A Dynamic Faith: A Glimpse at Salvation in James

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Introduction

            Is the Apostle James guilty of propagating a rogue soteriology of works? Many biblical scholars, especially since Reformation, have wrestled with the content of the epistle he penned to the twelve dispersed tribes centuries ago. Allen Cabaniss writes, “Because of Luther’s flippant remark that it was ‘an epistle of straw’ in comparison with the Pauline correspondence, it has endured a kind of official disdain.”[1] However, is this a fair assessment of how James viewed salvation? In fact, how does the Apostle James view the soteriological experience? By examining key passages in the Epistle of James, one can correctly interpret James’ soteriological view of a dynamic faith, thus revealing the important biblical connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

For the ease of communicating the author’s point to the reader, this work will utilize the metaphors of seed, root, and fruit as it focuses on James 1:17-21; 22-27; 2:14-26. Within these pericopes, one can find the source (or seed) of salvation in James’ theology, the source (or root) of good works in the lives of believers, and argument for the necessity of works (or fruit) as evidence of genuine faith.

The Seed of Salvation is the Word (1:17-21)

            First, to build a foundation on which James erects his soteriology he identifies the source of salvation. He writes, “In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (NRSV Jas 1:18). It is apparent in this verse; James sees salvation as a gift from God by the “word”. This “word of truth” is the gospel of Jesus Christ. God sows the seed of salvation in the heart of the individual believer. Alexander Stewart states, “Salvation, at every stage, requires both God’s saving initiative in bringing Christian’s forth by the word of truth (1:18) and their reception of that word (1:21)…”[2] The notion of the reception of the word brings another vital aspect of James’ salvation experience.

Secondly, God initiates salvation by sowing the seed of the word, but humans must respond in repentance. James writes, “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (NRSV Jas 1:21). The welcoming of the seed of salvation produces repentance or the first works of salvation. Alexander states, “The holistic human response envisioned by James primarily indicates persevering, wholehearted obedience and devotion to God.”[3] It is the “implanted word” or the gospel message, which the individual obtains the power to experience dynamic salvation. For James, it is the liberating seed, which when allowed to take root produces the works of salvation. This brings up the admonition James puts forth to his audience, “But be doers of the word…” (NRSV Jas 1:22), which will be the topic of the next section.

The Root of Good Works is Salvation (1:22-27)

            First, once upon receiving the “implanted word”, the individual must continue to interact with it. James writes, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing” (NRSV Jas 1:25). Is James teaching a legalistic salvation? No. Howell Haydn explains,

He who calls himself the “slave” of Jesus Christ (Jas 1:1) must have accepted his ideals; James’ conception of the meaning of his Master’s life and teaching. Therefore, the law in the heartfelt obedience to which James finds the noblest ideal of Christian living was the moral law as Jesus deepened it. …The emphasis therein is not upon the letter of the law, but upon its spirit; to obey its mandates is not only to refrain from the sinful act forbidden, but also and especially to master the evil passion of the soul from which the act proceeds. [4]

Thus, the “perfect law of liberty” is not the ceremonial Jewish commands of the Old Testament, but rather the gospel message of love. For James, salvation is only complete and fully experienced when one receives and follows the commands of Christ.

However, James is not advocating a list of rules to follow in order to enter salvation. He is arguing that the actions viewed in a believer’s walk is a result of having received the word and allowing is to take root. John MacArthur explains, “James is not merely challenging his readers to do the Word: he is telling them that real Christians are doers of the Word. That describes the basic disposition of those who believe unto salvation.”[5] James continues by illustrating the actions of one with a pure religion by bridling their tongues, caring for orphans and widows, and displaying a personal piety. Witnessing how the reception of the seed of the word is the source of all good works in the believer’s life it is time to look closer at the fruit, which proceeds from this root.

The Fruit of Salvation is Works (2:14-26)

            First, how does James recognize genuine faith?  In other words, what is the fruit of salvation? James clarifies the importance of works as the evidence of a person’s salvation experience. He begins by stating, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (NRSV Jas 2:24).  Although, many have argued James is negating salvation by faith, this could not be further from the truth. James is refuting a workless faith. Many have used the term “mental assessment” to describe the faith James disputing.

