Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pure Religion

The Book of James has not always enjoyed widespread acceptance as part of the canon of Holy Scripture. This was especially true during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. The major theological dispute of the Reformation revolved around the doctrine of justification, specifically whether we are justified (or made righteous) by faith or works of the law. The medieval church had imposed heavy burdens on the people in the form of false teachings and malpractices, particularly the sale of indulgences, which was paramount to purchasing the remission of sin and release from the resultant punishment.
Martin Luther was dismayed by the teachings and practices of the medieval church and in 1517 nailed Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenburg, Saxony (present day Germany). Luther argued vehemently against the notion that a person could receive salvation by adhering to the law. Rather, according to Luther, justification is a free gift of grace that is received by faith. This was the heart of the gospel message for Luther - we are saved by grace through faith, not by good works.
It is no surprise then that Luther was troubled by the Epistle of James, which claims that faith without works is dead. For Luther, this assertion by James ran contrary to everything he understood to be true about the gift of grace we have received through Christ. Luther famously said, "St. James' Epistle is really an epistle of straw, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it." For Luther, the epistle of James was straw in the sense that is was easily consumed by fire, and when the straw was burned away, one did not find the pure gold nugget of the gospel remaining. In other words, according the Luther, the Epistle of James did not contain the central message of the gospel that we are justified by grace through faith.
Most commentators since the time of the Reformation have agreed that Luther's statement was ill-advised and that the epistle of James does not contradict the doctrine of justification by faith, but rather it provides a helpful supplemental understanding of the role of good works in the Christian life. Although we are saved or justified by faith, we are still called to bear the fruit of good works, such as acts of service and generosity.

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