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Paul and James on the Question of Faith and Works PDF Print E-mail
Written by Joseph R. Holder   

 

It is well known that Martin Luther had problems with this book. He called it a “right strawy epistle.” But it is only “strawy” to the degree it is “sticky.” There are enough needles in this haystack to prick the conscience of every dull, defeated, and degenerated Christian in the world. Here is a “right stirring epistle” designed to exhort and encourage, to challenge and convict, to rebuke and revive, to describe practical holiness and drive believers toward the goal of a faith that works. James is severely ethical and refreshingly practical.[1]

Did James and Paul disagree on the essential function and role of faith and/or works in the Christian life?  This reference to Martin Luther’s highly publicized comment is often cited in any discussion of this question.  If one truly believes in the inspiration and authority of Scripture as a document given from and preserved by God, there can be no true contradiction in the Bible.  So how do we reconcile James and Paul regarding faith and works in the Christian life? 

I begin with the above premise and conclude comfortably that the two inspired writers did not in fact disagree at all.  They wrote to different original audiences, likely audiences with quite different problems that required different instructions and teachings for correction of their various problems.  The appearance of conflict that prompted Luther’s comment against the epistle of James, I believe, grows out of divergent needs in the congregations to whom these two inspired writers wrote their letters. 

While we might focus on several aspects of Paul’s and James’ teachings regarding faith and works, we shall look at some rather specific issues in this study. 

Genesis 15:6

Does Genesis 15:6 record the moment/event of Abraham’s new birth or salvation?  This view is quite popular, but popularity does not dictate truth.  Based on the record of Genesis from the close of the eleventh chapter to this passage, Abraham’s life hardly resembles the life of a man whom Scripture describes as unregenerate and depraved.  He uprooted his family at the age of seventy and followed God’s direction. At almost every stop along his journey he erected altars and worshipped God.  He had occasional conversations with God throughout this era of his life. 

The most convincing point to be considered is Hebrews 11:8 which specifically states that Abraham was walking by faith from the time he left Ur of the Chaldees, an event that briefly appears in Genesis 11:29-32. 

If Genesis 15:6 does not record Abraham’s salvation (regeneration or new birth) moment, what does it describe?  I offer that it records the experience of a godly and faithful man of God who encountered some doubts about God’s promise and direction to him.  Rather than wallow in his doubts, Abraham took his questions directly to God, and God graciously responded.  Based on the evidence in Abraham’s life prior to Genesis 15:6, and especially based on the testimony of Hebrews 11:8, we simply cannot logically interpret Genesis 15:6 as Abraham’s initial or new birth experience with God.  The occasional claim that Hebrews 11:8 records an era of “inferior faith that did not rise to the quality of ‘saving faith’” lacks fundamental credibility and should be rejected outright.  The idea that Hebrews the eleventh chapter records events of “inferior faith” is preposterous at best! 

In both Romans and Galatians Paul uses Abraham’s life as an example of strong, exemplary faith in his teachings.  James uses Abraham’s life, specifically his offering of Isaac, similarly in James 2:21-26.  Paul introduces the same point as James in Galatians 5:6, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love." 

How does James harmonize his emphasis on works with Abraham and faith?  How does he harmonize his teaching with Paul’s?  Notice specifically how James weaves an integrated lesson from two events in Abraham’s life, his offering of Isaac and his response to God in Genesis 15:6.  Genesis 15:6 occurred several years, perhaps decades, prior to Isaac’s birth.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac occurred when Isaac was likely either in his teens or a young adult (Isaac was sufficiently mature to carry a large supply of wood up the mountain.).  Thus these two events were separated by many years; yet James integrates them into one lesson that emphasizes both faith and works.  In Genesis 15:6 Abraham “…believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”  James starts his lesson from Abraham at his offering of Isaac, not at Genesis 15:6, stating that Abraham was “justified by works” in that action, but James then goes directly from the act of offering Isaac back to the passage in Genesis 15:6 with this observation, “And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God." (James 2:23)  Notice James pertinent—and inspired—comment, “…the scripture was fulfilled…” referring to Genesis 15:6. 

Paul made the same precise point in Galatians 5:6, “…faith worketh by love.”  The obvious point made by both inspired writers is that the believer in Christ cannot—and should not—separate faith from works in terms of one’s discipleship, our reaction to God and to Scripture as we make our daily decisions and live our life out action by individual action. 

Those who teach salvation by what God does plus what the sinner does, regardless of the specific conditions imposed upon the sinner, often pit faith and works against each other.  One group, holding to salvation by works, will diminish the role of faith and focus on works.  Others, holding more to an act of the sinner in believing the gospel as his required “contribution” to his final salvation, will diminish works and emphasize faith.  Only the view commonly and historically held by Primitive Baptists integrates faith and works, just as both Paul and James did, so that the artificial tension between them is resolved and harmonized without the necessity of pitting faith against works or James against Paul. 

