As a pastor, I have discovered there are certain passages that I am repeatedly asked about. James 2:14-26 is one of those passages because it seems to contradict what Paul said in Romans and other places about being justified by faith alone. For example, Paul in Romans 3:28 makes a summary statement concerning justification by faith alone: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” James states in James 2:24: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” Some have argued that Paul and James were purposefully writing against each other. That position, however, attacks the authority the apostles and the inspiration of the Bible. Since we hold that the Bible is inspired and, consequently, does not contradict itself, Paul and James must be using and applying the term justification in different ways. In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church often used this passage in a polemical manner to attack the Protestant concept of justification by faith alone. Therefore, in considering the doctrine of justification, it is important for us to understand the teaching of James 2:14-26. Besides the historical debates that have centered on this passage with regard to justification, the teaching of this passage is especially pertinent to issues in current American evangelicalism.
If we consider the context of James 2, I don’t think it is a difficult passage to understand or to bring into harmony with Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone. Paul and James are each addressing a different issue in the believer’s life; each of them is addressing different problems and using the term, justification (dikiasune) in different ways. Paul is talking about redemption and how a person is ultimately right with God. In his discussion, he is emphasizing that we cannot work our way to heaven and that salvation is completely of God’s grace. James is talking about the problem of people who claim to believe, but their claim to faith is not producing any fruit in their lives. He is dealing with the problem of intellectual assent and the fact that true saving faith will produce the fruit of obedience in the life of a person who is truly trusting in Christ. That true saving faith produces obedience to God is a primary theme in the whole book of James. James is exhorting his readers to live in a manner that is in keeping with their profession of faith. Luke Timothy Johnson comments on the context of this section of James:
For the reader who has followed James’ argument to this point, 2:14-26 presents no great puzzle. The theme implicit from the first, namely, the necessity of acting out one’s faith in consistent deeds, now becomes explicit. And for the reader uncommitted to theories of literary fragmentation, the connection between this section and chapter one is equally obvious. In 1:22-25, James had insisted on being “not only a hearer of the word” but also a doer; now, the contrast is between “faith alone” and the doing of faith (2:18-26). Likewise, in 1:27, James had identified the “visiting of orphans and widows in their distress” as the mark of genuine rather than counterfeit religion. Now, he provides the negative example of the one whose religious language camouflages a failure to respond to the needs of the poor (2:14-17).
The essential connection between this section and the first part of chapter two is also fairly obvious. After the opening rhetorical question in 2:14 that poses the same sort of opposition as did 2:1, James provides a similar lively hypothetical case (2:15-16; see 2:2-3), ending in a rhetorical question (2:16; see 2:4). In 2:5-7, the readers were shown the logical inconsistency of their behavior; now in 2:18-19, the claim that faith and deeds are separable is refuted by a reductio ad absurdum. As 2:8-11 argued halachially for the unitary character of obedience to the law of love, so 2:20-25 argues hagadically from the examples of Abraham and Rahab, given by the narratives of Torah, for the unitary character of faith and faith’s deeds.1
Therefore, James 2:14-26 is a statement that true saving faith will produce fruit. If there is no fruit, then the claim to faith is spurious. This same theme is also seen in James 3 where James discusses the destructive power of the tongue. In James 2, James speaks of the abnormality of a so-called faith not producing any works. In James 3:9-10, James speaks of the abnormality of a tongue that blesses God and at the same time curses men: “With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.” The context and flow of argument in James chapters 1-3 supports the idea that in James 2:14-26, James is addressing the idea a person “living-out” his salvation.
When James uses the term justification, he uses it in the context of this theme and, therefore, uses it in the sense of vindication. Real faith is vindicated or seen to be real faith by the obedience or fruit that accompanies it. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states: “Characteristic of James’ treatment of the subject is his campaign against a dead orthodoxy which speaks of faith but does not take works seriously. Hence he emphasizes the union of faith and works”2 The Reformers insisted that real faith is a living faith that produces obedience. One of the slogans of the Reformation was that a person is saved by faith alone, but never by a faith that is alone (sola fides justificat, sed fides non est sola – faith alone justifies, but faith is not alone). That true faith produces obedience to God is a primary theme in the whole book of James.
