I must admit that James’ “faith without works” argument was one of my most used arguments against people when I was in the Hebrew Roots Movement. I truly believed that James meant works of the Law (of Moses) when he used the term “works.” When we take the overwhelming amount of evidence, however, in both the Old and New Testaments, we learn that the Law of Moses no longer stands, and, therefore, James must be referring to another law outside the Law of Moses. So, what is it?
The most important thing to first realize, as with all Scripture, is you can’t pull verses out of context. This is exactly what happens when this verse is used as an argument in favor of the Law of Moses. When you read all of the Epistle of James, it is clear to see that James is teaching us how to live a fruitful Christian lifestyle that is pure and righteous in the eyes of God.
He starts off by teaching about trials that we’ll face, then listening and doing the will of God, not showing partiality, faith and works, and so on. He clearly explains how to please God, and the thing is, none of it has anything to do with the Law of Moses.
The first time James mentions “law” in his epistle is in verse 25 of chapter 1: “But the [one] who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues [in it]…” There are two things we need to focus on here. First of all, notice that the law James is speaking of is perfect. The Law of Moses wasn’t perfect. In Hebrews we read, “For the law made nothing perfect…” (Hebrews 7:19). There wasn’t perfection in the Law of Moses, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a need for Christ.
Secondly, it is the law of freedom. The Law of Moses was a law of bondage, not freedom. In Galatians, Paul writes:
22 …Abraham had two sons: the one by the servant girl, the other by a freewoman 23 But he who was of the servant girl was born according to the flesh, and he of the free woman through the promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are two covenants: one in fact from Mount Sinai, bearing children into slavery, which is Hagar… 28 But we, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise… 31 So then, brothers, we are not children of the servant girl, but of the free [woman]. (Galatians 4:22-24, 28, 31)
As Paul says, the two women represent covenants. Hagar, the servant girl, symbolizes the Law of Moses given at Mt. Sinai, which represents bondage and slavery. Whereas Sarah, the freewoman, symbolizes freedom through the promise (Genesis 12:1-2; 17; Galatians 3:16). That promise was given to Abraham and to his seed which is Christ. Therefore, as children of God, Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, we are children of the free woman. We are no longer under bondage, but free.
With these two descriptions—perfection and freedom—we learn that James simply cannot be referring to the Law of Moses. He is talking about a different law altogether.
If we go to chapter two, James gives us more insight by saying, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well;” (v. 8). And there we have it, James, when referring to the law, is referring to the royal law. That is, the law of Christ. And not only does James teach us how to follow it throughout the whole epistle, but he also defines it here: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Simple as that!
Faith is the base, the foundation, as long as it is true faith, because justification comes through faith. With this change of heart and faith in Christ alone, we receive the Holy Spirit, the Helper that was promised us. As we begin working with the Holy Spirit (synergy), we are able to grow in love and works will follow. Not works of the Law of Moses, but works of love through Christ. If your faith isn’t real, however, then there won’t be any works that follow, and, therefore, you have, what James calls, a dead faith.