Christian Perfection by Grace and Works
Perfection of James
Most Protestants tend to associate James as being about faith and works. For the Protestant, the verses that say, "Faith without works is dead" come to mind when thinking about James (2:17, 2:20, and 2:26). But the primary theme of James is actually that of Christian perfection. As we will see, James is all about maturing in Christ to become perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. And the primary way to mature in Christ is through works.
James 1:1-4 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are in the Dispersion: Greetings. (2) Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various temptations, (3) knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. (4) Let endurance have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
James starts out by stating his purpose in writing his letter. James is writing to the Church. He is writing to all believers, both Jewish and Gentile. And he addresses them as the "twelve tribes which are [scattered among the nations]." In other words, he addresses the Church as Israel. (Gentile believers are grafted into Israel.) Then he speaks about us becoming "perfect and complete."
The true Israel is all those who become perfect and complete, through a discipleship relationship with Jesus Christ, before Christ returns. According to verse 1, Israel is currently in the dispersion, or among the nations. Being among the nations, we are experiencing "various temptations" to sin. This "testing of your faith produces endurance." As we learn to resist temptations, we become "perfect and complete." This is Christian perfection. This is walking as Jesus walked. This is living without sin. The entire letter of James should be interpreted in the context of this introduction. The primary theme of James is Christian perfection.
James 1:5-8 But if any of you lacks wisdom , let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach; and it will be given to him. (6) But let him ask in faith, without any doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed. (7) For let that man not think that he will receive anything from the Lord. (8) He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
In the Old Testament, the word for wisdom also means teacher. It means maturity. In this context, James is speaking about the maturity that comes with the overcoming of sin. Knowledge is involved in this wisdom. But it's primarily the wisdom of having been discipled (taught) by Jesus Christ, through the filling of the Holy Spirit.
James is saying that if anyone lacks wisdom with regard to resisting temptations and endurance, that he should ask God. The Father will fill us with the Holy Spirit, who is our Teacher, Helper, and Counselor. With regard to asking God for this help, James speaks about having faith and not doubting. The waves of the sea and being tossed by the wind is an allusion back to Peter's experience of walking on the water. As long as you keep your eyes on Jesus you don't sink into the water. Faith is an important aspect of maturing to Christian perfection. And faith is an important aspect of what James says in this letter.
James 1:9-11 But let the brother in humble circumstances glory in his high position; (10) and the rich, in that he is made humble, because like the flower in the grass, he will pass away. (11) For the sun arises with the scorching wind, and withers the grass, and the flower in it falls, and the beauty of its appearance perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in his pursuits.
This is an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus uses the clothing of flowers as an illustration of faith. Jesus also talks about storing treasures in heaven. Spend your time, money, and energy doing the works of the Father.
In the very next verse, James gets back to the topic of enduring temptation and Christian perfection. Has James wandered off into another subject and then returned to Christian perfection? No, because it's through faith and doing the Father's works that Christian perfection is obtained. Faith (asking for wisdom) and doing the works of the Father are both closely tied to the topic of maturity.
James 1:12 Blessed is the man who endures temptation, for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord promised to those who love him.
To endure temptation is to become "perfect and complete" (verses 2-4 above). Only those who become "perfect and complete" will receive the "crown of life." A crown is a reward. The "crown of life" simply means to be rewarded with eternal life. The crown itself is also an allusion to the fact that Israel (those who overcome sin) will reign with Christ over the nations.
This happens "when he has been approved." The Lord promised this to all "those who love him." But it's directly promised to "the man who endures temptation." It can be argued that all believers love Christ, so all believers will receive the crown of life, regardless of whether they "endure temptation." But think back to the story of Peter being asked three times if he loved Jesus. Two different Greek words were being used for love.
Agape love is unconditional love. Philos love is brotherly love. When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me,” these two types of love were being used in the conversation. In this translation, "affection" is used for philos love and "love" for agape love. With this distinction being made in the translation, you can get the idea of what was really being said.
John 21:14-17 This is now the third time that Jesus was revealed to his disciples, after he had risen from the dead. (15) So when they had eaten their breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you." He said to him, "Feed my lambs." (16) He said to him again a second time, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?" He said to him, "Yes, Lord; you know that I have affection for you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep." (17) He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of Jonah, do you have affection for me?" Peter was grieved because he asked him the third time, "Do you have affection for me?" He said to him, "Lord, you know everything. You know that I have affection for you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."
