Earlier today I read a blog someone wrote criticizing GES and me for our stand on the Free Grace message. Among other things, the author said that our view that salvation in James refers to deliverance from temporal judgment is so ridiculous that by itself it repudiates our position.
I’ve read books and articles which make the same point. Some refer to four of the fives uses of the verb sōzein (“save”) in James: 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; and 5:20. However, most simply talk about James 2:14 since they think it is obvious that salvation there refers to salvation from eternal condemnation.
During my two years as a student leader with Cru and four years on campus staff (at Arkansas State and N. C. State), I thought that all the uses of sōzein in James, except 5:15, refer to eternal salvation. I was a Free Grace guy at the time, but I had many verses I could not explain well.
It wasn’t until my second and third years at Dallas Theological Seminary that I came to see things differently. That is, it wasn’t until then that I came to see the truth.
Today I find it hard to see how anyone can think that salvation in James refers to regeneration. I know the book too well now.
So when people boldly proclaim that James 2:14 and the other uses of sōzein in James contradict the Free Grace position, I feel sorry for the person making that claim because they simply do not have all the facts.
Fact 1: James 1:21, the first use of sōzein in James, refers to the salvation of people who are already born again. It does not refer to people who need to be born again. This is easily seen by looking at the context. In v 16 James refers to the readers as “my beloved brethren.” In v 19 he picks up that same designation for the readers. We know that the people of v16 are born again because James says so in v 18, “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”
When James then repeats my beloved brethren in vv 19-20, he is still talking to these born again people.
Verse 21 starts with “therefore.” Still addressing born again people, James says, “Therefore lay aside all filthiness…and receive the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” This is the saving of the souls, or lives, of the born again readers. The point is that a failure to apply Scripture will result in temporal judgment and a shortening of one’s life.
Did you notice the expression the implanted word? Unbelievers do not have the Word of God implanted in them. Only believers who have been in Christian instruction for some time have God’s Word implanted within.
Fact 2: James 2:14, the second use of sōzein in James, also refers to the salvation of people who are already born again. James 2:14 is a continuation of a discussion started in James 2:1. In that first verse James says, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.” The readers have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verse 5 continues the discussion to the believing readers. Notice that James says, “Listen, my beloved brethren.”
Verse 14 continues the discussion to the same believing readers: “What does it profit, my brethren…” The brethren of James 2:14 are the same brethren of James 1:16, 19; 2:1, 5.
The salvation of James 2:14 is the same type of salvation of believers as that of James 1:21. Faith alone cannot save a believer from temporal judgment from God. To obtain God’s blessings and avoid His judgment, we must apply our faith. Notice in James 2:12, “so speak and so do.” James 2:14 picks up on this: someone sayswhat he believes but he does not do anything in way of application of what he believes. James 2:16 picks up on this again: “one of you says…but you do not give (i.e., you do not do).
The point in James 2:14 is that born again people need to not only say what they believe, they need to apply what they believe. So say and so do. If they do not, then God will judge them.
Fact 3: James 2:17, “faith without works is dead,” proves that the issue is productivity of faith, not the existence of faith.
A car without gas is dead. That is, it is not profitable. No one would say, “A car without gas is not a car.” Yet people oddly claim that James is saying that faith without application is not faith.
The first words in James 2:14 and the last words in James 2:16 are a question: “What does it profit?” The issue in this passage is profitability, productivity.
A car without a battery is dead. That is, it is not profitable. It is a car. But it needs a battery to run.
A Christian without application of God’s Word is dead. That is, he is not profitable. He needs to start applying God’s Word to become profitable to himself and the needy brothers and sisters in his church (James 2:14-16).
Fact 4: James 4:12, “[God] is able to save and to destroy,” refers to the fact that God is able to extend or curtail the life of born again people. That is absolutely clear, for in vv 13-16 James makes it evident that the readers “do not know what will happen tomorrow.” “For what is your life? Is it even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away?” That same message is found in another wisdom literature book, Ecclesiastes. The issue is length of life, not eternal destiny in James 4:12-17.
Fact 5: James 5:15, “the prayer of faith will save the sick,” obviously refers to the healing of born again people. By the way, no commentator disputes this.
Fact 6: James 5:19-20, concerns born again people (“brethren”) who cause a straying fellow believer (“if anyone among you”) to turn back to the Lord; then they “will save a soul [= life] from death.” Believers cannot save fellow believers from the lake of fire. But believers can save fellow believers from temporal judgment by turning them back to the Lord from whom they had wandered away.
Fact 7: the words, brethren, my brethren, and my beloved brethren are used by James fifteen times in the letter to refer to his believing readers. See James 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12, 19. Every single use of the word sōzein in James is preceded by a declaration that James is talking to and about brethren, believers in Christ.
Fact 8: if we allow James to tell us what he means by salvation in his epistle, then we will easily see that he is speaking about the blessing and cursing motif (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28), not about how to be born again.
Fact 9: if James is saying that to be saved from eternal condemnation we must have faith plus works, then he contradicts himself (James 1:18) and the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 5:24, 39-40; 6:28-29). But, of course, James is not contradicting himself or the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fact 10: the idea that James 2:14 is referring to some special type of faith in Christ which is not saving is not only unsupported by the grammar, but it is absolutely contradicted by v 17. If v 14 means, “Can that kind of faith save him?” because the word faith, pistis, has the article (hē), then verse 17, which also reads hē pistis, means, “Thus also that kind of faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James would be saying that if you add works to that kind of faith, then that kind of faith would be saving faith. And, most likely he would be implying that there is another kind of faith which, all by itself, without works, is alive and saving.
The bottom line is this: salvation in James refers to the deliverance of born again people from God’s wrath. James is not talking about what we do to be born again except for a brief reference in James 1:18. Regardless of one’s theological persuasion, anyone who reads James with eyes to see will discern that James is talking about blessings and curses in this life. The only way to miss that is to be blinded by one’s tradition. Compare John 5:39-40
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society and co-host of Grace in Focus Radio. He lives in Highland Village, TX with his wife, Sharon. His latest book is Turn and Live: The Power of Repentance.