Tag Archives: Law

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:14-26

James(I know it is late Monday, but I will keep the regular title of this post for continuity’s sake!)

Read James 2:14-26

Before I tackle this passage verse-by-verse, I want to stand back a little to get an overview of some the issues connected with this most central and most controversial of sections in James’ letter. The central message is unambiguous, being repeated three times: “faith without works is dead” (2:26; cf. vv. 17, 20). The issue is not so much understanding what James has said, as it is the apparent conflict between what James says here and what is said in other New Testament texts, especially Paul. A comparison of two key texts sets the issue in stark relief:

James 2:14, 21          
What use is it, brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but he has not works? Can that faith save him? … Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

Romans 3:28
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

The centrality of the doctrine of justification by faith for Luther, and in Protestantism generally, caused Luther famously (or perhaps infamously) to relegate James to the least of the books in the New Testament:

Which are the true and noblest books of the New Testament? … In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it (Luther, “Preface to the New Testament” in Lull, T. F. (ed.), Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, 116-117).

Many Christians have for centuries followed Luther’s lead, subordinating James to Paul and as a result not hearing James’ distinctive message as clearly as they might. Some modern scholars have suggested that the New Testament documents represent different forms of Christianity; thus Paul’s writings express the faith and experience of a law-free Gentile church, while James expresses the faith and experience of a law-affirming Jewish Christianity (see Moo, 45, who cites as an example, Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 251-252). The question we face is whether there is a fundamental disjunction between the message of James and that of Paul, with respect to this central issue.

The major part of the problem revolves around the language and imagery used by James, including the key terms faith, works and justified, as well as his use of Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his works. Paul uses these same terms in his letters when discussing justification, and also uses Abraham as an example of one who is justified on account of his faith without any works. A careful examination of the passage, however, shows that James and Paul are approaching this topic from different directions and use the same terminology in different senses.

Thus, when Paul speaks of faith, he has in mind personal, whole-of-life commitment and allegiance to Jesus Christ. James, too, can speak of faith in this sense (cf. James 1:3, 6-8; 2:1, 5; 5:15). But in this passage, James is speaking of “faith” in an entirely different sense: he is speaking of one who claims to have faith, probably understood in the sense of right-belief, but whose life shows no evidence of genuine whole-of-life allegiance to Jesus. In this case, their life contradicts their profession. James mocks this kind of “faith” which is limited to doctrinal correctness: “the demons also believe!” (v. 19). For James, this kind of mental assent which does not penetrate to the heart and find expression in the concrete action of life, is no faith at all.

When Paul speaks of “the works of the Law” he usually has in mind the ceremonial works including such things as circumcision, Sabbaths and holy days, food laws, etc., although it is also true that he repudiates all and any kind of work whether ceremonial or moral as the basis of one’s justification by God (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9). But, and this is important, Paul never diminished the abiding validity of the moral demand of the law. So in passages such as Galatians 5:6 (“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love”) or 1 Corinthians 7:19 (“Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God”) we find a message very similar to that which James presents in this passage. Significantly, James appears entirely unconcerned about the issue of circumcision, perhaps because he was writing to Jewish Christians. More importantly, however, and despite the portrayal of James in Acts 21:18-26 and Galatians 2:12 as one who continued as a law-abiding Jew even as a Christian, in his letter James never appeals to or affirms any aspect of the ceremonial law, even while he assumes the continuing validity of the law itself. Even in this passage, James’ emphasis is on works of mercy toward the poor—continuing the theme of 2:1-13, the work of obedience to God in the case of Abraham, and faith itself as a work in the case of Rahab. The key for James is that genuine faith is active, issuing in obedience to God.

Finally, James and Paul are using the term “justified” (dikaioō) in different ways, something also illustrated in their different appeals to the example of Abraham. Paul speaks of justification as one’s initial transfer into right relationship with God on the basis of Christ’s atoning death, received through faith, just as Abraham also was justified by God on the basis of his faith prior to receiving the covenant sign of circumcision. James in this passage is speaking of one’s ultimate justification at the final judgement where the authenticity of one’s faith is demonstrated by the works and activity of one’s life (so Moo, 46-47; Seifrid, “Righteousness” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, 624). Thus, although Abraham was initially accepted into right relationship with God, his faith was tested and proven—even by God—over the course of his life, and so demonstrated as genuine.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:12

JamesJames 2:12
So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

In verses 12-13 James brings his discussion of partiality in the congregation to a climax. Because partiality is a violation of the love command, and because violation of the law in a single aspect renders one guilty of the whole law, his hearers are to “so speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty” (houtōs laleite kai houtōs poieite hōs dia nomou eleutherias mellontes krinesthai).

