Your opinion of James matters a great deal. If you think James was confused about the gospel of grace that Paul preached, then you might as well throw your Bible away. If James is preaching a different message from Paul, then the NT writers are a house divided. And if the writers of the Bible do not agree with each other on basic issues of salvation, then the Bible cannot be trusted.
The good news, though, is that the Holy Spirit did not make a mistake when He inspired James to write his letter to the twelve tribes. As we saw in our study of the Book of James last year, his message is the same as the one Jesus lived and Paul preached.
But what of James the man? Why are Christians so divided on James himself?
In Part 1 of this study I identified three different opinions that you can have of James. Either (1) he didn’t understand the gospel of God’s grace, (2) at least not initially, or (3) he did. Before you read on, ask yourself, which of these has been my opinion of James?
The common view seems to be that James preached works while Paul preached grace. In other words, they did not agree. Paul said “faith alone” but James said “faith plus works.” You’ve probably heard clever people try to reconcile these statements. Usually they do so by adding to Paul’s words. Well of course Paul meant faith plus works, they say. There are always works associated with faith. Yet on many occasions Paul clearly said it was faith or works (see Rms 9:32 and Eph 2:8-9 for starters). It can’t be both, so which is it?
I addressed the works issue in my earlier study. Today we’re taking a different angle. We’re going to play the man rather than the ball, and my question is this: Did James understand the gospel of grace that Paul preached? Did he personally stand on the radical, pure, unalloyed grace of God? For 2,000 years the answer has been “probably not” or “no” or “maybe a little bit.” I have not read a single commentary that says James fully understood grace.
My view is that James has been misjudged. I admit the evidence is thin, but here are six reasons why I believe James probably did understand grace:
1. James, like Paul, had a one-on-one encounter with the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:7)
Prior to seeing the risen Lord, both James and Paul had been opposed to Christ (Jn 7:2-5). Paul tried to take Christians by force, while James tried to take Christ by force (Mk 3:21). Paul had been an enemy of Christ but became one of his greatest followers. He spent the rest of his life testifying to the gospel of God’s grace (Acts 20:24). We know little about James’ encounter, but why do we assume his transformation was any less remarkable than Paul’s? Think about it: James had a divine encounter with Grace personified! Give God a little credit for the effect He probably had on James.
2. Paul vouched for James
Only one person in the New Testament called James an apostle and it was Paul (Gal 1:19). After their respective encounters with the risen Lord, Paul became known as an apostle to the Gentiles, while James, like Peter, became an apostle to the Jews (Gal 2:9). Paul and James were long-term friends. On Paul’s first visit, James extended the “right hand of fellowship.” On a later visit James referred to Paul as a “dear friend” (Acts 15:25). Can you really imagine Paul being a long-term friend with a self-righteous grace-killer? Do you think it was possible to be friends with Paul and remain unaffected by his message of radical grace?
3. Paul never blamed James for Peter’s back-step
Peter withdrew from the Gentiles after “certain men came from James” (Gal 2:12). This makes it sound as if the men were representing James. But Paul clarifies that these men “belonged to the circumcision group” (Gal 2:12) which James opposed in Acts 15. We should not confuse the certain men from James with James himself. Yes, they were in his church, but they held to a different message. James distanced himself from these men when he wrote that “some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said” (Acts 15:24). Paul was not one to shy away from a confrontation. When Peter got a little muddled, Paul opposed him to his face. If James had been preaching mixture, Paul would’ve said so. Yet Paul never says a bad word about James.
4. James was intimately familiar with Paul’s message
Some have written to me saying that James was ignorant of the gospel of grace that Paul taught, but the Bible says otherwise (see Gal 2:2). Unlike those of us who’ve merely read Paul’s gospel, James heard it straight from Paul’s mouth! And he glorified to God when he learned of its fruit (Acts 21:20).
5. James did not compel Titus to be circumcised (Gal 2:3)
Yes, James asked the Gentiles to do three things in Acts 15 (more on this in Part 3), but circumcision was not one of them. For any law-abiding Jew, circumcision was the key issue. What was the point of obeying only parts of the law if you refused to be circumcised? Nowhere does James preach circumcision.
6. Paul submitted to James’ counsel
Paul said if anyone preached a gospel different to his, that person should be condemned to hell (Gal 1:9). If James preached a different gospel from Paul, there’s no way Paul would have gone along with the purification vow in Acts 21. Paul, like any grace preacher, was highly sensitive to mixture. He smelled it out in Galatia from hundreds of miles away. Yet when James says, “go shave your head,” Paul does it! People have said to me that James was still learning about grace, but Paul wasn’t. Acts 21 comes near the end of Paul’s life. It is inconceivable that Paul would’ve done anything to send a mixed message about the cross. His motive for doing go through with the rite must have been the same as James’ motive for suggesting it: he wanted to win Jews. (More on this in Part 4.)
As we will see in the final two parts of this study, there is actually no evidence to suggest James preached mixture, but considerable evidence to suggest he held to grace. This is a radical departure from the traditional view, so let me ask you: are you yet convinced that James understood grace?
Of course it’s perfectly fine to hold a different view from me as long as you are prepared to accept the consequences. The fact is we don’t know for sure what James was like. But one day we will know and if it turns out that I have been wrong about James – that he was, in fact, confused about grace – then he may thank me for thinking the best of him. Afterall that’s what love does – it thinks the best of others (1 Co 13:7).
But if I’m right about James, then those of you who have dismissed him as irrelevant or confused might be embarrassed when you finally meet him.
Just something to think about.