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Letters of St James

Accord­ing to Church Tra­di­tion, the let­ter of James was writ­ten not by either of the apos­tles, but by the “broth­er of the Lord” who was the first bish­op of the Church in Jerusalem (see Acts 15, Gal 1:19). The let­ter is addressed to the “twelve tribes in the dis­per­sion” which most prob­a­bly means the Chris­tians not of the Jerusalem Church.

The main pur­pose of the let­ter of James is to urge Chris­tians to be stead­fast in faith and to do those works which are called for by the “per­fect law” of Christ which is the “law of lib­er­ty” (1:25, 2:12). It aims to cor­rect the false opin­ion that because Chris­tians are freed from the rit­u­al works of the Mosa­ic law through faith in Christ, they need not do any good works what­so­ev­er and are not sub­ject to any law at all. Thus, the author writes very clear­ly against the doc­trine of sal­va­tion by “faith alone” with­out the good works that the believ­er must nec­es­sar­i­ly per­form if his faith is genuine.

What does it prof­it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works. Can his faith save him? If a broth­er or sis­ter is ill-clad and in lack of dai­ly food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” with­out giv­ing them the things need­ed for the body, what does it prof­it? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shud­der. Was not Abra­ham our father jus­ti­fied by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was com­plet­ed by works, and the scrip­ture was ful­filled which says, “Abra­ham believed God, and it was reck­oned to him as right­eous­ness;” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is jus­ti­fied by works and not by faith alone (2:14–24).

First among the good works which the let­ter insists upon most vehe­ment­ly is the work of hon­or­ing and serv­ing the poor and low­ly with­out par­tial­i­ty and self­ish greed which is the cause of all wars and injus­tices among men (2:1–7). The author is pas­sion­ate­ly opposed to any “friend­ship with the world” which makes man an “ene­my of God” because of cov­etous­ness (4:1–4). He calls the rich to “weep and howl for the mis­eries which are com­ing” to them because of the “lux­u­ries and plea­sures” which they have attained at the expense of oth­ers whom they have exploit­ed (5:1–6).

Togeth­er with his despis­ing of wealth, James teach­es the absolute neces­si­ty of “bridling the tongue,” the “lit­tle mem­ber” which is a “fire” that man uses to boast, slan­der, con­demn, swear, lie and speak evil against his brethren, “stain­ing the whole body” and “set­ting aflame the whole cycle of nature” (3:1–12).

If any­one thinks he is reli­gious, and does not bri­dle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s reli­gion is in vain. Reli­gion that is pure and unde­filed before God and the Father is this: to vis­it orphans and wid­ows in their afflic­tion, and to keep one­self unstained from the world (1:26–27).

The teach­ing of the let­ter of James that “every good gift and per­fect gift is from above com­ing down from the Father of lights” (1:17) has become part of the dis­missal prayer of the divine litur­gies of the Ortho­dox Church. The let­ter of James also pro­vides the Church with the first epis­tle read­ing for its sacra­ment of the unc­tion of the sick.

Is any among you suf­fer­ing? Let him pray. Is any cheer­ful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the pres­byters (elders) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anoint­ing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has com­mit­ted sins, he will be for­giv­en. There­fore con­fess your sins to one anoth­er, and pray for one anoth­er, that you may be healed (5:13–16).