Skip to content

Why it’s vital to preach faith alone – James 2:14-26 [repost]

James 2:14-26

As a teenager I approached a minister, full of doubts and struggles and a thousand misunderstandings.  My question was, Why doesn't God seem to accept me?  I've prayed the prayer a thousand times, why does heaven seem to be silent?

He told me that I shouldn't worry about whether I was accepted, I just needed to get on and really live the Christian life.

So I went off and tried that (or at least what I imagined the Christian life to be).  And I failed even by my own standards.  And, despondently, I slinked off from Christian things for a good few years.

What kind of faith did I have at that time?  I'd have probably articulated the gospel as something like:  God's big.  You're small.  Behave.

I didn't have gospel faith.  I had demon faith (v19).  I believed God was one.  I believed Jesus was God's Son.  But little more.

Now what would James counsel at this point?  Is James chapter 2 the encouragement to add good works to such rudimentary faith?  Is he exhorting those with demon faith to top up their merit levels until they hit salvific proportions?

No.  James is discussing the kind of faith that saves .  In v14 the word "such" (or "that" in ESV) is important.  James is not making a calculation: Demon faith plus good deeds equals salvation!  Instead this is about discerning what kind of faith is true saving faith.

And the answer is - true saving faith is the kind of faith that's always being fulfilled in active service.  In other words, saving faith (Genesis 15 style) always leads to obedience (Genesis 22 style).

So what should that minister have said to me?  I wish he'd said this:

"Glen, I don't think you really know the gospel.  I don't think you could have the slightest understanding of Christ for you while harbouring these doubts.  I don't think the kind of faith you have is really the active, life-giving, always-leading-to-loving-service kind of faith.  So let me tell you the gospel again, and drive it home to you until assured, authentic, vital faith is birthed in you.  Let me preach the gospel of faith alone to you once more, knowing that the faith that saves will never be alone.  Let me overwhelm you with the promise (Genesis 15) and then you'll bear fruit in obedience (Genesis 22)."

I think that's the approach to a dead faith: preach faith alone.  And I think it's completely mandated by James chapter 2.


17 thoughts on “Why it’s vital to preach faith alone – James 2:14-26 [repost]

  1. Philip

    Hi Glen, Love your posts! Reading this one today and hearing what you're saying about preaching faith alone to those that are despondent and broken by their sinfulness but what about the use of the law for those that are not broken. CFW Walther in Law and Gospel Thesis 8 "In the fourth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is preached to those who are already in terror on account of their sins, or the Gospel to those who live securely in their sins." In our preaching there always has to be a balance between Law and Gospel with the Gospel predominating.

  2. dionnemast

    I like the part where you explained your thoughts as a teen: 'God's big. You're small. Behave.' So many of us have this belief. I suppose it's faith and going through a thing or two that has taught me the value of relationship with Christ. Now, watching my own teen, I find hope in words like yours. Knowing that others have been tempted and even perhaps moved away from Christ during those teen years, and come back .. that's the hope. I'm encouraged!

  3. Glen

    Hi Philip and Dionne - welcome to comments.

    To Philip - I'm all for preaching law and gospel. The way I'd co-ordinate them is not so much 'balance' as death-and-resurrection. The law to show we can't (killing), the gospel to show He has (giving life).

    The other reason I'd resist the "balance" description is that preaching only law is not to preach half the word of God. I didn't get half an understanding of God in my teenage years with the law-only preaching. Without gospel there is no word - even if there's a heck of a lot of law (cf John 5:36-47).

    But yes, I'm all for law and gospel. It's actually the way we guard faith alone!

  4. Steve Martin

    Nice explanation, Glen.

    A proper understanding of law and gospel helps us to remain in 'repentance and forgiveness' mode...and not 'spiritual ascendancy' mode.

    (read Thesis #1 of the 95 Theses)

    Thank you, friends.

  5. thetotuschristus

    I've never really understood the lutheran 'Law-Gospel' principle. Why follow a teaching principle which isn't given to us in scripture itself? Law are Grace are often woven together in a very complex way in scripture. A focus on Jesus is good and there seems to be a good case for that, biblically speaking, but I just don't get why the distinction is that important.

    I like what you're saying about James 2 though. Faith without works is not a halfway faith that needs 'topping up', it's "dead faith". In James's book we are justified by works (or 'faithfulness' as I think Paul would put it). Mere profession of faith is useless, a loving obedience to Christ is what counts. It is on this basis of loving obedience that Abraham is declared "friend of God".

