Larry E. Dahl on the composition of the Espistle of James:
In the opening verse of the epistle, the writer identifies himself simply as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." That he did not explain himself more specifically suggests that he was well known to those he was addressing—"the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad." (James 1:1.) Did he mean literally the twelve tribes of Israel, or was he perhaps using the term to refer to covenant Israel—believers in Jesus Christ, members of the church—whether blood Israel or adopted "heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29)? Because most of literal Israel had been taken captive, scattered, and "lost," and were therefore not apt to receive his epistle, it seems appropriate to believe that he was addressing covenant Israel, somewhat scattered, but known and available.
When did he write? If the author is indeed James, the Lord's brother, the epistle was written before A.D. 62. There is substantial evidence that James, the brother of the Lord, was killed about A.D. 62 by Jewish leaders who took the law into their own hands at a time when there was no Roman procurator in Judea (between the death of Festus and the arrival of Albinus, procurators). Richard Lloyd Anderson comments: "Eusebius quotes Josephus on the death of the brother of the Lord and adds: 'Such is the story of James, whose is said to be the first of the so-called general epistles.'. . . James' lack of warnings of apostasy verifies this early date—all the known later letters speak sharply of false teachers."
If James was not writing to denounce or warn against apostate teachers who evidently entered the scene later, why did he write? No reason is given in the epistle itself. The purpose does not seem to be to convince readers of the divinity of Christ or of the authority of the church or its leaders. These things seem to be assumed. The epistle is not a well-organized treatise on a major theme, or even two or three themes, but is more like a sermon, highlighting many gospel truths and exhorting readers to apply the principles they profess to believe. This is similar to some of the general conference addresses of President Spencer W. Kimball in the middle and late 1970s. Perhaps as a leader of the church in his day, James saw signs of spiritual sickness among the saints—lack of faith and certitude, buckling under the weight of trials and temptation, hypocrisy, selfishness, loose tongues, a strong attraction to the world with its standards of behavior and judgment, love of riches, violation of conscience—and felt pressed to counsel, correct, encourage and strengthen his fellow church members. Do you notice how hauntingly modern the problems sound? Undoubtedly, the epistle of James is as needed in our day as it was in his.
Seen in this light, rather than being an "epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing of the gospel," the book of James is an epistle that contains the very essence of the gospel—"pure religion" (1:27), the "royal law" (2:8), a guide to overcoming a "multitude of sins" (5:20) —and is timelessly current.
This brings us to an examination of the messages contained in the epistle. James speaks of several gospel truths. Among them, we may each find some that strike responsive chords in our hearts.
(Larry E. Dahl, "A String of Gospel Pearls," in Robert L. Millet, ed., Studies in Scripture, Vol. 6: Acts to Revelation [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1987], 207—208.)
Bruce R. McConkie on James the Lord's brother:
To have a book written by the Lord's brother is akin to having one penned by the Master himself. And in this General Epistle we find the son of Joseph, often in language reminiscent of that used by the Son of Mary, setting forth the practical operation of the doctrines taught by his Elder Brother.
James—religious by nature; schooled in the strict Judaism of the day; converted after our Lord's resurrection; and said to have died a martyr's death—took upon himself the awesome responsibility to write an epistle to the saints in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Paul wrote to the saints of his own day, and if his doctrine and counsel blesses us of later years, so much the better. But James addressed himself to those of the twelve scattered tribes of Israel who belonged to the Church; that is, to a people yet to be gathered, yet to receive the gospel, yet to come into the fold of Christ; and if his words had import to the small cluster of saints of Judah and Benjamin who joined the Church in the meridian of time, so much the better.
He it was who chose the words—"If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally"—which led Joseph Smith to his knees in the Sacred Grove in the Spring of 1820, when the dispensation of the fulness of times was ushered in by the personal appearance of the Supreme Rulers of the Universe.
And then he it was who proceeded to tell the yet-to-be-gathered remnants of the Lord's people how to live after they believed the restored message of salvation. The gospel had to become a living reality in their lives. They must bridle the tongue, cultivate patience, rise above envy and strife, resist evil, avoid respect of persons, use money wisely, cleave unto every good gift—in effect, endure to the end in keeping the commandments of Him whose household James had shared in his youth.
In addition to his ethical teachings and to the memorable 5th verse of the 1st chapter of his writings, James teaches two doctrines with a clarity and perfection not equaled by any Biblical author. He shows, with inspiration and logic beyond question, that faith itself, the very beginning of righteousness, does not and cannot exist unless works are present. And he sets forth the Lord's order where the anointing and healing of the sick in the household of faith is concerned.