Peter knew that he had failed the test. He had denied Christ three times because he was afraid for his life. To Peter’s credit, he displayed honesty in his conversation with Christ. His love for Jesus was not unconditional, and this realization pained him greatly. Peter’s grief over Jesus’ repetition of the question was a completely different type of emotion than it would appear when read in a translation that does not distinguish these two different types of love.
Jesus' remedy for the situation is to "feed my sheep." This means doing the works the Father has for us. As we do the Father's works, the Holy Spirit fills us and we overcome all our sinful habits. As we go from brotherly love to an agape love, we become willing and ready to die for Christ. Those who have an agape love for Christ are those who will "receive the crown of life." We get there by enduring temptation until we are "perfect and complete."
James 1:13-16 Let no man say when he is tempted, "I am tempted by God," for God can't be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. (14) But each one is tempted , when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. (15) Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin; and the sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death. (16) Don't be deceived, my beloved brothers.
James has been saying that as we endure temptations we become "perfect and complete." It would be a deception, however, to conclude that God tempts us to sin. We are tempted when we are "drawn away by [our] own lusts."
James 1:17-18 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. (18) Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
James is not changing the subject. When we ask for wisdom to endure temptations, we are asking for God's good and perfect gift. We are asking to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This echoes Paul's words that salvation is a gift so that no man can boast. The Holy Spirit changes us as we do the works of the Father. Those changes are good and perfect gifts from the Father. Of course the crucifixion was an all-important gift from Christ. Without the crucifixion, the Holy Spirit would not have come because our sins would not be forgiven. It's all part of God's plan.
The "Father of lights" and not "turning shadow" reminds us that Christ is the light of the world, and in Him there is no darkness. The "perfect" gift from God does not allow for any sin. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we cannot sin because God is in us and God cannot sin.
James says, "We should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures." It's important to understand what is meant by "firstfruits." Paul spoke of the resurrection of Christ as being "firstfruits."
1 Corinthians 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead. He became the firstfruits of those who are asleep.
The Jewish feast of firstfruits is one of the seven feasts given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This feast is during Passover week. It's on the day after the Sabbath. During the Passover week of Christ's crucifixion, the feast of firstfruits would have been on Sunday. Christ's resurrection occurred on the feast of firstfruits.
Paul recognizes this and relates the resurrection of Christ as the "firstfruits of those who are asleep." Christ was not the first to be brought back from the dead. Lazarus was brought back from the dead. But Christ was the first to be resurrected with a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:44). Christ was given a body that does not age and die. He was the first to be given a body that has eternal life. But Christ is not the only one who will be raised as "firstfruits."
Romans 8:23 Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body.
2 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.
So this verse in James is saying the same thing:
James 1:18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
The idea that the Church, which is Israel, is the firstfruits of the harvest comes from the Old Testament.
Jeremiah 2:3a ESV Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest.
When we are resurrected, or caught up in the rapture, we will also be "firstfruits." Relate this back to the feast of firstfruits. The first of the harvest was given to God as being holy. Then, the rest of the crop was harvested. The resurrection of Christ is the "firstfruits." Next, the Church (which is Israel) is resurrected as "firstfruits." So there must be a final harvest after the resurrection of the Church. Just as the "firstfruits" of the harvest is holy, we are a holy nation. We are elected (or chosen) to bring this righteousness to the nations after the Messiah comes.
1 Peter 2:9 NIV But you are a chosen people , a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Exodus 19:5-6 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; (6) and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.' These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel."
And now, let's get back to James 1:18. We, as a holy nation, are brought forth by "his own will" (James 1:18). God chooses those who are made "perfect and complete" in this present age. But we, the "perfect and complete" in this present age, are only the "firstfruits" (James 1:18) of the harvest. God chooses (elects) those who will be priests and kings in the age to come. Those who overcome sin in this age will reign with Christ over the nations in the age to come. This is so the nations can also be taught to become "perfect and complete." Those who become "perfect and complete" during the age to come will also inherit eternal life. That's why we are "firstfruits."
James 1:19-21 So, then, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger; (20) for the anger of man doesn't produce the righteousness of God. (21) Therefore, putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with humility the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
The word of God is "implanted" in us. It's the teaching of the Holy Spirit to overcome all the sinful habits in our lives. To this end, we must be humble. We must be "swift to hear" and "slow to speak" so that we can be taught by the Holy Spirit. Getting angry about being taught will not bring about the complete righteousness of Christian perfection.
As we will see in the next chapter, salvation is a journey. We must complete that journey in order to inherit eternal life. We must complete that journey to eternally save our souls. But if the journey is not completed in this age, it can be completed after the "resurrection of the just and the unjust" (Acts 24:15). The unjust, who have not yet become "perfect and complete" will have the continued opportunity to do so under Christ's millennial reign.
