Bible Studies For Life

Rich Elligson

Richard Elligson

Richard Elligson is Professor of Missions and Chair of Theology at The Baptist College of Florida.  Archives

Session 3

September 18, 2022


James 2:14-26

The relationship between faith and works is not difficult to understand, but it is often misrepresented. The most prominent religious belief in the world has always been that one must “do something” (whatever that might be) in order to be “saved” (whatever that might be). Christianity—and only Christianity—teaches that salvation is not earned, but rather is given freely as an act of God’s grace. Between the faulty view and the correct view lies other difficulties. Some, whether intentionally or not, have attempted to blend the two views to make salvation a combination of faith plus works as though God does His part and we do ours. But to do such a thing nullifies grace altogether (see Rom. 11:6). In this text, James uses three illustrations to clarify the relationship between faith a works.

Well-intentioned faith (vv. 14-17). James sets up his argument (v. 14) with two rhetorical questions. The first connects faith to works: “What good is faith that produces no good works?” The second connects faith to salvation: “Can that faith save him?” Just a note: the older translations often put it, “Can faith save him?” which almost sounds like faith does notsave. But the context makes James’ rebuke quite clear: “Can the kind of faith that does not produce works actually save anyone?” Verses 15 and 16 give one example of dead faith. Good intentions that are voiced but not acted upon are more than cruel and disingenuous; they are hypocritical. The common component here is faith. James indicates that there is only one kind of true faith. And the one true faith will do two things: it will lead to good works, and it will lead to heaven. Conversely, the faith that does not lead to good works will never lead to heaven. For reflection: While we are not in a position to judge one’s salvation, Jesus made much of believers “bearing fruit.” How do we balance those two principles? Why should we?

Intellectual faith (vv. 18-20). The construction of verse 18 is difficult. The original had no punctuation, so who is saying what can be confusing. Whether the first statement, “You have faith, and I have works” is made from ridicule or from serious intellect, the truth remains: some make a clear separation of faith and works and tout their value as being equal. James’ reply is just as valid in either case. To paraphrase, “Go ahead; try to demonstrate your faith without any tangible evidence (because it can’t be done!). “I, however, can demonstrate my faith, because my good works are the evidence of it.” The fallacy of intellectual assent versus true faith is illustrated further in verse 19. Even the demons have a valid intellectual (or theological) understanding of God. But that knowledge makes them shudder in fear. They know about Him…but they do not know Him. That kind of intimate relationship is only accomplished through true faith. For reflection: We often say it is possible to miss heaven by 18 inches, the approximate distance from the head to the heart. Have you encountered those who seem to fit that description?

Active faith (vv. 21-26). James’ final illustrations of faith demonstrated by works are found in Abraham and Rahab. Of Abraham’s faith, there was no doubt, as it was both stated and lived out. Again, it wasn’t Abraham’s act of offering Isaac that made Him right with God (see Gen. 22). Rather, because Abraham was already right with God, he was willing to accept God’s promises by faith (Heb. 11:17-19). The result was that Abraham’s faith was affirmed as legitimate; thus, he was justified (vv. 21, 23). “In the same way” Rahab the harlot (v. 25; see Josh. chapters 2-6)) demonstrated the faith she already had by hiding the spies and seeing to their safety. Simply put, her actions didn’t make her a person of faith; rather, her faith made her a person of good works. Hence, the two aspects (faith and works), while not identical, are inseparable. The faith that does not produce works is a faulty faith. For reflection: Abraham is the model of biblical faith. But Rahab is seldom seen that way. Why do you think James chose her as an illustration of faith?

Session 4

September 25, 2022


James 3:1-5a, 9-10, 13-18

Most of us will remember the Sunday School song:

O be careful little tongue, what you say,
O be careful little tongue, what you say,
For the Father up above is looking down in love,
So be careful little tongue, what you say.

But while we might remember singing the song, how often do we remember to obey its words? Let’s face it: few of our faculties have the potential to wreak more havoc in our relationships than our speech. And few passages of Scripture say more about that potential than James 3. Using both examples and illustrations, James encourages us to remember that simple little tune and the truth of its simple little message.

