The Law in James

James, the brother of Jesus, writes: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24).

It might appear that James is contradicting the apostle Paul, who writes: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law (Rom 3:28).

Paul also states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no once can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). But James says, “faith by itself, if it not accompanied by action is dead” (2:17).

What should we make of this? Is this a glaring contradiction?

It’s no secret that Paul, an educated Pharisee, frequently had his ministry of the gospel threatened by the Law-peddlers, those Judaizers (2 Cor 11:1-15). His letter to the Galatians was prompted by confusion over the place of the Mosaic “works of the law” in salvation (Gal 3:1-5, also Acts 15). He also speaks to this issue in Romans 3-4.

It is evident that Paul’s “observing the law” (Rom 3:28) concerns those covenant boundary markers within the Torah that separate Jews from Gentiles. Paul is saying that a person is not saved (i.e. become a Christian) by adhering to old covenant boundaries.

The law of Moses is fulfilled in Christ and the “law of the Spirit of life” (Rom 8:2; Gal 3:19). This is the main thrust of Paul’s message. But we see James using “law” differently in his epistle. Let’s take a brief look at each instance.

1:25 “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man shall be blessed in what he does.”

This is the first mention of nomos (law) in the book of James. He says that the “perfect law” should be gazed into like a mirror (1:23-25). He has already used teleios (perfect) to describe a “gift” that comes from God (1:4,17). The “law of liberty” indicates that observance of the law brings freedom.

But whose law? The law of Moses or Jesus?

Notice, James is using “law” to describe moral behavior in the immediate context—behavior that is encouraged in the teachings of Jesus.

2:8If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

James is using the “royal law” in a general way to describe the law of the kingdom of Christ—the law that was ratified by Jesus. It goes to the heart of the law to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18; Matt 19:19; 22:39).

James is drawing attention to Jesus’ summation of Torah. There is no indication that he is using “law” in verse 8 to refer to Jewish ritual.

2:9But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”

This favoritism is quite the contrast with the previous law of love (2:8; also Lev 19:15). Showing partiality is sin and disobedience to the lawgiver—the one who gave the law of love.

This “law” in James does not utilize a Pauline “works of the law” to encompass covenant boundaries. The law in verse 9 refers to that law laid down by Christ.

2:10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.”

What is the “whole law” in James? The previous two verses indicate that the “royal law” or the “law of love” is in view here. James’ focus is the law of Christ, which is summed up in love. Those who break the “royal law” are held responsible for rebellion against the lawgiver and all that he has given as a gift to lead a person in the law of love.

2:12So speak and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.”

Once again, all human behavior should come under submission to the “law of liberty” which Jesus set forth as key to obedience. This law shows the way of life and points away from sin. If a person operates out of the “law of liberty,” there they will be led down a path of obedience instead of judgment. The “law of liberty” should impact present moral behavior.

4:11Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it.”

If a person does not walk in accordance to this law of love set forth by Christ, then they “speak against the law” and have placed themselves as a judge over it. Slandering another brother in the Lord is to slander Christ and his law. A person who “judges the law” will then exalt himself to determine which laws to keep and which to ignore.

The law of love prohibits this behavior.

The book of James uses a combination of the Decalogue and Leviticus 19:18 as a summary of the “royal law” that Christ taught. James indicates that behavior and right conduct play a significant role in receiving God’s righteousness (1:20).

Within the context, James is combating the false dichotomy of faith and works. He argues that God’s righteousness is a “harvest” that is sewn through good deeds (3:18). Those good deeds come out of obedience to the law of love. A true believer proves they are saved by their deeds.

So, it’s safe to say that the “law” in James is that which Paul called the “law of the Spirit of life,” not the Law of Moses. Therefore, there is no contradiction. They both agree that Christ is the giver of a new law and that obedience to his commands are evidence of salvation’s power.

In light of the construction of the epistle and the specific issues being addressed by James to these scattered Jewish Christians, it looks as if his audience lives within a collapsing world. We find in James a theology of suffering for these struggling believers.

James is reminding his audience that the Lord Jesus Christ has not forgotten them and that his presence is calling them to display their faith through good deeds as those who are faithful “doer(s) of the law” (4:11).

D.D. Flowers, 2011.


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

17 responses to “The Law in James

  • Chad Livingston

    If you notice at the beginning of James’ letter he addresses it to the twelve tribes scattered outside Jerusalem. James is at the head of the Jerusalem council and is greatly respected as a ‘Tzaddik’, a great righteous man. May I encourage you to view his letter as one of encouragement to his fellow Jews and one that we can glean much teaching about what it looks like to be a man of God.

