Terms such as “false faith,” “genuine faith,” “spurious faith,” “temporal faith,” and “saving faith” may very well be confusing. Are we talking about different kinds of faith? Different classes and types of faith? Is saving faith merely a “special kind of faith” as opposed to some other type of faith that does not save? This confusion is perhaps one of the fundamental misunderstandings of the Reformed position by the “Free Grace” Movement. However, a clarification of our terminology is in order. The Reformed position does not affirm that there are different “types” of faith. There is only saving faith. Anything else is not faith. When we use words such as “temporal faith” or “false faith,” we are not alluding to a different type of faith, but to that which is utterly non-faith. You may ask, “Then why use the confusing terminology?” My answer is that we are simply placing the discussion in Biblical terms.
James 2:14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
James asks, “Can that faith save him?” James is here alluding to a faith that does not produce works, a faith that is not saving faith. However, he is not writing about some other type of faith. The “faith” he is alluding to is not faith at all. In the Reformed position, perseverance, assurance, salvation–it is all achived through faith. However, the question is “What does faith look like?” Or, rather, “What is the nature of saving faith?”
Before we can answer such questions, peer into the text of James, or respond to Free Grace proponents, we must first make a very important clarification. When discussing such things, it is important to make sure that we are carefully distinguishing between what is being spoken prescriptively and what is being spoken descriptively. Below I will show that saving faith produces genuine works. But this is a description of saving faith, not a prescription. It is meant to describe saving faith, not qualify it. In other words, works are not a prerequisite for saving faith, but they are the necessary byproduct of saving faith. It is as the Reformers have always stated, “Faith alone saves, but faith that saves is never alone.” A Free Grace propenent might continue to say that the “logical conclusion” of the Reformed position is to deny sola fide. But this requires simple ignorance what has been stated here.
Antonio asked me, “What makes saving faith saving?” He assumed that I would answer, “Saving faith is saving because of the works it produces.” But that would be false, and it was not how I answered. Yes, saving faith, by definition, produces works. But the reason it saves (or rather, is the conduit for the salvation that Christ has given us) is because it has been imparted to us by the sovereign author of the plan of redemption. It is God who gives us faith in the perfect Savior Jesus Christ, and it is for this reason that it is the channel for our salvation. We can rephrase this by asking two questions, “What is the prescription for saving faith?” and “What is the description of saving faith?” The prescription for saving faith is that it 1) is given to the elect by God, and 2) has its object in the person of Jesus Christ. However, the description of saving faith is that it will necessarily produce genuinely good works. The same must be emphasized when it comes to perseverance. In light of perseverance, what is the prescription for saving faith, and what is the description of saving faith? The prescription for saving faith in regards to assurance is God’s decision to securely preserve his elect in faith. On the other hand, the description of saving faith in regards to assurance is that saving faith will persevere to the end. The prescriptive/descriptive distinction is one that must be emphatically affirmed over and over again because it, more than any other Reformed distinctive, is continually misrepresented by the Free Grace Movement. The Reformed position is accused of adding works and perseverance to faith. It is accused of denying sola fide. I hope I have made this distinction quite clear, but I will without a doubt need to restate it in the future. Concerning this prescriptive/descriptive distinction, Jodie Sawyer comments:
But surely you would admit, Evan, that historically Calvinists and especially their flocks have failed to enjoy the distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive, however valid that distinction maybe.
Well, to be honest, there weren’t people going around claiming that the very Reformers who coined the phrase sola fide were somehow denying sola fide! Their enemy was a works-based, Roman Catholic position, not some “Free Grace” one. In any case, as Sawyer notes, this does not invalidate the argument. Simply because the distinction may or may not have been made in the past has nothing to do with its truth in this relevant situation. Nevertheless, while the Reformed writers may not have used the words “prescriptive” and “descriptive,” the concept is evident in their theology and in statements such as the oft-repeated “Faith alone saves, but faith that saves is never alone.”
Concerning what has been presented above, Antonio has asked a few questions in the comments section of my last post:
Where does the Bible speak of “false faith”? If false faith is not faith at all, what is it? Please both describe and define “false faith”.
To answer the first question, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). For the second question, “false faith” refers to a confession (that is, declaration) of faith by someone who does not actually possess faith. Makes sense, huh?
Moving back to the text of James, let’s begin our exposition at 2:14. We will go no further than this verse in this post. Rather, we will establish the meaning of v. 14 as well as respond to Antonio da Rosa’s handling of v. 14.