TRUE SAVING FAITH IS NOT BARE INTELLECTUAL ASSENT
James 2:14 submits two rhetorical questions that anticipate a negative response: “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” James states that if a person claims to have faith, but the faith he claims to have is not accompanied by any fruit, then that kind of faith is not true saving faith. When we talk about justification by faith alone, we are not meaning justification by profession of faith. Many people make outward professions of faith in Jesus for their salvation, but that is all that it is, an outward profession with no reality in their hearts. Simon Kistemaker writes:
James is specific. He says, “if a man claims to have faith.” He does not write, “if a man has faith.” James intimates that the faith of this particular person is not a genuine trust in Jesus Christ. In fact, that man’s claim to faith is hollow. If he only nods his head in assent to the words of a doctrinal statement, his faith is intellectual, barren, and worthless. Faith in God through Jesus Christ is a certainty that flows from our hearts, emanates from our minds, and translates into deeds. Vibrant faith of word and deed, spoken and performed out of love for God and our neighbor saves us.3
It is possible for people to make an outward profession of faith, but not truly trust in Christ alone for salvation; they have an intellectual assent to the gospel, but their hearts are unregenerate. Sometimes those that have an intellectual assent only affirm certain historical facts about Jesus. They may confess facts about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed in congregational worship. They profess that they believe Jesus was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilot, was crucified, dead, and buried. They profess that he rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father and will return to judge the living and the dead. They believe those facts are true, but they are not trusting Christ for their salvation. They have data about Jesus and they assent to the data, but that is as far as they go. The evidence that their claim to faith is false is seen the fact that their faith has no accompanying works. James 2:15-17 gives a concrete example of a fictitious, non-working faith: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” The speaking of the words, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” if there is no corresponding action to help the needy person, is useless. James 2:17 draws a conclusion from this point: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” Just as saying, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled” without action is useless, so also for a person to say, “I believe” without corresponding action is useless. John Calvin commented on this verse: “He says that faith is dead, being by itself, that is, when destitute of good works. We hence conclude that it is indeed no faith, for when dead, it does not properly retain the name.”4 If so-called faith does not produce works it is not real faith; it is merely intellectual assent to certain truth propositions about Jesus.
TRUE SAVING FAITH PRODUCES OBEDIENCE TO GOD
James continues to drive home his point in verse 18. The punctuation of verse 18 has been debated. Some argue that the entire verse should be considered a single quote. This perspective is found in the New American Standard translation:
But someone may well say, “You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
The difficulty with this punctuation approach is that the first phrase of verse 18, “But someone may well say,” indicates that an objector is being quoted. But, if the entire verse is taken as a quotation, the person quoted is not objecting to James, but is agreeing with him. Luke Timothy Johnson comments:
Who is the interlocutor? Is he an opponent or an ally, real or implied? The best solution here is to recognize the diatribal character of this section and see the interlocutor as the imaginary conversation partner who poses an objection that is used by the primary speaker to advance the argument. . . .5
The New International Version translation reflects this idea:
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
James R. White suggests this further clarification in translation:
But someone will say, “Do you have faith?” And I will say, “I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.”6
Therefore, James answers the imaginary objector in saying that true faith will be seen to be real saving faith through its corresponding works. James contends that real saving faith always has fruit. In the sight of men, faith will be seen to be real by its fruit. If it does not have the fruit of works and obedience to God, then it is not real faith. Calvin comments on verse 18: “The meaning then is, ‘Unless thy faith brings forth fruits, I deny that thou hast any faith.’”7
