Lesson 5 of 5
In Progress

Theological Themes in James

Caring community

Those who are hearers and doers exhibit a wholeness and integrity of faith and action that is shown in solidarity with the poor and needy and in the building up of community. Such community is established and shaped through patterns of the Christian life illustrated in, for example, the control of speech for the common good (3:1-12), the avoidance of conflicts and disputes through humble refusal to judge one another (4:1-12), and the sustaining power of intercessory prayer (5:12-20).

Faith and works

The key theme of the “law of liberty” as “love of the neighbor” is further developed in the dialogue about “faith and works” in 2:14-26. The unity of hearing and doing has its counterpart in the assertion that a faith that is not active in works of mercy on behalf of the community is dead.


James is intensely theological, in that “God” is the second word in the letter in the original Greek, and God is at the center of its language and perspective (almost twenty-five references in the 108 verses). The one living God, unchanging in purpose, answers generously the prayer for wisdom (1:5), is the giver of every perfect gift (1:17), and is the author of the implanted word of truth that holds the saving power to make people hearers and doers (1:21-25; 2:8). God causes the Spirit to dwell in us and gives grace that the wisdom from above show fruits in righteousness, mercy, and peace (3:17; 4:5-6).

Hearing and doing

In a number of places James seems to rely on traditions of Jesus’ teaching, although without explicit reference. One of those key themes is in the exhortation to be not only hearers of the word but also doers (1:22-25). Those who are hearers only and not doers are like those who look at themselves in a mirror and then forget who they are as people constituted and empowered by God’s implanted word (1:21).

Implanted word

Wisdom as the gift of God is described as an implanted word of truth that gives birth to God’s people as the “first fruits of creation.” Such creatures are not only “hearers of the word” but “doers,” whose actions of mercy and justice are blessed as they fulfill the call of God to love the neighbor as the self.

The law of liberty

In several places, again apparently relying on Jesus’ teaching tradition, James speaks in terms of the law as “perfect law,” a “law of liberty,” or the “royal law” of Scripture (1:25, 2:8, 12). Similar to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels, this law is specifically identified with the summary command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). Such a law supports the letter’s exhortation to a unity of hearing and doing that is demonstrated in the “pure religion” of caring for the poor and needy (1:27; 2:12-13).

Power of prayer

Confidence in the power of prayer literally frames the letter. James begins with the assurance that those who lack the key component of the Christian life, wisdom, need only ask for it from a God who gives generously to those who ask in expectant faith (1:5-6). In the concluding exhortation, readers are again called to the exercise of prayer for endurance in suffering, for the power of healing for the sick, and for mutual confession and forgiveness that is the key mark of this Christian community (5:13-20).

Single-minded faith

A person is blessed who asks and receives wisdom from God in an unwavering faith. Purity of heart is to will one thing (4:8). Such persons endure in the midst of trials (1:5-15) and demonstrate by a good life that their “works are done with gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13).

Solidarity with the poor

If the community addressed by James is called to be doers who act, a key character of this action is to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. In a number of places (1:27; 2:1-8, 15-16; 5:1-6) the writer exhorts Christians to mindfulness of God’s special concern for those who are continuously at risk of mistreatment by the rich and powerful. Love of the neighbor is specifically contrasted with a partiality shown to the rich at the expense of the poor (2:6-8).

Wisdom and creation

Clearly, the greatest gift of God is wisdom, and so James opens with the promise that God gives wisdom generously to all who ask confidently in faith (1:5-6). Such wisdom “from above” (3:17) leads to life, constituted in the implanted word of God that has power to shape persistent hearers and doers whose works are done in a “gentleness born of wisdom” (3:13). It is contrasted to a false wisdom that is “earthly, unspiritual, and devilish” (3:15) and leads to death.