Did James Understand Grace? 6 Reasons to Say Yes!

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.

32 Comments on Did James Understand Grace? 6 Reasons to Say Yes!

  1. I like where this is going. I look forward to the next installments.

  2. jeremy penwarden // February 9, 2011 at 8:50 pm // Reply

    I’m not certain this is a valid translation of James – but I’ll propose it anyway. Faith that isn’t outworked is dead. He says that to speak blessing to a hungry man, but not give him a burger is of no value. I say faith for healing that leaves the person sick is pointless.

    It’s clear that part of Jesus’ goal from grace is that we live holy. Paul wasn’t good with the moral lifestyle of the Corinthians, notwithstanding that Paul taught grace.

    The way I see it is that it’s the source of our lifestyle that’s the issue. If we start as sinners and try to live holy to become like Jesus it’s works. If we believe that we are already as holy as we can ever be and then live holy because of who we are, that’s faith.

    PS I’m agreeing with you Paul! I hope?!

  3. Hi Paul,

    I think it is great that you are trying to get into the person of James and ‘proof’ his understanding of grace – seeing that this is a discussion blog and the idea is to get people to discuss issues concerning our faith and the bible. I would however like to add something – maybe a little off the point: Somehow I think that everyone will find what they are looking for in James – if they looking for works then that is what they will find and if they seeking grace then grace they will find and will seek it at all cost. And this is what I think is important here – you are looking to find grace in the letters that James wrote! If we are convinced that Jesus has done ALL that is required then we would not interpret James as saying that we need to ADD our WORKS to gain our salvation – as that clearly contradicts the concept of grace and the FINISHED work of Jesus. Surely James must be talking about another justification by works, maybe something like – if you truly believe with your heart that Christ has done it all then your heart will be filled to such an extent that you cannot help but confess with your mounth and take that big first step on the water and attack that cancer in Jesus Name and bless your kids and…and…and…

    I don’t see James’ writing in a condemning manner, but rather in uplifting / motivating manner urging you to believe so you can ACT!
    Blessings

    • “I think that everyone will find what they are looking for in James.” The same could be said of Jesus. But I take your point. In fact, this comes up in part 4. If you have a legalistic mindset you will interpret James’s comments in Acts 21 on the basis of right and wrong and miss a larger issue.

  4. jeremy penwarden // February 10, 2011 at 8:28 pm // Reply

    When you say everyone will find what they are looking for in James, you’re presuming rather a lot of people. You’re presuming that they have defined their theology already and aren’t allowing it to be corrected by scripture.

    Second and as an opposing point, we get the foundations of our theology from the clear statements in scripture and from the overall teaching. So, for example, if we have doaens of scriptures that show God’s forgiveness is for the whole world and unconditional, then one isolated scripture appearing to say the opposite stands out. We then study it further to see what it was saying without contradicting the overall message.

    That is what people must do in studying James. So the question isn’t so much what James teaches, but how does it fit in with the vast body of teaching we have from Paul.

    WE have to presume that God made Paul the major contributor to the body of the New Testament post gospels.

    • Hi Jeremy,
      I am saying exactly that: people have been programmed to a certain theology which includes a good dose of human nature – self righteousness. So when they read James they get a warm feeling saying – aha I told you this grace thing is not all covering, you need to still add your works to it to make it complete. I grew up in a ‘legalistic’ christian church were the law was read before every sermon and I was told that God keeps a black book to record all my wrongdoings. When I came to the knowledge of what Christ did on my behalf and that I cannot add to it, it gave me such liberty, that I will at all cost seek to find that grace in every piece of scripture, because without it I will be completely lost ‘again’…and that I surely don’t want.

      The problem I have with too much scripture study is what happens if you happen to prove to yourself that it is not only grace, but grace + something, then you are lost, cause no-one can define ‘something’ you will seek and seek and strive and strive, but you wont make it. Now scripture study in the light of Jesus finished work – that’s a different story…

  5. As i started this grace journey I came to same point as Martin Luther: “Cut this thing out.”
    Now as I am growing in grace I figured out, you should not get confused easily by one or two scriptures that seem to contradict the grace message when you got a
    truckload of scripture that supports grace. There has to be a deeper reason in what the writer has to say.
    Paul: I love the heartmessage that comes between the lines. Youre a blessing.

