In this interview, author and pastor, Bob Hiller, answers questions about his new book, Finding Christ in the Straw. We hope you enjoy the conversation!
1. What initially prompted you to write this book?
A good friend of mine asked me if I’d be interested in working on a Lenten sermon series with him. He wanted to do a sort of 40-day challenge for our congregations. The concept of the book came from that conversation. I’d also been wanting to work through James to challenge my own understanding. Often those who speak against the Reformation’s view of justification will appeal to James 2:14-26. What if they had a point? Scripture alone decides faith and practice, so I needed to make sure it was informing the preaching and teaching in my church and not my imperfect theology. My friend’s Lenten idea was the perfect opportunity for me to dive into this study with my congregation. From that came the book.
2. In the introduction, you talk about the funny relationship those who follow in the steps of Luther have traditionally had with the Epistle of James. Can you explain this tension, and why we shouldn’t pass by reading James?
This is a huge question, and many are more equipped to answer this than me. To give a far-too-quick overview, when Luther began to champion the scriptural truth that justification is by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone, his detractors appealed to James’ epistle to counter. Luther cries, “faith alone justifies!” and his opponents quote James 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Luther responded by saying that James was an epistle of straw. That is, it serves its purpose, but it is not as explicitly Christological as the other epistles. He will later quote James in positive ways and even say it has great value, but he does not give it the weight he does to, say, Paul’s letters. However, it is worth noting that Philip Melancthon takes up this discussion in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. He proves from James that James is not at all suggesting that we merit forgiveness through works or that our works atone for our sins, that they reconcile to God, and so forth. He rightly points out that James is saying that good works belong to justifying faith, but they do not justify us before God apart from faith. This sounds very much like Luther, who tells us that faith is living, busy, and active and cannot help but do good works!
3. How important is it to understand the context of the letters written in the New Testament?
Immensely important. The Scriptures are not a collection of platonic ideals laid out for us to strive after. Rather, they are God’s truth given to His beloved church. They proclaim God’s law and his promises to real people in real situations. In this way, the New Testament is utterly pastoral. To know how to apply God’s word, you need to know what type of situation a particular text is addressing. So, let’s go back to James 2. James is not dealing with people who are terrified that they are not good enough to earn God’s favor. Such people should be sent to Paul’s letters. James is dealing with a church that is using their so-called faith to excuse their inactivity and lack of love. Thus, they are justifying their sins by appealing to their faith. These are people who need the law to crush them and point them back to Christ. We have to understand this lest we have someone with a terrified, guilty conscious think that James is addressing their situation. James is for the proud, self-satisfied sinner.
4. In the first daily devotion, you highlight the relationship between James and Jesus as both spiritual and blood brothers (Mary birthed both of them). What details does the New Testament give about the nature of this relationship and James’ role in the early church?
It would seem from the Gospels that James was a reluctant convert. We have records of Jesus’ mother and brothers coming to try and get him to stop his ministry in Mark 3:21-35. They stand outside while he is teaching and Jesus is told his mother and brothers have come to fetch him. He replies, “Who are my mother and brothers?...whoever does the will of God, he is my mother and sister and brother.” In John 7:1-9, we find Jesus’ brothers mocking him, telling him to go up to the Feast of Booths and put on a show. Presumably, James is among these brothers. However, Paul tells us things changed dramatically for James when he was among one of the many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). James became an ardent follower of Christ, then the first bishop of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15), and wrote our epistle which, as it turns out, sounds an awful lot like the teaching of his brothers’ Sermon on the Mount.
5. Each devotion contains a “Respond,” “Repent,” and “Receive” section to guide the reader. How would you encourage the reader to use these sections?
Each day there is a short devotion that aims at delivering Christ to the reader. Given that James is very heavy on the law, and the nature of the law is to expose our sins, I have a section each day for repentance. If the text is convicting you, the prayer is there to give you the words to confess your sins based on the text. But confessing our sins is never an end unto itself, but it is meant to get us to Christ for forgiveness, so each day, there is also an absolution. I encourage the reader to read that out loud to themselves. You, the reader, are the very sinner Christ is forgiving, so say it out loud! Finally, I have a daily challenge as a sort of “Lenten discipline.” The challenges range from random acts of kindness to scripture memorization. These are not meant to be some form of legalistic drudgery, but rather, a way in which you can put into practice what you are finding in the Scriptures.
6. Early on, you say, “We need brothers and sisters to call out our sin, to fight alongside us in this world, and to put Christ in our ears. This is the mission of James.” What does this look like for Christians reading James’ today? How are we to do this with our neighbors/family/friends?
James does not write to an individual person but an entire congregation, if not multiple congregations. He is teaching us how to act as members of the body of Christ. Christians are always under the assault of Satan and his temptations. We must stand firm against these assaults, and we must know where to go when we fail. It is in the church where Christ daily and richly forgives our sins through preaching and equips us with brothers and sisters so we can support each other as we face trials in life. What this means is that we, as the church, need to be open about two things:
1. There are sinners who are fighting with sins in our congregation (I am one of them and so are you) so we must not pretend otherwise.
2. Our congregation is the place where these sinners will be both forgiven and loved through their fight. As cliche as it may sound, this means we go to church to hear God’s word in worship, we learn God’s word together as we study the Scriptures and pray side by side, and then support and care for one another in our needs.
7. What might you say to those who are struggling to reconcile the relationship between faith and works with this verse in James: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”?
Look closely at the context. James is not dealing with the same justification question as Paul. Paul is concerned about people who are either putting their faith in their works to earn God’s favor or are despairing that their righteousness is not enough. Paul says, in essence, “Christ has done all that is necessary to save you. You are righteous (justified) by His grace alone apart from your works!” (see Eph 2:1-10). James, on the other hand, is dealing with a church that is not loving their neighbor and blaming the gospel for it. Their brothers and sisters were hungry and poorly clothed, and they were saying, “‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body” (Jas 2:15-16). James says this sort of thing comes from a dead faith. The issue is not the nature of salvation, but rather, a loveless activity that is harming the livelihood of the baptized. Such an attitude does not come from the God who sacrifices his life to save sinners. All of this is to say, you cannot be justified in claiming to be Christian before the world (Jas 2:18) if your actions are harming the very people God has called you to love. To put it succinctly, Paul is dealing with the faith that justifies us before God, James is dealing with how one can vindicate the fact that they have faith before the world.
8. Is there any advice or thoughts you would share with the reader as they approach this book?
Let James challenge you. I find my biggest struggle in reading through the Scriptures is a tendency to look for the loophole when the law attacks me. I want to weasel my way out by some other means than Christ. The Spirit offers no loopholes. He will attack your sin and drive you to repent in this book. He will drive you to change your way of life. Stop looking for the loophole. But, most importantly, know the Spirit is doing this to drive you to Christ, who always gives more grace (Jas 4:6).