Apostasy #4 – Free Grace Salvation
By: Rob Zins
Rome, Christianity and the bizarre teachings of the Grace Evangelical Society
The way in which the English word save (sozo in the Greek text) is used by James is a point of severe controversy. We wish to begin our examination with the three very distinct ways to understand James 2:14. There is the Roman Catholic interpretation, the Grace Evangelical view, and the Reformed position. The manner in which God saves along with the resulting place of works in the life of a believer is the foundation of Christian theology. Therefore, one’s elucidation of James 2:14 will affect the great doctrines of salvation and sanctification. Both come into play as we contemplate the use of sozo in James.
There is a difference in the way translators have rendered James 2:14. The more modern translations have opted for something like, “Can that kind of faith save him?” Or, “Can such a faith save him?” This translation opens the door to understanding James as teaching that there are at least two kinds of faith. One kind saves a man and another kind does not. However, other translations like the King James and the New King James render James 2:14 simply as, “Can faith save him?” The reason for the difference is that the last clause of James 2:14 is awkward in English. Literally it would read something like this: “not able the faith to save him?” To transform this into an English question, the translators opt either to leave out or retain the Greek definite article, and the King James translators elected to leave it out. The verse was thus rendered “Can faith save him?” This is regrettable. We think the article should be translated into English. It could be rendered “Can the faith save him?” But the definite article (“the” in English) often carries a demonstrative sense such as “this” or “that,” and in context James seems to be saying, “Can this faith save him?” referring back to the person who says he has faith but has not works. There is a faith that has no works and James refers to this kind of faith by asking “Can this faith save him?” Or to smooth it out in English, “Can this kind of faith save him?” James expects the answer to be “no”.
The Roman Catholic View
Many Roman Catholics like the Douay-Rheims translation of James 2:14:
“What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?” (Douay-Rheims)
Roman Catholic defenders would answer “no,” faith alone cannot save him. The King James and Douay-Rheims translations aid Roman Catholics in their belief that salvation is by faith plus works. In Rome, good works done in faith lead to salvation, but if the believer does not perform good works his faith is useless, and he does not gain eternal salvation. According to Rome, James has only one faith in mind. Salvation is by belief in the gospel plus works, but belief in the gospel alone cannot save.
The Reformed View
The view held by most of the Reformed communities including Presbyterian and Reformed Baptists is that reflected in the translations of the New American Standard, The New International Version, and the Authorized Version of the Bible. For instance the English Standard Version has James asking, “Can that faith save him?” In contrast with Rome, the Reformed community understands that James has two kinds of faith in mind. Saving faith leads to good works, but a faith that does not produce good works is not saving faith. That kind of faith is empty, lifeless, the faith of devils and cannot save. The other kind is from above, and its fruit is both justification and good works.
Grace Evangelical Society
The third view is that of The Grace Evangelical Society (GES) which stakes out a middle ground. This group takes elements of Rome’s view in that James has only one type of faith in mind, and takes elements of the Reformed view in that James is not talking about eternal salvation by works. GES arrives here by assuming that there are two types of salvation-one that is attended by good works, and one that is not-and that James is speaking of the latter. Faith without works is therefore dead only in the sense that it cannot bring about a satisfying life in this world. Faith without works saves eternally, but is impotent to deliver one from a life of ruin, and regret among other things. As we will demonstrate, GES’s position is not only unbiblical but also dangerous.
The Fundamental Problem
On the surface, we can readily see that these three views are mutually exclusive. They cancel each other out. In the case of GES faith is a notion of man that God has obligated Himself to reward with eternal life. It has no other definition other than “I believe”. Any attempts to qualify true faith from bogus faith ruins and confuses salvation for those involved in GES. Rome, on the other hand, has always appealed to James as the standard bearer for a faith plus works justification especially in light of James 2:241. The Reformers winced at James 2:24, but stood their ground that James was writing about the distinction between credible faith and false faith.
