by Rev. Ian Arnold
If, among the New Testament Epistles there is a ‘poor cousin’; seen to be not quite making it; even a bit of an embarrassment; it would have to be this one, notwithstanding the fact that a good case can be made out for it having been written by James, the brother of Jesus. It took longer than most of the others to be accepted into the New Testament. Martin Luther would have taken it out if he could, referring to it as a “right strawy epistle”. Some have postulated it is, or could be, pre-Christian! Protestants who have accepted it tend to do so, grudgingly, as sub-Christian.
So, let’s look at why this should be.
Luther complained that the Epistle of James doesn’t uphold what is seen to be, and so widely acclaimed as, the doctrine of justification by faith alone such as is believed to be taught by Paul in his Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. True, you search James in vain for the word ‘justification’, even a hint of the doctrine of justification or salvation by faith alone. James is on a different tack altogether. In fact, on casually reading it, you could be forgiven for thinking that what we have in James is the antithesis of that doctrine.
The thing is, James is all about life. It’s wonderful, really. Never mind people claiming faith, as if this is adequate. Faith has to be lived. “Do not merely listen to the word”, he writes, “and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (Chapter 1:22) He gets straight to the point, doesn’t he?
Should a reader be in any doubt as to his meaning, and emphasis, it is all spelt out even more emphatically in Chapter 2. Just listen to the following:
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds. Can such a faith save him?” (Verse 14)
“Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (Verse 17)
“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (Verse 18)
“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (Verse 24)
True, on the surface, it looks as if there is a quarrel here with Paul (see Romans 3:28). But this is far from being the case. Paul never set aside the importance of living the things people say they believe in (see his memorable words, 1 Corinthians 13). As well, the way James wrote is incontrovertibly consistent with so many things our Lord Himself had taught. Knowing, or believing, will never be enough. It’s all a matter of putting into practice what you believe. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
For Martin Luther James may have been “a right strawy Epistle”, but for readers of Swedenborg it is music to their ears. Faith and charity must always go together. Faith by itself is not faith and charity by itself is not charity. They are two halves of one whole. True faith is found in charity and true charity is to be found only within faith. Of the countless times Swedenborg wrote on the subject, what follows says it all-
“No truth is in any sense holy unless it stems from good. A person can utter many truths from the Word, reciting them from heart, but unless they are the product of love of charity holiness is in no way attributable to them. If, however, love and charity are there, in that case he really acknowledges and believes them, doing so from the heart. It is similar with faith which so many people speaks of as that which alone saves; unless faith stems from love or charity it is in no sense faith. It is love and charity that render faith holy. The Lord is present within love and charity, but not within faith that has been separated.” “Arcana Caelestia” 724
We need to be clear here that it is not meritorious good works that are being urged on us here. It is all about the application of our beliefs and accepted spiritual values to daily life. Like we’ve seen, James said it all these centuries ago, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
There are just five Chapters in this scintillating and at times confronting little Epistle. The teaching is straight forward and always practical. James warns us, for instance, about the tongue, little as it is yet capable of causing so much mischief (Chapter 1:26). He beautifully writes of humility (Chapter 4:13-17). He urges us to “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other that you may be healed.” (Chapter 5:16). He makes it clear that God tempts no one, “but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire he is dragged away and enticed.” (Chapter 1:13, 14).There is also a timely warning to avoid favoritism based on outward appearances. “If you show partiality” (based on perceived richness or poverty) “you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (Chapter 2:9)
Finally, and what is easily missed, is what James wrote about the way we more fully enter into communion with the Lord, we in him and He in us. “Come near to God”he wrote and he will come near to you.” (Chapter 4:8). It’s lovely. The Lord presses to be received by us, His life of love and wisdom to be more fully in us. But we need to make the running. “For it is a law of order that in so far as a person approaches and comes near to God, which he should do entirely as if of himself, so far does God approach and come near to him, and links Himself to the person in his midst.” (“True Christian Religion”, 89).
Fifteen minutes is about right to read through this Epistle. And that allows you to do it in reasonably leisurely fashion. Enjoy it! See, as you read, if you can find even a few more ‘gems’ than I have so far highlighted. Be assured, they are there!