We begin by rehashing some of the complicated issues in The Book of James. What seems like a contradiction on the surface can often be untangled with a bit of patience and perspective. We will compare the royal law, the law of liberty and the Acts 15 council. We’ll look at the words of James next to the words of the apostle Paul. How do we balance these complex truths and complicated realities in order to live the life God has called us to?
We went through chapter 2 at NASCAR speed.
And then we kind of locked in on this diatribe that confuses people. And what we saw was that the diatribe shouldn’t confuse people because what it’s doing is it’s articulating the argument between James and an objector. And the objector is saying faith without works is not dead; and James is saying faith without works is dead.
So, in other words, the objector is saying, you can have a very vibrant faith and be telling people, “Sorry for your problems. I’m not going to do anything to help you,” and that’s totally fine because they’re two separate things.
And James is saying, “Well, you can do that; but if you do that, your faith is useless. It’s unprofitable. It’s dead. As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.”
A body without a spirit still exists. It’s real. It’s just not doing anything useful. It’s not something you’d want to invite to a party. If you have works animating faith, then, just like a spirit animates the body, that’s somebody you want to invite to your party. That’s a useful faith.
Paul says it didn’t; James says it did
But in doing that, we kind of skipped over a bunch of stuff. What I hope to do today is kind of dig in on some of these things that we skipped over and mine some more here and dig some gold out of the passage.
Let’s just look at 2:24, kind of going to go in reverse order here. This was kind of the landing spot for James’ argument with this imaginary objector. And he says, then,
You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
Now, this, of course is one of the more confusing statements to a lot of people in the whole Bible because if we go over to Romans 4:1—turn with me there if you would. Paul says,
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness
So Paul says Abraham’s faith did not justify him before God. And James says Abraham was justified by his works. And the difference, of course, is who’s being justified before whom? By what?
So Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness. So at that point, Abraham was justified in the sight of God just because he believed. He had not sacrificed Isaac. He had not done anything at that point in time. He was just saying, “God, I believe this promise.”
Abraham’s works justified him in the sight of men
It was over twenty-five years later that he sacrificed Isaac, or offered Isaac up. It was 25‑years‑plus later. And at that point, Abraham’s faith was in action. You could see the—just like the spirit makes the body come alive, his faith did something. And it was now something we could all see. So Abraham was justified by his works in the sight of men by doing something.
How do we know Abraham was the friend of God?
And it says here, just going backwards, in 23, And he was called the friend of God. Well, who was he called the friend of God by? I can only find one place where this phrase is. Let’s look at it. It’s in 2 Chronicles 20. In 2 Chronicles 20:3—This is King Jehoshaphat.
And Jehoshaphat feared, and set himself to seek the Lord—so Jehoshaphat is now praying— and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah because he’s scared. He’s scared of something that’s about to happen to them.
So Judah gathered together to ask help from the Lord; and from all the cities of Judah they came to seek the Lord.
Then Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem, in the house of the Lord, before the new court, and said: “O Lord God of our fathers, are You not God in heaven, and do You not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations, and in Your hand is there not power and might, so that no one is able to withstand You?
Are You not our God, who drove out the inhabitants of this land before Your people Israel, and gave it to the descendants of Abraham Your friend forever?
That’s it. That’s the only place I can find this.
So it’s Jehoshaphat saying, “I’ve read about Abraham. I’ve seen what he’s done. He’s your friend.”
Now, let me ask you this. If Abraham had believed the promises of God, would he still have been accounted to him for righteousness no matter what? He was accounted as righteousness in the sight of God right then, before he ever did a single thing. Years before circumcision. Years before Isaac. Right then. He was accounted to God.
But Jehoshaphat knew he was the friend of God. How did he know that? He saw what Abraham did. He saw his life. And what does a friend do?
Well Proverbs says, Proverbs 17:17, I’ll just read it to you.
A friend loves at all times,
And a brother is born for adversity.
A friend is somebody that says I will do for you what’s in your best interests. And what did God ask us to do? What does Jesus ask us to do? If you love me, you’ll do what I ask you to do. Right?
So Abraham did what God asked him to do and became God’s friend. Jehoshaphat sees that. And it’s because Abraham took what he believed and put it into practice.
People could see, Jehoshaphat could see, and then express it in the sight of all Israel, this is the friend of God. What a legacy, right?
Abraham’s works don’t justify him before God
Paul does not discount this justification that James talks about because he says, “If Abraham’s works justified him, then he has something to brag about.” He doesn’t dispute that.
But who does Abraham have something to brag about before? People. But not God. Because God already knew his heart. He had already justified him. Why? He’d already justified him because of Jesus, not because of Abraham. In His sight, he was justified. But in the sight of people, you got to do something.