For clarification, the NASB translates this verse as stating, “What use is it, my brethren if someone says he has faith but he has not works? Can that faith save him?” (NASB Jas 2:14).  The contributors of the New Bible Commentary: Revised edition write, “The claim to faith is unsupported by evidence of its reality, for there is no discernable evidence…”[6]  The Apostle views salvation as a dynamic experience, which manifest itself through good works. If these acts are non-existence, the person does not possess true saving faith. After illustrating the absurdity of this false faith claim, he states, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV Jas 2:17). Warren Wiersbe writes, “People with dead faith substitute words for deeds. They know the correct vocabulary …but their walk does not measure up to their talk.” [7]Simply put James teaches works will accompany genuine saving faith.

Secondly, James further illustrates the importance of an active faith by introducing an objection to his claim for faith and works. He writes, “But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (NRSV Jas 1:18). Jane Heath in her work, The Righteous Gentile Interjects, give two plausible interpretations of this interlocutor. They are as follows: 1) the interlocutor has heard James’ challenge to the person who claims faith but has no works, and challenging James as to whether he really has faith. James replies by appeal to his works. 2) The ‘someone’ attributes faith to one person, works to another, and it is precisely in thus dividing them James finds fault in him.[8] Either assumption reveals the importance in the soteriological framework of James the interconnectedness of both faith and works.

Furthermore, James refutes the notion of just receiving orthodox teaching without actions. He writes, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder” (NRSV Jas 1:19). Faith is more than proper knowledge. MacArthur states, “There is a faith that may be commended as orthodox and yet have no more saving value than the faith of demons.”[9] James advocates true faith will move one from orthodoxy to orthopraxy. C. Ryan Jenkins states, “James…was contrasting a dead faith (which is only intellectual assent) with a living faith that produces works and subsequently vindicates that profession.”[10] He illustrates his point by alluding to the actions of the Old Testament characters of Abraham and Rahab.

This dynamic faith, which progresses beyond orthodoxy to orthopraxy, spans the breadth of the entire epistle. For example, a true believer will avoid the sins of partiality, sins of the tongue, the misuses of riches, personal piety, and the caring for orphans and widows. This is only to name a few areas James’ soteriology overlaps with personal actions in the epistle. However, how does this epistle compare to the canon of the New Testament?

Relation to the New Testament

            First, since much ink has been spilled over the relation between the James and Paul’s view of salvation, it is only logical to begin at this point. Although, some would contend there is a discrepancy between the two biblical authors, this is only a misconception. Both authors are looking at the same coin, but from opposite points of view. Ritchie Smith writes,

The decisive fact is that James and Paul regard faith and works – true faith and good works – are inseparable, though Paul emphasizes the one and James the other. Paul affirms that works without faith are dead; James affirms that faith without works is dead. Paul discovers no value in works except as the fruit of faith; James discovers no value in faith except as the root of works. [11]

This is no contradiction between these two authors when it comes to salvation only different vantage points.  Paul writes, “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (NRSV Eph 2:10). It is apparent Paul too; realized the seed of the word and once this seed takes root it produces good works.

Secondly, many fail to see the correlation the Epistle of James has with the Gospel of Matthew. Matthias Konradt states, “Despite the affinity between the texts, their fates have been extremely different: whereas the Sermon on the Mount always belonged to the basic texts of Christianity, the epistle of James was marginalized for the most part.”[12]  So, what is the affinity Konradt mentions? Massey Shepherd explains,

So much attention has been given to this passage in James in relation to the Pauline doctrine of justification, that it is commonly overlooked how exactly James’s doctrine fits the teaching of Matthew. Not only do the Q sayings of Matt. 7:21 and 7:26, already treated in the discourse on hearing and doing, apply here, but there is a fundamental similarity in the teaching of James with the peculiarity Matthaen parable of the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28), not to speak once more of the “works of mercy” suggested by the judgment scene of Matt. 25:31.”[13]

When one correctly understands the argument that James is putting forth it is easy to see he is not a heretic propagating a rogue gospel of works. He is one voice, although often misunderstood, in the cacophony of New Testament writers.

