Is the Book of James Really ‘An Epistle of Straw’?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

January 29, 2024

We have a lot of books in our New Testament. All of them, we believe, are divinely inspired. And yet we don’t spend equal amounts of time reading them. For most of us, our reading pattern is profoundly lopsided, focusing mostly on Paul (especially Romans and Galatians) and the Gospels (with John leading the way). Indeed, some books (like 3 John) hardly get read at all.

This trend raises intriguing questions about why certain books were even included in the New Testament. What purpose do these less famous books serve? This becomes particularly acute with the book of James. Although 500 years have passed since Martin Luther called it “an epistle of straw,” doubts about its value have not dissipated.

Of course, we’re not surprised that such skepticism continues among theologically liberal scholars—Martin Dibelius once declared that James has “no theology.” But doubt also persists—albeit more subtly—even among evangelicals. Sometimes the book of James just doesn’t seem, well, very Christian. It doesn’t talk much about Jesus (his name appears only twice), and it is mainly about morals—a bunch of do’s and don’ts.

To put it bluntly, the book of James sounds like law when we, as evangelicals, are trained to want gospel. It can sound like an inappropriate holdover from the era of the Old Testament.

Unfortunately, this skepticism of James is born out of a misunderstanding of both the Old and New Testament eras. Let’s say a quick word about each.

Old Testament Still About Grace

Lurking behind this critique of James is a deep-seated perception—still prevalent in much of American evangelicalism—that the Old Testament era was primarily defined by moralism. It was a harsh, cold, legalistic arrangement where people were essentially saved by works. Moreover, there was no concern for the heart; everything was about external ritual. And if James sounds like that Old Testament, we want nothing do with it.

Like most caricatures, there is an element of truth here. Certainly the old covenant involved a focus on ritual—it was filled with the visible types and shadows. It’s also true there was a strong law aspect to the old-covenant order, with the Ten Commandments taking center stage.

Overlooked in this caricature, however, is the fact that the old covenant was ultimately a gracious arrangement where people were saved not by their works but by the all-sufficient work of the Redeemer who would come. Thus, when God gave the law he first reminded his people of the context of grace and redemption: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2).

Part of the reason people misunderstand the nature of the old covenant is because they assume the Pharisees—whom Jesus often battled—embodied the ideals of the old covenant. Thus they assume Jesus must’ve been fighting against the old covenant itself. But a closer look at key passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount, shows that Jesus isn’t against the old covenant but the Pharisaical distortions of the old covenant. And those two things must never be confused.

New Testament Still Cares about Law

The other misconception behind critiques of James pertains to the way people perceive the era of the New Testament. Since we’re saved by grace and not by works, some assume that any book or passage that has “law” must be, by definition, antithetical to the gospel.

And James has a lot of “law.” It’s filled with imperatives—at a greater rate than any other New Testament book. James is concerned that we not just be hearers of the word but doers (James 1:22). He talks about favoritism (2:1–4), taming the tongue (3:1–12), coveting (4:2), pride (4:6), abusing the poor (5:1–6), and more.

So does extended moral exhortation make a book—or, for that matter, a sermon—non-Christian? It depends. If the moral exhortations are offered as a way a person can meritoriously earn their salvation, then yes: they’re certainly antithetical to the gospel. Paul certainly spent much time arguing against precisely this abuse. Galatians, for example, is designed to combat legalism—the idea that we can be saved by our good works. Thus Paul often paints the law in a negative light: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (Gal. 3:10).

But if one presents the law not as a way to be saved, but as a positive guide for Christian living, then there’s nothing “unchristian” about that endeavor. True believers with new hearts should love the law and are empowered by the Spirit to start keeping it (Ezek. 36:27; Rom. 8:4).

Sure, even believers fall terribly short of the law’s perfect standard. But because of Christ, the law is no longer an enemy; it’s a friend. We should remember the first psalm: “Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the LORD and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:1–2).

Paul and James don’t disagree; they’re simply combating different enemies of the gospel. Paul is fighting legalism; James is fighting antinomianism (James 2:14).

Letting James Shape Our Ministries

Once we realize James’s focus on morals is not unchristian, profound ministry implications arise. For one, it reminds us that legalism shouldn’t be our only concern. There are other threats to the church besides Pharisees. This is why we need the book of James in our Bibles. James reminds us that legalism and antinomianism can destroy a church.

James should also affect the way we teach and preach Christ. For a variety of reasons, evangelicals have begun to equate preaching Christ with preaching justification by faith alone. The two have become nearly synonymous. But there are other ways to preach Christ. James reminds us that we can preach Christ also by preaching how we should follow Christ, obey Christ, and be like Christ.

In the end, being a Christian doesn’t mean we stop talking about the law. In this regard, Luther was mistaken about James. If justification is all that matters, then one might find James unnecessary. But if sanctification matters too, then it’s essential.

(A version of this article previously appeared on The Gospel Coalition).


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