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James and the Gospel

Author: Scot McKnight
Published: August 2011

MD 2.2

Article Type: Conference Article

The gospel according to James resonates deeply with the apostolic gospel. This gospel is not to be confused with the popular notion of personal salvation. Rather, James understands the gospel to be the culmination of Israel’s story in the story of the Lord Jesus Messiah—his life, death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, and consummation. Because this saving story is gospel, James is a rich resource for missional praxis.

Come hell or high water, Luther said what he thought and acted on it. In the first edition of his New Testament translation, called the Septemberbibel, Luther placed the letters of James, Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation at the back of the Bible. His infamous words about James were that it was “an epistle of straw,” and the reason for his comment I shall take up with you today. He said, “. . . for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”2 Well, there you have it: James can be discounted because it has no gospel. Moreover, if mission is connected to that gospel of Luther’s, then James has nothing to do with mission. I’ll challenge this in what follows, but first I want to turn to a recent discussion of the “gospel” of James, that by Rob Wall, who has written one of the finest and most stimulating commentaries on James that exists.3

Wall’s approach to the “gospel” of James is to set out the “master story” of James. Wall proposes a “pattern of salvation,” which is “vaguely covenantal in substance and narrative in shape,” and this forms a “theological subtext for the entire composition.” For Wall, James becomes a tool for mission. He finds four elements to this narrative theology in James. First, the sovereign God is able to save and to destroy (4:12); second, this one true God sends forth the “word of truth” (1:18); third, this sent word saves those who humbly receive it (1:21), and fourth, those who receive that divinely-sent word will be saved at the coming triumph of God’s reign (1:12; 2:5; 5:7–9). Well, yes, but there’s a problem. Having taught James for nearly three decades now, and having written a commentary that is longer than it ought to be, I read this list and I say to myself, “Well, yes, Rob, but I’m not sure that’s what James is about.” Wall makes a connection between the word “gospel” and the word “salvation” and then reframes both into a narrative approach—and I can’t say I disagree with anything in his narrative ideas. What I do wonder about is why the word gospel got filtered through the word “salvation.” Is the gospel the same as “salvation”? Well, of course, some of you will say “What a stupid question.” But I’m going to stake a claim now that gospel is not the same as “salvation” and that, while I like the substance of Rob’s narrative, calling that narrative the “gospel” for James misses the point.

If Rob Wall’s approach is not completely satisfactory, and if Luther’s is unacceptable, I suggest that the problem with both is how they define “gospel.” Even though Luther could say things closer to what I shall contend later, what is clear about Luther’s problem with the gospel in James is that Luther’s gospel is about justification by faith, and since James gets this exactly backwards in 2:14–26, and since James seems to be so in love with “Torah” (read: Law), James doesn’t have the gospel. Luther’s equating of gospel with justification by faith has become the custom in Protestant and evangelical circles. Let’s make this clear. When you ask the ordinary Protestant and evangelical the question “What is the gospel?” you will get variations on one theme: the gospel is about what God has done to save us from our sins so we can be reconciled with God and spend eternal life on the other side of hell. If this is the case, then James is of little use in missional praxis in the church today.

I begin with D.A. Carson, who in a Gospel Coalition address, summarized the gospel for many in these words:4

The gospel is integrally tied to the Bible’s storyline. Indeed, it is incomprehensible without understanding that storyline. God is the sovereign, transcendent and personal God who has made the universe, including us, his image-bearers. Our misery lies in our rebellion, our alienation from God, which, despite his forbearance, attracts his implacable wrath. But God, precisely because love is of the very essence of his character, takes the initiative and prepared for the coming of his own Son by raising up a people who, by covenantal stipulations, temple worship, systems of sacrifice and of priesthood, by kings and by prophets, are taught something of what God is planning and what he expects. In the fullness of time his Son comes and takes on human nature. He comes not, in the first instance, to judge but to save: he dies the death of his people, rises from the grave and, in returning to his heavenly Father, bequeaths the Holy Spirit as the down payment and guarantee of the ultimate gift he has secured for them—an eternity of bliss in the presence of God himself, in a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. The only alternative is to be shut out from the presence of this God forever, in the torments of hell. What men and women must do, before it is too late, is repent and trust Christ; the alternative is to disobey the gospel.

