(Jas. 1:25) Are Christians under law or not (c.f. 2:8, 12)?

CLAIM: James writes, “But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does” (Jas. 1:25). Does this mean that we are under law or not?

RESPONSE: After Christ came, it is clear that something changed in our ability to grow with God (Jn. 1:17; Gal. 3:24-25). The Bible teaches that Christians are no longer punished for breaking God’s Law (i.e. justification), but in addition to this, it also teaches that focusing on the Law is detrimental to our spiritual growth with God (i.e. sanctification). Paul writes that Christians are “not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). In Galatians, Paul asks if “having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). In context, he is referring to focusing on the Law (Gal. 2:18-3:2). The author of Hebrews writes of the “weakness and uselessness” of the Law, which “made nothing perfect” (Heb. 7:18-19). Paul refers to the Law as the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). The NT authors would never refer to the other means of growth in this way. Could we ever imagine someone referring to prayer or Bible study as “weak” or “useless” or as “the ministry of death”? Clearly, a focus on the Law is not healthy for spiritual growth. In fact, the law produces more sin in the life of the believer and non-believer alike (Rom. 5:20; 7:5, 8; 1 Cor. 15:56).

If you notice, in this passage James doesn’t say “the law.” He adds other modifiers such as “the perfect law, the law of liberty” (1:25), “the royal law” (2:8), and “the law of liberty” (2:12). When James refers to the “perfect” law, this is the Greek word teleos. This literally means the “fulfilled” law, which Jesus accomplished on the Cross (Jn. 19:30; Rom. 10:4; Mt. 5:17-18). Thus, if James has the moral law in mind, then he affirms that it is fulfilled in Christ. Moreover, in James 2:8, the expression “the royal law” can also be translated as “the law of our King” (see NASB footnote). This would refer to Jesus’ law of love (Mt. 22:37; Jn. 15:13), rather than the moral law of the OT. If James had the moral law in mind, he would have quoted specifically from the 10 commandments—not the injunction of “love” in the Levitical law (Lev. 19:18).

The expression “the law of liberty” seems to be a repeating of the “word of truth” (v.18) and “the word” (v.22). This would mean that the “law of liberty” is the same as the Bible or perhaps the gospel itself. Moo writes, “The context makes us pause before accepting the identification of ‘law of liberty’ with the Old Testament law. Because of the flow of the text, the ‘perfect law’ of verse 25 must be the same as the ‘word’ of verse 22; and the ‘word’, in turn, is identified as ‘the word of truth’ that mediates spiritual birth (v. 18) and whose reception leads to salvation (v. 21). In light of this, it is necessary to associate ‘the perfect law of liberty’ closely with the gospel.”[1] James would be using the term “law” similar to the Psalmist in Psalm 1—referring to the entirety of God’s truth—not just the moral commands.

[1] Moo, D. J. (1985). James: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 16, p. 88). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.