James 2:24 “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
“This text doesn’t really say what it says...” I cringe every time I hear a preacher or teacher say words to that effect. I suspect we might be surprised just how often preachers and teachers attempt to explain the scripture with words that contradict the words of scripture.
Of course, we are supposed to teach people what the words of the Bible mean. Sometimes the meaning isn’t clear, and sometimes it is not what people think. We should make it clear, regardless of what people think. But in the process of teaching let’s not say that the scriptures do not say what they say. The listening congregation has just heard us read it and read it with us. A poor choice of words can appear more like an attack on the Bible that teaching with reasonable confidence in it.
Recently a preacher remarked that the first time he preached on faith and works in James chapter two, he “was careful to explain the difference between Paul’s use of the word ‘justification’ in Romans and James’s use in the second chapter of his letter.” Later he recognized that in so “focusing on perceived differences between James and Paul” he had failed to “hammer the point home” of what James was actually teaching.
This is a good example of how our preaching may be imbalanced, and how we can be perceived as saying a text doesn’t say what it says – or doesn’t say what it means. If we correctly teach James 2, what we say he said won’t contradict what Paul said about justification by faith in Romans. If we “apologize” for James teaching what he wrote about works, we are doing something wrong. If we say he didn’t really say it, we are doing something wrong. When we teachers seem to be saying the Bible is wrong and we are right, we deteriorate confidence in the Bible.[i]
We probably have all either preached James 2 that way, or heard it preached that way. And not only James 2! Physician, heal thyself. It’s not solely the liberals who say, “This text doesn’t really say what it says...”
[i] [Note: Martin Luther certainly got it wrong when he wrote in his preface to the New Testament, “St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” In fairness to Luther, after 1522 he edited the “epistle of straw” comment – which we keep referencing – out of his Bible.]