of Scripture in matters of generosity and stewardship. We readily acknowledge our fallibility in writing these study notes, for they are the work of humans, not God. Please search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11) as you read this material critically, carefully and prayerfully. May God bless you in your studies.
Passage-by-Passage Study Notes
James 1:2-4 (Key Passage) — Suffering Joy: James gives encouragement while imparting a crucial theological principle: Trials always bring an opportunity to grow in spiritual completeness. James’ words resemble the encouragement that is given in Hebrews 12:6, not to grow weary when we suffer: “The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Like a father, James is concerned that his readers use their suffering to become strong in God—“mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Here, James provides a much-needed antidote to our materialistic outlook. He wants his readers to be “complete, not lacking anything.” But how do we reach this completion? Not by getting all the things we want or seeing our plans succeed (James 4:13-16). According to James, completion comes through “trials of many kinds.” Such trials involved economic struggles for James’ original audience, and they will involve economic struggles for us today. Interestingly, rather than looking on economic struggles and sacrifices as a source of emptiness and insecurity, James viewed such experiences as opportunities to be made perfect and whole.
James 1:5-8 (Key Passage) — Ask If You Lack: “If any of you lacks ... ,” we are told to ask God, “who gives generously,” and he promises to give us wisdom. Although wisdom is a complicated concept in Jewish literature, here it undoubtedly represents the grace and knowledge we need for trust and obedience. God’s generosity is specific; he gives us what we need for life and godliness. Therefore, our prayers of request should be made for the specific things God promises to give us, namely, wisdom and everything we need to obey him faithfully. By praying for the things God has promised to provide, we are protected from doubts and double-mindedness which toss us about “like a wave of the sea” (James 1:6). When we are single-minded in praying for God’s promised gifts, we can have confidence that we will receive what we ask because God loves to “give generously.” It is worth noting the close connection between James’ teaching in 1:5-8 and Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:7-11, where we are reminded, “Ask and it will be given to you ... your Father in heaven gives good gifts to those who ask him!” Even though God gives the specific things he promises to provide, rather than the whims of our desires, there is no stinginess involved in God’s giving. God gives as a Father who seeks the ultimate good of his children.
James 1:9-11 (Key Passage) — Humiliation and Exultation: James teaches us how to view our socioeconomic status, with our eternal identity and the changing winds of life as a backdrop (James 4:13-17). His instruction bears a striking similarity to Paul’s teaching about Christ’s example in Philippians 2:5-11. When in a state of exaltation, Christ humbled himself (James 1:8). But after being humbled, he was “highly exalted” (James 1:9). Likewise, we ought to identify with Christ in our respective situations, acting in humility when we experience the temporary highs of this world, but celebrating our future exaltation when we encounter temporal socioeconomic humiliations and hardships. Whether we are rich or poor, high or low, no matter what our earthly situation is, our ultimate identity and worth are anchored in a permanent relationship with Jesus, who said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12). See James theme essays Partiality to the Rich, Warning to the Rich and Wisdom of Humility.
James 1:12 — God rewards those who persevere in times of trial. Although it is possible to operate according to a hedonistic calculus or “health-and-wealth gospel” that merely looks at the personal benefits of obedience, the Scriptures are clear that it is good to seek God’s rewards. The fact that it is possible to seek God’s rewards insincerely does not mean that we should not seek them at all. Rather, we should seek the pleasures and rewards of obedience which the Father promises to those who obey (1 John 3:1), suffering and living sacrificially for his sake and for others.
James 1:13-17 — God does not tempt anyone. People are tempted by their own desires, which ultimately lead to death. James backs up his point by telling his readers that far from being a source of temptation, every good gift comes from the Father above, who does not change. God is straightforward and open about his own generosity (Matthew 5:44-48). It is important that we note the way God’s unchanging steadfastness is emphasized. Throughout the book, James attacks hypocrisy and double-mindedness as humanity’s basic problem. But God is single-minded and unchanging. He does not tempt us but--even in the midst of trials--calls us to steadfast devotion to himself in response to his singleminded care for us. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters ... You cannot serve both God and Money.”