What we say can be powerful (vv. 1-6). While James tends to warn about the abuses of our speech, he does acknowledge the benefits of it as well. Teaching is a noble vocation and teaching the things of God in a church setting is even more so (see Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:28). But noble vocations carry both more responsibility and more accountability. For this reason, James warns believers to tread carefully. Since teachers are taken at their word, they have the ability to powerfully influence others. Thus, teachers are held to a stricter judgment by God (v. 1). Verse 2 is a 1st century version of the quip, “No one is perfect!” All believers (even the most gifted) are in danger of verbal blunders. Three graphic illustrations follow. First, there is the tiny bit in a horse’s mouth that has the power to turn a big horse’s body (v. 3). Next, there is the tiny rudder on a boat that is able to turn a large vessel (v. 4). Finally, there is a tiny flame that is able to eventually consume an entire forest (v. 5). The point? The human tongue is a tiny organ in man’s body. But oh, what power it can wield! For reflection: Read verse 6. What do you think James means by each of the phrases?

What we say can be poisonous (vv. 7-12). Here, it’s not the size of the tongue in relation to the body, but the wildness of the tongue in relation to one’s civility that is emphasized. Even the wildest of animals can be tamed (I remember reading about a lady who managed to tame a pair of bats. She walked around with them clinging to her sweater. Yikes!!). Yet James declares that the human tongue can never be entirely controlled. First, more than just blurting out stupid things, we say evil, or even dangerous things. Second, we say hypocritical things, praising God one moment and cursing fellow believers the next. The paradox of spewing such poison is obvious, being illustrated by the word pictures of water and fruit (vv.11-12) that follow James’ rebuke (v. 10). For reflection: In Matthew 12:34, Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” What truths does this statement add to our discussion?

What we say can be peaceful (vv. 13-18). At first glance, these verses seem out of place with what precedes it. But James continues here with the theme of hypocrisy. Wisdom was already mentioned in 1:5, and the role of teaching in 3:1 is also related. His point is that there is a difference between those who pretend to be wise and those who truly are. The pretenders are driven by selfish ambition (v. 16) and filled with every kind of evil, while the genuinely gifted are filled with mercy and good fruits. And how do believers tell them apart? By their actions and their speech. For reflection: What do you see as the connection between teaching, wisdom, and speech? What role does each play in the church?

Session 5

October 2, 2022


James 4:1-10

Romans 3:23 states, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Even some Baptists suggest that humans are born perfectly pure, and only later choose to sin. “Of course, all will sin,” one preacher told me, “Because all choose to sin.” Really? Then why don’t people choose not to sin? So, which is it? Are we sinners because we sin? Or do we sin because we are sinners?

In this week’s text, James discusses the sources of temptation and sin that we all face.

The flesh (vv. 1-3). Have you ever noticed that Cain, Adam’s son, didn’t need the devil to prompt him to rebel against God and kill his brother? That’s because once Adam and Eve sinned, they passed the sin nature to their children. There was no mention of the serpent or deception in Genesis 4, because he wasn’t needed! Cain and Abel were born with a corrupt sin nature already within them. Romans 5:12 says, “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Here, James reminds us that just because we are saved and have a new nature, doesn’t mean the old sin nature is gone. In fact, the Bible tells us that the old flesh is at war with the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-17), and that we must continually and willfully mortify (put to death) the sinful elements that remain in us (Col. 3:5). The strife that James addresses here is both base and brutal. Look at the terms he uses: wars, fights, cravings, desire, wrong motives, evil desires. And these selfish conflicts were all within the church! For reflection: As you review the conflicts mentioned in verses 1-3, what do you think is the root problem? How could these things exist in born again people?   

The world (vv. 4-5). The term “world” in verse 4 is cosmos. It’s not a reference to planet Earth, but rather to the mannerand order displayed by the earth’s inhabitants. The term is also related to “trappings” or “decorations,” which adds to the connotation of the world’s allure. Perhaps no passage of Scripture more succinctly states the cosmic battle of the powers of darkness (the world) and the kingdom of light (God). There is no middle ground here! Friendship with the world is hostility with God. To befriend the world is to make God your enemy (v. 4). For the bride of Christ to longingly embrace the world is, in God’s sight, nothing short of adultery! (v. 4). Verse 5 is awkward in its wording, but not in meaning. Whether the spirit who lives in us refers to the old human nature, or the Holy Spirit who indwells us, the meaning is the same. The two simply cannot, do not, and will not get along! (see Gal. 5:17). For reflection: Read 1 John 2:15-17. What similarities do you find with our focal passage? What does John’s insight add to the study?

