Once I had the creative assignment to write a letter to the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther defending the book of James. After his life was transformed by the teaching of justification by faith alone, Luther was critical of the book of James in the New Testament. In this letter, I defend James. In the process I learned some new things that I’d never noticed about James, particularly the Sermon on the Mount similarities. I edited a couple hundred words out to make it a better blog length, but it is still a bit long. Sorry about that…but here it is. Perhaps it might be helpful if you are studying James?
I’ve enjoyed our correspondence on the wonderful doctrine of justification by faith alone. Truly, a proper understanding of this doctrine is like a flood of light from the door of heaven! In comparison, I initially agreed that the book of James is a disappointing epistle, lacking evangelical character, and even contradicting Paul. Yet, I now wonder if we were a bit too hasty in our assessment. In fact, recent study and prayer has led me to change my mind entirely on the value of James. I hope you’ll consider my thoughts on this matter.
The authors of the New Testament often have a different emphasis in their writings. For example, John emphasizes love, Peter hope, Paul faith, and James good works. I think God inspired these authors in such a way so that we could get a balanced and complete understanding of the Christian life. An emphasis on one thing does not mean opposition to the others and we need to consider the whole. While it frustrates me, just like it does you Martin, that the Papists use James to defend justification by works – they do this by neglecting other parts of the New Testament. We don’t want to be guilty of something similar.
It seems to me that Paul and James complement each other, rather than contradict each other. Paul is talking about the means of justification, and James about the fruit of justification. Paul laid the foundation of the faith, and James builds the superstructure.
Furthermore, an emphasis on one thing does not mean complete neglect of all else. Even Paul speaks of good works. In Ephesians 2:10, after emphasizing faith in the previous verses, Paul clearly says we are God’s handiwork created to do good works. Or in Paul’s brief letter to Titus there is an overwhelming emphasis on good works. In fact, there are six specific references to good works in 1:16, 2:7, 2:14, 3:1, 3:8, and 3:14. We should have a pattern of good works, and be ready, zealous, and careful to maintain good works in our Christian life. This is strongly reminiscent of James, yet this is Paul! Even you Martin, in your preface to your commentary on Romans, refer to faith as a “living, busy, active, mighty thing” and that works should be “incessant” in the believer’s life. Your emphasis on works certainly doesn’t negate your overwhelming belief in justification by faith alone, does it?
While it is not as overt as the writings of Paul, the spirit of the Gospel is in James. Our Lord is honored. James begins (1:1) by referring to himself as the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He refers to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and calls him the Lord of Glory (2:1). We are told to humble ourselves before the Lord (4:7,10) and look for the return of Christ (5:7). And I think that James honors our Lord Jesus in another very significant way that can be easily overlooked. This easily overlooked aspect is the striking similarities between the teachings of our Lord Jesus and the content of James! Indeed, I think this is the key that ultimately changed my mind about the book of James.
Paul may have placed much more emphasis on the meaning and significance of Christ’s death, but James developed the actual teachings of Christ. The content of James is more reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus than any of the other epistles! I’m not sure how I failed to notice this before, as now it seems so very apparent. I’d encourage you to read through James with the teachings of Jesus in your mind – in particular the Sermon on the Mount. There are at least a dozen striking parallels between the teachings of James and the Sermon on the Mount given by Jesus which is recorded in Matthew. I’ll share a few examples.
The Sermon on the Mount begins by saying that those who mourn, are persecuted, or reviled will be blessed. While James says that trials should be counted as joy (James 1:2). In Matthew 5:48 Jesus commands us to be perfect, and likewise in James 1:4 our goal is to be perfect or complete. In Matthew 7:7 Jesus says to ask and it will be given to you, while James 1:5 in a similar way says to ask for wisdom and you will receive it. Matthew 7:24-26 says that to hear and do is wise, but to hear and not do is foolish. This is particularly striking compared to James 1:22 which states “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” My dear Martin, it is true that James says less about Jesus than other New Testaments authors, but his words are more like those of Jesus than the other New Testament authors.
I also want to briefly return to the issue of faith. James exalts faith, but simply takes a different approach than Paul. James is denouncing dead orthodoxy or a faith that is mere intellectual belief. As James says in 2:19, “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” In the Gospels, such as in Mark 1:23-24, we can see that the evil spirits or demons knew and acknowledged Jesus. The demons were not Christians justified by faith, as their belief was mere mental acknowledgment of Jesus. A true and genuine faith goes beyond this, as it also involves the heart and leads to a transformed life. As James further words it, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20, 26). James isn’t downplaying faith but actually honoring and exalting faith by the emphasis on the practical outworking of faith in everyday life.
Careful attention also makes it clear that James is emphasizing the faith of professing believers, and not the faith of unbelievers praying for initial salvation. The Papists who use James to defend justification by works are taking James out of context. In James 1:3-4, James says that faith will be tested or proved through trials and this will lead to a more mature faith, not to the obtaining of faith or salvation.
James deserves an honored place in the canon, and I no longer think it should be removed to an appendix in the back. I’ll eagerly look for your response Martin, as I always enjoy your wit even when we may disagree! Give my greetings to Katharina. Hope you are not indulging too much in her home-brewed beer. I also hope my handwriting is legible, as I’ve had some vision problems of late.
In the name of our Lord Jesus, Laura