Book Review – The Message of James (Alec Motyer)


In his introduction, Alec Motyer argues that James is a preacher, and that his book is a sermon with a coherent plan. In other words, despite the often abrupt changes of topic we find, Motyer thinks he can determine an overall plan. This basically involves James introducing his key topics in chapter 1, expanding on them in chapters 2-4 and returning to them in chapter 5.


The commentary includes the text of the RSV version and, like a number of the Bible Speaks Today volumes on New Testament letters, is very thorough. Every phrase of the book of James gets attention. Motyer is careful to show how each section relates to what has gone before, and I think manages to demonstrate some persuasive evidence for his proposed structure.

Of course, a practical book like James lends itself extremely well to an expository commentary – there is lots for us to take on board and apply. In particular the challenges concerning our care for the poor and our attitude towards money are made forcefully.

The Bible never teaches that wealth is wrong … everything depends on how it has been acquired, how it is used, and what place it holds in the heart of the possessor.

If we would follow the Lord Jesus then it must be our glory, as it was his, to be incessantly and preponderantly on the side of the poor, the underprivileged, the disadvantaged and the oppressed.

Money still does the talking far too loudly in Christian circles, and where and when it does, the glory of Christ departs.

When he comes to the supposed tension between Paul and James, he resolves it as follows:

To Paul the question was “How is salvation experienced?” and the answer “by faith alone”. To James the question was “How is true and saving faith recognized"?” and the answer “by its fruits”.

He says that for James, “works” means all that should be distinctive about the person who believes and is saved. Faith promotes works, faith needs works and faith precedes works. One of the applications he draws out is the need for Christians to pressure governments to address human need.

Motyer’s understanding of the structure of the book is that the main three “points” of James’ sermon are three characteristics of true religion: the controlled tongue, care for those in need, and personal holiness.

He shows that for James, control of the tongue is not merely evidence of spiritual maturity, it is the means to it. Motyer is also very challenging on the issue of divisions amongst Christians, which we tend to treat as of little consequence – we should consider these as grievous as wars and murder.

Another point of interest is his handling on the matter of prayer for the sick person. He takes some time to disagree with the Roman Catholic concept of “extreme unction”, and steers a moderate line on the subject of healing. The onus is placed on the elders of the church to pray genuine “prayers of faith” that a person will be healed, although Motyer notes that there are also times for “prayers of rest” where we commit ourselves to whatever the will of God may be. His take on confession is also interesting. He discourages generally confessing sins to those we have not sinned against – the confession to one another in view then is confession to those we have wronged.


Bible Speaks Today volumes are great for personal study, as well as aids for preparing small group studies or sermons, and this is no exception. Motyer doesn’t simply explain the message of James, but drives home the challenge of his message. At over 200 pages it is not as concise as some of the others in the series, but it is worth making the effort to reflect in depth on this powerful book of the Bible.

We need to examine ourselves; … A thing as potent as the new birth, if it has taken place, cannot be hidden; it cannot fail to make its presence felt. To have the life of God in us and to remain unchanged is unthinkable.

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