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James and the "Law"
Ethics in the Christian Life

Douglas Ward


The Book of James has long been considered one of the shakiest books of the New Testament in terms of its acceptance into the canon. Due to a perceived conflict with Paul’s letters, and the early disfavor of Martin Luther, its status as a canonical book was disputed as late as the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Even throughout much of the modern era James has been viewed with suspicion. It would be fair to say that the scholarly consensus viewed James as one of the later and most unimportant of all the New Testament texts. It has been viewed as a Jewish, Palestinian text that was later Christianized and incorporated into the canon. Some even went so far as to say about James, "the entire document lacks continuity in thought." -1- Even those who found some continuity within its words had little use for James. Its strong emphasis on moral conduct and words of praise for the necessity of good deeds led Martin Luther to call it "an epistle of straw," and allowed him and others to deem it somehow lacking against the standard of other New Testament texts.

Yet, James is enjoying a recent revival in interest among New Testament scholars as this consensus concerning the book is now being called into question. Some recent study is demonstrating that instead of being one of the later books of the New Testament, James is one of the earlier books. The manner in which James recalls the words of Jesus is strikingly similar to what is found in the first three gospels, especially the gospel of Matthew. This similarity leads some to place the writing of James about AD 65-75, which would make it contemporary with Matthew and Luke.

At the same time, the Jewish character of James is also being called into question. If James were originally a Jewish, Palestinian text that had been Christianized, then one would expect a rough Greek translation of an earlier Aramaic or Hebrew text. Yet that is not what is present in James. Recent study argues that the Greek of James is intricate and complex, and bears the marks of an original work. It is also important to note that when the author of James quotes Scripture it is the second century BC Greek translation (the Septuagint) that is cited, not a Hebrew or Aramaic version. All of these traits point toward an original, Christian text written in a competent Greek style. -2-

The Law, Paul, and James

One cannot approach the topic of the "law" in James without first dispatching some of the common misconceptions about the book that much of the Protestant church has believed through most of its history. These misconceptions spring abundantly from a perceived tension between James and Paul that date to the birth of Protestant thought with Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Admittedly a surface reading of the text demonstrates the potential for such a tension to exist. Paul asserts in Galatians 3:6 (quoting Genesis 15:6) that "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." This seems to contrast with James 2:18, "was not our father Abraham justified by works?" In addition, while Paul confidently asserts that "a man is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in/the faith of Jesus Christ" (Gal 2:16), James -3- seemingly counters with "a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:24).

Also, a common misunderstanding of the Old Testament concept of "law" that has persisted since the time of Augustine in the fourth century AD contributes to the misconceptions. Augustine, trained in Roman law, assumed that the Old Testament idea of torah (Heb: "instruction") was identical to the Roman concept of law. This seemed to be supported by the fact that the Greek writers of the New Testament translated the Hebrew torah, "instruction," with the Greek term nomos, "law." Against this background, "law" became the governing paradigm for doing Christian theology, both in rejecting the supposed legalism of the Old Testament as well as seeing the activity of God in Christ in legal terms (payment of penalty, etc.).

This perspective was basically adopted by the Reformers, especially Martin Luther and John Calvin. In fact, this misconception of the Old Testament understanding of Torah partly contributed to the difficulty that the Reformers had in distinguishing between their own struggle with 16th century legalistic "works righteousness" and the biblical perspective of torah as faithful response to God’s grace (see Torah as Holiness: Old Testament "law" as Response to Divine Grace). It was easy for them to see in the New Testament the struggle between Old Testament legalism and New Testament grace with the primary issue salvation by works or salvation by faith, because that was the struggle they were waging in their own historical context. Therefore, it was easy for Luther, for example, to see and emphasize not only the differences between the Old Testament (law) and the New Testament (grace), but also between Paul’s perspective seen in terms of grace and James’ views seen in terms of legal requirement.

