Bibliotheca Sacra 135 (July 1978) 221-31.

          Copyright © 1978 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                   The Unifying Theme of the

                              Epistle of James




                                            D. Edmond Hiebert



            The Epistle of James is notoriously difficult to outline. This

is confirmed by the great diversity of the outlines which have been

proposed. They range all the way from two1 to twenty-five2 major

divisions. The epistle itself does not herald any clear structural plan

concerning the organization of its contents. Hendriksen well re-

marks, "A superficial glance at this epistle may easily leave the

impression that every attempt to outline it must fail."3

            This impression that the epistle lacks any unifying theme for

its contents is strengthened by the peculiar practice of James of

connecting sentences by the repetition of a leading word or one of

its cognates. As an illustration, note 1:3-6 (NASB) : "endurance"

(v. 3) —"endurance" (v. 4) ; "lacking in nothing" (v. 4) —"if

any of you lacks" (v. 5); "let him ask" (v. 5) — "but let him ask"

(v. 6) ; "without any doubting" (v. 6) — "the one who doubts"

(v. 6). See also 1:12-15, 21-25; 3:2-8; 4:1-3. The brief paragraphs,

the rapid shift of thought, and the apparent diversity of themes

further support the impression that the epistle is disjointed and

lacks a unifying theme.

            The disjointed character of its contents is stressed by scholars


1 Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker Book

House, 1974), p. 341.

2 Burton Scott Easton and Gordon Poteat, "The Epistle of James," in The

Interpreter's Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick, 12 vols. (New York: Abing-

don Press, 1957), 12:18.                            

3 William Hendriksen, Bible Survey: A Treasury of Bible Information

(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1949), p. 329.




222   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — July-September 1978


who view this book as simply another example of "parenesis." "It

was characteristic of parenesis," Songer remarks, "to place together

in loose organization a series of exhortations without any concern

to develop one theme or line of thought in the entire writing."4 The

term paraenesis or parenesis, derived from the Greek parai<nesij

means "exhortation, advise, counsel" (cf. Acts 27:9, 22). As applied

to a written work, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "a

hortatory composition." In modern usage it denotes material char-

acterized by ethical instruction and exhortation.

            Those who view the Epistle of James as typical parenetic

literature hold that no unifying theme should be expected; it should

rather be accepted as a collection of miscellaneous exhortations

devoid of any intentional unity. Thus Goodspeed describes the

epistle as "just a handful of pearls, dropped one by one into the

hearer's mind."5 And Hunter, recalling that the epistle had been

called "an ethical scrapbook," concludes that "it is so discon-

nected, as it stands, that it is the despair of the analyst."6

            But others, not yielding to despair, discern some measure of

organizational unity in holding that James discusses several inde-

pendent themes. Scroggie asserts that this epistle "has no one

subject as have most of the Epistles, more than a dozen themes

being treated almost disconnectedly," and goes on to remark, "The

nature and variety of these subjects suggest that they are abstracts

of sermons which James had preached at Jerusalem."7 Shepherd

sees the epistle as consisting of "a series of eight homiletic-didactic

discourses" with each discourse developing a principle theme linked

together by "skilful use of word-links and thematic recapitulations."8

Similarly Barker, Lane, and Michaels hold that this epistle is a

series of "sermonic expansions of certain sayings of Jesus" and

that in it "four brief homilies or messages have been merged into

one: on temptation (1:2-18), on the law of love (1:19-2:26), on

evil speaking (3:1-4:12), and on endurance (4:13-5:20)."9


4 Harold S. Songer, "James," in The Broadman Bible Commentary, ed.

Clifton J. Allen, 12 vols. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), 12:102.

5 Edgar J. Goodspeed, An Introduction to the New Testament (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1937), p. 290.

6 A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster

Press, 1946), p. 96.

7 W. Graham Scroggie, The Unfolding Drama of Redemption: The Bible as

a Whole, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), 3:290.

8 Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., "The Epistle of James and the Gospel of Mat-

thew," Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1956) :41.

9 Glenn W. Barker, William L. Lane, and J. Ramsey Michaels, The New

Testament Speaks (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 329.

            The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James   /   223


            The suggestion that the contents of this book originally had a

sermonic origin is very probable. But the view that Jesus, the dynamic

leader of the Jerusalem church, should dispatch such a heterogeneous

compilation of sermonic materials as his official message to his

readers seems less probable.