James White states correctly, “The entire purpose of James 2:14-26 can be summarized by the words ’show me.’” I believe that Antonio and I are in agreement over the fact that James (the Biblical author, that is) was not intending to present how one is saved. He presents no ordo salutis, no “Ephesians 2:1-9,” so to speak. It is not a soteriological passage. But what I affirm, and Antonio may or may not agree, is that James, though not presenting the core of the gospel itself, is portraying what it looks like when the gospel is applied to the life of the believer, how what has been worked within is displayed outwardly. This is shown by the preceding context (2:1-13), where James describes how you must act “as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (v. 1).
Antonio starts off with some necessary notes concerning translation:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims [lego] to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (NIV)
What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? (RSV)
What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (NAS)
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (NKJV)
Thus begins our consideration of James 2:14ff. Noted here are four common yet differing versions of our text. Excluding the so-called “dynamic equivalence” of the NIV, where it takes obvious liberty translating “lege” (from “lego”) as “claim” (1343 occurrences in the Greek text, all but a handful being translated with “say” and its cognates, the others translated as “named”; never translated “claim” in NKJV, NASB, ASV, and RSV), the first question is fundamentally the same in the given instances.
Actually, “claim” (translated by the NET as well) conveys quite accurately what is being stated in this passage. Yes, literally the text reads “says” (λεγη) rather than “claims,” but what is most clarifying is the literal infinitival form “to have” that we see retained in versions such as the NET (”says to have faith” is hardly a smooth and modern way of translating the text, and “claims” conveys the meaning that is set in “to have”). In other words, regardless of “claims” or “says,” the emphasis is on the confession of the faith, not actual faith itself. “What is the gain, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not have deeds?”
The following verses show that this is indeed what James is conveying. His emphasis, as is expanded upon throughout this section, is on the mere claim to have faith. This is a “faith” that exists only in the realm of words, only in the confession, but it isn’t true faith that has been imparted to a genuine believer. We will show that “claims” fits the argument of the passage as a whole, carrying the idea of an empty profession.
Antonio states that the NIV takes “obvious liberty” in translating λεγη as “claims.” In a sense, he is right, in that this isn’t the most literal translation possible. However, it does not confuse the meaning of the text. Rather, as is shown above and as we will see in light of the passage as a whole, it portrays accurately the thinking of James in his emphasis in profession rather than in possession. Why does this matter? Because if James is merely referring to an empty profession of faith, then this completely destroys Antonio’s position on the text. From the beginning we can see that Antonio is on sinking ground.
One last thing that we should note concerning this first question in verse 14 is the translation of ἔργα (erga) as “deeds.” While “works” certainly portrays James’ meaning in this passage, “deeds” separates James’ usage of the word from Paul’s usage of “works” in the negative sense. We should note that Paul’s normative use of ἔργα matches James’ use in v. 14. In several places, Paul speaks of deeds done in righteousness, these flowing from a heart that has been changed by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, he teaches us that we are saved unto good works that we might walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10). Why does this matter? Because Antonio will, without a doubt, launch his canard-ish assault upon the Reformed position, claiming that its interpretation of this passage somehow denies sola gratia or sola fide. With “deeds” we note that we are not talking about works in the context of justification, but good deeds that flow from justification in the context of sanctification.
Yet in the second question we find different and important variations that weigh heavily upon its interpretation. In the above examples we are met with three modifiers to “faith” and one with no modifier at all. Respectively we have “such faith”, “his faith”, “that faith”, and merely “faith”.
That commentators have painted this someone’s faith as merely professed and spurious should be surprising to no one. This has been the overwhelming tradition (with a few notable exceptions). It is unfortunate that the theology of the pundits (and the translators) have colored their interpretation. They bolster their claims here by the insertion of the modifiers “such” or “that” to “faith”. Is this a legitamate understanding and translation? The introduction of words like “that” or “such” as qualifiers for “faith” is really an evasion of the text. The Greek does not support this sort of translation. There really is no corresponding Greek word for either or these.
Nevertheless, support for the renderings “such faith” or “that faith” is usually said to be found in the presence of the Greek definite article with the word “faith”. But in this very passage, the definite article also occurs with “faith” in verses 17, 18, 20, 22, and 26 (in verse 22 the reference is to Abraham’s faith!). In none of these places are the words “such” or “that” proposed as natural translations. As is well known, the Greek language, like Spanish and French, often employed the definite article with abstract nouns (like faith, hope, love, etc.) where English cannot do so. In such cases we leave the Greek article untranslated. The attempt to single out 2:14 for specialized treatment carries its own refutation on its face. It must be classed as a truly desperate effort to support an insupportable interpretation.
