Salvation in James: Gift and Responsibility[1]

Part 1 of 3


I suspect for many readers of the New Testament that the Letter of James is something like the odd uncle at a family Christmas party who unfortunately suffers from chronic halitosis. Someone you rather not talk with, but in the end you are related—and thus might owe the obligatory yearly conversation.

Well, if this does not accurately describe the church’s reception of James, it certainly represents the attitude of many scholars. For example, Andrew Chester notes “James presents a unique problem within the New Testament. The questions that loom over it are whether it has any theology at all, and whether it should have any place in Christian scripture.”[2] James has been described as “the ‘Melchizedek’ of the Christian canon”,[3] and even less charitably James has been called “‘junk mail’ of the Second Testament.”[4] Martin Dibelius, one of James’ most influential interpreters of the first half of the twentieth century, concluded that the disconnected sayings of James are so incoherent that the letter “has not theology.”[5] Furthermore, Martin Luther showed little regard for this writing when he characterized James as a “strawy epistle” (German: strohern Epistel) in comparison to the works of Paul, Peter, and the Gospel of John, which “show thee Christ.”[6] These sentiments, both of modern scholarship and Luther’s, openly express what many more have suspected, namely that James, in Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn’s words, is “God-lite and human-heavy.”[7]

In light of these negative assessments of James, it should come as no surprise that the interpretation of James has been dominated by the question of how James is related to Paul. The problem with this, simply put, is that when James is read in light of Paul, James 2:14-26 becomes the center of gravity for James. In essence, the entire letter is reduced to one phrase in James 2:24: “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” When viewed merely in the shadow of Paul, the vast majority of James’ message is eclipsed.

Let me put a fine point on this tension—for Paul, justification comes through faith alone and not by works (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16); however, for James, justification is inextricably linked with works (2:14–26, especially 2:24). Faced with this apparent contradiction, reading James usually becomes an attempt to harmonize James’ notion of salvation with the correct notion in Paul.

Now, we could rehearse all the possible ways scholars harmonize Paul and James, or we could look at those scholars who think they are in hopeless contradiction. Yet, I don’t think this is a helpful way to hear James’ particular contribution to soteriology. Rather than approaching James through Paul, we should first attempt to hear James on his own terms. Taking James on his own terms reveals a bit of a different picture—that is, rather than James 2:14-26 standing as the center of gravity for James, one would take the controlling themes introduced in the opening verses (1:2-4) as a starting point for understanding the text.

So, rather than reducing James’ syllabus to merely “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24), we should rather also include, and even start with: “Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing [approving] of your faith produces endurance. But let endurance have its perfect [teleion] work, so that you may be perfect [teleioi] and complete, lacking nothing” (1:2-4).


The Overarching Plan

In three separate posts, we will work through three sections in what follows. First, we will consider the function of the “word” and the “law” as God’s gracious gifts for salvation. Here we will specifically look at James 1:18 and 1:21. The second section focuses on James 2:12-13 where “mercy” triumphs over judgment. Finally, we will think through the section of James that is always in contrast with Paul—James 2:14-26, but we will attempt to understand James’ discussion of “faith” and “works” in light of what James himself has argued about salvation in chapters 1 and 2.

So in this first of three posts, let’s start with logos and nomos—that is “word” and “law”—and how these gifts of God function in salvation.


Word and Law: James 1:18; 21 (22-25)

Look at James 1:16-18: “Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the logos of truth, that we would be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

As we enter this first passage, we must note James clearly speaks to those who already have faith (1:3)—that is the letter is addressed to readers who already have faith in Jesus Christ. And in 1:12, James has pronounced a blessing on those who “endure”—they “will receive the crown of life” (that is, they will receive the crown, which is life!).

But we need to start here specifically looking at 1:18 because this is the first direct statement in James regarding how individuals are saved. First, we should notice the metaphorical language James has been using from verses 14 through 18. Look in 1:14-15: “But each one is tempted when he is dragged away and enticed by means of his own desire. Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.” Then in verse 18, it is by God’s will that he “gave us birth.” The verb “gives birth to” in verse 15 is the same verb used in verse 18 to describe God’s action. So note, the language of birth is used to describe how “desire”/“sin” on one hand, and “God’s will” on the other works—that is, desire can “birth” one unto death or God can “birth” one unto life. Though subtle, it seems the author intends this contrast between human “desire” and “God’s will.”

Birth by “the word of truth” in verse 18 is an act of God’s will, God himself is the precipitating force of “birth.” That is, the “birth” here is by God’s choice and through his action—the participle at the beginning of the verse can be rendered, “In fulfillment of his own purpose.” Kamell notes that, “This verse does not state only that God was willing, as if he merely acquiesced to such an event, but that God willed the new creation into being … as if to say that God’s willingness is the only reason James’ addressees had for their communion with God.”[8] Again, we see God’s boule (“will”) is in contrast with human epithumia (desire).