James 1:18 — James’ use of the concept of “firstfruits” in relation to God’s people underscores the fact that we belong to him. We are God’s possession. In Old Testament times, the firstfruits of the harvest were given to God to symbolize the fact that God owns the whole harvest. As God’s children, we are the representative possessions of God’s creation, and the first-fruits among his belongings. Our status as God’s belongings should give us a sense of great security. As the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism says, our only comfort in life and death is that we are not our own but belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who himself was the firstfruits of God’s salvation.
James 1:22 (Key Passage) — Do What It Says: As a practically minded pastor, James reminds his readers of the importance of active obedience. Hearing and agreeing with God’s word is never enough to please God. Nor is it enough for us to understand God's word in a way that is merely intellectual. Regardless of how orthodox our thinking may be, right doctrine is always wrong doctrine when divorced from right practice. Intellectual acuity cannot take the place of a lifestyle of obedience to God’s word. Indeed, James says that if we merely understand God’s word with our ears but fail to do it, we have been deceived, or blinded. This means that if we are not actively engaged in works of justice, righteousness and generosity which characterize God’s very nature, we cannot say that we truly know who he is. See James theme essay Faith and Works; and 1 John 3:16-18; Jeremiah 22:16; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31.
James 1:25b — The relationship between grace and works in James has been hotly debated. However, James’ statement that God’s children receive grace or are blessed in doing good work is helpful in seeing how these to realities are related within the actual life of a believer. James points out that good works are themselves blessings from God. We are blessed in doing, and this is a grace that comes from God. As the apostle Paul said in Philippians 2:13, “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Or as St. Augustine said, “God gives what he demands.” He is the one who pours his own grace and generosity into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Thus, it is in blessing others and obeying the Lord that we ourselves are blessed. See James theme essay Faith and Works.
James 1:26-27 (Key Passage) — Pure Religion: We are religious fakes if we do not care for the poor and powerless. In these verses James describes what “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” looks like. In The Letter of James, commentator Douglas Moo points out that James becomes increasingly practical and specific as chapter 1 moves up to this point. James 1:26-27 brings this increasingly specific advice to a climax, and interestingly, the most specific description of pure and faultless religion that James gives in these verses is “to look after orphans and widows in their distress ...” Although two other specific commands are given (bridling the tongue and keeping oneself from worldliness), both are negative and less specific than the command to care for orphans and widows, a constant biblical theme and one of increasing importance in our world ravage by war, AIDS, and abandonment. See James theme essays Faith and Works and Warning to the Rich and 1 and 2 Chronicles theme essay Interacting with Unbelievers.
James 2:1-4 (Key Passage) — Favoritism: James addresses the sin of partiality toward the rich and discrimination against the poor as it exists within the church. James provides an example of favoritism taking place during an assembly where one man is given a good seat and a rag-clad man is forced to stand, and this example almost certainly applied to other, related real-world instances of socioeconomic discrimination experienced by James’ poorer readers. James 2:1-4 makes it clear that such discrimination is based on visible distinctions such as the rich man’s “gold ring” (James 2:2) and the poor man’s “shabby clothing” (James 2:2). James concludes this section with a verdict: Judging people on the basis of appearances and socioeconomic distinctions is evil (James 2:4). Today, there are literally too many examples of this sort of evil to list, and it should make the church weep. One thinks of the way churches often abandon lower income areas, moving toward safety and comfort to the suburbs (the opposite track of the Savior, who moved toward danger and sacrifice). Or we might note the simple way we tend to ignore, look down upon, or make fun of people for the way they talk or dress or act (even if we only do this in our heads). Of course, it is natural to gravitate to people who are beautiful, less needy, and seem to have “got it all together.” One thinks of all the subtle ways our churches seek to keep and attract well-educated, wealthy people. We are naturally inclined to make large expenditures for beautiful buildings and programs while simultaneously neglecting run-of-the-mill mercy ministries that may not impress or attract “the movers and the shakers” or those who can pay for more such programs and buildings. Such partiality, whether it exists on a personal or corporate level, is evil. See James theme essays Partiality to the Rich and Warning to the Rich.
