What is the meaning of “wisdom” as referenced in James 1:5? What is the meaning of the “Royal Law?” What does James mean when he says, “faith without works is dead?” Is there a conflict in what James teaches about works and, what Paul are teaches about faith?
Here we go! The General Epistle of James. So called General Epistle because it was written to a general audience. James was the son of Joseph and Mary – half-brother of Jesus. He first rejected Jesus as Messiah (see John 7:5), but later believed (see 1 Corinthians 15:7). Of all the apostles, this James was first to be martyred. Acts 12:1-2 tells us that he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa around the year A.D. 62. James had been the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The writer does not use the title of an apostle – but calls himself in Chapter 1 Verse 1 “James, as servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes (Jewish converts) which are scattered (because of persecution – called the diaspora) abroad, greeting.” Paul in some of his epistles and John in his epistles don’t introduce themselves as an apostle. So, it’s no big deal that James doesn’t either. Verse 2 “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers (various) temptations (trials);” Verse 3 “Knowing this, that the trying (proving and testing) of your faith worketh (builds) patience (perseverance).” Verse 4 “But let patience have (do) her perfect work, that ye may be perfect (complete) and entire, wanting (lacking) nothing.”
We quickly come upon one of the best-known verses among members of the LDS Church. It was supposedly, the verse that Joseph Smith Jr. read – which motivated him to go into the woods and pray. The reported result of that prayer was the First Vision (see Joseph Smith – History 1:11-20). Verse 5 “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not (won’t restrict or rebuke ); and it shall be given him.” Mormons use this verse to support their view that you can ascertain whether a religion is true or not – simply by praying about it. It was a favorite tool of mine, as a young LDS missionary. But I have since learned in my life that the way to identify a true religion is not simply by praying – but by testing its claims according to the clear teachings of God’s Word. In all of this – we have to do what every serious student of the Bible must do – look at the verse in context. First, what does “wisdom” mean in relation to its immediate context in the letter of James? Within the framework of James, the passage sets the tone and subject of the entire letter. James is a book of wisdom – that is, a book of advice and admonishment. The remainder of the letter is, in one sense, a long answer to the question of what is meant by “wisdom” in 1:5. In short, the concept of wisdom is – the ability to use knowledge in a practical way to the best advantage. The Bible never tells us to pray about spiritual truth. Instead the Bible tells us to compare all things with Scripture (see Acts 17:11 and 2 Timothy 3:16) because it is through the word of God that we have spiritual truths revealed to us. The context of James 1:5 is about gaining wisdom through difficult trials and the testing of one’s faith – not about praying to find out which church is true, or – to find out if a book is true. Then James goes on to tell the Jewish believers to have faith – and trust God. Verse 6 “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering (not doubting). For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed (in other words, is unstable).”
Moving on to Verses 13-15 “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man (in other words, God does not tempt people to do evil): But every man is tempted, when he is drawn (pulled or dragged) away of his own lust (desires), and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived (when he allows temptation to remain in his mind and grow), it bringeth forth sin (it eventually causes him to commit such sin): and sin, when it is finished (when it has done its work), bringeth forth death (in all its forms: spiritual, emotional, psychological, social death).” Our “lust” can be a desire for almost anything for it to become sin – like, sex, money, control, power, pride, popularity, etc. But God, by His holy nature has no capacity for evil or vulnerability to it. 1 John 2:16 “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” He allows trials and temptations but provides ways for people to get through them. We exercise our agency and must accept responsibility if our decisions lead to sin. If we sin, we cannot lay it at God’s feet. James 1:17 “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights (from God who created the stars) with whom is no variableness (who does not change), neither shadow of turning (not even the slightest bit).”
We move on to James Chapter 2 which is very important doctrinally, because of what it teaches about works relative to faith. But we begin with Verse 8 “If ye fulfil (or obey) the ROYAL LAW according to the scripture (as stated in Leviticus 19:18), Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well:” James has presented us with “the Royal Law,” “the Law of Liberty” – to “love thy neighbor.” Jesus, when asked: “Who is my neighbor?” defined it as – whoever is in need. The command is to purse meeting the physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of one’s neighbor with the same intensity and concern as one does naturally for oneself. James says, in Verse 9 “But if ye have respect (show partiality) to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law (convicted by the Royal Law) as transgressors.” If we look at each other with partiality and choose to love only those who please us – we commit sin. Because these were Christians with the law written on their hearts, there are only two sins true Christians can commit – failure to believe and failure to love.
