James is an amazing letter. I think it is unfortunate that this wonderful teaching is used as a counterbalance to the grace of the gospel. I can think of countless times in my life where verses from James have been used as a “yes, but.” Yes, the gospel is true, but you have to work. Yes, salvation is by grace alone, but after salvation you have duties. Yes, faith alone, but you need to make sure that your faith works. “Paul emphasizes faith, and James emphasizes works. They’re both needed.” So the argument goes.
But reading James in context leads us away from the balancing act, away from thinking that the amazing grace of the gospel needs some grounding and balance in progressive self-improvement. Reading James in context leads us to think, “Yes, and this is how.” So yes, faith alone, and this is how faith in Jesus plays out in life on earth.
Here’s an example: James 1:25.
“But 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.”
That’s high on the list of phrases I don’t hear very often: “Come, let’s look into the perfect law of liberty!” In fact, if you hear teaching on this passage at all, it is usually about not just hearing the gospel, but also doing the law.
But since when is the law, God’s law, the law that frees us? Are we not freed by Jesus? And why does James say to look at it like a mirror, to look never forget? I mean, this is the logical argument he makes in chapter 1, that the law of liberty is a mirror that we need to look at very hard, and never forget what we look like when we walk away.
Without context, I am tempted to insert myself back into the picture here. Saved by grace and then back to the law, to work towards perfection. Grace first, then rules and duties. But that misses James’ point entirely. And that actually goes against the gospel. Putting yourself back under the law is not freeing. If that were the case, then Paul really would have a problem with James. Galatians would stand in fierce opposition!
So what is James getting at? Realize that he is presenting this perfect law of liberty as a mirror. It reveals… me. Me. In all my imperfection. The perfection that God requires is a standard that points out to me the depth of my personal blemishes, imperfections, inabilities. My own failure glares at me, reflected by this law of liberty. Even after conversion.
Never get angry at my brother? Never have a lustful thought? Never do anything for my own gain? Always rejoice? Never worry? I think I fail at all of them. Even as a believer in Jesus.
So how is this liberating? In what way is this mirror revealing my inability the “law of liberty”? Because I see no hope in me. I died to the law. The law condemns me, and it is right. I am condemnation-worthy. The pathway that I trod for so long, the pathway of self-improvement and self-worth under the law has been closed… forever. Look hard, James says, and never forget.
The law again reminds me that my freedom is in Jesus. The law of liberty points to the freedom that I have found in the person and work of Jesus. It is freeing because the bonds of trying to attain and perfect and complete the standards of God, on my own and in my power, are broken forever.
The law of liberty squelches every impulse that I have to again get on the ladder, again climb the treadmill, again be the judge, again find my identity and worth in how I am doing. Because I look hard at this law which frees me, and I lose my confidence in me. I am pushed again to my only hope, Jesus.
Humility is what the law breeds in me now. And thus liberty in the savior who loves me.
I think this is one of the strongest themes in James, and one of the deepest elements of post-Christian daily living. Humility.
James says to look hard at this law that frees you. Look hard and never forget. You are not able, you are not worthy, you are not up to standard; the law is your death, and Jesus Christ your loving savior is your only life.
Yes, James gets the gospel. So look with me, will you? Into the perfect law, the law of liberty, which keeps me centered on my savior, and leads me to actions that come directly out of the truth that my only hope is with Jesus.
Hallelujah! I have found him, whom my soul so long has craved! Jesus satisfies my longings; through His life I now am saved.