The Question Is Not Whether But Why?

st-james-led-to-executionDo 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.

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  1. Excellent blog! But “or irritate the management” is absolutely the cat’s meow.

  2. Machen, Notes on Galatians, p 178–”You might conceivably be saved by works or you might be saved by faith, but you cannot be saved by both. It is ‘either or’ here not ‘both and’. The Scripture says it is by faith. Therefore it is NOT works.”

    Machen writes about James- “The works which Paul condemns are not the works which James condones,” Cunha (The Emperor’s New Clothes) that this Machen quotation is quoted often by Professor Gaffin in defending the “not yet aspect” of justification.

    Justification is not through our works. Justification is not by our works done before justification, and it’s also not by our works done after justification. And there is no such thing as a “continuing to still need to be justified” justification.

    Benjamin Keach, The Marrow of True Justification: The Biblical Doctrine of Justification Without Works, Solid Ground Books, Birmingham, Alabama USA, 2007, p 80—” We need not inquire how a man is justified after he is justified. By that righteousness of Christ which is out of us, though imputed to us, the Justice of God is satisfied; therefore all Works done by us, or inherent in us, are excluded in our Justification before God.”

    Lee Irons—“In addition to his mistaken formulation of future justification, Dr. Gaffin had a long track record of consistently defending Norman Shepherd. He also made the tragic error of endorsing Shepherd’s book, The Call of Grace (2000). Even more recently, at the 70th GA in 2003, he defended OPC ruling elder John Kinnaird, who taught that believers do not attain glorification and entrance into heaven on the sole ground of Christ’s righteousness but by their holy living and good works.”

  3. “Even more recently, at the 70th GA in 2003, he defended OPC ruling elder John Kinnaird, who taught that believers do not attain glorification and entrance into heaven on the sole ground of Christ’s righteousness but by their holy living and good works.”

    I would hate to be trapped in this belief. My holy living and good works which are rubbish, still somehow must be partial grounds for salvation? No. These are resultative of a saved soul.

    It’s been 12 years, has he recanted?

    I’m going with this:
    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.

    Matthew 5:16 “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

  4. Maybe in some Reformed circles from before 1995 James was neglected. No matter what part of the country or time period one could no doubt find it neglected. I’m sure at times the truths in Romans have been neglected too.

    All that said however I am convinced that for the last 20 years in Reformed circles from coast to coast the dominate norm is that the pendulum has swung very much toward James. Simply because the prevailing zeitgeist is that it has been neglected. In any given local setting where a Reformed group is picking a study the odds on favorite is it will be James far more often than Romans. Both are ever God’s Word, both important. Just saying.

  5. Dr. Clark, why did Cornelius Van Til support and defend Norman Shepherd? Also, I don’t understand the confusion over the book of James. “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone SAYS he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” James is not talking about faith but hypocrisy. He is dealing with what has plagued churches from his day to ours, false professors.

    • Carmen,

      As I understand it, from talking to those who were there and from the available primary source documents, CVT was not in the faculty meetings where Shepherd’s doctrine was discussed. He retired in 1972. The controversy began two years later. Shepherd went to CVT to complain that “the evangelicals” (which was code for the president of the seminary, for whom CVT had no great love) were out to get him. The problem with this narrative is that the president of the seminary defended Shepherd’s right to teach his view until very near the end of the controversy, after which Shepherd was dismissed. Secondly, none of the faculty minority who criticized Shepherd can be fairly described as broadly evangelical but CVT felt somewhat alienated from the seminary and was susceptible to this narrative. To this day, there are supporters publishing the claim that all Shepherd meant to teach was that true faith gives birth to good works. That claim is completely and demonstrably false but this is how some of his supporters interpreted him or he allowed them to interpret him.

      Taken on its own terms, James 2 is not that difficult but when we change the terms, then it becomes difficult. Solution: don’t change (i.e., redefine) the terms under discussion.

  6. John Wesley—“The righteousness of Christ is doubtless necessary for any person that enters into glory. But so is personal holiness, too, for every child of man. The righteousness is necessary to entitle us to heaven, but the personal holiness is necessary to qualify us for heaven. “On the Wedding Garment, works 4:144

    Is Wesley talking about glorification or is Wesley warning about our need to do enough works of obedient faith in order not to lose our justification?

    Jonathan Edwards—“The doctrine of justification by faith alone–does in no wise diminish the necessity of obedience. Man’s salvation is not only indissolubly connected with obedience, and damnation with the lack of obedience….Even in accepting us as entitled to life in our justification, God has respect to our obedience, as that on which the fitness of justification depends, so that our salvation does truly depend on it.” p 236, Justification by Faith

  7. If we can’t trust merely in the merits of Christ’s death, we will begin to trust in our trusting, and if we can’t trust in our trusting without trusting in our perseverance, then we will begin to also trust in our works . I certainly agree that Wesley and Edwards take the “alone” out of the solas. As do many in our day.

    Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone, Zondervan, 2015, p 205 –“A popular Protestant solution, one argued by John Calvin and John Owen, suggests the word justify in James means ‘prove to be righteous’ or ‘demonstrate to be righteous’ instead of ‘declare righteous’. This view was often accompanied by the notion that justification in James is before men instead of before God….This solution is not convincing. It is apparent that James isn’t talking about justification before people. The citation of Genesis 15:6 in James 2;23 shows that he was counted righteous by God. ”
    “The evidence for justify meaning ‘prove to be righteous’ is limited, and the usual meaning of the verb ‘declare righteous’ is most likely. James uses the same word Paul does in a soteriological context, and the word almost certainly has the same meaning that we find in Paul (‘declare righteous’)”
    “James criticizes a notional faith, a faith that endorses doctrines. a faith that consists of mental assent. The faith that saves is EMBRACES Jesus Christ, so that faith is living and vital, for the person who believes GIVES HIMSELF OR HERSELF TO GOD. …The faith that saves has vitality and energy, so that works necessarily follow. True faith is completed by works (2:22) and it should never be confused with mere mental assent. Abraham and Rahab were justified because their faith expressed itself in works…Being declared to be right by works ought not to be interpreted to say that works are the basis or the foundation of one’s relationship with God. Such a reading is improbable, for God demands perfection (2:10)”,+one+argued+by+John+Calvin+and+John+Owen,+suggests+the+word+justify&source=bl&ots=XqWIa_w4Mt&sig=rhW48eUd1e71hXu_ZHC7Y6CcEdo&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CB4Q6AEwAGoVChMI6N3T_-qkyAIVRtg-Ch25Nw0m#v=onepage&q=A%20popular%20Protestant%20solution%2C%20one%20argued%20by%20John%20Calvin%20and%20John%20Owen%2C%20suggests%20the%20word%20justify&f=false

  8. writers …” have so emphasized”…. “have so neglected”

    how about not filter the Lord’s word and let the Spirit do His work?

  9. Matt Perman—Some “justification is a process” theologians would not want to say that faith and obedience are the same thing. They argue that faith and obedience are so closely tied together that you cannot have one without the other….But many of them do not mean simply that obedience always results from faith. What they mean, rather, is that while obedience involves things other than faith, faith is still part of the very nature of obedience. Faith is an ingredient in obedience on their view–and, in fact, for them faith is the ingredient that makes obedience virtuous.

    Mark McCulley—Galatians 3: 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Argument—-faith is not doing, law requires doing, law does not require faith. God counts according to truth, not fiction. Your faith is not a satisfaction of law, and this is not only because your faith is not perfect enough. Your faith is not a satisfaction of law, because the law requires death (not faith) to pay for your sins.

  10. Great post Dr. Clark. Recently I have been spending some time in OT/NT Wisdom literature, and James is maybe the only NT epistle to have most of it’s content rooted in the broader biblical Wisdom tradition. When viewed in this light, James exhortations seem to only compliment what Paul teaches – namely right belief will inevitably result in right action.

    Just as one cannot legitimately fear the LORD and perpetually remain a fool, because the prior commitment to fear God bears inevitable fruit – namely the fruit of true wisdom; one cannot have justifying faith without the inevitablility of the good fruit of faith in Christ appearing over time. Even in James, on the basis of his clear warnings one gets the impression that this entails a process. Paul even makes use of similar Wisdom motifs in Titus 2:11-14

    11 For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, 12 training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, 13 awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (RSV)

  11. Consider the “wisdom” of the Sermon on the Mount.
    Matthew 6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 3 But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 5 “Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

  12. Why does James make such moral demands upon non-Christians? Why does he challenge the reality of his readers’ salvation based on works? Actually, I don’t believe either to be the case. James’ epistle makes perfect sense to me when taken as a rebuke to Christians and a call for them to repent of their “worldly” un-Christian-like ways. Of course they don’t have the faith OF demons. But how many commentators realize that James scolds them for not having faith LIKE the demons? In other words, the demons believe and DO something. They tremble! How many commentators give more than a passing reference (if any reference at all) to the amount of time between Abraham’s justification and his offering up of Isaac (the faith/works example James uses)? Do we all get the same amount of time between our first believing the gospel and doing works that “prove” we are saved? All the talk about “true Christians can’t PRACTICE sin.” We are supposed to accept that, but yet it is viewed as sarcastic or antinomian when sincere Christians ask the following questions: What defines “practicing” sin? How often and how long must one sin before it constitutes “practicing”? What categories of sin apply? How progressive must my sanctification be (months, weeks, years)? Where does Scripture provide these answers? How bad must it get for me before I need to TRULY believe the gospel? If I call on the Lord again to be saved, how long will it be and what must I do and for how long before I can know it was for real?

