Criswell Theological Review 1.1 (1986) 51-70.

          Copyright © 1986 by The Criswell CollegeCited with permission. 




               TRUE PIETY IN JAMES:




                                DAVID S. DOCKERY

                       Criswell College, Dallas, TX 75201


                                       I. Introduction


In the most practical book in the NT, we might expect to find a

consistent exposition of ethical principles. But James does not present

a systematic treatise. In fact, the subjects that are treated are quite

different from the dominant ethical injunctions in other parts of the

NT. Distinctive is the fact that his entire letter is occupied with ethical

admonitions and is not intertwined with doctrinal passages in the

pattern of Paul's letters. Our purpose in this essay is to survey briefly

the major ethical admonitions in James and thus discover his under-

standing of true piety. In doing this, we shall note exegetical-theological

foundations along the way as they inform the ethical teachings, but our

primary concern in this article is neither exegesis nor theology, We

shall attempt to discuss some of the theological and ethical issues that

are important for the contemporary church and in conclusion will

consider some of these implications. It is important also to note that

our treatment will try to avoid overlap and restatement of the other

articles in this issue. We recognize that the subjects of “trials and

testing,” “faith and works,” “wisdom” and “prayer,” not to mention a

broad “theological/christological survey” have been treated in fine

fashion. Therefore our concentration will focus on other issues as:

practicing the word," “problems of partiality and poverty,” “control

of the tongue,” “vices and virtues,” and “worldliness.”  We shall then

note implications of these themes for such contemporary concerns as:

biblical inerrancy,” “church renewal,” “the church growth move-

ment,” “social responsibility,” and “liberation theology.”



                                    II.  Situation and Context


            James is the name of the author of this epistle, however this does

not identify him specifically. James was an extremely common name

in the first century; in fact there are six different men identified as

James in the NT.l  Of these, the two most probable options are James,

son of Zebedee, who was one of the twelve apostles and James, the

Lord's brother. James, son of Zebedee, was martyred in A.D. 44

(cf. Acts 12:1-12) which would place the correspondence quite early.

The better option based upon external and internal evidence, is that the

author is James, the Lord's brother.2 This was the view of Origin

(ca. 185-253), Eusebius (ca. 265-340) arid Jerome (ca. 340-420). The

emphasis on practice, conduct and ethical concerns that are char-

acteristic of the epistle agree with the other NT pictures of James (Acts

21:11 -25 and Gal 2:12). The description of "James the Just" by

Hegesippus (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23) is an appro-

priate picture for the author of this epistle who is concerned with

justice and righteousness similar to the OT prophet Amos.3 Also

tone of the epistle, which includes forty-six imperatives, harmonizes

well with the authority exercised by James in Acts 15:13; 21:18 and the

vocabulary in the letter is similar to the speech of James in Acts


            The date of the letter must have been written prior to A.D. 62/63

when according to Josephus, James was martyred. Some argue for a

date near the end of James' life, but a strong case can be offered for a


            1 (1) Son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19; Acts 1:13); (2) Son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18; Acts

1:13); (3) James the Less (Mark 15:40); (4) Father of Judas (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13);

(5) Brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Acts 12:11; 15:13; 21:18; Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:1);

(6) Brother of Jude (Jude 1). Cf. J. J. Gunther, "The Family of Jesus," EvQ 46:1 (1974)

25-41. It should be noted that primarily, the translations used in this article are from the


            2 These issues are discussed in most major NT introductions and commentaries on

James. Two very helpful works are R. P. Martin, New Testament Foundations: A Guide

for Christian Students (2 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1918) 2.358-65; and D.

Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1970) 736-70. Our

conclusions on these introductory matters are largely based upon Guthrie's findings.

Others who have made a case for James, the Lord's brother, as author of this epistle

include R. H. Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1910) 342-44; and E. F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1964) 363-66. F. Spitta posed that the letter was a thoroughly Jewish

document that had undergone a minor Christian revision in "Der Brief des Jakobus," Zur

Geschichte und Literatur des Urchristentums (2 vols.; Gottingen: V and R1896) 2.1-155.

A. Meyer (1930) and H. Windisch (1930) followed this argument, but it has now been

almost completely abandoned.

            3 This reference is cited by D. Burdick, "James" The Expositor's Bible Com-

mentary, ed. F. C. Gaebelein (12 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981) 12.161.

                        Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES                         53


date around or before A.D. 50.4 It is difficult to make a definite decision

and it is really beyond the scope of our topic to discuss the issue in


            The epistle's readers are identified as "twelve tribes scattered

among the nations." There are several indications that James is writing

to ethnic Jews; the twelve tribes thus designate the entirety of the

Jewish nation. Evidently James, the acknowledged leader of the

Jerusalem Church, was writing to Jewish believers who were driven

out of Jerusalem during the persecution following the martyrdom of

Stephen.  These believers were dispersed over Samaria (Acts 8:1),

Phoenicia, Cyprus and Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:19). It is possible that

James, the elder, would feel responsible for these "former parishoners

and attempt to instruct them somewhat as he would have done had

they still been under his care in Jerusalem."5 He writes to instruct and

exhort them.