    Paul gives much respect to the council. If you read Galatians 2:1-10 we can see that Paul went to the Jerusalem council to seek out their approval in his message to the Gentiles. Had they shot him down and told him that is message of Gentile inclusion was wrong and that people needed to convert to be ‘saved’, he would indeed have been ‘running his race in vain’. However, this is not the case. The apostles do approve of Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles. So perhaps we need to make a distinction between Peter and Paul; perhaps this is why it seems contradictory or difficult to understand?

    Remember that the trial of Jesus was done in secret and was a mockery of the true judicial system. I believe this was carried out by the largely ‘Sadducee’ population who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, the judgment/reward system of the afterlife and other beliefs that go hand in hand with the Pharisees and the Apostles.

    Thanks guys for allowing me to chime in. May you all continue well in the faith of our Master.

  • Clark Wade

    Hi David. I sometimes don’t know what to think of James’ letter. When I read the epistles of Paul, John, Peter, I plainly see the centrality of Jesus Christ. I think James mentions the name of Jesus once in his opening greeting. The rest seems to me to be a lesson in Christian ethics, of a very high moral standard, but it lacks bringing the mind and heart to Christ for that morality, for that “doing of the word” that seems so pervasive in the other epistles. Am I wrong? It was James who seemed to be such a “law man,” and who recommended to Paul that he go to the temple and take part in that “vow” thing that ended up in a riot and Paul almost getting killed. Did James confer with the Spirit on those matters? It seems he was concerned about doing the ethical thing so that Paul’s ministry would be given a higher rating among the Jews who were being critical of him. Just a thought.

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Clark, I really appreciate you bringing up your concern with what might appear to be a lack of “Christ in you” teaching in James. I’m sure you are aware that James was especially concerning for Luther (who called it a “strawy epistle”) and others around the Protestant Reformation. However, their problem was that their reading of James seemed to be contradicting Paul in some way. That is why I focused more on that aspect within this post… to show that they do not contradict one another.

      I actually just finished a class with Peter Davids, a NT scholar who has spent a great deal of his life studying the book of James (see his New International Biblical Commentary on James). Davids helped me to see that James, the brother of Jesus, is actually laced with the words of Jesus throughout. Davids says that James is “very close to the teaching of Jesus recorded in the Sermon on the Mount” (Matt 5-7). Jesus is not directly cited, but this is in keeping with a rabbinic style of writing–to allude to the words of a prophet, in this case, Jesus. Davids says that James’ original audience would have recognized this collection of sayings as being from Jesus (e.g. 2:5 with Matt 5:3, 5; 11:5, 2:6; Lk 18:3; 2:8). He says that Jesus’ words are alluded to at least 35 times. He even thinks it is safe to assume that some sayings are authentic words of Jesus not recorded in the Gospels (e.g. 3:18; 4:18).

      Again, the “law” as it is used in James, is used to speak of the law of Christ–living by the teachings of Jesus. The Lord doesn’t become more central and supreme than that! 🙂

      Here is what I wrote on the recipients of James and some of its content:

      “The epistle of James is addressed to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1). This is a clear reference to those Jews who were scattered outside of Palestine. It is most likely symbolic language used specifically for those Jewish believers who fled Jerusalem after the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1; 11:19). James addresses his audience as “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” and the overall content of the letter gives evidence that his readers are Jewish. James mentions the “perfect law” (1:25) and refers to God as the “Lord of hosts” (5:4). As with OT wisdom literature, James is concerned with godly behavior, not simply speculative thought (3:13-18). Some scholars might argue that James is reflective of Greek thought with its philosophical phrases, but the letter does not use wisdom teaching in philosophical ways. It is most telling that James contains several awkward phrases that reveal Semitic thought patterns (e.g. 1:22; 2:1). James the Just may not have been the final editor of this epistle, but he is most likely the source of the discourse that was first delivered in Aramaic to a Jewish audience.”

      Peter Davids writes: “For him (James) the teachings of Jesus are not merely interesting insights irrelevant to modern life or applicable only in the millennium. For him, Jesus is Lord and his teaching is the rule of life. Discipleship is not an optional extra but what it means to be a Christian. What remains is to apply the teaching to specific situations and to draw appropriate conclusions, that is, to preach using the teaching of Jesus as a text, expressed or unexpressed. James is a model of how this was done in the first decades of the church, an authoritative example for the modern church to heed and emulate” (p.22).

  • cindyinsd

    I’ve never seen a conflict between James and Paul as James is clearly showing that the true follower of Jesus will be recognized by his obedience (brought about by the life of Christ living through him) to the law of love (or as James puts it, the perfect law of liberty). Thanks for putting this so succinctly. You have a true gift for explaining things simply and well.

