I recently did a number of videos for the TGC, and one of them was on lessons I’ve learned as a parent. We have three kids, 18, 15, 12, and have certainly learned a lot of lessons. Here’s one of the main ones:
In many ways, the book of James has not had an easy journey into the New Testament canon. We have few references to it in the earliest stages, it was doubted by some church fathers, and, of course, Luther himself referred to it as “an epistle of straw.”
However, we should be immensely grateful that God has preserved this book for us. Despite its detractors, the book of James provides essential theological balance for the key doctrinal debates in the church today. Several key contributions:
1. James reminds us that one can offer extended moral exhortations without being a “moralist.” In an effort to avoid the charge of “moralism,” many modern preachers hesitate to offer extended moral/ethical exhortations to their congregations. Indeed, sermons often focus on how the congregation cannot keep the law and that only Christ can keep the law for them.
While it is certainly true that we cannot be justified by the law, the book of James reminds us that there is a proper place for sermons that focus on our ethics. James offers five chapters of ethical applications and there is no extensive discussion of atonement, or original sin, or grace.
This doesn’t mean James rejects these truths, it simply means that one need not always include them explicitly for teaching to be regarded as “Christian.” Put simply, a sermon (or treatise, or letter) doesn’t always have to be about justification in order to be about Christ.
2. James reminds us that Christians should also view the Law of God positively. Compared to Paul’s insistence that the law is a “curse” that “imprisons” us (Gal 3:13, 22), James’ approach to the law is shockingly positive. He refers to the law as the “law of liberty,” or as the NIV puts it, “the perfect law that gives freedom” (Jas 1:25).
Do Paul and James contradict each other? Not at all. Paul is looking at the law from the perspective of justification–can I be saved by law-keeping? If you try this, says Paul, the law is only a curse. James is looking at the law through the lens of sanctification. From this perspective the law is a blessing. It is the way of righteousness. We can say with the Psalmist, “Oh how I love your law!” (Ps 119:97).
Paul reminds us that the law cannot save. James reminds us that we follow the law because we are saved. Both aspects are critical if we are to rightly understand justification and sanctification.
3. James reminds us that it is fine to use OT stories as moral examples. Again, some in the modern day, in an effort to avoid moralism, will insist that we can never preach an Old Testament story where the applications is “Be like [insert OT character]”. Instead, we can only point to these OT characters as a “type” of Christ.
The problem with this approach to the Old Testament is that it is not shared by the book of James. On the contrary, James is quite keen to use OT characters as moral examples. Indeed, he appeals to Elijah as an example of what can be done through a life of faithful prayer (Jas 5:17-18). We find this same pattern in Paul who blatantly states, “These things [OT stories] took place as examples for us” (1 Cor 10:6).
Of course, we can also look to these OT characters as a type of Christ–they point forward to the ultimate savior/deliverer. But, why must these passages be preached only as a type of Christ? Why can they not be preached as both a type of Christ, and as a moral example?
In the end, we can be thankful that we have the book of James in our NT canon. It provides a wonderful balance to our understanding of law, grace, justification, sanctification and more.
In this regard, Luther was mistaken. If justification is all that matters, then perhaps one might find James unnecessary. But, if sanctification also matters, then it is essential.
Over the last few months I have written a number of posts (e.g., here and here) dealing with a tendency I have observed in some Reformed circles to downplay the moral commands of Scripture. The motivating factor behind this tendency is often positive, namely a desire to make sure that people remember that salvation is by grace alone and not by works. In other words, the downplaying of moral commands is designed to preserve the integrity of the gospel.
However, such attempts to preserve the gospel (while well-intended) can have negative side effects. One such side effect is that those who pursue serious obedience to God’s law are sometimes viewed with suspicion. Perhaps they are hiding their real sins. Or perhaps they don’t understand grace. Or perhaps they are…legalists. In such instances, the “L” word gets thrown around rather loosely and often prematurely. Law-keeping, in some circles, has sadly become the litmus test for legalism.
But, is law-keeping, in and of itself, grounds for an accusation of legalism? Certainly not. But, legalism and obedience are all too often being confused with one another. On this score, I appreciate the recent post by Fred Zaspel, Legalism or Obedience? It is worth repeating here:
Yet, find a Christian who is careful to obey God in everything, and we won’t have to look far to find another Christian to call him a legalist…But we must be careful not to confuse legalism with obedience. Obedience is not legalism. Obedience is obedience. God commands us to obey his Word, and when pressed with those commands we must not cry foul — “legalism!” No, disobedience is sin, and obedience is not legalism.
On the contrary, any violation of God’s commands is sin, and there are no exceptions allowed. No custom, no family tradition, no “We’ve always done that!” will cover it. Scripture insists that violation of God’s law is sin.
Simply put, we needn’t fear that we may obey our Lord too much. Jesus said that if we love him, we will obey him.
Happily, God has promised in the New Covenant to give us a heart to obey him. And every true Christian has found that obedience to God is not a burdensome thing. This is the work of his Spirit within us to bring us to obey him — not legalistically but faithfully.
We may be more thankful still that God has provided remedy for our sinful disobedience in laying our punishment instead on his Son, in whom we trust.
Let us pray that God will make us increasingly faithful, increasingly obedient to his holy Word, to his glory.