Conclusion

            In conclusion, James is not submitting to a salvation of works, but rather a salvation unto works. In his soteriological view, God gives the new birth by the seed of the word of truth (1:18). Once this word is received or allowed to take root in the believer, it is the source of good works. The fruit of salvation is discernable works, which has direct relations to the “implanted word” (1:21). After examining key texts, true salvation leads to a dynamic faith, which bridges orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

LISTEN TO THIS SUBJECT AS PRESENTED AT WEST GREEN BAPTIST CHURCH 


           

[1] Allen Cabaniss, “Epistle of Saint James,” Journal Of Bible And Religion 22, no. 1 (January 1954): 27-29. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2016), 27.

[2] Alexander Stewart, “James, soteriology, and synergism,” Tyndale Bulletin 61, no. 2 (2010 2010): 293-310, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016), 303.

[3] Alexander Stewart, “James, soteriology, and synergism”, 294.

[4] Howell Haydn, “Three Conceptions of the Christian Life, A Study in the Epistles of James, I Peter, and I John”, The Biblical World 23 (1),  University of Chicago Press: 16–23, http://0-www.jstor.org.library.acaweb.org/stable/3141050.

[5] John MacArthur, “Faith according to the apostle James,” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 33, no. 1 (March 1990): 13-34, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016), 17.

[6] Donald Guthrie et al, New Bible Commentary: Revised (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter – Varsity Press, 1967), 1228.

[7] Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2003), 864.

[8] Jane Heath, “The Righteous Gentile Inteijects (James 2:18-19 and Romans 2:14-15),” Novum Testamentum 55, no. 3 (July 2013): 272-295, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016),275.

[9] John MacArthur, Faith According to the Apostle James, 17.

[10] C Ryan Jenkins, “Faith and works in Paul and James,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 633 (January 2002): 62-78. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016),66.

[11] Smith, J. Ritchie. 1899. “The Gospel in the Epistle of James”. Journal of Biblical Literature 18 (1/2). Society of Biblical Literature: 144–55. doi:10.2307/3268971.

[12] Matthias Konradt, Review of A Spirituality of Perfection. Faith in Action in the Letter of James; Has God Not Chosen the Poor? the Social Setting of the Epistle of James; Logos and Law in the Letter of James: The Law of Nature, the Law of Moses, and the Law of Freedom, Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (1). Society of Biblical Literature: 182–89. doi:10.2307/3268102, 184.

[13] Massey H. Shepherd, “The Epistle of James and the Gospel of Matthew”, Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1). Society of Biblical Literature: 40–51. doi:10.2307/3261520, 45.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cabaniss, Allen. “Epistle of Saint James.” Journal Of Bible And Religion 22, no. 1 (January 1954): 27-29. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 11, 2016).

Guthrie, Donald et al. New Bible Commentary: Revised. Grand Rapids, MI: Inter – Varsity Press, 1967.

Haydn, Howell M.. 1904. “Three Conceptions of the Christian Life. A Study in the Epistles of James, I Peter, and I John”. The Biblical World 23 (1). University of Chicago Press: 16–23. http://0-www.jstor.org.library.acaweb.org/stable/3141050.

Heath, Jane. “The Righteous Gentile Inteijects (James 2:18-19 and Romans 2:14-15).” Novum Testamentum 55, no. 3 (July 2013): 272-295. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016).

Jenkins, C Ryan. “Faith and works in Paul and James.” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 633 (January 2002): 62-78. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016).

Konradt, Matthias. 2003. Review of A Spirituality of Perfection. Faith in Action in the Letter of James; Has God Not Chosen the Poor? the Social Setting of the Epistle of James; Logos and Law in the Letter of James: The Law of Nature, the Law of Moses, and the Law of Freedom. Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (1). Society of Biblical Literature: 182–89. doi:10.2307/3268102.

MacArthur, John. “Faith according to the apostle James.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 33, no. 1 (March 1990): 13-34. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016).

Shepherd, Massey H.. 1956. “The Epistle of James and the Gospel of Matthew”. Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1). Society of Biblical Literature: 40–51. doi:10.2307/3261520.

Stewart, Alexander. “James, soteriology, and synergism.” Tyndale Bulletin 61, no. 2 (2010 2010): 293-310. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 4, 2016).

Wiersbe, Warren. The Wiersbe Bible Commentary .Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2003.

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