A special thanks to Dr. Will Varner for his groundbreaking work on the book of James in recent years and the investment he has made in my life as a student of the Word.

Check out his commentaries on James below.

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There are a lot of practical books in the Bible, but perhaps none more practical than the epistle of James. Although it is pocket-sized, it packs a punch. It puts your life under the microscope and challenges you to change. It goes right for the jugular and does not hold back. But as convicting as James can be, it has been the subject of intense controversy for many years. “What is the main point of the book? How should it be outlined?” The answers to these questions are not insignificant. They are what make James as real and convicting as it is. It is my goal in this article to answer these questions for you and help you learn how they can change your life. 

HOW IS THE BOOK OUTLINED?

You don’t have to go far to find two outlines of the book of James that look completely different. At first glance, it may seem like the author brainstormed as many Christian topics as he could think of and stuffed them at random into one small letter. [1] This understandably makes the book difficult to outline. But there is one outline suggested by biblical scholars that is more common than the rest; some people like to arrange the book around “tests of faith”—each section in the letter serves as a litmus test for your walk with Christ. As commendable as this approach is, I find it to be lacking. [2]

But Dr. William Varner has recently done some groundbreaking work on the book of James that may reveal its true structure and purpose. [3] Using a process called discourse analysis, Varner demonstrates that the reader can detect a clear transition from topic to topic in James by identifying three criteria:

  1. A command

  2. A title that addresses the audience

  3. A clear change of subject

When all three elements are present in a verse, the author has moved onto a new section. [4] This is how James is arranged from start to finish. There are at least 13 different sections scattered across five chapters:

 
 
 
 

Table modified from Will Varner's commentary on James in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series, pp. 6667.

* All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version, 2016.

** James 2:14–26 is the one exception in the book that does contain all three criteria (James 3:13–18 and 4:1–10 also do not contain all three criteria, but there is an important reason why, which will be covered later in the article). But it seems clear that James is transitioning to a new section, because it still bears the title of address and a clear change of subject. It is also possible that James delayed the command until verse 18 where he challenged his readers, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” This one sentence sums up James 2:14–26 perfectly. Perhaps it is the command missing from verse 14.

But the structure of James may be more involved than this. There are also several cases where a theme from the first half of the book gets picked up again in the second half. For example, James addresses verbal communication in 3:1–12, but then revisits it in 4:11–12. He also mentions the wealthy in 2:1–13, and then circles back around to them in 5:1–6. This may indicate that the book of James is not a hodgepodge of random topics, but rather a carefully constructed argument about how Christians really change.

Here is what I argue: Each subject from the first half of the book is restated a different way in the second half in reverse order. Biblical scholars call this literary feature, chiasm. In James, the first half of the book describes what the believer needs to change in his life. It is marked by inconsistency and instability in five areas of his life: Circumstances, attitude, relationships, faith, and communication. The second half of the book revisits each category in reverse order to explain how the believer needs to change. His life must now be marked by consistency and stability in all these different areas. In the center of these two halves is a discussion about wisdom, making it the most important part of the book. 

If this is, in fact, how James has organized his letter, here is what an outline might look like:

  1. Introduction: Author and Audience (1:1)

  2. What to Change: A Lifestyle of Inconsistency (1:2 – 3:12)

    • (A) Circumstances: Doubting God’s Goodness (1:2–18)

    • (B) Attitude: Not Obeying God’s Word (1:19–27)

    • (C) Relationships: Favoring the Rich over the Poor (2:1–13)

    • (D) Faith: Faith without Works (2:14–26)

    • (E) Communication: Slandering Others with Speech (3:1–12)

  3. The Central Issue: Wisdom (3:13 – 4:10)

    • The Problem: Worldly Wisdom Rather Than Heavenly Wisdom (3:13–18)

    • The Solution: Humble Repentance from the Heart (4:1–10)

  4. How to Change: A Lifestyle of Consistency (4:11 – 5:18)

    •  (E’) Communication: Stop Slandering Others (4:11–12)

    • (D’) Faith: Learn the Folly of Hasty Planning (4:13–17)

    • (C’) Relationships: Learn the Destiny of the Rich (5:1–6)

    • (B’) Attitude: Exercise Patience (5:7–11)

    • (A’) Circumstances: Trust God Through Prayer (5:12–18)

  5. Conclusion: Help Each Other (5:19–20)

WHAT IS THE MAIN POINT OF THE BOOK?

If you glance back at the chart above, you’ll notice that both James 3:13–18 and 4:1–10 have no command or address, but the subject still changes at the beginning of each paragraph. This is an important detour in the book you need to be aware of. Instead of giving two commands, James surprises the reader with two questions: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you?” These two passages do not fit the mold James has created up to this point. He breaks the pattern with these two sections to draw your attention to them. Why does he do this? James makes these two paragraphs stand out to show you that they are the main point of the book. 

