Martin Luther was recorded as calling the letter of James a “Straw Epistle.” This always made me laugh a little bit because it was Luther being Luther. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy a lot, but this statement always made me wonder about him. The reason why he called James a “Straw Epistle” is because he felt that it stood in opposition to Paul’s teaching on “Grace Alone” and “Faith Alone.” So I guess James was frustrating Luther’s “Sola” statements and that was unacceptable. However, the message of James is not, “Do this and God will save you,” rather, “Because God has saved you, Do this.” That’s a big difference but for some reason it was difficult for Luther to square away. He is significantly smarter than me and did so much during the Reformation so I don’t mean to belittle him. Just having a little fun.
I have been reading 1 John for the past view weeks, taking it one paragraph at a time. I wonder what Luther would say about 1 John because as I read it, I find it to have a very similar message to James. As a matter of fact, I find 1 John to be contrary to a lot of doctrine that I hear evangelicals throw around. Two examples that I immediately think of are “The Sinners Prayer” and the phrase, “Decision for Christ.” I just wonder where we got this terminology because it’s not in the Bible. My fear with the Sinner’s Prayer is that it has become a formula that builds false hope because we say, “Pray this and you are good,” when genuine life change may or may not take place. The phrase “Decision for Christ” is strange because the trend Scripture is the Gospel goes out and people respond. Is this merely semantics? Am I just splitting hairs? Perhaps, but I don’t read of too many instances where people, left to their own initiative, pursue Christ and His Gospel. Instead, it is clear that Jesus is the one who is constantly in pursuit. However, our terminology seems to indicate that we think pretty highly of ourselves and our ability to come to Jesus whenever we want, despite the fact that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. (Rom 8:7).
So, the difficulty and beauty of 1 John is that it challenges our mindset on so many of our beliefs because the Christian life is not a formula and it is not merely a one-and-done decision that we made when we were 9 years old at a children’s revival (my experience). The letter is loaded with conditional sentences and I will list a few.
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth (1:6).”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1:8).”
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments (2:3).”
“Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness (2:9).”
“If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father (2:24).”
“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him (3:6).”
“By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil; whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother (3:10).”
That last one sums it up nicely. You cannot claim to be a follower of Christ, one who has responded to the Gospel (or for the sake of argument, “made a decision”) and then walk in a manner that neglects what Christ commands. As a believer, you do not get that freedom (or we could say slavery—different subject). These statements are big “If’s.” It is baffling how often we think we get to pray a prayer, live like hell, and expect heaven when we die. How arrogant and pathetic. Therefore, treasure Christ, love one another, and stop sinning. Not so God will save you, but because by grace you have been saved.