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The epistle written by James kicks off the sub-collection known as the “catholic” or General Epistles, so named because they are addressed not to specific churches or individuals but to (more or less) the entire church. In this case, the letter is penned to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (James 1:1), a richly symbolic way of denoting all of God’s people scattered throughout the world. In this article, we’ll consider three things to know about this epistle.

1. Jesus’ half-brother probably wrote it.

Let’s start with authorship. Four men named “James” are contenders. James the brother of John (sons of Zebedee, Matt. 4:21) died too soon to be the author (Acts 12:2). James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3) and James the father of Judas (Luke 6:16) are too unknown in the early church to pull off simply identifying as “James” in the epistle. This leaves James the brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55) as the most plausible contender. This James began as an unbeliever (John 7:5), but through a dramatic encounter with the resurrected Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7), he became a pillar of the early church and possibly an Apostle (Gal. 1:19; 2:9). Why does the identity of the writer matter?

First, James had been transformed by the power of the gospel, yet he does not press his earthly ties to Jesus for clout. He simply refers to himself as a “servant . . . of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Second, this James makes the pivotal speech at the Jerusalem Council, drawing on Amos 9:11–12 to articulate how the death and resurrection of Christ unites gentiles and Jews under the same banner of faith, not ethnic markers or works of law (Acts 15:13–21). He experienced the gospel and preached the gospel. Third, James inserts direct teachings from his brother Jesus into the letter, such as the poor will inherit the kingdom (James 2:5; Matt. 5:3–5), mourning and laughing (James 4:9; Luke 6:25), exalting the humble (James 4:10; Matt. 23:12), and “yes”/“no” (James 5:12; Matt. 5:34–37). His brother’s gospel has become his gospel.

2. James aims to guide Christian living.

Not only is the author personally shaped by the gospel, but his aims in the letter are as well. From church fathers to modern commentators, there has been a long-running debate about the precise structure and objectives of this epistle because it does not follow the same kind of tight logic we find in a book such as Romans. But that does not mean it lacks organization altogether. It is looser because it aims at moral exhortation directed to people who are already Christian brothers and sisters (James 1:9, 16, 19; 5:19). James serves as a pastoral father figure showing Christians how the gospel should transform life, counseling his readers to choose the path of godliness, not sin. Consider the following examples:

  • Obedience: Put the word into practice—don’t be mere hearers (James 1:2–27).
  • Fellowship: Love others indiscriminately—don’t play favorites (James 2:1–13).
  • Obedience: Put your faith into practice—don’t have empty faith (James 2:14–26).
  • Fellowship: Use your mouth to bless others—don’t use it to harm (James 3:1–18).
  • Obedience: Put holiness into practice—don’t be like the world (James 4:1–17).
  • Fellowship: Love the poor—don’t pursue ungodly wealth (James 5:1–6).
  • Obedience: Put patience into practice—don’t grumble in affliction (James 5:7–20).

The author revisits two dominant themes of obedience and fellowship from different angles to press home pastoral lines of application, not statements of doctrine. If the gospel takes root, this is the fruit it should (or should not) yield.

3. James complements—not contradicts—Paul’s letters.

In view of such aims, we can revisit Luther’s complaint that James lacks the law-gospel clarity of Paul’s writings. The issue comes to a head in James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” On the surface, this seems like an obvious contradiction of Paul’s claim that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).

But not so fast. Paul’s argument in Romans (and in Galatians) moves from unbelief where law-keeping fails (Rom. 1:18–3:20), to being declared right before God through faith (Rom 3:21–4:23), to adoption and sanctification that flow from justification (Rom. 5–8). In other words, Paul’s statement about justification by faith rather than works falls in his argument about how one becomes saved.

James is making a different argument. He is speaking to those who claim to have faith (James 2:14) but lack any kind of Christian charity to go along with it (James 2:16). Such “faith” is not truly faith if it lacks resulting “works” (James 2:17). It is empty or dead, and thus no different from the bare cognitive assent that even demons exercise (James 2:19).

James, in short, is answering a different question: What does one do after being saved? How do I demonstrate that my faith is real? Though he puts his answer in very blunt terms—through “works”—his basic insight is no different than Paul’s elsewhere (see Phil. 2:12). It is just that Paul is not yet answering that side of the question when he deals with justification.

When we view things in this light, we see that James does not contradict Paul’s writings but rather complements them. It is no more an epistle of “straw” than any of Paul’s writings that portray the gospel as a beautiful resource for Christian living.

This article is part of the Every Book of the Bible: 3 Things to Know collection.