Criswell Theological Review 1.1 (1986) 51-70.
Copyright © 1986 by The
TRUE PIETY IN JAMES:
ETHICAL ADMONITIONS AND
DAVID S. DOCKERY
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.”
52 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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.;
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 (
342-44; and E. F. Harrison, Introduction
to the New Testament (
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.;
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.;
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
Stephen. These believers were dispersed over
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
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
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 (
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.;
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."
54 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
when they will inherit the
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
ed. K. Grobel (2 vols.;
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-
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
18 Cf. W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (
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)
56 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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
22 R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of
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;
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
29 Cf. Maston, Biblical Ethics 15-51.
58 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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).
60 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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.;
terns the Pauline and Post-Pauline Letters and Their Development Lists of Vices and
and Interpretation, ed. E. Best and R. McL.
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.
62 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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.
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
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 J
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.
64 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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.
of Evangelical Theology (2 vols.;
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
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
(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
51 D. A. McGavran, "Church Growth Movement" EDT (1984) 241-43; cf.
52 Cf. H. Conn, ed., Theological
Perspectives on Church Growth (
Presbyterian and Reformed, 1977). Note especially the articles by J. I. Packer,
R. Greenway and R. Recker.
66 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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 (
Row, 1968) 19-26.
54 M. Erickson, Christian Theology (3 vols.;
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
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 (
56 E.g., J. G. Machen, Christianity
and Liberalism (
57 E.g., W. Rauschenbush, Christianity
and the Social Crisis (
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
Regal, 1976); R. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger (
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
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
International Council of Biblical Inerrancy is hosting Summit III in December, 1986 in
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."
68 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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-
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.
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).
70 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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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