  • chad livingston

    Thanks David, I like what Peter Davids seems to be getting at. We seem to have a deeply ingrained idea that faith in Jesus and obedience to commandments are opposed to each other. Perhaps, it is more accurate to consider that a single commandment or set of commandments, especially those that give a person Jewish status such as circumcision, will not grant a person a ticket into the kingdom to come. But, faith is evidence of relationship with God. The righteous will live by faith. James ‘the righteous’ is a man of faith and this is evidenced by his faithfulness to God. Without faith it is impossible to please God. So, what does a man of faith look like? He keeps the commandments.

  • Alan

    Excellent post, David! Thank you for explaining this so succintly. Cindy (see above!) is very right…sometimes I think the ‘new liberty’ that we have come into has become license…and we need to know that we are in a Kingdom where the King has made edicts..but they are such lovely laws!

  • John Metz

    David, thanks for the post. This has been a troubling subject since at least the Reformation.

    I would take some exception to Chad’s portrayal of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. When Paul visited Jerusalem earlier, there was already a strong influence in the church there, albeit of “false brothers,” to bring the believers under the bondage of the law (Gal 2:4). It would seem that, given his standing in Jerusalem, James should have made a clear defense of the gospel at that time, but the context indicates that it was Paul and those with him who stood against this negative influence.

    Later, Gal. 2:12 indicates that the origin of the circumcision problem in Antioch was not initially from Peter but from “some [who] came from James.” Therefore, Paul had to go to Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the source of the problem; it came from there, more specifically from James’ influence. Before Paul went to Jerusalem, he already boldly defended the truth of the gospel face-to-face with Peter.

    Then in Acts 21, James influenced Paul to enter the temple under a vow and to have an offering made for him and for others (v. 26 — “until the offering was offered for each one of them”), an offering paid for by Paul (v. 24). It is difficult to believe that Paul subjected himself to this! This was surely not according to the truth of the gospel.

    There is no doubt that James was a godly man with a good reputation among the Jews of Jerusalem. Neither can there be any doubt that the book of James belongs in the canon. However, James’ epistle, much like the decision made in Jerusalem, bears more the flavor of the Old Testament than of the New and stands, in this respect, more in contrast to Peter’s epistles (who also wrote to the dispersed Jewish believers) than to Paul’s, an apostle to the Gentiles.

    We naturally tend to view the churches at that time as pristine and with a full understanding of the truth, but the New Testament record is full of the problems, divinely included in the inspired word for our learning. To understand James and his epistle, these factors must be considered.

    • David D. Flowers

      John, thanks for sharing.

      I don’t believe what Paul did was wrong or compromising his preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles. This is what I have tried to point out in my article. The “works of the law” are those customs which separate Jew and Gentile, not some legalistic following of all that involves covenant nomism (which is what most folks have been taught in the church today).

      Paul had no qualms with Jews practicing their traditions and customs. His concern was with Jews throwing these covenant “boundary markers” or “works of the law” upon the Gentiles as if they were necessary for salvation (i.e. become Jews). So, I don’t see Paul subjecting himself to anything that would be contradicting his message. The Jews in Acts 21:25 even recall the decision that was made at the Jerusalem council about Gentiles simply abstaining from food sacrificed to idols.

      Also, I’m not sure what you mean by the book of James being more reflective of the OT. I do agree that it was purposely written as Wisdom literature, but the teachings of Jesus are laced throughout. You have to read “the law” in James in a way that is contrary to what I have proposed in my post in order to get what I think you’re saying. I agree with NT scholar Peter Davids. I think James has more of Jesus than any other epistle of its scope now that I understand the issues with the law.

      And if this was put together shortly after James’ martyrdom, as Davids suggests, then there was plenty of time for James to develop his teachings (content, style, and craft) that are more in line with Peter and Paul (certainly echoing Jesus)–later collected and circulated for those Jewish believers who need reminding that the law of Jesus supersedes that of Moses.

      Yes, I give you that the NT is filled with tensions, but I don’t think I would call them “problems” though.

  • John Metz

    David, I don’t want to belabor the point too much but I think I would call such things as church-approved or at least church-ignored incest (1 & 2 Corinthians), worshiping angels (Colossians), division, abuse of the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians), misaiming concerning God’s economy (1 Timothy), departing from the apostle and his teachings (2 Timothy), refusal of healthy teachings (2 Timothy), Diotrophes (3 John), etc. (to mention only a few) more than tensions. The bible does present the real situation, as they say, “Warts and all.” By the Lord’s mercy these are recorded for our learning and benefit.

    I do appreciate your post and it does present an interesting point of view. I just don’t read James the same way and must look at what James says through the lens of Acts and Galatians as well. Blessings, brother.

    • David D. Flowers

      John, I misunderstood what you meant by “problems” in the NT. I thought you were referring to problems with the biblical text.