            Still others hold that all of the Epistle of James does indeed

relate to a single theme which gives it an unobstrusive unity. This

unifying thrust of the epistle is obviously ethical rather than doc-

trinal. Kee, Young, and Froehlich identify this unifying thrust as

follows: "The whole epistle is concerned with one simple truth:

It is not enough to ‘be’ a Christian, if this fact does not show in one's

conduct."10 McNeile identifies this unifying thread of the epistle

as "the obvious but important truth that a man's faith, his attitude

toward God, is unreal and worthless if it is not effective, if it does

not work practically in life."11 And Lenski well identifies the unifying

theme of the epistle when he asserts, "This entire epistle deals with

Christian faith, and shows how this faith should be genuine, true,

active, living, fruitful."12

            The Epistle of James has much to say about faith. The noun

faith pi<stij occurs sixteen times13 and the verb believe pisteu<w

three times.14 But a glance at the contents of the epistle makes

it obvious that James is not concerned with developing a theological

exposition of the nature of Christian faith. He holds that a saving

faith accepts Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Savior (1:1; 2:1),

but otherwise he says but little about the theological content of

such a faith. His purpose is practical rather than doctrinal.

            The purpose of James is to goad his readers to recognize and

accept their need for a living, active faith and to challenge them

to test their own faith by the basic criterion that "faith without

works is useless" (2:20). James insists that a saving faith is a

living faith, proving its genuineness by what it does. But it is a

misconception to assume that his purpose is simply to stress the


10 Howard Clark Kee, Franklin W. Young, and Karlfried Froehlich, Under-

standing the New Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965),

p. 379.

11 A. H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), p. 189.

12 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of

the Epistle of James (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1938), p. 538„

13 1:3, 6; 2:1, 5, 14 (twice), 17, 18 (thrice), 20, 22 (twice), 24, 26; 5:15.

14 2:19 (twice), 23.

224   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — July-September 1978


importance of good works. James is not advocating works apart

from faith, but he is vitally concerned to show that a living faith

must demonstrate its dynamic character by its deeds.

            The contents of the epistle, further, make it clear that James

is not content simply to establish the abstract truth that a saving

faith is a dynamic, productive faith. His purpose is practical, to

present a series of tests whereby his readers can determine the

genuineness of their own faith. "The testing of your faith" (1:3)

seems to be the key which James left hanging at the front door,

intended to unlock the contents of the book. This writer proposes

that tests of a living faith is indeed the unifying theme of  the

epistle and that it provides ready access to its contents.


                                    A SURVEY OF JAMES

            The opening salutation (1:1) stamps this document as an

epistolary communication. Whatever may have been the initial use

of this material, the author now employs that material to achieve

his epistolary purpose. He is intent on meeting the needs of his


            In 1:2-18 James states and discusses his theme. This paragraph

is basic to a proper understanding of the thrust of the epistle. For

James "faith," the subject of his opening sentence (1:2-3 ), is

central to the Christian life and its true energizing principle. It is

essential, therefore, that its genuineness be tested. "The testing of

your faith" (1:3) marks the basic thrust of the message. The

Greek noun peirasmo<j has a double meaning, "testing" and

"temptation." Since in human experience the two aspects are often

related, James discusses both in this opening section. In verses 2-12

he deals with the tests and trials of believers, while in verses 13-16

he discusses the nature of temptation and then shows that it cannot

come from God in view of His beneficient activities in human

experience (1:17-18) .

            In order to profit from the testings of their faith, believers

must rightly evaluate their testings (1:2-4). Prayer makes available

to them the needed wisdom to profit from their testings (1:5);

but such prayer must be unmixed with doubt and hesitancy (1:6-8).

The testing of their faith equalizes believers (1:9-11), and successful

endurance assures future reward (1:12).

            In human experience testing and temptation are often closely

related. Temptation has its source in lustful human nature and

            The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James   /   225


must not be blamed on God (1:13-14). Its nature and results

(1:15-16) prove that it is not from God who acts beneficently

in human experience (1:17-18). His greatest gift to man is His

work of regeneration through His Word.

            Having identified and discussed his theme, in the remainder of

the epistle James develops a series of tests whereby the readers may

seek to purify their own faith.



            Since God's Word is the means of regeneration (1:18), a

right response to the Word is appropriately presented as the initial

test of a vital faith. For the believer to accept regeneration through

the Word is one thing; to permit the Word to work spiritual

maturity in him is another.

