Luther and the Book of James

After a long bout of minor ailments, and then a round of travel, I’ve been trying to get back into my routine of spiritual disciplines, and I’m making some progress. One practice I’d abandoned for a while was taking time to read the Bible, not so much as study, but in a slow, meditative way. This is called lectio divina — letting the text speak to you personally, or as I like to put it, see “what jumps out.” I’ve decided to start doing this with the book of James.

In case you don’t know, this book was written, not by the apostle James, but by James, the brother of Christ. He became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, which was mostly comprised of Jewish believers.

Martin Luther didn’t have a high opinion of this text. He called it a “straw epistle” when compared to the writings of Paul. He didn’t think it correctly expressed the message of the gospel, in particular the teaching that we are saved by faith alone, without dependence on our own works. He went so far as to say:

““We should throw the epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much. It contains not a syllable about Christ. Not once does it mention Christ, except at the beginning. 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.””

Although I’m a staunch Lutheran, I have to disagree. I’ve been told that James does not teach that we’re saved by our work, he teaches that good works are the “fruit” of our salvation. If we’ve been saved by God’s grace, we will naturally produce good works.

So, this month, join me in reading through the book of James and see what you think. How important are works to the Christian life? Maybe by August, we’ll have an answer!