For centuries now, there has existed some debate regarding the message and meaning of the Book of James found in our New Testaments. It’s hard to understand why famous theologians of old had so much trouble with the following verses. As we view the message of James within the context of the audience of his day, and of the rest of scripture, then his message becomes quite simple really – true saving faith always leads us to acts of loving obedience according to God’s word.
It’s this simplistic message that we’ll seek to behold and apply in our lives today.
Becoming Doers of the Word
We’ve seemingly made it a practice of simply coming to church on Sunday, singing a few songs, putting money in the offering, listening to an encouraging message, and then going to lunch happy. This continues from week-to-week all across America.
James, however, paints a far different reality which should be on display in the life of every believer. Faith, according to James, is less about ‘naming it’ or ‘claiming it’, and is more defined by an outworking of love and trust that is expressed through obedience to God’s word.
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
James was instructing believers in Yeshua to be doers of the word, and not hearers only, so as NOT to deceive themselves. If we merely listen to the word of God but do not make an ongoing practice of obeying it in our lives, then we deceive ourselves.
We should recognize that when James wrote this exhortation to these early believers, the only word in existence during that time was simply that which we now call our ‘Old Testament’ scriptures. Therefore, James was instructing believers in the Messiah Yeshua to be doers of the ‘Old Testament’ word of God, so as not to deceive themselves.
Any teaching which implies that the ‘Old Testament’ scriptures are not for us ‘New Testament’ Christians today is blatantly false. As we’ll go on to see: God’s instruction to us resolutely includes all of Scripture and is useful as such (2 Timothy 3:16).
Let’s now look at how James goes on to describe God’s law and commandments.
Looking Into the Perfect Law of Liberty
James’ next statement goes against what most of us have been taught is true today. Yet James, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit writes the following words:
25 the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
Thankfully there is no real mystery here as to what James is instructing: the believer who looks into God’s law – God’s perfect law – God’s perfect law of liberty – and perseveres or continues in it, as one who does not merely read or hear it, but responds with obedience to its instruction… it’s that person who will truly be blessed in everything they do.
The perfect law of liberty James is writing about here is none other than God’s law – His Torah (instructions and commandments). Remember, when James wrote these words, the ‘New Testament’ hadn’t been fully written yet. So James instructs us to persevere in being those who do (obey) God’s law – His perfect law of liberty – and be blessed as we do what it says.
Fulfilling the Royal Law
8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself, [Leviticus 19:18]” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
James writes that a believer who is seeking to fulfill the ‘royal law according to the Scripture’ found in Leviticus 19:18, is doing well. We find this verse quite plainly in our ‘Old Testaments’ – the Law of Moses even. Nevertheless, James soldiers on and defines sin as not living out God’s law (transgressing). Lastly, he concludes in verse 12 that we as believers should ‘speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty’, God’s perfect law.
God gives us His instruction to bless us as a father would his child, and it is for their good; it will also be the standard by which He judges us in the end. James speaks of blessing and well being for the believer who not only looks intently into God’s law, but is one who becomes a doer by practicing its truth and walking in its guidance.
But how can we ever become that person if we’ve already determined that God’s law is not for us today? We can’t and we won’t. May our Heavenly Father help us, through His Word, to speak and act as those who will be judged under His perfect law of liberty.
Understanding Saving Faith & God’s Law
James then switches gears to discuss what true saving faith looks like, expressed in the life of a believer. In doing so, he challenges the very person who claims to have ‘saving faith’ but there is no clear outworking of that ‘saving faith’ expressed in their life by obedience to God and His Word – His law even.
14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
Let’s not muddy the water here. Do we really understand what James is proposing? Essentially he is saying: is it of any good if someone claims to ‘know God’ and have a ‘personal faith’ in Him, but that same person does not obey God’s instruction (including His law)? Can such as person really be considered ‘saved’ or as having ‘faith’ at all? According to the scriptures the answer is no.
If we are gut level honest with ourselves, we’d willingly admit that this is not only James’ understanding but is the counsel of all of Scripture, even our entire ‘New Testament’. Think about what other apostles stated similarly to James:
1 John 2:3-8
3 And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. 4 Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, 5 but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: 6 whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.
Or again, later:
1 John 5:2-3
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. 3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.
Many in our day contend that God’s law has no place in the life of a believer because of Jesus. The scriptures, however, say the complete opposite. Because of Jesus, the ‘law of faith’ now upholds God’s law in our life as an outworking of love, trust, and obedience. Make no mistake, the writers of the New Testament agree – faith establishes God’s perfect, holy, righteous, and good law in our lives as believers because of who we now are in Him – because His spirit dwells within us to enable us to obey His commands.
Just listen to the words of Paul writing to the believers in Rome:
27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.
So then James, just like Paul in Romans 3, establishes and upholds the role of God’s law in the life of a believer ‘by the law of faith’ – faith expressing itself through living out God’s perfect law of liberty. James goes on to conclude in verse 17 ‘So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’.
Faith + Works = Completed Trust
Faith produces righteous works and righteousness (works) done in faith completes our obedience of faith. It’s how we worship, and the proper response to who God is and to all that He’s done.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
James refutes the one who would claim to have saving faith in the Messiah, yet they do not have an outward working of that saving faith being expressed by their living out the commandments (God’s law). Why? Because our works are but the outworking of our saving faith.
“Works of righteousness” is defined in God’s word as obedience to His instructions, commandments, and laws. When ‘works’ is used in a negative sense in the scriptures, it is usually referred to as ‘works of the law’, which carries the negative connotation of one who is seeking to obtain righteousness and justification based upon their own merit and not of the Messiah Yeshua’s.
Faith is not made complete until there are works flowing from our faith and trust in Him, and in what He has spoken – ‘faith was completed by his works’ (v.22). God counts, or credits (imputes), upon us His righteousness where there is belief on our part about who He is, what He has done to reconcile us to Him, and an outward action based on faith and trust to what He has said – ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (v.24); ‘faith without works is dead’ (v.26).
Practicing God’s Law In Our Lives
James and the Holy Spirit don’t want us to simply walk away with a new understanding unless it changes the way we walk by conforming our lives to God’s Word. Therefore, James leaves us with a practical application in practicing God’s law in our lives through faith and action towards our neighbors.
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
James is saying that when we choose to speak evil against our brother, we are really speaking evil against God’s law and are judging (condemning) it. Why? Because the law of God says we are not to speak evil against our brother. So if we choose to practice (speak) evil against him, we show contempt and condemnation towards what God’s law instructs, and to put ones own self above God’s Word – which is idolatry.
This is dangerous because James says that ‘there is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy’ (v.12). Therefore, James again upholds the law of God and its functional role as God’s standard in the life of believers. The same is true, even today.
Do not for one second discredit God’s Word, His instructions, laws or commandments. They are meant to bring life to the one who receives their light by walking in trusting faith and obedience to His perfect law of liberty.
Worship God today by learning of His loving instruction and walking it out in your life!