Yet the reader would be misled if s/he stopped at this point of the intertextual conversation, for there is a far more impressive list of similarities between the two texts. Paul and James agree that the "law" must still be kept in some manner (Gal 5:3, James 2:10). Paul and James further agree on the need to translate Christian identity into consistent moral behavior (Eph 2:10, James 1:16), behavior that is called "law" in James. The oneness of God is prominent in both authors (James 2:19, Gal 3:28), and in a stunning similarity both authors specifically claim that being an "heir to the kingdom" is linked with the promise of God (Gal 3:29, James 2:5). More importantly to this discussion both authors thoroughly ground the responsibility of Christians in the words of Jesus quoted from the Torah, Leviticus 19:18, "love your neighbor as yourself."

In one other interesting note, when each author is forced to respond to the most pressing issue of their respective communities, both Paul and James immediately turn to the example of Abraham and Isaac on Moriah (James 2, Gal 4, Rom 8, referencing Genesis 22). Far from existing in tension, the vast similarities these authors share suggest a common approach to the concerns and needs of the young Christian community.

Any perceived differences between James and Paul arise from the manner in which they refer to Abraham, and the clearly separate issues that each writer was addressing within their own particular context. Due to the influence of Luther and early Protestantism, much New Testament interpretation in modern times has focused on the familiar "faith" versus "works" argument that was of such concern to Luther in his own context. However, recent scholarship has definitively shown that this was not the concern of either Paul or James.

When Paul speaks of the "works of the law" he is not arguing against people who are trying to earn their way into heaven, or somehow trying to qualify for eternal life by doing good deeds. For Paul the "works of the law" (Gal 2:16, 3:2, 5) were boundary markers that defined and restricted the community of faith. They were those practices that defined what it meant to be a Jew, and thus a child of God, for example, circumcision, dietary regulations, Sabbath observance, etc. The concept of Old Testament torah, expressed as "law" and the "spirit of the law" (e.g., 2 Cor 3:6, Rom 8:2-4), was thus a positive concept for Paul, a way to express the ongoing results of being the people of God and the grace of God that they had experienced. That was the fundamental concept behind torah beginning with Sinai. -4-

The problem in Pauline communities was not that there were Jews who were doing good deeds in order to earn the designation "child of God." Rather there were Jews and Gentiles who restricted this designation only to those who submitted to these Jewish practices. In other words, they would accept as God’s people only those who obeyed all of the provisions of the Old Testament law narrowly conceived as correct actions apart from motive. The result was that the blessing given to Abraham, which was meant for all of humanity, was fundamentally restricted only to the Jews. This in turn made God a God of Jews only, and not a God of all creation (Rom 3:28-29). Paul argues against this point. He asserts that it is not those who observe the rituals and requirements of the law (the physical descendants of Isaac) who are a part of the community, but all those who have faith in or the faith of Christ (the spiritual descendants of Jesus Christ; cf. Rom 9:8-26).

The importance of this cannot be overestimated in interpreting the scriptures. Paul is arguing about who is allowed into the community, not against doing good deeds. If it is demonstrated that this is the main point of Paul, then any conception that James runs counter to Paul falls flat as well. So instead of a text that somehow argues against Paul’s letters, James answers a different set of questions than did Paul. While Paul answers "who is a part of the community of faith?" James answers, "how then is that faith to be lived?" Like Paul, James turns to Abraham and the Old Testament torah to answer this basic question. 

Paul uses Abraham to demonstrate that the promise of God existed prior to the law and circumcision, in other words prior to the particular Jewish religious expression of the covenant that was dear to the Pharisees. James uses Abraham to show that the faith that was rewarded and credited as righteousness was a faith that exemplified supreme obedience to the voice of God as it worked out in the actions of living. This obedience demonstrated by faithful response in life was proof of Abraham’s faith, and God renewed His covenant with Abraham because of his obedience, as imperfect as his actions were at times (see Abraham's Faith Journey). With this obedience in mind, James then recasts the torah, the "law," into the manner in which a Christian should live, not just in terms of performance but in terms of the motive of the heart. Just as in the Old Testament, James saw the torah or the outworking of the "law" of God in obedience not as a means to earn salvation, but to exemplify and complete their newfound faith in Christ. The "law" then is not a set of commands that stand opposed to faith, but the "law" becomes a proper expression of faith (see Torah as Holiness).

