James 1:27 Pure Religion

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. Jas 1:27

It has become fashionable in recent years for evangelicals to say bad things about “religion”, about how Jesus came to save us from “religion” and that “religion sucks”. Whilst I understand the sentiment, I have always felt slightly uneasy with this way of speaking precisely because of this verse. James is not against religion per se, but he does recognise that there is good religion and bad religion.

There is a particularly neat balance to James’s brief description of pure religion. It is described positively (what we must do) and negatively (what we must avoid).

First, pure religion is expressed in social action on behalf of the needy. It is interesting that instead of suggesting financial donations to orphans and widows (which I am sure James would heartily have approved of), he suggests we get personally involved and visit them (other versions have “look after”, or “care for”, with the implication being that more than simply talking to them is in mind – see Jas 2:15-16). In other words, we are to take the initiative in personally helping the most needy and vulnerable in our society.

Second, pure religion is expressed in personal holiness. Whilst the first requirement he sets out rules out the option of retreating from the world, nevertheless James is aware that it is possible for a believer to become “stained”, through picking up the ungodly habits and attitudes of the world.

When I was researching the “emerging church” several years back, I noticed that one difference between emerging and more traditional evangelicals was how they conceived of holiness. Emergents saw it primarily in terms of social action. A holy person is one who cares for the poor, and they tend to be less concerned about that person’s swearing, smoking or sexual activity. By contrast conservative evangelicals tend to view holiness much more in terms of sin avoidance. Thus you can be considered “holy” by avoiding a long list of sins, but without ever lifting a finger to serve the needy.

James’ balanced definition of pure religion is therefore one worth pondering right across the spectrum of evangelicalism. If “religion” has a bad name, it is at least in part, our fault. The problem is not that the church has too much religion, but that it does not have true religion.

James 1:26 Self-Deception

(Apologies that my attempt to do a series of posts on James kind of ran out of steam, but I had plenty planned so I’ll try to persevere, albeit more slowly than I had hoped)

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

In this verse, James describes someone who considers themself to be “religious” (this is not a negative term in James’s vocabulary, despite the way it is used today), and yet doesn’t keep control of their tongue. Such people are “self-deceived”, believing themselves to be “good” or “righteous” people, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

But James doesn’t limit the category of self-deception to those who cannot control their tongues. It applies to anyone who hears the word but doesn’t put it into practice:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)

Does this mean that every Christian is self-deceived? After all, none of us succeeds in putting everything we read in God’s word in to practice. I think James has something more subtle in mind. Self-deception occurs when we think that the right response to God’s word is simply to agree with it, but excuse ourselves from actually acting on it. I know I can be guilty of this when I hear a particularly “challenging” sermon and say afterwards how wonderful I thought it was, but fail to make any real change.

By definition, the self-deceived person is not aware that they are self-deceived. So how can I know whether this warning applies to me? Is my religion “worthless”?

Actually, I don’t think there is a great danger of being “self-deceived”, so long as we aren’t afraid of a bit of healthy introspection. “Introspection” has got bad press in recent years, with some even going so far as saying that it runs contrary to the gospel, since we should look to Christ, not at ourselves.

Although Christ is indeed the ground of our justification, nevertheless Paul is quite happy to encourage us to “examine” and “test” ourselves (2 Cor 13:5). We need times where we attempt to look at our lives in a brutally honest and objective light, and ask what evidence we see of the Spirit of God at work in us. James is adamant (along with all the NT writers) that there will always be fruit that accompanies genuine conversion (James 2:14).

If we are not willing to take a proper look in the mirror (to use James’ analogy) and see what we are really like, then the chances are, we will fail to recognise just how much we need more of the Spirit of God in order that we may be transformed more into the image of Christ, and bear genuine fruit.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Ps 139:23-24 NIV

Book Review–ZEC James (Craig Blomberg & Mariam Kamell)

The Series

Since this is the first commentary in the brand new Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series, slated to cover the entire New Testament, let me take a moment to describe the series. It is bound in hardback, with the slightly squarer pages that Zondervan seem to be preferring these days.

The way the commentary is structured is reminiscent of the NIV Application Commentary, except for this one has more sections.

