James teaches law, not grace

by Nathan Rambeck on

The Christian reformer, Martin Luther did not much like the book of James. He was a champion of the great doctrine of justification by faith that, for the most part, had been lost, neglected and denied by the mainstream church for hundreds of years. In the book of James he found a direct contradiction to the doctrine of justification by faith, apart from works, and consequently proclaimed that it had no part in the canon of Scripture. At one point he even called the book of James “an epistle of straw.”

Luther’s efforts to keep James out of the Bible were ultimately unsuccessful (thankfully), yet since that time Christians have struggled to reconcile the apparent contradiction between James and Paul on the topic of justification. These two verses are perhaps the most stark in their contrast.

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. James 2:24

But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness Romans 4:5

The most popular path toward reconciling passages like these is to let James’ teaching inform and expand upon Paul’s teaching. This path adds works to grace and as Paul says very clearly in Romans, if you add any works to it, then grace is no longer grace.

And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. Romans 11:6

The Christian life is not lived mostly by grace with a little bit of living by works sprinkled in. It is meant to be either one or the other.

So was the book of James written by some heretic, attempting to deceive the believers of his day? Not at all. The letter from James actually aligns perfectly with what we see happening in the early church recorded in the book of Acts. Just like the original 12 apostles, James continued throughout his entire life to preach the gospel of the kingdom and to instruct his followers to keep the law of Moses.

A brief history of the Jewish Christian church

After Stephen was murdered by the unbelieving Jews, there was a persecution in which the believing Jews were scattered into other parts of the Roman empire. These scattered believers didn’t stop preaching the words of Christ, but, even though they were among Gentiles, they only preached to other children of Israel.

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. Acts 11:19

We read in Acts that God first sent preachers to the Gentiles starting with Paul’s first missionary journey in Acts 13 and 14. God gave Paul and Barnabas a specific mission to reach the Gentiles.

As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Spirit said, "Now separate to Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." Acts 13:2

At the end of the first missionary journey Paul returned to his home church in Antioch and reported their evangelistic work as God “opening the door of faith to the Gentiles.” Besides Cornelius, this was the first time a message of salvation through Christ had been preached to Gentiles.

Now when they had come and gathered the church together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. Acts 14:27

It was right after this that a conflict arose about the need of Gentile believers to keep the law. With all these new Gentiles being saved, there was a crisis concerning the topic of keeping the law. Jesus had told his disciples that the law and the prophets would continue to be in force until all prophecy was fulfilled. With many things still to come, they continued to remain faithful to Moses.

For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:18-19

When Paul went to Jerusalem to straighten out this disagreement about Gentiles keeping the law (Acts 15), it was James who made the final verdict about whether the Gentiles had to keep the Law of Moses. While James and the other apostles agreed that the Gentiles did not have to keep the law, that agreement did not include the believing Jews. They were still expected to keep the law, just as Jesus commanded.

In Galatians, we learn from Paul that at some point (almost certainly the Jerusalem Council just mentioned) he had a meeting with James and all the other apostles in which they agreed that he would be a missionary to the Gentiles, while they would continue going only to the Jewish people.

and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Galatians 2:9

The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem kept this agreement as far as we know. Years later when Paul returned to Jerusalem for the last time, he told James and the elders about his success evangelising the Gentiles. They in turn reported the many Jews they had converted and how all of them were zealous to keep the law of Moses.

And when they heard it, they glorified the Lord. And they said to him, "You see, brother, how many myriads of Jews there are who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law; Acts 21:20

James asks Paul to help him resolve a concern among these faithful Jewish believers. They had heard he was going to their scattered Jewish brethren and telling them that they could forsake Moses.

but they have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. Acts 21:21

This concern about believers keeping the law and circumcising their children is the last time we hear about James.

We don’t know exactly when James wrote his letter that we have in our Bibles except that it was written after Stephen was martyred and the Jewish believers were scattered. We know this because it is these scattered Jewish believers who James addresses his letter to.

James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. James 1:1

James teaches adherence to the law

With all of this history in mind, it should not be surprising at all that we find in James’ letter clear admonitions to continue to be faithful to Moses.

James heard these believers were showing partiality to wealthy brethren within their synagogues (James 2:2-4). He points out that this is a transgression of God’s commandment in the Law to love your neighbor as yourself as found in Leviticus 19:18.

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF," you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. James 2:8-9

Jesus had told them the importance of keeping the whole law, even the least commandments. If they didn’t do so, they would not enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19-20). So James gives a stern warning to these believers not to think that they can keep most of the law, yet stumble in even one point.

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY," also said, "DO NOT MURDER." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. James 2:10-11

As an interesting side note, Paul uses the exact same argument to make the exact opposite point, explaining believers should not put themselves under a single point of the law, else they makes themselves debtors to keep the whole thing. (Galatians 5:3).

James drives his point home by warning these believers that in the coming judgment, God will judge their words and their works according to the law He gave to Israel.

So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. James 2:12

By the end of chapter 2 he finishes up by reminding them that their righteousness is not based solely on their faith toward God, but on their faithful works of the law.

You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. James 2:24

This is the very thing Moses had taught.

Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us. Deuteronomy 6:25

Should Christians keep the law?

So if James continued throughout his whole life to teach the necessity of keeping the Law of Moses to Jewish believers, then shouldn’t we follow his teaching?

We would only do so if we missed one of the biggest plot twists in the entire Bible, in which God appoints a man named Paul to offer a righteousness that is apart from the law to a new group of people: the Gentiles.

But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. Romans 3:21-22

This post is part of a series entitled Foundations of Grace and is best read from beginning to end.


Nathan Rambeck is a full-time husband, father and software engineer; and a part-time Bible teacher, abolitionist and evangelist. He lives in the Dayton, Ohio area with his wife Jamie and 6 children. (Facebook)