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.
2:8 “If, 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.
2:9 “But 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.
2:10 “For 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.
2:12 “So 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.
4:11 “Do 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.