RPM, Volume 11, Number 33, August 16 to August 22 2009

Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy
in the Epistle of James

By Cary Paulk

D.Min., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the senior teaching elder of Bayview Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia. He is also a retired U. S. Navy Chief with 20 years of service.
The Epistle of James differs from most of the Pauline epistles in which Paul first covers doctrinal issues and then concludes with practical or ethical concerns. James seems to reflect more of an ethical rather than a doctrinal concern. Kistemaker explains the lack of doctrinal emphasis:
James seems to leave the impression that he is familiar with the oral gospel of Jesus but not with the books of the New Testament…Had he been acquainted with the written Gospel accounts and with the epistles, James would have been more theologically than ethically oriented in his epistle. True, he presents theology, but it is implicit rather than explicit. James depends on the preaching of Jesus, discusses the topic faith and works independently of Paul's teaching, and writes on submission to God in a more elementary form than that which Peter presents in his epistles. 1
Although the orthodoxy is implicit in James, it is linked with orthopraxy numerous times in James. This is especially evident in James' teaching on faith and works. Therefore, James is a good example of teaching that links orthodoxy with orthopraxy.

A Brief Survey of James

In James 1:2, James exhorts believers, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds." The reason for this strange exhortation follows in verses 3 and 4, "For you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is implied in this passage (cf. 1:18). There would be no reason for believers to consider their trials to be joy unless they believed that they were part of God's sovereign plan to bring about maturity in their life. Martin comments on this passage:
Trials serve as a feature of the life of trust that refines and shapes believers' knowledge of divine providence and God's holy purpose. Hence suffering of this kind is rightly viewed ‘from the perspective of Heilsgeschichte,' as God's saving plan is worked out in the crucible of trials endured for the faith." 2
The ethical instruction of considering their trials joy and allowing steadfastness to have its full effect is linked to their knowledge of the sovereignty of God. In other words, the orthopraxy of the Jewish believers James addresses is informed by orthodoxy.

Another doctrine that should influence one's conduct under trial according to James is eschatology. James 1:12 says, "Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him." Their conduct, "remaining steadfast under trial," is to be influenced by their knowledge of an eschatological reward, "the crown of life." According to James, the reason one should persevere under trial is twofold: first, trials have a purpose in the sovereign plan of God. Second, there will be a reward for those who persevere. The link between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is unmistakable.

The link between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is also clear when James discusses God's word in chapter 1. The "implanted word" is a means of regeneration (1:21). Those who are regenerated are to "be doers of the word, and not hearers only" (1:22). One who hears the word and does not obey deceives himself or herself (1:22). The implication is obvious. It makes no sense to say one has heard the word and believes the word then does nothing about what has been heard. True belief, orthodoxy, is reflected in orthopraxy, right behavior. The true believer "looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing" (1:25). Kistemaker asserts, "The Christian faith is always active and stands in sharp contrast to other religions that practice meditation and general inactivity." 3

Claiming orthodoxy is not enough. One's orthodoxy will be followed by orthopraxy in order to be genuine. This is clear in James' assertion in James 1:26. He writes, "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless." In 1:27, James gives a partial list of the orthopraxy that accompanies true religion, "to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world." In James' mind, pretending you have orthodoxy while not having orthopraxy is false religion—it is worthless.