  6. thetotuschristus

    Although I should qualify that - I am not trying to go against the clear Pauline teaching that we are justified on the basis of faith alone. Ultimately it is Jesus's own faithfulness which puts us right with God - we can do nothing. However, it is through a covenant relationship with God in Christ that we are considered righteous sons ourselves (which is possible on the basis of his death & resurrection alone).

  7. Glen

    Hey TheTotusChristus,

    'Law-Gospel' is very strong within the reformed and puritan tradition too. (Not to mention the prophets and apostles who are always speaking about death then life, judgement then salvation, cross then resurrection. They speak of those things in terms of our work that cannot save "But God"s work which does). It's the basically Protestant way of maintaining that salvation happens in Jesus, not in us. A "weave" of law and "grace" will make "grace" to mean God's empowerment for *us* to work salvation. That is one meaning of grace in Scripture (akin to the cheese sandwiches David brings to the battle in 1 Sam 17). But the decisive sense of grace (in the "Grace Alone" protestant sense) is the work of Christ on our behalf (in 1 Sam 17 terms, it's the victory of David rather than the empowerment he brings that is decisive). Of course law (Torah) is a gracious reality, in that it's the kind gift of a generous God. But to simply use "law and grace" in these senses is to leave us completely "under law" in the Pauline sense. Law in the "Law-Gospel" sense is the demand which we don't meet but which convicts us of sin. Gospel in the "Law-Gospel" sense is the free gift of Christ's external righteousness given to wicked sinners apart from works.

  8. Philip

    Sorry Glen, I didn't mean to side track you're post to a conversation and Law and Gospel.

    From your last post:
    Law in the "Law-Gospel" sense is the demand which we don't meet but which convicts us of sin. Gospel in the "Law-Gospel" sense is the free gift of Christ's external righteousness given to wicked sinners apart from works.

    Law is expanded to understand all of the effects of sin in our lives. Not just the demand that we don't meet but the way in which the brokeness of the world and our lives convicts us of our need for the Gospel which is God's gracious work done for our behalf ultimately in Jesus.

    Thanks Glen!

  9. thetotuschristus

    Hi Glen,

    Yes, I'm seeing the whole death-resurrection pattern and what not. But it still seems a bit dogmatic - it's not a principle I would necessarily have gotten straight out of the pages of scripture. If 'law' should always come at the start then why do you have 'gospel' at the start of 1 John (1v1-4) and 'law' at the end (5v21)?

    I can certainly agree that the gospel is about what Jesus has done for us and not about what we do. But isn't "Law" in the Pauline sense always a reference to the Torah? And surely then it is impossible for any gentile to 'break the law', since even though they are under sin, they were never under law in the first place!

  10. Glen

    I don't think law is always Torah. For a start I don't think Romans 3:27-28; 7:21-23 and 8:2-3 can survive that particular challenge.

    In a broader sense "law" is a conditional command (which we don't fulfil) and not a gracious promise (which Christ does fulfil) - Gal 3:10-12. In this sense Gentiles are law breakers. And also in this sense Jews under the law are in lawless Gentile slavery - Gal 4:8-10.

  11. thetotuschristus

    I think the contrast is between the 'law of sin/works/flesh' (the law considered as dead in Christ) and the 'law of righteousness/faith/spirit' (the law considered as risen in Christ). The New Covenant law of the Spirit is the same law, it has just been renewed through the death and resurrection of Christ (circumcision fulfilled in the death of Christ etc). Gentiles cannot be law-breakers with respect to the "old" Law of Moses.

    The Jews under the Law in Galatians were in 'lawless' slavery because they followed the Law without seeing how it is renewed (through death and resurrection) with Christ at the center. They followed a dead law. We follow the law of the risen Christ.

    Seen this way, there is no reason why 'law' cannot come after 'grace'. Indeed, law without a gracious foundation in Christ is Old Covenant Law, untransformed by the Spirit of the risen one!