The double use of houtōs (“so”) serves to emphasise James’ point, as well as tie the exhortation to the clause which follows; that is, houtōshoutōshōs (so speak and so act as those…). Laleite and poieite are both present imperatives, and together cover the whole of the believer’s public life—their speech and their activity. All they say and all they do is to be said and done in light of the coming judgement.

The prominence and severity of judgement as a New Testament theme is often under-estimated by believers in the contemporary church, nurtured as we are on a vision of a gracious and merciful God. Yet the reality of divine judgement is central to the New Testament vision, being found in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, Hebrews, Jude and James, and providing the rationale for the proclamation of the gospel. In 4:12 James will affirm that “there is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.” In 5:9 he warns that “behold, the Judge is standing right at the door.” In verses 9-11 he implies the theme of judgement by referring to his hearers as “transgressors,” and speaking of those who are liable for the whole law. For James, this judgement is certain, and probably in his mind, imminent. His congregation, along with all believers, are certain to face the judgement (mellontes krinesthai).

This judgement will be in accordance with “the law of liberty” (dia nomou eleutherias). James has used this phrase already in 1:25, and its use again here suggests that the whole section on partiality be considered together with James’ discussion of true religion and active Christianity. In our discussion of the phrase in 1:25, we found that the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (Davids, 100). Important also is James’ reference to the “royal law” in 2:8, identifying the love command for one’s neighbour as the centre and sum of the whole law. So, too, in verse 13, he will summarise this law in the single term “mercy.” If the coming judgement is the lens through which we are to conduct our lives, the law—especially the love commandment, and its enactment through concrete practices of mercy toward the poor—is the measure by which our lives will be measured.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:10-11

JamesJames 2:10-11
For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here James defends his earlier assertion that those who practise partiality are “transgressors” (parabatai), which as we have seen, was a loaded and possibly offensive accusation for a Jewish audience. Whereas in verses 8-9 he uses direct address (“If you…” – second person plural), here he shifts to third person singular with the subjunctive to indicate a hypothetical situation: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point…” (Hostis gar holon ton nomon tērēsē ptaisē de en heni).

James assumes that his listeners in the messianic congregation are, like himself, Torah observant, aiming to “keep” the law as an expression of the divine will, to practise it, and to guard it from violation. His emphasis on the whole law was typical in Judaism and in at least some sectors of the early church. Jesus taught that “not an iota, not a dot” in the law can be overlooked, and even the “least of these commandments” must be kept (Matthew 5:18-19). So, too, Paul noted that the obligation of one who accepted the law was to the whole law (Galatians 5:3). Behind this sense of the unity of the law is the unity of the one lawgiver (James 4:12). The will of the one God is expressed in the one law, of which each command and instruction is a constituent part. Therefore to fail in one point—in this case, the command against partiality (Leviticus 19:15), itself a part of the love command which is the centre and sum of the law’s requirement—is to “become accountable for all of it” (gegonen pantōv enochos). Simply put, because the law is the singular expression of the will of God, to stumble or falter in one aspect of it, no matter how small or insignificant, is to become answerable or liable (enochos) to the whole law.

James extends his explanation with a specific illustration in verse eleven. “For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder’” (Ho gar eipōn, Mē moicheusēs, eipen kai, Mē phoneusēs). The first point to note here is James’ conviction that God has spoken his commandments, specifically these commandments found in the so-called second table of the Decalogue. As such, the commandments are the expressed will of God. Second, although the commandments are in themselves distinct, they express the one will of the one God. Third, we note that James has here reversed the order of the sixth and seventh commandments, though this reversal is probably insignificant (cf. Paul in Romans 13:9; and Luke’s report in 18:20). More interesting is why James chose to illustrate his point with these particular commands. The on-going relevance of the Decalogue for the New Testament church, and especially the “second table” is undoubted, and as we have already noted, the commands against murder and adultery are specifically mentioned multiple times by different authors. In Jesus’ list of antitheses, these two commands occupy pride of place, although in their usual order (see Matthew 5:21-30). James will also allude to both commands again in chapter four, verses two and four:

You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. … Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

In this text, at least with respect to adultery, James uses it as an analogy for his hearers’ relation to God. Spiritually speaking, they are adulterers. Is James similarly accusing them metaphorically, of murder? Certainly there are disputes, quarrels and disunity among them, which Jesus insisted was a violation of the seventh commandment (Matthew 5:21-26). It may be that James is extending the analogy that Jesus has already drawn: just as anger and insults constitute a violation of righteousness indicated in the murder command, so any failure to love one’s neighbour is a similar violation.

“Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (Ei de ou moicheueis phoneueis de, gegonas parabatēs nomou). Thus, the violation of the law at a single point—here the love command—makes one a transgressor. For James, obedience to the law is an all-or-nothing proposition, and his hearers’ partiality against the poor has rendered them guilty before God.

Two final points are needed here lest I leave a wrong impression. First, James is making a rhetorical point here in order to accuse his hearers and hopefully stimulate a change of their behaviour with respect to the poor. Thus, his reference to keeping the “whole law” must be understood in terms of the illustration he is giving, rather than as a theological point in which he insists that Christians must keep the whole Mosaic law, including the ceremonial detail and so on (see my comment on 1:25 and 2:8 where I explore James’ understanding of the ongoing relevance of the law in the life of the messianic congregation). Second, James is not commending a heroic spirituality of moral perfectionism. He knows as well as any that such perfection is impossible. While he insists on ethical rigor with respect to our relation to God’s will, he is also aware that it is only by grace that we stand in the presence of God (4:6-10), and that we remain ever in need of God’s forgiveness which thankfully, is also freely offered (5:16-20).

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:9

JamesJames 2:9
But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

This verse is a second conditional clause answering the first conditional clause given in verse eight. There, James has said that “if you love your neighbour, according to the Scripture, you do well.” Here, he poses the contrary condition, pressing home the point he has been making since verse one: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin…” (Ei de prosōpolēmpteite, hamartian ergazesthe).

The Greek term translated “acts of favouritism” in verse one is the same as that translated “partiality” here, thus uniting the whole section. Just as favouritism is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ, so it is also incompatible with the royal law of love which is the centre and sum of the whole law, and the most complete expression of the divine will. Whereas the one who loves their neighbour “does well,” the one who shows partiality is “committing sin.” It is worth noting that the verbs in the second conditional statement, like those in the first, are also in the present tense and so also imply enduring action. So Vlachos suggests that prosōpolēmpteite depicts a pattern of prejudicial behaviour (79). James names this bluntly for what it is: sin, a form of behaviour contrary to and in violation of God’s will as it is revealed in the Scripture.

Many commentators note that James need not journey far from the Levitical love command to find a specific prohibition against partiality; the two commands occur in the same passage:

You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour (Leviticus 19:15).

To love one’s neighbour includes treating them with justice, and specifically, without partiality. To the degree that James’ hearers practice favouritism, they set themselves at variance with God’s expressed command: they “commit” sin. We have previously met ergazesthe in our discussions of 1:3 and 1:20, where it carries the sense of produces. The person is working and productive, but these are not the good works James will go on to commend, but an evil work springing from an evil heart (v. 4).

Not only is the partial person committing sin, they are also “convicted by the law as transgressors” (elegkomenoi hypo tou nomou hōs parabatai). The same law which is expressive of the divine will now acts as judge against those who violate its commandments. James again presses his primary point: in showing partiality, you are convicted; you have become transgressors of the law. Parabatai denotes a direct violation of a known command (Vlachos, 79), and as such constituted serious rebellion for the Jew and the Jewish Christian. Such a person was throwing off the divine yoke, and placing themselves instead under divine judgment (Davids, 116). McKnight (210) concludes, then, that acts of partiality in the congregation have a twofold effect, first releasing the destructive power and agency of sin to work in the midst of the congregation (cf. 1:14-15), and second, conferring the status of transgressors upon those who act in this way.

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:8

JamesJames 2:8
You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (NRSV)

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ you are doing well. (NASB)

To recap: in verse one James provides the imperative which governs the first half of the chapter: no partiality! Partiality in the Christian congregation is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ because (a) God has chosen the poor of this world (v.5); (b) the rich who some in the church are favouring are also those oppressing the church and blaspheming the name of Jesus (vv. 6-7); (c) partiality issues from an evil intent and divides the church (v.4). That verses 8-13 continue this theme is evident especially in verse nine where James again directly refers to partiality and labels it as sin. These verses provide additional theological reasons to support his initial imperative.

The two translations of verse 8 are both possible. Ei mentoi (“if, however,” or “if you really”) sets up a conditional statement which is then contrasted with a second similar condition in verse nine. Mentoi appears seven times in the New Testament and in each of the other six, it is translated “however.” If understood in this way, James is probably drawing a contrast with the accusation of verse six, “But you have dishonoured the poor man…” and so exhorting them to a better path. Many translations and commentators, however, prefer the second possibility which sets up the contrast with verse nine in a more thoroughgoing way: “If you really fulfil … but if you show partiality…” Both translations are acceptable and nothing of significance hangs on either one.