            This series of instructions and exhortations was analyzed by

M. Dibelius through form-critical analysis and determined that it

belonged to a special genre called paranesis.6 Paranesis assembled a

series of ethical admonitions without a definite context. Dibelius viewed

the letter as a group of loosely-arranged sayings and brief hortatory

sections.  A. Schlatter advanced this line of thinking by connecting the

letter of James with the paranesis of Jesus, emphasizing the Beatitudes.7

Whether or not we accept these theories completely, it is certain that

the emphasis of James' epistle is its practical concerns. This does not

mean it lacks theology.8 As we have noted, he makes no special effort to

ground his ethical injunctions in theological revelation, yet he presup-

poses the possibility of obedience to the admonitions because of an

underlying theology.9


                                    III. Ethical Admonitions

            The major feature of the ethical instruction of James is his remi-

niscence of the teachings of Jesus and the exhortations of the OT


            4 Cf. D. E. Hiebert, The Epistle of James: Tests of a Living Faith (Chicago:

Moody, 1979) 39-41. Our leanings favor an early date, A.D. 48-49.

            5 Burdick, "James" 163.

            6 M. Dibelius, James, rev. H. Greeven (Hermeneia: Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 3;

cf. S. Songer, "James" Broadman Bible Commentary, ed. C. J. Allen (12 vols.;

Nashville: Broadman, 1972) 12.102.

            7 Ibid.; A. Schlatter, Der Brief des Jakobus (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1932) 9-19.

            8 Hiebert, Epistle of James 45.

            9 C. E. B. Cranfield, "The Message of James" SJT 18 (1965) 182-93; and G. E.

Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 589, who

says that "a theologian can write practical homilies."



prophets.  He provides practical advice for a broad range of topics. It

can be postulated that the model for his instruction is the life of Jesus

(cf. Jas 3:17). As several commentators have noted, the book is so

exclusively practical it is impossible to address every specific issue. We

shall therefore limit our concerns to descriptions of the passages that

focus on the five previously mentioned themes.


Practicing the Word 1:18-25

            Responding. The readers are admonished with a proverb: "Every

one should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”

(1:19). This is an interesting and important, almost shocking word for

modern men and women in this "express-your-feelings" era.10 The

person who is prepared to respond to the word is not the one who

always has something to say, but the person who listens to others and

prayerfully and carefully speaks. The beginning of wisdom is cautious

listening rather than quick speech and sharp denunciation. After

getting rid of anger, filthy habits and wicked conduct (1:20-21), the

believers are prepared to accept the word planted in them which can

save them (1:21). This is to be done "humbly" in submission to God

(1:21). The word had already been implanted in these people for they

were part of the believing community. The acceptance of the word

means to "commit oneself to Jesus and his teaching, and such a

commitment is the changed lifestyle James is seeking."11

            Living in Tension. It is clearly evident in James that the believing

community lives in tension between the "already" and the "not yet."12

By the divine will they became members of God's redeemed people

(1:18) through the means of the implanted word (1:21). Yet, believers

are subject to temptations and trials (1:2) that may cause some of them

to wander from the faith (5:19). Still they anticipate the parousia of

Christ when they will inherit the kingdom of God (2:5) and enter into

etemal life.13

            Hearing and Doing. In this interim period, it is imperative that

believers must hear and do the word, so as not to be deceived (1:22).

The word for doers (poihtai<) occurs four times in James and only

twice in the rest of the NT (Acts 17:28 where it is translated "poets"

and Rom 2:13). This typifies James' continuing emphasis on living out

the word implanted. The one who "listens to the word but does not do


            10 P. H. Davids, James (GNC; San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983) 14.

            11 Ibid., 15; ct. the discussion on "the implanted word" in J. Adamson, The Epistle

of James (NIC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) 98-100. "

            12 Ladd, Theology of the New Testament 591. This is denied by R. Bultmann,

Theology of the New Testament, ed. K. Grobel (2 vols.; New York: Scribners, 1951-55)


            13 Ladd, ibid.

                        Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES             55


what it says" (1:23) is compared to someone who looks into the mirror,

goes away and forgets what he or she looks like (1:24). The point is that

if this is where it ends with Scripture, one's learning about the Bible has

only as much value as one's morning glimpse into the mirror.14 J. B.

Mayor suggests that the imperfect knowledge gained through reflec-

tion in the mirror contrasts with the perfect knowledge of reality.15 It is

also possible that a good look in the mirror would not only make

evident one's superficiality, but also "one's moral needs as reflected in

the ugly traces of sin on his face."16

            Jas 1:25 makes the important contrasts between the "doer" and the

mere "hearer." The hearers simply listen and forget which is not so

much a loss of memory but a neglect to put the teaching into practice.

The doers "will be blessed of God" because they put into practice

what is heard. James emphasizes the action as an enduring occupation.

We need to notice the eschatological aspect of the blessing (cf. the

future tense of the verb e@stai).

            The law that the "doers" follow and study is one of "freedom." It

is within the Jewish world by which we can understand this phrase.

P. Davids observes that this does not mean the Stoic rule of reason or

the Jewish law, but the OT scriptures interpreted and perfected by the

Messiah.17 The Sermon on the Mount18 (e.g., Matt 5:17) and other

gospel passages present Christ as the giver of the renewed law.19 The

liberty then follows from the inner character of the law (cf. Jer 31:31-

34).20 Liberty is not license but the ability to live and fulfill the law of

Christ. The law brings freedom by submission to Christ. Thus believers

who practice the word are freed from bondage to sin and death, as

well as legalism, and will be blessed by God.


Piety, Partiality and Poverty 1:26-2:13; 5:1-6

            Piety. Vv 26 and 27 of chap. 1 serve as a transition between the

opening idea on the practice of the word and the next statement that

confronts the problem of partiality. This transition section turns the


            14 Davids, James 16.

            15 J. B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954) 71.

            16 T. B. Maston, Biblical Ethics (Macon: Mercer, reprint 1982) 259.

            17 P. H. Davids, Commentary on James (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1982) 99.

            18 Cf. W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge:

Cambridge University, 1964); Davies, Torah in the Messianic Age and/or the Age to

Come (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1952). Also see the very helpful comments in J. R. W.