The life God births in his people is “a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” What does this cryptic phrase mean? “Firstfruits” recalls the Old Testament idea of offing God the first portion of the harvest, or the firstborn of the flock—basically the idea of the tithe due to God. In the New Testament, “firstfruits” is often used to describe Christians—specifically as those who are experiencing now the final redemption all creation will experience in the future, thus firstfruits. Note the imagery of both creation and re-creation standing alongside one another in this verse. God is implicitly the Creator of “his creatures,” an idea that also surfaces in 1:17—here God is the “Father (creator) of lights.” So, the notion that God is the creator of all things is clearly implied here. Yet, also James’ audience is called the “firstfruits” among these creatures. These readers are the leading edge of God’s work in the recreating of the world, they are the renewed covenant community, the first portion of what God will finally do in all of creation in the end! Scot McKnight notes that in this phrase “is a profound indicator of James’s inaugurated eschatology…” as well as an indication that God intends “to restore individuals in the context of a community that has a missional focus on the rest of the world.”[9]

The means by which (“by” is instrumental dative) God brings about this birth is “the logos of truth.” For Jewish readers, God’s “word of truth,” alongside a reference to creation in the same verse, would automatically connect to God’s creative word in Genesis 1 where, by the words of his mouth, God called into being the material world. Note again, God’s action in creation and his action in redemption are both accomplished through “the word of truth.” And with the connection between God’s word as both the agent of creation and the agent of redemption suggests here God’s restoration of creation. True believers are reborn by the word, bringing in echoes of Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus (John 3:1-21). So the “word of truth” is God’s instrument through which he “gives birth” to a new-creation community.

The salvific “word” of 1:18 is quickly followed by the “implanted word” of 1:21, which is able to “save your souls.” Verse 21 reads: “So put away all filth and evil excess, in humility receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Here again we see that the “word” is a central feature in salvation. Clearly the phrase “which is able to save your souls” refers to final redemption—to salvation. But the question remains, “What is the ‘implanted word’? And how might it save the soul?”

The precise term ἔμφυτος (“implanted”) is not common in the biblical literature, but the Septuagint consistently uses the related compound verb καταφυτεύω for the promise of restoration in the land as God’s promised people, beginning as early as Exodus 15:17. Particularly important are the prophetic uses, especially Jeremiah 31:27-28:

“The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will plant (σπερῶ; cf. Matt. 13), the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the offspring of men and of animals. Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, and to overthrow, destroy and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and to plant (καταφυτεύειν),” declares the LORD.

This passage, combining several of the terms for planting, reveals that throughout the Old Testament the metaphor of planting refers to God’s work of restoration and that this will be worked out in community. Those who have endured in faithfulness will be planted in God’s time and location, thus ending Israel’s exile. The shared φυ- root terms suggest at least a conceptual link between James and Jeremiah 31 as well as to the prophetic tradition of God’s promise to restore those who faithfully endure (cf. Amos 9:14-15; Ezek. 17:22-23).

Furthermore, the text of Jeremiah 31 famously promises that at the time of the new covenant the law would be written on people’s hearts, and Jesus picks up on this promise and appropriates it for his own work at the cross. One interpretation of James’ “implanted word” is that it is a reference to Jeremiah’s prophecy of this promised internalized Torah planted within the hearts of the people of God.

Doug Moo argues for this view, insisting that here James is alluding to the “internalized instruction” of God in Jeremiah 31. He claims

that James’ description of the law as “planted in” the believer almost certainly alludes to the famous “new covenant” prophecy of Jer. 31:31-34. According to this prophecy, God would enter into a “new covenant” with his people and would, as part of that new covenant arrangement, write his law on the hearts of his people (v. 33). The law that God had first communicated to his people in written form will now be internalized, undergoing transformation and perhaps modification in the process.[10]

Moo later adds that “James’s language reminds his readers that they have experienced the fulfillment of that wonderful promise … God plants [the logos] within his people, making it a permanent, inseparable part of the believer” that will lead to their ultimate salvation. He further notes that “James here portrays salvation as future from the standpoint of the believer,” a customary view in the New Testament, “where the verb ‘save’ and the noun ‘salvation’ often refer to the believer’s ultimate deliverance from sin and death.”[11]

Now, just as a side note, others have argued emphatically rather than a reference to the internalized Torah of God promised by Jeremiah, the “implanted word” is actually innate reason given at creation by God.[12] Now this has some merit because the word “implanted” can mean “innate” in several contexts, and the Greek word logos is very broad in its semantic range—it could mean logic, reason, argument, word, etc. At a conference this summer I read an entire monograph arguing that here James actually takes up the Stoic idea that God implanted natural reason in every human being at creation and that James now argues that through this inborn reason individuals are saved. What tells against this understanding of “implanted word” most sharply is the fact that that James’ readers are commanded to “receive in meekness” this “implanted word.” Rather than innate reason, this “implanted word” must be humbly received—that is, God has done a work in the readers’ lives, and they must now respond to this gracious act in humble and active reception.

