Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).
This verse certainly is confusing for the person who understands it as dealing with how a person obtains eternal salvation from hell. Note there are two conditions. The first is turning from one’s sins. This is moral reform. The second is receiving the word, which the following verses clearly show results in doing good deeds. Nowhere does this verse or the verses which follow state that we need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to obtain this “soul salvation.”
If this verse and passage is talking about how one obtains eternal life, then it teaches works salvation, pure and simple. Apparently, belief in Jesus isn’t even necessary.
That alone should lead us to conclude that this passage is not talking about eternal salvation at all. Instead, my thesis is that it is talking about the temporal salvation of believers who are already eternally secure. The following exposition will defend that thesis.
Believers Being Addressed
Verse 21 is a logical continuation (note the first word, therefore) of vv 19-20 which are addressed to believers: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (emphasis added). Verses 19-20 in turn look back to vv 16-18 where James indicates that both he and his readers are recipients of the free gift of eternal salvation and hence have been born again:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures (emphasis added).
There is no doubt, therefore, that in v 21 James is addressing believers. And we know from many other verses that once believers receive eternal life, they are eternally secure and can never perish (e.g., John 3:16; 5:24; 10:28). So James cannot possibly be addressing the question of eternal salvation.
Discipleship in View
So what kind of salvation does James have in mind? The evidence points to salvation in the sense of temporal well-being.
The two conditions he gives for being saved—turning from sins and receiving God’s Word (with the result that one does good deeds)—are repeatedly given in Scripture as conditions of discipleship. See, for example, Acts 20:2738; Rom 12:9–15:3; 1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Cor 5:9-10; Eph 4:17-31; 1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:21-26; Titus 3:1-8; Heb 13:1-9; James 5:712; 1 Pet 1:13-16; 2:1-2. All of these passages are clearly addressed to Christians and call upon them to avoid sinning and to apply God’s Word in order to grow as Christians, to please God, to avoid temporal judgment, and to lay up treasure in heaven. The picture is one of spiritual health in the present and at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
As mentioned above, avoiding sin and doing good are not conditions of eternal salvation (cf. Rom 4:5-8; Eph 2:9; Titus 3:5). Instead, the one and only condition of eternal salvation is believing in Jesus Christ for everlasting life (cf. John 3:16; 4:10ff; 5:24; 6:47; Rom 4:1-5; 5:1; Gal 3:614; Eph 2:8).
Receiving the Implanted Word
God’s Word is in believers because they have been begotten of God (“He brought us forth by the word of truth” v 18). Thus “the implanted word” (or “the innate word”) is completely natural to the believer. Of course, this cannot be true of unregenerate people.
The word receive (dechomai) here carries the idea of welcoming. As a matter of fact, the word is often used in the NT to refer to hospitality. It often means “[to] welcome someone into one’s house… [to] receive as a guest, welcome” (BDAG, p 221B; it cites Matt 10:14, 40; Luke 9:5, 11; 10:8, 10; 16:4; John 4:45; Col 4:10; Heb 11:31 as having this meaning). Because God’s Word is natural to believers, they should welcome it (i.e., approve and accept the teaching, BDAG, p. 221C) as they would a friend into their home.
The implication is that believers can be unwelcoming to the word of truth. And don’t we often see that? Believers can become lazy, can become sporatic in assembling with the other believers at church (Heb 10:23-25), and can stop putting God’s Word into practice. The result? A lack of spiritual growth and maturity combined with temporal difficulties designed to wake us up and get us back on the path of godliness.
Saving Your Souls
The temporal nature of this salvation is also seen in the use of the word soul (psychē), which has a number of meanings. We tend to think of the soul in terms of the immaterial and immortal inner self (BDAG, p. 1099B). But the most common Hebraic usage, and the meaning which fits this context, is for soul to mean one’s physical life (BDAG, p. 1098D-1099A, the first nuance listed).
This passage is in harmony with many other passages in Scripture which speak of saving one’s physical life from the deadly consequences of sin. For example, consider the following verses from Proverbs and Ezekiel:
As righteousness leads to life, So he who pursues evil pursues it to his own death (Prov 11:19).
The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death (Prov 14:27).
The soul that sins shall die (Ezek 18:4, 20).
James is warning believers that failure to obey God will result in loss of one’s physical life. He made this same point
earlier in chapter one when he wrote, “sin, when it is full grown, brings forth death” (1:15).
Of course, while the immediate death of believers due to sin is reported on occasion in Scripture (e.g., Nadab and Abihu, Lev 10:1-2; Ananias and Saphira, Acts 5:1-11), this is not the norm. Rather, as one of my professors in seminary liked to illustrate it, sin is death-dealing. Every card it deals says “death” on it. To play in the card game of sin is to invite one’s own death. The more one sins, the closer his or her death approaches (and the more miserable his or her present experience becomes). Being eternally secure does not exempt believers from the death-dealing consequences of sin.
The freeness of everlasting life is not an invitation to carnality and disobedience. While everlasting life is absolutely free, temporal well-being is not.
There are many things which should motivate us to obey God. Surely gratitude and love are preeminent motivations (2 Cor 5:14; 1 John 4:19). The prospect of the Judgment Seat of Christ and eternal rewards are also vital motivations (Matt 6:19-21; 1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Cor 5:10; Jas 5:712). However, one motivation sometimes overlooked, which is also Biblical and powerful, is temporal well-being. The obedient Christian will experience temporal well-being (Matt 6:33; Gal 5:22-23) while the disobedient Christian will not.