The lectionary for the morning prayer office currently has as the second scripture lesson the Epistle of St. James. For today the passage was as follows…
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
It’s fun watching our Protestant friends, committed to the doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” twisting themselves into pretzels trying to make this passage not mean what it so obviously means. Some of their attempts are actually funny.
I have a grudging respect for how Martin Luther dealt with the plain teaching in the passage of St. James’s epistle. He didn’t try to make it say something it clearly wasn’t saying, he just more or less said, “it doesn’t fit with how I understand the rest of the New Testament, so it must not be truly inspired scripture.” Luther called James an “epistle of straw,” an illusion to St. Paul’s wood hay or stubble teaching in Corinthians, or maybe he was saying it was only good for the barn floor. At least he could tell what it really was saying and didn’t try to contort it into supporting a believe only doctrine of Justification, which since has become the typical Protestant strategy.
We certainly saved by grace, but not by believing only. As James tells us, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?” In it’s context and given the flow of thought that follows, it is easy to see this is a rhetorical question, to which the expected conclusion is “no!” The following verses are not an excursion into instruction in Christian charity, they are an illustration of the point being made. When people are naked and hungry they can’t wear or eat your words, which words have no real effect, unless it’s to underscore the vanity of the platitude. In short, talk is cheap, it’s works that matter. The entire passage is like this, and our poor Protestant brothers go on trying to fit them somehow into the straightjacket of the solas.the devils also believe, and tremble.“