But GES’s position is not just different. It is dangerous. If Roman Catholicism is a distortion of the Bible due to an insistence that works plus faith are the ground of justification, what are we to make of GES? GES takes the opposite position in that works or good deeds do not of necessity flow from saving faith at all. Good works are only required to the degree that they allegedly ensure in some measure a fuller, happier life, but they are certainly not automatic in the life of a true believer.
In an article written in Grace In Focus (GES publication) Shawn Lazar, director of publications for GES, makes clear his conviction that James is writing about salvation from life threatening consequences of sin and not eternal salvation. Good works serve to preserve (save) one from an untimely death most closely associated with sinning against God, and therefore those with mature faith (good works) live longer and happier. Good works make faith mature:
“Good works do not come automatically. We have to be diligent. We have to make an effort. We have to deliberately put our faith into practice. The more good we do, the more mature our faith will be.” (Lazar article)
The logical implication is that Christians can fall away from the faith completely and still retain eternal salvation, and this is precisely what GES teaches: “Sometimes believers backslide, backstab, gossip, bring shame to Christ, and even fall away from the faith altogether.” (Lazar article)
In conclusion Shawn Lazar offers this advice:
“There is no contradiction between James and Paul. If you want to know about how to be eternally saved, then read Paul’s explanation of how we are justified before God, by faith in Jesus, apart from our works. But if you want to be temporally saved then read James’s explanation of how to grow in your faith, avoid the deadly consequences of sin, and demonstrate your faith to the world.” (Lazar article)
Because GES’s claims that James is speaking of one faith, but two kinds of salvation, let us now examine James’ use of “salvation” in his epistle.
Salvation in James
Whereas both Reformed and Roman Catholic scholarship are convinced that James uses the term sozo (saved) to convey the idea of salvation, GES understands sozo in James 2:14 to mean salvation, that is, salvation from the deadly consequences of sin and a wretched life in the here and now! In the same issue of Grace In Focus another guest article attempts to define sozo in James 2:14 as temporal deliverance from judgment due to sin rather than eternal condemnation. The author is convinced that the usage of sozo in each and every other instance in the letter of James means “saved from temporal judgment or difficulties,” and thus insists that 2:14 must be understood in the same manner. “Since four out of the five uses of save in James do not refer to salvation from hell, but rather refer to deliverance from death or some other temporal judgment, it seems likely that James’s use of the same word in 2:14 would follow suit.” (Pesce article)
There are two glaring issues that stand out in such a conclusion. The first, and most obvious, is the assumption that the word sozo as employed by James in 1:21; 4:12; 5:15, 20 must mean temporal rescue. The second conspicuous problem is not allowing each context to determine the proper use of the term. To make the point, let us take a closer look at James 1:21 in context as the context must determine the meaning. It appears that the GES wishes to smother James 1:21 with precarious assumptions not found in the text. They are put there by those convinced that James does not even take up eternal life in his warnings to his audience. For instance it is asserted that because James says in 1:18 “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures,” that he views his entire audience as eternally saved. A much more reasonable assumption is that James is writing to confessing Christians and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Evidence of this is in the fact that James mentions “if any man” in 2:14, and “if one of you” in 2:16 with reference to a “worthless religion 1:26”, and “hearers only” who delude themselves in 1:22. His concern is that some of his flock may have a religion of an unbridled tongue (1:26) that is “set of fire of hell” (3:6), possessing only the faith of devils (2:19), deluded by a wisdom that is “devilish” in its origins (3:15). These warnings speak not of two levels of sanctification in this life, but of two different destinations in the next. This alone settles any question as to whether James 1:21 is in reference to eternal life:
“Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.”
James combines his apprehension of their eternal life with the assurances of temporal blessings that accompany a true faith that really works! In other words James is concerned that his readers be spared eternal condemnation and that they experience the joy and value of having a saving faith that really works. It is not either or; it is both and!
