James does not teach salvation through faith alone

Monday Musings for April 06, 2020

Good morning, Musers,

Today, I’m going to let my evangelical flag fly: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone — and through Christ alone! So why did James have to go and say that if we are not doing good works, then our faith is dead... which sounds like we aren’t saved! What’s going on?

Now, I’ll agree that James seems to say that on one level — and that most Bible translations have not dulled that edge. But one of the things I’m offering today (at no extra charge) is a personal paraphrase of James 2:14... so make sure you make the jump to the main article.

Picture the difficulties faced by the first-generation church — many of whom were Jews who grew up with the idea that their righteousness came through obeying the law. For them, stepping into the age of Grace was no small thing — and that’s the feeling I want you to evoke in you today... especially you who were born into the culture of belief, faith and grace.

Not too long ago, soul-winning was based on the idea that most people were theists. The common belief was that “good” people went to heaven and “bad” people went to hell... which presupposes a transcendent moral agent. But salvation does not work like that. So one of the first jobs for the soul-winner was to undo that notion — and Ephesians 2:8-9 is the tool for that job! It teaches clearly that salvation is by grace through faith — and not through human effort!

The problem here is that the soul-winners tend to stop before verse 10 — and they do so at the expense of God’s kingdom. Verse 10 contains the purpose of salvation... and it tells us what we should do in light of verses 8 and 9 — and guess what? God wants us to do good works!

I complain about this failing in my article Leaning Against the Gates of Hell, but in James chapter 2 the problem is more about the wording than it is about the methodology. So today, I’ll be using a term that you may not yet have run across in your thinking: propositional content.

The propositional content is what the author intended to say in a piece of writing. This may be different from what the reader thinks the words say. Nevertheless, it is the reader’s responsibility to ferret out the author’s intent at any cost, and the book of James presents some difficulties here. But establishing the author’s intent is the basis of sound hermeneutics, so we must be vigilant.

Martin Luther called the book of James an epistle of straw... that’s how upset he was about what he thought the book of James was teaching. I don’t agree with Luther, but I can see where — on the first reading at least — James could have challenged a man who popularized the five Solas — Grace, Faith, Christ, Scripture and Glory to God alone — because he can be seen as tendering the idea that, faith notwithstanding, some good works were still required for salvation.

Now, I agree with James’s actual theses... because I believe in putting the horse before the cart, and I favor an apologetics process that looks for harmony rather than contradiction. I also believe that God reveals himself over time — and that his newer revelation trumps his older revelation... and that careful exegesis under those constraints shows that James agrees with Paul on salvation.

That being said, I must confess that I have an unflattering mental picture of James. I see him as a curmudgeon — pointing his finger at professing believers and challenging their salvation. But you know what? I say, good for him! Christians should be congruent!… and if you don’t look like a duck... and if you don’t quack like a duck… then maybe... you’re not a duck!

(Click here to read more about faith in the article referenced above. For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)