The Gospel of James

Open Letter to Martin Luther

Dear Brother Martin,

Five hundred years ago this year, you nailed your 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. I am a happy twenty-first-century Protestant and thankful for the vital part you played in God’s good providence.

By all accounts, the medieval church was in desperate need of reform. The shining gem of justification by faith alone was obscured everywhere, and lost altogether in most quarters. And with it we could name dozens of other deceptions, lapses, and syncretistic missteps.

Under God, you were a spark that set ablaze the kindling of centuries of error and abuse.

You plainly were not afraid, unlike so many in our day, to express, without apology, deeply held differences in opinion, not just with your foes, but even friends. Many of us today who think of ourselves squarely as your friends take exception to some of your views — some in greater measure than others — and I expect you, of all people, would be least surprised to hear of it and receive it.

Epistle of Straw?

Not most troubling, but perhaps most in need of clarification today among some Lutherans and Reformed types, is what you said about the epistle of our Lord’s brother, James. You wrote in 1522, in the preface of your German translation of the New Testament, “St. James’s epistle is really a right strawy epistle, compared to these others [Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, and 1 John], for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

“Under God, you were a spark that set ablaze the kindling of centuries of error and abuse.”

I acknowledge it was early in your career. You did remove this statement from all subsequent editions, but I have been unable to find any clear retraction of it, or any evident change in your view later on. In fact, you made more negative statements about James’s letter throughout your life, even as they were mixed at times with measured commendations. Today, you are widely known in the church as a detractor of James.

I won’t pretend to be able to persuade a man of your intellect and heart, but in this open letter, I’d like to increase the confidence of other readers in the reliability, and essentiality, of James’s epistle. I also want to honor you by taking your words seriously enough to respond to them.

Not as Some Suspect

When you referred to James as an epistle of straw, you did not question its inclusion in the canon of Scripture, but sought to clarify its place with regard to expressing the gospel (in particular, justification by faith alone). When you said “straw,” you had in mind the apostle Paul’s categories from 1 Corinthians 3:12: “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw . . .” You were not ready to throw James out (you called him “St. James” after all), but were seeking to make distinctions about whether he unpacks the Christian gospel.

James clearly does not lay out any extended exposition of Jesus’s person and work, like Paul does in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. That is certainly true. James’s short epistle is a call to Christian action, to living out the gospel we profess, not just believing it. James does assume massive truths, and that’s okay. No single biblical book or apostolic epistle — not even Romans — tells the whole story on its own, or provides all the essential details. God, his Son, his gospel, his world, and the Christian life are more richly complex than a single epistle.

Would every individual letter in your corpus hold up to your criticism of James? Different parts of the body of holy Scripture have their differing roles to play. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’ (1 Corinthians 12:21).

To clarify that James is a different part than, say, Romans is a fine observation. We should have plenty of space in our understanding of Scripture to say as much. However, you claim more than that, and I acknowledge it’s the tendency of pioneering persons like yourself to change the world through overstatement. Yet it’s also the prerogative of those who come after them, and love them most — like your Melanchthon and Geneva’s Calvin — to refine and nuance such claims so that the effect does not produce an equal and opposite error.

Nothing of the Gospel?

Perhaps you’d quickly recant your unnuanced statement without my trying to make any case for it, but if it would help to display some data, here’s my modest attempt. To focus my claim, let me say it is emphatically not the case that James “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

“It is emphatically not the case that James ‘has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.’”

The key place to go is James 1:18–23. That’s where the foundation of James’s call to action is plainest. And the key word to come to terms with is “word,” which appears four times in the passage (verses 18, 21, 22, and 23). The word “gospel” does not appear in the letter, but by no means does that mean the concept is absent.

Born Again by What?

The first mention is verse 18 in the phrase “the word of truth.” What does James have in mind with this phrase? This “word of truth” is not simply true facts about the world, or even holy writ, but that which is the center and sum of the Bible, none other than the message of our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection for sinners.

Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (James 1:18)

One is not born again (“brought forth”) merely by the truths of nature, or even general biblical revelations, but specifically by “the truth” as Paul calls it in the Pastorals (1 Timothy 2:4; 3:15; 4:3; 6:5; 2 Timothy 2:18, 25; 3:7–8; 4:4; Titus 1:1, 14), the true word of the gospel. So also Peter says, “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). It is as if Peter anticipates our question, “And what is this word?” He answers, “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). Paul has done us the service as well with his explicitness in both Ephesians 1:13 (“the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”) and Colossians 1:5 (“the word of the truth, the gospel”).

Saved by What?

Next is verse 21: “Receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” What is this “implanted word”? Again, James is not coy. This word “is able to save your souls.” This “word” is not general truth from nature, or even one of many of various auxiliary truths revealed in Scripture. This is the message of the gospel.

Verse 21 claims that God’s gospel word, which was his instrument in giving us new birth (verse 18), he plants in us by faith. The idea of this word being “implanted” echoes the new-covenant promises of Jeremiah 31:33 and Ezekiel 36:24–32. In the gospel, God writes his law on our hearts as he plants and grows the message of his grace in us. Such gospel growth inevitably gives rise to action, yet it does not begin with action, but with the reception of the message in the soul by faith.

Doers of What?

Verse 21, then, leads into James’s famous “doers of the word” paragraph (verses 22–25). Tracing James’s use of “word” in his flow of thought, and owning that “word” here in verses 22–23 is a nickname for what you call “the gospel,” what if we restate James’s charge as “be doers of the gospel”? From your statements about James, I would have to presume you would think of this as “doers of the law,” rather than “doers of the gospel.”

The difference may seem small, but how significant it will be in practice. This is a charge, not to be mere law-keepers, but, as Paul wrote, to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). It is a summons to have our conduct be “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). It simply does not work to say that such a statement — and indeed the entire letter — has “nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”

He Gives, We Receive

Apart from simply tracing the gospel-word concept through this key section in chapter 1, we should note good-news revelations made of God and his good-news promises. Consider just the specific expressions of grace to weary souls in chapter 1. For those lacking wisdom, God “gives generously to all without reproach” (James 1:5). To the one who keeps the faith in trial, “he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12). “Every good gift and 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).

“Brother Martin, so well did you embody a life of receiving God’s grace. What a ‘doer of the gospel’ you were!”

Brother Martin, so well did you embody a life of receiving God’s grace. What a “doer of the gospel” you were! You were not a man of dead faith, but of belief that was alive and active, even at the risk of being rash — and God often had his good purposes in your bent to action.

I believe it was rash to make such an uncareful statement about a portion of holy Scripture. You never could have anticipated how the memory of this statement would live on after you, and I suspect, if you had the means from heaven to clarify things for us now, you would. I look forward to the day we can smile together about it face to face in the new creation.