Misunderstanding the book of James

It is an unfortunate fact that whole denominations have arisen and deceived millions through a false salvation teaching that comes from misunderstanding a handful of passages in the book of James. First, some background on James and this book. James, whose real name was Jacob, was either the brother, step-brother or cousin of Jesus. He was a very religious man whose knees were literally worn out from many hours of daily prayer. Initially he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 3:20 and John 7:5), but became a follower after the Resurrection, although he was never one of the 12 Apostles. He was supposedly a Pharisee before assuming headship of the Christian Jews in Jerusalem much like a Pope or Patriarch, and he was clubbed and stoned to death in 62 AD at the behest of the Sadducee high priest, who was forced out of office for that by Pharisees friendly to James. James’ background as a Pharisee appears, from the book of Acts and the writings of Paul, to have influenced his thinking during the very early years of the church when Christian theology had yet to be fully developed. During this early period of Christianity, when the Christian community was almost entirely Jewish, the biggest controversy in the church was whether non-Jews could become “Christians” without also becoming Jews. Religious and cultural backgrounds on the part of many Jews--including possibly James himself--led most to presume that the Gentiles (i.e. non- Hebrews) were either denied salvation altogether, or at best were allowed salvation through Christ only if they converted to Judaism and partook of the rite of circumcision in addition to following the Law of Moses. (You can go to A New Christian's Handbook to see a discussion of the Pharisees, which explains this more clearly.) Paul fought tirelessly to break this line of thinking, and finally won out, especially as the Church became increasingly filled with Gentiles and adapted to Pauline thinking.

In the book of Galatians, chapter 2, Paul records an incident where the apostle Peter, who had been worshipping side by side with Gentile believers, suddenly gave them the cold shoulder and began acting “Jewish” when representatives from James visited. Paul rebuked Peter openly for this, and this incident reflects the tension in the church over the traditional upbringing of the Jews, who were raised believing only the Jews were Saved, and that their salvation was based on obeying God’s commandments given through Moses, vs. the free gift of salvation to all--even Gentiles--that Christ now offered through faith in His atonement for sin on the Cross, independent of how well one obeyed the commandments. In other words, old ways of thinking had to be changed, and during much of the lifetime of James, who was eventually martyred, they still hung on, although James eventually came to agree with allowing Gentiles into the church without forcing them to become Jewish.

The book of James was possibly the first book of the New Testament that was written (around 45 AD); and it might actually have been written as a retort to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings which may have come to James via slanted reports of “the Judaisers” who throughout Acts seem tied to him. James makes it clear in the opening verses that this book was meant specifically for Jewish Christians. It is therefore not a general epistle for all Christians, but it is specifically and intentionally written solely for “the Twelve tribes scattered abroad”, and as such it is not a book which Gentile Christians can glean sound doctrine from without a thorough understanding of 1st century Jewish culture and theology. Below are the passages that have caused so much confusion throughout church history because, unlike the writings of Paul, a superficial reading without understanding the background that they come from, doesn’t convey a clear understanding of salvation through faith in the same way as Paul’s writings.

King James Bible

New Jerusalem Bible

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?

If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

And one of them say unto them, Depart ye in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

Even so faith, if it have not works, is dead, being alone.

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.

But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works he was made perfect?

And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.

--James 2: 14-26

How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act has faith? Will that bring salvation?

If one of the brothers or one of the sisters is in need of clothes and has not enough food to live on,

and one of you says to them, ‘I wish you well; keep yourself warm and eat plenty,’ without giving them these bare necessities of life, then what good is that?

In the same way faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead.

But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith.

You believe in one God--that is credible enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear.

Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless?

Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar?

So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did.

In this way the scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘Friend of God’.

You see now that it is by deeds, and not only by believing, that someone is justified.

There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave?

As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds.

--James 2: 14-26

These passages, at first glance, might seem to suggest that we’re not actually Saved by faith alone but that “Works” play a part in salvation. Because of this misunderstanding of what was written, different denominations have based their salvation theology on these passages and concluded different things:

The Jehovah’s Witnesses conclude that we’re Saved by “faith”, but unless we add Good Works to the faith we will lose our salvation, for what will determine our ultimately gaining Heaven will be God's reviewing our earthly Works at the Last Judgment and (hopefully) declaring them to be righteous.

The Mormons--along with many other denominations--conclude that we’re Saved by faith plus Good Works (i.e. obedience to the commandments).

