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.


  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!

  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.

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