James 2:19 supports the above translation. It continues to answer an objector: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (NIV). Verse 19 also shows that James is talking about intellectual assent and not true saving faith. He acknowledges that some believe truth concerning God (“You believe that there is one God”). While it is good that they assent to truths about God, that is not everything that is involved in saving faith. In fact, the demons assent to certain truths about God and tremble at that knowledge. Luke Timothy Johnson makes this observation concerning the reaction of the demons: “Whether the response is that of terror or awe, the ‘faith’ of demons plainly shows that one can confess God without doing the deeds God commands.”8
In the previous chapter on faith, we observed that saving faith has three elements: knowledge, assent, and trust. Before someone can believe in Jesus, he has to hear about him; he has to have certain knowledge about Jesus (see: Rom. 10:14,15). Second, he has to believe that what he has heard about Jesus is true. He has to assent to the truthfulness of the gospel message. A person may say they believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again from the dead. They may say that they know the only way to salvation is through Christ’s work. They have the information or knowledge about Jesus and they assent to it; they believe the information to be true. That person, however, is not saved yet. According to James 2:19, he is at least qualified to be a demon. Satan and demons know and assent to the basic data about God and God’s plan of redemption. They believe in Jesus in the sense that they know who he is, but they hate him; they don’t embrace him. This is where the third and crucial element of saving faith comes into play: a person knows about Jesus; he believes the information about his dying for his sins to be true; and he places personal trust in his work on the cross. He recognizes that he cannot save himself and he transfers his trust from anything in himself to Christ alone. True saving faith does not stop at assent; it trusts in Christ alone for salvation and produces the fruit of obedience to God. Luke Timothy Johnson states:
James is not asserting anything about the value of deeds “apart from” faith. It is precisely the disjunction that he challenges. Above all, there is no reason to read this statement as a response to such Pauline passages as Rom. 3:28: “We maintain that a human being is made righteous by faith apart from (choris) the works of the law (erga tou nomou),” because that contrast is simply not at issue here. Rather, James’ contrast is between mere faith as belief and faith as a full response to God.9
James 2:20 functions both as a conclusion for this section of James thesis and as an introduction to the Old Testament illustrations of true faith that follow:
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (NASB)
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? (NIV)
James 2:20 continues to answer the objector and emphasizes the basic thesis of James’ argument that true saving faith will produce corresponding actions. True saving faith will produce fruit; it will be evidenced in a person’s obedience to God. This principle is set forth repeatedly in Scripture. James wrote that faith without works is dead. In other words, it is not real faith. Paul said it this way in Romans 1:5: “. . . through whom [Jesus] we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for his name’s sake. . . .” Paul connects faith and obedience.
The Apostle John makes the same connection in his first epistle:
And by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who ways he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as he walked (1 John 2:3-6).
Jesus said: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15); “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me shall be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and will disclose Myself to him” (John 14:21). James, Paul, John, and Jesus all link true saving faith with obedience to the commands of God.
One day the opera singer Enrico Caruso entered a bank near the Metropolitan Opera in New York to cash a check. When the alert, young teller saw the famous name on the check, he became suspicious. The more Caruso tried to convince the teller that he was Caruso, the more convinced the teller became that he was a fraud. Then Caruso had an inspiration. Stepping back a few paces from the teller’s window, he placed one hand on his chest and began to sing an aria. Long before he finished, the teller began to count out the money. When he came to the end, Caruso bowed and took his money, while the customers and clerks cheered. His identity was proven by his works. His great ability to sing demonstrated that he was who he said he was. The same thing is true in regards to faith. True saving faith will be seen to be real faith by what it produces, by its fruit. James is emphasizing the fact that true faith will be seen in the fruit it produces in a person’s life and, if that fruit is absent, the claim to faith is spurious.
