The Gospel in James

This article is part of the Christ in All of Scripture series.

Instructions for Godly Living

James is a beloved epistle, eminently practical and full of vivid exhortations to godly living. The author presents profound counsel on numerous essentials: trials, poverty, riches, justice, speech, worldliness, and prayer. His clarity and prophetic urgency call readers to action, but his assessment of our failures is almost too penetrating, as it exposes our inability to perform what he commands—driving us to the ever-present refuge of the gospel. Yet at the same time James stirs us to action, to the obedience that is a hallmark not of bare external conformity but of living faith: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (Ja. 1:22).

Since James demands what readers cannot render, we struggle to resolve the tension between those demands and our inability to attain them. We might expect James to discuss justification here, but he never mentions that or the cross, resurrection, or atonement. Indeed, the absence of these elements has prompted some to doubt the canonicity of James. Further, while he uses Jesus’ name twice (Ja. 1:1; 2:1), both are passing references, not expositions of his life and saving work.

With 59 commands in 108 verses, James declares King Jesus’ royal law (Ja. 2:8). He insists that obedience is a prime mark of true religion: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Ja. 2:10; cf. Ja. 3:1; 4:17). The hasty reader could therefore miss the gospel in James. If James merely commands, his clarity is a burden and his commands ultimately condemn.

Mercy Triumphs when We Fail

We will begin to understand the gospel intentions of the book by noting that James 1:26–27 structures the book when he declares that “anyone [who] thinks he is religious” will show it in three ways. He will “bridle his tongue,” watch over “orphans and widows in their affliction,” and keep himself “unstained” by the world. Remarkably, James next demonstrates that everyone fails to meet these standards. We must control the tongue, yet no one can tame the tongue (Ja. 3:8). We must care for the needy—orphans and widows—yet we’re willing to wish them well and do nothing (Ja. 2:15–17). We must avoid the pollution of the world, yet our envy and quarrels prove our worldliness (Ja. 4:1–4).

If no one has true religion, then all are liable to judgment. Still, James says “mercy triumphs over judgment” (Ja. 2:13; 5:11). The climax of the epistle, James 4:6, explains how mercy triumphs. No one controls the tongue, cares for the needy, or stays unstained, but God “gives more grace. Therefore it says ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Here “it” means all Scripture, which attests to God’s grace for the humble. James reinforces the lesson in James 4:10, commanding, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” That is the gospel according to James: No one is obedient, no one consistently demonstrates true religion. Therefore, the Father who gives good gifts (Ja. 1:5, 17) gives the supreme gift of saving grace to the humble.

ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible

ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible

The ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible features 375,000+ words of gospel-centered study notes, book introductions, and articles that explain passage-by-passage how God’s redemptive purposes culminate in the gospel and apply to the lives of believers today.

Further, the wisdom to understand such grace is from above (Ja. 1:17–18), as God grants needed understanding generously and without reproach to whomever asks (Ja. 1:5). We therefore understand that, though none can meet God’s requirements, he grants the wisdom needed to navigate this world and the next to all who simply have faith to ask his aid (Ja. 1:6)—this is undeniable grace.

This article is adapted from the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible. Browse other articles in this series via the links below.

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