“Faith without works is dead,” asserts James 2:17. But 500 years ago the Catholic monk Martin Luther had a problem with James’ theology. Among other concerns, he was disturbed by the church’s practice of selling indulgences to shorten the length of time spent in purgatory.
Finding hope in Paul’s letters about “salvation through faith,” Luther rejected James’ emphasis on works, calling the letter “an epistle of straw.” The preface to his first edition of the German New Testament asserts that James “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”
Luther has persuaded many Christians that faith alone saves believers. Sometimes “works” are confused with legalism or “works-righteousness” and are thus downplayed. Good deeds may be encouraged but are secondary to a (primarily verbal) belief in Christ’s salvation.
This is not an Anabaptist position, and we should be grateful James was included in our canon. Reading texts in their historical and literary contexts, we can see that James is not disagreeing with Paul but rather challenging a misunderstanding of Paul’s theology.
In Rom. 3:21-31, Paul says “a person is justified by faith apart from law.” Roman house churches were composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Tensions had arisen over food laws and observance of special days (see Romans 14). Paul assures both Jews and Gentiles in Rome that they are united through “the faithfulness of Christ” (3:22, 26), not by observing Jewish ritual law. Note that wisdom’s righteous deeds are not the issue.
James has a different emphasis. His audience is Jewish (1:1), and his issue is not ritual law but ethics — specifically, economic inequality (2:15-16). Some community members do not have enough food or clothing. A merely intellectual “faith in Jesus” won’t cut it. Without sharing basic resources so everyone has enough, that faith adds up to zero.
In June, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gave a speech about George Floyd’s murder and the current movement protesting unjust and unequal treatment of Black Americans by police. Biden had invoked James 2:17 and Catholic social thought, saying that he was taught that “faith without works is dead.” Writing about Biden’s speech, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne commented that “These words are a reminder that the social concern of the Black church is part of a broad stream of American Christian thinking. . . . It is alive now in the Rev. William Barber’s revival of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.”
James’ wider context in 2:1-7 underscores Biden’s statement. A further blow to the poor is partiality and discrimination. The wealthy and privileged are seated in the assembly; the poor must sit on the floor.
Many privileged white Christians do not want to confront their sins of partiality. Elsa Tamez, a Mexican commentator on James, knows “of churches where the letter is skipped over in the liturgies because of many rich members in the congregation. It is very uncomfortable to speak against them when they are sitting in the front seats” (The Scandalous Message of James).
James’ example of a dead faith sounds contemporary. Partiality in the form of white privilege infects our society. But why does James not emphasize racial discrimination? Amazingly, skin color was not an issue in the Roman Empire, in spite of rigid class structures and a huge slave population.
But times have changed. Our 401-year history of Black slavery and its relentless Jim Crow aftermath have finely tuned white Americans’ awareness of skin color and other physical features. Today we should read James 2:2-4 and see white racism.
What do you think of the protest movement Black Lives Matter? What deeds of impartiality and generosity is Woman Wisdom (see previous columns ) asking of you?
Since retiring from teaching New Testament at Messiah College, Reta Halteman Finger adjuncts at Eastern Mennonite University, is a contributing editor at Sojourners magazine and writes a bimonthly Bible study blog, Reta’s Reflections, at eewc.com.