Train Up A Child?

The NIV renders Proverbs 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This verse has very often been a source of comfort for parents worldwide. Yet for the same reason it has been a comfort, ironically enough, it has also been a terrible burden for others. When children are young, these God-fearing people are promised that if they only make sure their children are raised in a biblical environment, then  whatever bumps may lie ahead, their children will remain faithful to the Lord. Unfortunately, as a great many godly parents can attest, things don’t always seem to work out that way. A large number of our youth are losing their faith in high school and college, and a great many never come back to the faith. These parents are forced to conclude that they didn’t, after all, “train [their children] in the way [they] should go” and that they were not the godly parents they hoped to be.

I would like to suggest, however, that we have completely misunderstood this verse. As wonderful as this promise may be to have, it simply isn’t found here (or, I would contend, anywhere in Scripture!). Even God, who is the perfect Father, found that the “children” He raised rebelled against Him (cf. Isa. 1:2).

The basic problem is with our translation of the Hebrew text. The word “should” is simply not found in the verse. The phrase in question is al-peni darkko, which is literally translated “according to his way” (see the margin of the NASB for evidence of this). The work derek literally means “a way.” When you add –ko on the end, it means “his,” and it is translated that way in many other passages (Prov. 8:22; 11:5; 14:8; 16:9, 17, etc.).

This means that far from being a promise, this verse is actually a warning, as it should be translated, “Train up a child according to his own way, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” In other words, if you don’t discipline a child when they are young, then when they are old, there will be no way to turn them from their self-destructive path.

This understanding not only has full support of the grammar, but it also as the full support of the theology found in Proverbs with reference to children. Prov. 19:18 says that if we discipline our children there is hope for them and if we don’t then we are actually taking part in their death. Prov. 22:15 says that foolishness has to be disciplined out of a child, and 29:15 says that discipline makes a child wise, but an undisciplined child is a disgrace to his parents. And, of course, we have all heard Prov. 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,” from which we get the statement, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

The Bible doesn’t guarantee that if we raise our children to fear God then they will always be faithful.  Children are human beings with their own free will. It does promise (or warn), however, that if we don’t raise our children to fear God—if we don’t discipline them the way we should—then they will be hardened in their foolishness, and that, I’m afraid, is a “promise” we can count on. Parents of wayward children need not get down on themselves. Parents of young children should take this very seriously.

Can We Lose Our Salvation? An Exegesis of Hebrews 10:26-31

Hebrews 10:26-31 is one of the most commonly cited passages people use to try to prove that we can lose our salvation. Is that what it teaches? If not, then what is it saying?

If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (NIV)

The Nature of the Warning

The passage opens with a condition: “if we deliberately keep on sinning . . .” First, we should note that the continuous aspect of sinning here, while grammatically possible, is probably an improper translation. The KJV better renders these words “if we sin wilfully.” The rendering of the NIV, NASB, and others seems to come from a theological concern. Everyone sins, and whatever the penalty described in this passage is, it is certainly harsh. Thus, since the verb used in the Greek can carry a continuous aspect, then these translations have chosen to see it in that light, thus softening the warning. The passage is not, in this view, warning against sin, but rather it is warning against continuous sin.

The passage itself does not support this view. In the first place, the text speaks of “deliberate” or “willful” sin. We may well ask the difference in a single deliberate sin and multiple deliberate sins. When we choose to sin, in full knowledge of the fact that what we are doing is wrong, there is little difference. Further, in the immediate context, the author of Hebrews warned against “wavering” (10:23) and later against casting away our confidence. These ideas are singular and should be treated as such in our translation of our verse.

The second half of the condition is directed at those who “have received the knowledge of the truth.” Three facts prove that true Christians are in view. First, author includes himself in this warning with the word “we,” and his salvation cannot be questioned. Second, he speaks of receiving rather than simply hearing. Third, what is received is knowledge of the truth, not simply the truth. Nothing can properly be said to be knowledge—especially not received knowledge—if it is not accepted.