TWO OLD TESTAMENT EXAMPLES OF TRUE SAVING FAITH
In the final section of this passage, James gives two Old Testament examples that demonstrate his point that a profession of faith is seen to be real in the obedience to God it produces. James gives the example of Abraham and Rahab. James 2:20-24 states:
But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
This is the most difficult part of this text. However, remember what we said at the beginning that James is using the term, justification in the sense of demonstration or vindication. Luke Timothy Johnson, in his translation, reflects this idea:
Was not our father Abraham shown to be righteous on the basis of deeds when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was working together with his deeds, and by the deeds faith was brought to perfection.10
Johnson comments on this translation:
The hardest term to translate here is dikaioun, primarily because of its frequent use by Paul in contexts opposing righteousness by faith and “works of the law” (Rom. 2:13, 3:4, 20, 24, 26, 28, 30; 4:2, 5; 5:1, 9; 8:30, 33; Gal. 2:16-17; 3:8, 11, 24) and the complex use of the verb and its cognates in the OT (e.g., LXX Gen. 38:26; Exod. 23:7; Deut. 25:1; Pss. 50:6; 81:3; 142:2. . . .). The precise meaning in each case must be determined by context, not some general theological concept. Given the previous statement demanding the demonstration of faith, the translation here as “shown to be righteous” seems appropriate. . . .11
James states that Abraham’s faith is seen to be real in is obedience to God in offering Isaac on the altar. When does James say that Abraham was justified or vindicated? When he offered Isaac on the altar. That history is found in Genesis 22. James appeals to something that occurred in Abraham’s life in Genesis 22. God examined Abraham’s heart by asking him to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham moved in obedience and God stopped him just before he actually sacrificed Isaac. In Paul’s use of justification, he argues that Abraham was justified in a saving sense the moment he believed God. That is found in Genesis 15. When Abraham received the promise of God, he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:6 states: “Then he [Abraham] believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In Genesis 15, Abraham is justified in the sight of God. God declared him righteous on the basis of his faith. He was justified in a saving sense in the sight of God before he performed works. This is the point Paul draws from Genesis 15 in Romans 4:1-3:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Abraham’s claim to faith, however, was justified or vindicated in the sight of man when he obeyed God and offered Isaac on the altar. When Abraham was obedient to God, he demonstrated that his claim to true saving faith was, in fact, a reality. This is what James is arguing in this passage. If a person has true saving faith, then true faith will be evidenced in their lives through their obedience to God and when it is thus evidenced, it is shown to other men to be real saving faith. James 2:23 shows that James is not contending that Abraham’s obedience is the ground or basis of his justification in a saving sense: “. . . and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God.” James says that God’s reckoning of righteousness to Abraham on the basis of faith is seen to be real in Abraham’s obedience to God. James does not in any way imply that Abraham’s obedience is meritorious. John Calvin comments on this section in James:
When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted as righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to show that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon.12
Luke Timothy Johnson writes:
For James, the significance of Abraham begins and ends with his faith. The issue is only how that faith is expressed and brought to fulfillment. And this is why James makes such an interesting use of the citation of Gen. 15:6. He says that this text was itself “fulfilled” by the later text of Genesis 22, just as the “faith” of Abraham is response to God’s call in Genesis 12 and 15 was brought to its fullest expression in Abraham’s obedient offering of his son. It is in this light that the present translation renders the Greek as “shown to be righteous” (2:21, 24), for the entire line of argument here has involved demonstration: “show me your faith apart from deeds, and by my deeds I will show you my faith” (2:18).13
The second Old Testament example James gives is an incident from the life of Rahab the harlot of Jericho: “And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:25) James mentions Rahab’s action in hiding and protecting the two spies at the time of the conquest of Jericho. James opens his statement about Rahab with the phrase: “And in the same way,” referring back to the discussion concerning Abraham; just like Abraham’s faith was seen to be real in his obedience to God, Rahab’s faith was seen to be real in her action in hiding the spies. After hiding and protecting the two spies, Rahab expresses the faith that motivated her actions:
. . . “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. And we heard it, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the Lord you God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Joshua 2:9-11).
Hebrews 11:31 succinctly states that Rahab’s faith motivated her actions in hiding and protecting the spies: “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.”
