The priority of the eternal over the temporal
Religion & Liberty Online

The priority of the eternal over the temporal

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position. But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.
—James 1:9–11 (NIV)

Before I look at the exposition of this passage, a brief introduction to the book of James is appropriate. Martin Luther is famous for his low opinion of this epistle, and his description of it is oft-repeated: “St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw.” What is not so often quoted is the context of this judgment, in which Luther is discussing the order of importance among the epistles, especially I John, Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and I Peter, as foundational for the faith. So after describing James as “an epistle of straw,” Luther continues, “compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (LW 35:361). Now there is no doubt that Luther has a low opinion of the book, but nevertheless he does not reject it completely.

In his preface to the book of James, Luther writes, “Though this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, because it sets up no doctrines of men but vigorously promulgates the law of God. However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle” (LW 35:395–96).

Luther goes on to outline three main objections to regarding the book as having apostolic authority: first, it contradicts the rest of Scripture by “ascribing justification to works”; second, it “does not once mention the Passion, the resurrection, or the Spirit of Christ,” but instead “does nothing more than drive to the law and to its works”; and finally, the citations of Paul’s writings leads to the conclusion that the author of this letter could not be St. James, but rather “came long after St. Peter and St. Paul” (LW 35:396–97). The main thrust of these concerns also appears in the Table Talk of 1542, no. 5443 (cf. LW 54:424–25), albeit in a somewhat more vitriolic fashion.

Luther concludes about the author, “In a word, he wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task. He tries to accomplish by harping on the law what the apostles accomplish by stimulating people to love. Therefore I cannot include him among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from including or extolling him as he pleases, for there are otherwise many good sayings in him” (LW 35:397). So while Luther does not affirm the apostolic authority of the epistle, he does not find it to be utterly useless.

When John Calvin writes his commentary on James, though he doesn’t mention Luther explicitly, he answers Luther’s three main objections in his introduction to the book. To the first, Calvin writes, “what seems in the second chapter to be inconsistent with the doctrine of free justification, we shall easily explain in its own place.” Indeed, Luther himself admits, while presiding over the licentiate examination of Heinrich Schmedenstede of Lüneburg on July 7, 1542, that “Up to this point I have been accustomed just to deal with and interpret it according to the sense of the rest of Scriptures. For you will judge that none of it must be set forth contrary to manifest Holy Scripture.” If this approach is not effective or acceptable to his opponents, or “if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it” (LW 34:317).

On Luther’s second complaint, Calvin writes of James:

Though he seems more sparing in proclaiming the grace of Christ than it behooved an Apostle to be, it is not surely required of all to handle the same arguments. The writings of Solomon differ much from those of David; while the former was intent on forming the outward man and teaching the precepts of civil life, the latter spoke continually of the spiritual worship of God, peace of conscience, God’s mercy and gratuitous promise of salvation. But this diversity should not make us to approve of one, and to condemn the other. Besides, among the evangelists themselves there is so much difference in setting forth the power of Christ, that the other three, compared with John, have hardly sparks of that full brightness which appears so conspicuous in him, and yet we commend them all alike.

And on the third point, Calvin agrees that the author is not St. James, as “it is indeed certain that he was not the Son of Zebedee, for Herod killed him shortly after our Lord’s resurrection.” Despite the clear identity of the author being known, Calvin asserts, “It is enough to make men to receive this Epistle, that it contains nothing unworthy of an Apostle of Christ. It is indeed full of instruction on various subjects, the benefit of which extends to every part of the Christian life.”

And it is the instruction on one of these aspects of Christian life that the passage I quoted at the beginning deals. James 1:9–11 contrasts the appropriate attitudes both for Christians who have an abundance of material wealth and for those who are in want.

The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position.

James expands what he means by this a bit later in the letter when he writes, “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5 NIV)

The “high position” is thus that of a follower of Christ, through whom we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). This introduces the common scriptural theme that the wisdom of the world is made folly, and the foolishness of faith is made wise (cf. I Corinthians 1:20–25). Calvin writes, “Behold, how a lowly brother ought to glory in his elevation or exaltation; for if he be accepted of God, he has sufficient consolation in his adoption alone, so as not to grieve unduly for a less prosperous state of life.”

But the one who is rich should take pride in his low position, because he will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed.

The “low position” of the rich is that of every human being, whose corruption guarantees the passing of the mortal body. The passing transience of the material world is in view here.

Peter cites Isaiah 40:6–8 when he writes of the rebirth of the believer, “not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (I Peter 1:24 NIV). The full passage in Isaiah reads: “All men are like grass, / and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. / The grass withers and the flowers fall, / because the breath of the LORD blows on them. / Surely the people are grass. / The grass withers and the flowers fall, / but the word of our God stands forever.”

The primacy of the eternal over the temporal is an important lesson for all of us, but especially those who have been blessed with an abundance of material wealth. The pervasiveness of the human orientation to idolatry makes it a special danger of the wealthy to trust in riches rather than God. The Lord establishes this in a section from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19–24 NIV):

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.

In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

Calvin wants to restrict the intended allusion to the passage in Isaiah only to “the pomp of wealth or of riches,” instead of the original “testimony of the Prophet, who speaks not only of the things of this life and the fading character of the world, but of the whole man, both body and soul” (Commentary on the Catholic Epistles). But this latter portion of verse 11 shows that the perishability of the human creature is a witness to the importance of the eternal over the temporal. The material world, including wealth, is of penultimate worth when compared to the spiritual.

The seeming unpredictability of this reality is shown in the Day of the Lord, the time of Christ’s triumphant return to earth and the consummation of the inbreaking of Christ’s eternal, spiritual kingdom. Jesus says, “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the roof of his house, with his goods inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left” (Luke 17:30–35 NIV). Some manuscripts include this sentence following the last: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left,” which makes the parallel to this passage in James even clearer.

Our lives may be demanded of us at any time, and this infuses the mundane events of our lives with eternal significance. This sense of the priority of the eternal over the temporal and the resulting contingent importance of our daily lives pervades the rest of James’ letter. For more on this, read “The Warning to Rich Oppressors,” (James 5:1–6) and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30).

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.