James 1:22-25 But be doers of the word , and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. (23) For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; (24) for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. (25) But he who looks into the perfect law of freedom, and continues, not being a hearer who forgets, but a doer of the work, this man will be blessed in what he does.
Again, the "word" being spoken of is the word God "implanted" in us. It's the teaching of the Holy Spirit to endure against temptation and to overcome all the sinful habits in our lives. But the only way for this teaching to stick is to do the works of the Father. If we don't become doers of the word, it's like seeing yourself in the mirror and then forgetting what you look like. It's like continuing to sin and yet forgetting what kind of sinner we are, because sin is blinding.
This brings us back to what Jesus told Peter. We must "feed his sheep" in order to become perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect. As we do the Father's works, the Holy Spirit fills us. Our eyes must remain focused on Christ instead of the things of this world. To be "hearers of the word" is to believe in Christ, but to not act upon that belief. To be "doers of the word" is the only way to find Christian perfection.
James 1:26-27 If anyone among you thinks himself to be religious while he doesn't bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this man's religion is worthless. (27) Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
People can easily become talkers of the word and not doers of the word. This is a form of religion, but it's worthless. It will not bring about salvation. To visit the fatherless and widows is an example of doing the Father's works.
James 2:1-8 My brothers, don't hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality. (2) For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in; (3) and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing, and say, "Sit here in a good place;" and you tell the poor man, "Stand there," or "Sit by my footstool;" (4) haven't you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (5) Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn't God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him? (6) But you have dishonored the poor man. Don't the rich oppress you, and personally drag you before the courts? (7) Don't they blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called? (8) However, if you fulfill the royal law, according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well.
James echoes the teaching of Jesus about showing favoritism in the synagogue. We are also seeing additional allusions to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus teaches us to store our treasures in heaven. The rich have a huge obstacle standing in their way, as Jesus taught about the rich young ruler. The poor do not have money to get in the way of developing a true agape love for Christ. What rich person would be willing to give up everything they have, including their life, for Christ? But those whom God chooses (elects) to become "perfect and complete" will be "heirs of the Kingdom." They will reign with Christ over the nations. Those in the nations can still be saved during the millennium.
James 2:9-13 But if you show partiality , you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. (10) For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. (11) For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not commit murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (12) So speak, and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom. (13) For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
James is talking about living under grace instead of living under the law. But he is not changing the subject. To be filled with the Holy Spirit, and thus do the works of the Father, is living under grace. That's living "by a law of freedom." In so doing, you become "perfect and complete."
So you are not sinning even through you are not keeping all the Old Testament laws of Moses. However, if you show partiality to the rich, you are not acting as one who is filled with the Holy Spirit, because God would not show partiality or favoritism. You then become guilty of the whole law.
The only way to stay filled with the Holy Spirit is to be doers of the word (of the Holy Spirit) and not simply hearers of the word. Faith without works is dead.
James 2:14-20 What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? (15) And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, (16) and one of you tells them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled;" and yet you didn't give them the things the body needs, what good is it? (17) Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. (18) Yes, a man will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. (19) You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder. (20) But do you want to know, vain man, that faith apart from works is dead?
This letter of James is the one book that Martin Luther had problems in trying to make it fit his doctrine. People have said that we are saved by faith and not works, but that works is the evidence that we have faith.
But the truth is that we do the works because of our faith, and as we do the works, the Holy Spirit fills us. We are not earning salvation by paying for sins. We are saved (sanctified) by the filling of the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit backs off if we yield to temptation. We yield to temptation because we are weak and self-oriented. The works helps us get away from self and the temptations of this world as we become excited about doing the Father's work. This in turn brings the Holy Spirit to help us do our works. Faith is the desire to please a God that cannot be seen. We do the will of the Father as a result of that desire. Over time, this desire becomes true agape love. The only way to become "perfect and complete" is to do the works of the Father. That's why salvation is a journey.
Read (below) what Paul says in Romans about Abraham being justified by faith and not by works. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to make his point. Then, read what James says about Abraham being justified by works as well as faith. James quotes the exact same verse to make his point.
Romans 4:1-5 What then will we say that Abraham, our forefather, has found according to the flesh? (2) For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not toward God. (3) For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness ." (4) Now to him who works, the reward is not counted as grace, but as debt. (5) But to him who doesn't work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.