A much more cohesive argument can be made for James insisting that there is eternal danger for those who are hearers of the Word and not doers of the Word. Free from the law via the teachings of the early apostles, as well as James, many in the reading community may object (as GES does) to such an emphasis on good works as it would seem to diminish the value of faith alone and mitigate the gospel of the grace of God. Hence James moves forward in a coordinated fashion to explain that good works is not his emphasis but rather a faith that is shown to be genuine by the fruit of obedience to the law! James wants his readers to receive the Word that has been implanted (assuming that he is writing to confessing believers) so as to show forth the reality of an authentic faith. The entire epistle of James centers upon the idea that faith is given every opportunity to show in real life that it is legitimate. For James and all other New Testament writers there is the danger of embracing a false faith. Receiving the word implanted involves obedience to Jesus Christ and the newly formed conscience informed by the Word of God. In the absence of this a man’s religion is worthless. Faith without works is dead, being by itself. This kind of faith (no matter what it is called) cannot possibly save anyone.
It is therefore highly unjustified and groundless to relegate sozo in 1:21 as referring only to temporal deliverance from the corruptions of sin or dangers of this life. James is not building that case. James moves forward from 1:21 rapidly in his insistence that faith is not some sincere notion that obligates God to grant the assurance of eternal life. Faith is rather an implanted principle of belief in His Word, yielding conformity to the directives of the Law. We take note of James’ burden as we survey his warnings from 1:21 to 2:14.
Good Works are not “Optional” in James
James stipulates that the reading community, who has confessed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, must take stock of their lives. He regards his advice to have eternal and not merely temporal ramifications.
But prove yourselves doers of the word!
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless!
But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors!
For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all!
Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law!
So speak and so act, as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment!
If GES is correct then all of these warning affect only temporal life, and a person confessing Christianity can be assured of heaven even though he does not bridle his tongue, shows partiality, deceives his own heart, commits adultery, shows no mercy, and lives in such a state without repentance or change of heart. According to GES his religion is worthless only in that it prevents him from living a life safe from the effects of his own sinning! Evidently a Christian can delude himself and deceive his own heart with no less effect than a sub-par life. Is this the warning that James wishes to convey?
But Good Works are “Optional” for GES
All of this leads to the main place of works according to the GES. GES maintains that works are a God given option to protect a person from the calamity caused by his own sinning. Faith saves eternally and works save temporally. In his closing remarks Keith Pesce, author of an article found in the March/April 2014 edition of Grace In Focus, makes just this case in his defense of a faith without works that saves eternally but not temporally:
“If James has eternal condemnation in mind, then it is impossible to escape the conclusion that, contrary to what the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul taught, works are indeed a co-condition of salvation along with faith in Christ.” (Pesce article)
We believe this is an un-necessary conclusion and misrepresents what Jesus Christ, Paul, and James really taught. Defining genuine faith as bearing good works and fruit does not make good works and fruit a co-condition for salvation. For something to be a co-condition it would have to appear in order before salvation and conceived of as bringing about salvation. The fruit of faith comes after salvation and it gives a measure of legitimacy to faith. Evidently GES has not come to grips with the concept, replete in the New Testament, that there is the distinct possibility of a false faith that embraces Jesus but for all the wrong motives and yields no fruit or good works for the glory of God.
If GES is correct then Peter’s warning to Simon the Magician is nothing more than a caution that a good life is slipping away from Simon unless he repent of his sinning. If GES is correct then all soils in the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8 are eternally secure, and the ones who bear no fruit, have the Word snatched away by Satan, and are choked down by the world, suffer nothing more than a sorry life or early death! The mantra repeated over and over again by GES is that sincere faith obligates God to give eternal life and any lack of evidence that faith is real does nothing to diminish the efficacy or authenticity of faith.
With this hermeneutic as their template the GES considers James 4:12.