The Catholics conclude we’re Saved by grace, and that grace produces faith infused with Good Works in the life of the believer, and that these works, done under the unction of the Holy Spirit, are counted by God as righteous acts of atonement for our misdeeds.

Now you see how this one book has caused innumerable problems amongst denominations for many years. To deal with the confusion, we must determine something: Do the writings of Paul and James agree with each other or do they contradict each other?

Since true Bible scripture must harmonize without contradicting itself, James’ idea of salvation must not contradict Paul’s; they must be in agreement. Either both must believe we’re Saved by faith, or both must believe we’re Saved by Works, or both must believe we’re Saved by a combination of faith plus Works. If they disagree, then either the book of James or the writings of Paul fail the test of inerrancy and must be removed from the New Testament.

This is exactly what Martin Luther wrestled with. He concluded that the writings of James were anti-Paul, and thought that James should be dropped from the Bible altogether. If Luther was correct, then he would be right--James’ one book must go in favor of Paul's 12 or 13. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume both James and Paul were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Both must therefore be in agreement. If they are in agreement than we should arrive at the same conclusions by reading the writings of either man. So first let us determine whether James and Paul believe that we’re Saved by faith, Works, or a combination thereof. To do this, let’s completely remove all the writings of Paul from the Bible and adapt our salvation theology solely from the writings of James. What would we conclude from the above passages? Well, since the book of James is small and does not fully develop a variety of Christian theology we’d still be left with a confusing series of statements which, by themselves, would leave us arguing over whether or not we are Saved by faith, by good Works, or by good Works plus faith because the book of James, by itself, isn’t abundantly clear on the issue.

Now remove the book of James from the Bible and reference only the writings of Paul. Over and over again--in Romans, Galatians, Ephesians--Paul never retreats from one central theme of salvation: that it is the free gift of God, obtained through faith alone, without relying on good deeds or blind obedience to a set of rules and regulations, and thus is granted freely apart from anything we can do to merit it. It is impossible to read the books of Paul, by themselves, and conclude that Works play a direct part, rather than a peripheral role, in our salvation, as teach the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. Only by adding a misunderstanding of the writings of James by forcibly interpreting everything Paul wrote through the philosophies of James’ one book, rather than by interpreting James one book through Paul’s 12, can you reach the false salvation doctrine they arrive at.

In fact, once you accept the truth of Paul’s idea of salvation, and you read the passages in James in the light of Paul’s writings and not at superficial face value, you discover that James is ultimately agreeing with Paul that we’re Saved from sin by faith! The confusion occurs because James and Paul, while they use similar terminology, such as “justified”, are writing about different subjects to different groups. Paul is usually writing to Gentiles who have come out of paganism to embrace Christ, or else to Jews outside of Palestine who have grown up in a theological environment of legalism, and thus he intentionally outlines, over and over again, the true formula of salvation, making clear that it is by faith, apart from obeying commandments or doing good deeds. James, however, is writing solely to Jews, who from infancy have been raised with the Scriptures and knew what they taught...who were likely impacted by the ministry of John the Baptist...who may have heard the teachings of Christ Himself...and who had enjoyed the benefit of at least 15 years of Apostolic teaching. Believers such as this were held to a higher standard than the Gentile or Jewish converts outside of Palestine, and reasonably were expected by now to show the proper fruits of true salvation based on the teaching they would have received. His reason for writing is not, as in the case of Paul, to outline the formula of salvation, adding the need for Works which Paul apparently fails to convey clearly (remember James was writing to educated Jewish converts, who presumably already knew the basis of soul-saving salvation was God’s forgiveness of sin through blood atonement achieved by faith in Messiah’s sacrifice); what he’s actually doing is illustrating what sort of faith actually Saves a person by rebuking hypocrites in the church who claimed to have faith in Christ as Messiah but yet had no visible evidence of that faith in their lives. This to James marked them as Christians in name only, just as Jesus rebuked hypocrites within the Pharisee movement who, while they obeyed every commandment of God they could find, lacked the light and love of God in their lives on a practical level. James understood that true Christians should display the love of God in their lives by their actions, but while these so-called believers paid lip service to Christianity, their lifestyles weren’t adding up. James is thus doing no differently than Paul, in the book of 1st Corinthians, who is rebuking the church for tolerating open sin in the fellowship. He is, however, coming at the subject on a slightly different path than Paul, emphasizing that true faith demonstrates itself by a change in lifestyle and that, absent this evidence by what he calls “Works”, the sort of faith had by the individual obviously lacks the ability to actually Save the person from God’s wrath.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that James is further clarifying the formula for salvation, and that he agrees with the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses that we must add Good Works to our faith in order to be Saved, or to keep from losing our salvation. Just how many Good Works must we add? A thousand? A million? Just how obedient must we be to escape Hell? Must we be perfect all of the time? If not, how imperfect can we be and still be Saved? If you can’t answer these questions I submit you dare not accept this theology as the basis of your salvation, and this is the inbred flaw of all religions that believe in the idea that obeying commandments and/or living righteously is a direct means of salvation and God’s overlooking one’s sins otherwise.

