Faith and Works

July 4, 2017

The great reformer Martin Luther, champion of the doctrine of salvation through faith alone, never felt good about the epistle of James. He called it an “epistle full of straw” in the preface to his 1522 edition of the New Testament, and he put the book in the appendix. He preferred Paul’s wording of the faith-works equation: “A man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28).

In a sense, Luther had little choice. He was surrounded by men who said that good works could save you. He knew that God alone could save through faith alone, and his mission was to tell them.

But Luther went too far when he put James in the appendix to the New Testament. Neither faith nor works can be cut off and thrown away. James was taking aim at freeloaders, those who claimed to have no need for good deeds since they had faith. The reality is that if you have faith, works will naturally be a product. You cannot get rid of works just because they do not save you. You cannot sever the effect from the cause. Just as an apple tree will bear apples, so faith will produce good works (see Luke 6:43, 44).

Paul had the opposite problem in view when he wrote Romans. His letter targeted those who placed their faith in the Law of Moses. Their trust was in their own good works, and not in God. That is why Paul wrote a defense of faith, and that is why Luther preferred it to James’s defense of works.

Faith and works are not enemies. True faith and righteous works go hand in hand. They are two parts of God’s work in us. Faith brings a person to salvation, and works bring that person to faithfulness. Faith is the cause, works are the effect. James believed it, and so did Paul.

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