Abraham’s and Rahab’s faith was real saving faith. They were justified in the sight of God by faith alone; their obedience to God vindicated or proved before men that their profession of faith was real. James concludes his exposition in verse 26: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” While Abraham’s and Rahab’s faith was seen to be real in the obedience it produced, the opposite is also true. If a person claims to have faith in Christ, but his profession of faith does not have any fruit of obedience, his claim is false; he is a hypocrite in his claim to faith. Charles Spurgeon commented on this:
If that tree stands in the orchard, and when the spring time comes there is no bud, and when the summer comes there is no leafing or fruit bearing, but the next year and the next it stands there without bud or blossom or leaf or fruit, you would say it is dead, and would be correct. It is not that the leaves could have made it live, but that the absence of the leaves is a proof that it is dead. So too is it with the professor. If he has life, that life must give fruits. If his faith has a root but no works, then depend on it, the inference that he is spiritually dead is certainly a correct one.14
The analogy has been given that faith and works are as inseparable as sun and sunlight. Faith is the sun; good works are its rays. Martin Luther, in the preface to his Commentary on Romans wrote concerning the connection of faith and works:
Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times. This confidence in God’s grace and knowledge of it makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all His creatures; and this is the work of the Holy Ghost in faith. Hence a man is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, in love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace; and thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light fires. Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers, who would be wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools. Pray God to work faith in you; else you will remain forever without faith, whatever you think or do.15
Puritan writers also commented on true faith being seen in its corresponding good deeds: Elisha Coles said, “Faith justifies the person, and works justify his faith. Thomas Manton concurred with James: “A naked profession of faith is no better than a verbal charity.” Thomas Adams succinctly stated, “Naked faith is no faith.”16
James R. White makes this summary statement concerning James 2:14-26:
The passage makes a firm statement: a faith that exists only in words (one that is “claimed”) but has no evidence of its existence in actions (deeds) is a faith that cannot save. As such, the question can profitably be asked, “Does it follow that a faith that exists both in word and in deed can, in fact, save?” The answer would seem to be yes. It can does in James’s understanding of the gospel. It should be remembered that the Protestant doctrine of sola fide has never meant “faith in isolation” but instead “faith alone without the addition of human words or merit.” James is not addressing such a concept of faith here: his assertion is that “this kind” of words-only, deedless faith simply cannot save.17
This section in James contains crucial truths concerning the nature of true saving faith. This passage has several important applications that are especially pertinent in today’s evangelical world.
JAMES AND SELF-EXAMINATION
This section in James is important concerning self-examination. 2 Corinthians 13:5 calls professing Christians to examine themselves concerning the reality of their salvation: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test?” Two questions are important concerning self-examination. The first question the professor of faith should ask himself is if he trusts in anything other than Christ for his salvation. If the person who claims to be a Christian, places his hope of heaven on his good works, church membership, baptism, or any religious activity, his claim to being in a state of grace is false. If a person trusts in his own performance for salvation and he dies trusting in himself, he will go to hell. He will face the judgment and just wrath of God against his sin. Justification by faith alone does not mean faith in oneself; it means faith in Christ alone. The first step in self-examination and toward building assurance of salvation is for a person to acknowledge, “With all I know of myself, I trust in Christ alone for my salvation.”
The second question directly relates to James 2. If a professor answers that he trusts in Christ alone, he should then ask himself, “Do I love Jesus?” While we recognize that no Christian loves Jesus perfectly, the question is, “Do I love Jesus at all?” How does a person know if he loves Jesus? Jesus gave the answer in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” As we observed earlier, this statement of Jesus summarizes the teaching of James 2:14-26. A person’s obedience to Christ is the evidence that the claim to faith is real.
James gives the example of Abraham’s radical obedience. Abraham offered his son on the altar and was prepared to sacrifice him in obedience to God. That was a tremendous demonstration of obedience! Are you willing to trust and obey God to that degree? What are some areas of practical obedience you should examine in your life? Are you obedient to God in public worship? I’ve talked with many people who complain to me that their spiritual life is faltering. They are puzzled about it and yet, they are not consistent in public worship. This is an important means of growth and a real point of being obedient to God (Heb. 10:25). We are commanded by God not to forsake Christian fellowship and worship. Are you obedient to God in personal prayer and Bible study? Are you seeking to grow in the things of God and know him better? Are you faithful in tithing and giving to God? Do you fight against sin and quickly confess failures to God? While authentic Christians are not perfectly obedient to Jesus, real saving faith will be seen in a disposition of the heart to obey Jesus and in progressive growth in obedience. If a person can say, “I trust in Christ alone and I love Jesus and that love for Jesus is seen in my life in obedience to him,” then that person can have assurance of salvation.
