“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! (James 2:17-19, ESV)
It was in 1522, in the preface of his German translation of the New Testament, that Martin Luther wrote, “St. James’s epistle is really a right strawy epistle, compared to these others [Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, and 1 John], for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” It was early in his career, and he did remove the statement from later editions. However, there is no clear retraction of it, nor any evidence of change.
For clarity (not as a statement of defense), when Luther referred to James as ‘an epistle of straw,’ he wasn’t questioning its inclusion in the canon of Scripture. He did speak negatively about the letter, but at times he also had commendations. Some say Luther’s reference for ‘strawy’ was the apostle Paul’s categories from 1 Corinthians 3:12: “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw . . .” His attempt was to clarify the place of James’ letter with regard to how it expressed the ‘gospel’ (in keeping with his own belief in “justification by faith alone”).
Justification and Sanctification
There is no doubt that we cannot earn our salvation! We will not be justified by anything that we do. Our salvation is based upon what Jesus Christ has done. But what about sanctification?
How can we in any way nullify the importance of works? Jesus said, “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16, ESV). Even in a text often cited as support for salvation being by faith alone, the apostle Paul points out how we were created for good works: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10, ESV).
We have work to do! Since we are saved by grace, those acts of kindness (works) will not be for the sake of our justification, but as a part of our sanctification. The ‘spiritual disciplines’ will not earn salvation for us, but can be of great help as we struggle to be obedient. James is pretty clear that H + O = B. That Hearing plus Obedience brings about Blessings!
Faith or Faithfulness
What did Paul mean when he wrote that we are “saved by faith”? It obviously does not mean that we are not saved by mental assent — what we ‘have in our heads’. The demons had the right ‘belief’ about God in their heads. We agree that we cannot earn our salvation, no matter how hard we work. But, as said above, we have work to do. Paul writes in Ephesians, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13) Obedience implies that we are doing something we have been commanded to do!
Let’s get busy! Is it possible that we are “saved by grace though faithfulness,” where a key element is our trust? Let’s make sure that people around us will see the evidence of our faith by our works. The vitality of our works will demonstrate the vivacity of our faith!