The point in question concerns if they “are (really) fulfilling the royal law” (ei mentoi nomon teleite basilikov). Teleite, second person present plural of teleō, means to “accomplish” or “to observe fully.” The verb appears in the present tense suggesting continuous or enduring action, and so calls James’ hearers to observe habitually and completely the law in its entirety. James further identifies this law as royal (basilikon), thus designating it the “king’s” law, or perhaps better in view of his reference in verse five to the kingdom (basileia), the “law of the kingdom.”

It is tempting to apply this phrase “royal law” to the single command James now highlights: “according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (kata tēn graphēn, Agapēseis ton plēsion sou hōs seauton). Understood as such, it may suggest that this is the only command that one need be concerned with. In verses 10-11, however, James goes on to insist that his hearers are accountable for the whole law, thus showing a more complex relation to the law. Some commentators, such as Vlachos (78), suggest that the law here refers to the Mosaic law as a whole. Moo (94) suggests that the royal law refers to the entire will of God for Christians, especially as that will is revealed in the teaching of Jesus. Nevertheless, “James is concerned to show that the ‘law of the kingdom’ does not replace, but takes up within it the demand of God in the Old Testament.” Davids (114) notes that James’ use of nomos rather than entolē (“command”) decisively shows that he intends the whole law. He asks nevertheless, “is it not most natural to see a reference to the whole law as interpreted and handed over to the church in the teaching of Jesus, i.e. the sovereign rule of God’s kingdom?”

The command James cites derives from Leviticus 19:18 (cf. v. 34). Although the verb “love” is in the future tense, it functions imperativally as a command. In their original context in Leviticus, the words “love” and “neighbour” are as broad in meaning as they are in contemporary English, and so resist being limited to a narrow range of activities or persons (Wenham, The Book of Leviticus [NICOT], 269). In the New Testament, the command is identified by Jesus as the second most significant command of the law, after the command to love God with all one’s heart, soul and strength (Mark 12:28-31; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-6). Jesus’ linking of these two commands was unique in Judaism, and McKnight (208) notes that James, too, links the ideas in this text (2:5, 8). Jesus’ identification of the central significance of this particular command was also shared by Paul who viewed the Leviticus command as a summary and fulfilment of the whole law (Romans 13:9-10; cf. Galatians 5:14).

It appears, then, that James also stands in this broad sweep of New Testament ethics in which love of neighbour came to be seen as the centre and goal of the law. James now resolves the condition with which he began the verse: If you really love your neighbour, you are doing well. “You are doing well” (kalōs poieite), also in the present tense, also has enduring force. This little phrase again suggests that the keeping of the love command fulfils what God requires of his people in terms of ethics. As McKnight (209) says, this becomes “a noble, excellent and proper rule of life for the messianic community.”

This text, therefore, stands alongside a host of other New Testament passages in which love is the sum and substance of the Christian life. This does not mean, however, that the law has no place in the Christian life. James was Torah-observant, as McKnight (207) insists, and, as we shall see, he intended the messianic community to live in accordance with the law. Still, if Davids is correct as I suspect he is, it is the law as interpreted by Jesus and passed onto the church. Thus we see in James a hermeneutic at work, a hermeneutic in all likelihood learnt from Jesus, in which the Old Testament law still plays a role in the life of the Christian community, albeit as mediated in and through the authoritative tradition of Jesus’ life and teaching.

Scripture on Sundays – James 1:25

Saint_James_the_JustJames 1:25
But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Finally, the point of James’ little parable becomes clear. James has exhorted his listeners to be doers of the Word and not hearers only, for the one who is only a hearer and not a doer is like a person who upon looking at their image in a mirror, goes away and immediately forgets what they look like. Literally, they forget what kind of person they are (vv. 22-24). “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty,” says James, “and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” The point of the parable revolves around the contrast between hearers who forget and doers who act. It is this particular contrast which draws together the language of the previous verses and so unites the whole passage.

Another contrast has been suggested. Some commentators, for example, contrast the “momentary glance” into the mirror with the sustained and persevering study of the Scriptures. The language James uses, however, does not allow this. In verse 23, the word used for looking into the mirror is katanoounti which means to “take note of, consider, to study,” or as Moo notes, the word regularly connotes thoughtful, attentive consideration. So, too, the word used in this verse, parakyptō, literally has the sense of “to bend over to look at more closely, to peer” (Zerwick-Grosvenor, 693; Moo, 83). Thus the contrast between the two persons is not in the manner of the looking, but in the doing as opposed to the forgetting. The person who merely hears the Word gains no more lasting benefit from the Word than they do from looking at themselves in the mirror (Moo). The person who perseveres in the Word and is a doer, however, is blessed in their doing.