Stott, Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downers

Grove: InterVarsity, 1978) 69-81.

            19 C. L. Mitton, The Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966) 72.

            20 D. Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1981)




focus to true piety. The question before the readers penetrates their

inner being by asking if they consider themselves religious (dokei? = to

seem in their own estimation). The readers may want to answer the

question in a positive way based upon religious observances and

performance of religious duties. The activity and service may be fine

but the value may be hindered or even lost because the religious

person does not tame his or her tongue (1:26).

            Such persons may carefully use right words in religious ceremony

and service, but be careless with speech at other times. As J. Calvin

notes, "he who seems brilliant with some outward show of sanctity will

set himself off by defaming others, and this under the pretense of zeal

but really through the lust of slander."21 James, with echoes of the

Lord's words in Matt 15:8, 9, declares such religion "worthless" (1:26).

            In v 27, the readers learn the meaning of true piety with words

that again echo the teachings of Jesus (cf. Matt 25:36-43). Piety

involves two aspects: (1) the personal service of "looking after orphans

and widows in distress" and (2) personal holiness which is a perpetual

striving "to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." R. V. G.

Tasker accurately summarizes:

            The believer must never be blind to his duty to express his faith in love,

            but at the same time, in the midst of all the distracting and demoralizing

            influences of the world around him, which lies wholly in the evil one, he

            must keep himself pure by continual remembrance of the demands of the

            all-holy God.22


            Partiality and Poverty. The themes of 1:26-27 are amplified in

2:1-13. Worldliness, identified as slander in 1:26, is expanded to

include improper favoritism that is shown to someone's worldly power

and position rather than viewing the person's worth based upon one’s

spiritual relationship to Christ. The "care of widows and orphans" is

related to the issues of poverty and generous caring for those in need.

This section is certainly applicable to the readers of James' epistle in all

ages. It is especially relevant for the contemporary churches that are

concerned with status and power and who have perverted the true

gospel with promises of success and material prosperity.

            The readers are addressed as church members (a]delfoi<). J. B

Phillips offers this paraphrase of v 1, "Don't ever attempt, my brothers,

to combine snobbery with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ." The essence

of the passage is that true piety is incompatible with partiality. The


            21 J. Calvin, Matthew, Mark and Luke, James and Jude, trans. A. W. Morrison and

ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance (CNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972) 273.

            22 R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (Tyndale: Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1956) 55.

                        Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES             57


term for partiality (proswpolhmyi<a) "was coined by the Christian

ethical tradition on the basis of the OT statements about God and

applied especially to God's judgment (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9;

Col 3:25; 1 Pet L17)."23 Showing partiality based on one's cultural

status is in direct opposition to the very character of God. James

applies his teaching to one particular concern: the different treatment

of the rich and poor in the Christian assembly (sunagwgh<n). The rich

man in v 2 is never called "rich" in the NT Greek text. He is literally

"the gold-fingered one" (xrusodaktu<lioj) suggesting a finger com-

pletely covered with gold rings.24 The sign of wealth was demon-

strated by the wearing of many rings on one hand with great


            The favoritism is demonstrated by the different ways that the rich

person and the poor person are treated as they enter the assembly.26

The text suggests that the rich person enters first and is granted an

important seat. The poor person then enters and is told to "stand there

or sit on the floor" (2:3). J. H. Ropes insightfully notes. that both rich

and poor visitors are undoubtedly non-Christians.27 Thus, the stinging

question follows in v 4 where James asks if such treatment does not

prove that they have discriminated by judging a person's quality and

worth based upon class distinctions.

            God's impartiality is shown through his choosing the poor of this

world to be rich in faith (2:5). On this basis, God demands equal

esteem for the poor.28 It is important to note that poverty is not

implicitly advantageous in God's kingdom, but that God is no respecter

of persons and therefore his people should not be.29 Not only does the

church lack God's perspective, but it seemingly acts irresponsibly and

irrationally. The church has shown partiality to the rich: (1) who are its


            23 Davids, James 44; cf. E. Lohse, "proswlhmyi<a" TDNT 6 (1968) 779-80.

            24 Hiebert, James 151.

            25 Cf. J. Scanzoni, "The Man with the Gold-Ringed Finger" Eternity 14:8 (1963)


            26 The context is limited and therefore very difficult to reconstruct the life situation.

Dibelius, James 128, in stressing a paranetic concept says that this setting is hypothetical

and cannot actually be a church meeting. Some such as R. B. Ward, "Partiality in the

Assembly: James 2:2-4" HTR 62:1 (1969) 87-97, maintain that the scene is a judicial

assembly for the purpose of judging a case between a rich and poor member. The most

likely assumption is that the scene represents a worship service in the early church that

was open to the general public.

            27 J. H. Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James

(ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1916) 191.

            28 H. H. Esser, "Poor" DNTT 2 (1978) 825-26; cf. J. C. Mover, "Poor" ZPEB 4

(1975) 820-21.