    • I hear what you’re saying. I know many Christians would love to rip out most of the Old Testament too. But God doesn’t change, as James will tell you. No, the difficulties with James are like the difficulties with the Law – they are problems we have understanding the breadth of God and His nature of holiness. When we understand the law we can love the law, not because it tells us what to do, but because it reveals the character of God and His holiness. Condemnation is not its purpose, contrary to popular opinion. It condemns only when separated from its author. God is a God of mercy and grace and love. The Law reveals God’s nature. Rules are about justice, which is impersonal. But God adds mercy and grace because He is personal. The law, when properly understood in context, is a thing of utter beauty. One final thought on the law is this – the new covenant is this: that the law will be written on the hearts of the believers. How can the law be a bad thing if it is written on our hearts? What this means is that God implants His divine nature or character by indwelling with His Holy Spirit.

      James does not rail against grace by faith, he rails against hypocrisy wherein faith is claimed but not realized. Genuine faith changes, converts, renews, regenerates, make born again, or whatever phrase you want to use here. It changes us. We repent by turning from worldliness to Godliness with Godly sorry and submission to Lordship. This is the essence of obedience. James talks about the results of faith where Paul spends a lot of time talking about the nature of the faith itself. Perhaps this is why Peter said that Paul’s writings were difficult. James gets to the point by speaking of the results where Paul spends page after page fishing out an explanation of faith. They compliment each other perfectly, though Martin Luther and a great many others of reformed faith have difficulty seeing it.

      • jeremy penwarden // February 14, 2011 at 12:45 am //

        One has to remember too that Paul called the law – the ministry of death – which wasn’t a great advert for it. Paul also says that it was nailed to the cross and is obsolete.

        The law was good – it was a guardian ( in the ancient Roman meaning of the word – governess is our nearest) UNTIL Christ – but now that Christ has come we’re no longer under a guardian (the law).

        The Jerusalem counceil in Acts 15 confirms that gentiles are not to be put under the law.

        Please don’t miss these things Lance.

      • Jeremy, Thank you. I most certainly did not miss that. Please do not think I’m an advocate for “being under the law.” What I am advocating is proper understanding and context. Christ completed the legal requirements of the law and in that respect it is dead. But Jesus also said that not a jot or tittle would be erased even until the end of the world. Paul also said the law was perfect. There must be some understanding applied here. Jeremy, please don’t miss these things. I’m not talking about being under the law, I’m talking about the revelation of God’s character through the law. God’s character doesn’t change. The nature of righteousness and holiness never changes. We are not called to satisfy the law which is a created thing, but to love the Lord our God who is the Creator of all things. The law reveals God, but the law itself – which is to say the legal requirements – is not God. It is a distinction that many, both pro-law and anti-law, completely miss. Do you understand?

  6. jeremy penwarden // February 14, 2011 at 7:22 pm // Reply

    Lance – you misquoted Jesus. He said that nothing would pass from the law until ‘all is accomplished’ NOT ‘the end of the world’. On the cross He said ‘it is finished’ which in the light of Paul’s teaching on law was, I am convinced, the point in time when all was accomplished.

    Our New Covenant faith is built upon the premise that Jesus has accomplished everything and all we do is walk in it by faith.

    I certainly understand that the law isn’t God. I also understand that the lawe revealed God to the Jews. However, that was until Christ. We have no need for any other thing to reveal God to us now other than the One in Whom God is revealed – Jesus. Any other revelation is partial. He is complete.

    As to righteousness changing – there was a righteousness that is by the law that the Jews benefitted from for centuries but now a new righteousness ahs been revealed in Christ.

    And Jesus changed the righteousness of the law – by increasing, for example, the standard of adultery from act to thought. So whilst the nature of righteousness and holiness never changed, the nature of the REVELATION of these things has definately cahnged.

    So I respectfully suggest you re-consider your understanding of the place and fate of the law.

    • Jeremy,

      It looks like I mixed Mt 5:18 (which you referenced) with Lk 16:17 which says “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.” I came not to destroy but to fulfill the law. (Mt 5:17).

      God didn’t change. The law did. It is no longer an external thing to be obeyed, but an internal thing to be lived. Jer 31:33 says of the New Covenant: But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

      Ezekiel 36:26 speaks of it like this: And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

      Part of the problem we are having in our communication is the use of the word law. When I speak of Law I’m not speaking strictly of the codes of Moses. I’m speaking of the character of God, His divine teaching or instruction. The Hebrew word Torah which Identifies the books of Moses is translated law, but it actually includes “teaching” or “instruction” in its meaning. It is a guide to righteousness. It points to God. I agree that we are not required to observe feast days, get circumcised, or slaughter animals as sacrifices. We are, however, called to follow Christ. Christ observed and fulfilled the law, both in its technical details but more importantly in its demand for moral perfection.