The Letter of James

While James is written in the basic form of a letter, it can better be described as a type of ancient moral literature called paraenesis. This type of literature seeks to teach traditional material, encourage commitment to a specific lifestyle, and affirm imitation of a prescribed model of good behavior. This good behavior is encouraged through the use of short directives, "do this / avoid that." While this form is used to teach established conduct, often it can be directed at a counter-cultural and marginalized group to challenge the prevailing opinion of the larger society. This appears to be the case in James and the instructions are for the newfound believers in Christ.

The clear concern of James is the behavior and actions of the readers. The author does not wish to discuss the content of scripture or to debate theology. His concern is the actions of those who possess faith. This is evident in 1:22 where the readers are urged to become more than just the hearers but doers of the word as well.

James use of "word" is interesting. This is reminiscent of the call that went out to the nation of Israel to be faithful to the "word of the Lord." Only now this "word" is located within the person of Jesus Christ. While the content of this "word" is called "law" by James, it is sharply different than any legal understanding of the torah of the Old Testament.

So it should not surprise the reader to see that the "law" in James has been transformed from the Pharisees’ narrowly legal interpretation of the Torah and from the early interpretation of Martin Luther whose equally legal view saw the Pharisees as adequately representing the Old Testament perspective. James establishes a standard grounded in the words of Christ recovering the intention of the Old Testament torah as a thankful and joyous response to the graciousness of God. -5- When James first refers to the law, he calls it "the perfect law that gives freedom" (1:25, 2:12).

Even more tellingly James calls it the "royal law" in 2:8. One should not miss the importance of this designation in verse eight. This royal law that is to be kept is found in the torah, Leviticus 19:18, "love your neighbor as yourself." Yet it is not called the royal law in Leviticus, so that designation must come from another source. Clearly it springs from a connection of these words to Jesus. When confronted in Matthew 22:34-40 with a question concerning the identity of the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with this text from Leviticus, and the accompanying citation from Deuteronomy 6:5, both from the heart of the Torah. Clearly these words were so closely remembered and linked to the kingdom of Christ, that James can call this the "royal law." Yet in James the royal law has been pared to the words of Jesus from just Leviticus 19:18, "love your neighbor as yourself."

At the risk of pushing a point too far, the language of James might give the reader a clue as to how closely James wishes to link Jesus with these words. While Leviticus 19:18 is identified as scripture in James 2:8, the author does not implore the readers to keep Scripture, but instead to keep the "word" in 1:22-25. This language might serve to point the readers toward stories or collections of the words of Jesus that were familiar to the ears of these first century Christians. So this "word" or "royal law" was something different for this community of faith than it was for Jews who did not follow Christ. A drastic change had altered the way this community looked at the law from what was popular among first century Pharisees. It did not bind, as Jesus had accused the Pharisees of teaching (Matt 23), but was the law of freedom (James 2:12) and a source of joy, as it had been celebrated in the Old Testament (Psalm 119). It did not judge those it affected, but provided mercy (2:13; cf. Psalm 19:7-14). As we will now see this royal law was tightly connected to the life of Jesus Christ.

To those accustomed to seeing James as a late work, it might be surprising to note the parallels between James and the words of Jesus from the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). It is possible to see a collection of references to Jesus in James. The contrast of the treatment of the rich and the poor in James 2:3 parallels Luke 16:19. The words of James 2:5 spring straight from the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3. His choosing of the poor to be rich in faith in that same verse calls to mind the widow’s offering in Luke 21:1-4. This linkage back to the gospels continues in 2:6 where James warns against the oppression of the poor by the rich. This theme echoes that of Jesus in Matthew 23:1-7. This pattern reaches its climax in 2:8-13 with the "royal law" of Matthew 22. It is important to see how this standard of behavior for the community is now so closely tied to the life of Christ.