            29 Cf. Maston, Biblical Ethics 15-51.



oppressors; (2) who drag them before judges; and (3) who speak evil

of the good name given to the believers. Although oppression of the

poor is strongly condemned in the OT (Exod 22:25-26; Deut 24:14-15;

Jer 1:6; Amos 4:1; 8:4; Mal 3:5), it is the third charge that is the most

serious. The name of Jesus was given to the believers at their con-

version and the rich were speaking evil of this name. Perhaps these

insults were taking place in the courts, combining the second and third


            Regardless, the church had wrongly identified with the rich and

set themselves in opposition to God who has chosen the poor to inherl

the kingdom. It is often the case that an oppressed group takes on the

characteristics of its oppressors. "When this happens to the church, it is

not just pathetically ironic but it is a moral reversal, for the people who

name the name of Christ are now acting like the people who blas-

pheme the name of Christ."30

            James then proceeds to relate the present problem of favoritism to

the "royal law" (2:9; cf. Lev 19:18), a law that was applicable to both

rich and poor. The royal law is the law of the kingdom as given by

Jesus. The specific statement, "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a

favorite of Jesus (the gospel writers total six times that these words are

found in the sayings of Jesus) and Paul (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:13-14). It

is the supreme law, the essence of kingdom ethics. Partiality violates

this law and is sin (2:9) since "it contravenes the will of God by

discriminating against the poor, whom he has chosen."31

            The readers, as implied in v 10, were seeking to observe the

revealed law of God, but if one fails at even a single point, then the law

is broken. The readers were faithful with regard to the commandment

against adultery (2:11; cf. Exod 20:14), but not with regard to murder.

The readers do not commit murder in the common meaning of the

term, but James no doubt understands the commandment against

murder in the deeper sense which Jesus gave to it in the Sermon on the

Mount (Matt 5:21-22). The act of partiality, understood in light of the

Sermon on the Mount, demonstrates how the readers had violated the


            James' words that close this section (2:1-13) indicate again how

his ethical concerns are based upon the words of Jesus. In all of one's

actions, the final judgment must be kept in mind. James demands that

the poor be treated honorably with mercy out of the fear of God's

judgment (cf. Matt 5:4; 6:14-15; 12:1; 18:21-25; and 25:31-46). Since


            30 Davids, James 34.

            31 B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude (AB; Garden City: Doubleday

1964) 29.


                        Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES             59


believers want to be shown mercy, they must show mercy. Believers

have been shown mercy on the basis of the cross of Jesus, but this is not

explicitly stated by James. Demonstration of partiality based on social

position is a denial of mercy. So the believing community is reminded

that they are to face a judgment tempered by mercy. "Since the

advantage of a judgment tempered by mercy is offered us in Christ,

the Christian must always so speak and act that by always showing

mercy in this life, or trying to do so, he may have some color of hope

with which to face that judgment."32 Therefore "mercy triumphs over

judgment!" (2:13). The choice of the word mercy is significant, for in

this context it does not merely refer to charitable concern of others, but

has special reference to the care of the poor.33 The mercy produced in

the heart of the believers by the mercy of God is evidence of genuine

faith and true piety.

            Poverty and Wealth. While most of the emphasis in the passage is

on concern for the poor, a word should be said about the rich. There

are several hints about the perils of riches. It is the rich who oppress

(2:6). They are especially condemned in 5:1-6 and are reminded that

they have laid up treasures for days to come (5:3; cf. Matt 6:19-34).

From these strong admonitions, one might understand that James

regarded the rich and material possessions as evil in themselves. But his

polemic is not against possessions per se, but against "those who have

gained wealth by fraud and even at the expense of other people's lives



The Control of the Tongue 3:1-12

            Teachers. James has spoken of the control of the tongue (1:19, 26),

but he gives a full discussion of the issue in 3:1-12. The first admonition

is addressed to teachers (3:1). There were officers (5:14) in the young

developing community, but apparently at this stage there was no

ordination or training process required to teach in the assembly. It was

relatively easy for those with ability and motivation to put themselves

forward as teachers. James warns against too strong an influx into the

teaching position (an office which the writer himself appears to hold)

and points out that the failures of teachers will incur severe penalties in


            32 Adamson, Epistle of James 120. Adamson includes a lengthy discussion on

justice and mercy in Jewish literature, 116-20. Also cf. S. Laws, A Commentary on the

Epistle of James (London: Black, 1980) 116-18.

            33 Davids, James 37; cf. R. G. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the

Hebrews and the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966) 575-76.

            34 Guthrie, New Testament Theology 930; also cf. D. K. Adie, "Christian View of

Wealth" Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984)

1159-62 (hereinafter cited as EDT).



the judgment.35 James recognizes the potential for social power and

position and warns against the dangers inherent in the teaching min-

istry. The exhortation is that one should be reluctant to become a


            The dangers are reflected in the strictness of the judgment (3:1)

