James – Preacher of Grace

James_preacher_of_graceIt seems everyone has an opinion about James and how his letter fits (or doesn’t fit) into the New Testament. I thought I had heard everything, but this week, one of my readers sent me Scofield’s take on the book of James:

“..his epistle shows no trace of the larger revelations of the church and the distinctive doctrines of grace made through the apostle Paul…”

The implication being that James was not on the same page as Paul when it came to the gospel of grace. Their letters do not line up because James did not get it.

I can understand how a superficial glance at one or two verses in James might give you this impression. But do you really believe that 26 books in the New Testament preach the same gospel message while James preaches another? Paul said if anyone preached a gospel different to his, that person should be condemned to hell (Gal 1:9). If James is preaching something fundamentally different from Paul, then the NT writers are a house divided. And if the writers of the Bible do not agree with each other, then the Bible cannot be trusted.

I take a different view.

In this series on James, I have maintained that Paul and James were very much on the same team. I have dropped a few clues here and there, but now it’s time to lay all my cards on the table. To do that I’m going to present some scriptures side-by-side to show that not only were Paul and James on the same wavelength, but they preached the good news exactly as Jesus modeled it. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. It is His gospel that the New Testament writers proclaimed.

To give you a quick example, take a look at what Jesus, Paul and James have to say to people who do not perceive their need for God’s grace:

Jesus: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev 3:17)
Paul: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God…” (1 Tim 6:17)
James: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.” (Jas 5:1)

If wealth is the source of your identity and security, that’s a three-way blast of truth right there. Boom, boom, boom! If you only read the red letters of the Bible, you’re going to get the message. If you only read Paul’s letters, you’re going to get the message. If you only read James’s epistle, you’re going to get the message. You can’t miss it.

And that’s just the beginning.

As we will see in this little safari through scripture, things that were important to Jesus, were also important to Paul and James. Below is a list of 12 statements that you might hear from any grace preacher. Under each statement I have pasted sound bites from Jesus, Paul and James showing their complete agreement on the essential elements of the gospel. They may say things a little differently, but they are saying the same things.

1.    The law is good and demands perfect obedience

Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them… Be perfect…” (Mt 5:17,48)
Paul: “It is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’” (Gal 3:10)
James: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (1:10)

2.    The law (which enslaves) reveals our need for Jesus (who frees us)

Jesus: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me… Abide in me…” (Jn 5:39, 15:4)
Paul: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Rms 8:2), “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Co 3:17)
James: “But he that fixes his view on the perfect law, that of liberty, and abides in it … shall be blessed.” (1:25, Darby)

3.    Your choice: the world or His kingdom

Jesus: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Mt 16:26)
Paul: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?…Therefore come out from them and be separate….” (2 Cor 6:14,17)
James: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God?” (4:4)

4.    The good news: God offers you His unmerited favor!

Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)
Paul: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Eph 2:8)
James: “But He gives us more grace… God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (4:6)

5.    So trust in the gospel…

Jesus: “Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15)
Paul: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…” (Rms 1:16)
James: “Humbly accept the word planted in you which can save you.” (1:21)

6.    …and repent – change the way you think and live.

Jesus: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Mt 7:24)
Paul: “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.” (Acts 26:20)
James: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says… Faith without works is dead… Submit to God… Come near to God.” (Jas 1:22, 2:17, 4:7-8)

7.    It is not about you – it is God who makes us acceptable…

Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (Jn 3:17)
Paul: “Giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints.” (Col 1:12)
James: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and He will lift you up.” (4:10)

8.    …but don’t delay; there are consequences for rejecting God’s grace.

Jesus: “If you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins.” (Jn 8:24)
Paul: “For God has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.” (Acts 17:31)
James: “For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant… In the same way, the rich man will fade away…” (1:11)

9.    He wants to live His abundant life through you…

Jesus: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (Jn 10:10)
Paul: “… how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” (Rms 5:17)
James: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).

10.    …giving you victory in all things…

Jesus: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (Jn 16:33)
Paul: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rms 8:37)
James: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray… The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (5:13,16)

11.    …and enabling you to do the mighty works of God.

Jesus: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these.” (Jn 14:12)
Paul: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10)
James: “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (2:22)

12. Now go and tell others the good news of God’s grace!

Jesus: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mk 16:15)
Paul: “Do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Tim 4:5)
James: “Remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (5:20)

As you can see, James was not marching to the beat of a different drummer. He only wrote two letters that we know about (the other one is in Acts 15), but his message was essentially the same message that Jesus lived and Paul preached.

