Of Faith and Works-The Apostle James vs. Martin Luther


Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-37

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, throughout the ages you transform sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power of your presence, and make us a people ready to proclaim your promises to the whole world, through Jesus Christ, our healer and Lord.

“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” James 2:1-17.

This is the verse Lutherans like me dread. On its face, it contradicts the Reformation axiom: “Salvation by faith alone.” Martin Luther was said to have called the Letter of James “an epistle of straw” for that reason. Yet, as much as we might admire Luther’s determination to make grace and salvation by faith the centerpiece of his theology, we cannot so cavalierly dismiss one of the canonical books of the Bible. If we maintain, as I think we must, that the whole of scripture witnesses faithfully to the person and work of Jesus, then James must be heard on his own terms. It will not do for us to domesticate, edit and interpret him into silence.

Context matters when trying to understand voices coming to us from the past. We need to know something of the audience to which James and Luther addressed themselves and the world in which they moved. Luther’s theology, preaching and teaching were shaped by the late medieval European society into which he was born and the church which exercised pervasive influence over government, education and commerce. Luther inherited from his church the image of God as an angry judge intolerant of the slightest infraction against his law. Christ’s work of salvation from the terrible wrath of God was purely transactional. It was all neatly explained through the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement.” At the risk of oversimplifying this deeply held and time honored explanation of Christ’s work, it goes something like this: God is good, holy and cannot abide sin. God created human beings who, regrettably, sinned and fell from his good graces. God, being loving as well as holy, would like to forgive us. But God cannot exercise such forgiveness without compromising God’s holiness. Only by making atonement for our sin can we find our way back into God’s good graces-something that is quite beyond our capabilities. But what if God were to become human? What if God in human form were to take upon God’s self the punishment we deserve, paving the way to reconciliation? Bingo! Problem solved. Jesus dies on the cross in our place taking the punishment we deserve and that satisfies God’s need to punish sin while enabling God to receive us back again.[1]

But how do we appropriate this forgiveness? According to the medieval theology in which Luther was raised, you “do what is within you and God in Christ will do the rest.” Sounds good, until you realize how difficult it is to know whether you actually have done all that is within you. Was I the best father I could have been to my children? Did I really study as hard as I could have for the test? Am I being the best person I am capable of being today? These were the questions that tormented young Luther as he sought to find the face of a gracious God in the teachings of a church proclaiming an angry deity and salvation that was uncertain at best. Through his study of the scriptures, Luther finally came to reject the notion that God’s love and salvation must be earned through our “doing our part.” Salvation, Luther declared, is God’s work from beginning to end. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us in his sacrificial death, we need only trust God’s promise made in baptism that we are loved, forgiven and made God’s children.

So now what? According to Luther, our liberation from fear of an angry God and the tyranny of God’s impossibly difficult commands frees us to live thankfully, joyfully and obediently as God’s beloved children obeying the law no longer in fear of God’s wrath but out of gratitude for God’s grace in the service of our neighbors. Nonetheless, the place of “good works” and personal transformation (“sanctification”) has always been a source of conflict and consternation among Lutherans and other protestants. We fear that any discussion of sanctification, growth in faith and moral discipline will undermine our proclamation of salvation by grace alone and take us back into the error of “works righteousness.” Yet we cannot but recognize that our preaching of salvation as God’s exclusive work apart from any contribution on our part, without more, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. The millions of babies we baptize each year whose parents have little or no involvement in the church and who never again darken our doors more than suggests that something is lacking in our faith and practice. Perhaps we Lutherans need to pay more attention to James. He might have something important to teach us.

James is no stranger to God’s free grace and forgiveness. Recall how he told us in last week’s reading that “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17. God does not need or want a bloody sacrifice of any kind in exchange for forgiving sinners. God does that because God loves us. There is no “debt” that must be repaid before God can forgive. That concept is the residue of “substitutionary atonement” doctrine discussed above. Jesus’ death on the cross is not the settlement of indebtedness. Rather, it is the ultimate triumph of “mercy over judgment” in which God’s capacity for love and forgiveness proves victorious over our hatred expressed in the ultimate injury we are capable of inflicting on God. See my post of March 1, 2015 for more on that topic.