James 4:11-12 “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor” (NASB)
In keeping with injecting their hermeneutic into the use of sozo by James, Pesce understands the word “save” in this context as God deciding whether to save people from the consequences of their sins temporally. But here, God is the judge and the alternative is to save or to destroy. GES is forced to admit if the text is left alone that God either saves Christians from the consequences of their sinning or He destroys Christians as the consequence of their sinning. Evidently this is too much for Pesce so he conveniently changes the word “destroy” to “let them suffer”.
“God is our judge, and we should leave judgment to Him. It is up to Him to decide whether to save people from the deadly consequences of their sins, or to let them suffer.” (Pesce article)
Hence God is misrepresented here by a simple stroke of the pen. If the GES were honest they would have to say that God either saves Christians from the temporal consequences of sins or He destroys them. Sensing that the New Testament does not teach that God destroys Christians for their sins, Pesce simply changes the word destroy into “let them suffer”.2 The text is changed to fit the theology!
Conclusion: Works are the proof, not the ground, of salvation
In our conclusion one more point must be made. GES argues in the following vein:
“If ‘true saving faith’ includes the elements of commitment, surrender, and turning from sins, then it is impossible to know if I have committed, surrendered, or turned from sins enough to prove I am a true believer.”
But that statement is false. We would maintain that regeneration produces faith as well as the elements mentioned above and more. We would contend that faith given as a gift by God in regeneration proceeds from a new heart, which also produces a new disposition, welcomes the indwelling of Holy Spirit, and conforms to the mind of Christ. True saving faith is attended by all the elements we think it is without making it impossible to prove that one is a true believer. The test of true faith is one element of the assurance of salvation. There is no magic number of good works that ensures any one will be spared eternal damnation. The believer’s security is based solely on the promises of God in Christ Jesus. James along with the rest of Scripture calls confessing Christians to examine themselves to see if their faith is real.
2 Cor 13:5-7 “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.” (NASB)
If the test to which the apostle refers is simply, “Did I believe at some point in time?” then this hardly involves an examination. We think the apostle Paul has in mind to test oneself to see if one’s faith is real. How would we know if there is no measure for true faith? In light of the gyrations, spinning, and twisting that GES does to force its theology into James perhaps they in all seriousness should ask again James’ question. Can that kind of faith save them?
Of course the imminent danger in all of this is to grant salvation to anyone who at any time walked an aisle, prayed a prayer, came forward at a rally, or succumbed to peer pressure and can honestly say, “I believed”. GES eliminates all false professions on the basis of man’s sincerity and a gravely flawed understanding of the miracle of regeneration. The apostle states in firm terms that with genuine faith all things become new in the life of a believer (2 Corinthians 5:17). How totally out of sorts and perilous is a religion that insists upon eternal life while dismissing the guaranteed fruit of the Spirit and bounty of good works in which God has destined His elect to walk:
Ephesians 2:10 “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (NASB)
How does this compare with the essential intonation of the GES that Christians may be considered as having dead faith while yet alive to God in Christ? Rmz
1We have interacted with Roman Catholicism and their assumptions on salvation from James 2:14 all the way through James 2:26 in our work Romanism: The Relentless Roman Catholic Assault on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We refer the reader to this work for an in depth interaction with Romanist claims of faith plus works justification.
2 The word used here by James (apollumi) is reserved for destruction of people and things primarily as judgment by God upon the wicked. There are many who can save and destroy. Mankind has a history of people being saved from dire circumstance and also of being destroyed. James transcends this kind of saving and destroying by coupling saving and destroying to the One lawgiver who has supreme authority to save (eternally) and destroy (eternally). Only One has this kind of authority and He does not brandish this kind of judgment upon Christians as they are secure in Christ.
