A Fight in My Mid-Week Bible Study

There’s an awkward difference of opinion in my midweek Bible Study and no one knows about it but me. I need to tell someone about it. I’m studying Reformation History and have met a new friend, Martin Luther. You might think it weird to consider someone who has been gone almost 500 years as a friend but, as my history prof is fond of saying, “Some of my best friends are dead people.”


Luther wrote extensively and was one of the first to truly leverage the emerging technology of the printing press to it’s greatest advantage. There is lots to read about Luther, and like Hebrews 11: 4 says, “by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”

We started a study of James last week (you can listen to recordings of the class here) and Luther has been bugging me ever since.  Luther considered the book of James “an epistle of straw” because there was so little of Jesus in the book. By contrast, in Philippians Paul uses the word ‘Christ’, ‘Jesus’ or both 34 times but in James ‘Jesus Christ’ appears only twice.

Luther’s view of scripture was revolutionary for his time.   He said that,

The Bible itself declares that ‘the Word of God’ is none other than God the Son … When God speaks, that which is uttered is also created. God’s word, besides telling us something, does something in us and to us… The Bible is the Word of God because it is Jesus, the Word incarnate, come to us. Any who read the Bible and do not find Jesus in it have not encountered the Word of God.

As a result Luther had little respect of the book of James because, in his mind it had so little to do with Jesus. When I told my class what Luther thought they challenged me on this and sought to find the mind and heart of Christ in the book of James. To my class, the book of James sounded like Jesus. Besides quoting Jesus frequently (James 1: 6, 2: 8; 5: 12) there are also frequent references to the Sermon on the Mount. James’ diatribe style in chapter 4 of his epistle is similar to Jesus’ style in Matthew 7.

But Martin won’t let it go. In his book, On Christian Liberty he says,  “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.”  At first James agrees: “Pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1: 27) – to be doers and not merely hearers.

But then it all falls apart.  Luther continues,

Works do not make a man a believer, so also they do not make him righteous. But as faith makes a man a believer and righteous, so faith does good works. Since, then works justify no one, and a man must be righteous before he does a good work, it is very evident that it is faith alone which, because of the pure mercy of God through Christ and in his Word, worthily and sufficiently justifies and saves the person.

James snaps back,

Are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God and it as reckoned to him as righteous” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone … faith without works is dead.

James 2: 20 – 24, 26

Guys, guys, guys!  Can’t we all just get along?  What am I going to do with these two?


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