Is James talking about the Law of Moses in his book?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: My question is whether or not the "works" that James talks about in his letter are works of the law of Moses. Seeing that the Council of Jerusalem took place in 50 A.D where James accepted Paul's gospel, and the Book of James was written in 45 A.D when James still had his position that works of the law of Moses justify men. 

Answer: Hello again, friend. I will be happy to respond to your query concerning the book of James — but I am having a little trouble finding an issue with your question. Since the book of James does not teach that people are justified by the law of Moses, and since the Council of Jerusalem does not show James changing his position, and since all works appropriate for today’s Christians are also found in the law of Moses, and since doing good-works is a post-salvation expectation for Christians — I do not understand why it might matter if these were works of Moses or not (…and especially as a follow-up to your previous question about dating the book of Daniel). So, I will respond to the three assertions that I made above and pray that these observations somehow add to clarity.

First, how can I say that James does not teach the justification by works when he penned this sentence:

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24, ESV)

And how can the Bible not be in contradiction when Paul plainly asserts the opposite:

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28, ESV)  

First, the context of James does not teach that we are saved by our good works. It teaches that we are saved by faith… but by the kind of faith that produces good works. This is obvious in James’s statement, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (2:14, emphasis mine).

“Such” indicates that there is another kind of faith — a kind that does indeed save — because the kind of faith in view cannot save. A non-saving faith might be evidenced by knowledge, but if it does no “work,” then we have the right to assume that it is salvifically dead. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (v. 26).

What we have here is a picture of congruent faith — not a doctrine of salvation. James is saying that a true believer’s faith should exhibit good-works when viewed over time. He is not saying that we must add good-works to grace to be saved. James is contrasting saving faith (that which produces evidential congruencies) with an empty faith (that which has not traveled beyond mental assent). He is teaching that works are necessary to show that we, like Abraham, have indeed obeyed God unto salvation. And by doing those works we show God and man that we are both sayers and doers of the word (1:22) — fully-formed members of the Body of Christ.

Additionally, there is a “show me” aspect to his argument — which is very plain but often ignored… and which screams that this is about the evidence of faith and not the entrails of faith.

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that––and shudder” (vv. 18–19).

Surely, the demons are not saved! Yet they have a “mental assent” type of faith. This shows that James is going for a comparison of the two faiths, focusing on works as an important sign of saving faith, and not a redefinition of faith, replacing grace with works. As such, he and the apostle Paul teach perfectly compatible doctrine.

Paul taught that believers are “…justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28)… which sounds opposite of James teaching that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” But their words are in complete harmony. James is arguing against the false notion that “a merely spoken or mentally assented” faith is a substitute for saving faith. And Paul is countering the equally fallacious notion that salvation can be earned by observing the law. Each teaching is doing its own particular job in its own context. As such, they are not in contradiction.

Second, since my first point shows that James did not subscribe to justification by the works of Moses as his definition of faith, the fact that his book predated the Council at Jerusalem is a non-issue. But even if we ignore the first point, there are no indications that James had a skewed idea about faith which subsequently changed. James and Paul were always on the same page concerning this. The only thing that changed was that the Council had an “official” moment on the issue — and James had the gavel (so to speak).

Those teachers that went out to insist upon the circumcision of the Gentile believers acted independently of James (although the party of the Pharisees agreed with them). They simply had no warrant — not by James or by the Council. As such, I cannot see the Council’s decision as representing a change in doctrinal stance by James.

… [Part of the official letter]: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions,”
(Acts 15:23–24, emphasis mine).

Third, I do not know what other works than the works of Moses that James might have been talking about... because the Law of Moses never went away! Wait — am I saying that Christians are required to keep the Law of Moses to be saved? Not at all. But when a Christian is behaving as he should, and although he is saved only by grace, he is still following the works of Moses — and if those works somehow changed, Jesus would have been the one to change them. So let’s hear him on this.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17, ESV)

I hear nothing about change, only fulfilling. If Jesus is not tossing Moses aside, neither should we. Sure, it is true that Christians should not perform the sacerdotal works of Moses (like taking the blood of bulls and goats to the altar) because Jesus completed the atonement (and continuing to make sacrifices after Jesus said that it was finished is an insult to his completed work [Hebrews 6:6]).

But just because we Christians have been freed from performing ritual sacrifices, this does not mean that we are free from the law altogether. We are totally free from the condemnation of the law (Romans 8:1), but this is no warrant to run through life committing spiritual mayhem. Regardless of behavior, a Christian will always be God’s child… but he should look like it, too. That’s the emphasis of James. if you are saved… act like it!

When I decide to let somebody live rather than murder him, when I decide to honor my father and mother, when I decide not to steal — what works am I doing? Those are the works of the Law of Moses. Christians do not work from a different palette of godliness than did the Jews under the law. In fact, all of God’s people — that is, pre-law, under the law or post-Acts 2 — are responsible for the same moral behaviors. Therefore, it is always appropriate for a Christian to obey the law. In fact, that is a universal expectation (and even non-believers expect this of us) for those name the name of Christ.

Why then is James so maligned? Because evangelicals are so afraid of giving the impression that works are a necessary part of salvation that they shun their very mention. They are quick to quote Ephesians 2:8-9… all the while omitting verse 10… which is fraudulent! We are created unto good works. Get over it!

The book of James reminds us that good-works are the hallmark of a saving faith… so, they should follow a believer — like Ephesians 2:10 follows Ephesians 2:8-9. The book of James does not teach that Christians are justified by good-works instead of by faith alone… not any more than Ephesians 2:10 undoes verses 8 and 9.

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8–10, ESV)

Since I have relied on Jesus Christ to be my Savior, I no longer have to save myself by toeing any particular mark. What this means is, if I do not live up to the standards set in the Decalogue, I will not lose my eternal salvation. But something would indeed be lost… my credibility. And people would be well within their rights to judge me as a nonbeliever — even though this would not be true! So, James calls-us-out for a congruency check. He asks, are you really saved? Because you sure don’t look like it. John does the same thing.

“And by this we know that we have come to know him [Jesus], if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him:” (1 John 2:3–5, ESV)

James, Paul and John — they all believed and taught the same thing: salvation is by faith alone, yet works should surely follow, and the Council of Jerusalem merely declared that this was so. Furthermore, Jesus taught the Law will remain as an integral part of the Christian life until “all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18), which will be at a time future to us now. Please note also that God’s truth was written on the hearts of all people — even those outside of the covenant (Romans 2:15), that the law was our schoolmaster (Galatians 3:24) and that it continues to be our guide.

In conclusion, since all people through all ages may warm-up in the law’s glow, I have no problem with it showing up in James, in Acts, in Romans, in Revelation… or to the ends of the earth! Salvation remains an act of God’s grace. The Bible’s insistence that believers should also be known for their good-works does not change the nature of salvation: We are saved by faith alone, by God’s grace alone — and apart from the works of the law.

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