GES has articulated this position very clearly and they are representative of perhaps multitudes of Evangelicals in Baptist, Bible, Independent, and Fellowship churches around the world. Like the King James and Douay-Rheims translations, GES refuses to translate the Greek article in James 2:14 because in their estimation, too many theologians reason that James is arguing against a “spurious kind of faith” that cannot save eternally. If it is true that James has in mind two kinds of faith, and one saves, and the other does not then this eliminates the entire position of the GES. James would be saying that faith without works cannot save eternally! However GES does not believe that works are necessary for those they deem to be eternally saved. GES does not believe faith can be calculated as true or false by measuring whether good works flow from faith. GES believes that the all-inclusive point of James is to teach that faith by itself does indeed save eternally but this same faith (that saves eternally) may not have good works added to it by a Christian. GES teaches that faith without works added cannot deliver (save) anyone from the temporal consequences of their sins. Salvation is secured by faith alone but works are required to save people from the temporal consequences of their sins. Hence GES is committed to the translation, “Can faith save him?” with the understanding that James is using “save” to reference temporal deliverance from the aftereffects of sin.
GES does not like the idea that different kinds of faith are at play here for eternal salvation. GES translates the word “save” in a way that advocates eternal life is secure by the same faith that is essentially worthless to deliver from sin’s consequences if a Christian does not add good works to it. It is the quality of a Christian’s life that GES is certain that James is addressing. According to GES all anyone needs for eternal life is faith. And this faith for eternal life is not subject to any objective criteria. “Just simply believe in Jesus as the One who forgives sins and that simple faith obligates God to save you eternally no matter what” is the closest I have come to understanding the faith that saves in the GES system of theology. But they are quick to add if this faith has no works added it cannot “save” (sozo) from a terrible life here on earth. Faith without works is dead only in the sense that it cannot bring about a satisfying life in this world. Hence GES affirms that James is asking, “Can faith that secures eternal salvation save (sozo) anyone from troubles and misery that come from a lack of good works?” According to GES the answer is “no”. Faith may well save eternally but without good works added by the Christian faith is impotent to deliver one from a life of ruin, and regret among other things. We shall see if this is true.
Whereas Rome’s formula is faith plus works justifies the ungodly, the GES formula would be faith alone saves eternally but faith plus works averts a second-rate life of pain, suffering, rebuke, chastisement or worse still an early death! The two views are similar in their approach to understanding good works but incompatible as to the purpose and significance of good works. Good works are mandatory in Rome in the sense that they must be added to faith as a condition of salvation. But they do not automatically accompany faith. They must be thought about and done with a conscious decision to participate in one’s own salvation… Good works are mandatory as well in the GES formula but only in the sense that they safeguard a good life. Both views deny the spontaneous and inevitable flow of good works as the real after effect of genuine faith. In neither system are good works an undeniable fruit of a true faith that saves. The GES says the lack of good works is paid for in misery here and now. Rome says it is paid for in an eternal Hell! Both schemes leave the decision to exercise good works to the individual albeit with drastically different consequences if good works are disregarded.
It is further argued that James surely has in mind eternal salvation when he employs the word “save” in this context in total contrast to GES. However James sees the problem of having no works (in contrast to Rome and GES) as that of a deficient, man centered, selfish, and hopeless faith that does not bear a resemblance to the faith which God gives that safeguards salvation and guarantees good works in the life of a believer.
In total contrast to GES the Reformed view insists there is a faith that simply cannot save anyone. The proof of it is in the pudding. A life marked by no fruit does not simply indicate a sorry life. It points toward a complete lack of the grace of regeneration and salvation. There is a kind of faith that simply does not save. This “damnable faith” is produced by man and has no standing with God. In contrast to both Rome and GES James envisions a worthless faith of dubious origin in contrast to the faith given by God that surely does save him and bears fruit. This formula is not ‘faith plus works saves’. Rather it is a “faith that produces works that saves”. The question then is what kind of faith does one possess? True faith bears fruit but the fruit has no merit to justify. Good works done in faith are commendable until they are conceived of as a part of the ground of justification. In complete contrast to the thoughts of Rome and GES the Reformers insisted that faith alone saves but not a faith that is alone! True faith brings forth fruit of the Spirit automatically in the life of a believer.