Do you not see that faith without works is dead? It’s useless. It’s not doing anything. So if you really want your faith to be vibrant and alive, then you got to do something.
Meditate on the royal law
Well, how do you do that? Well, backing up further, what you do is you stare into something really important. You stare into the royal law.
Let’s look at verse 8. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well;
One of the ways we put our faith into action is to stare into the scripture, the law.
Now, the law is not bad. Paul makes a big deal out of this. There’s nothing wrong with the law. The law is good. The law is awesome. The law tells us what’s wrong with us. It just can’t fix us.
And the reason it can’t fix us is we just can’t do it. So we need transformation. The law tells us, hey, you need transformation.
And where do we get that? By faith. And then we get the resurrection power of Jesus.
And then, if we try to get under the law to prove that we really deserve that, now we’re slaves again. This is Paul’s big point in Romans and Galatians.
But if we stare into that law and say, “What is it that’s telling me what righteousness looks like?” If we stare into that and say, “Well, how can we learn from this? How can we take from this?” then something amazing happens.
Let’s just rewind a little more. Chapter 1 verse 21.
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness—that’s us, in our natural state—and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your lives from the wickedness we have within us in our daily lives.
So, it’s the word. It’s this law.
The law of liberty
Notice that James adds this phrase: The law of liberty. Why do you think he adds that phrase? Because it was for freedom that Christ set us free.
The Acts 15 council
In the Acts 15 council, James makes a really important speech. Let’s look at it. This is James now, the half-brother of [Jesus]. Acts 15.
One of the most important events of all human history happened in Acts 15. Paul is arguing with a set of Jews. He’s arguing with the Jews over the question of, do the Gentiles have to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law in order to be righteous? Do they have to?
In 15:5, it says, But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed—So these are Pharisees who believe in Jesus as Messiah rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, the Gentiles, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” It’s necessary.
So, you have to believe in Jesus as Messiah, then enter into circumcision, and then keep the Jewish law; and then you’ll be saved.
Now, the Jews’ idea of salvation was different from the evangelical idea. Their focus was first on being delivered out of this world to righteousness in this life. That was the first priority, and then to righteousness in the kingdom of heaven, which was going to be Israel ruled by the Messiah.
They didn’t have the Greek idea of, us trying to escape our bodies and go to a floaty place with Charmin tissues and float on a cloud and pluck a harp and stare off into space. They didn’t have that. That’s a Greek idea; it’s not a biblical idea.
Verse six. Now the apostles and elders came together to consider this matter.
And when there had been much dispute—they’re debating like crazy—Peter rose up and said to them: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And this was associated with the dream of the unclean animals coming down from heaven, and he says, “kill and eat,” and all that sort of thing.
So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them—the Gentiles—by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, before they had been circumcised, without them coming into Judaism. So Peter argues, if God gave them the Holy Spirit—So if the Holy Spirit, God himself, is now residing in these people, what sense does it make for us to say, “That’s not enough; you need more.” See, that doesn’t make any sense.
And Peter ends this with one of the greatest gospel presentations of all time. We should use it more.
Verse 11. But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we, Jews, shall be saved in the same manner as they” Gentiles, by grace through faith.
And then they kept silent. They listened to Barnabas and Paul tell all this stuff. And then James stands up. James is the head elder of the Jerusalem church, mega church. Peter is the head apostle.
Verse 13. And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, “Men and brethren, listen to me:
Simon, Peter, has declared how God at the first visited the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name.
And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written:
‘After this I will return
And will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down;
I will rebuild its ruins,
And I will set it up;
So that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
Even all the Gentiles who are called by My name,
Says the Lord who does all these things.’
So James says, “This was predicted. It’s in the word.” And then he says,
“Known to God from eternity are all His works.
Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God,
Let’s not place on them a burden we can’t bear ourselves. Let’s celebrate the fact that they’ve been freed.
James understands. Obviously he knows the Bible. And he has the opportunity to put this burden of Judaism on the Gentiles. And he says, no, let’s not do that.
Let’s go back to James. Doesn’t it make sense when he gets to verse 8, and he says “the royal law.” And he gets to verse 12.
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
And 1:25, he says, But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed—
He has now taken this law that the Jews are still going to keep. They’re not going to lay it on the Gentiles, but they’re still going to keep it. And he says the purpose of the law is to set us free from unrighteousness to do righteousness. But we do that in the power of the Spirit not in the rule of legalism.
That’s pretty cool, isn’t it? This is James basically giving the same argument that Paul does, but from a Jewish perspective.
Paul continued to follow the Law but didn’t ask Gentiles to
It’s important to remember that Paul never stopped being Jewish, fully.
