Wheat field against a blue sky

At Gloria Dei we are setting out on a nine week journey through the book of James. Martin Luther in his 1522 Preface to the New Testament calls the book of James, an “Epistle of Straw,” this could be troubling. I believe that in this book God gives us one of the most practical pictures of the Christian faith in the entire Bible. This letter, that is written to a scattered and persecuted church, lifts our lives above the superficial formalities and helps us to set our sights on active and authentic faith that should make a difference in the world around us.

So why does Luther call James an epistle of straw?

To clarify, this quote only appears in Luther’s original 1522 Preface to the New Testament. After 1522, all the editions of Luther’s Bible dropped the “epistle of straw” comment, along with the entire paragraph that placed value judgments on particular biblical books. It was Luther himself who edited these comments out. For anyone to continue to cite Luther’s “epistle of straw” comment against him is to do him an injustice. Instead we should try to understand what his issue might have been with the book so that we do not misrepresent his statement.

Martin Luther took a strong stance during the reformation in the foundational Sola’s; Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, and Christ Alone! When someone attempted to add anything to these Sola’s, Luther became very unpleasant and wasn’t afraid to write about it. There was a tendency in that day for works (good deeds) to play a higher role in salvation. It was perceived to be a Jesus + Works approach to faith and life. Jesus was good and did an amazing job, but his work only went so far, we (sinful humans) had to go the rest of the way with our good works to complete the job of salvation. For Luther this was simply an incorrect way of viewing the work that God does all on his own.

Luther’s opponents started to use portions of James to justify their perversion of God’s Word.

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” 2:14

“You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” 2:24

These can be some very troubling passages for Christians that have never read James or believe these are contradictory towards other parts of scripture. Luther didn’t want to cause people to stumble back into a works based theology of salvation. He himself was freed from that slavery and didn’t want to return to it. If someone were to encounter James as their first time in the Word, it could cause them to stumble and lose sight of the Gospel message. Luther was fighting a battle that he viewed as essential to the Christian faith.

There have been critics of Luther that have called him anti-law because of his stance on James. He was not at all anti-law (quite the opposite, he believed it was good and holy) but believed the Gospel should be untouched and untainted. It kind of reminds me of Paul in Galatians:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” Galatians 1:8-9

The Gospel is all about what God has done for us. When we attempt to add anything to it we are attempting to put ourselves into the mix, like God can’t really do it alone, he needs me. God does not need us and our “good deeds.” The Prophet Isaiah says that our good deeds are like filthy rags. The purpose of our good works is to serve our neighbors, not to put us into a better position with God.

So…

Righteousness (God’s work of making you right) and Sanctification (Good Works done with the power of the Holy Spirit) should always be kept together but never blended. Luther believed that the book of James was full of good sayings and could be used to edify the believer. Because a life lived in faith will always produce works. Or better said, because God saves us apart from our good works and gives to us something we don’t deserve, from our lives flow the good works that God has created for us, right where we stand.

So let us not be afraid of James or of Luther’s criticism of the book. Instead, we should embrace the epistle and let God use it to speak to our hearts as we put our Faith into Action.

Where do you struggle the most, “Jesus saved me, now I don’t have to do anything” or “I am a good person, so Jesus will save me?” How can you overcome falling to the extremes of this issue?

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds…” Hebrews 10:24

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