James 2:14-26 (AD 48)
Martin Luther, for many the figurehead of the Reformation, was not the biggest fan of this letter. Today’s passage was a key reason. Luther said,
“The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove, as the priest in Kalenberg did.”
“Therefore St James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
Fortunately for the truth, this is just another example of why we follow Christ and not people. Luther was tremendously used by God in certain ways, but was also – especially late in life – guilty of grotesque anti-semitism. Or as Bernard Howard put it, “Luther is a man we should honor but not celebrate”[i].
Ultimately, Luther didn’t deny James was part of the Biblical canon, but it clearly troubled him. Five hundred years later, I suspect it gives most of us far less trouble, because we’re not engaged – as Luther was – in a life-and-death-struggle for the gospel against Catholicism in most of our churches. Unlike Luther, we are not facing a church leadership, united across Europe, enforcing a doctrine of works-based salvation.
Jesus, John the Baptist and Paul repeatedly instructed people to “repent” and “believe”, for their forgiveness. So these phrases, in particular, can be confusing when they are pulled out of their context: “…a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (v.24), and
“…faith without deeds is dead” (v.26).
But bear in mind that there was no great controversy with James on that subject when he wrote the letter because faith and works sit neatly, and essentially, together.
We are ‘justified’ – that is, God declares us to be legally without sin – on the basis of our repentance, in faith. But that faith involves relationship, and being indwelt by God himself. Therefore, we don’t consider anyone to be saved if the way they live doesn’t back it up.
Similarly, to borrow a phrase I’ve heard from several preachers, ‘We are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone’. Real faith isn’t a whimsical attitude; it involves God living in us, changing us from the inside out. Therefore it is impossible for a Christian to live the same way once they are Christian as they did before – their priorities have changed.
Which takes us back to James’s original point, following on from the previous verses expressing concern that the deserving poor were being neglected in favour of the undeserving, oppressive rich people.
If you are truly a saved people, James is said, your faith will drive you to help the poor fellow Christians around you. It is impossible to call yourself a Christian and watch as your brothers and sisters in church do not have enough to get by. James was widening the circle of care from the traditional focus on biological family, to a wider focus that included spiritual family. Today, as then, we have a direct responsibility to those we have covenanted with in church.
How will you practically serve your brothers and sisters in Christ? Do you know of anyone in need?