Was James a Moralist?

“Just as parents rightly teach their children to obey moral instruction, the church also bears responsibility to teach its own the moral commands of God and to bear witness to the larger society of what God has declared to be right and good for His human creatures.” Dr. Albert Mohler

book-of-james2If James (the author of the Epistle of James) was a preacher in one of our local churches today, I am not so sure I would be so quick to endorse his messages. He sounds a tad too moralistic. Too obsessed with good works. Too concerned about how people are living, oftentimes using this to validate their claims about Jesus – irrespective of whether those claims are biblical or not. He is too out-ward focused. Too action-oriented. Behavioral reformation seems to be a priority for James, sometimes even seemingly equating good works with faith when it comes to justification (James 2:24). If he were a present day televangelist, I would advice caution and discernment to those who chose to listen to him. There are too many examples from his epistle that would justify my reservations:


James seems too obsessed on conditioning our blessedness with our “stick-to-it-iveness”. For example, a) It is those who hold on and never let go that will be blessed. b) It is those who do what the word of God says that will be blessed. c) It is those who “preach the Gospel and only use words when necessary” that will be blessed. I am not kidding. Check out the following three verses corresponding to each of the three assertions above:

a) “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12

b) “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” James 1:22

c) “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:26-27

If James were to preach such a message today, I would be the first to direct him to Psalm 32:1-2 which speaks about the person who is truly blessed, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.”


The second thing that would make me steer clear of James is his legalistic tendencies. For instance, he makes sure that he drives home the fact that breaking one law is equal to breaking them all. Not only does he scare us into obedience, but he seems to give the impression that total obedience of the law is humanly possible. Furthermore, he concludes that our claim to God’s mercy is dependent on our ability to show mercy. It seems, according to James, that our justification has an “if” and this “if” is presented without any mention of the Gospel.

“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:8-11

If James were to preach such a message today, you don’t want to know how many alarm bells would be going off in my head. This seems to be pure legalism. There’s no Grace in this message, and even more terrifying is the distinct absence of the comfort that the Cross brings to our inability to perfectly keep God’s law.


This is by far the most controversial point in the Epistle of James. His presentation of the role of works in the life of a believer seems to stand in direct contradiction to what Paul says in Romans 3:28, “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” James frames his message in a way that seems to elevate works to the same level of importance as faith in justification:

“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James 2:21-24

No mention of imputed righteousness. No reminder of the fact that Jesus Christ is our righteousness, that our sins are His and His righteousness ours. James makes no mention of these things. If he were a modern day preacher, this, by far, would still be the greatest evidence for branding him a heretic. How dare he contradict Paul the Super-Apostle?


So, how come I still believe that James is not a false teacher? How come I am still persuaded that he is not preaching mere moralistic deism? As far as I know, there’s no explicit mention of the Cross in the book of James, and yet the message of the Cross is a fundamental basis for any teaching on righteousness and good works. Do I believe that James is teaching a Gospel-centered message simply because some council centuries ago allowed his epistle to pass the canonization exam? Do I find James’ apparent moralism justified only because I can rationalize and split exegetical hairs to explain it away? Well, not really. The answer has to do with a phrase that James uses throughout the passages that sound moralistic to us. Revisit the above 3 evidences of James moralism and hold them against the following 3 revelations;

  1. When James pegs our blessedness to our obedience, he doesn’t say that it is our obedience to the abstract 10 commandments, he talks about our obedience to “the perfect law, THE LAW OF LIBERTY.” (James 1:25)
  2. When James uses too many “ifs”, the condition he gives to our receiving mercy is not the unqualified Old Testament moral law, but something else. He says that those who fail to receive mercy are judged “under THE LAW OF LIBERTY.” (James 2:12)
  3. When James teaches that we are saved both by works and by faith, he uses a very strange example as his precedent, he says that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (James 2:23). How can Abraham’s belief “without works” be used to justify righteousness in the same paragraph that equates the necessity of both works and faith for justification? Probably because James is speaking about works from a different context and worldview. He is speaking of works as an inevitable outcome of faith, not as a necessary precursor to faith. It is therefore no mere coincidence that Paul uses that same precedent in the passage that is often said to contradict James (Romans 4:3)


If James were a modern preacher, and I happened to warn people against his moralistic teachings, I am the one who would be missing the greatest message in his intensely practical epistle. James is careful to distinguish the Old Testament moralism with the New Testament obedience to Christ. The law of liberty is the law of Christ. James also refers to it as the “royal law”. It is the law in the context of Christ’s ruler-ship and it therefore presumes salvation. It is the law of freedom. It is the law that says “we are free NOT to sin.” It is the law that says our hearts have been changed and not only want to do right, but also find delight in doing right. The law of liberty is the law of the Gospel. It reminds us that we have not just been saved from hell, we have been saved unto good works. It is perfect because it has been perfectly kept by Christ. It is perfect because it perfects those who are in Christ. (1 John 5:3, Ephesians 2:10, Titus 3:5, Hebrews 5:8-9)

James? A moralist? Far be it from me to even entertain the thought. It is my prayer and hope that you will find this post a helpful guide to how you listen to preachers who may at first appear as merely moralistic but could actually be preaching Gospel-driven sanctification. Things are not always as they seem. Biblical Spirit-led discernment is essential.

For the fame of His name,


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