Thus, the conditional aspect of the warning may be summed up this way: “If a Christian deliberately sins . . .”

The result of the condition is that “no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” The lack of sacrifice is consistent with the theme of the entire chapter. Heb. 10:1-14 deals with the inability of the old Levitical system to finally deal with sins. Heb. 10:15-25 explains that because Jesus’ sacrifice was sufficient, we may have the boldness to walk intimately with God. The entire section, then, is dealing with the importance of the removal of sin if anyone, Jew or Gentile, is to have proper fellowship with God. The Christians’ deliberate sin is particularly heinous, then, because there is no further sacrifice to be made.

Thus, he continues, if there is no sacrifice, there can only be judgment, which is described by as a “raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” There is no warrant for taking this as a reference to Hell as is commonly assumed. Fire is often used to picture tribulation or God’s judgment (cf. Deut. 32:33; Isa. 48:10). We will look more at the nature of the judgment below. In any case, we may summarize the warning this way: “If a Christian deliberately sins, since there is no further sacrifice, there is only judgment.”

The Nature of the Sin

But since all Christians sin, it seems hard to accept the author of Hebrews just had general sin in mind. Otherwise, every Christian would spend every minute of every day under harsh judgment (or, alternately, all would be in Hell!). Likely, general sin is not in view. Apostasy is. That is, the author is warning the reader against losing his faith. This is evident throughout the entire book of Hebrews. The main point of the book is to prove the supremacy of Jesus over Judaism and encourage Jewish Christians to maintain their faith. This is even stated directly twice in our context (Heb. 10:23, 35-36).

Another confirming clue for this idea is found in the word “deliberately.” This same idea can be found in Num. 15:17-36. There, God distinguishes between sins committed in ignorance and those considered deliberately (lit. “with a high hand”). Those guilty of the former were forgiven. Those guilty of the latter were executed. Given that Hebrews goes on to say “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses” seems to confirm the connection. The deliberate sin the book is consistently warning against is the rejection of one’s faith in Christ.

The Nature of the Judgment

The text does not explicitly state what the judgment will be. Whatever it is, it is worse than mere death. This, again, has caused many to suggest that Hell is in view, but it must be admitted that such a view is at best simply an interpretation. Experience, however, tells us that there are many things worse than death! Being given over to Satan for the destruction of our flesh (1 Cor. 5:5), being flogged by God (Heb. 12:6), being denied by Jesus before the Father (Matt. 10:33), and losing our eternal rewards (Matt. 25:28) all may be far worse!

Again, this all confirms that believers are in view, for the author quotes the OT: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”  Whatever the judgment is, it is seen as God avenging Himself by judging His people in their rejection of Him.

In conclusion, this passage is not teaching that salvation can be lost. It is teaching that if a believer loses his or her faith, that they will come under extreme judgment, both in this life and in the next. It truly is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! While this passage, then, gives us confidence that we may stand before God secure in our salvation, it also serves to remind us how seriously we are to take our faith.

An Exegesis of Romans 10:9-10

Many Christians have been taught to use “the Romans Road to Salvation” when trying to lead people to Christ. The idea is to use certain verses out of Romans to demonstrate that all men are sinners, that the wages of sin is death, and therefore that all men deserve Hell, but that God provided a means to salvation to those who place their faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. This “road” usually ends with the witness reading Romans 10:9-10, which says:

[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (NIV)

On the basis of the requirement of confession, the person is asked to “pray a prayer” to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Certainly, people must understand “the bad news” if they are to accept the Good News of Jesus Christ. We therefore are in full agreement with the first half of the “Romans Road.” But is it possible that these two verses have been misunderstood and improperly applied in evangelistic encounters?

The Context

As always, the first thing to look at when examining any verse is its context. The Book of Romans as a whole was written to explain the Gospel of Jesus Christ and its power to save to the Roman Christians (Rom. 1:16). Chapters 1-2 demonstrate the sinfulness of all men. Chapters 3-4 are Paul’s great discourse on justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Chapters 5-8 deal with sanctification, and chapters 9-11 deal with the nation of Israel. On its face, then, we should be very cautious about using any passage directly out of chapters 5-11 to explain how a person is justified. This is especially true of chapters 9-11, since Israel in particular is in view.

