Dec 20, 2005

Words Are Not Enough

You can believe all the right things, yet still be dead wrong

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

[James] 1:22

Where there is life, there is motion. Some antelopes, as well as the cheetah, can sprint faster than some cars on the highway. Bighorn sheep, charging one another headfirst, collide with such force that the sound echoes like a gunshot through mountain ranges. Canada geese, fanned out across the sky in an orderly V, battle winds for 1,000 miles, nonstop, before dropping back to earth.

Sometimes we keep relics of life: an elkhead hanging above a fireplace; a fragile, perfect seashell; an exotic butterfly mounted on a pin. But these are mere mementos: Life has gone from them, and with it motion.

A Sure Sign of Life

Authors of the Bible often look to nature for analogies to express spiritual truth. And the book of James, controversial because of its emphasis on “good works,” is perhaps best understood through the analogy of motion. In the spiritual realm also, where there’s life there will be motion.

When a person becomes a Christian, new life begins, and inevitably that life must express itself through “spiritual motion,” or good deeds. In James’s words, “What good is it…if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” ([James] 2:14).

Movement does not cause life, but it does invariable follow life. It’s a sure sign that life is present. Similarly, genuine faith in Christ should always result in actions that demonstrate faith.

Does James Contradict Paul?

James is not writing about how to become a Christian, but rather how to act like one. Having all the correct beliefs about God will hardly suffice: Even demons believe in God. Real, life-giving faith should produce motion, and James minces no words in describing the specific spiritual actions expected of Christians.

Christian thinkers, notably Martin Luther, have struggled to reconcile the message of James with that of Paul, who so firmly warned against slavish legalism. But Paul never belittled holy living. When he wrote to carousers, such as in his letters to the Corinthians, he railed against immorality as strongly as James.

Evidently, James’s readers were not even flirting with legalism. They lived at the other extreme, ignoring those laws God had clearly revealed. James had a simple remedy: “Do not merely listen to the word…Do what it says” ([James] 1:22).

Straight to the Point

Unlike the apostle Paul, James was no urban man of letters. He was a simple, homespun preacher, perturbed at people who were not living right. His letter covers a wide range of topics, applying the Christian faith to specific problems and commanding readers to live out their beliefs.

Be humble! James orders. Submit to God! Stop sinning! James is as forthright as an Old Testament prophet; it’s hard to miss his point.

Modern readers of James face the same dilemma as the first recipients of this unsettling letter. His words are easy enough to understand, but are we doing what he says? What kind of motion characterizes our spiritual lives? As Luther himself said, “You are saved by faith alone, but if faith is alone it is not faith.”

By Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford, Student Bible

Pictures of butterfly and Bighorn sheep taken from © 1999-2005

Picture of geese taken from

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