While preparing to introduce the epistle of James for a class I’m teaching, I researched what different leading conservative commentators say about salvation in James.
What I found was surprising.
I was familiar with three views.
1.The readers were believers who were saved forever.
2. The readers were believers who were saved, but who might lose their salvation.
3. The readers were a mixed group of true believers and false professors and James wanted them to examine their works to see if they were truly saved.
But I discovered a fourth view:
4. The readers were born again believers, but they were not yet saved!i
Concerning the fact that the readers were regenerate, Davids writes, “most recent commentators [believe] that the regeneration reference is intended [in 1:18]” (Peter Davids, James, p. 89). Likewise, Moo says, “But the most important piece of evidence in favor of a redemptive ‘birth’ here is the phrase ‘the word of truth’…this ‘word’ is the instrument through which God brings people to life. All four of the other occurrences of the phrase in the NT refer to the gospel as the agent of salvation (2 Cor. 6:7; Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15)” (Douglas Moo, James, p. 79). Richardson comments, “God gives birth to believers by means of his truthful word. The word of truth here is virtually synonymous with the gospel” (Kurt Richardson, James, p. 87). Hiebert agrees: “The aorist tense looks back to the time of our conversion and records the fact of our spiritual birth as an historical reality” (D. Edmond Hiebert, James, p. 116).
Despite the fact that they say that the readers are born-again believers, look at how leading conservative commentators explain the four verses in James dealing with salvation (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20), other than 5:15, which deals with healing.
James 1:21. Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
“The reference to salvation is to be interpreted in the light of the rapidly approaching Day of Judgment (see Acts 17:30). It is charged with the eschatological urgency of the NT, including (conspicuously) the Epistle of James. No soul can be called saved, or lost, until the Final Judgment; hence James’s gospel of faith continuing at work in hope of that final approbation…at the Last Judgment” (Adamson, pp. 81-82, emphasis added).
“The salvation is future, therefore salvation from the apocalyptic hour of the judgment of God, fitting with the general tone of James. Thus the God who regenerates (begets) the Christian by the word of truth, will save him by the same word implanted in him if he receives it” (Peter Davids, p. 95, emphasis added).
“Some Christians, accustomed to equating salvation with conversion or regeneration, might be troubled by this future orientation. But, in fact, such a focus is quite customary in the NT, where the verb “save” and the noun “salvation” often refer to the believer’s ultimate deliverance from sin and death that takes place at the time of Christ’s return in glory (see, e.g., Rom. 5:9, 10; 13:11; 1 Thess. 5:9; Phil. 2:12; 1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 4:18; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 1:5, 9; 2:2; 4:18). James’s other uses of the terminology share this future orientation (2:14; 4:12; 5:20; in 5:15, “save” applies to physical, not spiritual, deliverance). This perspective on salvation is important to keep in mind if we are to understand James’s theology correctly” (Moo, p. 88, emphasis added).
James 2:14. What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
“That which will be useless in the final judgment is a faith lacking works…The emptiness of such profession is not new in the NT. One has only to scan the prophets to discover a condemnation of ritual piety without practical justice for the poor” (Davids, p. 120).
“The aorist infinitive sosai (“to save”) primarily looks to the future culmination of the believer’s salvation. ‘The criterion then will not be profession but performance’” (Hiebert, p. 177).
James 4:12. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another?
Adamson writes, “we think James is referring to ‘salvation,’ or the opposite, at the Last Judgment (5:9)” (p. 178, emphasis added).
“God’s judgment is…the final judgment of the obedient and disobedient” (Richardson, pp. 196-97, emphasis added).
“‘To save and to destroy’ summarizes God’s exercise of His sovereign power…The statement is general, and the two activities need not be limited to their nature or time. They have a present application, but the eschatological verdict of God as Judge seems primarily in view” (Hiebert, p. 270, emphasis added).
James 5:19-20. Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
“Death, from which he is saved, is the penalty of sin, as in 1:15, and under the covenant ‘final exclusion from the Divine Society’ (1 John 5:16; so Westcott)” (Adamson, p. 203, emphasis added).
“That sin can result in physical death is also clear (1 Cor. 15:30, as well as many of the above OT examples) and this may be part of James’s meaning (as in 5:14–16), but the tone appears to go beyond physical death and recognize death as an eschatological entity, at least where one dies in sin (cf. 1:15)” (Davids, p. 200, emphasis added).
“‘Death’ here, as commonly in James and almost always in the NT where sin is the issue, is ultimate ‘spiritual’ death—the condemnation to eternal damnation…the word [thanatos] has a physical connotation [as well])” (Moo, p. 250, emphasis added).
i Hiebert is a bit confusing on this point. He seems to suggest that there is some sort of salvation that occurs at the new birth, but that there is also a possible future salvation the believer needs to obtain. See his comments on Jas 2:14 above.