and the fact that "all stumble in many ways" (3:2). The teachers were

not only instructors, but models for the community. If everyone will

be judged for the words spoken (Matt 12:36) and Jewish teachers were

severely judged (Matt 23:1-13), how much more strictly will Christian

teachers be judged? As models for the community, they were respon-

sible for leading or misleading the people of God in both word and


            The Difficulty of Controlling the Tongue. Little things can have

far-reaching effects, and though the tongue is small, it has potential for

usefulness and destruction. James illustrates this truth by use of: (1) a

horse's bit (3:3); (2) a ship's rudder (3:4); and (3) fire (3:5-6). The first

two illustrations portray the usefulness of a small item in controlling

something many times its size; the third graphically demonstrates the

potentially destructive power of something that at its beginning is very

insignificant (Prov 16:27; 26:18-22). The tongue is a “restless evil, full

of deadly poison” (3:8; cf. Prov 18:21) and cannot be tamed by any

human being, although it may be properly concluded that it can be

tamed by God.37

            James points out the moral incongruity of blessing and cursing

flowing from the same mouth (3:9-11). This is a demonstration of the

uncontrollable nature of the tongue. On the one hand, it is used to

"praise our Lord and Father" and simultaneously used to "curse men,

who have been made in God's likeness" (3:9). The fact that men and

women are created in God's likeness makes the cursing of people

equivalent to cursing God. Such instability of cursing and blessing is a

sign of the evil impulse of the tongue and ought not be tolerated. The

Christian is called to root out all such tendencies and to arrive at

singleness and sincerity of heart. James concludes this section with

three appropriate analogies that describe the moral incongruity of the

tongue (3:11-12). The section shows that a believer, and especially a

teacher, must be consistent in the use of the tongue. One cannot claim

to speak God's wisdom with pious language mixed with criticism and

slander, even though it may be often well hidden. A person's control of

his or her tongue is evidence of genuine faith and true piety.38


            35 K. Wegenast, "Teach" DNTT 3 (1979) 768.

            36 V. Doerksen, James (EBC; Chicago: Moody, 1983) 77. ;

            37 Maston, Biblical Ethics 265. Cf. P. E, Adolph, "Tongue" ZPEB 5 (1975) 774-75.

            38 Cf. Hiebert, Epistle of James 43, for his concept of tests whereby readers;

examine their own faith and piety.

                        Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES             61


Vices and Virtues 3:13-18

            Virtues. This particular section offers certain qualities which belong

to wisdom and are reflective of the life of Jesus. The virtues are

characteristic of true piety; the vices are representative of those things

that belong to the world and the devil. The virtues are purity, peace-

ableness, gentleness, submission and mercy (3:17). Where these virtues

are present without insincerity, James sees evidence of "wisdom that

comes from heaven." These virtues are virtually parallel to the virtues

listed by Paul as fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), although James does not

mention the role of the Spirit.39 These virtues are part and parcel of the

life of true piety and are character qualities to be emulated.40 They are

predominantly non-selfish and non-aggressive."41 Such virtues mani-

fest greater concern for others than for oneself. James has no place for

self-importance or self-aggrandizement, for he stresses the "humility

that comes from wisdom" (3:13).42

            Vices. The positive virtues are contrasted by the negative vices of

“bitter envy and selfish ambition" (3:14). James is critical of these vices

and characterizes them as "earthly, unspiritual and of the devil" (3:15).

There is an obvious difference between the heavenly virtues and the

demonic vices. The vices suggest the presence of "disorder and every

evil practice” (3:16).

            Wisdom. These lists of virtues and vices are often found in other

Jewish and Greek household lists and could be understood as common

observations of life, even without a religious sense. But this suggested

interpretation is untenable, for the heavenly wisdom presupposes

religious faith. James, in line with the wisdom of the OT, assumes that

“the fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom" (Prov 9:10). He offers

admonitions that are more than insightful advice. The application that

must be made is that true piety, heavenly wisdom, affects every aspect

of life. The result of this type of life produces a harvest of peace and

righteousness. James himself is portrayed as a peacemaker in Acts 15

and 21, but his primary reference is not based upon personal attributes,

but upon the teaching of Jesus who said, "Blessed are the peace-

makers” (Matt 5:9).


            39 Cf. L. Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, trans. J. E. Alsup (2 vols.;

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 2.143-45; and E. Schweizer, "Traditional Ethical Pat-

terns the Pauline and Post-Pauline Letters and Their Development Lists of Vices and

Housetable Text and Interpretation, ed. E. Best and R. McL. Wilson (Cambridge:

Cambridge University, 1979) 195-210.

            40 Cf. Guthrie, New Testament Theology 920-28.

            41 Ibid. 928.

            42 Mitton, Epistle of James 135, understands humility or meekness as that which

true wisdom produces. Humility in Jas 1:21 means a readiness to receive the word.




Worldliness 4:1-12

            Selfishness. This final section includes admonitions directed toward

practical problems of disunity in the community. James warns his

readers about "fights and quarrels" in their midst (4:1). Fighting and

quarrels are not characteristic of true piety, but instead are evidence of

worldliness. The source of the quarrels, the real battleground accord-

ing to James, is an internal problem within the believers themselves

(4:2). The struggle is between love for God and friendship with the

world (4:4, 8). The one who is a friend of the world "becomes an

enemy of God" (4:4). Those involved in continuous fighting, produced

by selfishness and coveting (4:2) are the recipients of harsh words from

James. He calls them "an adulterous people." The only love that a

believer can (and should) have for the world is that which "stems from

and is similar in kind to God's redemptive love for the world."43 This

redemptive love is merciful to those in need and practices heaven-sent

virtues, but the love for the world condemned by James is a love for

self and the things of the world. Such love is compromise representing

unfaithfulness to God (4:4-5) and results in ungodly characteristics of

slander and judging of others (4:11-12).44

            Right Priorities. The remedy for worldliness is a reestablishment

of priorities. Instead of selfishness, there is submission to God. The

kingdom ethic demands that God receives utmost priority. For those

who humbly submit to God and his rule, God will give grace. James

quotes Prov 3:34, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the

humble." God provides gracious forgiveness for the past and enable-

ment and blessing for the future. The prideful, the selfish are friends of

the world but the humble who recognize personal insufficiencies and

give absolute allegiance to God are God's friends and the recipients of

his grace.

