The Question Is Not Whether But Why?

Do Reformed Christians ignore the Epistle of James?

The question in the 16th century was never whether James is in the Bible but why it is there. As they worked out their doctrine of justification, sanctification, and salvation sola gratia, sola fide they concluded that James 2 is teaching the moral and logical necessity of love and good works not as part of the legal basis (ground) of our justification and salvation nor as part of the instrument of them but as the outcome. We are justified that we might be sanctified and we manifest this sanctification in love and good works. We are saved in order that we might walk in good works (Eph 2:10).


Do Reformed Christians ignore the Epistle of James? Particularly, have those who confess the Reformed theology, piety, and practice been guilty of ignoring James’ teaching in 2:14–17. Whether James has been ignored in recent years is a difficult assessment to make. How would one make such a determination? Should we count journal articles, commentaries, blog posts, and Sermon audio posts? Perhaps and it may be that James has been neglected.

I have had conversations about this with pastors and elders. Where one is influences how one sees the world. This truth helps explain why some pastors see the threat of antinomianism as the pressing problem of the hour while other pastors, in other settings, see neonomianism as the pressing problem of the hour. Where one lands in that discussion is determined partly what one’s theology and partly by one’s setting.

My impression is that in the Southeast United States (and elsewhere) pastors are facing a real problem of church members and visitors effectively saying to their pastors and elders (and others), “I do not need to obey God’s moral law because I am under grace, not under law” or something like that. Any such view is nothing but rank antinomianism and Reformed Christians quite rightly reject categorically such thinking, speaking, and teaching.

In other parts of the USA, however, pastors and others tell me that they perceive the most pressing problem to be a resurgent neonomianism, i.e., the view that the moral law is not just the norm for the Christian life and good works the fruit and evidence of salvation sola gratia, sola fide but rather, in neonomianism, the law and good works become part of the ground (legal basis) for or part of the instrument through which we are saved.

If James has been ignored perhaps it is because the Anglo-American confessional Reformed world has engaged in a running internal battle over Reformation basics such as justification and salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). Beginning in the mid-1970s a prominent Reformed seminary professor began teaching publicly that we are justified through faith and works, in those very words. Then he began to teach justification through faithfulness.

He was also teaching that, at baptism, Christians are temporarily united to Christ and if must do their part to fulfill the covenant through faith and works to continue in their justification, salvation. Things quieted for a time after he was dismissed from his post but upon his retirement from pastoral ministry it was renewed as he began re-stating his views and as his students (and their students) began articulating his views eventually giving their view the grand title “the federal vision theology.” So, for about a decade, beginning in about 2001, the confessional Reformed churches in North America re-hashed the earlier debate in light of the new writing and conclusively rejected it. At the bottom of this post is are links libraries of posts about this controversy.

Since that time, however, there has arisen what some are calling a “grace” movement. There have been some prominent Reformed writers associated with it. Some of these writers have so emphasized (or are heard as teaching) the unconditionality of the covenant of grace as to give the impression that there are no genuine obligations as aconsequence of our free, gracious redemption sola gratia, sola fide. This teaching and the way it has been received in some quarters has fueled antinomianism and the fear of antinomianism and that, as it always does, has provoked a backlash.

Now some writers have moved from speaking about justification sola gratia, sola fide to salvation through faith and works. Justification, they say, is by grace alone, through faith alone but that is only half the picture. The rest of the picture includes the broader category of salvation, which includes sanctification which, they say, is by partly works. Therefore good works are more than just fruit and evidence of our salvation. They are instrumental.

Read More