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 later, Martin 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 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 good 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.
Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as an Associate Pastor at Uptown PCA. Visit Dr. Kruger’s website: Canon Fodder. Follow Dr. Kruger on Twitter: @michaeljkruger