You see, there is nothing in the book of James--or in the entire Bible--that would answer that question. And if this concept is true, imagine how a person would feel if he stood before God and was told he died one good deed short of entering Heaven, or that he broke one too many commandments.

Even if you arbitrarily create a standard of goodness so low as to say “Well, just live the best life you can and that will be enough for God,” does everyone always do the best he can? What if a Christian were to die on a day when he was in a bad mood and was willingly behaving worse than he knew he should? Would he miss Heaven even if he lived a perfect life every other day? If not, why not? The point is, if Works are directly involved in either obtaining or retaining salvation, you are forced, as I mentioned in an earlier chapter, to create a standard of goodness or obedience either so high no one can meet it, or a standard so low that everyone can. Further, if you will read the first few chapters of 1st Corinthians, you will see that this Christian church was filled with everything but Good Works! You had selfishness, cliques, one Christian suing another, discrimination based on income levels, and a host of other problems. While Paul rebukes them across the board and commands them to live better lives he never tells them to “get Saved” or even to repent lest they lose their salvation (although arguments can be made that salvation can be lost through continuing in a lifestyle of sin through willful, ongoing rejection of the commandments--see the final chapter for a discussion of this issue). In fact in the case of a man who is living incestuously with his stepmother, Paul states he is giving that man over to the Devil to kill so that his soul will be Saved! All these facts fly in the face of the idea that salvation is directly tied to Works.

Part of the problem is that the word "righteousness" is used in two different ways on two different levels in the New Testament (spiritual and temporal), and both Paul and James are dealing with those two levels separately. The most important way in which righteousness is used is as justification before God--i.e. meaning a spiritual standard of holiness entitling one to dwell in the direct presence of God. It is this greater level of righteousness that Paul deals with throughout his epistles, and it is this form of righteousness, appropriated only by faith and faith alone, that saves the soul, bestowing the righteousness of Christ in place of our sin and granting eternal life by regenerating our fallen spirit. The second, lesser use of righteousness is a temporal righteousness of character, which is the level of righteousness James deals with in his epistle. We could substitute the word honor for that sort of righteousness. To give you an example of both uses of the word, in Luke Chapter 1 we see that Zachariah and Elisabeth were ...righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. This is wonderful! Yet at the same time Isaiah says: There is none righteous, no not one; and Our righteousness is as filthy rags. So were Zachariah and Elisabeth righteous? On one hand, yes--they possessed temporally righteous characters, with hearts that loved God, and showed the evidence of that in their lives of literal and moral obedience to the Law, as James asserts they should--but on the other hand no, because the best righteousness they could walk in through faithful obedience to the commandments was insufficient to impart to them a spiritual righteousness that would let them enter Heaven without the need of the Messiah to live a life of absolute righteousness in their place, nor could that obedience accomplish an atonement for the sin they did commit, no matter how incidental that sin may have been! So the type of righteousness they possessed through their godly lifestyle could not actually save their souls apart from the Messiah’s sacrifice for their sins, although it was sufficient for them, under the Mosaic covenant, and in accordance with the truths God had revealed to that point in time, to die and go to the abode of the righteous dead in Paradise, along with Abraham and Isaiah. But they would still require the perfect spiritual righteousness of Jesus Christ the Messiah to eventually allow them entrance into the presence of God in Heaven. Thus, it could be said that their obedience to the commandments made them righteous with a small "R", but only through the flawless obedience to the commandments by Jesus Christ and His gift of the benefits of that righteousness to them, could they possess true righteousness with a capital "R".