The Terminology

Beyond the context, another major red flag in taking these verses as a basic presentation of the Gospel is the words Paul uses. The four verbs are “confess,” “believe,” “justify,” and “save.” Contrary to what many teach, to confess does not mean to profess or to pray. It simply means “to say the same thing as,” which is to say, to see something the way God does. This verse, then, cannot be used to teach that one must “pray the prayer of salvation.”

We will discuss belief and justification below, but it may surprise many to find that salvation, especially in Romans, does not refer to “going to heaven.” We will discuss this in detail, but for now, it is sufficient to note that it refers to deliverance from a temporal danger. If this is true, then this passage is inappropriate to use to call someone to “saving faith,” because “eternal salvation” is not what Paul is talking about at all!

The Text

How, then, should we take these verses if not as a basic presentation of the Gospel? Notice the opening words:

[I]if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Paul sets out two conditions for salvation. The first is confession and the second is belief. The fact that salvation here has two conditions is enough to keep us from looking at this as the salvation of our immortal soul. There is only one condition for such salvation, which is faith in Christ (John 3:16; Rom 4:1-5, etc.). In recognition of this, some see confession as roughly synonymous with belief, that the confession is simply the outward manifestation of belief. Such view must be rejected, however, for its mere redundancy. If this were true, then either the confession is totally unnecessary for salvation (which makes Paul’s wording awkward at best) or faith manifested in a certain act is required for salvation. Both of these possibilities are unacceptable. After all, how is a deaf or mute person supposed to confess anything with their mouths; and yet “to confess” does not mean “to believe.” It is sloppy exegesis to assert as much.

Whatever this salvation is, then, it cannot refer to salvation from Hell. It is, though, tied closely to confession. This same idea appears again just a few verses later in Rom. 10:13, where Paul quotes Joel 2:32, saying, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Notice, again, that salvation is in view, and the condition has something to do with confessing, which here Paul equates with calling on the name of the Lord.

The context of Joel is instructive. Joel’s prophecy was a warning to Israel about the coming invasion of Assyria. Were they only to call upon Yahweh, they could have been saved, or delivered, from destruction. As it happened, they did not and were destroyed. The salvation Paul has in view here seems to be salvation from God’s wrath (cf. Rom. 2:1-6). It is a consistent theme through Scripture that God punishes those who reject Him and live instead in sin. Deliverance from that punishment has always come by a return to the One True God. The book of Judges, in fact, in its entirety is a demonstration of that principle!

All this is confirmed by our passage. Romans 10:10 says,

For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.

In this verse, the same verbs are used as in verse nine: “confess,” “believe” and “save.” Only here, their relationship is clarified. Paul says that justification follows belief. It is extremely important to note that the word for justification here is the same word Paul uses exclusively in chapters three and four where he discusses how we are saved from Hell. In that unit, just as here, justification is tied to faith as its sole condition. Once the individual has been justified, they may progress on to salvation by confessing Jesus, the name of the Lord. The reasoning is easy enough. How can one confess the Lord Jesus, that is, to accept God’s testimony concerning Him, if they have not believed in Him? This is especially important given that this section is dealing with Israel as a nation. They were under the immediate threat of destruction by the Roman Empire for their rejection of Jesus Christ (see Matt 24:1-2). Their deliverance from that threat was precisely the same for their deliverance from the Assyrian threat centuries before: to confess their Savior, which is exactly what Paul goes on to say in Rom. 10:13. Yet how could they confess that Jesus is their Savior and Lord, their promised Messiah, if they did not believe that God has raised Him from the dead?

The rest of the chapter and all of chapter eleven bear this view out. Israel must first be brought to believe that Jesus is the Christ, which required those who were already believers to go to them with the Gospel. Paul promises that on the last day, all of Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:26), not only from Hell, but from the persecution they have been suffering since they first went into exile more than five hundred years before Christ!