In James 2:1-13, James addresses the sin of partiality. He addresses this sin in the context of the assembled church (2:2) which consists partly of poor people who were chosen to be heirs of the kingdom (2:5). The doctrines implicit in this passage are the doctrine of the Church and election (i.e., the Church universal which consists of God's elect). James' argument is: how can one show partiality to rich people and dishonor poor people seeing that God has chosen some poor people to be a part of the Church?" Belief in the true Church which consists of a diverse company God's elect (i.e, both rich and poor), should be reflected in impartial treatment of people. Orthodoxy should be reflected in orthopraxy.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the principle of that orthodoxy must be reflected in orthopraxy is James 2:14-26. James begins by asking two rhetorical questions that expect a negative response. He writes, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?" Martin states the problem this way, "The issue at hand is the nature of genuine faith. Is it merely ‘right belief' expressed in a confession of doctrine or is it essentially practical, requiring ‘deeds' to authenticate its genuineness?" 4 James' answer to that question is abundantly clear, "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (2:17). In their textual note on James 2:14, the editors of The Reformation Study Bible write, "Faith that yields no deeds is not saving faith. The New Testament does not teach justification by the profession of faith or the claim to faith; it teaches justification by the possession of true faith." 5 Likewise, a confession of orthodoxy that does not reveal itself in orthopraxy is dead orthodoxy.

James references orthodox belief in his discourse on the evils of the untamed tongue in chapter 3. Of the tongue he writes, "With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (3:9-10). The appeal for orthopraxy concerning the tongue, "these things ought not to be so," is supported by referring to the orthodox doctrine of God who created people in his image. Of course, people can believe in the doctrine of God the creator and still curse people but that is precisely James' point. "These things ought not to be so." Believers should recognize that when they bless God in one sentence and curse people in the next sentence they are being duplicitous. When someone curses people, he or she is actually cursing God's creation. Therefore, when Christians are tempted to curse someone with their tongue, they should consider how their speech reflects on what they believe. If they do that, then their orthodoxy should consistently be reflected in their orthopraxy.

In James 3:13-18, James discusses godly wisdom, the wisdom from above, by contrasting it with earthly wisdom. In James 1:5, James exhorts believers to pray in faith for the wisdom they lack assuring them God will give the wisdom they request. Although prayer is a practice, it is also a doctrine. One must believe God answers prayer in order to practice it effectively or even have a reason for praying in the first place. When people say they believe in prayer, they are confessing a belief in the doctrine and the practice of prayer. They are confessing their orthodoxy and orthopraxy simultaneously. This same principle applies to James' discourse on praying for the sick in James 5:13-18.

The discourse on godly wisdom in James 3:13-18 should be read in light of James' exhortation to pray for godly wisdom in James 1:5. When James asks, "Who is wise and understanding among you" in James 3:13, he is really asking how people can know whether or not they are practicing the wisdom that God alone gives. James answers his own question, "By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom" (3:13). In other words, godly wisdom is revealed in orthopraxy. James then details what godly wisdom is and what it is not in verses 14-17. Perhaps James was foreseeing the possibility that someone might claim to have received godly wisdom then act in a selfish and boastful manner. This person might believe in prayer (orthodoxy), and he or she might have prayed in faith (orthopraxy). Orthopraxy in prayer, however, does not stop at the prayer closet. It continues in the actions of the individual. When people claim to receive wisdom from God in answer to their prayers, they must reflect that wisdom in their actions.

James' parallel statements in James 1:14 and 4:1 reveal his belief in the doctrine of original sin:

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (1:14)

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this that your passions are at war within you? (4:1)

In James' thinking, people must first understand that the problem is within themselves and not outside themselves. As Mathew Henry puts it:

In other Scriptures the devil is called the tempter, and other things may sometimes concur to tempt us; but neither the devil nor any other person or thing is to be blamed so as to excuse ourselves; for the true original of evil and temptation is our own hearts. The combustible matter is in us, though the flames may be blown up by some outward causes. 6
In order to understand what to do about the problem of sin (orthopraxy), one must first understand the origin of that sin (orthodoxy). The origin of people's sin in James 4 is their evil hearts: original sin and total depravity.

Once James establishes the origin of the problem in James 4:1-4, he moves on to the solution to the problem in James 4:6-10. Simply believing in the doctrine of original sin and realizing that the origin of sin is the fallen human heart is not enough. One must act based upon his or her belief. Orthodoxy must be reflected in orthopraxy. This is certainly true in James 4. The orthopraxy required in 4:6-10 is receiving God's grace by humbling oneself, submitting to God, resisting the devil, drawing near to God, cleansing, purification, mourning and weeping.

