David asks a good question about James 2:14-17:
I’m taking an online course from DTS on James, as taught by Dr. Stanley Toussaint. Through GES I’ve learned that the free gift of life comes through faith alone in Christ alone plus nothing. Dr. Toussaint teaches that unless that is followed by works, your faith is dead. I know every believer is taught to do good works, and I strive to do just that. What about the person who believes but does not produce any works? Is that an indication that the person’s faith is dead? Dr. Toussaint says that person is like a dead corpse. He was asked about Zane Hodges. He said Zane did not believe a believer necessarily had to show good works to prove he was saved. What do you believe James is teaching?
P.S. I highly value your teaching.
Dr. Toussaint was one of my favorite professors at DTS. He was a great teacher, very friendly, had lots of great illustrations, and was open to cordial dialogue in class and during his office hours.
One day late in the spring I had an appointment with him in his office. It was very hot in late April. When I entered, I saw he was not wearing his coat. I took off my blue blazer and started to sit down, planning to hold it in my lap. He told me to hang it up. After a 15-minute conversation, I grabbed my coat off the rack and walked out with it folded on my arm. I was rushing to my next class, and when I got there I put on the blue blazer. But it was about six inches short on the arms and waist. I had mistakenly picked up Dr. Toussaint’s blue blazer. After class I found him, and we exchanged coats, with a laugh.
We have written extensively about what James means when he writes, “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:17, 20, 26). See this 2017 blog by me, this 2014 magazine article by Keith Pesce, and this 2006 journal article by me. I will simply summarize here.
- Salvation in James 2:14 refers to a believer being saved from God’s judgment in this life, not to an unbeliever being saved from eternal condemnation by coming to faith in Christ. That is true in the other four uses of the word save in James (1:21; 4:12; 5:15, 20).
- James is saying that faith alone cannot save us from God’s judgment.
- If we say something nice to a fellow believer in need (“Be filled and be warmed”), but we do not put our faith into practice and give him something to meet the need, then our faith is unprofitable for the needy believer and for us since God will judge us for failing to act properly.
- The faith James is discussing in James 2:14-17 is not faith in Christ for everlasting life. It is our faith in anything that God says. The illustration in Jas 2:15-16 most naturally is based on the Lord’s statement, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). If I believe that is true, yet I do not apply it when given the opportunity to help a needy brother, then my faith is unprofitable.
- The expression “faith without works is dead” is clearly explaining what James just said in 2:14-16. The word dead does not mean nonexistent. It means unprofitable, as the first words in v 14 and the last words in v 16 show (“what does it profit?”).
- James is saying that if we do not apply what we believed, then our faith is unprofitable. He is not saying that if we fail to apply our faith, then we do not have faith.
- Fifteen times in the letter James refers to the readers as his brethren. Only born-again people are brethren. And he specifically says that they are born again in Jas 1:18.
- James 2:14-17 is not a new subject being introduced. It continues the discussion begun in Jas 2:1-13 about how the readers were doing wrong when they mistreated the poor believers in their church.
- If unapplied faith proves that one is not born again, then if you ever, even once, failed to meet the need of a brother or sister in need, you will prove you were unregenerate. Worse, if you ever committed any sin of omission, you would prove you were not born again.
- Though Dr. Toussaint did not wish to strip believers of assurance, that is precisely what his teaching should do. However, as Shawn Lazar showed in a Spring 2020 Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society article, between 1965 and 1990 DTS professors like Dr. Ryrie and Dr. Walvoord took the view of James 2 which Dr. Toussaint did, but yet they also said that we were born again by faith in Christ, apart from works, and that our assurance should not be disturbed by failures in our Christian lives. Shawn showed that they were inconsistent in their teaching. As someone who was at DTS from 1978-1985, I experienced that firsthand.
- The question in James 2 is not about a believer who has no good works at all. I do not believe that there is even an unbeliever who lacks good works. James is discussing the times when a believer fails to apply what he believes.