            Conjoined with the admonition to submit to God is the exhorta-

tion to "resist the devil" (4:7). The comforting promise is added “he

will flee from you." There are no rituals or detailed instructions on how

to respond when believers face demonic agents. James simply says,

"resist the devil and he will flee from you." It is difficult to understand

fully how this resistance takes place, but one can count on the fact that

the devil will have to back off and give ground.45 The command to

resist the devil occurs between two imperatives: "submit to God" (4:7)


            43 Maston, Biblical Ethics 269.

            44 Ibid.

            45 R. Lovelace, Renewal as a Way of Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1985)


                        Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES                         63


and "draw near to God" (4:8). It is only as the believer obeys these

commands that he or she is able to be assured that Satan will flee.46

            Not only are believers to "submit to God" as servants, but they are

to “draw near to God" as worshipers entering into communion with

God. The Jewish readers recognized the need of preparation for

genuine worship. Vv 8-9 symbolically picture this personal and inner

preparation that must take place because God must be approached

with a pure heart. The parallel imperatives are nicely summarized by

D. Hiebert, "God demands undivided affection as well as undefiled


            The discussion goes full circle and concludes with the thought that

brings the reader back to the starting point. "Humble yourselves

before the Lord and he will lift you up." God promises to honor those

who do not seek after the pleasures of the world, but who make the

first  priority of life wholehearted love, devotion and allegiance to God.



            We have seen that James is an altogether practical letter. In the

five brief chapters, there is a virtual gold-mine of material about

everyday Christian living. The series of exhortations to the scattered

Jewish Christians admonishes and instructs them onward to true piety

and genuine faith. In this section of the paper, we have not addressed

the entire spectrum of James' ethical thought, but we have restricted

our discussion around five central themes. At this stage in our essay, we

shall redirect our focus from the 1st-century teaching to its 20th-

century significance. We shall amplify upon the ethical themes by

briefly suggesting implications for important theological and ethical

issues facing the contemporary church.


                        IV. Implications for the Contemporary Church


The Church and Biblical Inerrancy

            It is obvious that James treats the words of Jesus and the OT

scriptures as authoritative for the early church. He does not question

their reliability and expects their dictates to be obeyed.48 He also

identifies himself as a "servant of God" (1:1) and assumes a stamp of

authority beyond himself for his writings.

            What we learn from James is that we must approach the scripture

with reverence. But for James it is not enough merely to affirm a belief


            46 Doerksen, James 102; ct. C. F. H. Henry, Christian Personal Ethics (Grand

Eerdmans, 1957) 177.

            47 Hiebert, Epistle of James 264.

            48 Guthrie, New Testament Theology 975.



in the truthfulness of Scripture, we must live under its authority. It is

not enough to utter an orthodox confession. It is not enough to hear the

word. We must obey it and put it into practice. As the word of God

finds a home in our lives, it becomes the word of God implanted as our

divine authority for all things that pertain to life and godliness.49


The Church and Renewal

            Certainly, there is no issue in Christianity today that is more

needed than genuine renewal in the churches. There is a mass of

literature available on the spiritual life that likewise brings mass

confusion. What is needed is a healthy spirituality that produces God-

sent renewal to the churches. Today's unhealthy divisions between

"the theological and the practical" or the "spiritual and the secular" are

directly addressed by the everyday practical nature of the spirituality

of James. He is concerned not just with a high and lofty spirituality,

but with a genuine piety that evidences mercy to the poor, widows and

orphans in distress. He is concerned about issues of power, self-

centeredness, and infighting and divisions among believers. Genuine

renewal recognizes that believers will be characterized by heaven-sent

virtues. These virtues are produced by a God-centered, kingdom-

centered life. It also recognizes that such a life is in contrast to the

earthly, unspiritual and demonic spirit of the world. The church

today desperately need to understand the dynamics of spiritual renewal

at the individual and corporate level.50 James' admonitions speak to

this important need.


The Church-Growth Movement

            The church of Jesus Christ has grown enormously since the time

that James wrote his epistle. From the initial small group of believers,

the church according to contemporary missiologists now numbers

over one billion people. Today, concern for church growth, which has

always been important for God's people, has become a specialized

field of study. The modern church-growth movement seeks to com-


            49 H. D. McDonald, "Authority of the Bible" EDT (1984) 139-40. Also cf.

D. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology (2 vols.; San Francisco: Harper and R

1978-79)2.239-41, 265-75.

            50 Cf. Lovelace, Renewal as a Way of Life; R. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual

Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity, 1980); H

Snyder, The Problem of Wineskins (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976) and Snyder,

The Community of the King (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1977). A very important

aspect of church renewal is the place of prayer. The reader is encouraged to

R. Wells, "The Theology of Prayer in James" in this issue of CTR.


              Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES                         65


bine theological convictions and sociological observations. This move-

ment was begun by D. A. McGavran and his disciples and colleagues

such as W. Arn, P. Wagner and A. Glasser. The movement can be

summarized in seven principles.

            (1) An evaluation is made of what is happening in a church. Is a

                  church stagnant of growing? Why?

            (2) The group to be evangelized must be targeted and understood.

            (3) The message of the gospel must be contextualized for the

                  targeted people.

            (4) The congregation grows best if it is homogeneous, a place

                  where people can feel at home.

            (5) A strategy of outreach must be developed.

            (6) Goals must be set.

            (7) The laity must be enlisted and mobilized for purposeful out-

                  reach. Gifts of evangelism should be discovered and exercised.51

            It is beyond our limitations to evaluate seriously the church-

growth movement. That has been done by several groups and people.52

Our purpose is limited to how the ethical admonitions of James might

apply to the principles of the church-growth movement.