Literary Context deals with issues of structure, and the flow of argument throughout the book. Then Main Idea is a single paragraph summary of the main point of the passage under study. Then follows Translation which is actually presented in a chart form analysing the sentence structures. The translation itself is actually a bit cumbersome to read, as it is fairly literal in style. Next follows a section on Structure which essentially describes the findings of the chart. Following that we have Exegetical Outline which again reviews the structure, but rephrased as whole sentences (a bit like the main points from a sermon). In many ways, this was the most helpful section of the structure analysis.

As can be seen, with five sections devoted to structure and literary context, this is a strong focus of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary series. Whilst it claims to be targeted at preachers, I couldn’t help wondering whether at least part of the goal was for them to become standard seminary textbooks for those studying their way through a book.

Having covered the structure and outline, the Explanation of Text is the main meat of the commentary. Each verse is presented in English first then Greek. What follows is primarily exegesis, although occasionally it strays into application. Greek words are often used, although always translated on their first use. There are plenty of quotes and insights from other commentators (especially Moo, Davids, Laws and Martin). There is also a generous amount of footnotes, again often interacting with other commentators.

Finally, Theology in Application attempts to apply the teaching of the passage to modern day life. Often this section takes the opportunity to briefly survey other passages of the Bible that teach on the same theme. The comments sometimes reference current events or movies, and deal with potential with misunderstandings or inappropriate applications of the text. Even this section is worded in a fairly academic way, so despite superficial similarities, the feel is very different to the NIV application commentary series.

Finally, in various places there are In Depth sections which are essentially excursuses taking on a particularly difficult exegetical issue.

The Introduction

Apparently long introductions are not intended to be a feature of the ZEC series, so this one covers the usual points in reasonably succinct style. For structure they state that James consists of about a dozen passages of preachable length, and go broadly with David’s approach, identifying three key themes of trials, wisdom, and riches & poverty. They argue that “the letter is heavily indebted to the Jesus tradition and is therefore fully Christian”.

"Faith in action, especially social action, remains central for this author … James sees no tension between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.”

Interestingly, an analysis of the theology of James is left out of the introduction in favour of a section at the end of the book, which highlights several key themes before selecting single-mindedness as the unifying theme of the book.

The Commentary

This particular commentary is co-authored by Craig Blomberg along with his research assistant Mariam Kammell. It would seem from the preface that Kammell was primarily responsible for drafting the “explanation of text” sections, with Blomberg doing the rest, although they make it clear that the whole volume is a joint effort.

I was reading this at the same time as reading Douglas Moo’s superb commentary on James in the Pillar series, so the question I had in my mind was, what added value did this volume give? Perhaps the main strength for me was the fruits of Blomberg’s prior work for Neither Poverty Nor Riches shining through. This commentary seems to pack more of a punch when dealing with the issues of money and poverty. It was brilliant on Jas 1:27 discussing care for the helpless.

James asks, in essence, “Did you in fact realize that the meeting of needs is not peripheral, nor optional, but central and obligatory to your faith?”

There are some helpful quotes in the section that works through the relationship between faith and works.

“Works” here are not the Pauline “works of the law” such as circumcision, but rather the works of love, such as caring for those who are in need, not showing favouritism, being humble, or being slow to speak.

Where Paul denies the need for pre-conversion works, James emphasizes the absolute necessity of post-conversion works.

One of the “in depth” sections deals with the question of whether the “teachers” in mind in James 3 were only men. They argue that 1 Tim 2:12 restricts the office of elder to men, but does not restrict women from teaching.

As I mentioned, the commentary on areas of the letter touching on wealth and poverty tends to be the most incisive and challenging. For example, on James 5:1-6 they comment:

How many upper- or middle-class Western Christians have so many extra, largely unused clothes, so that, were it not for mothballs or their equivalent, they would have become moth-eaten. How many have other needless possessions, even investments, that are not being used for much of anything…

How many churches think that the only realistic option when they outgrow one facility is to build a bigger, more upscale one, with perhaps millions of dollars diverted from truly helping the world’s destitute, physically and spiritually?

The explanation of the text is thorough but not exhaustive. For example, on Jas 5:16 I was hoping to read something on the meaning of δικαιου (righteous) but it was not touched on.

The theology in application section is a welcome addition, but should not be looked to as a source of a quick sermon outline. I appreciated the attempts to prophetically challenge the evangelical church, and their willingness to make potentially controversial statements, such as criticising church building projects, or a number of statements on the church’s attitude to gays and lesbians:

Many conservative Christians vote against equal rights for gays and lesbians without any balancing, positive actions to show them Christ’s love, making the legislation merely judgmental rather than fully scriptural.