  12. Brian Midmore

    A problem we have in these discussions is that the issues are often framed by Luther's spiritual problems and the resolution of those problems he found in Romans. We might imagine that Romans was about 'How can I be saved' with the answer 'by faith alone'. It is very surprising to find early in Romans Paul describing those receiving eternal life as those 'who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory…’ (2.7). Paul is not at odds with James as some have suggested (including Luther). ‘Patient continuance’ suggests it is not so much succeeding but wanting to succeed that counts. It is a change of heart from ‘I don’t care whether I please God’ to ‘I want to please God’. Of course without faith it is impossible to please God. It is not therefore a fearful desire to please God for fear is the enemy of faith. But how do we know what good is? It must be by the law. So the law must play a part or how else would we know right and wrong. How can we tell those involved in sexual immorality to desist unless we know what sexual immorality is from God’s law. This is the crux of the homosexuality debate: If homosexuals are to be people who by ‘patient continuance in doing good seek for glory’ can they continue in homosexual activity in certain circumstances. Is a person’s conscience all that counts or is church teaching important?

  13. Glen

    Hi Brian,

    In terms of salvation I don't think Paul could be clearer in ruling out the law in playing *any* part in our redemption - see Romans 3:20ff: 8:2ff. Salvation is accomplished in Christ and His perfect law-keeping (Gal 4:4-7) and then given to us as a free gift apart from works of the law (Eph 2:8-9). Salvation happens 'extra nos' - outside of us in our Champion Jesus. I fear that you are making it an ongoing and internal process rather than a once-for-all external event.

  14. philip

    Brian, I like your comments. i think we have to be clear about Justification and Sanctification. I am justified by faith alone, saved, this is not something I have done but God has done for me. My life after being justified is the ongoing process of sanctification, God making me into his person incompletely on earth perfectly in glory. The christian always goes back to the law to know what is pleasing to God and how to live a Godly life, this is called the 3rd use of the law when the law acts as a guide for how I can live my life in a Godly manner. Again not done for salvation but how to live out my salvation in my life.

  15. Brian Midmore

    As in most theological discussions everybody is talking at cross purposes. The first point surely is it is not I who say that those who gain eternal life are those ‘who by patient continuance in doing good’ but Paul. Glen did’nt offer an explanation for this verse. Of course there is faith at the root of this continuance. Glen’s salvation is very Lutheran but not everybody’s is the same. I remember reading an article by John Stott on homosexuality. He was counselling a recent convert to Christianity who was a practicing homosexual. He strongly exhorted the convert that he MUST break off his current relationship. Implicit in this exhortation was that his salvation depended on this. Now there was no evidence that the convert had not understood the gospel, it was John Stott after all. Therefore can we not say that what JS was implying was that in order for the man to keep his salvation or be saved in the first place he must obey a part of the law. Also this part of the law is defined as being important by the church (there are laws that are deemed irrelevant). Therefore in order to be saved he must submit to the authority of the church. When put like this it sounds outrageously Catholic but might not he words warrant this interpretation.

  16. Glen

    Hi Brian (Betty's son right? If you don't know what I'm talking about then I've got the wrong Brian Midmore, sorry!)

    I think Romans 2 needs to be taken in the context of chapters 1-3 in which Paul is completely ruling out salvation by the law (see especially 3:9-20). However we take 2:7 (whether a hypothetical perfect law-keeper or a Spirit-filled believer who has come to the "End of the Law: Christ" (10:4)), our interpretation cannot contradict 3:20:

    "By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."

    This is where his whole argument is heading, so that salvation is located entirely in Christ and His work (3:21-26).

    It's interesting to read places like 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 for how Paul actually addresses matters of sexual morality. He speaks to believers *not* of their conditional union with Christ through these sins but rather exhorts sexual purity *because* of their enduring and unbreakable union with Christ. That seems significant.

  17. Chris W

    Glen, 3:20 must be taken in context. "Now whatever the law says it says to those who are under the law" (3:19). Judgement begins with the house of God and only then does it spread to the world. Only Jews (those under the law) are capable of doing 'works of the law' since only Israel is under the law. Gentile obedience to the law is not a "work of the law", since Gentiles are not under the law in any meaningful sense. The logic of 3:28-29 requires this.

    Also, 'knowledge' in the bible often has personal connotations, and I think the same is probably true in 3:20. This is precisely what Paul is reflecting on in chapter 7 - how sin used the law to entice and ensnare him. Although he may be referring to the people of Israel rather than himself personally (perhaps even both?). Either way, Paul's point is primarily historical. The law incited Israel to sin (including Paul himself) and drove her to debauchery, which also led the nations astray.

    But only with the coming of Christ is the power of the old law undone. The new law is the same law, but dead and risen in Christ and empowered by the pentecostal Spirit of the new covenant (2:28-29).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Twitter widget by Rimon Habib - BuddyPress Expert Developer