Earlier I wrote about Martin Luther’s problem with the book of James. Luther wants justification to be by faith only. James disagrees with Luther. This led Luther to say the following:
“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 . . . 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 . . . I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Since he heard that Christians place great weight on faith in Christ, he thought, ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did.”
I would like to make several points about this quote.
First, he says James has “nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.” This is a common attack on James, probably from people copying Luther. James only mentions Jesus Christ twice. He makes no mention of resurrection, Gospel, the cross, or any other Gospely words.
The reason is not because James doesn’t know the Gospel or is somehow opposed to it (his half-brother was the Messiah, people!). The reason is because he’s writing to a group of people, Jewish Christians, who already think they are saved and yet are showing no signs of conversion. He is writing to defeat easy-believism. He wants people to know that even demons believe! Faith isn’t the whole story.
James is an epistle intended for an audience in our day as well. James is very practical. People don’t like practical; we like the theoretical. We’d rather theoretically believe we are saved than actually have to practically live as though we were. James knows our state today; it was the same state of religion in his day. There is nothing new under the sun.
Secondly, Luther says James gives us trouble because “the Papists embrace it alone.” Most of the push-back I’ve received about questioning justification by faith alone, has been phrased in fears of Catholicism. I have been accused of being Catholic and of dragging my church back into Catholicism. I find this ridiculous.
I am not Catholic. I feel creepy just going into Catholic type places. I am not telling anyone to become Catholic. I don’t want you to light candles, do holy water things, do hand motion kneeling things, baptize babies (which Luther did despite his “by faith alone” bluster), or any other man-made, humanly devised rituals that accomplish nothing but feelings.
Accusing people of becoming Catholic, or undoing the Reformation, for questioning the unbiblical idea of justification by faith alone is merely the modern day political response of your enemy politician being Hitler. I recommend some more thought on the issue rather than a flippant dismissal and fearmongering about being Catholic.
Here’s a little historical fact for you: James was not Catholic.
Third, Luther says “some Jew” saw Christian faith and said ‘Wait a moment! I’ll oppose them and urge works alone.’ This he did.” Notice what Luther did to James’ quote. Luther says James “urges works alone.” Did you get that? Did James ever say people were justified by works alone? No he did not.
The main problem with Luther’s theology appears to be a habit of putting “alone” in places where no one put “alone.”
This is where you know Luther is getting carried away. He’s just making stuff up now. He made up that Paul said we were justified by faith alone, which Paul never said. He made up that James said we were justified by works alone, which James never said.
Slightly rephrasing quotes is quite common in Christianity, and other areas as well. Get original quotes, not people’s quotations of quotes. Go to the source. James and Paul don’t say what Luther says they say. Read the Bible. Seriously. Read the Bible. Check what you hear with Scripture. Test the spirits.
Luther was right to question the Catholic Church, particularly on their idea that you need the Catholic Church, its priests, and systems to get right with God. You don’t. Kudos to Luther for sticking his neck out to fight that fight.
But Luther is just a guy and just as fallible as a pope, which amounts to a lot fallible. I am also fallible. Here’s some news: you are fallible too.
Our job is to read Scripture and help each other understand more and more of it. To assemble together to encourage one another to good works, and so much the more as we see the day approaching.