The Book of James: An "Epistle of Straw"?

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The Book of James

An "Epistle of Straw"?

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Frustrated by religious leaders who claimed this book supported their mistaken ideas that people could buy their salvation through monetary gifts to the church, Luther uttered his ill-advised phrase. Consumed in the debate, he went beyond a proper understanding of the Scriptures and dismissed James’ statements that works are a necessary evidence of faith.

Many people today misapply Luther’s words, not understanding the circumstances behind them. Martin Luther’s life was one of dedication and chaste behavior. But his zealous words and arguments are sometimes taken out of historical context to excuse undisciplined lifestyles.

Jesus Christ expects actions—works—from us: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 Matthew 7:21Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
American King James Version×
).

At the same time Jesus is also described as our merciful High Priest (Hebrews 2:17 Hebrews 2:17Why in all things it behooved him to be made like to his brothers, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.
American King James Version×
). Works and grace go together. James, a younger half brother of Jesus, wrote his epistle in harmony with Jesus’ actions and instructions. He not only wrote about works (James 2:14-26 James 2:14-26 14 What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled; notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it has not works, is dead, being alone. 18 Yes, a man may say, You have faith, and I have works: show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God; you do well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 See you how faith worked with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which said, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
American King James Version×
) but addressed grace (James 4:6 James 4:6But he gives more grace. Why he said, God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
American King James Version×
) and Christ’s “compassionate and merciful” nature (James 5:11 James 5:11Behold, we count them happy which endure. You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
American King James Version×
).

The Bible is consistent and plain in its teaching that salvation is a gift from God. But, even though it is a gift, something we cannot earn, we are expected to obey God if we are to receive that gift (see “Is Belief All That’s Required for Salvation?”).

Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” and we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Ephesians 2:8-10 Ephesians 2:8-10 8 For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to good works, which God has before ordained that we should walk in them.
American King James Version×
, NIV). James summarized this concept simply and concisely, telling us that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20 James 2:20But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
American King James Version×
).