Religions with flawed salvation doctrine thus misunderstand the Bible’s dual use of the word righteousness and the two forms of righteousness that exist and therefore interpret nearly all use of the word in the New Testament to mean a spiritual standard of holiness that saves the soul from Hell. That’s why some people, even though they may understand they are initially Saved by grace alone through faith in Christ, drift off the path into a belief that once they are Saved they maintain their salvation through godly living and obedience to the commandments. What they’re saying is that they’re Saved by faith but that they keep their salvation through “Good Works“...that their own temporal righteousness, gained by their lifestyle, is ultimately more important than the spiritual righteousness of Christ, because while the spiritual righteousness of Jesus Christ may be sufficient to Save them initially, only through their own temporal righteousness can they remain Saved. They might hide that theology by religious phraseology like:

Praise God, I’m saved by faith, but...

unless I seek God’s will for my life I will lose my salvation.

unless I make Jesus Christ the Lord of my life I will lose my salvation.

unless I separate myself from the “World” I will lose my salvation.

unless I am obedient to God’s commandments I will lose my salvation,” and so on.

All these things we must be doing, and they are the fruit of real salvation! But we cannot rely on them to maintain our salvation because what we are actually saying is that it is our own efforts at doing these things which will ultimately assure our getting to Heaven, not solely faith in Christ. I’m not saying that everyone who thinks they keep their salvation by obedience is going to Hell; I’m saying it is a flawed salvation doctrine that holds the potential to send one to Hell if--and again I say if--one reaches the point where he consciously believes that through living a godly life he has reached a state of righteousness that guarantees his salvation. Not only the LDS church, but also many good orthodox Christian denominations teach shades of this flawed doctrine, and a person can certainly believe it to a degree and have salvation so long as he doesn’t take the last step into heresy offered by this doctrine and also conclude that he has achieved soul-saving righteousness apart from faith in Jesus Christ alone.

You see, I want to break you of any notion that salvation is a partnership. It’s not 99% of it being Jesus Christ dying on the cross for you while your 1% is to obey His commandments; and if you fail in holding up your end you will be lost. Your salvation depends 100% on what Jesus Christ did for you. Your reasonable response to the fact that he earned your salvation for you is to now follow God’s commandments and live a godly life, but never with the thought that this is your part to guarantee your salvation. If you don’t follow the commandments, then, yes, you do have the potential of being lost--but only indirectly, through your heart being hardened by the amount of sin you allow into your life by defiance of those commandments. Obedience to the commandments will keep you on the right path and lead you more fully into relationship with Christ, but never is the direct basis of maintaining your salvation, for the second you determine that getting to Heaven is based on faith in Christ plus something else you must do you run the risk of reaching a state of self- righteousness and self-reliance for your salvation. At best you will live a frustrated life because inside you’ll know God’s standard of obedience is absolute 100% obedience which you cannot achieve, and you’ll be under constant condemnation when you sin. And if you do reach a point where you feel you’re living a life of sufficient holiness to be acceptable to God you may have lost any salvation you had since you have adopted (perhaps unintentionally) the Pharisees’ belief that one is justified before God by his own righteousness which is achieved by obedience to the commandments and doing Good Deeds. These unhappy results come about through spiritual deception. The teaching you accept is the spirit you submit yourself to, whether it is a spirit of truth or a spirit of deception. Salvation doctrine is the most important of all Biblical doctrines, and any incorrect understanding of how a person is Saved or stays Saved can lead to demonic deception. This is how you can encounter, for instance, legalistic “holiness” churches that go so far as to say that a woman who wears makeup is in direct disobedience to the commandments and thus she is unsaved. Error begets error, and the deception that some of the founders of these churches fell into, despite their sincere desire to follow God, has created false movements in the Body of Christ and opened some up to demonic deception. You’ll note that at many of these churches there seems to be an abundance of “Gifts of the Spirit” in evidence--mostly prophecy and Tongues. Through hard, personal experience I must tell you that the source for many of these “Gifts” isn’t the Holy Spirit, but an Unholy spirit that has crept in through the subtlety of incorrect holiness teaching. Some of these sincere people have so sought after holiness as a conscious means of becoming righteous in God’s eyes, that they have yielded themselves to lying spirits of self-righteousness and spoken prophecies that are of Satan, not God! Again, this is not a personal opinion--I have witnessed it in operation and for years never understood what the problem was until God, through the Word, revealed to me the deception that many, including myself, have walked in. It is a very fine line between seeking holiness out of a love for God in gratitude for salvation, and seeking holiness in the belief, conscious or otherwise, that we must meet a standard of righteous living to be accepted by God.

This flawed understanding is why, across the board, denominations teaching that obedience to the commandments is a direct requirement for salvation will admit that you can never be certain of your salvation until you die and find out the result of your earthly life--for only then can you know if you have truly served God adequately enough to escape the flames of Hell. John the Apostle held a different view, saying: These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may KNOW that ye have eternal life... (1st John 5:13). John doesn’t say that ye may have hope of salvation--but that ye can know you have salvation in this life through faith in Christ.