JAMES OPPOSES ANTINOMIANISM
Antinomianism is a technical term that means anti-law or lawlessness. The perspective of antinomianism is perhaps best stated in the little poem: “I’m saved by grace, oh happy condition; I can sin as I will and still have remission.” The teaching of James 2:14-26 is especially important in regard to current debates concerning the Lordship of Christ in salvation and the problem of antinomianism. Antinomianism is in direct opposition to the teaching of James that we have just considered. Antinomianism claims that it is possible to have genuine faith, but no accompanying obedience to God. Jesus statement in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” is not a consideration in antinomianism. This lawless perspective teaches that it is possible for people to obtain salvation, be secure in that salvation, but never submit to the Lordship of Christ, repent of sin, fight against sin, or make any progress toward growth in righteousness. It is said that those who profess to have faith, but have no attesting fruit are simply “carnal Christians.” I have encountered people who profess to be Christians, who profess to have saving faith and yet engage in blatant public sin such as living together outside of marriage, dealing illegal drugs, or stealing from their place of employment. Often the rationalization for these types of actions is, “It’s okay. I’m just a carnal Christian.”
The concept that a person can truly be in a state of grace, but simply be a “carnal Christian” is unique to twentieth century evangelicalism. It particularly flows out of a controversy within the theological position called dispensationalism. Dispensationalism is a complex theological system and it is beyond the scope of this chapter to analyze the whole system. However, debates over the idea of Christ’s Lordship in salvation and faith producing the fruit of obedience have been intense inside this theological perspective. The debate has had three main opponents, John MacArthur on the “Lordship” side and Zane Hodges and Charles Ryrie on the opposite side. MacArthur and his allies have held the historic interpretation of James and argued that saving faith includes taking Christ as both Savior and Lord and that true saving faith will produce the immediate fruit of obedience to God. While justification and sanctification may be distinguished, they are never separated from each other. Sanctification is not the ground or basis of our justification, but it flows from the person who is regenerate and has faith and repentance.18 The person who believes in Christ submits in some degree to his Lordship. John MacArthur writes,
Real salvation cannot and will not fail to produce works of righteousness in the life of a true believer. There are no human works in the saving act, but God’s work of salvation includes a change of intent, will, desire, and attitude that inevitably produces the fruit of the Spirit. The very essence of God’s saving work is the transformation of the will that results in a love for God. Salvation thus establishes the “root” that will surely produce the “fruit.”19
Hodges, Ryrie, and their supporters hold that it is good for a Christian to embrace Christ as Lord, but it is not essential for salvation. It is possible for a person to have real saving faith and be justified, without the fruit of obedience to God being in their lives. They contend that it is possible for a person to receive Jesus as Savior, but never submit to his Lordship in their lives. Charles Ryrie writes that a person can “have Christ as Savior without having him as Lord”20 Their goal in this position is to preserve the grace of God in salvation. They believe that making repentance and submitting to the Lordship of Christ as a necessary condition of saving faith adds works to salvation and is a form of legalism. This position strongly contradicts the teaching of James we have just considered as well the universal teaching of the New Testament on the nature of salvation. This position fits well in twentieth century American evangelicalism. A person can have a guarantee of going to heaven with a faith that has no works, no call to commitment, no repentance, and no submission to Christ as Lord. This position is a an expression of classic antinomianism. In 1991, J. I. Packer wrote concerning this issue:
If, ten years ago, you had told me that I would live to see literate evangelicals, some with doctorates and a seminary teaching record, arguing for the reality of an eternal salvation, divinely guaranteed, that may have in it no repentance, no discipleship, no behavioral change, no practical acknowledgment of Christ as Lord of one’s life, and no perseverance in faith, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. Stark staring bonkers, is the British phrase I would probably have used. But now the thing has happened. In The Gospel Under Siege (1981) and Absolutely Free! (1989), Zane Hodges, for one, maintains all these positions as essential to the Christian message, arguing that without them the Gospel gets lost in legalism. Wow.
