Over the years, I've heard Christians say something like, "James is my favorite book in the Bible." I've even heard pastors declare that James is their favorite book to teach because it really gets to the "meat" of the matter.
I was thinking about this love of James the other day, especially in light of Martin Luther's – at times – harsh words for the epistle. It occurred to me that people's love of James is indicative of something deeper, something more theological, and it prompted me to write this on Facebook:
"If you proclaim James as your favorite book in the Bible, I know everything I need to know about you."
Now listen, I realize that this is a gross overstatement, and I built the hyperbole into it on purpose. I often use social media as a way to provoke deeper thought or conversation around theological topics. My point was not to disparage James or to question its placement in the canon. I will leave that to the scholars who are much more qualified than myself.
However, I stand behind what I said, and here's a little bit more about why:
James is a book that is typically understood to be an encouragement toward good works. A move from faith to works, works that substantiate your faith. For as James famously said, "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). Now, it's possible the most common way James is interpreted is wrong, but that, too, is not my point (you might, however, check out Pastor Bob Hiller's book on James, Finding Christ in the Straw). My point is that when someone says, "James is my favorite book in the Bible," they have most likely elevated the common view of James' epistle above the rest of Scripture.
In light of this, I believe that when people say James is their favorite book out of the entire text of Scripture, it reveals something about how this person or pastor views Christianity. If you interpret James, as most do, as an encouragement toward proving your faith by your works and then say it is your "favorite" then you are proclaiming that your favorite thing about the Christian faith is the practical outworking, the proving your faith by your works. This is troubling for several reasons:
1. It emphasizes what you do for God rather than what he has done for you.
This is a far-reaching problem within the Church at large and one that I have written about extensively. This is not to downplay the importance of good works; it is simply to put them in their proper place so that they do not diminish the finished work of Christ. Emphasis is important, and when our works become the focus, it quickly results in the proverbial cart before the horse scenario. The cart is important, but when it attempts to lead the horse, it becomes quite useless.
2. It creates a Christian life that is constantly measuring itself by its works.
James seems to encourage just this of sort of activity when he says, speaking of Abraham, "Do you see that faith was working together with works, and by works faith was made perfect?" (James 2:22) and "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only" (James 2:24). If you read such isolated verses as most do, without considering the whole of the law and gospel found within Scripture, then it will inevitably lead to these dangerous pitfalls. When the Christian is constantly measuring the veracity of his faith by his works or believing his works are the primary way in which he gains assurance and retains favor with God, then it will lead to one of two inevitable ditches:
- Despair - After years of striving after good works, many find them lacking and, therefore, insufficient to prove their faith. This leads them to assume they must not have saving faith. Many people in this place of despair leave the Church and denounce Christianity because after years of being told to do more, try harder, and get better, they have come to the conclusion that their life is going in the exact opposite direction, and therefore, they must not be saved so why bother with it any longer.
- Self-Righteousness - After years of striving after good works, many others find them to be sufficient and come to a place where they actually believe that they are pulling it off and, like the Pharisee at the Temple, they can easily begin to compare themselves to others saying, "thank god I am not like other men." This self-righteousness is evident in someone who proclaims James to be their favorite book of the Bible because if you assume the common interpretation that works prove faith, maybe the law is having the opposite effect than intended.
3. It puts works in the vertical rather than horizontal position.
When the fruit of faith (a natural byproduct) becomes that which one fixates upon, it is easy to wrongly believe that works aid in my sanctification or at the very least, helping me gain some kind of special favor with God. Here I am placing works in the vertical plane, a place where Christ alone belongs (1 Cor. 1:30). This vertical relationship with God is a passive one, where the sinner's involvement is simply as a recipient. Works, when properly understood, must be removed from the vertical plane and placed in the horizontal position where they can actively work themselves out for the good of their neighbor. When one puts works in the wrong place — a proclivity that I often see in those that are so bold as to say, "James is my favorite book" — then those works not only lead to dangerous places but can become useless to my neighbor. Works done to garner what is already ours in Christ cannot possibly achieve their intended effect. When we are focused on using our works to find assurance or prove our faith, we turn them away from our neighbor toward God, which is exactly the opposite direction they should be aimed. The doctrine of vocation is very helpful here, and if you are looking for resources, I would begin with Luther's On the Freedom of the Christian, sometimes called A Treatise on Christian Liberty.
James is a book included in the collection of writings we call the Bible. It should be read, studied, and given the authority that comes with any other book in the canon of Scripture. The point I hope to make, however poorly, is simply that I believe James to be primarily a book of law and, therefore, one that should be taken as such. To say it's your "favorite" is much like a local church having "love God, love people" as its mission statement. Sure, it's biblical, but the law is not where we end and we all should be thankful for that.