            The necessary response is threefold: eagerness to hear it,

restraint on any premature reaction, bridling of any angry rejection

(1:19-20). Before the Word can have full sway in the believer's

life, he must remove all that hinders its operation (1:21).

            Acceptance of the Word must be followed by persistent obedi-

ence to the Word (1:22-27). Hearing must be followed by active

obedience; otherwise the hearing is useless (1:22-25). But obedience

to the Word is more than mere observance of outward forms of

"religion" (church attendance, rote prayers, participation in the

rites of religion) without the development of inner power to control

the tongue (1:26). True obedience to the Word must reveal itself

in beneficient social activity and stimulate personal self-control and

purity in separation from worldly contamination (1:27).



            The second test of a living faith, as an unfolding of "pure

and undefiled religion" (1:27), is drawn from the worship services

of James' readers. James administers a stinging rebuke for holding

"faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal

favoritism" (2:1). Their partiality, vividly pictured in verses 2-3,

must be stopped as inconsistent with Christian faith.

            The evil consequences of their partiality are expounded in

verses 5-11. It is a false reaction toward both the rich and the

poor (2:5-7) and is a breach of the law of love (2:8-11). Their

act of partiality breaks the law of love and makes them guilty of

violating the purpose of the whole law as an expression of God's will.

            Their faith demands a life in accordance with the law of

liberty (2:12-13). They must obey the liberating law of love in

226   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — July-September 1978


word and deed in view of the coming judgment. The practice of

mercy, giving a man what he needs and not what he deserves, will

reveal that God's grace has produced a transformation in their

own lives.



            Faith and works are mentioned together ten times in this

paragraph, but the stress throughout is on their interrelationship.

The rhetorical questions of verse 14 state the theme of this further

test. A saving faith is a working faith, proving its vitality by its

production of works.

            James insists that an inactive faith is useless (2:14-17). The

rendering, "Can faith save him?" (AV) confuses the point of this

test. The question is literally, "Can that faith save him" (i.e., a

faith without works), and the question implies a strong no answer.

Not faith, but an inoperative faith, is disparaged. Verses 15-16

vividly illustrate such a faith, and verse 17 states the categorical


            James further insists that even an orthodox creed apart from

works is barren (2:18-20). The interpretation of verse 1.8 is prob-

lematic. From the context it is clear that James insists that even

an orthodox, monotheistic faith, if it does not motivate conduct,

is demonic (2:19). The faith of the demons stirs their feelings

but does not change their conduct. James challenges his opponent

to recognize that a faith which does not produce works is "useless,"

barren like a field that produces no crop (2:20).

            Verses 21-25 establish from Scripture that saving faith mani-

fests itself in works. The proof is drawn from the stories of Abraham

(2:21-24) and Rahab (2:25). James is not teaching that salvation

is partly by faith and partly by works. Rather, both were justified

by their faith, but their faith demonstrated its living nature in what

it enabled them to do.

            The analogy in verse 26 states the essence of this test of a

living faith. As a body without the spirit of life in it is dead, so a

profession of faith without deeds is lifeless. An inactive faith,

entombed in an intellectually approved creed, has no more saving

power than a lifeless corpse.



            In chapter 3, a self-contained unit, James insists that a living

faith must operate in the inner life of the believer in producing

            The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James / 227


self-control. And this self-control is most readily tested by one's use

of his tongue.

            Verses 1-2 stress the importance of a controlled tongue. It

is of special importance for the teacher; because of his tremendous

influence, conveyed through the tongue, he will be held more

strictly accountable (3:1). Since all believers stumble, all need

self-control (3:2). Perfect control of the tongue is the mark of

a mature man, one able to exercise control in all areas of his life.

            Verses 3-6 establish the importance of a controlled tongue.

Two illustrations demonstrate the importance and need for properly

applied control (3:3-4), while verse 5a applies the principle to the

boasting tongue. Verses 5b-6 illustrate the damage of an uncontrolled

tongue. It is an aggressive and destructive force if left uncontrolled.

            Man's natural inability to control the tongue is illustrated and

affirmed in verses 7-8. Human nature has asserted control over all

kinds of creatures, but effective control of the tongue is an impossible

human achievement. Its restless nature and deadly impact make

this so tragic.

            James rebukes the inconsistency of an uncontrolled tongue

(3:9-12). It is a veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Such incon-

sistent usage is utterly unfit for believers (3:10b). The world of

nature is not guilty of such duplicity (3:11-12).

