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James Guides us to Spiritual Wholeness

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:48

Related Links
Word Study: Perfect | James and Wisdom | James and Leviticus

Patrick J. Hartin proposes that the point of James is to instruct the community to strive for a spirituality of perfection. For modern audiences, both the words spirituality and perfection need explaining. It is clear that James is talking about action, not some private community of prayer. Indeed Hartin would identify the central message of James to be in 2:18: I by my works will show you my faith (H94). James is calling us to spiritual perfection. According to Hartin spirituality is faith: not just the believing part of faith, but also the living out of those beliefs. James is teaching us that works are the method for perfecting belief.

Perfection is a difficult word. In today’s world we think of it as beyond improvement or without fault. Nobody’s perfect is our excuse for mistakes, but is also a basic concept of our culture. Not only is it impossible to be perfect, it’s not a good idea. But this is not the first century concept of perfect. In Hebrew thought the world is used for the animals selected for sacrifice—they are without blemish. Basically, a perfect goat or lamb is completely goat-like, or lamb-like. See word study on Perfect.

People can also be perfect, both Abraham and Noah are identified as such. Yet their stories do not hide their idiosyncrasies, or even what we would call imperfections. What Abraham and Noah have is complete devotion to God, complete righteousness, a mature faith. Matthew 19:21 suggests that the rich young man, a devout follower of the law, must sell his possessions to be perfect. This is similar to James’ concept of perfection: a single-minded focus to God’s way, a turning away from the world’s way, and thus, giving up of the world’s riches. Perfection then is complete and wholehearted devotion to God, lived out in the law.

Hartin suggests that James is instructing us in how to be perfect. Perfection, for James, starts with faith in the one God. His monotheism is absolute, and he presents this image of unity as essential for Christian living. God is our model. Give up double-mindedness and the ways of the world; keep an unwavering faith in God’s way. And then, to complete, or to perfect that faith, we are to live it out—in our works. We are offered the example of Abraham, whose faith was brought to completion by the works (James 2:22) that he did.

And so our faith should be demonstrated by our actions. We find perfection to the extent that we live the law. We are complete when we live with integrity, we are whole when we show concern for the poor, and we find perfection in a life of authentic prayer. A spirituality of perfection is about living out our faith fully, with single-minded attention. Here is Hartin’s outline of how James would teach us to be perfect:

  • Perfection through enduring trials (James 1:2-4, 12-15; 5:7-11)
  • Wisdom as Horizon for Perfection (James 1:5-8; 1:17; 3:13-18; 4:1-10)
  • Perfection and the Law (James 1:25; 2:8-12; 4:11-12)
  • Faith perfected through works (James 2:22)

When read as a guide to the perfect spirituality, James is calling us to a new ideal today. The text demands unwavering faith, but also action on every part of that faith. Perfection is a word we are afraid of, but one that James argues we must grasp fully so that we might become mature, complete, and yes, perfect Christians.

Related Links
Word Study: Perfect | James and Wisdom | James and Leviticus

Resources (Link to full Bibliography for web site)
Patrick J. Hartin, A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action in the Letter of James (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999).


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All material ©Women's Division, 2002. For permission to use, or to link to our site, contact J. Ann Craig. Unless otherwise noted, articles are by Elizabeth M. Magill, MDiv. 2002 Episcopal Divinity School.