Carson’s appeal to the storyline of the Bible is shaped by what might be called the plan of salvation. In shorter compass, Tim Keller sees much the same plan at work though he ups the ante by seeing cosmic redemption at work in the gospel. But by the time he’s done, his gospel is more or less the personal plan of salvation:

The ‘gospel’ is the good news that through Christ the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us. . . . Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.”

And J. I. Packer joins Carson and Keller:

I formulate the Gospel this way: it is information issuing in invitation; it is proclamation issuing in persuasion. It is an admonitory message embracing five themes. First, God: the God whom Paul proclaimed to the Athenians in Acts 17, the God of Christian theism. Second, humankind: made in God’s image but now totally unable to respond to God or do anything right by reason of sin in their moral and spiritual system. Third, the person and work of Christ: God incarnate, who by dying wrought atonement and who now lives to impart the blessing that flows from his work of atonement. Fourth, repentance, that is, turning from sin to God, from self-will to Jesus Christ. And fifthly, new community: a new family, a new pattern of human togetherness which results from the unity of the Lord’s people in the Lord, henceforth to function under the one Father as a family and a fellowship.

Tom Wright thinks this approach is fine so far as it goes, yet as he has said in numerous settings, what they are saying is true, though it is not what Paul meant by the term “gospel.” So Wright formulates the gospel in other terms:

The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.

So, when we ask about James’ gospel, and about mission as its corollary, we have to decide if we are really asking this: Did James teach the plan of salvation? That is, did James teach that God loves us and that God is holy? That we are sinners? That we need forgiveness? That Christ died in our place and for our sins? That we need to repent and believe? If that is the gospel, I’d have to say I can’t know from his letter that James believed in that gospel and it puts the book in jeopardy for anyone who cares about that kind of missional praxis. Rob Wall did explore one way of doing this, and it’s as good as it gets in James, but if we mean personal plan of salvation when we say gospel, then I’d have to stop now and say we’re wasting our time.

Obviously, I wouldn’t have chosen this topic if that is as far as we could go. So I must have something up my sleeve, and I do, and I want now to explore what that is. I’m going to suggest that Tom Wright is more or less right, that the gospel and the personal plan of salvation are not one and the same thing, and that we can discern the gospel from the apostolic writings and that once we do that, we can explore all over again if James teaches the gospel. And I will suggest he does and that the book of James is therefore of value for missional praxis today. But it’s going to take us awhile to get there. That’s okay, we’re academics, and we like tedium. It sure beats getting your book scorched in the media and having prominent pastors “farewell” you in Twitter-world.5

The Apostolic Gospel

Before we can turn to James, we need to get the apostolic gospel on the table and make it abundantly clear. How do we do that? I suggest we ask the apostolic authors themselves, and when we ask that question we are forced into a new set of categories. There are three places to go to discern how Jesus and the apostles understood the gospel, and it all begins with a simple observation. To gospel was to announce or to proclaim or to declare good news about something—like a wedding or a military victory. So when Jesus and the apostles were talking about the “gospel” they were talking about some kind of declaration they were prepared to make. What was that declaration about?

First, according to the apostle Paul there was an already existing tradition that outlined or stated what the gospel was. Paul is either passing on that tradition by quoting it, or he is summarizing what the tradition was, in 1 Cor 15. There is some dispute here, and without time to develop this I will only state my view: the apostolic tradition of the gospel is found in 1 Cor 15:1–28 and not just in 15:3–8. In other words, the apostolic gospel includes the life, the death, the burial, the resurrection, the exaltation, and the consummation of all things. There’s more here. The apostolic gospel deals with these facts about Jesus in a narrative framework: the gospel is to declare the Scripture story to have found its fulfillment, its completion, its zenith, its telos-point in the Story of Jesus. And there’s yet another point to make: this Story about Jesus is a saving, forgiving Story. The gospel, according to this apostolic tradition, is to declare the Story of Jesus, who is Messiah (which means King), Lord, and Son. It is to declare that the Story of Israel has found its way to Jesus and this Story is now complete, and it saves. We should observe also that there’s nothing here about God loving us—though God does; there’s nothing here about how the cross does the atoning work—all we get is “for our sins.” There’s more here than any of our gospel tracts imagine, including the Story of Israel as the only imaginable context, including the consummation of all things before the Father. There’s a whole lot here about Jesus as Lord and Messiah and King. There’s stuff here about exaltation. And there’s stuff here about resurrection. But there’s not much encouragement for that plan of salvation approach to the gospel. It’s in your Bible, so I encourage you to sit down with 1 Cor 15:1-28, read it, and to ask what the gospel looks like if this is what it is. And it is.

