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Luther’s Characterization of James’ Epistle?: “Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?” – Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible

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Luther’s Characterization of James’ Epistle?:

“Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?”

Romans 3:3 Geneva Bible


  A text out of context becomes a pretext.

-Author Unknown-


“A Right Strawy Epistle”?

But what about James?  While Luther’s “analogy of faith” hermeneutic demanded that he dismiss the Letter of James as a “right strawy epistle,” there can be no real contradiction between the epistles of Paul and the epistle of James. The Bible’s internal attestation to its own “God-breathed” [1] authority would not allow such a thing.  James’ insistence that a man is “justified by works and not by faith alone” [2] is best viewed in a manifestive sense rather than a forensic sense.  That was Jonathan Edwards’s view of James’ doctrine of justification.  James was concerned that professing Christians have the kind of faith which manifests itself in good works.  And Paul,  in his Letter to Titus, made at least four references to the identical Christian imperative. [3] He did this notwithstanding his insistence in chapter three of the same letter that:

5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

6 Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;

7 That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Similarly in the Ephesian letter, after affirming that salvation is by grace through faith–itself  “the gift of God, not because of works, lest any man should boast,” the apostle further buttressed his thesis: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” [4] Paul had fully aired his gospel with James, the brother of our Lord and presiding officer of the Jerusalem church, who, according to Paul’s own testimony in Galatians 2:9, extended to Paul  “the right hand of fellowship.” While it is equally remarkable that both Paul and James referred to Jesus Christ as “the Lord of glory,” [5]  Luther is to be corrected for denigrating James’ epistle thereby imposing contradiction where none existed. [6]

A Different Approach to the Law

But there is another difference between Paul and James that may help further to dispel the notion of a conflict in their understanding of justification. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul  depicted the law strictly in a juridicial sense.  For Paul, the law, strictly speaking,  was “not of faith” but a matter of rigid adherence and performance. [7] James’ focus, however, much like the focus of Psalm 119, was the “perfect law”–the “law of liberty”, i.e., the gospel-embedded law. [8] On that basis James could speak of justification by faith and by works as a manifestation of that faith. [9]  And Paul would have agreed inasmuch as the faith which justified a sinner before God was the faith which would manifest itself in good works and thus fulfill the law. [10] Paul could speak of the “law of faith” [11] and the “obedience of faith” [12] inasmuch as “keeping the commandments” was the legitimate end of his gospel of justification apart from works. [13]

The Logic of Being Forgiven

Paul, no less than James, pressed the gospel imperative of extending kindness, tenderheartedness, and mercy to others as “God in Christ has forgiven you,” [14] much as Jesus taught his disciples that if they did not forgive others their trespasses, neither would their heavenly Father forgive their trespasses–sobering words for the professing Christian. [15] The point is that a forgiving heart is the indispensable evidence of the faith that justifies apart from the works of the law–the faith that issues in eternal life. [16]

Paul, no less than James, viewed the love command– “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” as the summation and fulfillment of the law. [17] Bearing one another’s burdens was fulfilling the “law of Christ.” [18] Accordingly, faith was the work of God, and love was a work of faith and a “fruit of the Spirit, as was “joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” [19] “And those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” [20]

As for the external, ceremonial matters of the law, the Christian’s conscience was free “now that faith hath come.” “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” [21]  The manner of upholding the sabbath was a matter of individual conscience and Christian liberty, for Christ Himself embodied the sabbath rest [22] and fulfilled the demands of the externals of the law. Consequently, Christians were not to pass judgment upon one another in this regard. [23]

Christian Protocol

Christ’s resurrection on the first day of the week effectively changed the day of worship for God’s people. And there were other examples of apostolic protocol and church order. Many of these are set forth in Paul’s pastoral letters of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus.

As for administering the sign of the New Covenant to the children of a believing adult, it must be borne in mind that Paul’s strong stand against the Judaiizers was not so much an infant issue as an epochal matter. While Judaiizers insisted that believing male Gentiles and their infant sons [24] be circumcised, the fact that infant Jewish males were circumcised on the eighth day in the Old Testament prefigured Christian discipleship in the home at an early age. But it must not be overlooked that eighth-day circumcision typified that spiritual circumcision done without human hands applicable to any age, and to both male or female. [25]  Baptism, as far as the apostle Paul was concerned, was a sufficient symbol of the New Covenant. Circumcision as a religious rite, on the other hand, had become an unnecessary burden worthy of discard “now that faith hath  come” –a fact to which James’ testimony at the Jerusalem conference had epochal significance. [26] And that was underscored by the Galatian epistle.




[1].2 Tim. 3:16

[2]. James 2:24

[3]. Titus 1:16; 2:7; 3:8,14

[4]. Eph. 2:8-10

[5]. 1 Cor. 2:8; James 2:1

[6]. Acts 15:13-31

[7]. Gal. 3:12

[8]. James 1:25; 2:12

[9]. James 2:17-26

[10]. Rom. 8:3-4

[11]. Rom. 3:27

[12]. Rom. 16:26

[13]. 1 Cor. 7:19

[14]. Eph. 4:32; James 2:12-13

[15]. Matt. 6:14-15

[16]. Matt. 5:7

[17]. Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:8-10; James 2:8

[18]. Gal. 6:2

[19]. Eph. 2:8-10; 1 Thess. 1:3; Gal. 5:22-23; cf. John 6:28-29

[20]. Gal. 5:24

[21]. Gal. 5:6

[22]. Matt. 11:28-30

[23]. Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16-17; cf. Mark 2:23-3:6

[24]. Gen. 17:12; Acts 15:1-2

[25]. Col. 2:11-12

[26]. Gal. 3:25; Acts 15:13-35




The Holy Bible. 2001. English Standard Version.  Crossway Bibles: Wheaton, IL

The Holy Bible. 1611 Edition. King James Version. New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers.


About the Writer


David Clark Brand is a retired pastor and educator with missionary experience in Korea and Arizona. He and his wife now reside in Wooster, Ohio, where they first met at a Presbyterian youth conference in 1958. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. With a B.A. in the Liberal Arts, an M. Div., and a Th.M. in Church History, Dave continues to enjoy study and writing. One of his books, a contextual study of the life and thought of Jonathan Edwards, was published by the American Academy of Religion via Scholars Press in Atlanta.





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