Context is everything. And that there are two sides to the salvation coin needs to be grappled with. Such is the paradox created by one three-word phrase in what Luther referred to as “a right strawy epistle.”
By “strawy” Luther had in mind 1Corinthians 3:12 and the letter he was referring to was the letter of James. At one point at least, Luther thought that James’ letter, as material for building on the foundation of the gospel, was more akin to “wood, hay, and straw” than it was to “gold, silver, and precious stones.” And you get where he’s coming from if only from considering how James uses the three-word phrase, “justified by works.”
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
(James 2:21-25 ESV)
Justified by works. For those of us who are not ashamed of the gospel, the instinctive response when reading that is akin to hearing fingernails dragged across a chalkboard. What’s more, it creates a sort of systematic theology whiplash as you do a double-take when you recall what Paul has written:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.
(Romans 4:2-4 ESV)
. . . yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ . . .
(Galatians 2:16 ESV)
Holy tension, Batman!
No away around it, though. When you read the latter part of James 2, verses 14 though 26, you need to give it some serious consideration. There’s some wrestling to be done with the dichotomy created by this portion of Holy Writ. And, even encountering it year after year as you go through your reading plan, there’s serious re-consideration and some wrestling again that seems necessary.
From what I know, Luther had no issue with James as part of the canon of Scripture. And I believe that all Scripture is God-breathed, profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2Tim. 3:16). So I can’t just blow by it. I need to hover over it and let it continue to equip me for “every good work” (2Tim. 3:17).
You can’t get away from it. While James might be somewhat blunt, the assertion is crystal clear, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26b) . . . it is a non-faith.
Both James and Paul assert that we are saved, that righteousness is imputed to a person, by faith alone. And both use Abraham as the great example.
But James is lead by the Holy Spirit (something else true of all Scripture) to highlight the facet of faith that says where true saving seed is sown, real fruit is evident. That a profession of salvation apart from some evidence of sanctification does not compute. That the reality of regeneration is manifest in some objective display of righteousness. That real belief eventually bears right behavior.
James does not contradict the essence of the gospel, instead he contends for his brothers and sisters to live out the gospel. A living faith should be evident by how we live for the kingdom. Evident in who and what we worship. Evident in our moral compass. Evident in how we assume our ambassadorship for the kingdom. Evident in how we pursue gospel community. Evident in how we steward our resources. Evident in how we prioritize our calendars. Evident in how we make our way on mission.
Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
(James 2:18b ESV)
Justified by faith alone in Christ alone? Absolutely!
Justified by works, too? Really? Yeah . . . really.
A mysterious dynamic of grace. A manifest reality for the glory of God.