3 Reasons to Preach through James
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress gives a helpful metaphor for the book of James. Christian and Hopeful were finding the narrow way difficult. “They wished for a smoother path,” Bunyan writes. “Soon they saw a little way ahead of them a pleasant-looking field called By-Path Meadow.” It looked easier and more comfortable, but in By-Path Meadow they ended up following Vain-Confidence into an ambush of trouble. They were overtaken by Giant Despair and locked away in Doubting Castle.
The lesson is simple: the way that leads to trouble often seems harmless and at times helpful. The book of James brings sinners back from the By-Path Meadows of sin to the narrow way of Christ that leads to life (Matt. 7:13–14). You should preach it to your people for several reasons. Below I’ll list three.
1. Preach James to bring sheep back to Christ in the face of trials (1:1–18).
The gospel is powerful enough to supply joy even in trials. The first part of James is all about the role of trials in the Christian’s life:
- Trials expose whether or not our joy is fixed on Christ. 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.”
- Trials reveal whether or not we understand the heart of God. Does God tempt? James 1:13, “God cannot be tempted by evil, and he tempts no one.”
James helps us to understand that we are each responsible for our own sin. We’re tempted when our own desires entice and lure us from the narrow way. When trials come, we’re weakened in our resolve and prone to believe falsehoods about joy, God, and our own culpability for sin. Fellow pastor, preach James as a preparation for these trials, and the temptations that accompany them.
If you do, you’ll be able to fix the gaze of your church on God as the Giver of all good gifts (1:17–18). You’ll remind them that God alone saves, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (1:18). Our hope of the crown of life in 1:12 isn’t rooted in the strength of our love. It rests in God’s will to bring us forth by his word alone that is able to save our souls (1:21). This work is the good news of Jesus Christ’s perfect life, substitutionary-atoning death, justifying resurrection, Spirit-giving ascension, heavenly intercession, and promised return. This is the fountain of our joy in trials and the ground of all the imperatives that follow.
2. Preach James to bring lambs back from fake faith (1:19–5:18)
James 1:21, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” James isn’t giving a checklist of works we can do to save ourselves. The “implanted word” alone saves, but real faith receives the Word in a changed life of repentance.
If a banner flew over the entrance to By-Path Meadow, it would say, “Merely Hearing the Word.” Faith without fruit is fake faith. Puritan Thomas Manton writes,
We are all apt to divorce comfort from duty, and to content ourselves with a ‘barren and unfruitful knowledge’ of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:8); as if all that he required of the world were only a few naked, cold, and inactive apprehensions of his merit, and all things were so done for us, that nothing remained to be done by us. This is the wretched conceit of many in the present age, and therefore, either they abuse the sweetness of grace to looseness, or the power of it to laziness.
Real faith kills sin. James teaches us that a profession of faith is made credible by a repentant life. Preach James to warn the church of, ahem, nine marks of a false and empty profession:
- Favoritism leading to division in the church (2:1–13).
- Dead faith without works (2:14–26). The Apostle Paul (Rom. 3:28) and James (2:24) don’t contradict one another. On this point Frances Gench is helpful, “Paul is dealing with obstetrics, with how new life begins; James . . . is dealing with pediatrics and geriatrics, with how Christian life grows and matures and ages.” James’ point is that the salvation that comes by God’s gift of faith alone doesn’t lead to faith that stays alone.
- Using words to destroy (1:19, 26; 3:1–12; 4:11–15; 5:12). This is a desperate need in our age of social media.
- Fake wisdom (James 3:13–18). Bitterness, jealousy and selfish ambition often masquerade as wisdom.
- Narcissism that destroys relationships (James 4:1–10). This is a perennial passage for biblical counseling: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel” (4:1–2a).
- Pride regarding time (James 4:13–17). “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’” (4:14–15).
- Trusting in money (James 5:1–6). “Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days” (5:3).
- Grumbling against one another, revealing our impatience for Christ’s return (James 5:7–12). The sin of impatience for the Lord’s return leads to grumbling against each other (James 5:9). As Jesus tarries, we have the joyful privilege of embracing the reason for delay, that more might repent (cf. 2 Peter 3:9, 15). Don’t spend the time by biting and devouring one another (cf. Gal. 5:15). Make disciples, don’t grumble against them.
- Isolation from a local church (James 5:13–18). Part of obeying leaders (Heb. 13:17) is sharing my life with the elders of my church so they can pray for me (5:14). Further, confess your sins to your fellow members (5:16). Christ has given his lambs a beautiful gift in local churches to guard one another. Don’t veer into the By-Path Meadow of “solo Christianity.”
3. Preach James to bring one another back to Christ (5:19–20)
In our sin, the paths that seem smooth to us will often lead us away from the narrow path of Christ. So preach James to steer hearts back to the narrow way of the gospel: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19–20).
In a sense, this is the chief mark of God’s gift of genuine faith. James’ entire letter models his closing exhortation: bring each other back. This is a recapitulation of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20) not simply in the conversion of sinners, but in the restoration of wandering Christians. The Christian life is messy, but James reminds us that God is still at work to bring sinners to himself amid the brokenness. God is making his appeal through us to call sinners to come back to him (Matt. 11:28; 2 Cor. 5:20). James is calling us to bring sinners to Christ who in love seeks and saves.“Perverse and foolish oft I strayed, But yet in love He sought me, And on His shoulder gently laid, And home, rejoicing brought me” (cf. Psalm 23:1-6; Matthew 18:10-14; John 10:1-18).
COMMENTARIES & RESOURCES
Here are the James commentaries I found myself referencing the most:
- Moo, Douglas J. The Letter of James, PNTC. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000.
- Blomberg, Craig L. and Kamell, Mariam J. James, ZECNT. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.
- Motyer, J. Alec. The Message of James, BST. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1985.
- Manton, Thomas. An Exposition on the Epistle of James. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968.
On the Sermon on the Mount and Proverbs
James echoes Matthew 5–7 and Proverbs, so it would be helpful to have a good commentary on these portions of Scripture as well.
- Carson, D. A. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.
- Lloyd-Jones, D. Martyn. Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984.
- Spurgeon, C. H. Commentary on Matthew, the Gospel of the Kingdom. Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010. (Note: This commentary is on all of Matthew.)
- Kidner, Derek. Proverbs, TOTC Vol. 17. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009.
- Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, NICOT. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.
- Waltke, Bruce K. The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 16-31, NICOT. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005.
On the Relationship of God’s Law to the Christian Life
A good book on how God’s law relates to the Christian life would be helpful as well. Consider:
- Schreiner, Thomas. 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2010.
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 Manton, Thomas The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, Volume 4 (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2020), 7.
 Gench, Hebrews and James, 106 as quoted by Blomberg, Craig L. and Kamell, Mariam J. James Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 139. There is a lot more nuance to this passage than the space this article allows. Consult the recommended commentaries at the end for a more full discussion and closer exegesis.
 The hymn “The King of Love.”