One of the more puzzling aspects of James’ treatment of the law is how he could link favoritism with murder and adultery in chapter 2. Yet if we remember the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels this apparent leap is a natural progression. In Luke 16:14-17 Jesus addresses the Pharisees concerning adultery immediately before telling the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. More important is the story of the Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. As Jesus lists the commandments that are to be obeyed, Matthew alone records Jesus adding "love your neighbor as yourself" following the prohibitions against murder, adultery, and lying. The young ruler departs Jesus with sadness because of his inability to handle his wealth properly. This struggle with wealth and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor seems to be one of the major problems within the community that James is addressing. It appears that James is recalling these words of Jesus from the context of commandments which they are to follow, and includes the problem of favoritism toward the wealthy his expression of the law. Once again, the "law" is being reconsidered by the community in the light of the life of Christ and their own unique situation. In this sense, James is recovering the Old Testament sense of torah as ethical requirements for living out being God’s people in the world in response to the transforming work of God through Jesus.

These parallels with the Synoptic gospels, and especially with Matthew, are seen throughout James. James 3:18 reminds a reader of Matthew 5:9-10. James 4:11 and its warning against judging others parallels Matt 7:1-2. Even James 4:13 sounds much like Matthew 6:25-34. This is still unexpected. In this much-doubted book that has often been considered one of the last books of the Bible written, one sees a vibrant recollection of the teachings of Jesus. This is far from a book laden with legal "works righteousness" perspectives that many have slighted through the centuries. Instead, James can be seen as carefully worked-out theology that rests on the words of Jesus and in many ways acts as a companion to the Gospels.

It is this reconsideration of the law that makes James so unique among the latter part of the New Testament. The author does not describe a system in which works, or good deeds, enable humanity to come to Christ, but a lifestyle where obedience affirms and demonstrates the content of the faith we have. Even though Abraham had faith and believed God, it was his supreme act of obedience that reaffirmed the covenant that God had initiated. James 2:20-24 presents this obedient act as an example for the believers. Now believers can demonstrate the content of their faith through their behavior. In James believers are to demonstrate their faith not solely through inner personal piety and proper belief, but through right relationships within and through the community of faith. This is summed up in the "royal law" of 2:8: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (cf. Paul in Rom 13:8). James reminds his community that the behavior that demonstrates faith is the behavior that is obedient to God and lifts up others. Likewise, behavior that is obedient to God (love the Lord your God. . .) and lifts up others (love your neighbor. . . ) is behavior that demonstrates the content of a person’s faith.

Just as in Paul’s letters, James does not create a contest where faith battles against good deeds as a principle for salvation. James uses Abraham to demonstrate that a faith without deeds does not gain the approval of God. It is one thing for Abraham to say he believes God, and then have life continue as before. It is quite another for him to obey God and take his only son to the top of Moriah. This obedience was necessary for faith to be effective, complete, and for the covenant to be affirmed. Because of this act of obedience, in 2:22-23 James reminds his readers that Abraham was considered God’s friend. The obedience perpetuates a relationship. The letter of James should be seen as a description of those behaviors that complete faith, and further a relationship with God. This behavior does not earn salvation, but is an example of the law of freedom that seeks community and peace within the church.


As in the letters of Paul, the "law" is important in James. It somehow must be kept and is still the standard for human behavior. Yet it is not the law of Martin Luther that attempted to earn one’s way toward salvation. Rather, the law in James is the standard of behavior that best exemplifies faith and makes it complete, a recovery of the Old Testament concept of torah redefined in light of the new work of God in Jesus Christ. Far from being solely a standard of individual, personal piety, this law in James is expressed within and through the community. Those that possess faith are to treat and act toward each other in the manner that Jesus described. In this we are doers of the word, and experience the law that brings freedom.


1. Martin Dibelius, James, (Hermeneia: 1964) 2.

2. For a more detailed examination of this new perspective on James, see the impressive volume of Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, AB 37A (New York: Doubleday; 1995).

3. I use "James" to simply refer to the author of James, and not to argue that the author is James. For the arguments concerning the authorship of James, please refer to Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James, AB 37A (New York: Doubleday; 1995).

4. "The New Testament polemic against the law as a means of salvation is directed, not against the Old Testament, but against mistaken interpretations of the law in the first century, also prevalent today."  Terence Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation Commentary (John Knox 1991), 223.

5. For a full treatment of what is called "the new perspective on Paul" see James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1998), 354-59.

-Douglas Ward, Copyright © 2018 , Douglas Ward and CRI/Voice, Institute
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