In 4:11-12, James takes up the subject of Christians slandering one another. James condemns this practice by arguing the slanderer is actually making himself or herself a judge (v. 11). The reason that James condemns this practice is based upon doctrinal considerations. Ultimately, James argues in verse 12, "There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?" Slander is evil because it places humans in the place of God. Kistemaker explains:

Ultimately God is the only Lawgiver who delegates power to man to serve as lawmaker and judge. God, therefore, receives the honor of being the final authority in establishing the law and judging man. He alone is the divine judge. He cannot allow man to assume the position that belongs to him alone. 7
When people judge others, their practice becomes inconsistent with their doctrine. This is unacceptable to James.

In 4:13-17, James addresses the sin of presumption. Presumption, making plans without knowing what the future holds (v. 14) and without regard for God's will (v. 15), is arrogant and evil (v. 16). It is a sin of neglect and a sin of omission (v. 17). If presumption is a sin, why is it a sin and how should a Christian act with regards to the future? Martin answers that question:

What James is implying is that anyone who plans for the future without regard to God is wrong because no one knows what tomorrow will yield…Rather the question is, how does one approach life in light of not knowing the outcome? The incorrect, i.e., foolish, way is to assume that all will transpire as planned. The more sensible attitude—because it alone is safe—is to assume that whatever happens is under the control of God…What he is requiring his readers to consider is that a trust in God and not a well-thought-out plan for aggrandizement and gain is the only way to face the future. To live in the recognition that God—not the human being—is in control is to choose a Christian life of humility before God; to live as though we ourselves—not God—have the final say is to adopt a proud and haughty attitude. 8
Presumption is not consistent with the doctrines of God's providence and sovereignty which are obviously in the background of this passage. If one embraces orthodoxy (i.e., God is sovereign and in control of all), then he or she should reflect that in orthopraxy (i.e. planning the future with regard for the providence of God).

In James 5:7-11, James gives behavioral instruction in light of eschatological concern. In verses 7 and 8, James gives the "coming of the Lord" as a reason for his behavioral instructions. In view of the Lord's coming, the behavior of James' readers is not to be like the self-indulgent rich people in 5:1-6. Rather, their behavior is to be characterized by patience (vv. 7-8), a lack of grumbling (v. 9) and steadfastness (v. 11). Perseverance until the coming of the Lord is the order of the day. Right behavior is linked with right doctrine. Orthodoxy—a firm belief in the coming of Jesus—provides the motivation for orthopraxy—persevering with a good attitude.


In spite of its dominant ethical concern, the epistle of James clearly links orthopraxy with orthodoxy. Orthopraxy is informed by orthodoxy. Belief drives behavior. In addition to Paul's letters, James provides a good example of the apostolic practice of connecting orthodoxy with orthopraxy. Pastors and teachers ignore this apostolic practice to their own peril. Preaching doctrine alone sometimes degenerates into a stale lecture. Preaching right behavior alone often leads to a performance based religion. As pastors preach, "Therefore, as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord (orthodoxy), so walk in him (orthopraxy)," they will produce disciples who are "rooted and built up in him and established in the faith." (Col. 2:6-7)


1. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Epistle of James and the Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 11.

2. Ralph P. Martin, James, vol. 48 of the Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1988), 15. Heilsgeschichte is a German word literally translated "salvation history." It was used in Old Testament studies in the 50s, as a theological principle, reading Scripture as the story of God's redeeming acts in history. Historical catalogs of God's saving acts are found in both Testaments.

3. Kistemaker, 60.

4. Martin, 80.

5. R. C. Sproul et al., eds., The Reformation Study Bible (Lake Mary: Ligonier, 2005), 1803.

6. Henry, 971.

7. Kistemaker, 144.

8. Martin, 166.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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