Some people wrongly see the book of James as a book about action. Hold your tongue. Help widows and orphans. Don’t show favoritism. But it is not about action—it is about the source of power and purity that leads to action.
Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water (James 3:11-12).
The key to living a holy life of service is not human effort, but being filled with God—being connected to the source.
Even the most frequently quoted saying from the book (of James) — “Faith without works is dead” — is not about action. We do not respond to this verse by jumping up and doing some works, for, you see, we can do all kinds of works without faith. No, James shows us how we can be hooked into a different kind of reality, a spiritual reality that in turn produces a different kind of person, which in the natural course of things produces a different kind of action. Forming this “different kind of person” is the burden of James’s Epistle and the reason he is such a moving example of the Holiness Tradition.
What is Holiness?
When you hear that phrase, “the Holiness Tradition,” what pictures do you conjure up in your mind? For me, it is women without makeup wearing head coverings. It’s men who don’t go to movies or smoke. But that’s not holiness. Any unbeliever can simply choose to live a certain way…he can choose to be kind; she can choose to turn the other cheek.
To most minds, the concept of holiness carries with it an air of arrogance and judgment. Furthermore, it is often associated with trivialities of behavior that we all know have little or nothing to do with a virtuous life. Because these misconceptions are so pervasive in our culture, it is crucial that we learn what holiness is not as well as what it is…All external legalisms fail to capture the heart of holy living and holy dying.
James is not talking about human effort. Just as faith without works is dead, so too are works without faith. It takes faith to live for God. Holiness is not the absence of sin, but the presence of God. Did you catch that…let me say it again: Holiness is not the absence of sin, but the presence of God.
John Wesley used to teach that we could arrive at Christian perfection. But Wesley never taught that human effort was the key to this Christian perfection. If I could just stop lusting … if I could just stop being greedy … No, the key was union with God; a second experience that led to a deeper God-consciousness. “Various terms have been used to describe the concept [of Christian perfection], such as entire sanctification, perfect love, the baptism with the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, baptism by fire, the second blessing, and the second work of grace.”
Wesley encouraged believers to seek a deeper sanctification. Again, this was not encouraging believers to try harder, but to seek God for “entire sanctification … a second work of grace received by faith that removed inbred or original sin, and this allowed the Christian to enter a state of perfect love.”
Now, let me be clear. I am not sure that I believe that such sanctification is possible on this side of heaven. I am certainly not there yet! (Ask my wife!) But I do believe that there are deeper experiences with God that can lead us to greater grace in living a holy life. If holiness is the presence of God in our lives, then it will lead us to a life of service and compassion—it will lead us to hate the things that God hates and love what he lovers. Resisting sin is much easier when you are living in the Holy Spirit than simply trying to resist temptation through human discipline. You can do it, but it takes effort.