Truly our understanding of God and his laws is enriched because James was guided by the Holy Ghost to pen this brief epistle!
(Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 3: 244.)
Bruce R. McConkie on the faith and works:
Question: Is it possible to have faith without works?
Answer: Emphatically and unequivocally—No!
Come now, and let us reason together on this issue.
First, faith is power; it is action, the moving cause of all action in intelligent beings; it is, in effect, the occurrence of certain eventualities as a result of the prior assurance that they shall surely come to pass—such is Joseph Smith's inspired explanation. (Commentary I, pp. 523- 525.) Thus a man who has no power from God, no power to perform the works of the Lord, has no faith.
Next, Jesus said that certain signs shall follow those that believe. That is, whenever and wherever there is faith, the gifts of the Spirit will be found. (Mark 16:16-20.) Thus in the absence of healings, tongues, prophecies, and all the gifts enjoyed by the ancient saints, there is no faith.
Both Mormon and Moroni taught that miracles always accompany faith and that where there are no miracles there is no faith. (Morm. 9:7-25; Moro. 7:26-39.) And the Prophet taught that the fruits of faith always are present when there is faith, and that "no man since the world was had faith without having something along with it." (Teachings, p. 270; Lectures on Faith, pp. 70-71.)
Faith then includes signs, miracles, and good works. Unless these are present, there is no faith; there may be the stirring motions of hope or belief or anticipation. There may be something which is falsely called faith. But faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, faith unto life and salvation, presupposes works; it requires miracles. Works are part of the definition of faith and without them there is no faith. If a man says he has faith, but no works attend, his faith is dead, and in reality dead faith does not exist anymore than a dead man lives.
But did not Paul say that salvation came by faith alone, without works? Yes, he most assuredly did; and he also said that the works he was talking about were the performances of the Mosaic Law; and then he said, as guided by the same Holy Spirit who gave utterance to James, that implicit in and as part of faith itself were the works of righteousness. (Commentary II, pp. 497-500.)
As a theologian, Paul wrote to Gentiles to unfold to them the nature of the atonement and the deadness of the ancient law of ordinances and performances. James wrote to Israelites who had already forsaken the dead dispensation of the past, who already believed in Christ and understood the atonement, and who needed now to press forward, manifesting their faith in the only way such can be done—through good works. Had their positions been reversed, Paul would have said what James did, and James would have taken up Paul's cudgel. Their approaches were different, but their doctrine was the same. In the ultimate there is no more substantial difference between them than there is when one elder preaches the gospel in Spanish to the Mexicans and another preaches it in Mandarin to the Chinese. The doctrine is the same but is presented according to the needs of hearers.
(Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 3: 259.)
Brigham Young on bridling the tongue:
In speaking of the tongue the Apostle says, "But the tongue can no man tame, it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison." If the tongue cannot be tamed, it can be bridled. "If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridle not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body." If this unruly member is not held in subjection it will work our ruin, for "The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity, so is the tongue among our members, and it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature, and it is set on fire of hell." If the tongue is unbridled and uncontrolled, it sets in motion all the elements of the devilish disposition engendered in man through the fall. The Apostle has represented it well, in comparing its influence to the fire of hell which will eventually consume the whole man.
(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. [London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-1886], 9: 268.)
Joseph Smith on the influence of James 1:5:
Being wrought up in my mind respecting the subject of Religion, and looking at the different systems taught the children of men, I knew not who was right or who was wrong, but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right, in matters of so much moment, matter involving eternal consequences. Being thus perplexed in mind I retired to the silent grove and there bowed down before the Lord, under a realizing sense (if the bible be true) ask and you shall receive, knock and it shall be opened, seek and you shall find, and again, if any man lack wisdom, let of God who giveth to all men liberally & upbraideth not. Information was what I most desired at this time, and with a fixed determination to obtain it, I called on the Lord for the first time in the place above stated, or in other words, I made a fruitless attempt to pray. My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter, I heard a noise behind me like some one walking towards me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer, I sprang upon my feet and looked round, but saw no person, or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking. I kneeled again, my mouth was opened and my tongue loosed; I called on the Lord in mighty prayer. A pillar of fire appeared above my head; which presently rested down upon me, and filled me with unspeakable joy. A personage appeared in the midst of this pillar of flame, which was spread all around and yet nothing consumed. Another personage soon appeared like unto the first: he said unto me thy sins are forgiven thee.
