The Book of James and Jesus: Part 3

In Scripture, Seminary by Antwuan Malone

We’ve been talking about the book of James and how it compares to the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s continue below…

Theological Comparisons

The theological implications in the Letter of James are perhaps the most interesting aspects of the book. James has been scrutinized for his Soteriology concerning the relationship of works and faith. That is, his statements regarding the role of faith and works in the salvation experience require extra attention. What does the Sermon on the Mount have to say to this? How does the Sermon on the Mount inform James’ soteriological position? Though the teaching appears out of step with Paul’s teaching, is it in step with the teachings of Jesus?

In the previous section, we cautioned against making excessive connections to the Sermon on the Mount. This is especially difficult when considering the theology of the two works side-by-side. But, I have to wonder what theological expectations we should have of every writing in the New Testament. In other words, shouldn’t we expect most, if not all, of the New Testament writings to be influenced by the teachings of Jesus? Scholars are quick to point out that James and Jesus align in their acknowledgment of man’s sinful nature, their admonishment against sin, their speaking of God’s judgment, and their urging of their audiences toward confession. We should expect to find such theological harmony.

Due to the nearness in grammatical presentation of these writings, I find it far more informative to identify the differences in their theological elements. Again, we should expect full theological harmony with all of the scriptures. So when that harmony appears interrupted, as it does here, it’s worth our investigation.

“Christ” and Evidence of Salvation

Two areas interest me greatly where the Letter of James is concerned. First, his Christology. The writer does directly acknowledge Jesus as the Christ, but only on two occasions (v. 1:1 and 2:1). In other passages, the acknowledgment is more indirect by his use of the word Lord.

On the one hand, such an indirect acknowledgment follows the spirit of the writing. It fits alongside the lack of “quotes” from Jesus. But the lack of more direct acknowledgments trouble me. For a writing so influenced by the teachings of Jesus, you’d think his name would be mentioned more than twice. Perhaps the “Lord” designation is enough to overcome this particular objection.

The second area of disharmony lies in the Soteriology of the two writings. Much is often made of James and his inconsistency (at least on the surface) with Paul’s teachings about salvation, faith and works. However, the scholarly community appears to have accepted that the view of salvation in James aligns nicely with the Sermon on the Mount. Of this, I’m not so sure. When we consider James 2:21-24, most scholars find they agree with Matthew 5:16 and Matthew 7:21-27. I’m not so sure.

Now, before we move forward, let’s make sure we’re all in the same room, so to speak. We’re talking about salvation (how to be saved) not sanctification (what happens after salvation). In particular, we are considering these verses to see what James has to say about the proof of salvation, and what Jesus had to say about the proof of salvation.

The passage in Matthew 5 concerning letting our lights shine before men cannot have informed the view that James speaks to in 2:21-24. The James passage suggests that justification is perfected, or completed, through our works. This is to suggest that we are not completely justified until works prove our justification before God. James is suggesting that our works are part and parcel to our salvation, and without it our faith is “dead” (along with our justification).

Jesus, in Matthew 5, is encouraging those who already have light to let it shine. Even under the bushel, the light is shining. It is not dead. It is still lit, just hidden. For these passages to be truly harmonious, we’d need to find the suggestion from Jesus that the light needs our works to remain lit. Or, that if we did not let it shine, the light would burn out. This is not the case. Jesus is speaking evangelically, and James is speaking about justification and salvation. These are two separate subjects.

As for the Matthew 7 passage, I’m afraid it’s more inconsistent with James than Matthew 5. While many will hear and read the similarities of grammar in Matthew 7:24 where it says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” and harmonize it with the teaching in James, I am unconvinced. It is a mistake to believe that Jesus is saying that our works are the evidence of our salvation in the Sermon on the Mount as is suggested by James. In fact, I’d argue the passage in Matthew 7 makes the opposite case against such teachings.

As I understand it, the thesis of the Sermon on the Mount can be found in Matthew 5:20. It reads,“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (NIV)

What did this mean to those listening? Jesus was not speaking to a people who needed to understand the value of good deeds. They understood this well. Probably too well. The audience to which Jesus is speaking knew that the Pharisees were considered the holiest among them because of their works. They had been taught that the best way to honor God was to follow all of his commandments. But they also knew they could not surpass the “righteousness of the Pharisees.” Whatever good their works got them was the best they could get.

Jesus was laying the groundwork that the type of good deeds that save is unachievable. In verse 19, he tells them that an offender of just one part law makes them not good enough. The Sermon on the Mount means to dethrone works, not build it up. And in Matthew 7 we find Jesus finishing his point. In 7:21-23 it reads,

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons, and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (New International Version)

Jesus is telling his audience he wants them to be obedient, but then goes on to define obedience beyond mere good deeds. Prophesying, casting out demons, and performing miracles would certainly qualify as good deeds to those he spoke (and to us). Especially when they are done in Jesus’ name! James might see such a people and believe their works are proof of their faith. But Jesus chides these people. He calls them evildoers. Jesus is saying “good deeds” cannot be evidence of your salvation, because, according to the Sermon on the Mount, good deeds (by our eye test) can even be done in Jesus’ name by evildoers.

So then, the Letter of James, though grammatically influenced, may not have properly informed by the theology in the Sermon on the Mount where salvation is concerned. Scholars desire to reconcile James with Jesus and Paul, but I’m afraid James does not allow us to do so very cleanly. He e is both forceful and repetitious concerning his broken view of salvation, and thus does not allow us to misinterpret him. James is thinking about the kingdom of Law, rather than the kingdom of grace when he makes these statements. In fact, he mentions grace (James 4:6) only once in this entire letter.

This does not annul the Letter of James from good use. If we interpret these passages as informing our sanctification (the life we live after salvation) then they are wise indeed. But to hold that James does not intend this letter to couple faith and works together with salvation feels irresponsible to the text.

Final Thoughts

I am convinced that the Sermon on the Mount had a profound influence on the writing of the Letter of James. Grammatically, it is clear the writer, at the very minimum, references Christ’s teachings in a nuanced way.  However, I am not convinced that James is largely a restatement of the Sermon on the Mount as some suggest. While the two works are largely in agreement, there are places of importance where the two pose very different, if not opposite, ideals. It is my theory that either the author misunderstood the teachings of Christ, or had not yet been fully taught their proper application. Such a theory allows, for me, the possibility that James the Just was not the author of the letter. As such, it is my intention to continue researching how this book became so credible that it would find entry in the biblical canon.

In light of these ideas, do you feel James should have been included in the canon? Why or why not?

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Antwuan Malone is a Ministry Director at ELEVATE Young Adult Ministry ( where empowers young adults toward Christian leadership. He is passionate about seeing young adults take their place in church history by drawing near enough to God to hear his call on their life, and courageously living in obedience to that call.