Lesson 4 of 6
In Progress

Introductory Issues in James

Chapter 1 as Overture

Often a musical or opera begins with an overture that introduces themes in the longer work. Similarly, the Letter of James begins with a chapter chock full of exhortations that appear to be mostly unrelated to each other. In subsequent chapters, however, the author returns to expound on themes that were briefly noted earlier. The table below lists each theme as it is introduced in chapter one and the place in the letter where a longer engagement with the issue appears. 


Introduction of Theme

Exposition of Theme




Reversals for Rich and Poor


2:1-6; 4:13-5:6

Enduring Testing

1:2-4, 7


Earthly Desires Contrasted with God’s Gift of Wisdom



Controlling One’s Speech



Actions as Integral to Faith



Faith and works

Faith is a confident and unwavering trust in the effective power of God’s gift of wisdom, not only to weather the storms of life, but to enable growth toward maturity expressed in pure religion that cares for the poor and needy in the world (1:5-15, 27). Wisdom binds faith and works together, just as it binds together hearing and doing, a life-constituting unity as essential as that of body and spirit (2:26). Faith and works are not opposing alternatives but constitute the life-giving reality of God’s gift of wisdom. Making clear this unified perspective is important enough to be the focus of one of the longest sections of this brief book (2:14-26), but this perspective also runs through the whole of the letter. Since the unity of hearing and doing is so integral a part of the letter’s conception of wisdom and creation, not all interpreters are convinced that the author of James was familiar with Paul’s treatment of faith and works in his letters (especially Galatians) or was responding to a misunderstood Pauline emphasis. Still, the particular framing of the distinction and the character of the argument in James makes better sense against a Pauline backdrop.

Wisdom and creation, grace and law

The theme of wisdom is at the heart of James and is a key to its understanding and appreciation. At the very beginning, in a transparent allusion to Solomon and his request for wisdom (see 1 Kings 3-4), James attributes being mature and not lacking in anything to the possession of wisdom, which God grants “generously and ungrudgingly” to all who ask for it with sincere faith (1:4-5). This wisdom is a chief constituent of God’s “perfect gift” of creation, centered in that “word of truth” that has given birth to God’s people as the “first fruits” of all of God’s creation (1:17-18). Confidence in wisdom as the creative gift of God that enables God’s people to live and grow in responsible maturity undergirds the whole of the letter. Thus, one who looks for explicit language of grace in James will be disappointed by the one meager reference in 4:6 and will be potentially misled by the appreciative evaluation of the law in such phrases as the “perfect law” or the “law of liberty” (1:25; 2:12). Wisdom is the literal word and shape that grace assumes in the perspective of James; wisdom is God’s gift that enables God’s creation to be not only hearers but doers who act by living out God’s “royal law” of loving the neighbor as the self (1:25-27; 2:8). Such confidence in practical wisdom for responsible Christian behavior in the world sets the stage for the prevalent exhortation in the letter.