Martin’s Dispute with James
Every servant of Christ is fallible and frail.
Consider, for example, the great reformer Martin Luther. Throughout his life he was a fierce defender and enthusiastic promoter of the Christian faith. Because of him, countless people were introduced to the truth of God’s Word.
But even this giant among the Lord’s workers had his shortcomings. We can mention one area where he made an error in judgment: Luther had a problem with the letter of James. It is not that he didn’t want James included in the Bible, but he just didn’t have a lot of use for this book.
Luther wrote about placing the letter of James next to the letters of Paul or Peter or John. He said, “James is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others.” That is not a compliment: straw is common, almost worthless. Farmers don’t throw it out, but straw isn’t exactly a precious commodity. On the whole, Luther thought, the five chapters of James were not that helpful to read—you might skip the book altogether.
He said this for a couple reasons. For one, James seemed not to pay much attention to Jesus Christ. The Lord’s suffering, death, and resurrection hardly get mentioned in James, even though these events are foundational for our faith. What is more, Luther didn’t like some of things he read in this letter. For James wrote about the importance of good works in the life of a Christian. James even said that you could not be saved without them!
But had that not been Luther’s whole struggle? He had fought so hard to defend the teaching of salvation by faith alone. The Roman Catholic Church always talked about doing good works for merit, and trafficked in indulgences, and asked for the intercession of the dead saints. All of this diminished Scripture’s clear teaching that it is only by faith that we are declared righteous in God’s judgment. For proclaiming this glorious truth, Luther had been called before magistrates, chased into hiding, even excommunicated by the church.
So to read in James about the necessity of good works really rubbed Luther the wrong way. There, right in chapter 2:24, was that offensive statement:
A man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
Not by faith alone! No wonder Luther dismissed James as a letter of straw. Yet Luther’s eyes were clouded. In the intensity of his struggles, he missed what James was trying to say. Which is that a true faith in Christ needs to be an active faith. A “saving” faith will be a “doing” faith.
Think about the sermon that Jesus delivered near the start of his ministry, the Sermon on the Mount. “This is what life in the Kingdom should look like,” said Christ in that sermon: “This is the kind of humble praying that should fill your mouth. This is the kind of heavenly treasures that should fill your mind, the kind of active loving that should fill every day.” Christ even says this: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). Those who are righteous by faith must live in a righteous way.
The apostles continued on a similar theme. It is striking how many commands and imperatives you can find in the letters of Peter, Paul, and John. Like when Paul says, “Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be devoted to brotherly love” (Rom 12:9-10). The apostles packed almost every letter full of commands, exhortations, and admonitions for those who follow Christ.
And indeed, this was the same Paul who insisted that “the righteous will live by faith” apart from works of the law (Gal 3:11). This was the same Paul who vehemently rejected any idea of earning favour with God by being circumcised and working hard. We are saved by faith, not by works!
Yet Paul never belittled the holy calling of those who believe in Christ. This is what he also wrote to the Galatians: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6). In other words, you have faith—good! Now your faith has to be shown, through acts of love for God and your neighbour.
It makes you wonder what Luther did with this. How did he read all those apostolic commandments? When Peter urged people to be holy as God is holy, and when Paul told the Romans to present themselves as living sacrifices, was that really so different from James saying, “Faith without deeds is dead”? (2:26). The inescapable point is that those who love the Lord will also serve the Lord.
And if anyone showed how faith should work, it was Luther! This was a man completely devoted to the cause of Christ. For Luther had seen the futility of saving himself, tasted the bitterness of trying to attain a righteousness of his own, and had experienced the brilliant joy of knowing salvation to be secure through faith in Christ.
In gratitude for this rich mercy, Luther dedicated his life to the Saviour who gave life back to him. And though his earthly accomplishments were many and notable, Luther didn’t neglect the one thing that made it all possible—a living relationship with God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
So when the reformer was busy with all his daily writing, studying Scripture, debating with other scholars, and testifying in church courts, he prayed to the Lord more than ever. It is reported that Luther once said, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer, I would never get it all done.” Reflect on that amazing expression of faith! Usually we stop praying when we are busy. But Luther said he was too busy not to pray.
And while Luther was busy preaching the truth to others, he made sure the truth was close to his own heart too. He kept his faith well-supplied with the fuel that would make it work. He once wrote, “For some years now, I have read through the Bible twice every year. If you picture the Bible to be a mighty tree and every word a little branch, I have shaken every one of these branches, because I wanted to know what it was and what it meant.” Surely every believer should aspire to keep his faith well-fed with the Word that it might be strong and active for God.
So what kind of response does God find in us? What is the activity of our faith? This is the whole point of James 2—the point Luther didn't appreciate at first. God says that faithful living will be the effect of a living faith! Because of the nature of faith, there needs to be works.
We are saved by faith alone, not by a faith that is alone.
If there are no holy action items on your agenda, what are you doing? If there’s no learning and doing of God’s will, then what value does your faith have? James says such a faith is dead—a faith that lacks all works is worth nothing. What is more, it’s actually impossible, for God’s grace never makes people careless and wicked.
In thankfulness, believers can cultivate the fruits of faith. Faith engages us in our daily surroundings, involves us with our neighbours, and links us to fellow believers. For instance, James writes, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to him, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? (2:15-16). Because of the God and Saviour we believe in, a believer will respond, putting faith into action wherever we are.
In closing, it is fitting that we let Martin Luther have the last word. For in his later years, he stepped back from his disagreement with James, and he admitted it was not so bad a book. And Luther wrote these beautiful words about faith:
O, faith is a living, busy, active, powerful thing! It is impossible that faith should not be ceaselessly doing that which is good. Faith does not even ask whether good works should be done; but before the question can be asked, it has done them.