James 2:5-7 (Key Passage) — Rich in Faith: Here, James calls his readers to listen as he explains why favoritism is so evil. “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” James pulls back the curtain from God’s cosmic plan for his kingdom. He has given his own righteous favor especially to the poor, the specific group of people whom the church had marginalized. God had chosen those who are poor in the world’s eyes to be rich in faith (James 2:5). Now we can see why partiality toward the rich is so despicable. The Christians who received James’ letter had “insulted the poor,” whom God chose to be recipients of his grace. James 2:6-7 becomes intensely specific: “But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” Such specificity must be given its full weight. We should not ignore the fact that on the surface, James seems to identify the rich with the wicked and the poor with the faithful. This generalization is significant and should not be taken lightly. Indeed, James’ generalizations about the moral status of the rich and the poor are not without support throughout the Scriptures: Psalm 10; 37:8-17; 72:2, 4; Isaiah 29:19; Luke 6:20, 24. However, two points should temper the way we understand this important generalization. First, James is not saying that God has chosen the poor to be the only ones counted among the faithful; rather, he says God has chosen them to be rich in faith. Indeed, James implicitly includes wealthy persons among the faithful in James 1:11 although their riches are looked on as a liability. Second, the rest of Scripture recognizes the sincere faith of many wealthy believers such as Abraham (Genesis 13:2; 15:6), Joseph (Genesis 39:2-4; 41:40-42), David (2 Samuel 8:15; 1 Chronicles 29:28), Solomon (1 Kings 10:23-24; 2 Chronicles 1:11-12), Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60), and Zacchaeus (Luke 2:2, 8-11). So while wealth brings inherent spiritual vulnerability and is a liability for anyone who desires to be rich in faith, “rich” is not a biblical synonym for “wicked.” The balance needed in interpreting this passage is summed up by commentator Douglas Moo in The Letter of James: “If those suffering oppression are tempted to radicalize James’ message about poverty and wealth, those of us enjoying a comfortable lifestyle are equally prone to trivialize that message.” See James theme essays Partiality to the Rich, Warning to the Rich and Wisdom of Humility.
James 2:8-13 — Stepping back from the specific sin of partiality, James directs his reader’s attention to the “royal law” (identified by Jesus as one of the two Greatest Commandments) which calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is the rock-bottom requirement for Christians: “If I were in this person's shoes, what would I want them to do for me? How would I want to be loved?” Favoritism shown to the affluent, or failure to attend to the needs of the poor, is just one example of how the fundamental law of love can be broken. Accordingly, James reminds his readers that breaking one part of the law shatters the whole (James 2:11). Verse 12 then goes on to say that we are to speak and act under the law of freedom. We are to obey with joy because God’s word which can save us is written on our hearts (James 1:21). That is, believers are able to obey God in freedom because “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). James concludes the section by reminding his readers that we must show mercy if we expect to receive mercy at the judgment, echoing the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:9). The Lord’s Prayer asks God to judge us with the same severity we use in judging others. While our mercy cannot save us, the mercy we show to others demonstrates the fact that we have, in fact, been saved. See James theme essay Faith and Works.
James 2:14-17 (Key Passage) — Faith and Works: James now moves into a discussion about the relationship between faith and works. Interestingly, the illustration that he selects to distinguish between living and dead faith hinges on the way believers care for the physical needs of the poor: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” The point is clear: We who fail to care for the physical needs of the poor are spiritually bankrupt. Notice that the example James uses not only calls for active, but proactive obedience. James does not say, “Suppose a brother or sister comes to you who is without clothes or food.” Rather, James suggests that if such a person exists (i.e., “is”) without food then true faith is demonstrated by proactively meeting the need, while worthless faith will ignore the need. Caring for others in need, loving them as we would wish ourselves loved in the same situation, is one of the most important ways in which faith works, showing itself to be true. See James theme essay Faith and Works and 1 John 3:16-18; Matthew 25:31-46; and Luke 16:19-31.