Second, too many Bible readers pick up Matthew or Mark or Luke or John, see the title page where it says, “The Gospel According To,” and, if they think about it, take the word “Gospel” as a kind of book. In other words, “Gospel” means Gospel genre over against, say, Acts or an apocalypse or an epistle/letter. But the Gospel of Mark opens with a line that is as much a title to the whole book as anything else: “The beginning of the Gospel about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1), and a text like Mark 14:9, which says that “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Now this has to be the Story of Jesus and nothing else, and is a shorthand way of Mark’s speaking about his own book. Others have suggested that Matthew, too, uses the word gospel for his book, as in Matt 24:14. What is clear is that Jesus’ preaching is a gospel message, and that encompasses much of each of the Synoptic Gospels.

I belabor these points slightly because I want to say this: there must have been a reason why Mark and probably Matthew, and all the early Christians, referred to these four books as The Gospel. Not the “gospels” but The Gospel. Why did they call them The Gospel in four different forms? Because they were the gospel. What they are not, unless you are as creative as Stephen King, is an outline of how to get saved that one finds in the plan of salvation approach to defining the gospel. In other words, although the elements are present, one doesn’t find in The Gospels an orderly sorting out of how to get saved. What you do find is an orderly account of the life of Jesus. Over and over, and on every page of each of the Four Gospels, the background music to the separable stories about Jesus is Old Testament and Jewish stories. If there’s a geneaology in Matthew, there are ones in Genesis and Chronicles that Matthew picks up and—surprise, surprise—then cleverly arranges into three groups of fourteen, and David’s name in gematria6 adds up to fourteen. That’s what we mean by “gospel.” The Story of Israel is finding its wandering way into the Story of Jesus, and telling us that the Story is now complete in Jesus is just what the apostles said the gospel was all about. I could go on, but we’re trying to get our way to James, remember.

Third, long ago C. H. Dodd wrote a brilliant little book called The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, and there he made the point that the Gospels are a fleshing out of 1 Cor 15:1–28.7 But what he was really on about was the preaching in the Book of Acts, and what he found there was the apostolic gospel itself. Where? In those gospel sermons in Acts. Where? Acts 2, 3, 4, 10–11, 13, 14, and 17. Did they preach the plan of salvation as we saw above? No. What did they preach? The gospel that Paul passed on, 1 Cor 15 and the gospel that is being told in the first four books of the New Testament. What Peter and then Paul preach over and over is the same apostolic gospel: the Story of Israel has found its way in the Story of Jesus, and this Story is a saving Story for those who turn to God from their sins, believe in Jesus as Messiah, Lord, Son, and Savior, and get baptized in his name. We don’t have time to sketch each, so let me simply quote what is the most pregnant statement of the preaching of the apostles in the Book of Acts. I will quote 10:34–43:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

“We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”8

What I’m contending is that this is the gospel itself. To “gospel” is to tell the Story of Jesus; to tell it as the fulfillment of the Story of Israel; to declare that Jesus is Messiah, Lord, Savior, and Son; and to summon people to repent, believe, and be baptized. If they do this, they will be forgiven and can be part of God’s messianic people, the new Israel, the church.

Now a summary: the gospel, we are arguing, saves, but it is not the plan of salvation. Nor are we led by these fundamental statements in the New Testament to think that outlining how to get saved, or arranging the various salvation statements into a powerful method of persuasion, is the gospel. No, the gospel is the announcement that Jesus completes Israel’s Story because he is the Messiah, Lord, and Savior.

What is mission then if this is the gospel? It is to announce the Story of Jesus, it is to talk about Jesus, and it is to show how the Story of Jesus completes the Story of Israel. It is to announce God, and who is God, and how we are to live before God and under God. It is to live under Jesus’ authority and wisdom, it is to bring others under that same authority and wisdom. It is to point people to Jesus, and it is to point the whole world to this Jesus. First and foremost, then, mission is about Jesus.

