The Book of James: An 'Epistle of Straw'?
Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant Reformation, referred to the book of James as an "epistle of straw." Frustrated by religious leaders who claimed this book supported their mistaken ideas that people could buy their salvation through monetary gifts to the church, Luther uttered his ill-advised phrase. Consumed in the debate, he went beyond a proper understanding of the Scriptures and dismissed James's statements that works are a necessary evidence of faith.
Many people today misapply Luther's words, not understanding the circumstances behind them. Martin Luther's life was one of dedication and chaste behavior. But his zealous words and arguments are sometimes taken out of historical context to excuse undisciplined lifestyles.
Jesus Christ expects actions—works—from us: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).
At the same time Jesus is also described as our merciful High Priest (Hebrews 2:17). Works and grace go together. James, a younger half brother of Jesus, wrote his epistle in harmony with Jesus' teachings and instructions. He not only wrote about works (James 2:14-26) but addressed grace (James 4:6) and Christ's "compassionate and merciful" nature (James 5:11).
The Bible is consistent and plain in its teaching that salvation is a gift from God. But, even though it is a gift, something we cannot earn, we are expected to obey God if we are to receive that gift.
Paul wrote, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith," and we are "created in Christ Jesus to do good works" (Ephesians 2:8, New International Version). James summarized this concept simply and concisely, telling us that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20).
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