Another misconception inherent in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is its tendency to “individualize” salvation. That is to say, salvation becomes a transactional affair between the individual woman or man and God. Salvation is equated with individual belief in Jesus and church membership. James tells us something quite different. “In fulfilment of [God’s] own purpose,” says James, “[God] gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of [God’s] creatures.” James 1:18. Salvation, as John 3:16 tells us, is for the “world” and all of God’s creatures. To be baptized and incorporated into the church is become a sign, a proclamation, a witness and the “first fruits” of God’s gentle reign of love destined finally for the whole world. God has no interest in salvaging a few souls from a sinking ship. God is determined to save the ship. Moreover, God is quite capable of doing that without our help. Nonetheless, God graciously invites us to take part in this good work. As Luther tells us in his Small Catechism, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayers (and without anything else we do), but we pray that it may come among us.” That is to say, we want to be “in that number when the saints come marching in,” not mere spectators sitting on the curb watching the parade go by.

To sum up, saying good works are necessary is not the same as saying they are necessary in order for God to save us. To say salvation is exclusively God’s work by grace from beginning to end does not imply that good works are unnecessary. It is precisely because we are free from having to placate God that we can focus our religion[2] on “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” James 1:27. Though speaking from different times, different places and different circumstances, James and Martin Luther are preaching the same good news: that Jesus calls us to a life of hope, danger, joy and suffering at the frontier of a new creation. “Our faith,” says Luther, “is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.” It is anything but dead and devoid of action.

Here’s a poem by Harriet Monroe offering us a glimpse into what this living, busy, active and mighty faith might resemble.

Heroes of Peace

“There must be prisoners,” he said,
“And some of them get killed.”
He was one of those adventurers
Who have dared the things they willed.

There must be pioneers-my mind
Called the long roll of dead
Who died to lead us on, who broke
Our trail wild miles ahead.

Poisoned by deadly germs they died,
They fell from the sky in flames.
In tropic jungles, in arctic ice
They lie-we forget their names.

In every sea their singing souls
Rise to the crest of the wave.
In every land their banners flie-
From many an unmarked grave.

They took the leap, and bade us follow
Into the starry stream-
Heroes who did the impossible,
Dreamers who lived the dream.

Source: Poetry, October 1929. Harriot Monroe (1860-1936) was founder and editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.  She was born in Chicago and read at an early age. Her father’s large library fed her insatiable curiosity and love for verse. Monroe graduated from the Visitation Academy of Georgetown, D.C., in 1879 and published a number of poems thereafter. In 1912 she convinced one hundred prominent Chicago business leaders to sponsor the magazine Poetry by each committing to fifty dollars a year for a five-year subscription. This money, along with her own funds, launched the publication that continues to this day. Monroe was determined that her publication be a portal for aspiring talent.  “Open Door will be the policy of this magazine” she wrote. “…may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors . . . desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written.” You can learn more about Harriot Monroe and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Perhaps I am being a tad flippant here. There are articulate defenders of this doctrine who would point out that I am oversimplifying and caricaturing their positions. That is probably true. Guilty as charged. Nevertheless, this is how the preaching of substitutionary atonement comes across to most people. It either makes God into a mean spirited, rule obsessed ogre who will have his pound of flesh, or into a helpless middle manager stuck enforcing rules over which he has no independent jurisdiction. The death of Jesus, in the most horrible, painful and humiliating way imaginable, is necessary to remove some legal or metaphysical impediment to God’s forgiveness.

[2] My daughter, the classics professor, pointed out to me last night that the Greek word translated “religion” in this text is used only in James’ letter and nowhere else in the New Testament. The only Old Testament use is in the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Solomon, found in the Septuagint (Greek Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). (Chapter 14). In this chapter, which discusses the origin of idol worship, the author has this to say:

“Then the ungodly custom, grown strong with time, was kept as a law, and at the command of monarchs carved images were worshipped. When people could not honor monarchs in their presence, since they lived at a distance, they imagined their appearance far away, and made a visible image of the king whom they honored, so that by their zeal they might flatter the absent one as though present.” Wisdom of Solomon 14:16-17.

This passage, which discusses the practice of worshiping emperors and monarchs as divine, describes to a tee the imperial cult constituting the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was in the shadow of such religion and under the threat of punishment for all who challenged it that James describes a radically different sort of religion focused not on the worship of monarchs, but on service to widows and orphans.

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