But then we come to a couple of passages that seem to be speaking of the Law written in stone (the Mosaic law) in contrast to the Royal Law of love. Verse 10 “For whosoever shall keep the whole law (all the commandments), and yet offend (stumble) in one point (breaks just one of the commandments), he is guilty of all (it’s as if he broke all the commandments).” From an LDS point of view – if one of their members who holds a temple recommend, and is doing well at keeping all the requirements of it – and then decides to have a cup of coffee or glass of wine – it voids the recommend and the person’s worthiness to attend the temple. That’s how difficult and serious it is to keep the laws, covenants and ordinance of a performance-based religion. James goes on to say, Verse 11 “For he (the Lord) that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.” If they are going to live by the Law of Moses, they had better live it perfectly. If the LDS are going to live by their laws, covenants, and ordinances – they had better live it perfectly.
I believe the next verse brings this all together, Verse 12 “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty (which is love).” Rather than the Law written in stone – which must be kept as a whole and is therefore impossible. Verse 13 “For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against (triumphs over) judgment.” The definition of mercy is – not getting what you do deserve or – a deserved punishment is not administered. Like a judge finding you utterly guilty of a crime and then withholding punishment. How does that play out in a Christian’s life? The person whose life is characterized by extending mercy to others, is ready for the day of judgment – because he or she demonstrated mercy and love to others as evidence of having received God’s mercy. It is founded on Agape love.
At this point James – having set the stage with what he has taught thus far – say’s in, Verse 14 “What doth it profit (or benefit), my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? (In other words, what good does it do to claim to have faith but not have good works to go along with it?).” The key in understanding this verse is that James doesn’t say the person actually HAS faith – but that he CLAIMS to have it. He’s describing someone who continually lacks any external evidence of the faith he claims. James asks in that verse, “can faith save him?” James isn’t disputing the importance of faith. Rather he is opposing the notion that saving faith can be a mere intellectual exercise void of a commitment to action. Then he gives an example, Verse 15-16 “If a brother or sister be naked (inadequately clothed), and destitute (completely out) of daily food, And one of you (who claims to have faith) say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit (what good does it do)?” James illustrates his point by comparing faith without works to – words of compassion without acts of compassion. He is saying that to possess the type of faith that does not come with love – profits nobody. It is a pathetic form of faith that fails to move a person to the love – that always comes with powerful faith. A person might say, “Well yeah, I believe in Jesus. Sure” and then leaves it up to others to follow through in compassion to the needy. Instead, saving faith always goes hand in hand with love. As saving faith increases in size, so does the love, in exact proportion. I once heard it compared to a coin – the coin of salvation – with faith inscribed on one side and love on the other. So, Paul in his teachings is exactly right when he speaks of being saved by grace through faith alone. And James is correct in teaching that the type of faith Paul alluded to always comes with love – or what he calls works- or actions.
Here in James is one of the most controversial, debated, abused and misunderstood sections of the entire New Testament – Faith and Works as taught by James. He seems to be saying that while we are indeed saved by faith – Can we be saved by the type of faith that does not work – with the works being love? James concludes rather emphatically that faith that does not produce love – is faith that is dead. It’s not living and therefore incapable of nurturing others. In Christianity there are no duties. Because, in the New Covenant the rule of action is not duty, but love. It is taught in John 1:17 “For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” See, the Law written in stone, while perfect, had a problem in its relation to human beings – it was quite capable of bringing death – but it could not produce or bring life. Paul wrote in Romans 7:10 “And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death.” The reason is that the Law comes as a whole and must be kept perfectly – break one bit of it and the law brings death. For everyone who attempts to justify themselves in any way by obedience to the Law – the conviction is Lawbreaking and the sentence is spiritual death. Paul taught that we cannot mix grace and law (see Galatians 5:1-5). He makes it clear by saying in Romans 11:6 “And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.”
God did not send another set of laws and rules – like in the Mormon gospel – to replace the old legal system. He sent His Son. So, we look to Him in faith – on Him entirely and not of ourselves (see Romans 7:5-6). The New Covenant is not a written code. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:6 “Who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So, how can law be written on our hearts, if we are not under the Law? First of all, to say we are not under the law is NOT to say that we are not under the Lordship of Jesus Christ – we are. Under the Law written in stone, we might say the Rule of Actions is obedience. Under the New Covenant of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, what is the Rule of Action? – Love. The Work James is speaking of is love – and no other thing, demand, or activity (see Romans 13:8; Galatians 5:13-14).
James 2:17 “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” Real faith never arrives alone. Faith is not faith unless love is present, whenever it is expressed. Verse 18 “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.” The only possible evidence of true faith is works. That’s what saving faith looks like. Paul said it best in, Ephesians 2:8-10 “For by grace ye are saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
And this concludes our study of Chapters 1 and 2. Don’t forget we are on YouTube, iTunes podcast, Spotify podcast, and check out our website at Talking to Mormons.com.
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So, until next time, God Bless!