      I do respect Dr. Davids point of view, especially since he is one of the top scholars in the world on the book of James. It could be that your lenses for Acts and Galatians need to be wiped down with a spray of windex and a fresh dry cloth. 🙂

      I appreciate your comments, brother. Thanks.

  • Chad Livingston

    Hi John,

    I’m not surprised that my viewpoint raises some eyebrows. My personally held beliefs have been challenged greatly with the idea that Paul continued in Torah.

    I think it is good to make the distinction between Peter and Paul. And perhaps it is our failure to do so over the past 2k years that resulted in the present conundrum of the law in the church.

    Somehow we have come to see Paul’s message of Gentile inclusion without conversion to mean an exclusion of Jews.

    As far as Paul’s journey to Jerusalem, I guess I consider Paul’s ‘going up’ as a desire to worship; it seems he deeply longed to ‘go up’. The draw of Jerusalem is the Temple, and this is where the believers constantly worshiped. it’s my opinion that this is why believers had everything in common; people sold their possessions to be near the Temple while they awaited the return of Messiah.

    I’m troubled to think that Paul’s worship at the Temple would not be according to the truth of the Gospel. Jesus himself constantly was there. He wanted to be ‘in His Father’s house’ and ‘Zeal for the house consumed Him’.

    Be encouraged as you consider whether or not the question of a Jew keeping all the commandments of Torah was ever raised in the writings of the apostles.
    May I also encourage you to see that Paul’s accusers said that he was teaching against the Torah and against the traditions of the fathers. However, these were false accusations. As flowers of Jesus and students of Paul, we should not stand with his accusers. But realize that, as Peter said, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”

    The Bible clearly gives the test for a false prophet and it includes one who leads Israel away from the commands. I don’t want to set Paul up as a false prophet, so I must assume that I am somehow, in my 2000 year removed, Gentile, Western mindset, have misunderstood him.

    Sorry for the long post.

    D. Thomas Lancaster has a very in-depth study of Galatians and a look at Paul from a new perspective that maintains his credibility. If you are into podcasts, you can download the audio for free at

    The viewpoint discussed really challenged my deeply held beliefs from childhood. It was a long process of turning around my anti-law battleship.

  • John Metz

    Thanks to both David and Chad for your posts. They are very helpful in seeing your viewpoints.

    I apologize if I was not clear earlier that I was referring to the practices among the early churches and not to questions about the text.

    My main reason for looking at James the way I do is because there is very little in his epistle that reveals the person of Christ and His work. As you point out there is a repetition of His moral teachings, which are good, and an emphasis on Christian perfection as an attribute of the Christian life.

    However, there is little of the central revelation of the N.T. which is based upon Christ and his completed work. The lone mention of the Holy Spirit in James is related to “friendship with the world” and the lone mention of the church is in relation to healing the sick by prayer.

    Contrast that with what you can see of Christ, His work (incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension) and His accomplishments (redemption, reconciliation, justification, the release of the divine life in resurrection, His enthronement in ascension), the ministry of the Holy Spirit (upon the believers for power and authority and, more crucially, within the believers for life and living), and the church as the mystery of Christ who Himself is the mystery of God, the Body of Christ, the One New Man, culminating with all the saints of God as the New Jerusalem, etc., in Paul, Peter, and John.

    I do think because it is reasonable to fault James for the problem in Antioch and in Jerusalem because of the record in Acts and in Galatians. This was a problem related to matters of the law, circumcision, and the truth of the gospel.

    Although we may not agree on these matters, I appreciate your posts, your views, and, most of all, your cordiality. It is good for brother to ponder these things together.

  • John Metz

    Sorry, one too many “because” in the next to last paragraph of my previous post. Poor editing skills!

  • ounbbl

    Thank you for the article. Yes, ‘law’ in James does not mean same as ‘law’ in Romans and refers to different thing.

    However, it is hard to agree with your statement, “It is evident that Paul’s “observing the law” (Rom 3:28) concerns those covenant boundary markers within the Torah that separate Jews from Gentiles. Paul is saying that a person is not saved (i.e. become a Christian) by adhering to old covenant boundaries.”
    If we are just looking at Rm 3:28, your position may hold, but we have to read what Paul is writing. The ‘law’ refers to the totality of Mosaic Law. Paul is not dealing with ‘being Jews vs. Gentiles (to be qualified for whatever meant by ‘salvation’) as your claim may suggest. Paul uses the preposition phrase ‘based on work of law-observing’ to stand in contrast to ‘on the ground of faith in Yeshua’.

    BTW, the exegetical issue of Paul vs. James is about ‘justification’. It is by Paul about ‘being righteous before God’ (of course, coming to God on the basis of faith); while by James it is about ‘being righteous before men’ (here, by fruits of spirit from living out on the basis of faith).

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