Supplemental Note on James 1:25 (“The Law of Freedom”)

This note is supplemental to the article on the Law in the letter of James (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). There are two primary references to the Law (o( no/mo$) in James, involving two particular expressions, which will be discussed in turn.

1. “The Law of freedom” (no/mo$ [th=$] e)leuqeri/a$)—James 1:25; 2:12

In James 1:25, the expression is actually “the complete Law of freedom”, including the adjective te/leio$ (“complete, finished”):

“but the (one) bending alongside (to look) into the complete Law th(at is) of freedom and remaining alongside…this (one) will be happy/blessed in his doing”

As discussed in the recent article, the context of verse 25 identifies the Law with the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (e&mfuto$) believers. I take lo/go$ (lógos) here in a comprehensive sense, as the Gospel message and the teachings of Jesus, as well as (authoritative) Christian instruction generally. However, the author may also be drawing upon Hellenistic Jewish language and imagery (influenced by Greek philosophy) in the use of lo/go$ (cf. below). For the idea of Jesus’ word(s) as a seed, or involving other planting images, see the previous article. There are a number of references in Scripture to God’s word being within a person (i.e. in the heart), cf. Deut 30:14; Psalm 119:11, and especially in the New Testament (Matt 13:19 par; John 5:38; 8:37; 1 Thess 2:13; Col 3:16; 1 John 1:10; 2:14, etc), where the “word of God” is virtually interchangeable with the “word(s) of Christ”.

In what sense is this Law the “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ th=$ e)leuqeri/a$)? There are three possibilities:

    • Following the Law leads to freedom—This is attested for the Torah in Jewish tradition (e.g., m. Abot 3:5; 6:2; Baba Kamma 8:6; b. Baba Metzia 85b, cf. Davids, p. 99*); in other words, the Law gives freedom to those who faithfully observe its commands. Paul, of course, says virtually the opposite, often declaring that in Christ believers are freed from bondage under the Law (Gal 2:16; 3:10-14, 19-26; 4:4-5, 21-31; 5:1-6; Rom 3:20; 5:20-21; 7:1-6, 7ff; 8:2ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; note also Acts 13:38-39). Jesus in the Gospel of John promises freedom to his followers, those who hear (and keep) his word (Jn 8:32-36).
    • We follow the Law freely, not out of obligation or compulsion—As I have discussed previously, Paul appears to have held such a view for Jewish believers (himself included) with regard to the Torah: they may continue to observe its commands and regulations voluntarily, on the basis of the freedom they now have in Christ, no longer as a binding requirement. With regard to the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, the so-called letter of Barnabas (2:6) expresses the point clearly: “the new Law of our Lord Jesus Christ, being without the yoke of necessity [a&neu zugou= a)na/gkh$]”. Jesus himself refers to the “yoke” of his teaching (and example) as easy and light (Matt 11:29-30), while criticizing the ‘burdensome’ teaching and tradition of the Pharisees (Matt 23:2ff). The Old Testament Law is described as a burdensome yoke in Acts 15:10, and by Paul as a “yoke of slavery” in Gal 5:1.
    • The Law is a product of the freedom we have in Christ—According to Paul, believers are guided principally by the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ (and God) and represents the freedom we have in him (2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13ff; Rom 8:2ff, 21); by way of this guidance, we naturally fulfill the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21), which is no longer the commands of the Torah per se. Note the general similarity between James 2:8-12 and Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10.

The first interpretation best characterizes the expression here in James, especially when one considers the additional adjective te/leio$ (“the complete Law of freedom”). In Jewish tradition, the Law would have been regarded, generally speaking, as “perfect” and complete (Psalm 19:7, cf. also the Epistle of Aristeas §31, etc). In the New Testament, however, the adjective te/leio$ is used more precisely of the will (and character) of God, and of believers who conform themselves to it (Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 14:20; Col 4:12). In Matt 19:21 it is specifically tied to following Jesus—his teaching and example—as also in Phil 3:15 (and Eph 4:13); while in Col 1:28 believers are complete in terms of their union with Christ. All of this reinforces the view, expressed above, that the Law (no/mo$) here is not simply the Old Testament Law (Torah), but the Gospel and teaching of Jesus as transmitted to believers through Christian instruction and tradition. That this teaching still relates to the fundamental ethical commands of the Torah, is clear from the second use of the expression “Law of freedom” in James 2:12 (to be discussed further in the next note).

Even though the letter of James says nothing directly about the Spirit, it is possible that the “implanted word” (o( e&mfuto$ lo/go$) indicates something deeper and more abiding than simply the content of the Gospel message and teaching of Jesus which believers have received and assimilated. Within Hellenistic Judaism, under the influence of Greek (especially Stoic) philosophical terminology and concepts, the lo/go$ (logos) was used in reference to the indwelling reason, which the wise and just person followed, as a guiding principle or Law. Following the “law” of reason—the same Reason/Lo/go$ which orders and governs the universe—brings both freedom and completion/perfection to the wise person (cf. Epictetus Diss. 4.1; M. Aurelius 7.9; 10.33, etc). Seneca (On the blessed life 15.7) even states this principle in theological terms that nearly echo Judeo-Christian teaching (deo parere libertas est, “to obey God is freedom”). Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are roughly contemporary with the letter of James, brings Stoic teaching into line with Old Testament/Jewish tradition—of many references, cf. On the Creation of the World §3, The Life of Moses II.48-52, On the Decalogue §1ff [throughout], and, especially the treatise Every Good Man Is Free (e.g. §45) [cf. Dibelius/Greeven, pp. 116-118*].

In this regard, it may be instructive to look at the other places where lo/go$ is used in the letter:

    • James 1:18, where the expression is “the account/word of truth” (lo/go$ a)lhqei/a$)—here it is stated that “willing (it), he [i.e. God] was swollen with us [i.e. was pregnant/gave birth to us] in/by the word of truth“. The lo/go$ then is the power (or means) by which believers are given birth as the offspring of God. The word a)parxh/ (“beginning from [i.e. of the harvest]”, often rendered “first fruits”), is used by Paul in a similar sense, both of believers (Rom 8:23; 11:16; 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15; 2 Thess 2:13) and of Christ himself (1 Cor 15:20, 23).
    • James 1:21-22, part of the current passage (rel. to the reference in v. 25)—the author makes a distinction between simply hearing the word and doing the word as well. The lo/go$ then clearly represents something which a person does, similar to the way in which one does (that is observes/fulfills) the Law.
    • James 3:2—here lo/go$ is used in the simple, conventional sense of the word[s] a person says or speaks; interestingly, James also uses the adjective te/leio$ (“complete”) together with lo/go$ in this verse:
      “If any (person) does not trip/fall in (giving) account [i.e. in word/speech], this (person) is a complete man…”

The second expression involving the Law (“the royal Law” no/mo$ basiliko/$, James 2:8) will be discussed in the next note.

* References marked “Dibelius/Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Hermeneia, rev. Heinrich Greeven, transl. Michael A. Williams; Fortress Press [1975]); those marked “Davids” are to Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Eerdmans / Paternoster Press [1982]).

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