James 2:21-26 Wasn't Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? (22) You see that faith worked with his works , and by works faith was perfected; (23) and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness;" and he was called the friend of God. (24) You see then that by works, a man is justified, and not only by faith. (25) In like manner wasn't Rahab the prostitute also justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way? (26) For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.
In a preface to James, Martin Luther wrote that it "contradicts Paul by teaching justification by works." I think the reason Luther could not reconcile James and Paul is that Luther started to view salvation as a decision, and not as a journey. If salvation is a one-time decision, then how can works be involved?
Paul was addressing works involved in following the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses included many sacrifices in payment of sin. But in the age of grace, the sacrifice of Christ is the only payment for sin that is possible. James was addressing works involved in following Christ. The works James speaks of are good works that are done out of love. The Holy Spirit performs works of sanctification as we are filled. But without works of love, there is very little filling of the Holy Spirit.
James 3:1-2 Let not many of you be teachers , my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment. (2) For in many things we all stumble. If anyone doesn't stumble in word, the same is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also.
The entire third chapter of James is about the use of the tongue, which involves teaching, preaching, and speaking. Ideally only those who are "perfect and complete" should teach. The "perfect man" is one who does not stumble in the word of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit cannot make mistakes about what they say or teach. When you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you cannot sin. Mistakes, however, are not sins. What one says, while filled with the Spirit, does not come from self-oriented motivations.
For example, a preacher can easily become fearful about preaching against sin if he thinks doing so could cause church members to leave. He can rationalize that the church members who might leave could instead benefit from his less controversial teachings. It's easy for such a preacher to believe that the Scripture does not teach Christian perfection. Over time, the preacher is less and less filled with the Holy Spirit because pastors who do not make a difference with regard to continued sin are really wolves in sheep clothing. And they don't realize it.
The "word" being spoken of here is the same as previously in this letter of James. The "word" is the teaching of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us to overcome sin. Likewise, we can teach others to overcome sin. Of course this teaching can also include many other doctrinal aspects about God, as learned from the Scriptures. But the primary purpose of Scripture is salvation, which is a journey of righteousness through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
In other words, the "perfect man" teaches the "word" of the Holy Spirit, which is to overcome sin. The "perfect man" teaches Christian perfection. That's because the "perfect man" is "able to bridle [steer] his whole body."
James 3:3-5a Indeed, we put bits into the horses' mouths so that they may obey us, and we guide their whole body . (4) Behold, the ships also, though they are so big and are driven by fierce winds, are yet guided by a very small rudder , wherever the pilot desires. (5) So the tongue is also a little member, and boasts great things.
The "perfect man" is able to "bridle [steer] the whole body" away from sin. James considers our tongues to steer our whole body in refraining from sin. As we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we say and teach things from the Holy Spirit. But when we speak out of self-oriented motivations, we steer our body and others into sin.
James 3:5b-6 See how a small fire can spread to a large forest! (6) And the tongue is a fire. The world of iniquity among our members is the tongue, which defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature, and is set on fire by Gehenna .
What we say, when not filled with the Spirit, can corrupt us. James uses the fire of hell as a metaphor for a fire that comes from what we say. What we say is very consuming. When a thought remains in the heart, the Holy Spirit can change it if it's not from God. But when a thought is spoken, it becomes decided upon. It has a dramatic effect on the one speaking as well as those who hear.
James 3:7-12 For every kind of animal, bird, creeping thing, and thing in the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by mankind. (8) But nobody can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. (9) With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the image of God. (10) Out of the same mouth comes forth blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. (11) Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water? (12) Can a fig tree, my brothers, yield olives, or a vine figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh water.
James uses allegories to show there is no middle ground between someone speaking things which are from God, and someone speaking things which are from selfish motivations or Gehenna (hell). When one is filled with the Holy Spirit, the things being taught have the motivations of God. When one is not filled with the Holy Spirit, one should refrain from teaching.
In the following verses, I've replaced the word "wisdom" with "teaching." In the Old Testament, the word for wisdom means teacher. James is continuing to talk about the tongue and the dangers of teaching without Christian perfection.
James 3:13-18 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by his good conduct that his deeds are done in gentleness of wisdom. (14) But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, don't boast and don't lie against the truth . (15) This [teaching] is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, and demonic. (16) For where jealousy and selfish ambition are, there is confusion and every evil deed. (17) But the [teaching] that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. (18) Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
We have now covered the first three chapters of James. Chapters 4 and 5 are less about the need for Christian perfection and more about the way we should live in order to get there. You might want to read these last two chapters of James with Christian perfection in mind.