The generous number of genuinely helpful footnotes is also a big strength of this volume (and hopefully the whole series). I found they were regularly worth consulting, unlike the more academic footnotes found in many other commentaries.

I would also say it is a series that I will watch with some interest, even though it is fighting for space in an already very crowded New Testament commentary market. The format seems well suited for working through an epistle. I will be interested to see how well it works for the gospels, with Grant Osbourne’s Matthew due to be published soon.

Book Review–The Letter of James (Douglas Moo)


Douglas Moo has a well-earned reputation for being one of the finest New Testament commentators, and this volume in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series is no exception to his usual high standard of work. It begins with a thorough introduction, which includes a defence of James the brother of Jesus as author. He dates it in the mid 40s, with the assumption that James was not yet familiar with what Paul meant by “justification by faith”, but had heard the phrase being used (or abused). He devotes several pages in the introduction to the topic of “faith, works and justification”, in which he compares James and Paul’s teaching. He does not see a fundamental contradiction, rather that they are bringing complementary teachings targeting different errors: “Paul strikes at legalism; James at quietism.”


The commentary itself is based on the NIV text and works through usually a verse at a time. He doesn’t assume the reader has knowledge of Greek, although some understanding will help. His interest as a Bible translator shines through as he often explores the semantic range of a word, and he likes to highlight good translations (and occasionally criticise – such as the use of “happy” instead of “blessed”).

He breaks the letter up into small chunks, while acknowledging that it is very hard to find a structure to James. He keeps the sermon-like feel to James by making his section headings read like sermon points.

Whilst the Pillar series is primarily focused on explaining the text, there is latitude to discuss the theological implications, which Moo often does, albeit succinctly. He is a cautious exegete, never making the text say more than it actually does. He is particularly helpful in the parts where James is accused of being at odds with Paul, by looking at the different ways they each use the words “faith”, “works”, and most importantly “justify”.

Moo believes that “the heart of the letter is a call to wholehearted commitment to Christ.” He is especially helpful in highlighting links to the teaching of Jesus, as well as how James understood the “law”. Having read a few commentaries on James now, I would say that Moo remains my favourite. Sometimes I wish he would be a bit more preachy, but it is an invaluable aid to any serious study of the book of James.

James 1:25 The “Law of Liberty”

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. James 1:25

Laws forbid us from doing certain things, or command us to do things. By their very nature, therefore, they restrict our freedom to do whatever we like. So when James uses the phrase, “the law of liberty”, we might be tempted to think it is an oxymoron, a bit like saying “the chains of freedom”.

To understand this phrase, we first need to ask what “law” James is referring to. We might assume that he refers to the law of Moses, to the 10 commandments and the other rules and regulations of the Old Covenant. But commentators are broadly agreed that this is not in fact the case. Douglas Moo puts it like this:

James’s “law” does not refer to the law of Moses as such, but to the law of Moses as interpreted and supplemented by Christ.

In other words, James is referring to what we might call the “New Covenant law”, or the “law of Christ”. Elsewhere James calls it the “royal law” (James 2:8) and here in James 1:25 he calls it the “perfect law”. It is the law “written on our hearts” that Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:33). So the “law” essentially refers to God’s will for the way we are to live. It is as the Spirit fills us that we are given the three things we need to live according to this law:

  1. The knowledge of what God’s will for our lives is
  2. The desire to live in a way that is pleasing to God
  3. The power to overcome sin and temptation and to do God’s will

But that still doesn’t full answer the original question. How is living this way “freedom”? The answer surely is that true freedom comes when we do what we were made to do. “Freedom” to sin isn’t freedom at all – in fact, Jesus makes plain that sin leads to the very opposite of freedom – slavery (John 8:34). The question for us is are we willing to believe this? The most liberating way of life that is possible is one that gladly submits to the gracious constraints of God’s law. What seems like a straightjacket to the carnal-minded person, is glorious freedom for the God-obsessed.

James 1:17 – The Father of Lights

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. James 1:17-18

In James 1:17, James refers to God as “the Father of lights”. I never really understood why he used this unusual name for God here. But thanks to some insights from a few commentaries, it makes a bit more sense to me now.