One last thing: Theologians have long noted that James never quotes Jesus. Except that he did – he just didn’t do it in his letters. In the years just prior to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, many Jews put their faith in Christ swelling the ranks of the early church. This did not go down well with the Pharisees and scribes, so they seized James and took him to the top of the temple where they threatened to throw him down if he did not declare that Jesus was not the Messiah. When James cried out that Jesus was the Son of God, they cast him down. James didn’t die straight away, so they began to stone him. James died on his knees praying for those who were killing him. His last words were, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Now who does that remind you of?

I have heard it said that a head injury will turn a decent man into a profane man. There is something about pain which shatters religious masks revealing our true character. So what is it that moves a man to pray for his enemies even as they are stoning him to death? Is it not the supernatural grace of God? Don’t tell me that James didn’t “get it” when it comes to grace, or that his letter is misleading. Read James through the finished work of the cross and you can’t help but see Jesus.

8 Comments on James – Preacher of Grace

  1. Dear Paul,
    Thank you so much for sharing this great post! It is so refreshing and revealing the Good News! I am blessed!

  2. Hi Paul, I’m new to your website and just looking around, but this article caught my attention.

    I think something to remember when we look at the book of James is when was it written. Most agree it was the first book written, probably a year or so before the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). So the question you have to ask is: ‘did James understand the gospel before the council of Jerusalem?’ When you read the account, it’s clear that he didn’t, nor did most of the leaders in the Jerusalem church. So if he wrote his letter a year before this event, do you think he understood the fullness of the gospel then?

    Just thought I’d throw the idea over to you and let you chew on it. My take on it is James is in the bible to show us what a preacher will be like who is zealous for God, but lacks the understanding of the reality of the new coveant of grace alone, and so also is zealous for the law. Basically all the dodgy doctrines of the instiutional church are taken from James.

    Anyway, like I said, just thowing some ideas out there. Have a great day mate.


    • G’day Mick, thanks for dropping by.

      Another reader made a similar comment about the date-thing after reading my first post in the James series, and it’s a point I also address in Part 6 of the study. Did James understand the gospel of grace? Hopefully it’s clear that my view is Yes! But did he understand it at the time of the Jerusalem Council (when he wrote his first letter: Acts 15:24-29)? Good question. My view is that he did.

      I agree that James would’ve been under pressure to mix in law in that first letter (afterall, he had bona fide Pharisees in his church!). Indeed, James does appear to add law to what is otherwise a gracious letter when he outlines his three requests at the end: no idol food, no blood, no fooling around with sex.

      But is this really law or is it just a shepherd giving advice? Five verses earlier James makes plain that his view is not “you must be circumcised and keep the law.” So either he’s contradicting himself, or he’s done a segue, much like Paul does between Colossians 2 and 3.

      What I find intriguing is how Paul remembers the council in Gal 2:10. He says nothing about the three requests but mentions that the Jerusalem leaders “desired only we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do.” Is this law too? No, it’s a picture of the life of Christ in us.

      Paul gave many illustrations of the life Christ desires to live through us. It would be just as easy to make law out of Paul’s examples as James’s examples and many do. There are plenty of dodgy doctrines taken from Paul’s writings (submission issues, accountability abuses, etc.). We don’t blame Paul for these so why blame James for the others?

      Your conclusion – that James is in there to show us what zealous but unwise preaching looks like – flows logically from your premise that James didn’t understand the fullness of grace. The implication is that we don’t really need to take James all that seriously. Sure, he had a private meeting with the risen Lord and hung out with Paul and Peter, but we know the gospel better than he did. But are you sure? To dismiss James as zealous but naïve seems a little risky to me.

      My view is that James is just fine – inspired even – and that the problem lies not with the text but with the traditional lens through which that text is read. That’s why I wrote this series – to get people to change the lens and find the grace and liberty that James knew and wrote about.

      Anyway, I wrote far more than I intended and I hope my response doesn’t stop you from coming back! Of course I could be wrong about all this, but hopefully I made you think. You certainly made me think. I hope you have a great day too!

  3. You didn’t deal with Acts 21 where it shows what James taught. He was son of hagar according to Galatians and clung to the wrong covenant, and was in bondage. Notice the Zealous Jews of the law at Jerusalem, and their hatred toward Paul in Acts 21, and 22. James told Paul to show the Jews he did walk orderly in the law.

  4. Theodore A. Jones // June 9, 2011 at 2:06 am // Reply

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

    • Theodore – cutting and pasting scriptures does not advance the conversation in any meaningful way. If you have something of your own to say, please say it.

      It’s a little off-topic, but for my own thoughts on Romans 2:13 please click here.

  5. good one, hoping to see you teaching the whole book of James 1 day. Maybe u shud make commentaries for the book of James.

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