James 1 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
Martin Luther harshly criticized the book of James in his preface to it in the German Bible as an “epistle of straw and hay.” He wrote that he could not find Christ in it and this was why he felt the book confused salvation by works and salvation by grace through faith.
To his credit, Luther was only trying to read James through the highest principle of Biblical interpretation, the principle that Christ is the center of the Scriptures. Still, it is possible that Luther misunderstood James. He, like all of us, still had a sinful nature and he, unlike many of us today, would have been the first to tell you that. (See 1 Tim. 1:12-17 for why all Christians should do this).
Perhaps I’m walking out on a limb here, but I have been wondering over the years if some of the more curious and unique phrases in James are Christ-centered in character. Case in point, James 1:25: But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.
The terms “perfect law” and “law of liberty” are both curious and somewhat unique. While Galatians 5 reveals a Paul who is able to connect the law and Christian liberty, the expression “law of liberty” still sounds like a stretch to the Biblically-trained ear. What is this “perfect law/law of liberty?”
I think it’s Christ. In fact, I am all for translating the terms with capital letters (“Perfect Law/Law of Liberty”).
One can look into the mirror of the law (vv. 23-24) all day long. Indeed he should! But he will soon forget what he looks like thanks to his own sin. The mirror of the law reveals someone who looks like you and I do when we stop and stare into the mirror during a midnight run to the bathroom. It’s not pretty. Sin is not pretty, and yet, we are quick to forget our sinfulness in the vain attempt to suggest nothing is wrong and that we have been perfectly righteous.
But look into the Perfect Law (Christ Himself) and the images of Christ in the Scriptures come to mind. He is the spotless Lamb of God, sinless in all His ways, the Law made perfect.
Looking into the Perfect Law in the Gospels means looking into the perfection that comes by grace, what Christ is properly speaking of when He instructs “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Looking into the Perfect Law means looking into the forgiveness of sins and the spotless righteousness of Christ given to us in such a precious gift.
“Looking into the perfect law” probably also means studying the mind of Christ in His interactions in the Gospels. Christ embodies this perfection in His own behavior. That being said, while Christ as “model of righteousness” is not the Gospel and, as such, should not be taught as a way to salvation, Christ is still a model of righteousness. Understanding that His righteousness comes first by way of a gift, we can look to Jesus in the Scriptures as teaching us how to show this righteousness toward the Pharisees, the experts in the Law, the tax collectors, the anxious, in our own lives as well.
This explains why the “Perfect Law” is mentioned in a section that encourages Christians to be not merely hearers of the Word, but doers of it. Christ grants the righteousness as a gift. Christ shows the way to how we show it to our neighbor and to the world. He is the Law made perfect. He grants His perfect keeping of it to us. Instead of looking at ourselves in the mirror of the law, James invites us to stare into the mirror of the Perfect Law and see Christ staring back at us. Sounds a little bit like “dying to self” and “living for Christ.”
Does Luther miss Christ in the book of James? Far be it from me to judge so great a theologian and Bible scholar as Martin Luther! Still, I think it far more important for all Christians, rooted in the Scriptures, to seek Christ in them. The one who looks into the Perfect Law, the Law of Liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:25).
God grant you ears to hear, and the righteousness that does, His Word, the Word made flesh.