James 1-2 is a startling—nay, unsettling—word for those of us who have heard and been powerfully gripped by the announcement of unmerited grace in Jesus Christ. It is a difficult passage because, on the surface, it may sound as if it has a tinge of works-righteousness to its message.
Indeed, James writes, “You see that faith was active along with [Abraham’s] works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:22-24).
And Proverbs, with its “instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov. 1:3), sounds equally burdensome. But we ought not despair, for James and Proverbs are not providing us with simply self-help and moralism; rather, they unpack the full ramifications of grace for the Christian community. Instead of introducing lifeless law-keeping, they give us a picture of the Christ-life.
American libertarianism has shaped us all to think in terms of the autonomous, individual self. And so we American Christians might think of ourselves as individuals who just happen to believe the same thing as other individuals; that we come together on Sundays is somewhat peripheral to the Christian life. Such are the loose bonds of affinity in our day and age.
But the Christian has heard an altogether different word, since God has “brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures,” as James 1: 18 says. This means that the Christian has now been plucked out of his or her own story and been grafted into the Christ-story. Just as he did at the beginning in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit now gives life to unbelievers, so that they might be united to Jesus Christ. As John Calvin writes, “[F]or salvation comes to us by faith for this reason, because it joins us to God. And this comes not in any other way than by being united to the body of Christ, so that, living through his Spirit, we are also governed by him.”
This means that Christians are no longer individuals pursuing their own ways in the dead winter of sin; as the first signs of spring, we derive all of our life from Jesus Christ. “…[W]ith Christ living in him, he lives an alien life. Christ is speaking, acting, and performing all actions in him; these belong… to the Christ-life,” says Luther.
And because we are united to Christ, this means that we are united to other Christians, which results in loving service to one another. Participating in God’s own self-giving, we are free to look beyond ourselves to love and serve our fellow humans, for this is what characterizes the new creation.
Faith is not just a simple knowledge about God (James 2:18-20) but is instead transformative because it attaches us to him. But we Christians know all too well that on this side of Paradise, we remain at the same time self-serving sinners.
So James (and Proverbs too) reminds us that we Christians are to be “Christs” to those around us: “visit[ing] orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27) and not “dishonor[ing] the poor man” (2:6). In short, James and Proverbs remind us to live into our identity, which finds its center in Jesus Christ.