But the Apostle doesn’t stop his train of thought here. This character quality of steadfastness leads to something further. James is concerned not merely with the development of one virtue but with the development of character itself. He continues, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (1:4). The New Testament does not teach perfectionism, or that any mere human being can achieve perfection. Our achievements in virtue will always be unstable and fall short. So what does he mean?
I think that James is turning our attention toward Christ. The reader will remember what the writer of Hebrews said:
Although Christ was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. (Heb. 5:8–9)
The focus of this passage in Hebrews is on Jesus’ preparation for being the climactic High Priest on our behalf. Here in Hebrews, the focus is not on resisting temptation; rather, “perfect” here means “fit” for the office of High Priest by exercise of strength and positive righteousness. Think on this: our Lord overcame the natural disinclination to suffering that we all have as humans. Our Savior and sympathetic High Priest refused to choose ease; instead, He joined in a contest for us, suffering in His obedience so that we could “count it all joy” when we encounter trials and temptation. He is producing a character of steadfastness in us.
It seems that some of the members in the churches that James was writing to may have reasoned wrongly by assuming that since God is sovereign, then He must be solely responsible for their temptations (see James 1:13). Rather, James desires that they recognize that temptation has its genesis in our own inner being. Moreover, God, our heavenly Father, wants only good gifts for those who love Him (vv. 17–18).
These truths seemed to have made a deep and lasting impression on the Apostle Paul as well. He proclaimed enthusiastically after describing his visions and revelations from the Lord and his hardships about his thorn in the flesh that “for the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). He and his companions had suffered afflictions and declared that they “were so utterly burdened beyond our strength” and that they had “despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” Nevertheless, Paul affirmed that this was so in order that they might not rely “on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (1:8–9).
Peter also makes some interesting claims about trials near the beginning of his first epistle, which sound very similar to those made by James (see 1 Peter 1:6–7). How can Peter make such bold and audacious claims? The answers, of which there are two, can be found in the larger context. First, Peter claims that Christians are the new chosen people of God (2:9–10). Second, Peter directs our attention to the ultimate story of our lives: our liberation in Christ, which is grounded in the original exodus of God’s people out of Egypt but goes beyond it to achieve the deliverance of God’s people from an even greater bondage to sin, a second exodus that our Lord has procured for His chosen people.