James – The Misunderstood Apostle

Do you think that James understood the gospel of grace that Paul preached? In a recent series I argued that the Epistle of James may be the most misunderstood book in the New Testament. Indeed, some of the scriptures (e.g., James 2:24), seem to preach salvation by works in apparent conflict with the gospel of grace. But if you read his letter through the lens of the cross, all becomes clear: James was a preacher of grace.

Since that series, however, several readers have written to me to ask about Acts 15 and Acts 21. Stories in these chapters seem to suggest that James did not understand grace well at all. In Acts 15 James seems to put law on the Gentiles by telling them to do stuff, while in Acts 21 James seems concerned that Paul is telling foreign Jews to turn away from the law. Unfortunately, there isn’t much written about James in the Bible, so it’s not hard to draw some very different conclusions about James. Here are three:

(1)    James never grasped grace – at best he was preaching mixture
(2)    James didn’t understand grace initially – he speaks and writes as one on a journey
(3)    James understood grace as well as Paul, but he wrote for a different audience (Jews, not Gentiles)

Why is this important?

Your opinion of James matters a great deal because James wrote part of the Bible. How you view James will inevitably affect how you view God’s word. For instance, if you think that James never understood grace (conclusion number 1 above), it will lead you to reject either grace or James. Neither is a good outcome! If you subscribe to conclusion number 2, you may dismiss his epistle as elementary teaching. You may think, “it’s not for me, I know better.” Maybe you do, but you’re skating on thin ice any time you start second-guessing God’s word. However, if you think James understood grace, as I do, you will heed what he says and be blessed.

As Christians are utterly divided on their view of James, allow me to address these different positions a little more closely.

Conclusion 1: James never grasped grace

If it’s not grace it must be works. If you think James preaches works and this leads you to do stuff to make yourself righteous, then you have set aside grace and made the cross of no effect. The choice seems to be James or Jesus. Martin Luther wasn’t having any of that so he decided to cut James’s epistle right out of his Bible. Problem solved! But it’s never a good idea to reach for the scissors any time you read something you don’t understand.

My strong view is that James did not preach salvation by works any more than Paul did, at least not works as some define the term. When James writes about works he provides clear examples of the types of work he has in mind. When he says “faith without works is dead” (2:20), he refers to the works of Abraham in the very next verse. It is likely that James was thinking of a conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees in John 8. In that passage Jesus clearly distinguishes the works of Abraham from the religious works of the self-righteous Pharisees. Then when James says “a person is justified by works and not faith alone” (Jas 2:24), he refers to the works of Rahab. The point is this: If we define works differently from James, we may miss his meaning and miss grace.

Conclusion 2: James didn’t understand grace at first

This seems to be the view of many scholars and some of my readers. They dismiss his epistle as elementary teaching or primitive Christianity. Was James contradicting Paul? No, they say, for he wrote his letter before Paul had written anything. James, bless his soul, was well-meaning but ignorant. Nice save, but there’s just one problem – we don’t know for sure when James wrote his epistle.

Scholars who say that James was written early tend to argue that James didn’t get grace. Ask them why they think James was written early and they say “because he didn’t understand grace.” Ask them why they think James didn’t understand grace and they say “because he wrote early.” This is circular reasoning. For all we know, James had a copy of Romans sitting on his desk when he penned his own epistle.

But while we don’t know when James wrote his epistle, we do have much more certainty about the timing of Acts 15 and 21. Take a look at James’ words in these two chapters and you might see a man who is little confused about the law. (I don’t see that, but you might.) In Acts 15 James writes to the Gentiles telling them to keep three requirements (abstain from idol food, blood and sexual immorality). Then in Acts 21, he tells Paul to get down to the temple, shave his head, make an offering, and act all legalistic so the local Jews will know there’s no truth to the rumor that Paul has been turning people away from Moses. I will take a closer look at both of these stories in Part 3 and Part 4 of this study.

Who was James?

Last year we looked for grace in the epistle from James. In this series, I want to look at James the man and ask, did James understand the gospel of grace? We don’t have much to go on, but be open to the possibility that James has been badly misjudged, that he’s no more an apostle of works than Paul was, and that he certainly wasn’t the primitive Christian that some have dismissed.

In my next post I will give you six compelling reasons from scripture supporting my view that James did indeed understand the gospel of God’s grace. Stay tuned – it’s going to be good!

9 Comments on James – The Misunderstood Apostle

  1. I wrote and published a book which is an in depth bible study based on the first chapter of James. Yeah, one chapter. I don’t pretend to be an expert on James, though, so don’t let that intro fool you.

    I think James and Paul were on the same page completely. Works of the law and works which are the fruit of the Spirit born of obedience are two different things. James advocates for the latter. So does Paul. However, Paul and James do put emphasis on different things. Some think Jesus and Paul preached different gospels, too, but of course that’s just as silly. I find nowhere in James does he advocate OT legalism. He advocates obedience. He very plainly shows what is expected of the believer. I don’t think that means the Jewish believer, it means [any] believer. Though of course Jas 1:1 does indicate the original intended audience was the Jewish population living away from Jerusalem (in the dispersion).

