Martin Luther and the Book of James

Martin Luther’s hostility to the Book of James is well-known, and I’ve mentioned it in other contexts, but I wanted to consider today the implications for the Lutheran view of justification, at the heart of the Reformation and of modern Catholic-Protestant disputes.

Here’s what Luther had to say about the Book of James:

In the first place it is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. It says that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered his son Isaac; though in Romans 4 St. Paul teaches to the contrary that Abraham was justified apart from works, by his faith alone, before he had offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15. Now although this epistle might be helped and an interpretation devised for this justification by works, it cannot be defended in its application to works of Moses’ statement in Genesis 15. For Moses is speaking here only of Abraham’s faith, and not of his works, as St. Paul demonstrates in Romans 4. This fault, therefore, proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle.

In other words, Luther taught that the Book of James contradicted the doctrine of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.  If he’s right about this, then either the Bible is wrong, or Protestants are wrong.  As far as I can tell, this leaves Protestants with three options:

Sir Joseph Noel Paton,
Dawn: Luther at Erfurt (1861)

(1) The Book of James teaches false doctrine, antithetical to the Gospel.  In other words, Luther is right.  If this is the case, you should cut that Book out of the Bible.  But of course, this raises all sorts of problems.  Because then, you’re not deriving their views on justification from Scripture, but creating a Bible that agrees with the views you already hold.

(2) Luther didn’t understand the Book of James, or how it related to justification.  This is a huge blow to Luther’s credibility, and substantially undermines the Reformation.  This is the doctrine Luther viewed as the most important, the doctrine that justified (if you’ll pardon the pun) the entire Reformation, since (in his words), β€œif this article [of justification] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.”  This is the doctrine he referred to simply as β€œthe Gospel.”  But if Luther doesn’t understand how justification works in the writings of St. James, why should we believe that he understands the way that justification works in the writings of St. Paul?

(3) The doctrine of justification by faith alone is wrong.  In this view, the Reformation was started because Luther was proclaiming a false doctrine, which the Catholic Church recognized and rejected as false. But if this is true, the Reformation was a mistake that needs to be fixed.

In any case, if the Reformation stands or collapses on the strength of the doctrine of sola fide, it’s remarkable that the father of the doctrine, Martin Luther, admitted that it was contrary to a Book we know today to be Scripture.

74 Comments

  1. Only long-held tradition has made James “Canon” in many Lutheran minds. Although for Rome it was the Council of Trent.

    The Early Church was not agreed upon James – and taken at face value – “James” and Paul do, in fact, contradict one another.

    Paul says NOT OF WORKS – cf. Ephesians, Titus, Romans, etc.

    and James says BY WORKS.

    Paul says, GIFT, FREELY, APART FROM LAW, APART FROM WORKS, NOT OF YOURSELVES, NOT BY THE WILL OF MAN, etc. – explicitly saying, by using this terminology, that salvation is by FAITH ALONE.

    What need of their of Paul to use the word alone when he says FREE, GIFT, NOT OF WORKS, NOT OF YOURSELVES, NOT BY THE WILL OF MAN, etc. – What else is there to add, if you hold to all these terms? He even eliminates man’s free will! For goodness sake. What else can be added?

    Nothing. Obviously.

    while, JAMES implies, not a gift, but rather earned, in part, BY WORKS, and says NOT BY FAITH ALONE, which Rome takes to mean BY MAN’S FREE WILL.

    If God only saves in part – God has never saved anyone fully!

    Man has, according to Rome, in part saved himself!

    What is it? 99 percent God. 1 percent man’s free will, good works, and love.

    Or 100 percent God’s grace – apart from works and love?

    Lutherans say SOLELY BY GOD’S GRACE – that is 100 percent.

    Rome says Grace Alone, too – but they mean something different, they mean God gives you grace in order that you may contribute to your own salvation through free will, good works, and love.

    Scripture says, For it is by grace you are saved, THROUGH FAITH, and this is NOT OF YOUR OWN DOING, but is the GIFT OF GOD, NOT OF WORKS cf. Ephesians

    And to say one is Saved – has been historically considered a sin of presumption by Rome!

    1. COULD IT FINALLY BE, THAT MY BROTHER, MY LONG LOST BROTHER,joshua NOT LOST TO GOD-JUST THE OPPOSITE, BUT LOST TO ME AS I HAVE STUDIED THESE PAST THREE YEARS AND NARY HAVE READ A PIECE THAT PUTS IT TOGETHER.

      I made my living betting against the crowd, and James vs ML or Sola Fide or 50 other verses because of the RC’s
      hanging by the thread of “Well. you know. OH no!! Paul never said faith alone!! When they get stupid like that Glenn always throw Romans 4;5-” FOR HE,,,,,,,,,,,,,who,,,,,,,does not work,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,but,,,,,,,,,,,believes on him who …..
      justify’s the ungodly…………… (oh could any man have written this outrageous verse!!!!!!!!) his faith is accounted
      for righteousness . could that mean , could it Glenn – that it is those that DO NOT WORK, who are slobs, who are depressed, frozen, have emotions so flat that they cannot even tear over their worst indifference. Is that person of manic nothingness justified before those wit lots of work? Maybe “good works” is to work as Christ did.
      But all RCC’s let us know which you prefer .