      //And Jesus changed the righteousness of the law – by increasing, for example, the standard of adultery from act to thought. So whilst the nature of righteousness and holiness never changed, the nature of the REVELATION of these things has definately cahnged.//

      Yes, that’s a good approximation of my thoughts. I think we will agree if we can properly define our terms.

      I do not mean to sound legalistic, I am far from it. I merely state what seems obvious to me, that while we may not be bound to follow the ceremonial and outward strictures of Mosaic law, God’s law remains holy and perfect – all the more so by its fulfillment in our Lord, Jesus. It remains of great value for understanding God’s character and the fruits of both righteousness and sin. Sin leads to death, as Paul mentions (quoting Solomon). James repeats this as well (Jas 1:15). James and Paul were on the same page, as the author of this post has so eloquently demonstrated.

      • Hi there Lance and Jeremy,
        I think you will both agree if you look at the passage quoted above that ‘Jesus came not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it’. Surely that means it is still relevant – it is now only fulfilled and being made perfect through the work of Jesus on the cross. What the Law (on its own & through human nature) could not achieve (making us holy) Jesus achieved on our behalf. Lance, I must compliment you with your first explanation about the Law and God’s holiness above – well said! Although we are not saved by the Law or works it is still important to note that these are the ‘things’ that will flow from a changed heart – if you get what I am saying. I think it is important to first establish where your salvation comes from, because then you won’t be confused with writings like the ones mentioned from James. You will have the freedom to interpret these in the light of your salvation, meaning that nothing can condemn you, it can only encourage you and if you fail, please don’t be condemned, that is the freedom that Jesus came to give us.

  7. Greetings everyone…Paul…I agree w/your teaching but take it a step further….We are saved “unto GOOD works”, not DEAD works. These “Good Works” are in fact proof that we are “His”.
    Not to get or stay saved, or to claim righteousness, we are the righteousness of God in Christ already w/out any works, Praise Jesus!!!!
    But if you are doing “good works” purely out of the grace of God and for the Love of God, not out of self-righteousness but BECAUSE you are righteous I think is what Book of James is all about. James was indeed preaching grace to a point that what I just said will be a fruit of it and can only come with maturity or being perfected by Love.

  8. Gordon Wallis // February 22, 2011 at 10:06 am // Reply

    I read Gal. 1-9 and I don’t see the word hell

    • “As we said before, so I now say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel different from or contrary to that which you received [from us], let him be accursed (anathema, devoted to destruction, doomed to eternal punishment)!” (Gal 1:9 AMP)

      “We have said it before, and now I say it again: if anyone preaches to you a gospel that is different from the one you accepted, may he be condemned to hell!” (Gal 1:9 Good News Bible)

  9. My 2 cents if I may,

    God has always been interested in changing hearts. All of Jesus’ teachings were essentially expose’s on pieces of the law, teaching a self-righteous people that it was the position of the heart which mattered more than what they were doing. In other words, if you went outside and prayed so everyone could see your righteousness, you would be committing a prideful sin-even though you might be performing a “good work”.
    Paul teaches this same exact thing. It’s what’s in your heart that matters, it’s your faith that saves you and not your works.
    James goes on to say that if you don’t do good works, your faith is of no use. When you do good works it’s because you have faith-not because it saves you.
    Paul agees when he says that people will be judged according to their works.
    If you combine the 2 messages and hold them to the light of Christ’s teachings you will see that real faith leads to good works: works which come from a changed heart and not because of selfish pride. The works alone can never save, mindless rituals and endless recitations of heartless prayer can never save, but repentance, faith, and faithful works can.

    • jeremypenwarden // February 28, 2011 at 8:52 pm // Reply

      Daniel. You say that God has always been interested in changing hearts. Now there is some truth in that. But religion thinks that is a process which we are involved in. It is not. God uses transplant surgery. Takes out our heart, given us Jesus’. No process, just instant change.

      However, according to the words of Jesus, changing hearts isn’t His main priority. Actually it’s not explicitly on His priority list. Neither is intimacy with God. Sorry to ruin some people’s theology with the words of Jesus.

      Jesus told us very clearly why the Spirit of God was upon Him. What He was anointed for. Luke 4:18-19. That and that alone was His entire manifesto for His life. Anything else is adding to the words of Jesus.

      To certain of the early disciples he called them to bocome ‘fishers of men’. To take men out of the water environment and into air. Presumably when these fish die in the air they are brought back to life and given lungs!

