“In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.”
Martin Luther wrote that in his Preface to the New Testament. His comment that James is an “epistle of straw” has forever impacted the way many Lutherans have looked at James. Luther never denied that James’ epistle was Scripture – the word of God – but in this statement we see that he did not think it was a Gospel centered book.
Now first, we need to consider the context of Luther’s statement. The Reformation was about reclaiming the Gospel – the good news that we are justified before God on account of Christ through faith alone. The death and resurrection of Jesus has won the forgiveness of sins for us. This saving action of God is purely a matter of God’s grace – it is completely unmerited, and salvation is not in any way based on our works. Instead, it is received purely by faith – trust and belief in Jesus Christ that has been worked by God’s Spirit.
In that setting, it is not surprising that Luther prized the books of the Bible that state this in a clear and unambiguous way. When judged by that standard, it is true that James does not stand out. The epistle only mentions Jesus Christ twice. In the first verse of the letter James describes himself as “a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” At the beginning the second chapter he says, “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” James never actually mentions the death and resurrection of Jesus. He does refer to Christ’s coming on the Last Day when he writes, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.”
However, while James may say little about how God has saved us, our text leaves no doubt that it is God who has acted to save us. And James tells us that this faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, is an incredibly powerful force that shapes the way we live our lives.
Immediately before our text James has written: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” As James speaks about the challenges that we face in life he adds, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” Those words probably sound familiar, because in the explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation,” Luther writes in the Small Catechism, “God tempts no one.” So apparently Luther did find use for James. And in fact, this is by no means the only place where Luther quotes the epistle in order to teach.
God tempts no one. Instead, James tells us: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” James identifies the source of temptation in us. He says we are lured and enticed by our own desire. Later in chapter four James says: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel.”
Our fallen sinful nature continues to tempt us. We yield to it, and it then gives birth to sin in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. And when sin is allowed to rule our lives it brings forth death. As sinners, unless our Lord returns first, all of us will die. But sin that is not forgiven – sin that is fully grown – brings forth the eternal death of damnation by God.
Yet in our text, James declares the good news of the Gospel. God did not leave you there. James begins by saying, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The source of your salvation is God who is the giver of every good gift. He, the Creator, is the One who is steadfast and reliable. He does not change. He is true to his promises. Then James tells us, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”
We note first that our salvation has occurred because of God’s will. And James is not speaking in a general way about God’s decision to send his Son into the world in the incarnation to die on the cross and rise from the dead. Instead, he says that God “brought us forth by the word of truth.” James is talking about the creation of saving faith. It is important to note that earlier he uses the exact same Greek verb when he says that, “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” Sin brings forth death. But now instead, God has “brought us forth by the word of truth.” He has given us life through faith in his Son. This word of the Gospel is what later in our text he calls, “the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”
In the letter itself, James does not say much about the content of the Gospel – the word of truth. He is, of course, writing to Christians who know it. But when he refers to “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory,” and speaks of the expectation of the “coming of the Lord” we have all that is needed to know that he is talking about apostolic preaching of the Gospel.
After all, as we just remembered during Holy Week, Jesus is the One who died by crucifixion and was buried. You don’t call a dead man “the Lord of glory.” You don’t talk about the visible return of a dead man in a tomb. James speaks this way because he speaks to Christians who have heard the apostolic Gospel. They have heard the same message that Peter declared to the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts when he said: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Jesus Christ died on the cross. As it is stated multiple times in the book of Acts by the apostles, he was hung on a tree. To any Jew, like James, this meant that Jesus had been cursed by God just as Deuteronomy says. Jesus had died cursed on the tree. ButPaul shared the teaching of the apostolic church when he told the Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” In this way, Jesus won forgiveness for us.
God demonstrated that he had been working through the crucifixion of Jesus – he vindicated Jesus – when he raised him from the dead on Easter. More than that, in his ascension Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of the Father. Jesus Christ is the Lord of glory who will return on the Last Day.
This is the “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” to which James refers. This is the word of truth by which God brought you forth as a child of God. And while in this letter James doesn’t say much about the actual content of the Gospel he leaves no doubt that the faith in Jesus produced by the Gospel is a mighty force.
In our text, immediately after stating that God has brought us forth by the word of truth, he goes on to say, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” James says that when we receive God’s love in Jesus Christ – when we have faith in him – it changes the way we live. In the verse immediately after our text he goes on to say, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”
So how does faith act? It is quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. First, we need to listen to what others have to say. There may be wisdom in what is said. There may information the gives us a better understanding of a situation. And then we need to be slow to speak – especially in situations of tension or conflict. We need to consider our words carefully, and not just send out the first thing that pops into our head.
Because of our faith in Jesus Christ we need to be slow to anger, for as James declares, the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. We like to claim that we have justification for anger – that we even have righteous anger. But unless you are God, - and you are not - anger always gets wrapped up with sin. It is only by self deception that we can say that our anger is a good thing.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” There isn’t much room for anger there. How can we possibly do this? It occurs because of “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” Our Lord Jesus received God’s anger against our sin as he suffered and died on the cross. He did this so that we could receive God’s love and forgiveness.
Through faith in Jesus the risen Lord, this is what we have. We have received it through baptism and continue to receive it there as we turn to our baptism in faith. We receive it in the word of absolution spoken by Christ. We receive it in the body and blood of Christ given and shed for you.
Through these Means of Grace the Spirit gives us forgiveness and strengthens us in faith. He leads us to reflect upon the love and forgiveness that God has given to us in Christ. The more we focus on Christ and what he has done for us, the less we will feel that anger is the response we want to have. This will always be an ongoing struggle because the old Adam wants to stir up anger. When there is anger, listen to James: be slow to speak. And then turn to Jesus Christ in faith. Believe in his death and resurrection by which he has given you forgiveness – forgiveness that he calls us to share with others.
Instead of anger, turn to the gift God has given us – the gift of faith in Christ. As James says in our text: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”