But there is enough sin and temptation in Christian experience to counter the development of the grace-filled community. Believers are retarded by much that remains of the old self-serving nature. Paul’s encouragements are aimed at the battleground of the heart where contrary principles are in intense conflict with each other (Romans 7). He is not prescribing an easy course of action among believers but a goal that necessitates struggle, self denial, and discipline – an earnest exertion that derives its energy from grace present, promised, and sought through continual prayer. To say that Paul’s instruction is aspirational is not to deny that it is also obligatory as a spontaneous expression of the new life. Reliance and responsibility are concurrent in the lives of the regenerate. There is a “must” that must be met by supernatural enabling. Grace is a gift that generates desire, volition, and action. The impossibility of perfection here in this life does not nullify the divine imposition upon us (Colossians 1:28). Failure drives us to the all-sufficient Saviour, deprives us of the right to boast, and discloses the marvellous forbearance of God in the forgiveness and assistance he bestows. Law or commandment is never intended to suggest any capacity within us to comply. It is meant to be a compulsion that causes us to resort to the Redeemer because of the startling discovery of our absolute impotence. Grace makes law both duty and delight. Grace affords us the perception that law (protective and life enhancing) emerges from divine love and expresses human love. Paul expounds the essence of law which, if operative as love for God and neighbour, precludes every breach of the moral law. The renewed believer eagerly complies with the behavioural norms of the Lord Jesus through likeness to him. Love is the fulfilment of the law of Christ – his disposition and deeds, his habits. We are given a care for what God cares about and a care for those who are his concern. Love of law consists of personal rectitude, generous compassion, and social justice: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). In exercising obedience we are given the guidelines of Scripture and the guidance of the Spirit and between the two there is no variation. If our sense of “right” conflicts with Scripture it is not of the Holy Spirit.
There are several powerful influences within the life of the Church that are corrosive of the law of love and disruptive of genuine harmony, mutual acceptance, and sincere fellowship.
a) The first amounts to a disregard of morality on the basis of a perverted view of grace (antinomianism). There is a casual approach to the Decalogue and Biblical ethics on the basis of a presumption that bad behaviour can be condoned and easily forgiven because grace is indulgent towards our peccadilloes. This is a view that does not assess sin with gravity, misunderstands our calling to holiness, and cheapens grace horribly. It is a travesty of the gospel and a serious misreading of the nature of salvation as deliverance from sin, not safety in it. Paul stalwartly repudiates this brazen attitude: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2). James endorses Paul’s statement with the observation that justification is proven, not attained, through holy living: “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Our profession of faith is vindicated by a transformed life and a struggle against sin, not a compromise with it.
b) The teaching of James has often been characterized as moralistic and works based. Luther deemed it a “right strawy epistle”. But James’s instruction is firmly grounded in a rich appreciation of grace – i.e. enabling grace that is evident in Christian character and conduct. He starts with the full recognition of supernatural empowering through the implanting of the soul saving word and the wondrous fact of regeneration (1:18). There is a vast distance between moralism and the morality of the born again, both in kind and motivation. Moralism emerges from a self-righteous confidence in one’s own competence to abide by the law. It does not appreciate the spiritual depths and requirements of the law and is content with a decent external conformity to it. It is harshly critical towards the flaws of its fellows, grimly, relentlessly, judgmental, and forgetful of our common unworthiness and wretchedness which is healed through the extravagant generosity of God alone. God’s gracious reinstatement of the penitent sinner is hardly conceded and yet Biblical examples abound (David, Jonah, Peter, Mark, etc). Moralism holds grudges, and intends evils alien to the mercy of God.
c) James tackles another issue that must have been prevalent in the early church or he would not have addressed it. He poses a test as to the graciousness of every congregation in the reception accorded to strangers – a rich man and a shabby man (2:1-13). James deplores partiality towards the rich and seemingly significant and the discrimination against the poor and uninfluential. James Adamson describes this kind of behaviour as maintaining “pernicious distinctions”. It does not accord with the poverty and humility of the Lord Jesus whilst with us on earth. Christians are not to be esteemed according to worldly standards. Snobbery and the snubbing of others is nothing less than a gross evil, especially if we explore at depth the humbleness and compassion of God as principally exhibited in the Saviour.