James 3:13-16 (Key Passage) — Wisdom of Humility: James contrasts two very different worldviews that correspond to two very different types of “wisdom.” First, there is the wisdom of humility, which is expressed by good deeds and outward actions. James’ description of wisdom that is rooted in humility or “meekness” is a clear echo of what we are told in Proverbs, that wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). A person who is wise must be humble because he recognizes that true success is found in submission to God (James 3:17-18; Philippians 2:8-9), and that all will be judged for their deeds. This type of outlook naturally produces “good deeds done in humility” because the wise person recognizes the gracious deeds that God has done beforehand. The wisdom of humility is then contrasted with the so-called “wisdom” of “selfish ambition” (James 3:14-15). This pseudo-wisdom is the self-motivated and self-centered wisdom of “insider-trading.” It ignores its dependence upon the Creator, and attempts to be self-made. This kind of ambition engenders despair and ultimately remains unsatisfied. James actually calls it satanic (James 3:15). And whereas the wisdom of humility produces “good deeds” such as those recounted by James (welcoming the poor, caring for those in need), the wisdom of selfish ambition and envy produces “disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). See James theme essays Faith and Works and Wisdom of Humility.
James 3:17-18 — This chapter ends with an extended description of the first type of wisdom, “the wisdom of humility.” We are immediately reminded that this wisdom transcends the human heart and must, therefore, be a gift from heaven (James 3:17). First and foremost, the wisdom of humility is characterized by recognition of its own dependence. Does this conflict with American values like personal independence and the ability to pull oneself up by the bootstraps? From a basis in humility come other descriptions of what pure wisdom looks like: It is “peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” The result, says James, is a “harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18). See James theme essay Wisdom of Humility.
James 4:1-3 (Key Passage) — Fights and Quarrels: James says that the problem is our misguided desires. Our affections are twisted up in knots so that we love what should be repulsive. The problem is not that we have desires. The problem is that we have bad desires. Implicit throughout the entire book of James is the idea that we should be drawn to the God who “gives generously without finding fault” (James 1:4). Ours is the Father of Lights, after all, and he gives “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17). There is nothing wrong with wanting those gifts. The problem is that we have double-minded desires. James says that we should go to God, the giver of good and perfect gifts, and ask him for gifts that are—“good and perfect.” The reason that we don’t always receive when we do ask is that we ask with “wrong motives” in order to spend what we get on things that are frivolous (James 4:3) and focused on our pleasure and luxury and success (Titus 3:3, 5). As said above in the note on James 1:5-8, God’s generosity is specific; the Father who gives “every good and perfect gift” provides us with what we need for life and godliness. Therefore, our prayers of request should be made for the specific things God promises to give us.
James 4:4-5 — James now breaks with his previous tone and castigates his readers. Previously he had addressed them as “my brothers” (James 2:1) and even “my dear brothers” (James 2:5) but now he calls them “adulterers” because of their spiritual unfaithfulness, perhaps indicating that he is addressing a problem group dominated by self-concern and materialism. Fraternizing with the world and its treasures ruptures the covenantal relationship we have with the Lord, for the love of stuff prevents the love of the Lord (as Matthew 6:24 says, we cannot love and serve both God and mammon). God is jealous for the undivided devotion of his bride, the church. While we should find great security in the fact that we are not our own but belong to God, we should be terrified to break with that wonderful relationship because we serve a jealous God.