            The fourth point listed above, which is based upon sociological

observations and analysis, is at least questionable in light of James'

statements on partiality in chap. 2. While James speaks directly to the

treatment of rich and poor, the principle itself is general and its

significance can be expanded. If Christians demonstrate partiality or

favoritism toward those of different classes, cultures or races, they

seem to fall short of the Lord's standard of impartiality. One of the

primary reasons why partiality is wrong, in addition to violating God's

standards, is that in practice partiality destroys the unity of the commu-

nity of faith. The church-growth movement is obviously correct that,

for example, some Hispanics will feel more comfortable in Hispanic,

Spanish-speaking churches. This may be true in principle for other

racial and cultural groups as well. But insofar as the principle becomes

a barrier for unity or a reason to further partiality in our churches, it

must be recognized as a violation of the direct teachings of the epistle

of James.


            51 D. A. McGavran, "Church Growth Movement" EDT (1984) 241-43; cf.

McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).

            52 Cf. H. Conn, ed., Theological Perspectives on Church Growth (Nutley, NJ:

Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977). Note especially the articles by J. I. Packer,

R. Greenway and R. Recker.




The Church and Social Responsibility

            A very important avenue of the church's ministry is its responsi-

bility to show acts of mercy toward believers and non-believers.53 The

model of the life of Jesus demonstrates care for the problems of the

poor, the suffering and the downcast. The church, if it is to follow in the

steps of Jesus must be engaged in the same form of ministry. James’

epistle heartily stresses this holistic, practical Christianity.54

            American Evangelicalism has a faithful history of social involvement

prior to its struggles in the "Fundamentalist-Modernist" controversies

in the early decades of this century.55 During this time, there was a

division between the spiritual gospel proclaimed by the Fundamen-

talists and the social gospel advocated by the Modernists. Sadly the

churches in America divided the gospel with its spiritual dimensions

and social ramifications. The Fundamentalists in an attempt to safe-

guard the purity of the gospel retreated from social involvement.56 The

social aspects of the gospel were taken over by the Modernists,

exemplified in the ministry of W. Rauschenbusch.57 This unhealthy

division had all but eliminated a concern for the social ramifications of

the gospel among evangelicals for fear of compromising the gospel.

            In 1947, C. F. H. Henry attacked the social apathy of Fundamen-

talists from within the movement in his groundbreaking publication,

The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and in so doing,

set in motion the effort to rediscover an evangelical theology for

society. Since Henry's appeal in 1947, the Evangelical world has once

again begun to think and act rightly about the needs of men and

women in this world as well as in the life to come." The church is to


            53 Cf. S. Wirt, The Social Conscience of the Evangelical (New York: Harper and

Row, 1968) 19-26.

            54 M. Erickson, Christian Theology (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982-85) 3.1057-

59. R. Saucy, The Church in God's Program (Chicago: Moody, 1972) 156, notes the

diaconal responsibility for this ministry in the church.

            55 This is well documented in J. D. Woodbridge, M. A. Noll and N. 0. Hatch, The

Gospel in America (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979) 225-47. Yet even in the 18th

century, Cotton Mather discussed the relation of piety to poverty and prosperity. He

commented that piety had begotten prosperity and the daughter had devoured the

mother in the Magnalia (London, 1702) 1.63.

            56 E.g., J. G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,


            57 E.g., W. Rauschenbush, Christianity and the Social Crisis (New York: Ha;

and Row, reprint 1964; originally published in 1907).

            58 R. D. Linder, "The Resurgence of Evangelical Social Concern (1925-75)" The

Evangelicals: What They Believe, Who They Are, Where They are Changing, ed. D. F.

Wells and J. D. Woodbridge (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975) 189-210. A sample of

               Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES                         67


show concern and take action wherever it sees need, hurt or wrong.

Such was the message of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant to the evan-

gelical world.59 More important than this significant covenant from the

corporate evangelical world is the message of James written to scat-

tered Jewish Christians over 1900 years ago. The message of James

speaks with authority to our continued responsibility to understand,

proclaim and apply the entire gospel message, for this is true piety.


The Church and Liberation Theology

            One of the most recent movements' on the theological scene is

liberation theology. Liberation theologians have developed a theology

of action that is centered around the needs of the poor and the

oppressed. These theologians believe that orthodox theology has too

long neglected the problems of the oppressed and in doing so has

tended to manipulate God in favor of the capitalistic social structure.

They believe that orthodox theology has not just neglected the

oppressed, but has actually influenced the oppression of the poor and

downtrodden. This movement has responded with a complete theo-

logical system that is a theology in the world. Some of the primary

points of liberation theology can be articulated as follows. God is not a

timeless, immutable person existing outside of this world, but instead

is a crucified God who submerges himself in a world of misery. God is

thus on the side of the poor and the oppressed. Salvation is liberation

from oppression and injustice. Sin is defined as inhumanity toward

other humans. In the end, liberation theology equates loving one's

neighbor with loving God. It equates God's revelation with the voice


important works devoted to this subject in recent years includes: J. H. Yoder, The

Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972); J. M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down

(Glendale: Regal, 1976); R. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (Downers Grove:

InterVarsity, 1977); H. Conn, Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1982); A. Compolo, A Reasonable Faith (Waco: Word, 1983) and

J. R. W. Stott, Involvement: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society

(Old Tappan: Revell, 1985). Most evangelicals have profited from these challenges and

as a result our ministry is more complete and our message more balanced. The

leadership of Perkins, Conn and Stott in this matter has been most beneficial. Yet, there

are some like Sider and Compolo who may have tipped the scales too far, even echoing

aspects of liberation theology in their message.

