Do Reformed Christians ignore the Epistle of James? Particularly, have those who confess the Reformed theology, piety, and practice been guilty of ignoring James’ teaching in 2:14–17. Whether James has been ignored in recent years is a difficult assessment to make. How would one make such a determination? Should we count journal articles, commentaries, blog posts, and Sermon audio posts? Perhaps and it may be that James has been neglected. I have had conversations about this with pastors and elders. Where one is influences how one sees the world. This truth helps explain why some pastors see the threat of antinomianism as the pressing problem of the hour while other pastors, in other settings, see neonomianism as the pressing problem of the hour. Where one lands in that discussion is determined partly what one’s theology and partly by one’s setting. My impression is that in the Southeast United States (and elsewhere) pastors are facing a real problem of church members and visitors effectively saying to their pastors and elders (and others), “I do not need to obey God’s moral law because I am under grace, not under law” or something like that. Any such view is nothing but rank antinomianism and Reformed Christians quite rightly reject categorically such thinking, speaking, and teaching. In other parts of the USA, however, pastors and others tell me that they perceive the most pressing problem to be a resurgent neonomianism, i.e., the view that the moral law is not just the norm for the Christian life and good works the fruit and evidence of salvation sola gratia, sola fide but rather, in neonomianism, the law and good works become part of the ground (legal basis) for or part of the instrument through which we are saved.
If James has been ignored perhaps it is because the Anglo-American confessional Reformed world has engaged in a running internal battle over Reformation basics such as justification and salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). Beginning in the mid-1970s a prominent Reformed seminary professor began teaching publicly that we are justified through faith and works, in those very words. Then he began to teach justification through faithfulness. He was also teaching that, at baptism, Christians are temporarily united to Christ and must do their part to fulfill the covenant through faith and works to continue in their justification and salvation. Things quieted for a time after he was dismissed from his post but upon his retirement from pastoral ministry it was renewed as he began re-stating his views and as his students (and their students) began articulating his views eventually giving their view the grand title “the federal vision theology.” So, for about a decade, beginning in about 2001, the confessional Reformed churches in North America re-hashed the earlier debate in light of the new writing and conclusively rejected it. At the bottom of this post is are links libraries of posts about this controversy.
Since that time, however, there has arisen what some are calling a “grace” movement. There have been some prominent Reformed writers associated with it. Some of these writers have so emphasized (or are heard as teaching) the unconditionality of the covenant of grace as to give the impression that there are no genuine obligations as a consequence of our free, gracious redemption sola gratia, sola fide. This teaching and the way it has been received in some quarters has fueled antinomianism and the fear of antinomianism and that, as it always does, has provoked a backlash. Now some writers have moved from speaking about justification sola gratia, sola fide to salvation through faith and works. Justification, they say, is by grace alone, through faith alone but that is only half the picture. The rest of the picture includes the broader category of salvation, which includes sanctification which, they say, is by partly works. Therefore good works are more than just fruit and evidence of our salvation. They are instrumental. I have addressed this claim at length. See the link at the bottom of the post to the library of posts on salvation.
My claim is that the mainstream of Reformed theology, judged by our best and most influential writers, and more importantly, as judged by what the Reformed churches have confessed, is that justification, progressive sanctification, and salvation are by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Good works are morally and logically necessary. They always accompany regeneration, true faith, union with Christ, justification, and salvation. Good works are with the order of salvation but they do not make faith, justification, sanctification or salvation.
This is how the Reformed have usually understood the teaching of James 2. He was facing the problem of nominalism or the profession of faith without any accompanying evidence of faith. God’s Word says:
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says (λέγῃ) he has faith (πίστιν) but does not have works (ἔργα)? Can such a faith (ἡ πίστις) save (σῶσαι) him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also the sort of “faith” (ἡ πίστις) that is by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (Jas 2:14–17;, emphasis added).
One Federal Visionist wag wrote that this is the only place that Scriptures speak of sola fide and it is condemned. Of course this reading of James completely misses his point. James did not intend to teach a system parallel to Paul’s, of justification through faith and works, nor should we say with the dismissed seminary professor mentioned above, that both Paul and James meant to teach justification through faith and works. Nor should we conclude from this that James was addressing the broader category of salvation and therefore, since he was not addressing justification narrowly defined, that he was teaching salvation through faith and works. All these miss the point that James was making.
We have a significant clue to James concern in 2:19 “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (ESV). This is a reflection on Jewish and early Jewish Christian practice in worship. Just as the Jews had said the Shema, “Hear O Israel (Shema), The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut 6:4) as a sort of confession of faith, so the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem carried over that practice to their worship services. It is good and right for Christians to confess their faith, including the Shema but if the confession of faith is not joined with true faith, then it is mere nominalism, i.e., it adherence to the name of Christianity (hence nomina-lism) without the fruit and evidence of faith.
Calvin helps us here:
But here a question arises, Can faith be separated from, love? It is indeed true that the exposition of this passage has produced that common distinction of the Sophists, between unformed and formed faith; but of such a thing James knew nothing, for it appears from the first words, that he speaks of false profession of faith: for he does not begin thus, “If any one has faith;” but, “If any says that he has faith;” by which he certainly intimates that hypocrites boast of the empty name of faith, which really does not belong to them.1
He continues to explain that James “calls it then faith (emphasis original)” as a “concession,” so as not to get sidetracked. In truth, however, James was complaining about the mere profession of faith or nominalism. The answer to nominalism is not to do what Rome did. It is not to say, acts of charity (love) make faith what it is. That is the Romanist doctrine of “faith formed by love.” No, Paul and James agree. True faith “works through love” (Gal 5:6). There is a world of difference between “formed by” and “works through.” It is the difference between becoming and is. Faith is not a virtue that is being created in us by grace and cooperation with grace unto eventual acceptance with God. Faith is the sole instrument (Belgic Confession 22) through which we are justified and saved. This is one of the reasons the Reformers said “by divine favor (grace) alone” and “through faith alone.” If faith is any more than “resting” and “receiving” (the language of both the Westminster Standards and the Belgic Confession) or knowledge, assent, and trust (Heidelberg Catechism 21), if it includes works or if works make saving faith, then salvation is no longer by grace alone. It is by grace and works and that is a contradiction of the explicit teaching of Romans 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (ESV).
As Calvin explained, love and good works accompany true faith. They are with true faith. If one has no good works or love (as illustrated by the practical problem of poverty relief in the congregation), if one ignores a patent need in the congregation, what sort of faith is that? It is a nominal faith. It is not a true faith. How can we say that? Because good trees produce good fruit. The fruit is the evidence that the tree is alive. Good works are the evidence that one who professes faith really has true faith. The good works do not make the faith. They are not co-instrumental in salvation but they are necessary as evidence.
Calvin did not come to this conclusion on his own. He learned it from Martin Luther, who (as I’ve quoted in previous posts) taught this very doctrine. This was the common evangelical Reformation doctrine. Luther taught that doctrine after he had battled the Antinomians (he gave us the term antinomian) in the 1520s. Calvin took up the same view and later Beza and after him Turretin wrote a treatise “On The Agreement Between James and Paul On Justification.”
The question in the 16th century was never whether James is in the Bible but why it is there. As they worked out their doctrine of justification, sanctification, and salvation sola gratia, sola fide they concluded that James 2 is teaching the moral and logical necessity of love and good works not as part of the legal basis (ground) of our justification and salvation nor as part of the instrument of them but as the outcome. We are justified that we might be sanctified and we manifest this sanctification in love and good works. We are saved in order that we might walk in good works (Eph 2:10). Amen!
1. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 309–10.