In the preface to the Book of James in his first edition of the Bible, Martin Luther called the Book of James an “epistle of straw.” Luther’s encounters with Scripture convinced him, beyond a doubt that the Apostle Paul hit the nail on the head when he declared “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3:28, NRSV) Luther could not reconcile the doctrine that we are saved by grace through faith alone with James’ “faith without works is dead.” Luther also had problems with the question of the authenticity of the Book of James. His aversion to the Epistle of James was so strong that when he published the New Testament in 1522, he placed James (along with Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation) at the end of the Bible in a separate section. Many of those outside the Lutheran community assume Luther’s position on the Book of James reflected his adamant refusal to accept anything that conflicted with the doctrines of sola gratia and sola fide; however, Luther and many others of his time had concerns about the authorship and authenticity of the Book of James. Even some of the early Church fathers had the same reservations about this epistle.
When the content of James in read in its entirety and as an integral part of Scripture, the conflict between Paul and James disappears. It remains true that we are saved by grace through faith alone. We need only to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior to obtain forgiveness of our sins and believe in his promises. Nothing changes about the means of our salvation. We can do nothing to earn our way to heaven. We do not need to do good deeds to merit God’s favor. It is God’s freely given gift. No matter how hard we try we will always fall short. The question becomes, how do we live out that faith? No one can see inside another’s heart to gauge whether or not they have faith in Christ. Only God can look into the heart, see our belief and judge us to be righteous. This is where James’ words become relevant.
For James, a Christian with a vibrant faith follows Jesus’ commandment to love one another, to serve the poor, the afflicted, the oppressed, and care for those in need. Our works are a manifestation of living in the knowledge that we are saved through the unmerited gift of God. We do not do good to earn our way into God’s heart. We cannot by our works make it into heaven. When we follow Jesus’ command to love one and serve one another, we are simply being faithful disciples. Non-Christians need to see our faith in action. We need to be the hands and feet of Christ in order to show the world what is in our hearts. Without our works, our words may ring hollow to those who have yet to receive and believe the Word of God.
A word of caution, though about works. We are reminded by Matthew, to do our works “in secret.” (Matthew 6) By this Matthew means, do not make a show out of what you are doing to help others. We are to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world, but we are not to boast of our acts of charity. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 10:17, NRSV)
Gracious God, send your Holy Spirit into our hearts so that we may love and serve our neighbor in your name. Let us not be boastful of our works, but boast in the salvation we receive through our faith in Christ Jesus, in whom we receive the gift of eternal life. Amen