            59 C. R. Padilla, ed., The New Face of Evangelicalism: An International Sym-

posium on the Lausanne Covenant (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976); cf. J. R. W.

Stott, The Lausanne Covenant (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975). The

International Council of Biblical Inerrancy is hosting Summit III in December, 1986 in

Chicago. In this meeting the implications of biblical inerrancy will be discussed. One of

the issues to be discussed is the relation of a belief in inerrancy and its ramifications for

social involvement. Two important papers on this matter are J. Perkins, "Wealth and

Poverty” and R. Nash, "Economics."




of the oppressed. The gospel is the announcing of God's participation

in the human struggle for justice.60

            Liberation theology is built upon J. Moltmann's Theology of Hope

(1965). This theological foundation is conflated with Marxist eco-

nomics and some biblical themes of liberation such as the Exodus

event and the message of Jesus in Luke 4:19 that he has come “to set

captives free" (understood in physical and not spiritual terms). The

result is a more Marxist than biblical movement which advocates that a

theology of the church in the world should be complemented by a

theology of the world in the church.61

            The obvious question concerns the reference in Jas 2:5 which

indicates that “God has chosen the poor in the eyes of the world to be

rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised to those who love

him.” We should recognize that our understanding of James certainly

affirms God's concern for the poor. What then can we say about James

admonition at this point? Is liberation theology a biblical movement?

Is James a forerunner of the liberation theology movement?

            First, we acknowledge the strength of liberation theology is its

compassion for the poor and downtrodden and that believers must not

remain unconcerned about the difficult situation of the oppressed. We

concur that inhumanitarian acts of prejudice and partiality are to be

seen as sin and in need of Christian resistance. We also agree that Jesus

is the model for practical and social acts of mercy to the poor.

            Yet, we differ at several important points with liberation theology

as well. We do not think that James declares the rich to be evil

oppressive because they are rich. James declares that the rich are evil

when they oppress the poor and/or gain their riches by fraud. We

agree that the poor have a special place in God's redemptive plan, but

this is much different from declaring that the poor are the voice of

God. We disagree that the poor are the voice of God or the embodi-

ment of God in the world. The result of this approach to revelation

would be opposed to James' word concerning the poor as God's elect

(2:5) and would threaten to offer hope to the poor that could be

provided apart from Jesus Christ.62 The ethic of James is centered


            60 The standard work on this subject is G. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation

(Maryknoll: Orbis, 1973). For brief summaries of this movement, cf. D. D. Webster,

"Liberation Theology" EDT 635-38; and A. Kee, "Liberation Theology" The West-

minster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. A. Richardson and J. Bowden (Phila-

delphia: Westminster, 1983) 328-30. We have only addressed the major concepts of this

subject as they are applied to the poor, especially in third world countries. There are

several other approaches to the movement that focus on other oppressed groups such as

J. Cone's ,”Black Liberation Theology" and L. Russell's "Feminist Liberation Theology.”

            61 Cf. Guiterrez, ibid.

            62 Webster, "Liberation Theology" 637.


              Dockery: TRUE PIETY IN JAMES                         69


around the life and words of Jesus and his kingdom rule. It is in Jesus

that God has ultimately revealed himself. Thus he does not reveal

himself through the poor, but to the poor through Jesus Christ. Thus,

we find that our understanding of James differs at crucial points from

liberation theology. This is certainly not an attempt at a complete

evaluation of liberation theology,63 but it is an attempt to assess the

movement at applicable points as it speaks to similar concerns of

James’ ethical admonitions. James is opposed to partiality and mis-

treatment of the poor, but this is not the same as Marxist economics

and the unbalanced biblical themes of liberation theology.


                                                V. Conclusion

            In this essay, we have attempted to survey the ethical admonitions

in the epistle of James. We discovered that James is an intensely

practical book concerned with the everyday actions of believers at

both the individual and corporate aspects of the Christian life. James

pictures true piety as the direct application of the implanted word in

the life of the believer. The result vertically is the submission to and

worship of God. The result horizontally is concern for the poor,

widows and orphans in distress. The result relationally is living peace-

ably with others in the church. The result inwardly is the humility,

purity and gentleness of character that comes from heavenly wisdom.

We have seen how these ethical admonitions mirror the aT prophets

and proverbs, but ultimately it was seen that James' pictures of piety

are based upon and modeled by the words and life of Jesus.

            We observed how the true piety of James speaks to five important

issues in the life of the contemporary Christian community. We

learned that even though James is addressed to a unique situation in

the life of the early church over 1900 years ago, it still speaks to us and

admonishes us by exhorting us to live out the gospel in all of its

implications. This means living responsibly in the church as citizens of

the kingdom in submission to God and evidencing mercy, righteous-

ness and peace to other men and women created in the likeness and

image of God.

            Finally, it must be acknowledged that the life of true piety as

pictured by James is much easier for me, the author, to write about

and for you, the reader, to read about than it is for us to do. But James


            63 Three excellent evaluations of liberation theology are J. A. Kirk, Theology

Encounters Revolution (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1980); R. Nash, ed., Liberation

(Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1984). The reader will find the articles by H. O. J.

Brown, C. F. H. Henry and C. Pinnock to be very useful, and Emilio A. Nunez C.,

Liberation Theology (Chicago: Moody, 1985).




will not be satisfied with hearing. It must be accompanied by doing.

May God help us to humble ourselves before him so that we

receive enabling grace to live with undivided affection for God

undefiled conduct before others.





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The Criswell College

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