    I know that it is not the case for everyone, but I do know from personal experience that far too many of us have made ourselves (not good) and our faithfulness (good) the standard instead of the whole of Scripture. Also, I know that it is not always the case, but I have not come across any Christians that even imply that sin is ever ok. I believe Paul, James, and all the other inspired writers of Scripture unanimously denounced sin, but they also unanimously acknowledged the reality of it in the Christian life and addressed it accordingly. I believe Paul would agree that there is only one Jesus, one Spirit, one Father, and one gospel, and thus one message of salvation and justification. I see Scripture condemning those who fail to believe, and rebuking those who have believed for not walking in a manner consistent with their belief. The Reformed rightly believe that even the faith to believe is itself a gift from God. Yet, many presume to know whether God has actually given that gift to others or not. What I mean is that if a person’s confession agrees with the Biblical criteria for salvation, what more is required for salvation/justification? Paul never undermined the very message he preached. The Galatians were foolish and temporarily deceived. The Corinthians were acting just like people who don’t know the Lord. Paul rebukes them for all kinds of ungodly behavior, but he does not rebuke them for failing to believe the gospel. Is that why he and James consistently referred to them as “brethren”?

    All I am saying is that we need to make up our minds. If we don’t believe a person is saved because of their lack of works that are supposed to accompany faith, let’s be honest and tell them. And then stop commanding things from them that are only for Christians. And by the way, be sure to tell them God’s gift of faith has not been received by them. That has to be the case because we don’t have a different gospel to preach. They just need to REALLY believe it, THIS time! My brothers and sisters, when the truth and accuracy of the gospel message is not in question, I believe Paul and James would simply let the wheat and tares grow together, lest they destroy some of the wheat in the process of pulling up the tares. I realize that what I have said may not sit well with many readers. But I thank God that HE saves to the uttermost. Humanly speaking, many a sincere teacher seemingly destroyed my salvation with James and 1 John. I must have called on the Lord 10 times in my first 2 years of salvation (secretly of course, since I didn’t want to known as the only one who didn’t have assurance of salvation!). Yet God rescued me, renewed my mind (and continues to do so) and assured me that “salvation is of the Lord,” and salvation by Christ was what He gave me the first time I called upon Him to be saved!

    This is not a call to lower God’s standards or condone sin in any way. This whole justification/sanctification issue is sometimes confusing and harmful to many Christians. If nothing else, I plead that a brother or sister can discuss the REALITY of sin in the Christian life without being treated like they condone sin or they must not be “truly saved.” May God help us. In addition, may James and Paul help us as well. After all, since faith without works is dead, why mention this to a non-Christian, especially since without faith the NON-CHRISTIAN is dead! Sanctified living (faith that justifies itself with works) is solely for the recipients of salvation/justification. God bless you.

  13. By the way, perhaps an accurate teaching of James might be the means God uses to move many Christians to an increase of faith resulting in works (and thus fruit-bearing). Given the content of the entire epistle, I believe it to be perfectly appropriate for James to warn CHRISTIANS that being merely hearers of the word and not doers deceives them concerning their FAITHFULNESS (not the genuineness of their salvation). Hence for the Christian, “faith without works is dead, being alone.”

  14. Amen to the Truths in the book of James. A little addition to my previous comments…….

    I am in process of reading again the classic work by JI Packer “Knowing God”. Today I came upon Chapter 22 (last chapter) titled>The Adequacy of God.

    Interesting what Packer says and how he wraps up this great book………..

    “Paul’s letter to Rome is the High Peak of Scripture, however you look at it. Luther called it ‘the clearest gospel of all. ‘If a man understands it, wrote Calvin, he has a sure road opened for him to understand the whole of Scripture.’ Tyndall, in his preface to Romans, linked both thoughts, calling Romans ‘the pure Euangelion , that is to say glad tidings and that we call gospel, and also a light and a way in unto the whole of Scripture.’ All roads in the Bible lead to Romans, and all views afforded by the Bible are seen most clearly from Romans, and when the message of Romans gets into a man’s heart there is no telling what may happen.”
    …..”from this standpoint, Romans, just because it is the classic statement of the gospel by which the church lives, it is also the classic account of the churches identity.” …….”Now, as Romans is the High Peak of the Bible, so chapter 8 is the High Peak of Romans.” —J.I. Packer

    By some of the trendiness today in certain Reformed circles Packer would be considered Lutheran like or maybe even Antinomian, I guess. I for one am very comfortable in saying Packer, Calvin, Luther and Tyndale (to name a few) got it right on this subject.

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