So what’s left to make of the writings of James? Only what evangelical Christianity would assert--that he is not dealing with the subject of salvation from sin by tying salvation directly to some sort of Works, but that he is agreeing with Paul that a person is Saved by faith, but that while one is Saved by faith, the only true faith that can Save is faith that is sincere enough to manifest temporal evidence of it by deeds such as--helping those in need...sacrificing Isaac on an altar because Abraham had faith that God would raise him from the dead....sneaking the Israelite spies out of Jericho because Rahab believed God was going to give them the victory over the city, etc., not that these Works are counted by God as the part we must pay for our salvation, or that they will be counted as righteous Works at the Last Judgment and be the basis of guaranteeing our place with Jehovah. These Works are only the fruit of the true Saving faith that imparts to us the spiritual righteousness of Jesus Christ which alone is the sort of righteousness that can get one into Heaven.

"But doesn't the Bible say that we'll be judged by our 'Works', despite what you're saying?"

Good point--yes it does. But many people misunderstand what constitutes the “judgment” based on our Works. Example: a good-hearted atheist who denies the existence of God and rejects Jesus Christ as savior, dies and goes on to his final Judgment. Although an atheist, this man led a good moral life, helped many people philanthropically, and was a fine role model. God is now going to judge his “Works”. To understand what that means we must first ask if it is possible for this man to go to Heaven at all? According to the New Testament, it is not. No matter how we might argue the part Works play in salvation, the New Testament is clear and unequivocal that no man shall enter into the presence of God for eternity except through Jesus Christ. Since our moral atheist rejected Jesus Christ, there is no possibility of his entering into eternal life with Him. So then what benefit are his Works, no matter how fine a life this man lived? Absolutely none! The purpose of his Works being reviewed is not to determine how fine a man he was, and whether his temporal goodness rates his earning a place in Heaven despite his denial of God, but to determine how far short this man fell from living according to God’s standards. In other words, the only Works that will be considered in this judgment are the man’s sins, and his eternal punishment will be based on how many and how severe his sins were when measured against the standards the Bible outlines for living. Any “good” he may have done in his life is of no benefit to him--his Good Deeds cannot be used to offset his sins, just as Mother Teresa’s Good Deeds wouldn’t (at least in a perfect world) excuse her from the penalty of a speeding ticket if she ignored the law.

Now let’s take the Christian who also is going to be judged by his Works. A true Christian enters into Heaven because of his trusting God that his sins have been forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross. The Christian does not “make up” for his past misdeeds or offset the eternal penalty for sins he commits as a Christian because of his Good Deeds any more than the non-Christian does. Thus, the Works judged after the death of a Christian are not to determine if he lived morally enough to make it into Heaven, but only the Good Works (and not his sins, which are forgiven and washed away) are judged, and a reward is given on the basis of the Good he sincerely did in his life, in the same way a punishment was given the non-Christian for his Evil Works. So, in the first case, the non-Christian is consigned to Hell before his Evil Works are judged, and in the second, the Christian is consigned to Heaven before his Good Works are judged.

Even in the case where Paul speaks of all Christians appearing after death before the Judgment seat of Christ, the word used for judgment seat was a word used in the Olympics of Paul’s day to refer to the place where a judge would dispense a reward for someone who had already won a particular contest--it was not a place to determine whether the person had won the contest.*


* Now while the word technically was also used in a legal sense where guilt or innocence could be determined by a magistrate at his seat of judgment, Paul's often-used illustrations of sporting events, and illustrations of things like incorruptible vs. corruptible crowns, show he is drawing on sporting imagery, where the purpose of the judgment seat is only to mete out reward, not separate winners from the losers, which is also verified by comparing the experience of the sinner at the Last Judgment, who is elected and pre-appointed to damnation before he gets there with his works playing no role whatever in determining guilt or innocence, but only punishment.


A final note

You might wonder why God would have consciously allowed such a confusing passage of scripture to be in the Bible. Wouldn’t it have been a simple matter for the Holy Spirit to inspire James to write something more clearly in line with Paul’s writings?

I submit that God did it this way was because He knew that, no matter how much Paul or anyone else preached that salvation was by faith alone, there would always be those who would believe there must be something they must do to earn it. By James writing the text in a manner that could be misunderstood, this ultimately would expose those in need of freedom from this mindset in order to have a hope of true salvation. Otherwise, the blindness that can only arise through this heart attitude might have remained forever hidden, poisoning the soul of an individual on an invisible level, and eventually costing him his salvation.

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