Monthly Archives: November 2013

Problem Passages in James: Part 4

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body… And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. – James 3:2,6

This is the second mention of the tongue in the book of James. The first is in James 1:26, which says, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” Looking at these two passages, it becomes very clear that James takes the tongue very seriously.

But does he take it too seriously? He gets it right when he tells us that we all stumble in many ways, but then seems to dismiss every other manner of sin, claiming that Christian perfection is found in taming the tongue. Taming the tongue is difficult and important, but can we really associate a tame tongue with perfection?

James then continues to discuss how much influence the tongue exerts over our lives and calls it a fire set alight by hell. This passage, on first reading is perplexing at best, disturbing at worst. What are we to make of James’ challenging words on the tongue.

When James calls the tongue a fire set among our body from hell, he is not the first teacher to present a dismal view of the tongue. In Matthew 15:11, Jesus teaches the Pharisees and his disciples, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of his mouth.”

His disciples are confused by this statement and ask Jesus for clarification. In explaining this, Jesus gives a statement that parallels James’ evaluation of the tongue. James claims that the tongue is set on fire by hell; Jesus explains the fruit of the tongue comes from the heart, which is evil. The tongue is difficult to tame because it readily responds to our sinful impulses.

How often is this validated in our daily experience? Our tongue is often the clearest indicator of the depravity of our hearts. We regret what we say because we don’t intend certain thoughts and impulses of our hearts to be revealed. Our efforts to tame our tongues fail because we haven’t tamed our hearts. They are still set on fire by the evil within us.

This idea finds support through the New Testament. Paul instructs the Ephesians not to allow filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking in their midst, but rather thanksgiving, which is later described as evidence of being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:4, 17-20). Slander and obscene talk are named in Colossians among the earthly things believers are to put away, choosing instead to put on the new self (Colossians 3:5-10). Jealousy and strife seen as evidence of worldliness in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 3:3).

Then if a person doesn’t stumble in what he says, it’s not because he has mastered the skill of taming the tongue, but because he has mastered his heart. We focus on taming our tongues by exercising greater restraint over it. This is certainly one approach advocated by the book of Proverbs. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” (Proverbs 10:19). “A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds back.” (29:11). Our hearts are undergoing sanctification but the process is not complete. We still struggle with bitterness, selfishness, anger, lust and a number of things and restraining our tongues is valuable in allowing us to relate fruitfully with others around us. This is advice that can and should be applied by anyone, believer and unbeliever.

We can, however, only conceal the nature of our hearts for so long. Eventually our true selves will be made evident in our speech. Proverbs tells us that even a fool is thought to be wise if he remains silent (17:28), but goes on to explain that a fool gives full vent to his spirit (29:11). We truly tame our tongues when we bring our hearts in line with the image we desire to project. Godly speech begins with a godly heart.

Proverbs comments also on the relationship between a righteous heart and wise speech. “The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off. The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse” (10:31-32). “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (15:28).

James understands this correlation between purity of heart and speech. The tongue that is untamed is indeed set on fire by hell, or the wickedness within. He rightly expresses that no human being can tame the tongue (James 3:8). This is because we cannot tame our hearts.

The audience of his letter were people who claimed to be wise (3:13) but their conduct and speech towards each other was poisonous, bitter and unloving. James observes from their conduct jealousy and selfish ambition which he condemns as worldly wisdom and demonic (3:15). Wisdom that comes from above is pure, peaceable, and gentle among other characteristics. The work of God in our hearts leaves evidence, not the least of which is in our speech.

May God be glorified as His wisdom is expressed in our speech.

Problem Passages in James: Part 3

Guest blogger: Andres Vera

Guest blogger, Andres Vera (bio below) also writes for his blog at drezvera.blogspot.ca

Guest blogger: Andres Vera

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). This is the shocking conclusion found in the epistle of James that appears to contradict Paul’s own conclusion on the same subject, “for we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Because of these seemingly contradictory conclusions regarding justification, it is easy to see why many have perceived Paul and James to be theological opponents presenting irreconcilable propositions. I will present the three most prominent views for understanding this passage, but believe that the third is the most coherent. Since the full post is quite lengthy, feel free to jump down to the end if you’d like!

The main problem that we usually have in interpreting this challenging passage is that we bring Paul’s understanding of “just” and “justification” and assume that James uses the word in the same way. The term “justification” is used in the New Testament with a “meaning that is somewhat different from and less than Paul’s fully developed doctrine indicated in that word.”[1] Some of these passages include Matt 11:19; Luke 7:29, 35, 10:29, 16:15; 1 Tim 3:16. All of these passages carry an idea of being right or having righteousness, but they are not intended to be salvific or redemptive in nature.