We can now ask if James taught the gospel, but in so doing we are not asking if he taught salvation, as Rob Wall did, but if he saw Jesus as the fitting completion of Israel’s Story. If he did, then James indeed is a gospel book, and perhaps Luther will restore James back to its proper place in the New Testament. And if James did this then we can look to James for missional wisdom.

James as a Gospeler

We begin at the beginning. Here’s how James begins his letter: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). While we are at it, I will cite the only other reference to Jesus in James. At 2:1, James says, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” There are some very interesting debates about how best to translate these lines, especially those in 2:1, but those aren’t of significance to this discussion. What is of significance is that James twice mentions Jesus, and both times he attaches to his name the Greek word that translates the Hebrew word for Messiah. For James—and tradition tells us they were brothers, though it gets sketchy in the tradition just how they were brothers, depending on which theologian you believe: Jerome, Epiphanius, or Helvidius. For James, Jesus and Messiah go together. The fundamental claim of the gospel is to declare that Jesus, this brother of James’, was indeed the true king of Israel, the true son of God, the Messiah himself.

We need to remind ourselves of this simple fact: to call Jesus “Christ” was to call him “Messiah,” and to call him “Messiah” was to call him “King.” Yes, King of Israel, but the eschatological expectations of Judaism were not just that they would get that final Moses figure who would be also a Davidic descendant and would rule in Jerusalem. No, the expectations in the Jewish world were of a final single world ruler who would rule the nations (with a rod of iron) from Jerusalem. When the apostles and someone like James called Jesus “Messiah” they were making more than a soteriological statement. It was much closer to a liberation theology and to a political theology than a claim about personal redemption. They were saying Jesus was that long-anticipated and final Messiah who would wrap up God’s plan.

I’m thinking we could stop right here and say to Martin Luther: “Yes, Mr. Martin Luther, we know what you mean about James and the Torah, and about James and justification, but there’s plenty of gospel in this book. Mr. Luther, the sixth word of James’ letter is ‘Messiah,’ and that in and of itself is the gospel message the apostles declared.”

But this immediate strike with the word Messiah is not enough. We want to ask if James fits the apostolic gospel of 1 Cor 15 and the Gospels and the sermons in Acts. To do that we have to ask more questions, and they look like this:

  • Does James talk about the life, death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, and consummation with Jesus as part of that Story?
  • Does James set the Story of Jesus in the Story of Israel?
  • Does James see the Story of Jesus as saving?

The Story of Jesus, From Death to Consummation

So now to those questions. We begin with the first one: Does James talk about life, death, burial, resurrection, exaltation, and consummation? Yes, to the “life” question. I will develop this in a second article: James’ letter resonates all over the place with the teachings of Jesus. Those emerged from his life. To back up one step in all fairness to the apostolic gospel: the apostolic gospel focused on the death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus as Messiah and not on his life. The incarnation theology we find in John’s Gospel is not present in the apostolic gospel tradition.

On the death and burial the same thing can be said. Not a word. But let me speculate for a moment, knowing this is not to be taken as anything like a conviction. We can assume that James knew that Jesus died; we can assume that James knew that Jesus died on the cross. No one who followed Jesus as James did could have been ignorant of the fact that he died on a cross and was buried. So, we can guess this: when James calls Jesus “Messiah” he assumes the cross was not the last word about Jesus, his brother. Therefore, it seems reasonable, if speculative, to say: when James calls Jesus “Messiah” in 1:1 and 2:1, he is calling the One who was crucified the Messiah of Israel. There is no cruciform theology here; there’s no soteriology-through-the-cross theology. But at the bottom layer there’s a story of the Jesus who was killed by the authorities in Jerusalem and crucified. That person is for James the Messiah.