James 4:13-17 (Key Passage) — Presumptuous Plans: Again, James addresses an issue of arrogance (see James 3:13-16, 17-18). However, this time he frames the problem with a short illustration about presumptuous business plans. A certain person makes the self-confident statement: “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend and year there, carry on business and make money.” James responds to this assertion by reminding his readers of their creaturely dependence. Human life is tenuous at best, and James calls it “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” How can a person make such bold assertions about the future? It is important to note that what James is criticizing is not money-making or strategic business planning. (Making financial plans for the future, such as putting money away for a child’s college education, can be a form of good stewardship.) Rather, James is criticizing an attitude that “boasts about tomorrow.” He is criticizing the mindset—frequently seen in advertising for financial services—that assumes we have the ability to determine our own destinies, or chart our own courses in the world. James uses a financial illustration to get his point across because he knew that our attitudes toward money and financial planning are especially good indicators of our dependence upon God (or lack thereof). And this is the issue James is addressing. We are to submit ourselves and our financial plans to God. After all, if Jesus, who was God himself, submitted his plans to the will of the Father in Gethsemane, how much more should we submit our future to him? Of course, what is important is not that we say with our lips “Lord willing” whenever we announce plans to do something. Rather than merely paying lip service to God’s sovereignty, we ought to put on a mindset of dependence upon God that directs our consciousness in every action. We must not do anything without recognizing our dependence upon his providence. See James theme essay Presumptuous Plans.
James 5:1-6 (Key Passage) — Warning to the Rich: James spent the first two verses of chapter 5 pronouncing judgments on the rich before giving the specific reason why they are in such trouble: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your cloths.” As mentioned above, while “rich” and “wicked” are not biblical synonyms when the Scriptures are taken as a whole, the close connection that these two groups have in these verses is striking, and must be taken very seriously. Because James is speaking to Christians about the fate of the unbelieving rich (who think they are believers), the intention behind these severe statements of judgment is to remind Christians of the fate that awaits those who use their wealth for their own satisfaction. The wicked rich are not to be envied or admired. In James 5:3-5, James continues to pronounce severe judgment on the rich, “Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire ...” and then proceeds to give four reasons why this judgment is coming: (1) accumulation of wealth as in Luke 12:15-21, (2) failure to pay workmen (3) self-indulgence and (4) violent oppression of the innocent. We should note the close connection that James draws between the wealth of the wicked and the kind of punishment they endure. It is the corrosion of the wealthy’s gold and silver that testifies against them and eats their flesh like fire. The riches that that the wealthy sought after so greedily are used as tools of punishment. This passage is very similar to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:19: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy ...” James’ words serve as the realization of this warning. See James theme essay Warning to the Rich.
James 5:7-8 — The patience which James calls his Christian readers to practice stands in obvious contrast to the attitude and practices of the rich in James 5:1-6. The rich who had abused James’ readers were unwilling to wait for their reward, choosing to accumulate wealth on earth instead of storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19). In contrast, James points his readers to the example of patience found in the farmer waiting for the harvest: “You too be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near” (James 5:8). Our consolation is not found in our fine clothing, or accumulated wealth, but rather, the Christian’s consolation is found in the return of God, who is our inheritance. See James theme essays Warning to the Rich and Wisdom of Humility.
James 5:12 — “Let your ‘Yes’ be yes, and your ‘No,’ no ...” When we give our word, we should not make elaborate promises or invoke some outside authority. We should simply give our word and abide by it. This must be true in financial matters, including pledges of support for missionaries and churches (and we should not be surprised when we are asked to meet such commitments, although others must be gracious about emergencies). As stewards, our word must be taken especially seriously because we represent God as his servants in all we do (see also Matthew 5:34-37). The need to follow underlines the need to plan carefully so that we can keep the commitments we make.
James 5:13-18 — Earlier, James told his readers to pray for wisdom if they were lacking (James 1:5). Now here, James exhorts his readers to pray for other reasons: (1) if they are in “trouble” or suffering and (2) if they are sick. Again, prayers must be done in faith and without “double-mindedness,” which renders our prayers useless. James reminds his readers of the power of prayer in promising that sick people will be made well (James 5:15), and by pointing to the example of Elijah. “Elijah was a man just like us...” says James, “He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17-18). James leaves no doubt about prayer’s potency. When prayers are aligned with the things that God desires for us, they are sure and certain. In response to prayers of faith, God gives generously without finding fault (James 1:5).
James 5:19-20 — James leaves his readers with one final exhortation: Be stewards of each other. We are our brother’s keepers. The most valuable things that have been put in human trust are other humans. The “royal law” calls us to treat each other as we ourselves would wish to be treated (James 2:8), and this calls us to seek after those who have gone astray in love.