The details of this verse are worth pondering. James shifts his language in this verse from that which he used earlier. In verses 18, 21, 22 and 23 he refers to the “Word,” whereas in verse 25 this Word has become “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (nomon teleion tov tēs eleutherias). Further, instead of “doers of the Word” as in vv. 22-23, the person is now a “doer who acts,” or literally, “a doer of the work” (poiētēs ergou).

What does James mean by his first shift? The first thing to note is that for the Jew, the law signified God’s revealed and authoritative will. That the Jews considered the law to be good and perfect is clearly seen in such passages as Psalms 19:7-10 and Romans 7:12. That James saw some continuing validity in the law is seen in 2:8-12 and 4:11-12. In James 2:8-12 James again refers to the “law of liberty” (v. 12) as well as referring to “the royal law” when citing Leviticus 18:19. Further, in this text, the law as a principle and not simply as a rule, is still valid. If a person keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, they become accountable for the whole. In 4:11-12 James refers to God as the lawgiver and judge, thus emphasising the divine authority which lies behind the law.

Is James therefore teaching in verse 25 that the believer must diligently persevere in the Old Testament law in order to be blessed? The matter is not quite that simple. Although James certainly sees the continuing validity of some aspects of the law (see, e.g. 2:8, 11), it is likely that he is reading the law not simply as a Jew, but as a Messianic Jew, that is, as a follower of Jesus in whom the law has been fulfilled (Moo, 50). This is seen most obviously in the flow of James’ argument to this point. The “Word” which James has been referring to throughout this section is the word of truth (v. 18), that is, the gospel. When he substitutes the phrase “the perfect law of liberty” James does not simply jettison the gospel and substitute the Mosaic law as the basis of Christian life and blessing, but reads the law “in a Jesus kind of way” (McKnight, 158), or as Davids expresses the same idea, the “perfect law of liberty” refers to “the Old Testament ethic as explained and altered by Jesus… [i.e.] the teaching of Jesus” (100). James, together with other early Christians—including Paul—viewed the law as fulfilled and perfected in Jesus, and so Jesus as the giver of a new or renewed law (Davids, 99). This, perhaps, is the point of Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in Matthew 5:17-48. Paul, too, can refer to “the Law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2 and 1 Corinthians 9:21, where it likely has reference to the love commandment which fulfils the law (Romans 13:8-10), and is thus the equivalent of James’ “royal law” (2:8), and an echo of Jesus’ second great commandment (Mark 12:31). James’ point is simple: the good news of the gospel includes an unavoidable and searching demand for obedience (Moo, 84). Put theologically, the gospel does not supersede the law but includes the law, though the law fulfilled and radically reinterpreted and refocused by Jesus.

James’ second shift is from “doers of the Word” to “doers of the work.” While it is probably better to translate poiētēs ergou as a “doer who acts” in order to maintain the contrast with the “hearer who forgets,” we do well to pause over James’ use of ergon here, given that “work” and “works” constitute a major theme in his letter, and his use here presages the major treatment of the theme which he will undertake in 2:14-26. Further, in verses 26-27 James will bring this section to its climax by identifying three particular kinds of “work” or activity he intends his listeners to engage in, including especially the work of controlling the tongue, as well as works of mercy and holiness.

James, then, understands the law of liberty in terms of obedience to Jesus’ teaching as he reinterprets the law, and so as a word which makes free (cf. John 8:31-32). The believer is to “persevere” (kai parameinas) in this liberating Word as a doer who acts and thus as a doer of the work. Although Zerwick-Grosvenor (693) suggest that the perseverance is in the activity of looking into the perfect law of liberty, it is better to understand it in the sense of practicing what one finds there, as James goes on to say. In this way one becomes a “doer who acts” rather than a “hearer who forgets” (ouk akroatēs epilēsmonēs alla poiētēs ergou), and so one who also “will be blessed in their doing” (houtos makarios en tē poiēsei autou estai). Estai is future and so suggests that the blessing will be eschatological (cf. v. 12). Nevertheless, the “doer” will be blessed “in the doing” suggesting that a blessing will also accompany the actual act, and so the blessing may have a temporal as well as an eschatological aspect.