But what about resurrection and exaltation? We’ve got something to go on here. In James 2:1 we have a set of words that confuse the grammarians. The problem is clear: there were some believers9 who were partial against the poor and believed in “our Lord Jesus Christ of glory.” That’s a literal rendering of the Greek. The expression “of glory” is at the end of the long phrase and leads me to think the most accurate translation is “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glorious One” or “the glorious one, the Lord Jesus Christ.”10 Permit me to quote from my commentary:11

Glory (doxa) could be conveying a translation of the Hebrew kabod or perhaps hod, shekina, or tip’eret. The term could be (1) incarnational or theophanic (e.g., 1 Cor 2:8) and suggest the very splendor and presence of God, which would render favoritism especially hypocritical. Or it could be (2) eschatological and suggest the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ after his humiliation and poverty (e.g., 2 Cor 8:9; cf. John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32), which would in turn put the behavior of the messianic community under the threat of judgment. In which case, the text of James echoes texts like Deuteronomy 10:17-18 and Sirach 35:10–15:

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing (Deut 10:17–18).

Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
and as generously as you can afford.
For the Lord is the one who repays,
and he will repay you sevenfold.
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it;
and do not rely on a dishonest sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge,
and with him there is no partiality.
He will not show partiality to the poor;
but he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.
He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan,
or the widow when she pours out her complaint
(Sir 35:12–17; cf. also 10:30–31; 11:1, 4, 12–13).

If one favors the suggestion of the previous paragraph and translates “the glorious one,” there is a slight tip of the hat toward the first interpretation since the weight of the expression is on an attribute of the Lord Jesus Christ – he is the glorious one and therefore the one deserving of honor. Nonetheless, that consideration does not compel either interpretation and can be made to fit with either the theophanic or eschatological view. Sophie Laws is right: “James is not here concerned with the definition of christology [which the theophanic view emphasizes] but with the relation between faith and behaviour.”

Inasmuch as James has no other references to glory and no christology outside this passage, we are left with the option of leaving the two views in balance. If we take the theophanic view, contextually James could be emphasizing that the Lord Jesus Christ left the glorious presence of God, entered exemplarily into the impoverished state of the human condition, and has now returned to that glorious state of splendor: he is the poor and now exalted one. Therefore, the messianic community should be shamed in not identifying with the doubly glorious one who humbly identified with the poor. If we take the eschatological view, James could be exhorting the messianic community to recognize that they will have to render an account for their deference to the rich and their systemic mistreatment of the poor to the all-glorious Lord of the judgment, who, after his earthly ministry, was exalted to the right hand of God (cf. 5:7).

Either way, James assumes both resurrection and exaltation of the one who was crucified and now is the Lord Messiah. I tie this question with this observation: at the heart of the apostolic gospel was the declaration that this Jesus, the Jesus whom they had killed, God raised and exalted to the throne of God to rule alongside the Father. My contention is that James reflects the apostolic gospel tradition’s emphasis on resurrection, exaltation, and rule, while assuming without statement the crucifixion.

Before we move to our next question, one brief point about an issue that matters here: the word “Lord” in James is confusing. We can’t know always if he is referring to God, to the Father, or to the Son. But one text seems to be clearly in favor of it referring to Jesus Messiah as Lord. James 5:7, when we observe that James calls Jesus Lord at 1:1 and 2:1, perhaps refers to Jesus’ return/parousia: “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord” (5:7).12 The exaltation and coming of the Lord were a part of the apostolic gospel.

The Story of Jesus in the Story of Israel

The question can be asked in a number of ways. Is the “narrative” at work in James an Israel Story narrative? Does James set the teachings of Jesus into the context of Israel’s Story? Does James set what he thinks about Jesus into Israel’s Story? And does James set his own teachings in the Story of Israel? I’d say yes to each of these, and I’d like to develop the use of the Shema in Jas 1:12 and 2:8–9, his use of the Old Testament all over the place, as well as, again, his appeal to Jesus as Messiah. But I will limit my comments to one text, Jas 1:1. James begins in a most unusual way.13 He calls his audience the “twelve tribes in the dispersion.” In this expression a hermeneutic is revealed.

The singular question is actually two/four-fold: does this pregnant expression describe an ethnic body (Jews or messianic Jews) or a metaphorical body (anyone Jewish or messianic or Christian)? And, does “Dispersion” refer to physical distance from the Land (in the physical Dispersion) or to the metaphorical sojourn-life on this earth the Christian is called to endure (in the spiritual Dispersion)?