            The tongue of man does not operate independently; its use

reveals the inner spirit in control. Verses 13-18 discuss the two

types of "wisdom" competing for control of man's tongue. "Wisdom"

is more than intellectual apprehension; it is a moral quality, enabling

man to make moral evaluations and decisions in life.

            Challenging his readers to identify a "wise and understanding"

man in their midst (3:13), James identifies the nature and results

of the two spirits seeking to control the inner man. Verses 14-16

describe the marks, nature, and results of the false "wisdom" in

control; by contrast verses 17-18 delineate the results when heavenly

wisdom is in control of the believer's tongue. Its seven characteristics

(3:17) as well as its fruit (3:18) establish that a saving faith

must be controlled by such a heavenly wisdom.



            Since faith is a matter of trust or dependence on something

or someone outside oneself, one's center of dependence in actual

life is of crucial importance. Worldliness places self or the things of

the world at the center of his aspirations and activities. "The worldly

228   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — July-September 1978


person is the self-centered person."15 Worldliness manifests itself

in various and often subtle ways among believers. Four specific

manifestations of worldliness are treated by James.

            Worldliness manifested through strife and faction (4:1-12). The

quarrels and conflicts of believers are evidence of their worldliness

(4:1-3). Their self-centered pleasures are like soldiers going to

war against those who thwart the fulfilment of their selfish desires.

Two parallel sets of consequences delineate the outcome of their

worldliness (4:2a). The two series are clearly marked by the

punctuation in the New American Standard Version. Two incrimi-

nating reasons, standing side by side as alternative explanations,

explain their turbulent relations (4:2b-3).

            In verses 4-6 worldliness is sharply rebuked. It is in reality

spiritual adultery (4:4). Cultivation of the friendship of "the world,"

the masses of unredeemed humanity in their self-centered indiffer-

ence or hostility to God, proves that God does not have the

believer's undivided allegiance. It is a position of acting as an

enemy of God. Such an attitude violates the teaching of Scripture

(4:5a) and evokes God's jealousy (4:5b). He jealously yearns

for the believer's undivided attention and in grace desires his return


            Verses 7-12 are a ringing exhortation to worldly-minded

believers. They must resume a right relationship to God (4:7-10).

Verse 7 states the basic requirement, while verses 8-10 elaborate

the specific demands for a return to a right relationship with God.

They must also resume a right relationship to their brethren by

terminating their censoriousness toward one another (4:1]-12).

            Worldliness manifested through presumptuous planning (4:13-

17). The worldliness here censured is that of presumptuous plan-

ning in independence from God. James is not condemning in-

telligent planning for the future; he is rebuking that arrogant

planning which formulates its course of action in disregard of God.

"Come now" (4:13) calls for attention to what follows. Verses

13-14 rebuke the wrong attitude. It is the picture of the self-confident

business man projecting his course of action for a whole year in

advance. He arrogantly assumes that the unknown future is under

his control.

            Verse 15 points out the proper attitude: There must be a

willing submission to God's will, involving not only one's continued

life but also one's future planned activities.


15 J. A. Moyter, The Tests cf Faith (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970), p. 82.

            The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James   /   229


            The present attitude of James' readers is evil because of their

arrogance (4:16). They presume to control the future in inde-

pendence of God. It is a failure to conform their conduct to their

professed relationship to God. Knowledge of what is right and the

ability to do it involves obligation; failure to do it is sin (4:17).

            Worldliness manifested in wrong reaction to injustice (5:1-11).

The two parts of this section stand in remarkable contrast. In verses

1-6 James utters a stinging prophetic denunciation of the cruelty

and oppression of the world, while verses 7-11 aim at safeguarding

believers against a worldly reaction to such experiences of injustice.

James strongly denounces social injustices but is concerned that

believers maintain a proper attitude and perspective amid such

injustices. They test the believer's faith.

            The denunciation of the oppressive rich (5:1-6) is in the

spirit of the Old Testament prophets. James gives no indication

that he regards these rich persons as being Christians. There is no

call to repentance but simply the announcement of impending doom.

            Verse 1 announces the fact of impending judgment and the

resultant emotional reactions. The impact of the judgment is de-

scribed in verses 2-3. Their wealth in its various forms will have

lost its value and will be a means of torment for their possessors.