    Even Paul writes that salvation, while it is by faith, is not intended to be mental acknowledgment nor is it intended to end with belief and no action. Shall we go on sinning then, Paul asks? God Forbid! Paul exclaimed. In the very passage so oft quoted in Eph 2 where Paul proclaims we are saved by grace through faith and not by works of law, his very next sentence proclaims that we are saved to do the work of Christ. Jesus said if we love him we will obey him. Belief is not a mental exercise and it is not manifest by incantation. If you read Hebrews 11 and Gen 15 you’ll see that faith is manifest in obedience, not to the created law but to the Creator Himself.

    • “a person is justified by works and not faith alone” James. Unlike Martin Luther you are dancing around the fact that if it is works of Abraham, Rahab or The Comandments it is all works. James used the word “Justified”. That is one word we all can agree means to gain enternal life. The wonderful simplicity of the Gospel is it is active in to WHOM EVER BELIEVES. When ever we as man front load or back load the Gospel…as your post above seems to suggest…”the power of the Gospel is made void”.Joseph Prince. Law is anything added to our belief in Jesus’s completed work on the cross for our sins. As in another post on this site I with Luther can not except anything added to the Gospel. “Jesus+nothing =everything”. Tullian T. I have resolved to let this issue be a mystery until the Holy Spirit illuminates otherwise to me. Brother Ponder, a loving Spirit comes out through your written words. God Bless

      • Oh Paul, I am so sorry to see you completely misunderstand me. It isn’t that you’re saved BY works, rather you are saved FOR works. That was my point. James points to works as the fruit which indicates salvation, not causes salvation. Salvation isn’t a thing to be accomplished or believed – it is the person, the living Word, Jesus Christ. To know and put faith in Jesus is to know and trust in salvation and he promises he will accomplish what he said he would.

        Abraham’s actions betrayed his faith, as did the acts of Rahab and every other OT (and NT) person who is shown acting in obedience. Consider the story of the snake on a pole in Nu 21. Jesus mentioned this in his conversation with Nicodemus. All the people had to do be saved from the snakes was to turn their attention from the snakes around them and look at the snake raised up on the pole. Their act of turning was the act of faith. Was it the faith or the act which saved them? How can you divide faith from its fruit? I propose you cannot. If you do not believe that actions count, read the words in red in your bible again. Jesus was a man of action and, taking on the label “Christian,” we too are to be people of action – acting in faith, obedient to the Creator – not the created (law).

    • the work of faith is not the work of law, According to James, without the work of faith, the faith has no life, no soul, ,can not walk, and is incomplete, and a dead faith never saves. in Paul’s epistles, he rejected the work of law but recommended the work of faith., including confessing the name of Jesus, be baptized,. take off the old man and put on Jesus, and do everything in a new way. If you rejected the work of faith, you reject Jesus as well.

  2. So glad to find this and your other articles on James. I’m currently in a Bible study on James being led by a very popular teacher who certainly teaches grace in all of her other teaching. Although she has pointed out that James is a very highly regarded Jew and therefore addresses that culture she has not clarified the conflict/confusion I was feeling about his position on graces and how the scriptures from him seem mixed on grace and law. I started reading JP’s book after I started the James study and this hit me between the eyes during the third session – I’ve got stuff and question marks all over the margins.
    Thanks so much for doing this website. Your material on this and other topics has been so helpful! God Bless!

    • Thanks for the comment. I get all choked up when I hear people say “James didn’t get it.” Context is everything. Paul went super-Jewish on his rare visits to Jerusalem shaving his head and such and James had to live with these religious guys day in-day out. For me, the key thing is Paul’s reaction. If James had been confused, Paul would have said so. I can’t wait to meet James!

  3. I just wanted to comment that Martin Luther never cut the book of James from his translation of the Bible; he called it “an Epistle of straw”, a comment he left in his initial ‘Preface to the New Testament’, but he actually dropped the comment from later editions of his Bible. He even praises the book of James in his ‘Preface to James’.
    His main issue wasn’t so much the reconciliation between Paul & James, but the canonicity of the book of James itself. Like Jerome & others, he was unsure about the authenticity of the book, and didn’t consider James to be ‘James the Apostle’.

    Luther did remark that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile James and Paul at one point though😀 But he didn’t venture to reject James from the canon of Scripture, and actually earned his own beret if you like by effecting reconciliation. “Faith,” he wrote, “is a living, restless thing. It cannot be inoperative. We are not saved by works; but if there be no works, there must be something amiss with faith” [Here I Stand, pg 259, R. Bainton]

  4. when Jesus says:come with me, you must come, or you will lost. this “coming” is a work, an action of faith, a living faith, and a saving faith. no matter how sound is your doctrine, how sweet you feel about Jesus, remember this: on coming, no salvation. Coming means an irrevocable commitment to Jesus and follow him all the way. when you turn away, you lose everything. .

  5. And Paul had Timothy circumcised to deliver the message to believing congregations (incl. Jews) that circumcision was not necessary for salvation! (THAT is LOVE! Knowing that an uncircumcized messenger would be an “ear-closer” for Jewish potential converts.)

    Thank you, Paul. This has been helpful. James’ behavior and statements are guided by a heart for the Jews, still steeped in the law, with whom he lived “day-in-day-out”.

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