The principles for detection of a metaphor are critical here. For a term to be metaphorical, there need to be some clues: the presence of a metaphor signifier: “as” or “like”; the impossibility of rendering something literally, as in the rich man “withering away” in 1:11; low correspondence between metaphor and analog, as would be the case if we knew that James was addressing the messianic community in Jerusalem and he used “Dispersion”; and, finally, sometimes an expression is so clearly developed that one must conclude it is metaphorical, as when James describes temptation in 1:13–15.

Do any of these apply either to “twelve tribes” or to “Dispersion”? First, this language is typical for Jews when referring to themselves as an ethnic body in the Dispersion—in other words, this is ethnically- and geographically-oriented language, and there is nothing that indicates it is a highly developed metaphor. Second, this language is dropped from this point forward, foreclosing any chance of peering into the mind of the author through other evidence. Third, the expression “Twelve Tribes” could be seen as almost per definitionem metaphorical: ten of those tribes have been lost since the Assyrian captivity. But it’s not that easy: Jews with plausible connections back to the 8th century deportation were present in the Diaspora in the 1st century and the hope of their return was a routine feature of Jewish eschatology. So, since that return is expected but has not yet occurred in the ethnic sense, to use “Twelve Tribes” must be a reference to all of Israel, and this expression probably also included the eschatological hope of reunion.14 This is how Jesus used “twelve” (Mark 3:13-19; Matt 19:28) and for Jesus there is a reconstitution of that twelve-tribe group for those who follow him and his apostles. Which means, since James stems from a messianic community shaped by a messianic hermeneutic, it is highly likely that James is writing to the “Twelve Tribes” in the sense of those ethnic Jews who are part of the apostolically-led messianic community. The single text that should clinch this for understanding James is found in Acts 15:13–21 (esp. 16–18a), when James addressed the Apostolic Conference in these words from Amos 9:11–12:

After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things
known from long ago.

Clearly, James sees the work of Jesus to be one of restoring Israel, and the specific shape of that restoring work is the messianic community of Jerusalem led now by the twelve apostles who could easily be seen as the new heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Now a slight clarification of the Christian emphasis just made: the border line between this messianic community and the rest of the Jewish community is amorphous. James 2:1–13 unveils a community that still meets in a “synagogue” (2:2), and the rest of James only uses the word “church” one time (5:14). Which means that twelve tribes is both messianic and still ethno-religiously inseparable from the Jewish community. We conclude then that on balance it is more likely that James writes his letter to the messianic Jewish community, or to messianic communities, who remain attached to the non-messianic Jewish community, but who also are residing in the Dispersion, and which messianic community James understands to be the foretaste of the kingdom of God.

Our question, if you remember, is a gospel one. Does James see the Story of Jesus in the Story of Israel? If the answer is yes, then we have clear evidence of James telling us the gospel. The answer is, in light of 1:1, yes. James gospels directly when he sees his community as the community of Jesus and that community as the one that fulfills the expectations of a twelve-tribe Israel in the kingdom of God.

Now we can return to Luther.

The Story of Jesus as Saving

Luther struggled with James, and to be honest, many Christians have, because they’ve been taught to read the Bible through the law/grace dialectic or because they’ve been taught to read it through the lens of a Christian soteriology. Once soteriology was equated with gospel, James got himself in trouble. Had he known, some must be thinking, he would have clarified his thoughts.

I want to suggest both that James does have a soteriology but that James’ gospel is not a soteriological one. First, consider James and salvation. Five times James mentions salvation:

    1. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. (1:21)
    1. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? (2:14)
    1. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor? (4:12)
    1. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. (5:15)
  1. You should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (5:20)

“Souls” and “you” and “sinners,” as well as the “sick” are in need of salvation. The salvation James has in mind appears to be final in 1:21 and 2:14 and 4:12 and 5:20, but in 5:15 it is probably healing. We can complicate this for an endless discussion if we recognize that for James “save” and “justify” are synonyms at some level. If 2:14 says such a faith cannot “save,” that same topic and the same audience is told such a faith cannot “justify” in 2:20–26. To be sure, James gets “works” in here in ways that bugged Luther mightily, and I don’t want to pretend there are not major interpretive difficulties here (and not just because gospel and justification were equated), but the word “justify” and “save” are nearly synonymous.