The devil (vv. 6-10). The third enemy we face is the devil. While I don’t see a demon behind every bush (our flesh and the world provide enough temptation!), I do believe Christ-followers are under continual attack by the forces of evil (remember 1 Pet. 5:8). The key word in these verses is humility. How do we resist the devil? By humbling ourselves. How do we draw nearer to God? By humbling ourselves. How do we do that? By cleansing our hands (of sinful actions), purifying our hearts (of sinful attitudes) (v. 8), demonstrating misery and sorrow, and mourning our corrupt and sinful position before a holy God (v. 9). Notice the irony in verse 10: when we humble ourselves before God, He gives us the genuine recognition found in His favor. What the flesh, the world, and the devil can only promise, God delivers! For reflection: Most people believe the way to battle the flesh is by more willpower, and the way to defeat the devil is to run from him. What does this passage from James do to that argument?

Session 6

October 9, 2022


James 4:13-17; 5:7-11

If there is one universal rule of behavior, it is this: “When all is said and done, people do what they want to do.”

Life is filled with choices, and we make dozens every day. Some are minor and have little effect. Others are major and have life-changing consequences. We’d like to think that we are always driven by godly discernment, prayerful consideration, sound judgment, and selfless commitment to the will of God. But if we are honest, we’d have to admit…we most often do what we want to do.

This week’s lesson looks at setting godly priorities; not so much in regard to what believers should do, but how they should do it. There are three things to keep in mind.

Keep in mind the will of God (4:13-17). Here, James points out first, their arrogance. “Come now, you who say…” is both pointed and painful. The interjection not only grabs the attention, but assumes such people exist in the church. As such, it is not a statement of possibility, but rather fact. The arrogance (see v. 16) is based on the presumption that there is a profit to be made and that their cunning business skills will guarantee success (v. 13). Along with their arrogance, James pointed out their ignorance. Life is not only short (v. 14), but the future is unknown. If one cannot even predict the events of tomorrow, how can they set out the course of their lives? (v. 14). Verse 15 suggests the humble, faithful way: rather, “you should say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.’” This attitude not only prioritizes the will of God but humbles the believer as he submits to it. For reflection: Verse 17 is often quoted as the prooftext for the “sins of omission.” Is this a valid generalization to make? How might verse 17 fit into the closer context of the argument James is making?   

Keep in mind the return of Christ (5:7-9). Buddhism is based on the sad idea that all life is suffering. Born again believers know better, but we sometimes act like Buddhists anyway! Here, James returns to the theme he introduced at the beginning of the book: encouragement in times of suffering (see James 1: 2-4). Fortunately, God’s solution to all this is not to stop feeling (as it is in Buddhism), but rather to start looking, “because the Lord’s coming is near” (v. 8). It’s been said that one in every 25 verses in the New Testament refers to Christ’s return. Three of those instances are right here! Three times James says be patient; and three times he says the Lord’s return is near. This is not simply a promise made to make believers feel better about their suffering. Rather, it’s an encouragement to stay the course, because soon, it will be worth it all (see Rom. 8:18). For reflection: How does keeping the Lord’s return in the forefront of our minds help us keep our priorities straight? How much do you think the promise of His return really affects the average church member?

Keep in mind the example of the saints (vv. 10-11). Hebrews 12:1 reminds us that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” This doesn’t mean that their souls hover around us literally. Rather, it means that our knowledge is filled with the impressive stories of the faithful men and women of old, who, even when persecuted and killed remained fully committed to God. According to Hebrews 11:13, they all “died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth.” In other words, they survived their temporary earthly sojourn (even without seeing their prophecies fulfilled) by looking forward to a better place: heaven (Heb. 11:16). For reflection: Think about those dear saints who have been so influential in your own church and your own life. How does their example help you set the right priorities?

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