The New Testament book of James has been a source of controversy ever since it was written almost 20 centuries ago. Martin Luther, for example, did not like it at all. When he published his first German translation of the Bible, James was not in its usual place right after the book of Hebrews. Rather, Luther put it at the end, along with a couple other books he wasn’t too wild about. In later editions he changed his mind and included all the books in their usual order, but Luther never grew very fond of James. He called it a ‘straw Gospel,’ criticizing it for hardly ever mentioning Jesus. The name of Jesus appears only twice in five chapters.
But the primary problem for Luther and many others is the emphasis in James on the place of good works in the Christian life. All would agree that God expects us to obey his Law. Many books in the Bible contain all kinds of laws and rules and admonitions to obey. But Martin Luther rediscovered the grace of God, and proclaimed that we are saved by faith and not works. Yes, we are expected to obey God’s Law, just like children in the home are expected to obey their parents. But a child’s place in the home is not dependent on the number of rules that are obeyed, and neither is our place as God’s children dependent on our goodness. It’s all by the Grace of God, said Luther, pointing to Ephesians 2:8, where Paul wrote “For it is by grace you have been saved, THROUGH FAITH, and this is NOT from yourselves, but it is the gift of God, NOT by works so that no one can boast;” and Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are justified FREELY by his grace;” and Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But James seemed to say something else, and thus has been a thorn in the flesh for many theologians and preachers. Paul seems to put all the emphasis on God’s grace through faith, but James created confusion by saying “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? No, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is DEAD.”
But what is the alternative? Shall we say that it doesn’t matter what we do? Is that Christianity? Someone once said to me after a sermon on God’s grace, “You preachers make it all sound too easy; it can’t be like that.” James would say the same.
There has always been this tension in Christianity between faith and works, because the tension is in the pages of the Bible itself. In terms of strict logic, this may look a contradiction; but we are not here dealing with logic, we are dealing with a relationship. And when one looks at this in the context of a relationship, this is no more a contradiction than it is for a mother to know in her heart that she will love her children forever no matter what, while at the same time be saying to them, “You better do what I tell you to do, or else!” Or else what? Well, of course there might be consequences, but total abandonment and rejection of the child forever is usually not one of them. In the same way, in God’s infinite wisdom and providence, there may well be consequences for our disobedience, as God seeks to bring us back to faith and obedience. But we can talk about that without saying that our salvation is dependent on our obedience; just as we do not say a child earns his or her place in the family home by their obedience, good will, or completion of daily chores.
The Bible tells us these two different things at the very same time. It says, “You are saved by grace– it is all God’s doing and none of your own.” And at the same time the Bible says, “Everything you do matters.” Martin Luther did not like how the book of James talked about faith and works. But when Luther preached about the Christian life, he could sound very much like James, emphasizing the importance of an active and obedient faith that does indeed work. Luther would do both, sometimes proclaiming God’s grace, and other times proclaiming what we MUST do in obedient response to that grace.
James and Paul did not contradict each other, but merely emphasized two different aspects of the same truth. Paul comforts us with the unconditional love and acceptance of God’s grace, and James reminds us of how we ought to respond to that Grace with faithful and obedient lives. (continued…)
Ephesians 2:8-9 — For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Romans 6:23 — For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
James 2:14 — What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
James 2:17 — Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
James 2:26 — For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.
Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.