James and Legalism

Some commentators have claimed that James is a legalistic book, are they right?

Personally, I don’t think so, but I can see why they say it.  There seems to be an impulse in some traditions to assert rules and even condemnation of others at every opportunity, and James gives these good folks a great deal of highly quotable material, as long as context isn’t an issue for them… and context in James isn’t as easy to identify as it is in other places. My real question relates not so much to James as it does to the impulse to make rules to hold others accountable to.

Here’s another way of saying this: Why is it that some Christians read the Scriptures and see faith in terms of ordinances and violations while others see love and our response to love?

Obviously I’m not the first to ask this sort of question, and just as obviously I won’t be the last to have a stab at it, if nothing else I hope to encourage you to give this a though or two.

Old Testament Israel lived under the Law of Moses, very much a transactional system of law, violations, punishment and atonement. The great priority of that system was found in avoiding violations to curry God’s favor. Sacrifices were carried out continually to atone for these violations, but there was no permanent forgiveness, only the putting off of punishment; the concept of eternal life was not present in the Law. Then Jesus comes along and changes everything, so much so that the Jewish leaders refused to recognize Him as the Messiah and had Him put to death… and lo and behold, by doing so, He brought a superior sacrifice and established a superior covenant putting the cycle of law and violations to an end. If this is a new idea for you, I would suggest you study the book of Hebrews, we’ve recently gone though it here in fact. With this, a new era was ushered in with that superior covenant in which sin could be taken away entirely and the gift of eternal life became effective.

Yet even in the early days of the church, there were those who attempted to bring the old system back into the picture, and Paul wrote the whole book of Galatians to combat them; a scathing rebuke is really what Galatians is, against the re-introduction of the Law into Christianity. (We’ve recently gone through that one, too.) A few centuries later when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, it became a political necessity to force the Old Covenant into the church in order for Christianity to be a state religion, since the Law was the code of a theocracy and Christianity was not… and the battle began in earnest and is with us to this day between law and violation, and love and our response to it. Several of our Christian traditions are grounded in this legal approach to faith that should never have been there, and they see most things in terms of law and violation, resulting in what we would call today “legalism.”

I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a 50,000 word post to fully explain and document all of this, nor do I suspect you would read such a post if I were to write it, so let’s just cut to the chase: Do you define your identity in Christ in terms of Law or in terms of love and grace?

OK, perfect! Every one of you said love and grace… go ahead and admit it, I’m right.

That being the case, consider this one: Is the will of God for your life a list of do’s or a list of don’ts?

OK, you may not agree with me on much, but you must grant me this: I am the only human being in history who has read every single comment posted on this blog, not to mention a fair number that weren’t posted due to language. Since we agree that our identity in Christ is about love and grace, why do some send me lists of “don’ts”? (Aha, that’s how he can tell!)

The Ways of this World

In the world we live in today, almost every time something happens, somebody proposes a new law. If you turn back the clock 150 years, states were passing laws banning sodomy, now they pass laws to ban opposition to sodomy. Back in the day, they banned abortion, now they ban protesting abortion. They passed laws against civil rights for some people, and then passed laws to help those people. Somebody commits a mass killing and we pass another law that bans murder, as if the 20 already on the books were one short. And each time, some where, some one backed one of these stupid laws and claimed they got it from the Bible!

Did Jesus say any of this “legal stuff?”

Not exactly. Here is Jesus teaching:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-40

As Christians, we live to a much higher standard than those living under the Law, for with us, it isn’t simply a matter of avoiding violations, for we respond to His love by loving our neighbor. If we really love our neighbor, nobody needs to tell us not to steal from them; it would be unthinkable! Nobody needs to tell me not to covet my neighbor’s wife, for that would be unthinkable. This is a vastly greater deterrent to ungodly behavior than another law!

James gives us some practical examples of problem areas that we might easily fall into and sends us back to the Master’s feet in prayer, both for ourselves and for one another. He tells us to be patient, to hang in there and take our problems, once identified to our Lord. This isn’t a list of “don’ts” it is the rule of love. If I harm my brother, I harm myself, and even worse I damage my relationship with my Lord whom I love above all else. Who needs a rule book?

Finally, please don’t accuse me of trying to condone sin, for when you do, I’ll know that you (sadly) still don’t get it.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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12 Responses to James and Legalism

  1. paulfg says:

    SOAPBOX ALERT!!

    Don. I am in awe. Thank you. And I will add a phrase given to “us all” which stopped me in my tracks today:

    “Love is the greatest commandment, and the commandment we are greatest at breaking.”
    Rebekah – http://hiddenwithyou.com

    Why so many rules when the essence is trampled? Break the key, and nothing fits.

  2. bwdell says:

    I agree. James is entirely practical, and gives the counterweight to Paul’s emphasis on grace. Like 1 John you went through recently, James says, “if you are a Christian these are the things you will be doing.”
    I wouldn’t assume too quickly that everyone will choose grace over the law (though maybe among your blog readers that is true). When I ask people on the street, the answer is most often “be a good person,” which is much more of law than grace.

  3. dwmartens says:

    “… the concept of eternal life was not present in the Law. Then Jesus comes along and changes everything …” I’ve heard this before and considered it, but it really struck me today.

    Jesus preached, “The Kingdom of God is at hand,” and sent the 70 and the 12 out to preach the same. The fellow who asked, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” must have, at least in part, gotten Jesus point. How many, or few, others came as close to this understanding that the Kingdom of God is eternal life? For any who did, what a liberating revelation it was in contrast to the law! Nicodemus had trouble with this even though the Old Testament indicated something of it in various places; Job 19:26 comes to mind.

    • Don Merritt says:

      Yes, very good points Dennis, there are a few OY passages that tell of this, and they probably should have grasped it, yet in their places this was still mind-blowing… as it still is to many Christians today. As you know, I would never mention names, but fundamentalists come to mind!

      • Anonymous says:

        However, as I think more about it, the Sadducees belief that there was no resurrection would indicate that other did believe in it, whatever that idea looked like.

        • Don Merritt says:

          Yes, true enough. The Pharisees had a concept of an afterlife of sorts. One can only imagine how their legalism would translate to eternity; a chilling thought come to think about it.

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