As I was reading this passage, something connected for me that I had never seen before. I can’t say for certain that it was what James had in mind when he wrote this, but considering his Jewish background, it wouldn’t surprise me if he did.
Specifically, James, in talking about the horrendous way the church had been treating the poor in the church (and showing favoritism to the rich), said this,
Speak and act as those who are to be judged by the law of freedom. (12)
That phrase, “law of freedom,” really struck me. What was James talking about? James had also talked about this same law in 1:25. In one sense, it’s the idea that God’s word brings us freedom. As we, by the power of the Spirit, start living what God has spoken in his word, we find freedom: freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, and most importantly freedom to live with joy as the children of God.
I can think of few other laws that depict that more vividly than the “law of freedom” found in the law of Jubilee in Leviticus 25, and that’s the thing I wonder if James had in the back of his mind as he wrote all this.
Because if there is one group of people who were affected by this law of Jubilee, it was the poor who were living in Israel. For many of them, because of their debts, they had sold themselves as servants to other Israelites. But God made clear that they were not to be treated as slaves, but as hired workers. And in the year of Jubilee (every 50th year), God commanded that any Israelite that had not yet paid off all his debts be released. In actuality, all such servants were to be released from their service every 7 years (Deuteronomy 15), but Jubilee was specifically set aside for this purpose as well as for one additional thing: If the poor had previously sold their property to pay their debts, that land was to be returned to them in the time of Jubilee.
In short, at Jubilee, it was a time when liberty was proclaimed for all people throughout the land (Leviticus 25:10).
All this is a picture of what God did for us. Because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, our debt of sin has been paid, and all that we had lost in the garden of Eden, a relationship with God and our inheritance as his children, has been restored to us.
And now, because of all this mercy that has been shown to us, we are to show that same mercy to the poor and hurting among our brothers and sisters in Christ. This was something the church James was writing to was not doing. And so he warned them,
For judgment is without mercy to the one who has not shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (13)
I can’t help but think that when he wrote this, James was thinking of an incident that happened in Jeremiah’s day (see Jeremiah 34). The Israelites, when they were under siege by the Babylonians, had made an oath to God that they would release their slaves as God has commanded. For years, they had simply ignored God’s law on this point and had kept their brother and sisters as slaves in perpetuity.
But when the siege was apparently lifted, they reneged on their promise and enslaved their brothers and sisters again. Therefore, God passed judgment on them for breaking their promise to show mercy.
And so James reminded them, “Hey, you have been set free by the blood of Christ. You were shown mercy. How can you then not show mercy to your brothers and sisters, and worse, take advantage of them?”
He told them,
Indeed, if you fulfill the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. If, however, you show favoritism, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (8-9)
And it is within this context that James talks about the link between faith and works. I think that perhaps a lot of the debate on what James means might be better understood if you keep the whole context in mind.
The main “work” James has in mind is the work of love.
When he says,
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him? (14)
In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (17)
substitute the word “love” for works and I think you’re pretty close to what James is saying. If we claim to have faith, but our lives are lacking in love, what does that say about our “faith”? Can true faith be absent of love for God and for others?
How about you? Does your faith display itself in love? Love not only for those who can benefit you, but for those whom many would despise?
Or does your “faith” show something different about your heart?
Do you live by the law of freedom? Do you not only live in freedom before God, but by your actions set others free?