      • Powerless, yes. Uninvolved, no.

        The passage you quoted, in its full context, is one where Jesus rebukes his countrymen. He says he is anointed proclaim the good news of liberty and in so doing declare his divinity. The passage isn’t so much about what He is doing but who He is. Elsewhere Jesus makes clear statements demanding obedience as well as faith. He demands participation, not through our power, but through submission to His. Mt 4:17.

        Salvation is a participation sport, though none can win without being on Team Jesus. Phil 2:13.

  10. James lacked a full vision of the Gospel of Grace. He had an incomplete gospel, but it was given to Paul to complete the Word (gospel) of God

  11. Dave O'Brien // April 10, 2014 at 12:11 pm // Reply

    Your opening premise is off, so everything else is off. If Paul does not have a different message than James, then it was never a mystery to James, and it was. The mystery was revealed to Paul, which logically concludes that everything preached before it was unknown. Two different messages about the Christ to two different groups of people, for two different reasons.

  12. Hi everyone! I thank you all for your wonderful comment its like a bible study note to me,what I have to say is I agree with the angle Paul is taking this to even though I still can’t wait to see other upcoming parts. I believe James understood grace since he even quoted Gen 15 that Abraham was justified by faith,I think the problem here is for us to understand what he meant by works as Paul has clearly stated in the series on James.
    When I first gave my life to christ I wouldn’t take time to pray or study I only did that the first week even thuogh I was told in church to pray and study hard but when Grace was preached to me by a friend we can’t help but study and pray.the point is this; now when am in church and they say we should study hard and pray not for once will I feel the way I used to because I know its my life even when I find myself praying or not. At a point I used to think the Apostle paul must be confused because he will be preaching Grace and before you know it he has said stuffs like; present your body a living sacrifice or if you continue you will be saved or stuffs like work your salvation. I was so confuse that I felt I needed only the Gospels of Jesus but now I see it differently. My point is if you’re really certain of where your stand EVEN IF A PERSON IS PREACHING WORKS YOU WILL BE HEARING GRACE!! So I believe the whole bible is preaching Grace even though I use to wish the writers were more clearer just to avoid misunderstanding. God bless you all

  13. The writer of this script is not wrong. what i feel James meant by work and faith is that, if you have faith you must exercise it (work). the act of exercising faith is the work. Abraham for example, the work he put in is, accepting to sacrifice his only son(Isaac) he got in his old age believing and trusting totally in God. what is the use professing faith when you cant put it to work. your strength and power will not save you, neither will your initiative. the bible says it’s not him that willeth or runneth but God that showeth mercy. over the years i had been beating up my self over a particular sinful addiction. whenever i do it i feel so terrible and feel like God had left me. i kept asking for forgiveness but that didnt stop me. but when i received revelation on grace. everything changed. all the struggles i had been through all the years to stop the act failed but the realization of Grace stopped it.

  14. The key to James is over the door….the people the book was written to ~ the twelve tribes who wear scattered. The book of James is not about being saved from sin, but from scattering. It is the practical application of reconciliation.

  15. In Acts 21:18-25, James clearly states that the Christian Jews were somehow still bound to the Law (traditions). James makes himself clear that the Gentiles were not under the Law, but he does not include the believing Jews… Grace and Peace!

      • Well, “they told Paul”… James was in the group, it seems that he approved them.

      • From those few words it’s a huge stretch to conclude that James put Christians under the law, especially given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary. Give James the benefit of the doubt. Compared to Paul, he had one tough assignment. Paul got to preach the gospel to Gentiles – easy. James had to preach it to religious Jews – tough! He faced incredible hostility and it ultimately cost him his life. But in terms of planting a church in the world’s most Jewish city James succeeded where others failed. He was a champion of the gospel and his message was a testimony of God’s grace.

  16. Remember James was sent to the 12 tribes, in Acts 21 and Acts 15 he excludes the Cristian-Gentiles from the Law, he never says that Christian-Jews were excluded as well. G&P

    • Again, there is zero direct evidence that James put Christians under the law or that he preached a different gospel and plenty of evidence that he didn’t. There aren’t two kinds of Christian, Jewish and non-Jewish, and there aren’t two gospels. If James preached another gospel Paul would not have submitted to his leadership while in Jerusalem.

      • Amen! I read this series of study and it was very enlightening. James is not a works or Law based preacher. Why would the Spirit speak through him by inspiration writing his epistle to the believers if he was preaching a different gospel?
        Hyper Grace has always been the gospel, Peter, James and Paul and John preached the gospel!

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