Three charges are made against them: their oppression of the

laborers (5:4), their self-indulgence (5:5), and their violent treat-

ment of the unresisting righteous individual (5:6).

            James next counsels and encourages his afflicted brethren

(5:7-11). He urges patience and inner stability in view of the

expected return of the Lord (5:7-8), warns against unjustified

complaints and irritability against fellow believers (5:9), and

encourages them with examples of past suffering and endurance

under affliction (5:10-11).

            Worldliness manifested in self-serving oaths (5:12). Those who

see no unifying theme in this epistle find "not the remotest connec-

tion between this verse and the section that has gone just before."16

Minear would explain this lack of connection as due to the fact

that "we are dealing with an unorganized jumble of oral tradition

which the editor felt no pressure to reorder into a smoother literary

sequence."17 But those who reject the view that its contents con-


16 W. E. Oesterley, "The General Epistle of James," in The Expositor's

Greek Testament, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll, 5 vols. (reprint; Grand Rapids:

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), 4:472.

17 Paul S. Minear, "Yes or No: The Demand for Honesty in the Early

Church," Novum Testamentum 13 (January 1971):7.

230   /   Bibliotheca Sacra — July-September 1978


stitute "an unorganized jumble" and accept a unifying theme for

the whole epistle find there is reason and significance in the inclusion

of this exhortation at this point.

            The words "But above all" seem best understood as marking

the conclusion of a line of thought which James has been pursuing

and call for attention to this important concluding matter. Having

censured three different manifestations of worldliness (4:1-5:11),

this exhortation deals with the spirit of worldliness in one of its

most reprehensible forms. The Jews had learned the fine art of

concealing the truth under an oath with their hair-splitting dis-

tinctions between binding and nonbinding oaths (Matt. 5:33-37;

23:16-22). Such self-serving oaths, used to hide the truth by

appearing to appeal to God to establish the truth, were totally

inconsistent with Christian honesty. The truthfulness of their word

must stand open and unquestioned.



            James brings his tests of a living faith to a logical conclusion

by insisting that Christian faith finds its center and power in a vital

relationship with God in prayer in all the experiences of life (5:13).

Prayer constitutes the very heart of a vital Christian faith.

            In verses 14-16a this response is specifically applied to the

experience of physical sickness. The "sick," the one physically weak,

is to take the initiative by summoning "the elders," the recognized

leaders of the local church. Their prayer for the sick is to be offered

in connection with an act of anointing with oil, probably as an

aid to faith. From verse 15 it is clear that the prayer, not the oil,

is viewed as the healing means. "The prayer offered in faith"

(5:15) apparently denotes a prayer prayed in the Spirit-wrought

conviction that it is God's will to heal the one prayed for. The

sickness may be due to sin, but the construction in the original

makes it clear that this is not always the case. The results of prayer

encourage the practice of mutual confession and prayer (5:16a).

The practice removes any possible hindrance to the free operation

of God's power.

            In verses 16b-18 James encourages the practice of prayer

through his positive assertion of its power (5:161)) and his illustra-

tion of its mighty impact (5:17-18).

            The last two verses (5:19-20) seem best viewed as forming

a conclusion to the entire epistle. "If any among you strays from

the truth" (5:19) seems to take a final look at the various evils

            The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James   /   231


which James has censured in the entire epistle. The verb "turns

him back" e]pisste<fw seems best understood as relating to a

believer who has erred from the path of God's truth. Such straying

is a serious matter. The one acting to restore the erring one is

assured that he has saved his erring brother and thereby a multitude

of sins are covered, rather than exposed to open judgment (5:20).




            This survey of James suggests that the key which is found

hanging at the front door (1:3) is indeed the proper key to unlock

the structure of the epistle. The use of the key, tests of a living

faith, has readily unlocked the door and given ready access to its

various chambers. Not only does it give ready access to all parts

of the house but it also brings into conscious display the fact of

the underlying unity of the whole. Its use gives unity and coherence

to the entire epistle. It displays the full harmony of this epistle

with the rest of the New Testament. James, like Paul, fully believed

in "faith working through love" (Gal. 5:6).

            This understanding of the Epistle of James heightens its practi-

cal and timely message. The author's stern insistence on Christian

practice consistent with Christian profession, his open contempt for

all sham, and his stinging rebukes of worldliness in its varied forms

are notes that are urgently needed in Christendom today. As long as

there are professed Christians who are prone to separate profession

and practice, the message of this epistle will continue to be relevant.




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