Nor is that all. Hodges lashes the historic reformational account of the Gospel, which he labels “Lordship salvation,” as a form of works-righteousness, because it affirms that repentance – turning from sin to serve Jesus as one’s Lord – is as necessary for salvation as faith – turning from self-reliance to trust Jesus as one’s Savior. Such repentance, says Hodges, is a work, and justification is through faith apart from works. To preach and teach in reformational terms is to compromise the grace of the Gospel. It is vital, says Hodges, to see that there is no necessary connection between saving faith and good works at any stage. . . .
. . . The Pastoral effect of this teaching can only be to produce what the Puritans called “Gospel Hypocrites” – persons who have been told that they are Christians, eternally secure, because they believe that Christ died for them, when their hearts are unchanged and they have no personal commitment to Christ at all.21
Those who hold a non-Lordship position argue for a form of Christianity that is in opposition to Christianity as presented in the New Testament. The fruit of this position is professors of faith who feel no concern over sin and are enabled to live casual, unexamined Christian lives under the excuse that they are simply “carnal Christians.” James strongly opposes this antinomian position. John Gerstner writes concerning the relationship of faith and works:
Romanists have always tried to hang antinomianism on Protestantism. They seem incapable even of understanding “justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone,” though that formula has been present since the Reformation. If this charge were a true charge it would be a fatal one. If Protestantism thought that a sinner could be saved without becoming godly, it would be an absolute damning lie. His name is “Jesus” for He saves his people from their sins, not in them. And He saves His people not only from the guilt of sin but from its dominating power as well. If a believer is not changed, he is not a believer. No one can have Christ as Savior for one moment when he is not Lord as well. We can never say too often: “Justification is by faith alone, but NOT by the faith that is alone.” Justification is by a WORKING faith.22
Thomas Watson, the Puritan pastor similarly wrote:
He who rightly applies Christ puts these two together, “Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Many take Christ as Jesus, but refuse him as Lord. Do you join “Prince and Savior” (Acts 5:31)? Would you as well be ruled by Christ’s laws as saved by his blood? Christ is “a priest upon his throne” (Zech. 6:13). He will never be a priest to intercede unless your heart is the throne where he sways his scepter. A true applying of Christ is when we so take him as a husband that we give up ourselves to him as Lord.23
James’ teaching on this issue is clear. Works are not the basis of justification, but they are the necessary fruit of true saving faith. If a person claims to have faith, but does not have consequent obedience to God, that claim to faith is false. Real saving faith produces the fruit of obedience. R. C. Sproul comments: “The Reformed position argues that fruit begins immediately, because a justified person is a regenerate person and a regenerate person is a changed person. He is also a repentant person whose ‘change of mind’ is integral to saving faith.”24 The teaching of James 2:14-26 supports the Reformation statement: “We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.”
1 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 245-246.
2 Gottlob Schrenk, “Dikaiosyne,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 201.
3 Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Epistle of James (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1986), 88.
4 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of James in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXII (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, reprinted 1984), 22:311.
5 Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 238.
6 James R. White, The God That Justifies (Bloomington, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2001), 359.
7 Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of James in Calvin’s Commentaries, 22:312.
8 Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 241.
9 Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 242.
10 Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 237.
11 Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 242.
12 Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of James in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXII, 22:314.
13 Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary, 247-248.
14 Carter, Spurgeon At His Best, 355.
15 Martin Luther, Commentary On Romans translated by J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, reprinted 1976), xvii.
16 The Golden Treasury Of Puritan Quotations, complied by I. D. E. Thomas (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1997), 126-127.
17 White, The God Who Justifies, 336.
18 Sproul, Faith Alone, 168.
19 John MacArthur, Jr. The Gospel According To Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), xiii.
20 Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life (Chicago: Moody, 1969), 21.
21 J. I. Packer, “Understanding The Lordship Controversy” in Tabletalk, vol. 15, num. 5, May, 1991.
22 John H. Gerstner, “The Nature of Justifying Faith,” in Justification By Faith Alone ed. by Don Kistler (Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 113-114.
23 Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 22.
24 Sproul, Faith Alone, 169.
Next article in this series: The Apex of God’s Grace: The Doctrine of Adoption