James and the Indicative of Salvation

August 03, 2016

by Brandon Crowe

James does not comment at length on the indicative of our salvation in the way that some other New Testament authors do. For example, we find no sustained reflection on the death of Christ as a propitiation for sin, as we do in 1 John. Nevertheless, the work of Christ for us and for our salvation is clearly part of the substructure of James’s thought, and he does allude to it in several ways.

One way we see this is in James’s emphasis on the priority of God’s choice in salvation. In James 1:18, we read that God brought us forth “of his own will…by the word of truth,” which refers to God’s initiative in causing us to be born again. A couple of verses later, James refers to the implanted Word that is able to save our souls (1:21). Although this Word is implanted in us, we should not conclude that it refers to some innate characteristic that naturally indwells us. Instead, the image is of something that we must receive, a Word that comes from outside ourselves (extra nos) as a gift of God. This is an indication that it is God who accomplishes salvation for us. The importance of God’s action in our salvation is further confirmed when we consider that the implanted Word refers to the message of the gospel, which points to the work of Christ for us in his death and resurrection. The implanted Word is thus a work that is extrinsic to ourselves. It is also possible that the implanted Word evokes the promise of the new covenant that will be written on the hearts of God’s people (Jer. 31). If so, then we have an additional reference to the work of Christ on our behalf, since he is the One who inaugurates the new covenant (Heb. 8:6).

James further states that it is God who chose the poor of the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom (2:5). While one of James’s emphases is the concern that the church should have for the poor in imitation of God’s concern for the poor, the statement that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith is also true by extension for all Christians. Anyone who is rich in faith has been chosen by God. All these texts are indications that James clearly sees salvation as a gift of God.

Second, James’s view of Christ underscores the emphasis on the indicative of our salvation. Although the references to Christ are few, they reveal that James holds to belief in Christ as our Savior as we see elsewhere in the New Testament. In James 1:1, James considers himself to be a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is a deeply significant statement denoting the divinity of Christ. The title LORD in the Old Testament goes hand in hand with the unique, saving work of God, which the New Testament tells us is accomplished by Christ the Lord. For example, we read in Isaiah God’s declaration “I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11; cf. 43:3), and in Isaiah 45:21 we read that there is no other god besides the Lord, nor is there any other Savior (cf. 49:26; 60:16). James agrees that God is one (James 2:19), yet he can also say without hesitation that Jesus Christ is Lord. This high Christology shows that James and the early church believed Jesus, as Lord and Savior, to be divine.

We see James’s high Christology again in James 2:1, where Jesus is referred to as “the Lord of glory.” This is a reference to the divine, heavenly glory characteristic of God’s own character, which is also characteristic of Jesus as exalted Lord (Phil. 3:21; Col. 3:4; 2 Thess. 2:14; 1 Tim. 3:16; Titus 2:13; He. 2:7–9). This further comports well with the view of James 5:7–9 that Jesus is going to return in glory as Judge. The return of Christ assumes his present status as the exalted Lord who has emerged victorious over sin and death in his resurrection and ascension into heaven (Acts 2:22–24, 32–36). Again it is significant to note that James nowhere argues that this is true of Jesus; he is writing to those who already believe in Jesus as the Savior and Lord of glory. Their trust in the Messiah for salvation is another way in which we see James underscore the priority of God’s work in our salvation.

A third way that we see the emphasis on the indicative of our salvation is in James’s focus on the importance of faith. Some might accuse James of being too works-oriented, and others might think James teaches salvation by works. But this is most assuredly not the case. In fact, James does mention faith quite often, with a view to ensuring that our faith is genuine. If we have genuine, saving faith, then we will manifest the fruit of Christian obedience.

But this emphasis on the fruit of works does not mean that James undermines the importance of the inward reality of faith. We see, for example, in James 1:3–4 the need for faith to be tested to ensure that it is genuine. If it is genuine, it will lead to the perseverance that yields growth in completeness of character, with the ultimate goal being the perfection of eternal life (1:4). The logic here is similar to what can be seen in 2 Peter 1. James also instructs us to pray in faith, trusting that God hears and will respond to us (1:6; 5:15). For James, the opposite of a man of faith is a double-minded man, one who is not committed to God and therefore unstable in all his ways (1:7–8). Faith is to be focused not inwardly on ourselves, but on Christ, the Lord of glory. Those who inherit the kingdom are rich in faith (2:5), but James also warns us that there may be those who only claim to have faith (2:14, 17–20, 26). The key for James is that our faith is real, and when our faith is real, it will be manifesting in works. Faith is vitally important for James.

This post was adapted from Brandon Crowe, The Message of the General Epistles in the History of Redemption (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 163–166. Used with permission of the publisher.

Brandon Crowe

Dr. Crowe (PhD, Edinburgh) is associate professor of New Testament at WTS.

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