James 01.jpg

What is James all about? It’s about New Covenant wisdom. James is concerned with, “How do Christians live wisely in this new age of the church?” James 3:13–18 identifies the problem—His audience is living by worldly wisdom rather than heavenly wisdom—and 4:1–10 offers the solution—His audience needs to humbly repent from the heart. Every other section in James grows out of these two parts of the book. So, the only way a Christian can, for instance, work on his tongue (3:1–12) or learn to be patient (5:7–11) is if he embraces God’s kind of wisdom (3:13–18) and repents of the evil desires in his heart (4:1–10).

HOW DOES KNOWING THIS CHANGE MY LIFE?

I realize this is a lot of information to digest and some of it is a little complicated. But understanding how the book of James is put together will go a long way in helping you grow in your walk with Christ. Let me explain: 

Think of the epistle of James like an hourglass. It starts wide at the top and gets narrower until it reaches a bottleneck at the center. Every grain of sand must pass one by one through the bottleneck. Then the hourglass widens again as it nears the bottom. The book of James is outlined much the same way. James spends the first half of the book digging deeper and deeper into a person until he reaches the bottleneck of his heart. Every part of your life must pass one by one through the heart. James then takes the second half of the book to work his way back out of the person. 

Now, what does this all mean? James wants to take you on an expedition through the jungle of your spiritual life. He wants to help you find the source of all your sin. What is causing all the problems? Why is there so much strife, uncertainty, and instability in your life? James is helping you figure that out in the first half of the book. Once he reaches the middle, he teaches you about God’s kind of wisdom. It alone helps you see that there are sinful pleasures and desires in your heart that are the source of all your problems. That’s the bottleneck. Everything in your life must be processed through the heart, because everything proceeds from it (Proverbs 4:23; Mark 7:21–23). All your actions, words, decisions, and even thoughts are derived from desires in your heart. These desires are either good and godly or sinful and idolatrous. That’s what James is trying to communicate with the intricate structure of his book.

 

James 02.jpg

But James doesn’t want to leave you in the heart. That’s why he spends the second half of the book walking you out of the jungle. He also wants you to see how a change of heart can radically change your life in every way he already mentioned. If you repent of your idolatrous desires, you can really start changing the way you live your life.

WHAT SHOULD I DO NOW?

Far too often, we don’t think about our Christian lives this way. When we sin, we may ask for forgiveness and promise to do better. But James tells us that this is not using wisdom from above. Sin starts in the heart and works its way outward. We too must start in the heart and work our way outward. We must not only repent of the external manifestations of sin, but also the desires that lead to them. The next time you find yourself in sin, ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  1. Why did I commit this sin?

  2. What did I want that I did not get?

  3. What did I get that I did not want?

  4. What was I thinking about when I committed this sin?

  5. What is so important to me that I would be willing to sin to get it?

When you get to the root of your sin, you have hit the gold mine of heavenly wisdom. You can finally repent of the sin that is controlling your life. You can finally start overcoming every other manifestation of sin in your life. You can finally taste what fresh, pure wisdom is like (James 3:17). That’s what James promises you, because that’s what James is all about.

[1] James talks about trials (1:2–4), doubt (1:5–8), rich and poor (1:9–11), endurance (1:12), temptation (1:13–15), God’s good gifts (1:16–18), obedience (1:19–25), religion (1:26–27), discrimination (2:1–7), law (2:8–13), faith (2:14–26), works (2:14–26), the tongue (3:1–12), wisdom (3:13–18), conflicts (4:1–6), repentance (4:7–10), slander (4:11–12), planning (4:13–17), wealth (5:1–6), patience (5:7–11), oaths (5:12), prayer (5:13–18), and counseling (5:19–20).*

[2For example, the book of James does not read like a series of tests. Unlike the letter of 1 John, James uses very few conditional clauses as a way for Christians to gauge their spiritual status before God. Instead, James is quite fond of commands, suggesting that his letter is intended to convict Christians of sin that is already apparent, rather than test for sin that may or may not exist. First John also clearly states that one of the purposes of his letter is to help his readers know if they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). There is no such statement in James whatsoever.*

 [3] William Varner, James, EEC (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).*

[4] Ibid., 62–72.*

 
 
 
 

 

 

*Click the number at the front of the endnote to return to where you left off reading.

FURTHER READING

 

The following books from Dr. Varner are very helpful in understanding more about the book of James. Click a book to find it on Amazon.

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James (Evangelical Exegetical Commentary)

William Varner

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The Book of James: A New Perspective

William Varner

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James: A Devotional Commentary

William Varner

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