Absent from it are the compelling biographical sketches of the Gospels and Acts. Nor does it encapsulate the theological objectives of Romans. Perhaps it lacks a beautiful exposé of Christology found in Colossians. Neither does it provide a profound definition on the most sought out concepts in the human language, love, like that of 1 John. No, the Epistle of James does none of these; James is different. Instead, it provides believers with a convicting practicality of the Scriptures.
This difference in emphasis has made it one of the most misunderstood New Testament books of all time. Martin Luther was inclined to call it ‘the epistle of straw’ because it contains no information about the gospel. Luther was not alone. The book was long debated through the centuries before Luther. Although it is the earliest writing of the New Testament, it became one of the last writings to be accepted as part of the Canon. The intense theology contained inside the other New Testament writings is absent here, leading to debates about its value for the early church.
While Luther is correct, there is no explicit information about the gospel itself, he was wrong in calling it an epistle of straw. James is a compelling work motivated by right living in light of the gospel. James can be described as a discourse on Christian living in response to God’s glorious plan of salvation through His Son, Jesus Christ.
Volumes of works have been devoted to the discussion about James’ theology. Who can count the pages of research distributed in an effort to determine the foundation to James’ writing? Yet, the question often still remains, “What is the foundation to his theology?” And how can it help us to better understand the picture James paints of the Christian life?
The available works add great value to not only a discussion on James’ foundational doctrine, but also to the understanding and study of the epistle. Perhaps though, there is something more. Is there one definable point that leads us to a deeper understanding of James?
In typical writings, the first sentence sets the tone for everything that is to follow. Although written as a letter, this premise proves to be true for James as well. In verse 1, James writes, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This overlooked phrase is the crucial facet to the entirety of James’ theology and writing.
One of the greatest fallacies in Bible translation is found in James 1:1. The United States has a history that is defined by slavery, and racism that is a fallout of slavery. That unsavory history has led translators to circumvent the use of the word ‘slave’ and instead replace it with less harsh word ‘servant.’ Yet the Greek word δουλος used in this sentence means just that–slave. It refers to “one who is in permanent relation of servitude to another, his will being altogether consumed in the will of the other.” To be a slave means a complete transformation from self-focus to a God-focus.
The identity of a person was completely contained within the identity of their master. If a slave’s master was respected by the people, the slave also would find respect from the people. Not only was the slave’s identity embodied by the master, but so was their dependence. “One’s experience as a slave, then, ultimately depended on the demands and goodness of the master.” It is with this understanding of the word that Paul can write in Romans 6:16, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
When Jesus Christ called on individuals to follow him, this was the very concept he had in mind. Calling his followers “slaves,” he had the expectation that their wills would instead be consumed by his will (cf. Luke 16:13; John 12:26). In acknowledgement of this truth, the apostles called themselves slaves of Christ. Facing affliction and persecution of the most intense kind, early believers understood the true definition of being a Christian, choosing to completely identify with their savior by calling themselves “the Lord’s slaves.”
At no point does James identify himself as the half-brother of Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is common knowledge because James was well-known as the leader of the Jerusalem church. However, this points to something more. “Servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” is best understood as a self-title, one that proclaims:
- “an indication of humility, for the servant does not come in his own name, and
- a description of an office for the bearer of this title is in service of a great king.”
Dwell on this point further and think: being the brother of Christ would carry enormous authority within the confines of the Christian community. It would be easy to use the phrase “and brother of our Lord and Savior” as a symbol of the weight of authority in order to compel fellow believers to listen. But in humility, James does not do this. Instead, he sees himself not as Jesus’ half-brother, but as his slave, a point that accentuates his writing.
The teachings of James follow closely to that of Christ. At critical points in the epistle, he rightly utilizes quotes from the Old Testament. Therefore, when James uses the word “slave,” he does so with a complete understanding of the implications of the word. The foundation of his writing is found in verse 1, identifying himself with God and Christ, acknowledging his dependence on God and Christ, and committing himself to the service of God and Christ.
In his great sermon at Pentecost found in Acts 2, Peter quotes from the Old Testament prophet Joel, specifically Joel 2:28-32. Within the declaration, he exclaims that the spirit will be poured out upon the servants of God (Acts 2:18). This notification has major consequences to the Christian life. When one is a believer and receives the Holy Spirit, it is accompanied by the assurance that he or she is eternally secure, never losing salvation or the Holy Spirit (John 5:24; 6:37-40; 10:27-30; Romans 5:9-10; 8:1; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; Ephesians 4:30; Hebrews 7:25; 1 Peter 1:4-5). If the Holy Spirit is only poured out on those that are “slaves” of God and the Holy Spirit does not leave us, then it stands to reason that being a slave to God is a permanent status. The commitment to be a follower of Jesus Christ is full-time and eternal, and it can truly be said “Your life is not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
James writes as a slave whose life must be in a permanent status of obedience to the one he serves. His life is no different than the calling of any believer, as all who kneel before God and call him “Lord” are subject to Him as a slave. It is for that reason, James maximizes emphasis on the Christian life in response to the gospel, outlining four major points of a slave’s life.
- Self-Effacing Before the Master (James 1:21): The Christian life is one of humility. It is humility that makes one teachable. If our identity is to be found in our master, we must be humble enough to identify with our master. Humility will make us receptive to God’s Word so that we will be molded into the image of our Creator to fulfill his will and purposes.
- Sufficiency Beginning in the Master (James 1:17): It is said that the sufficiency of the Christian life is found in God. As our Master, we depend upon Him alone, knowing that He will meet our needs (Philippians 4:19).
- Suffering Because of the Master (James 1:2-5; 5:7-11): Perhaps suffering is not the right word. However, the Christian life is not without cares. Even more, it comes with trials that God allows, but they are meant to mold us and shape us into men and women that He desires us to be. Therefore, as those trials come, they build character and push us to trust Him more. And because our sufficiency is in Him, comfort can be found during trials knowing that God has allowed them to happen for His purposes.
- Service on Behalf of the Master (James 1:19-27; 2:14-26): Finally, James urges believers to a life of obedience. He recognizes that the title of “slave” obliges us to action on behalf of our master, God.
You are a slave to God. No longer is your life your own, but it was bought by a price so that you may do the good works that were prepared in advance for you to do. It is the desire of James, then, that every believer adopt this mindset and act on their faith. “While he did not believe in salvation by works, he most definitely believed in a salvation that works.”
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I, Edited by Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 362.
 Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2000), #1403.
 Michael Grand, The World of Rome (New York: World Publishing, 1960), 116.
 John MacArthur, Slave (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 12-13.
 William Varner, James, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, Edited by H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2012), James 1:1.
 Roger Ellsworth, Opening Up James, Opening up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2009), 15.