Where’s the Cross in James?

It’s not there. Not explicitly. There’s no overt mention of the cross of Christ in the Epistle of James, nor of the resurrection for that matter (although the resurrection is clearly implied in 5:15).

The absence of the cross is striking and it led Martin Luther to degrade James to “strawy epistle” status. In Luther’s words, Paul, John, and Peter “show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know.” On the contrary, James “is really an epistle of straw compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

If the cross is so important why is it absent from the book of James? Is James deficient? Is my personal emphasis on the cross proven to be faulty by James? These are big questions, and they are big questions that get tackled in Richard Bauckham’s thoughtful commentary on James (pages 135–140), a book I read last week (occasionally I read commentaries cover-to-cover).

First off, Bauckham provides evidence that a substantial Christology undergirds the entire Epistle of James, an important point but one I will not detail here. It’s worth noting that he makes this conclusion:

James’ Christology is closer to Paul’s than first impressions might suggest.

His arguments are solid.


It remains the case that anything like the Pauline soteriological interpretation of and focus on the cross and the resurrection of Jesus is completely absent.

But a second consideration should be borne in mind at this point. James writes paraenesis. …

Pause for a moment. So what is paraenesis?

Paraenesis is defined as “a technical term for moral exhortation and advice. While catechesis is the form of teaching that tends to emphasize basic instruction in the content of the faith [like the theology of the cross and resurrection], paraenesis is the instructional model in which ethical counsel and moral education were provided in a pattern of exhortation applied to practical problems or issues of living” (DLNT). The book of James is largely paraenesis, it has even been called the Proverbs of the New Testament.

Okay, now back to Bauckham:

… An appropriate comparison is not with Pauline letters as such, but with the paraenetic sections of such letters. These may well be among the most traditional parts of Paul’s letters, drawing on common traditions and patterns of Christian ethical instruction.

Romans 12–13 are an extensive example, and are no less lacking in Christology than James is. In the 35 verses of these chapters, Paul refers to Jesus Christ only three times (12:5, 11; 13:14). The frequency is only a little greater than in James (7 references in 107 verses). Two of the references (Rom. 12:5; 13:14) have characteristically Pauline Christological features. Like James, Paul in these chapters probably reflects the teaching of Jesus, but only implicitly (12:14, 17; 13:9), and, again like James, he refers to the law and all of its commandments (13:8-10).

Here’s his point:

Surprising as it may be, it seems that early Christian paraenesis, even in Paul, generally lacked much Christological reference. So James is as Christological as we should expect the kind of Christian literature he writes to be.

Explicit references to the cross are absent in the Epistle of James, but that should not surprise us. This is not uncharacteristic for its genre, even in Paul. Catechesis and paraenesis serve unique functions, functions that complement one another (a point made obvious in the broader context of Romans).

“That there are very considerable differences between James and Paul is not in doubt,” he writes. Yet by looking at the distinct functions of genre, Bauckham helps us see the continuity between James and Paul and, to me at least, suggests one way to reconcile James with Scripture’s overall priority on the gospel.

9 thoughts on “Where’s the Cross in James?

  1. James only mentions the church when it comes to healing the sick and only mentions the Spirit in opposition to the world. This view is short of what is revealed about the church and the Spirit in Paul, Peter, and John.

  2. Great topic. I don’t get what your argument is though. Where is your faith born from? Christ’s death and resurrection is where believers who didn’t personally witness Christ death base their faith on. What is proof of that faith… genuine works. What makes genuine works… The Holy Spirit. I don’t know I think we tend to overthink James because it is not Pauline.

  3. We are about to start through the book of James in our Sunday morning services. One of the books I bought recently to read through as we work through the text as a congregation is Chris Morgan’s ‘Theology of James’, available here:


    I really like his introductory discussion of the book, what it contains, and how it draws on the wisdom literature, prophetic literature, and especially the teachings of Jesus. He has a couple of sections in the introductory material that show all of the parallels between James and what Jesus actually taught (much though not all of it from the Sermon on the Mount). I found it very thought provoking and it really helped me see just how much of Jesus was in the book of James as a whole. Though His name is only mentioned twice, his essence has saturated the entirety of what James wrote. I definitely recommend this book; I gave my copy to my pastor and have not gotten it back yet. :)


  4. Thanks for the suggestion. Yeah, the bulk of Bauckham’s commentary is devoted to “Jesus the sage.” No doubt the parallels between Jesus and James are thick.

  5. Hey John,

    I think it is good to remember that James and Paul were different men, writing to different audiences for different purposes, but they were both moved and motivated by the same Holy Spirit and both came to believe in the Lordship of Jesus after encountering the resurrected Christ. It is also good to keep in mind that we obviously have a good bit of insight into the workings of Paul’s mind because several of his epistles have been preserved throughout church history. We can hear how he addressed different groups of believers in different situations. The same can be said of John, as we not only have the benefit of the good news according to Him, but his three letters and the book of Revelation. We can also intimate quite a bit about Peter who the most likely source of Mark’s gospel, and himself wrote two epistles to the church. However, James is a bit more mysterious to us. Aside from a few brief encounters in the book of Acts, and this relatively short letter, we don’t really have much to go on.

    Now, if someone were to come here and read one of Tony’s blog posts and then suppose to know the entirety of Tony’s theology from that one post, regardless of how well written it might be, they would probably reveal more about *their* own beliefs than Tony’s, whether their reaction to that post was positive or negative. I actually think this happens with James quite frequently. I would have to guess that this man James — who grew up in the shadow of his half brother Jesus — had a much deeper and richer theology than this one small epistle could ever truly convey. He had a ministry that spanned years before he was put to death for his faith. I say take it for what it is, and it *is* Scripture. No need to ascribe more or less worth than some other Scripture writer’s work because it has less of this or more of this. All Scripture has been breathed out by the same Spirit, and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness…

    All blessings in Christ ~

  6. Tony, great post and very thought provoking. Bauckham is probably right as far as his comment goes, but can you expand on this and interact with the whole neo-Reformed emphasis on “gospel-centered life” or “cross-centered life”? It seems like we often present these teachings as a way of life, in a way that condemns other possible approaches (“law-centered life” anyone?). Are we out of step with both James AND Paul?

  7. I appreciate your post in reply to my earlier comment. Of course, the book of James is not the only place to gain insight into James’ positions. We can also look at the book of Acts and the epistle to the Galatians. In the latter, it is quite clear that those who caused the problem concerning circumcision and who caused both Peter and Barnabas to withdraw from the Gentile believers were those who “came from James.” Paul contends that these, along with Peter & Barnabas, were not walking according to “the truth of the gospel” and called their actions “hypocrisy.” It was this incident that caused Paul to go to Jerusalem because Jerusalem was the source of the problem concerning the law.

    Eventually the influence of the law was so strong in Jerusalem that Paul went into the temple and had a sacrifice offered for him (Acts 21:18-26). And not only for him but for those men with him. This was done at the suggestion of James.

    Far from criticizing Tony’s post, I was merely pointing out that James makes little mention of the Spirit and the church (and neither mention deeply) as well as no overt mention of the cross as Tony mentioned. There is no doubt that James belongs in the canon and the epistle is scripture. I do think, however, we must look at the whole record. Do you think the revelation in James reaches the peak of that found in Peter, John and Paul? This is not to denigrate James, or any other brother, but to honestly make an attempt assess the situation.

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