The popular view of salvation as some form of synergistic venture in which both God and the sinner contribute to accomplish salvation sets the stage for the tension—even the contradiction—between faith and works, for the role of each is never clearly defined by advocates of these views, be they devoted Arminian/semi-Pelagian salvation by works advocates or illogical hybrid views such as those of Andrew Fuller and his compromise regarding both the real accomplishment of Jesus’ substitutionary death and the role of preaching (Is it a generous proposition that the sinner may either accept or reject, Fuller’s “duty-faith” concept, or is it a factual proclamation of God’s purpose and success in our salvation that becomes good news to the regenerate elect who comes to understand and believe it?)  Much like contemporary dispensationalism, the concept of synergistic salvation is so diverse as to leave the inquirer confused at best. Ask ten different people to explain the doctrine (either dispensationalism or synergistic salvation), and you’ll likely get ten different answers.  Which is right?  How about “None of the above”? 

The view of salvation (vital salvation; regeneration or new birth) held by Primitive Baptists views all of salvation, not 99.9999% of it, with God, both in terms of the work that causes it and the instrument by which it occurs (the Holy Spirit alone, not the Holy Spirit and the gospel or other human instrumentality).  This salvation is not synergistic in any sense whatever.  God alone—God beginning to end—affects our vital or eternal salvation.  We typically refer to our salvation in this sense as “unconditional.”  The term is perhaps misleading.  We do not mean that God did not require conditions to be met for our salvation.  The Incarnation and Calvary cry out that conditions existed that God alone could meet in the person of God Incarnate and His substitutionary and vicarious (done on the behalf of others, not for Himself) sacrifice for our sins.  By “unconditional” we refer to our belief that we could not meet any of the required conditions for our salvation.  God alone finished the work that accomplishes our salvation. 

The unique view held by Primitive Baptists that eliminates the artificial tension in popular ideas of salvation, ideas that typically struggle with the presumed tension between Paul and James regarding faith and works, focuses on the nature of our discipleship, the way a regenerate elect lives.  We believe that our eternal salvation from the eternally damning effects of sin was wholly accomplished—and applied—by God alone, unconditional on our part.  We equally believe that the blessings (Call them “blessings” or “rewards;” refer to them as coming to us “in” or “for” our faithfulness in discipleship.) of discipleship are conditional on our obeying God as He has revealed His will in Scripture and in the gospel that faithfully proclaims the truth of Scripture.  Elder S. F. Cayce, first volume of his editorial writings and first article in Volume One, states that this view was almost universally held by Primitive Baptists when he joined them in 1866.  During the controversy regarding the extent and scope of predestination that culminated around 1900, our people often disputed the nature of our discipleship.  Is it “conditional” on our response to God’s leading and teaching in Scripture and in the gospel, or is it “unconditional,” wholly caused and controlled by God in either His providence or His predestination?  Elder Cayce’s observation documents that the dominant view prior to this controversy favored the concept of unconditional eternal salvation and “conditional time salvation,” or discipleship and related blessings. 

Elder T. S. Dalton in the generation prior to Elder S. F. Cayce (He fought in the Civil War.) agrees with Elder Cayce’s statement. 

Just so sure as God’s dear saints go forward in the discharge of their duties as the humble children of God, so sure will they enjoy the blessings of the time salvation. – (“A Treatise on Salvation,” p 63).

What does this view have to do with Paul and James, with their teaching on faith and works?  It has everything to do with them.  The Primitive Baptist historical view of unconditional eternal salvation and conditional time salvation builds on the precise premise that both Paul and James set forth in the two passages mentioned above.  The proper response of obedience in a regenerate elect, a “born-again” child of God, is works that grow out of true faith in God.  I have lived among the Primitive Baptists all of my life (now sixty five years), and I have never heard one of our responsible preachers so much as hint at the idea that true godly works ever occur apart from the influence of faith.  When we emphasize the conditions of God’s blessings in time upon His children in response to their obedience to Him and to His Word, we emphasize that we can only perform such works through the dynamics of an active faith working within us.  This working is not “unconditional” and altogether predestinated or unconditionally caused by God.  It is rather the willing and voluntary response of a regenerate elect to the good news of the gospel, guided and motivated by godly faith. 