At the end of his ministry, he comes to Rome and he gathers the elders together. This is in Acts. And he says, “Guys, I’ve never broken the custom of our fathers. I’ve kept the Jewish law very faithfully. Don’t forget that.”
When he comes to Jerusalem, before he gets shipped off to Rome, he comes to the church and starts telling them all the ministry he’s done. This is years of ministry now.
And the guys say, “That’s awesome. That’s fantastic. We have a problem though. There’s detractors of yours in Jerusalem telling all the church members you’ve been telling the Jewish families not to get circumcised and not to follow the law anymore. We understand from Acts 15 that that’s the deal for the Gentile families. We all agreed on that. But they’re telling them that the Jewish families are being told that. We know that that’s not you. And these are people,” they say, “that are zealous for the law. Myriads of them.”
Now why would they be zealous for the law? Because they understand that it’s the law of liberty. They’re not using it as justification for themselves. They’re using it as a guidepost to see how to live righteously and being set free from our sinful selves.
So they tell Paul, look, why don’t you nip this in the bud? We’ve got these guys who’ve made a vow. Go and pay for their vow and shave your head with them and do the kind-of-the-Jewish-thing very publicly, and then everybody will know that those allegations are false.
And Paul says, “I’ll do it.”
Why would Paul say, “I’ll do it”? Because he wasn’t telling the Jews not to be Jewish. He was still being Jewish. He was telling the Gentiles don’t convert to Judaism expecting that to justly you, or you’re making Christ insufficient.
Now, it didn’t work. He went and did the vow thing, and they arrested him and tried to kill him immediately anyway. It wasn’t a bad idea, though.
And that’s how he ended up in Rome because he couldn’t get a fair trial, and he appealed to Caesar, and he goes to Rome where he wrote these amazing epistles and then was killed by Nero.
Look at the pattern here: Get the word, listen to the word, ingest the word, and it will displace our own inherent, evil, selfish desires.
We just go through the word verses.
1:18. Of his own will—God’s own will—He brought us forth by the word of truth. The way we’re rejuvenated in the first place is because God speaks a new creation into us. We’re new creations in Christ. And when we believe, that new creation is spoken into us, just like Genesis 1. That’s cool, isn’t it?
So then, verse 19, So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not—
So, we hear; and even when we learn to hear words from other people, we’re learning to hear. And when we learn to hear, verse 21:
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word—we learn to hear the Bible. We learn to hear the word of God. We learn to listen to the Holy Spirit and to take that word in instead of our own word.
And then verse 22. Therefore be doers of the word—So, don’t just take the word in. Take the word in and then do it!
It’s well understood in human experimental psychology that if you do something, it changes your thinking. If you think something, it changes your doing. It’s a cycle. So, if you hear and then do, it’s going to help you hear better. And now you create a cycle of righteousness.
Verse 23. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like somebody that looks in a mirror, and he just walks away and doesn’t even remember what he looks like.
The royal law
Verse 25. But if you stare into the perfect law of liberty—like a woman doing her face. You know, like somebody there to do business. You stare into that perfect law of liberty, and you continue in it. Now you’re going to get righteous, and what does the perfect law of liberty say? It’s the same as the royal law.
Verse 8 of chapter 2. If you do the royal law, then you’re fulfilling the law. And when you fulfill the law, what you’re doing is loving other people like you want to be loved. It’s a cycle! Instead of hearing what somebody says and then reacting in rage against them because they’re not doing what you want them to do, which is to be swift to hear, slow-to-speak verse—instead of that, what you’re doing is listening to someone, seeing where they’re coming from, and asking yourself, how can I bless this person. Do they need truth? Do they need confrontation? Do they need mercy?
Now, verse 12 of chapter 2 says, So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
Not only is this royal law that we treat others like we want to be treated, that we live in love, not only is that the royal law, like the law of the land in the kingdom of God, it’s also the law of liberty, the law that sets us free from sin and death in our daily walk. Not before God; Jesus does that.
But look what that law of liberty’s going to do. It’s going to judge us because we’re all still going to be judged, right? Every action will be judged. We will all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ to receive rewards for deeds in the flesh, whether good or bad. Therefore, knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men, 2 Corinthians 5.
We’re all going to stand there, and up is going to come a standard. And the standard’s not going to be our judging of other people, in a good way. By what measure we measure to others will be measured to us. So that standard will be there, but only pointing back at us.
And, in addition, will be this law of liberty. “I gave you these principles that would set you free. How did you do, doing those principles? Did you take these principles and judge others, or did you take these principles and stare into them and set aside self and put, instead, love of others?”
You can do either with these principles. Which is why he says,
For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.