I avoided preaching on this letter of James for many years. There is much from the Bible to teach, and there never seemed a right time for this letter. In my early years I did not consider it suitable because James could presume a knowledge of the gospel amongst his readers, and the purpose of this letter was to demonstrate the out workings of it in transformed lives. I could not presume knowledge of the gospel in the life of this congregation thirty-three years ago. In the first decades I needed to preach on themes that explained it clearly. Of course even today I must never presume that everyone hearing these sermons on James or any message is a professing Christian. As Spurgeon reminds us, every sermon ought to contain saving knowledge for the stranger to hear how he may come to know God himself.
Now there is in our congregation some grasp and love of what the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is, and what we need at one of the services each Sunday is the constant challenge of real Christian living as it is found in such sections of the word of God as the Sermon on the Mount and in the great concluding sections of many of Paul’s letters. Orthopraxis follows orthodoxy.
The immediate background in our own congregation was that in the Sunday evening services I had been preaching though the book of Exodus for a year or more, and there had come a time, perhaps overdue, when there needed to be a contrast with a different kind of book. Sunday mornings I am preaching through John’s gospel, and so the evening theme of consistent Christian living balanced the emphases of our Lord’s teaching. John ‘Rabbi’ Duncan was a Scottish professor and missionary in the nineteenth century and he said, “Some persons preach only doctrine; that makes people all head, which is a monster. Some preach only experience; that makes the people all heart, which is a monster too. Others preach only practice; that makes people all hands and feet, which is likewise a monster. But if you preach doctrine and experience and practice, by the blessing of God, you will have head, heart, and hands, and feet – a perfect man in Christ Jesus” (Just a Talker, p.140, Banner of Truth, 1997).
I have feared preaching on the letter of James because of the possibility of it resulting in a few months of moralism. I was delivered from that fear by thinking of the closest parallel to the letter of James in the Bible which is the Sermon on the Mount. It contains many echoes of our Lord’s teaching there. I am one of the many people to have been helped by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount – those 60 mighty sermons. Since I first read them almost 40 years ago I have believed that they were a model of preaching, but more important, a model for Christian living. Trying to keep the standard of those sermons before me there would be little danger of this series of studies in James becoming moralistic.
Reading the first two sermons of Dr Lloyd-Jones on the Sermon on the Mount one comes across four reasons for preaching on those chapters from Matthew’s gospels. If you adapt and apply those reasons to James you come to these conclusions:-
1] The Lord Jesus Christ died to enable us to live as James exhorts us in this letter – “God desires a righteous life” (1:20): “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing right” (2:8). Our Saviour has made the attaining of the life so comprehensively described by James a possibility for us.
2] Nothing shows the absolute need of the new birth and of the Holy Spirit and his power within us so much as Scriptures like the epistle of James. The righteous demands of this letter crush man to the ground. If it were not for regeneration and our illimitable access to the indwelling Spirit we’d be undone. There is nothing that leads to the gospel and its grace as these section of the Bible.
3] The more we live and practise James’ exhortations the more we shall experience the fulfilment of James’ promises. Consider, James chapter 4:- v.7 “Resist the devil” – command – “and he will flee from you” – promise v.10 “Humble yourselves before the Lord” – command – “and he will lift you up” – promise
Of course we must turn all the commands of God into promises, so that we say to God, “Command whatever you will just as long as you perform in us all you request.” Face up to all that James asks of us because they point us to God’s rich provision This letter is a direct road to blessing.
4] Godly obedience to the precepts of this letter is the means of true evangelism. The world is looking for and needs credible Christians. The church needs to live a genuine Christian life if it is to have any authority. Think of the cases of immorality of all kinds amongst the clergy – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – which hit the headlines all the time. What is needed today is not the ecumenical suggestion of a hyper-denomination, but ministers and all men and women who say that they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ living a consistent life. The world looks at us and it asks, “Is there a dynamic in Christian living today ?” We are to live out the words of James’ letter, and people will know that Christianity is reality, as we become exemplars of its glorious teaching.
Let us then turn to the beginning of this letter.