SOLUTION #1:

Understanding that James does not necessarily mean what Paul means when he talks about justification (especially since James is probably writing before the letter of Romans was written), some people have suggested that James is referring to a demonstrative justification whereby a person who has already been justified simply demonstrates and displays that justification.[2] This use of “justification” is observed in Matt 11:19b, “Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” and in Luke 7:35, “Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.” In both cases, “justified” is used to describe the right process of demonstrating and showing wisdom. Those who interpret the “justification” passages in James in this way argue that “justify” means “show to be righteous”.

This demonstrative understanding of justification is a tempting solution to resolve the alleged contradiction between Paul and James. If James is saying that a person is shown to be righteous by works and not by faith alone, then no contradiction exists. Since Paul is not concerned with how to demonstrate righteousness but rather with how to attain it, the two authors can be understood to be using different combinations of “works” and “faith” to explain different ideas. Although, proponents of this idea point to James 2:18, where James requests that his interlocutor show his faith apart from works if he can, as evidence for this reading, some still disagree. I think this view is inadequate because of the vindictive (pertaining to a court room) nature that “justify” usually carries as well as from a broader reading of the text.

SOLUTION #2:

Another proposed solution is that James uses “justify” to refer to a future eschatological justification rather than an initial justification. This argument claims that Paul refers to the initial declaration of a sinner’s innocence before God while James to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment.[3] In other words, James is not saying that Abraham was justified for the first time when he obeyed God, but that because of his faith and works, he will be justified at the time of judgment. This understanding of justification would also solve the tension of the passage. Since Paul uses justification to refer to the initial declaration of righteousness, the point when “we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:2), and James is not, the two are not in contradiction. If this were the case, James would not be saying anything about how a person attains initial justification, and therefore his comments about works are not problematic.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the timeframe of justification that James emphasizes in the passage. Whatever James refers to when he speaks of Abraham’s justification, he is clearly asserting that it took place “when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (2:21). James does not seem to be pointing to a justification that will take place in the future, but rather to one that occurs at the time (or prior) to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.

SOLUTION #3: (the right one in my opinion)

The best way to understand what James means by “justified” is to examine the theme of righteousness as it pertains to faith and works throughout the epistle as a whole and applying it to James words in 2:21-26. But since we don’t have time for that, we will just look at the verses in question. When James says that Abraham was justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar, he is not saying that he showed that he was righteous or that he would be declared righteous in the future judgment. James is saying that at that point in time, God declared Abraham to be righteous. He is not saying that he was made righteous at that time, for he says that righteousness was granted to him when “Abraham believed God” (2:23). Abraham had previously believed God and placed his faith in Him. This event is recounted in Gen 15:6, where Moses tells us that “he [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Therefore, James acknowledges that Abraham’s initial justification, the moment when righteousness was credited to him was in Genesis 15, before the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22.

This initial kind of justification is referred to by scholars as “extraordinary justification.”[4] “Extraordinary justification” simply refers to the point in time when God (extraordinarily) declares those who are sinners to be in the right before him if they trust in Jesus Christ for their salvation.[5] If James agrees that Abraham was extraordinarily justified when he believed and credits no work to his justification (which is what he does in 2:23), then he is in no way contradicting Paul. Nevertheless, the surrounding verses still need to be explained. When James says that Abraham was justified when he offered up Isaac on the altar, he is referring to God’s ordinary righteousness—that is, God is declaring righteous a person who is already righteous (pretty normal and ordinary)!

It is clear, then, that James is teaching that Abraham’s justification came as a result of his works in offering his son, and not only his mental and theological assent of God (faith). Abraham was not, however, justified by his works (as described in James 2:21) in the same way that he was when he first believed (2:23)! Instead, James is arguing that the faith of Abraham produced works in accordance God’s demands such that his behavior is approved by God and judged to be righteous.

James also clarifies that Abraham’s “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22). This is not the point at which his faith began but rather a point at which the fruit of that faith, which had come many years before, manifested itself through obedience. Furthermore, James says that Scripture was fulfilled when Abraham offered his son on the altar. When Abraham obeyed God and offered Isaac on the altar, he was fulfilling Scripture. He was in fact fulfilling that which would inevitably happen – the fruit of his faith. Just as Scripture must (and will) be fulfilled, so faith must (and will) also be fulfilled through obedience.

[1] Arthur E. Travis, “James and Paul, A Comparative Study” Southwestern Journal of Theology, 1969 12:64

[2] Raymond A. Martin, James, I-II Peter, Jude ,136

[3] Paul A. Rainbow, The Way of Salvation : The Role of Christian Obedience in Justification, 218

[4] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 263-73

[5] Thomas R Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 353

* This post is made up of excerpts and ideas taken from “Faith, Works, and Righteousness: Understanding the Theology of Justification in James”. The full paper is available by request.

Andres Vera is 24 years old and currently living in Louisville Kentucky with his wife Courtney. He is originally from Colombia, but lived in Canada for 13 years before moving to the US. He’s currently working on his Master of Divinity in Biblical and Theological Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andres enjoys a good game of soccer, volleyball or a swim any time. His current favourite pastime is reading and sharing the Lord with his neighbours. He loves and lives for the Lord Jesus Christ.