Along with Moo, Richard Bauckham, argues that the “implanted word” of 1:21 is connected to Jeremiah’s new covenant. Bauckham notes that the “implanted word” is linked to the “law of freedom” in 1:25 and 2:12, and claims that the “word/law” refers “to role of the law in the new covenant of Jeremiah 31(Septuagint 38): 31-34….”[13] If this can be argued as background for James’ understanding of “word”, it explains both James 1:18 and 1:21.

In 1:18, God (not human desire) gives birth to his people by the “word of truth”—the word is God’s word of creation and redemption. In 1:21, the “implanted word” refers to Jeremiah’s promise that God would “put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Aligning both 1:18 and 1:21 then, the birth language is God’s action in internalizing this “word” or covenant on his people’s hearts. This is new birth, salvation by the will of God through the “word of truth.” And these readers are birthed into a new relationship with God as his children, as ones who know him covenantally through the law of the New Covenant now made internal. Ultimately for James, this is God’s law mediated through the life and death of Christ, where James’ readers are the “firstfruits” of that future day when all will “know God” as Jeremiah had foretold—the leading edge of God’s new covenant community.

This understanding also provides the smoothest transition from James 1:18 and 21 to James 1:22-25. In this famous passage, James commands his readers to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.” Being a “doer of the word” is further described as “one who looks into the perfect law, the law of freedom” (1:25). This has caused students of James problems for why would there be such an abrupt change from “word” (1:18, 21, 22-23) to “law”? But there is good reason to think that “word” and “law” are referring to the same thing.

Richard Bauckham argues:

It is difficult to be sure what James means by the unparalleled term ‘law of freedom’ (1:25; 2:12), but in a context of Jewish thought the reference is presumably to the freedom to serve God, freedom from sin, freedom from the evil inclination which otherwise succumbs to temptation and produces sin and death (1:14-15). In that case, it should probably be related to ‘birth by the word of truth’ (1:18; cf. Ezek. 11:19; 36:26; Ps. 51:[50]:10?) and ‘the implanted word’ (1:21; cf. Jer. 31:27?), which give the ability to overcome the evil inclination and set one free to serve God in obedience to his law. Behind these ideas would seem to lie Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant (31[LXX 38]:31-34; cf. Ezek. 11:19-20; 36:26-27). The prophecy is not of a new law, but of the law, God’s law, put within one and written on one’s heart (Jer. 31:33).[14]

Thus, the “word” is the means of initial rebirth in v. 18, though implanted by God in v. 21, it must also be received in meekness. In James 1:22-25 it is clear that true believers must know and do “the perfect law of freedom.” Ralph Martin argues, “‘the perfect law’ is none other than the ‘word implanted’ in the hearts of responsive believers. It is the ‘law’ of love to one’s neighbor as well as the law written on the human heart. Both ideas stem from the eschatological fulfillment of the new covenant prophecy of Jer. 31:31-34.” Furthermore, Martin claims that the “law” in James is that which Jesus taught, which neither equals nor abandons the Torah but “includes, expands, and deepens the demands of the ‘old’ law.”[15]

To summarize so far: this “word/law” gives birth (1:18) and is able to save (1:21). The “word/law” is likely the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s promise of God’s law written on the heart. This “word of truth” and “implanted word” thus is a new character, a new heart’s disposition created in us. It must be received (1:21) and, as the “law of freedom” it must be obeyed (1:22-25). Thus, the “word/law” in James is God’s instrument for salvation—it is both gift and responsibility. In the next post we will consider how mercy triumphs over judgment in James chapter 2.


[1] This series is indebted throughout to the careful and thought-provoking work of Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn.

[2] Chester and Martin 1994: 3, emphasis added.

[3] Penner 1999: 257.

[4] Elliott 1993: 71, though not his own opinion.

[5] Dibelius 1976: 21.

[6] Preface to the New Testament, 1522; see also, Luther’s Works, vol. 35, p. 362.

[7] Mariam J. Kamell, “Irrevocable Nature of Salvation: Evidence from the Epistle of James,” Testamentum Imperium 2 (2009): 1.

[8] Mariam J. Kamell, “Soteriology of James in Light of Earlier Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gospel of Matthew” (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of St. Andrews, 2010), 137.

[9] McKnight, James, 131.

[10] Moo, James, 32, emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 87-88.

[12] Jackson-McCabe, Logos and Law.

[13] Bauckham, James, 141.

[14] James, 146.

[15] Martin, James, 51, 67 respectively.