  2. Salvation is a process, whereby we are delivered from the corruption of the world. Paul said in Romans chapter 2, “God will give to each
    person according to what they have done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give
    eternal life. But to those who are self seeking and reject the truth, there will be anger and wrath.” It doesn’t sound as if Paul is at odds with
    James. In Ephesians, Paul is establishing the truth that it is the grace of God that saves us, not any works that we bring to him. In Titus, Paul
    says that “the grace of God which brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us to say no to ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live
    soberly and righteously in this present evil age.” Your Christian salvation is chiefly a deliverance from sin. It happens by the grace of God,
    through faith, but not without your cooperation. Romans 6: “but now that you have been set free from sin and become slaves to God, the
    benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is everlasting life.” You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save his people from their
    sins. Whether Catholic or Protestant.

    1. Catholics would not be included in that statement. What they believe contains just enough error to be heretical. They believe that salvation is attained by works and faith, they also believe that Christ’s death was not, in fact, sufficient to cover our sins. Those two make Catholicism a false doctrine and damning heresy.

      1. Jason you are ignorant of the Roman a catholic Churches teachings. In the catholic catachisiam section 1987 “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from oir sins and ro communicate to us “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” and through baptisim. Just like it is written about in the Acts of the apostles. So Jason you need to learn that you are judging out of ignorance.

        1. Two things separate you from Christians. 1. Works must supplement faith to become a Christian and to remain a Christian. 2. Christs death wasn’t sufficient for all your sins. That’s why you “resacrifice” Him every communion.
          If you don’t agree with those, I don’t know what you are but you’re not Catholic.

  3. Again Jason you are completely ignorant of the Roman Catholic Church. First of all we celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus Christ commanded his church to do this is remembrance of me! It is in the gospels. It is a memorial to the work done on calvary for the forgiveness of our sins. It has been celebrated this way since the apostles. As prescribed by Justin Martyr in 155 AD. Secondly if you are a Follower of Jesus Christ you will do his work on earth. We are to become holy as he is holy. We feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the imprisioned, etc… These are the corporal works of mercy commanded by christ in the Gospels as wll. So you see Jason before you state lies and accusations wihich only come from Satan the father of lies. Do some research and reading of the catachisiam of the church. You may have a different opinion if you care to remove your blindness of hatred. A truefollower of Christ loves his fellow man. Instead you cast judgement. Just like the pharsises and the woman caught in adultry. Yes I am Roman Catholic.

      1. What is the issue? If you seek speak as if you have knowledge out of ignorance then the issue is mute. If you seek to search out knowledge you will educate yourself with facts. I know you never read the catachisiam of 5he Catholic Church. Salvation by faith alone is no where in the bibel. 5he verse in Romans “you are justified by faith.” Is all it says. Martian luther added the word alone in his error filled transla5ion. So he lied. The 9nly place in the entire new testement where this phrase occurs is in 5he book of James. Therefore since it is contrary to the lie of Luther he took it upon himself to declare it is not inspired. Who gave him this authority? So therefore your opinions are based on lies. Lies only come fr o m 9ne source Satan the father of lies.

  4. To me, it is very simple. See what Jesus said. Paul is Paul; Martin Luther is Martin Luther; Jesus is Jesus. We cannot replace Jesus with Paul or Martin Luther.

    Matthew 25

    31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
    32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
    33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

    So how would Jesus set His sleep apart from the goats? The answer comes immediately following Matthew 25:33.

    34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
    35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
    36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
    37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
    38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
    39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
    40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
    41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
    42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
    43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
    44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
    45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
    46 And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.

    Did Jesus say FAITH ONLY?
    No, he repeatedly said: WORKS/DEEDS.

    “Gave me meat”, “gave me drink”, “took me in”, “clothed me”, “visited me”, “came unto me”. ALL are actions/works/deeds.

    Jesus set His sheep apart from the goats by the judgement on works.

  5. I have a bit of a mind twister that I hope all will participate. It actually has a point.

    Some of you may get the point quickly. One hint is that Christians have been taught to be contrarians.
    Christ- Seek the narrow gate…my ways are NOT your ways. So here is the question and I will explain part 2 in a week or two.
    If you were very aware of Christ’s ministry but were not a disciple- but knowledgeable of Christ’s teachings and his ways… How many that read this would ever speculate that before the passion week that one of his 12 disciples
    hand picked, would ever end up being a betrayer of the Lord, as we know that Christ was not partial and supped and had fellowship whose name at the end was diablos- aka :a devil” How many BEFORE the revelation if I had told you
    that Judas was no good etc., and a betrayer, a “antichrist” (not The), would have “bought even the possibility” Be honest please.

  6. Salvation is free gift, but you must make every effort to take it .just as the lord invited people to his son’s wedding feast for free, but they were all occupied and refused to go. Free gift doesn’t mean you need not do anything. a life giving gift demands you giving life.
    farther more, the gift of salvation is not something God can force on you, but an invitation to a relationship with Him through Jesus christ. to enter and maintain this relationship will cost you everything,even to your very life.
    we are justified by faith, not by our own good works, which means to keep the law by our flesh and blood, but our faith is not just believing Jesus died for my sin, but committing and followiing Jesus to the end. we must obey the holy spirit and kill the evil desire. such work is not the work of flesh, but the work of spirit.

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