Rom. 10:9-10, then, does not give the Gospel in a nutshell. For those looking for a single verse to explain what person must do to receive eternal life and be saved from Hell, there is none better than John 3:16. To try to make this verse evangelistic can actually cause people to misunderstand the Gospel, since its focus is confession rather than faith. This is not to say that those people who did come to understand the Gospel through this verse are not saved. Many people will spend eternity with Christ because of these words, yet that does not mean we should continue to use it in an inappropriate manner.

Further, when we look at this passage as an evangelistic call to salvation, we run the risk of missing the greater promise to believers. Here, God offers His children deliverance from bondage in this world. While the promise is directed specifically to the Jew, it holds equally true for all believers. It is no secret that God disciplines His children. God offers the amazing promise of deliverance from sin and its harmful effects if we simply call upon Jesus Christ! By focusing our attention only on our immortal souls, we miss the truth that this passage promises deliverance from wrath, discipline, and sin in the here and now.

An Exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-6

Hebrews 6:4-6 is one of the most commonly cited passages to prove you can lose your salvation. The NIV renders it as follows:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

Indeed, those who adopt the view that you can lose your salvation seem to be taking the passage in a very straightforward manner. It seems to say that Christians can fall away and lose their salvation.

Those who believe you cannot lose your salvation, however, have offered for other possible meanings. Some argue the passage actually teaches that, eventually, a non-Christian can come to a place in which they have rejected the Gospel for the last time, and salvation is no longer possible. Others argue that the author is only presenting a hypothetical possibility of what it would mean to lose one’s salvation. For a Christian to fall away, he would have to crucify Jesus again, which is impossible.

Both alternatives are possible, but we think they strain the text. We should never adopt a meaning to explain away a problem. The three key issues in this verse are: 

  1. Who is being addressed?
  2. What are they in danger of?
  3. What is the consequence they are being warned about?

Those who think it is possible to lose your salvation would answer, “Christians, apostasy, and loss of salvation,” respectively; those in favor of the first alternative above would answer, “None Christians, apostasy, and the loss of the possibility of salvation”; advocates of the hypothetical view would answer the same as the first group, with the caveat that the falling away isn’t really possible. Let us then, look at how the text answers these three questions. 

Who is being addressed?

First, it seems evident that the passage does refer to Christians. The entire book of Hebrews is written to Jewish Christians, and in a similar warning passage (Heb. 10:26-31), the author includes himself (“we”, see. 10:25) in the warning. In any case, while we agree that any of the individual descriptions in 6:4-5 could refer to non-Christians, that they are all found together makes it much more likely that Christians are in view.

What are they in danger of?

The danger is “falling away,” and so we can sum up the passage so far as, “If Christians fall away . . .” The word for this falling away implies a falling away from a previously position and is the word from which we get the word “apostasy.” This implies that Christians can reject their faith. We should stop here to note that this actually fits with the context of the entire book. Hebrews was written because Jewish Christians had begun to walk away from their faith because of the persecution they were suffering. That is why the author spends so much time showing the supremacy of Jesus over the Old Testament prophets, the Temple, and the sacrificial system. You could sum up the entire message of Hebrews this way: “Don’t go back to Judaism; Jesus is better!”

What is the consequence being warned about?

What is the consequence for this apostasy? Verse six says such a one cannot be “renewed to repentance.” Notice it does not mention salvation. That is often read into “repentance,” which itself does not mean “salvation.” It means “a change of mind.” Therefore, we can summarize the passage this way:

“If a Christian rejects his faith, it is impossible to get him to change his mind [and become a Christian] again.” 

If a person loses their faith, does that mean they have lost their salvation? Most believe this is so. Notice, however, that this passage does not say that. No one can appeal to this passage to teach that a person can lose their salvation, because it simply does say that. It says that if a person does lose their faith then they cannot be brought back.

