Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.
This verse certainly is confusing for the person who understands it as dealing with how a person obtains eternal salvation from hell. Note the conditions stated. There are two. 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 to doing good deeds.
Nowhere does this verse or the verses which follow state the 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.
Clearly this passage is not talking about eternal salvation at all.
It is my thesis that this passage is instead talking about the salvation of believers, people who are eternally secure, from temporal judgment. 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 “my beloved brethren.” That designation in turn looks back to vv 17-18 where James indicates that both he and his readers are recipients of the free gift of eternal salvation and hence have been born again. There is no doubt, therefore, that in v 21 James is addressing believers, eternally-secure people.
Discipleship in View
The two conditions given, 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 20:27-38; 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 5:7-12; 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.
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, which is not even mentioned here, is believing in Jesus Christ (cf. John 3:16; 4:10ff; 5:24; 6:47; Rom 4:1-5; 5:1; Gal 3:6-14; 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 (Gk dechomai) here carries the idea of welcoming. As a matter of fact, the word is often used in the NT to refer to hospitality, welcoming people into one’s home (cf. BGD, p 177; Luke 9:5; 10:8; 16:4; Col 4:10; Heb 11:31). Because God’s word is natural to believers, they should welcome (i.e., fully approve and accept) it as they would a friend into their home.
Saving Your Souls
As shown in the first article in this series (Dec 91, p 2), the word soul (Gk psyche) has a number of meanings. The meaning which fits this context is physical life.
This passage is in harmony with many other passages in Scripture which speak of saving one’s physical life from the 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. James 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 his 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 the Gospel is not an invitation to carnality and disobedience. While eternal 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). 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; James 5:7-12). However, one motivation sometimes overlooked which is also biblical and powerful is temporal well-being. The obedient Christian will experience inner joy and peace (Gal 5:22-23). The disobedient Christian will not.