James makes this same point when he bridges the events in Abraham’s life from faith to works.  Abraham displayed godly faith in Genesis 15:6, but he displayed the consequences of that faith years later in his conduct, his offering of Isaac.  Consider the divine assignment that Abraham faced as he and Isaac, along with a few servants, traveled to the mountain of sacrifice.  We cannot imagine it or make any sense of it apart from an incredible and active faith in God, the point that Paul makes emphatically as he builds this truth in the fourth chapter of Romans. 

Is the working of divine power “effectual” and “unconditional” in our discipleship, as it clearly is in our eternal salvation?  I offer Abraham as a satisfactory example that this idea is not the case.  During the years between leaving Ur, an indisputable act of noble faith as affirmed in Hebrews 11:8, and his offering of Isaac, Abraham was not always faithful; he did not always respond in faith to the circumstances of his life.  Notable exceptions to his walk of faith are
 

1. His brief and disappointing venture into Egypt.

2. His cowardly and self-serving claim—not once but twice—that Sarah was his sister, not his wife. 

3. His willing cooperation with Sarah in the case of Hagar. 


It is obvious that these events in Abraham’s conduct did not grow out of his Genesis 15:6 faith, nor did James mention them as examples of conduct that fulfilled his Genesis 15:6 faith. 

Based on Paul’s teaching in Romans fourth chapter, the promise of blessing in/for obedience, as with Abraham, is “…sure to all the seed,” but both Scripture and observation in life affirms that all saved people, all regenerate elect, do not consistently walk the walk of faith and gain the enrichment of those blessings.  Abraham did not enjoy them at all times as illustrated in the above three disappointing episodes from his life—his life after he began walking by faith.  Our enjoyment of these blessings is conditional on our walking in faith and living out that faith in our conduct. 

Further, based on both Romans 4 (particularly Verse 17 and related thoughts) and Hebrews 11 (particularly Verse 19 and related thoughts), we can—and should—make the case that all of Abraham’s truly righteous acts grew out of his faith.  In fact based on these two specific verses we can make a strong case that Abraham’s righteous acts grew specifically out of faith in God to the extent of believing in the resurrection.  The Primitive Baptist belief in “conditional time salvation” as expressed by Elder S. F. Cayce, his son Elder C. H. Cayce, and many others builds on this precise  harmonious union between faith and godly works of righteousness, in a word “obedience.”  We do not hold to works apart from faith, but rather righteous works energized and informed by faith.  As James and Paul dealt with issues relating to discipleship, they both affirmed this union between faith and works in a manner that is altogether separate from the process by which a person is regenerated or born of God.  Thus they do not confuse God’s exclusive role in regeneration with the interdependent leading of the Holy Spirit and the willing, voluntary, and faith-motivated response of the obedient—the faithful—regenerate elect who lives by the “rule of faith.”  Alternate perspectives typically result in blurred, confused, and often contradictory views of justification.  These alternate views often mix our eternal forensic justification with our experiential justification, confusing one with the other and leaving both quite unclear as to their cause and their effects. 

Ancient Christians often refer to the authoritative basis of their life and conduct as the “rule of faith.”  By this term they appear to have intended a reference to faith as a governing principle of the Christian life.  Other rules and regulations existed or were introduced, but they held firmly to the “rule of faith” as their guide in all things godly and good.  We would do well to follow their example.  When a believer in Christ substitutes any other guide for the rule of faith, insidious legalism and its accompanying arrogant pride thrive, or confusion prevails, and followers of the “new law,” or as George Ella terms it in reference to Andrew Fuller’s “duty-faith” error, “neonomianism,” rules over both the rule of faith and the rule of Scripture.  We need no “new law” to bridge the gap between God and man; we need a firm sense of God’s grace as the whole of our salvation, both in its cause and its instrumentality, and we need a firm sense of the rule of faith, the rule of Scripture alone, to guide and to inform our minds and to prepare us for godly living that attracts the blessings of God in our lives.

When believers, however sincere and convicted, shift the focus and motive for their discipleship in any of its facets away from the Biblical objective of serving and glorifying God and serving His people, misery and failure are ensured.  If my primary objective in my discipleship is to gain more “assurance of my salvation,” I’ll live life on the ragged edge of depression and doubt, never satisfied with the amount of assurance that I have.  If I engage my discipleship with the idea of gaining blessings for myself, I shall surely live life in the ghetto of self-serving emptiness, always wondering why the peace and comfort of the gospel seems to lie ever just out of my reach.  If I devote my life to serving God and His people solely because it is right—because He told me to do so—all of these blessings shall flood my life as by-products of true and Biblical “faith which worketh by love.”  Such conduct fulfills the pledge and conviction of faith in us just as it did in Abraham. 

 

Joseph R. Holder

August 5, 2006

[1]John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-c1985), 2:815.

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