What James does not tell us is whether Jesus Christ is the one who saves or justifies or whether faith in Jesus Christ is what saves. James tells us about “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glorious One” in 2:1, but he does not tell us much about that faith—except that such a faith and partiality are a living, dangerous contradiction. We could guess that anyone who said “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” in 2:24 when Paul was alive and thriving would know that the word “faith” had as its object the Lord Jesus Messiah. But James does not say that. And James speaks of forgiveness in 5:15: “and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.” But he says not a word how that might happen, and does not connect it to the cross or resurrection.

We can again guess: if James knew Jesus was crucified, and if James knew he was raised, and if he could call that Jesus the Messiah and the Lord and the Glorious One who would return, then we can guess that he thought that Jesus was also Savior. We’d be theologically solid, but we would not be fair to James.

If gospel is equated with salvation, justification, and forgiveness, we cannot say James “gospeled.” But if the apostolic gospel was about the Story of Israel finding its lost way to Jesus Christ, and if it meant announcing that Jesus was the Messiah and Lord, then James is full of gospel.

James and Mission

Now let me draw all of this together in the space that is permitted, which isn’t much. When it comes to mission we learn from James to live and to teach in light of the teachings of Jesus who is Lord, Messiah, and the Glorious One. I will develop this in our next lecture.

We also learn that being missional is to point to Jesus in all of life: when we suffer and when we do not; when we are tempted and when we are obedient; when we see the poor and how we treat the poor; when we see injustice and when we seek to establish justice. What might matter more in today’s world than ever before, and this because of the ubiquity of talk on the Internet, is that James teaches us how to live under Christ in how we talk. I’m big on the word “civility,” though I’m not sure James always lives up to what we mean by civility. But neither are we in James’ world: what James tells us is that we will be judged by our words and that as teachers we ought to teach wisely and well and reduce our words, and because he says that, I shall take his cue and conclude. Right now. On that missional note.

Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University (Chicago, Illinois). He is the author of acclaimed works such as The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete, 2004) and The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008), as well as various New Testament commentaries, the most recent of which is The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 2011). His award-winning blog, Jesus Creed, is found at


Dodd, Charles H. The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments. New York: Harper and Rowe, 1964.

McKnight, Scot. The Letter of James. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.

Meriam-Webster Online, s.v. “gematria.” Accessed August 14, 2011.

Mussner, Franz. Der Jakobusbrief. 5th ed. Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 13.1. Freiburg: Herder, 1987.

Wall, Robert W. Community of the Wise: The Letter of James. New Testament in Context. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997.

Wax, Trevin. “Gospel Definitions.”

1 This essay is an adaptation of a lecture presented at the Rochester College conference, “Streaming: Biblical Conversations for the Missional Frontier,” May 16–18, 2011.

2 The German reads: “Darumb ist sanct Jacobs Epistel eyn rechte stroern Epistel gegen sie, denn sie doch keyn Euangelisch art an yhr hat.” See Franz Mussner, Der Jakobusbrief, 5th ed., Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 13.1 (Freiburg: Herder, 1987), 44.

3 Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James, New Testament in Context (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 27–34. All quotations are from these pages.

4 I take the following examples from the carefully prepared PDF of Trevin Wax, “Gospel Definitions,” which can be found here:

6 Gematria is “a cryptograph in the form of a word whose letters have the numerical values of a word taken as the hidden meaning.” Meriam-Webster Online, s.v. “gematria,” accessed August 14, 2011,

7 Charles H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1964), ch. 2,

8 Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

9 On “faith” as being that of the partial ones and not Jesus, see Scot McKnight, The Letter of James, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 176–77.

10 Ibid., 177–78.

11 Ibid., 179–80.

12 For my more extensive discussion, where I conclude tentatively that it may instead refer to God/Father, see McKnight, 405-409. But one can’t be sure, and for that reason I provide the alternative interpretation in the text with the proviso that one ought to be cautious.

13 The following is an slight adaptation of McKnight, 65–68.

14 See Isa 11:11–16; Jer 3:18; 31:8; 2 Chr 29:24; 30:1; 34:9; Pss Sol 17:28; 1 Esdr 7:8; 2 Esdr 13:34-47; Sib Or 2:170; T Abr 13:6; 1QS 8:1; 1Q28a 11–12; 4Q159 frgs. 2-4:3-4; 1QM 2:1–3; 4Q164 2:1–3.

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