For hundreds of years, James the apostle has been given a bad rap. He’s been dismissed as an apostle of works and a primitive Christian who didn’t know grace. I have never heard anyone say that James preached pure grace. As far as I know, I may be the only one banging this drum.
But think, for a moment, about all those who have expressed negative opinions about James. Did any of those people have an encounter with the risen Lord like James did? Were any of them personal friends with Paul, the apostle of grace? Did any of them hear the gospel of grace preached straight from Paul’s mouth? Were any of them martyred for their faith and, if so, did they forgive their killers with their dying breath as James reportedly did?
There is much we don’t know about James. In Part 1 of this study I examined the popular view that James didn’t get grace, at least not initially. But in Part 2, I gave six good reasons why he probably did. Contrary to what you’ve heard, my strong view is that James was Paul’s equal when it came to understanding grace.
How, then, are we to account for his behavior in Acts 15 where he appears to lay law on the Gentile believers?
The Jerusalem Council
Is it a stretch to say that Acts 15 contains the minutes of the most important committee meeting in history? At first glance, this was a meeting about whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised. But the real issues were much larger. This was the first time the old covenant banged heads with the new in the New Testament church. It was a contest of covenants – law versus grace. Happily, grace won!
Here’s the back-story: Certain men went from Judea to Antioch preaching mixture (“snip the tip”) and the result was a full-blown blarney with Paul and Barnabas. The relevant parties all ended up back in Jerusalem to settle the issue. Those preaching mixture said “the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses” (v.5). But Peter stood up and said:
“No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (v11)
There is a danger here of missing the Big Point. The small point was this: should the Gentiles be circumcised? But the big point was this: on what basis are all of us – Jews and Gentiles – actually saved? For hundreds of years Jews had been drawing a big fat line between themselves and everybody else. They were separate. They were special. If the Gentiles wanted to join their club, they had to follow their rules. But Peter recognized that God was doing a new thing:
“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” (v8-9)
No longer would God relate exclusively to the law-abiding Jews, for Jesus had died for all men. And if Christ had died for the circumcised along with the uncircumcised, what did circumcision matter? As Paul would later write, “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” (Gal 5:6). There was no distinction, said Peter. God, who knows the heart, was already accepting Gentiles without any reference to the law.
And now to James…
After hearing both sides of the argument, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, announced his decision:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (v19)
James realized that God was doing something among the Gentiles and that his best course of action was to stay out of God’s way. He understood that circumcision and the laws of Moses were an obstacle to receiving the grace of God. In case we should be in any doubt about where he stood, James does five things to show he was 100% with those in the grace group:
(1) he acknowledges Peter’s testimony of God accepting the uncircumcised and law-less Gentiles (v14)
(2) he connects the current move of God with Amos’s prophecy describing the new covenant as one relevant to all Gentiles, i.e., those apart from the law (v16-18)
(3) he rejects the call for circumcision and, by association, the requirement to obey the law of Moses (v19)
(4) he co-authors a letter to the Gentiles distancing himself from those unauthorized men who had gone out and troubled them by what they said (v24)
(5) lest his words be lost in translation, James chose to send his letter with “our dear friends Barnabas and Paul” (v25)
This was a devastating blow for those in the circumcision group! They were left with nothing. They had asked for the Gentiles to be circumcised but were now being told that their own circumcision counted for naught. They had asked that the Gentiles be held to the law of Moses, but were now being told that salvation was by grace alone. You can just imagine Paul and Peter high-fiving. Game over. Grace had won!
But what about the three requirements?
Having declared his position on the issue of grace versus law, James makes three requests which are subsequently added to the letter sent to the Gentiles:
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” (v28-29)
It is astonishing to me that people have used this one verse to infer that James was preaching law. He had just indicated in five separate ways that he is on the side of grace. How more clear could he have been? Yet because of the three small requirements listed at the end of this letter, some have concluded that James was confused about the basis of our salvation.
So what was James thinking? Didn’t he know that 21st century Christians would get confused? We will let James speak for himself:
“Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (v20-21)
James was not laying law on the Gentiles; he was showing grace to Jews.
James knew that there would be a synagogue in every Gentile city. For the sake of the Jews, James asked the Gentiles to be sensitive to these well-known aspects of the law, namely food and sex. Paul was of the same mind. He wrote an entire chapter advising the Corinthians not to eat food sacrificed to idols. Paul wasn’t preaching law to the Corinthians; he was trying to win those who had weak consciences:
“We are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor 8:8-9)
James said the Gentiles should avoid sexual immorality. So did Paul (Rms 13:13, Col 3:5) and he got very agitated when they didn’t (1 Cor 5:1). It is a bad witness indeed when believers fool around with sex. It shows that we are still enslaved to our sinful natures and no different from those who live in darkness (Gal 5:19, Col 3:5). Jesus died to make us holy, so live holy.
Finally, we should note that James’ letter to the Gentiles was not actually penned by James, but by the “apostles and elders” (v23). It is as much Peter and Paul’s letter as it is James’s. So if James is preaching law, then so are Peter and Paul. But he’s not and back then no one thought he was. When the letter was read out in the church at Antioch, the people were “glad for its encouraging message” (v30). The grace of God, revealed through James, Peter and Paul, is still encouraging us today.
In Part 4 of this study, we will look at some of the strange things James seems to say in Acts 21.