1. The phrase begins with μὴ, indicating that the answer to this rhetorical question is negative: “No, that kind of faith cannot save.” Would the answer, “No, faith cannot save” make any sense in the Free Grace position? (Antonio forces it to make sense by redefining “save,” as we will see in future posts).
2. So “that faith” (NASB), “that faith” (ESV), “such faith” (NIV), “the faith” (LITV) “this kind of faith” (NET), “that faith” (ASV), “that kind of faith” (NLT), “such faith” (ALT) “such faith” (AMP), “that kind of faith” (CEV), “that kind of faith” (NLV) etc. are all mistranslations? As far as I know, it is only the KJV and the NKJV that simply render it “Can faith save him,” and these are translated from the Textus Recptus which also contains the definite article. Antonio brushes off the definite article based upon how it is handled in the other verses. It may very well be true that the article with πιστις is anaphoric in these verses. However, the antecedent must be examined based upon its own immediate context. The Biblical scholars involved in the translation of the versions above knew very well what James was conveying in v. 14 in light of the entire passage. The distinction is between a faith that is demonstrated in deeds, and one that is demonstrated in words alone. It is between a faith that is alive, saving faith, and a faith that is “dead” (v. 26). Every discovery that we will make in this text from this point forward will absolutely affirm what the translators knew that James was conveying in v. 14.
3. The distinction made in this section is not between faith and works, but between dead faith and alive faith. Faith without deeds is dead faith. Dead faith cannot save. The answer to the rhetorical question in v.14, therefore, is “No, that kind of faith (dead faith, faith without deeds) cannot save.”
4. Antonio’s theological bias is undeniably evident. While he may claim that we “add to the text by including modifiers to ‘faith’ that both the context and Greek language do not support” (a claim that, at face value, sounds convincing, but once we look at the actual text, amounts to nothing), but he is the one that is twisting the meaning of the text. The translation “such faith” (the type of translation that is found in all versions other than the KJV and the NKJV) ruins Antonio’s claims on the passage, and, therefore, he must reject it. While he may sound convincing, in reality, this is nonsense coming from someone who, frankly, does not know what he is talking about.
Why must the Lordship Salvation advocates so intensly defend their position that the faith in view here must be spurious? For two reasons: 1) to evade the text and 2) in order to propagate their view that eternal salvation is not by faith alone apart from works. They dodge the text here. LS has desired this passage to be talking about eternal salvation (salvation from hell) so that they can promulgate their heresy of faith works (a faith that is not apart from works) being necessary for final salvation. Yet, is this passage truly talking about it?
Allow me to paraphrase 2:14: “Suppose that someone admits to faith yet he cannot point to acts of obedience (the kind that James has been discussing in 1:26-2:13), what then? Can he expect salvation (of the kind in which James is talking about) to come through his faith if he is not a ‘doer of work’ (1:21)?” In other words, as per the Greek text (and the NKJV), “Can faith save him?” Notice James’ stark, clear, and poignant question! Can faith alone save the man?
Actually the question in Greek implies its own answer and might be better translated, “Faith can’t save him, can it?” The expected response is, “No, it can’t!” But, of course, faith can and does save when we are speaking of eternal salvation (e.g. Ephesians 2:8, 9). But here -as James makes plain- faith cannot save under the conditions he has in mind.
Thus in James 2, the writer plainly makes works a condition for the salvation he here is describing. The failure to admit this is the chief source of the problems supposedly arising from this passage for most evangelicals. We ought to start by admitting it. And we ought then to admit that James cannot be discussing salvation BY GRACE! But instead of admitting these points, most interpreters dodge them, as we have shown.
…James is manifestly speaking of a “salvation” that is not by faith alone (”Can faith save him?” implied and intended answer in Greek, as per construction, is “NO!”). James’ statements cannot be willed away. As clearly as language can express it, faith by itself does not “save,” acording to James. But save from what?
We can begin to see where Antonio is going with this passage. He is going to remove “save” from an eternally salvific context. I must say that this did not surprise me when I saw it. Antonio’s warrantless rejection of “that faith” or “such faith” would make the text confusing. Is James saying that faith cannot save? Next post will look further in this passage, as well as consider Antonio’s interpretation of “save.”
Antonio’s mishandling of the text is becoming quite evident. Unfortunately, this particular post was necessarily long because he brought his mishandling to the translational level. We can see how far he must go to propagate his theology. While Antonio may continually accuse the Reformed position of having a theological agenda that is imposed upon the text, it is again and again evident that he is the one who must make a mess out of the text. As we continue to look at this passage, everything that will be established in the future will affirm what we have established here.
Book Recommendation: The God Who Justifies by James R. White. (BHP)