“Father of lights” refers us back to creation, when God said “let there be light” (Gen 1:3) on the first day. Then on the fourth day God said “let there be lights” (Gen 1:14) such as the sun, moon and stars.

Instead of calling God “Creator”, which makes us think of the awesome power required to create a vast universe, James uses the name “Father of Lights” to point us to the perfection of God’s creation. This name underscores that everything God makes, everything he does, and everything he gives us is “good and perfect”.

Which I think helps make sense of another difficult phrase in verse 18, which speaks of us as the “firstfruits of his creatures”. James is picturing believers as the first parts of the new creation. And just as the first creation was good and perfect, so his new creation also is good and perfect. This is of course one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life – as a human being I am flawed and fallen, but as a new creation, I am “good and perfect”.

James 1:8 The “Double-Minded” Man

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. James 1:5-8 (ESV)

This passage talks about someone who needs wisdom. Perhaps they have a big decision to make. So they pray and ask God to give them wisdom. Now, I have always assumed the warning of verses 6-8 to mean that the person praying for wisdom is being punished for thinking “maybe God won’t answer my prayer, maybe he won’t give me wisdom”.

This interpretation could put you in a catch 22 situation if you are an introspective sort of person. Until you read this verse, you were confident you would get your request granted, but now you are not so sure, which more or less guarantees that it will be denied!

But I wonder if something else is going on. Most commentators agree that the concept of being “single-minded” as opposed to “double-minded” is a running theme throughout the book of James. The single-minded person is living wholeheartedly for God, whilst the double-minded person is vacillating between living for God and for the “world”.

So perhaps the double-minded man’s internal struggle is not so much “will he or won’t he give me wisdom?” but “do I or do I not want to what God wants”. He is saying to God, “tell me what I should do, but if I don’t like the advice, I reserve the right to do my own thing instead.”

The challenge for us then is not “does God really want to give me wisdom”, but “do I really want to know his will”? Or am I happier making my own plans and decisions?

James 1:2 Trials of Various Kinds

I’m just finishing a study on the book of James, and have decided to do a short series of posts exploring some of the verses that particularly struck me along the way. First up is James 1:2

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds

There is a school of thought, amongst those who emphasise supernatural healing, that although Christians should rejoice when they face persecution, they should not do so in the face of other trials, such as sickness. From those trials we should simply pray for escape.

This verse in James, however, points in a different direction. It is not that James disagrees with praying for escape from trials. Later in the letter he explicitly gives instructions on receiving prayer for healing (James 5:14-16).

But the “various trials” he is referring to in this letter are not primarily persecution. As you go through the letter, you see that the biggest trials facing the believers at that time were that many were extremely poor, and were being exploited and oppressed by the rich.

When James gets round to selecting examples of those who set a good example of patience in the face of suffering, he picks out the “prophets” (James 5:10), who did indeed suffer persecution, but also he selects Job (James 5:11).

The interesting thing about Job is that his suffering was not persecution. He suffered illness, bereavement, and financial loss. Yet in a strange way, he too was suffering for righteousness’ sake. Though he had no way of knowing it, it was his righteousness that was the cause of Satan’s attack (Job 2:3-4).

Modern day examples of Job’s suffering might be godly pastors like Matt Chandler and PJ Smyth, who are facing serious illness, or Dave Matthias, who has been blogging recently about the grief of losing an unborn child. When James asks them to “count it all joy” he is not saying something like “always look on the bright side of life”. The point is not “cheer up, because although this terrible thing happened to you, you will grow in character as a result”. Growth in character (James 1:3-4) is only a side benefit; there is a deeper reason for joy.

The ultimate reason we can have joy as we face “various trials” is that we are a people of hope. Joy in the face of suffering is only possible if we see the bigger picture, believing God’s promises regarding our future. Trials do cause us grief, but we can also face them with joy if we are a people of hope, as James explains in James 1:12

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.

Moo on Wholehearted Commitment to Christ

From the preface of the Pillar New Testament Commentary on the Letter of James by Douglas Moo:

I remain convinced that the heart of the letter is a call to wholehearted commitment to Christ. James’s call for consistent and uncompromising Christian living is much needed. Our churches are filled with believers who are only halfhearted in their faith and, as a result, leave large areas of their lives virtually untouched by Christian values.

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.