The New Testament epistle of James emphasizes practical piety and lived-out faith, offering dozens of easily understood commands for Christians. Its simple clarity, however, is a two-edged sword. In some circles, James is known but not studied, perhaps because the instructions for godly living demand too high a standard. James asks the uncomfortably acute question, Does your life match what you believe? (1:22-do what it says!). Even more dismaying, he also indicts a purely intellectual faith as something demonic (2:19). Studying James is an exercise in balance; one must attend diligently to the essentials of the Christian life while resisting the natural slide into legalism. Doriani provides just such a balanced approach, rightly insisting that amid the exhortations, James preaches a gospel of grace.
James has been famously criticized by the great Martin Luther as "an epistle of straw" because it lacks great theological doctrines like justification by faith alone. James' focus on faith revealed in works made the letter too legalistic for Luther's taste. The letter itself, despite its popularity among believers, has been the target of much suspicion from scholars, as Doriani points out in his preface. To those who agree with Luther, James appears to be a lopsided pastoral handbook that any competent clergyman probably could have written but would not have bothered to. This begs the question, why did James, Jesus' half-brother and an elder of the church in Jerusalem, bother to write a doctrinally skimpy, performance-obsessed letter? Doriani's answer to this question is that "the hasty reader will not see much of the gospel in James" (6). He points out the paradoxes; for example, we must control the tongue (1:26), but no one can tame the tongue (3:8). The reader who perseveres through these, however, will find the gospel of grace at James' heart.
Doriani's contribution is an excellent addition to the Reformed Expository Commentary series, which seeks to edify the church rather than engage scholars on the finer points of theology. This is not to say that scholars would not benefit from Doriani's book. In fact, he presents a trustworthy and practical exposition with both measured precision and pastoral warmth. An experienced pastor (currently at Central Presbyterian Church in Clayton, Missouri), he is also highly educated (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) and a former professor at Covenant Theological Seminary. His book is composed of sixteen expanded sermons, plus one short note (on swearing, 5:12). Unlike James Boice's excellent collection of sermons on James (Sure I Believe, So What?), this book is written for the eye, not the ear, and invites a slow and careful reading. Presented in an accessible style, it is neither colloquial nor abstruse, but rather like a formal conversation. The tone suits the importance of the material; its very seriousness requires that one respect James as a biblical text, whatever the difficulties.
Doriani is aware of current scholarship on James but does not use extensive space to interact with it, relegating this to the occasional footnote. His goal is not to provide an exegetical, verse-by-verse commentary, but rather a passage-by-passage analysis, setting the epistle's 59 imperatives in context. He provides helpful footnotes for details but does not overwhelm the page with them. He refers to the Greek text where it contributes to his exposition, unpacking, for example, the words used to describe wisdom from heaven (124-26; 3:17-18). Helpfully, when using different English translations, Doriani takes an irenic approach, dispassionately explaining why he chooses one English word over another without distracting the reader with unnecessary evaluations of English versions, while making use of the ESV, NIV, RSV, and NAS.
James, as a Jewish Christian writing to Jewish Christians, often alludes to the Old Testament. Doriani anticipates this from the first chapter, including a delightful section on "Testing and temptation in the Old Testament." I'm not being sarcastic here. The section on testing is delightful to read because it's true without being sanctimonious. Doriani also cites explicit references where James' text resonates. For example, the "crown of life" for those who persevere in James 1:12 finds resonances in Proverbs 4:9 (crown of splendor for the wise), Proverbs 16:31 (crown of gray hair for the righteous), Isaiah 61:3 (crown of beauty for the mourners), and Isaiah 62:3 (crown of splendor for Israel). Doriani does not merely quote these but discusses the promises in a typically Jamesian way, as it were, warning that a crown is not motivation for right behavior, but a reward for it. At the same time, James echoes much of the Gospel of Matthew, and Doriani makes the connections not only with Matthew but with the rest of the New Testament, demonstrating vividly the Reformed commitment to a redemptive-historical approach that illuminates the unity of the Bible and the centrality of Christ.
There are two controversial issues in James: his emphasis on works (2:24) and the practice of anointing the sick (5:14-15). Doriani gives a beautifully clear, Reformed exposition on the relationship of faith and works (93-103), demonstrating James' correction of an erroneous concept of faith. He handles the verses on anointing clause by clause, straightforwardly considering various interpretations of the text. He includes two helpful personal anecdotes-helpful because he does not portray himself as the hero but rather God. His exposition is a model of balance-both physical and spiritual healing are in view-and also challenges the modern Western tendency to despiritualize illness.
Doriani finds the rhetorical climax of James in 4:6, "But [God] gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: 'God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.'" In an era when the church in America has grown fat and comfortable on God's luxurious grace, James' emphasis on faith in action comes as a bracing reminder that grace is given for a purpose, for a task, for a mission, and not just for our personal comfort. Doriani's book is for anyone who wants to study James in depth, but it would be especially beneficial for church leaders, Bible teachers, and seminarians, because he consciously addresses leaders (49 ff.). This book is written generously, without reproach for the reader. One who reads it will be the wiser for it.