Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Book Review: James For You

The Good Book Company have launched their own distinctive range of devotional-style commentaries under the title of 'God's Word For You.' The covers proclaim that 'This is for you to read... to feed... to lead...' So far, I've only read Sam Allberry's 'James For You', but if the rest of the series is anything like this one, then they'll be precious additions to any Christian's library.

With a title like 'James For You' it's easy to guess the subject matter of Sam Allberry's book. The Letter of James is examined in ten sections, each broken down into two parts. After each part, there are a few questions to help you reflect on what you're read, and to go deeper. Sam's writing is clear, and easily accessible, with plenty of illustrations to explain the Bible text. There is also a helpful glossary of words and terms at the back, to aid in understanding.

I had always previously imagined that James' letter was a kind of scattergun of wise words, almost like Proverbs in its randomness. Sam works hard to try to discern the structure of the letter. On many occasions, he helps the reader to see why James says what he says, and how it fits into the particular context. I found this really helpful, and a challenge to work harder at the text of the letter as a whole. The structure seems to make a lot more sense, having read the book.

Sam also works hard to counter the famous accusation that James contradicts Paul on the matter of faith and works. The opening illustrations of the politician praising a local school but sending his own children elsewhere; the McDonald's executive feeding his family at Burger King; and the husband who says he cherishes his wife but maintains an adulterous affair - all point to inconsistency between words and deeds. This was a good way in to the discussion about faith and works, and how both Paul and James address the topic differently, but consistently:
Real faith is not merely sentimental... and it is not merely credal... Such things may be something, but they are not Christianity. And they do not save.

And further:
How can you tell if someone is justified? How do you know if they're considered righteous by God? The answer is not by mere profession of faith. Anyone can claim to be trusting in Christ. You could train a parrot to say it. No, "faith alone" (in the sense James is using it in these verses) is insufficient. The real evidence is how that faith moves someone to obey what God has said to them - what Paul called "the obedience that comes from faith" (Romans 1:5). As Christians have often summarised it, Paul shows us we are saved by faith alone; James shows us that saving faith never remains alone. It is seen in godly deeds. Just look at Abraham.

The other portion that particularly stood out was the chapter on schedules and bank balances (4:13 - 5:6). Avoiding the ungodly and arrogant attitude of being in control, Sam highlights that we need 'to get two things right. First, our view of the future' - because we don't know what tomorrow will bring; and 'Second... our view of ourselves' - just mist, that vanishes. As Sam summarises: 'James is not against planning; he is warning us against planning that does not acknowledge the Lord's sovereign overruling of our lives.'

One thing that is missing from the book, and which would be helpful, is the Bible portion itself. It would be so handy to have the portion being discussed at the head of the chapter - although I'm sure there are good reasons for it not being included. These might include copyright restrictions from the Bible publisher, or perhaps a refusal to be tied down to one particular translation.

The aim of the 'God's Word For You' series is for us to read, feed, and lead - with a broad appeal for all types of reader. This broad approach is plain to be seen - anyone could read it straight through as a basic introduction to James. Taking it up a level, and the short portions could be taken for a devotional series over twenty days - a month's work of commuting devotions. I can also see it being useful for the Bible study leader, especially with the questions for reflection. And I'm looking forward to being inspired by it someday in my preaching through James - with ideas for illustrations, explanations, and applications. Pastors will want to buy up this series as an aid to their preaching and preparation.

James For You is definitely for YOU, whoever you may be. Take it up, read, feed, and maybe even lead, for the glory of God.

James For You is available from The Good Book Company and as an e-book. Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy for the blog.

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