He testified also unto me that Jesus Christ is the son of God. I saw many angels in this vision. I was about 14 years old when I received this first communication. . . .
(The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision by Dean C. Jessee, BYU Studies, vol. 9 (1968-1969), Number 3—Spring 1969 .)
B. H. Roberts on how Joseph Smith was introduced to James 1:5:
He went as you know to the Lord in prayer, in response to the Scripture which said: 'If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not." He became familiar with that Scripture, for it constituted, at least on one occasion, a text to a discourse to which he listened, and it became the voice of God to his soul. At last he put this Scripture to the test and inquired of God, with the result familiar to you all that he received a splendid vision of God the Father and of the Son, and received knowledge of the purpose of the Father to give a new dispensation of the gospel to the world through him, provided he should be faithful.
(B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, 2 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1907], 2: 425.)
Hugh Nibley on James 1:5:
There are some very good articles in Sunstone, Dialogue, and other publications, including the Church magazines. But the general feeling in perusing many of those publications is that of walking on a treadmill: The scenery never changes. There are always legitimate boasts and grievances. I will admit that floods are bad, fires deplorable, plagues are awful, and the faults of one's leaders can be annoying. But what do you expect me to do about it? While I wait for the Millennium, I have full instructions: to do what the Saints should be doing under all conditions, good or bad. The commandments do not alter with circumstances or they would be hopelessly pliable. No matter what happens, I know exactly what to do: "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him" (James 1:5; emphasis added). This was the first revelation given to the boy Joseph.
What is happening today is nothing new. Joseph had no sooner prepared a banquet for the Saints than the cooks began crowding into the kitchen, each eager to improve the recipe. It has always been thus; it may even be salutary, this periodic shaking up, like the forest fires of Yellowstone.
(Hugh Nibley, "Not to Worry," Susan Easton Black, ed., Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars [Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book Co., Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996], 141.)
Joseph Fielding Smith on keeping the whole law:
Question: "Kindly explain what James meant when he said: 'For whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all'? (James 2:10.) This appears to be a very severe doctrine, to say a man is guilty of breaking all of the commandments if he has only broken one. To some of us this appears an injustice."
Answer: In order to understand the significance of this saying, one should be familiar with all that James said. He was making a plea to the members of the Church to be faithful in all things. This epistle is one of exceeding excellence in the presentation of the question of full obedience to the commandments of the Lord. He points out many of the weaknesses of men and pleads for a better and more faithful observance of the laws of the Lord which are so essential to our exaltation. He names many of the commandments, and admonishes all to be "doers of the word, not hearers only." In that day, as in the present, there were many who failed to hearken to and observe the commandments the Lord had given them. Every member of the Church today, as it should have been when James wrote, should be "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath," and lay aside "all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls," for the doers of the word, not the hearers only shall be saved.
After giving this counsel and teaching the members to be faithful in all things, he said, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10.) James did not mean that a man who stole was guilty of murder, or that one who lied was guilty of unchastity. He was endeavoring to impress upon the minds of the members that the kingdom of God is one. Its laws are perfect. No unclean person can enter there. Since it is a perfect kingdom, its laws must be obeyed. There can be no disunity, no opposition in that kingdom. Being an immortal kingdom with laws that have been proved through the eternities, they are perfect, therefore there is no room for varied opinions in relation to its government, such as we find in human man-made governments. These laws cannot be changed, for eternal things have been tried and tested and therefore are eternal. They are based on justice and mercy with the perfect love of God. Therefore each who enters the kingdom must of his own free will accept all of the laws and be obedient to them, finding himself in complete accord with all. Anything short of this would cause confusion. Therefore the words of James are true. Unless a man can abide strictly in complete accord, he cannot enter there, and in the words of James, he is guilty of all. In other words if there is one divine law that he does not keep he is barred from participating in the kingdom, and figuratively guilty of all, since he is denied all.
We may present this example, crude though it may be. We light our buildings with electric power. Suppose we have prepared all things by which light is obtained, except in one point. We have the proper connections with the source of power, the wiring is perfect, the switches are all in place, but we fail to place a light globe in the socket. Or perhaps there is a disconnected switch. Result? We get no light. In other words all of the laws pertaining to the obtaining of electric light must be observed. So in the celestial kingdom, we must be worthy in every point, or we fail to receive the blessing. The kingdom of God must exist in absolute unity. Every law must be obeyed, and no member of the Church can have a place there unless he is in full accord. There came a rebellion once with disastrous results, and there had to be a cleansing.
(Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957-1966], 3: 25.)