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Lessons in Righteousness From the Book of James

Updated on January 29, 2018
Anna Watson profile image

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

Freedom From Sin, or Free To Sin?

“Judge not, that ye be judged.” A refrain so often repeated by both Christians and irreligious people alike. “For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Jesus said those famous words in Matthew 7:1,2, and to be sure, the world is rife with hypocrisy. The ‘do as I say, not as I do’ mentality can bring down the best of us. Nevertheless, this verse is often quoted less out of concern for hypocrisy, and more as a way to shrug off sins. ‘Sure, I stole office supplies, only God can judge me!’ or ‘I cheated on my taxes, but let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Jesus said the verse in chapter 7:1 as a condemnation against hypocrisy, not an excuse to sin. God’s grace isn’t, as is so commonly believed, an opportunity to sin more.

Perhaps more than any others, the apostle Paul taught the doctrine of Grace Alone; the idea that we are saved by Grace and not deeds. Paul was a strict legalist before he found the Lord. As a natural reaction to his former legalism, he renounced any excessive adherence to the law of the prophets, though at the same time, he never denigrated holy lifestyles. This has led some people to the unfortunate conclusion that the more one sins, the more God can forgive them. Some people get so caught up in God’s mercy that they seem unable to grasp that they must still live a holy and Christlike life. This, of course, is misguided.

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinner, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

— James 4:7-10

Gospel in a Nutshell

The entire gospel can be summed up in a nutshell:
We are saved by grace, not works. By ourselves we will never be good enough to earn God’s love. However, it doesn’t matter that we don’t deserve it, God loves us anyway. In response to that love and forgiveness, we should voluntarily choose to live a godly life.

Paul himself, in Romans 6:1,2 said “what shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Good deeds are not enough to get one into heaven. Do good anyway. God’s grace cleans up after our own short comings. Leviticus 11:44 instructs us to be holy, because God is holy. We are to cast off our former, sinful, way of life and embrace God’s own holiness. Jesus himself, in John 15:1,2 taught that He is the vine and we are the branches. Branches that don’t bear good fruit get cut off. Though we are saved by grace, we must still be godly.

But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.

— James 1:25

The Book of James

Where can we find better emphasis on Godliness than the Book of James? James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the early church headquartered in Jerusalem, wrote clearly to his audience with a stern message: stop sinning. If we are really of God, as we claim, then our actions will show it. In chapter 2:14-16, James asked quite plainly “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed.’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

There is an old joke about a lady driving a car with the Jesus Fish emblem and bumper stickers that read “Know Jesus, Know Peace; No Jesus, No Peace.” and “Jesus Saves” plastered all over the back bumper. The lady, while observing traffic laws, was nevertheless, driving aggressively; swearing, and flipping other drivers the bird. A policeman, upon observing the behavior, flashed his lights and pulled her over. “Is there a problem officer?” she asked. “Well, ma’am,” replied the officer “I saw the stickers on the back of the car, and I observed the way you were driving. I figured that nobody who obeyed the Lord would be driving so rudely, so I have to conclude that the car must be stolen.”

Are we like that lady? Are we wearing outward signs of Christianity; the cross, religious t-shirts, and bumper stickers on our cars, while at the same time falling prey to deeper sins? James chapter 3:13,17,18 asks “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom….But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Greed, covetousness, violence, lust, and pride, can corrode faith; humility, submission to God, peace, and love, can restore faith.

You are saved by faith alone, but if faith is alone it is not faith.

— Martin Luther

The Fruit of the Spirit

James calls upon us all to reject “moral filth and evil” (chapter 1:21) and to humbly accept, and obey, the word that can save us. Faith is good, it’s great, it’s fantastic, and phenomenal! But it shouldn’t end there. Chapter 2:18 puts it plainly; “you believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that --and shudder.” It’s not enough. Faith without deeds is worthless, (2:20) faith and action together will lead to righteous living. The world is watching, non-Christians are judging, and indeed, using it against us. We should show our faith by what we do. We should look after the poor and widows, we should feed and clothe the poor, we should practice peace and unity, be quick to forgive and slow to anger; for anger is not compatible with righteous living. We must embrace virtuous, high-minded morality, and the love and peace that Christ Jesus our Lord so adamantly taught to us.

Martin Luther himself, once said that “you are saved by faith alone, but if faith is alone it is not faith.” Christians are fond of saying “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” And to be sure, this is true. We will never be perfect, but we should strive to achieve the holiness of God. We will receive this holiness in abundance, and through faith and practice, it will multiply. Just because we will never be perfect does not mean that we shouldn’t strive for perfection. God told us to “Be holy, as I am holy.” He expects us to at least try. In Matthew 25, Jesus said that we who are justified in faith will be given more, and in abundance, while those who have little, even what he has will be taken from him. Every person is given talents and opportunities to serve God. We can squander those gifts or we can invest them in a way that glorifies God, and like the shrewdest broker on Wall Street, we can end up with even more. We must be single minded in our commitment to follow the Lord. Faith is good, but we aren't called to be “good” we are called to be holy. By ourselves such holiness is impossible. Lucky for us, with God, all things are possible.

© 2018 Anna Watson


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    • Anna Watson profile image

      Anna Watson 2 months ago from Atlanta, GA


      Thank you, I love that passage in Philippians it's a wonderful addition. The Grace of God truly is amazing.

    • Tamarajo profile image

      Tamarajo 2 months ago

      An insightful read and exhortation to express our love for Him by obedience because of our faith in His love for us in our thoughts, speech, and deeds.

      Paul talks about this tension between grace and deeds too.

      "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."

      Philippians 2:12‭-‬13

      God did the work and asks us to work His Work out in our living.

      "The work of God is this, that we believe on the I've whom He sent"

      and as you have displayed in James that faith gets worked out in our actions.

      It's His grace that gives the power to obey.

      Well presented.

      God bless.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 2 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth. between the oceans

      all things become new in one who becomes a real disciple of Christ. Sinner is one who's lifestyle is to sin, according to scripture when one puts on the white garment of Christ they are no longer a sinner, Only churchmen that have not the Spirit teach the Lie that we are sinners it is against scripture. Yes we sin but it is NOT OUR LIFESTYLE and if we are truly disciples of Christ we quickly repent and are cleansed. A sinner cannot change His lifestyle without repenting AND becoming a disciple of Christ, he can be sorry for his actions but cannot be cleansed

      A real disciple of Christ must endure and do all that Christ requires to the end, if he makes sinning his lifestyle he is not a disciple of Christ.]

      Jesus clearly said "be Holy as I am Holy" so of course we must sin less as we grow in Christ but we are not sinners.

    • Anna Watson profile image

      Anna Watson 2 months ago from Atlanta, GA


      We are made alive in Christ, but the scripture says we are to cast off our former way of life. All that we do should be for the glory of God. If we continue in our sins, we're not glorifying our Saviour.

      @RTalloni and Louise, thank you very much for your kind words. God is good and faithful indeed!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 2 months ago from Norfolk, England

      That was really inspirational to read. I agree, with God, all things are possible. =)

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 months ago from the short journey

      You've done well in this post and I thank you for the reminder(s) today. I've thought more and more about how we need to be careful of picking and choosing verses and isolating passages to suit our own purposes. Our need is an understanding of the entire counsel of God's Word. You wisely offer encouragement in that direction in this lesson from James.

    • celafoe profile image

      charlie 2 months ago from From Kingdom of God living on Planet earth. between the oceans

      if we are not made perfect in Christ why do scriptures say say we are?