The Unifying Theme of the
Epistle of James
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 (
House, 1974), p. 341.
ed. George Arthur Buttrick, 12 vols. (
don Press, 1957), 12:18.
3 William Hendriksen, Bible Survey: A Treasury of Bible Information
(Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1949), p. 329.
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
sermons which James had preached at
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.
J. Goodspeed, An
Introduction to the New Testament (
6 A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (
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.
Testament Speaks (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 329.
The suggestion that the contents of this book originally had a
sermonic origin is very probable. But the view that Jesus, the dynamic
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
standing the New Testament (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1965),
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.
FAITH TESTED BY ITS RESPONSE TO THE WORD OF GOD (1:19-27)
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).
FAITH TESTED BY ITS REACTION TO PARTIALITY (2:1-13)
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
FAITH TESTED BY ITS PRODUCTION OF WORKS (2:14-26)
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.
FAITH TESTED BY ITS PRODUCTION OF SELF-CONTROL (3:148)
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.
FAITH TESTED BY ITS REACTIONS TO WORLDLINESS (4:1-5:12)
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
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;
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.
FAITH TESTED BY ITS RESORT TO PRAYER (5:13-18)
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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