Was James a legalist?

You believe in obedience, right? I don’t know many Bible-believing folks who don’t.

The Bible’s clear from beginning to end that God really does want us to do what he says. Jesus said it repeatedly, as did Paul and pretty much every other writer.

So why has James taken such a beating for what he wrote about works?

His most famous critic is Martin Luther, who would’ve been perfectly happy if James’ letter hadn’t been included in the Bible. Luther called it a “right strawy epistle.”

Here’s part of the passage he didn’t like:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14-17).

Luther thought James contradicted Paul’s teaching about salvation through faith, not works (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9).

The famous reformer may have been a well-learned scholar, but I’m pretty sure he missed James’ point.

James wasn’t arguing that we ought to be legalists and find our justification in law-keeping . . . some kind of earned righteousness.

But he did want his readers to know that God doesn’t bless faith that speaks but doesn’t act.

Saving faith trusts, submits, and obeys.

Actually, this teaching might really be needed right now. It could be a much-needed correction to some of the easy-believism that has filtered into some expressions of Christianity.

And it might be a good reminder for all of us.

It’s easy enough to have a set of things we believe, and another set of things that we actually do.

For example, if you asked me if I believed in sharing my faith with others, I would quickly say yes.

But do I really believe in it?

Maybe a better question would be: Do I share my faith with others?

I know this is true—we don’t really believe things we don’t practice.

Do we believe in Jesus? We can say yes, but we don’t really believe in him if we don’t follow him.

Do we love God? Most of us say yes, but loving him isn’t saying it; it’s doing what he says.

To use James’ example, do we believe in serving fellow Christians?

Maybe the Lord would ask us: When’s the last time you cooked a meal for a grieving brother, or visited a shut-in sister, or sat at the hospital with a worried family?

Maybe I’m oversimplifying it, but I think James’ point is pretty clear.

Faith means a whole lot more than just saying it.

It means getting our hands dirty with all of the messy implications of following Jesus.

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