On a dark Friday afternoon two thousand years ago, an itinerant preacher and miracle worker hung on a Roman cross just outside the ancient city of Jerusalem. A small crowd gathered to observe the agonizing death of this man who, with His claim to be the very Lord of the universe, had aroused the ire of the temple authorities. Many in this crowd believed that they were doing a service to God and country by executing this popular teacher. Others remained bewildered that the one they called Messiah was suffering a death reserved only for the worst of criminals.
Neither friend nor foe understood exactly what was going on that day. Though many strange things happened at the moment of His death, few realized that in Jesus, God was fulfilling His plan of redemption. Scarcely any knew that when He cried out “It is finished!” (John 19:30), Jesus fulfilled the will of His Father and brought satisfaction to Israel’s longing for salvation.
If there is one theme that underlies the entire book of Hebrews, it is that of accomplished redemption. In conjunction with the author of Hebrews, we could approach this theme from a variety of different angles. We could emphasize Jesus as the final revelation from the Father (Heb. 1:1-4). We could point out the truth that Jesus alone brings His people into their eternal Sabbath rest (3:7-4:13) because He alone brings us rest from sin. We can highlight Jesus’ role as the perfect High Priest who satisfies the wrath of God once-for-all for His people (9:12-14). From beginning to end, Jesus’ cry of “It is finished!” reverberates in the epistle to the Hebrews.
Because of the clear emphasis on the work of Christ found therein, Hebrews is a book well-loved by systematic theologians. The doctrines of substitutionary atonement, Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, faith, perseverance, and the deity of Jesus are all so clearly presented, and they provide rich material for our understanding of the nature of God and His plan.
Perhaps James has been less used than Hebrews in the formulation of systematic theology. Nevertheless, James has also been a well-loved book in the church. The brother of our Lord is so intensely practical in His work that his epistle is mined to answer the question: “How am I to live as a Christian?”
This is a question that we all must ask because the gospel not only puts us into right standing with God, it also transforms our daily lives. Paul and the author of Hebrews recognize this, placing the practical applications of the gospel near the end of their epistles. James, however, stands out in that his practical admonishments are found so clearly enumerated and highlighted throughout His epistle. His teachings regarding systematic doctrine are somewhat less obvious, and so James is sometimes ignored when Christians pursue the study of theology.
Unfortunately, it is far too common to separate the study of doctrine from the pursuit of holy living. Many people study theology without asking questions like: How does a right understanding of God instruct me regarding my treatment of other people? Others focus rigidly on living moral lives without asking, How do the commands of Christ reveal the gracious and forgiving nature of God? However, as James shows us, if we do not ask such questions, we have not really understood doctrine at all.
The practical ways to live out the gospel are clear throughout James. The doctrinal assumptions that underlie this instruction, though no less important, are somewhat less clear at first glance. But James does in fact have a rich understanding of Christian theology. That he is sometimes ignored when we are systematizing the teaching of Scripture points more to our inadequate understanding of the nature of theology than to James’ supposed lack of doctrinal instruction.
James has a thorough knowledge of the character of God. We see this mainly in his use of the names of God. God is Father (James 1:27) and therefore loves His children deeply. Yet God is Judge (5:9) and thus is required to punish sin. God’s love and righteousness, we know, motivated Him to accomplish redemption for us based on the sacrifice of His perfect Son who suffered the punishment we all deserve.
James also clearly understands that God is sovereign, in control of all things, bringing all creation to glorify Him. God’s providence necessitates that we recognize that only those things that He has decreed will come to pass (4:14-15). God is called “Lord” (3:9), emphasizing His rule over all things. This sovereignty works itself out in election. By His will alone God has called out those whom He has saved (1:18). It is God who sovereignly implants His Word in those whom He has chosen to receive Christ (v. 21). And if James understands election, He understands that redemption was accomplished for the sake of these elect.
James wants us to apply the gospel even to the most “ordinary” circumstances in life. But make no mistake, the gospel he knows is based upon the perfect merit of Christ and His redemption fully accomplished more than two thousand years ago. Even in James, the cry “It is finished!” is heard loud and clear.