This is confirmed in the illustration the author provides to further his point in 6:7-8:

“Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.”

He is thinking of a crop of land that is well watered but produces weeds instead of fruit. What was a farmer to do with such land? He had to burn the land. He literally set it on fire to destroy the weeds.

Many interpreters mistake this “burning” as the author’s way of speaking of Hell, but the nature of the illustration does not allow such a reading. The farmer did not burn the land to destroy it. He burned it so that he could start over. The burning, in this case, refers to divine discipline. This passage actually teaches the same thing as 1 Corinthians 5:5, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (NASB)

So far from teaching you can lose your salvation, this passage actually teaches eternal security. If a Christian falls away then there is nothing we can do to bring them back. Instead, God disciplines such a person—to the extent of death if necessary.

We can even see that this is exceedingly practical. Suppose a Christian loses his faith and rejects the Bible as God’s Word. What could you possible say to bring them back? You can point to all the Scripture want, and what will the person say? They will simply shrug their shoulders. For the same reason Christians are not impressed by the claims of the Koran, they have become unimpressed with the claims of the Bible. We have no common ground any longer, since they have rejected the one ground we once had. The only thing left is for God Himself to deal with them. That is certainly not a place any of us would like to be!

In conclusion, there is no reason to take this passage as referring to the loss of salvation. We certainly are not justified in appealing to it as a basis for such a belief. At best, the passage says that Christians can fall away from the faith. If that means that such people have lost their salvation, such a doctrine will have to be proved from elsewhere in Scripture, as that idea is found nowhere in these verses. Instead, the text goes on to teach that such a person will be disciplined by God so that He may start His work over in their lives. If we cannot bring them to repentance, then, perhaps God’s discipline can.

An Exegesis of James 2:14-26

For those Christians who hold to salvation by faith alone, James 2:14-26 presents a difficulty. Does it contradict the Paul, or does it simply teach that genuine faith necessarily produces good works? We would like to suggest that both of views are mistaken and there is a third, simpler way to understand the passage.  Let’s look at the entire passage in question:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed god, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26, NASB)

Can faith without works save? According to this passage, the clear answer is no. In fact, taken plainly, this passage actually teaches that works are necessary for salvation. The obvious meaning is that faith plus works saves. The argument that faith alone does save, but that genuine faith necessarily produces good works, cannot be supported by these verses, for the passage clearly says, “you see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

This text teaches salvation by works. In fact, this is not the first time in the book that James has stated as much. James 1:21-22 says, “Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Notice in this verse that the word implanted saves one’s soul only if they prove themselves doers of it, for those who do not do (work) are deluded. They have not received the word and are not saved.

Before we declare that there is an obvious contradiction with Paul’s salvation by grace through faith without works, let us consider this very simple solution:

James is not referring to eternal salvation in these verses.

James 1:21-22, while seeming to contribute to the problem, actually offers us the solution and puts 2:14-26 in its proper context. Notice that it says the word implanted is “able to save your souls.” This word “soul” is psuche. It can mean either “soul” or “life.” In this passage, it should be rendered “life,” thus saying, “receive the word implanted, which is able to save your lives.” The word “save” here is the same word for “save” in 2:14. It is soze and means either “to save” or “to deliver.” Thus, the idea both 1:21 and 2:14 is “deliver your life [from death].” Neither of these passages refers to final, eternal salvation by grace through faith alone. What this passage is addressing is the ability of the Christian life to deliver a person from physical destruction!

Actually, this is the theme of the entire epistle of James. The book has been properly noted to be the wisdom literature of the New Testament. If one follows the advice in this book, their life will be much easier. If they ignore it, they will find themselves being destroyed.

With this idea, let’s turn our attention back to 2:14-26. James asks what good is it for a man to say he has faith, but doesn’t do anything with it. The answer is that it isn’t any good at all. Faith, by itself, doesn’t do anything. We then have the controversial phrase, “Can that faith save him?” It is important to note, however, that the word “that” (found in some translations) isn’t in the Greek. Those who prefer the King James Version will be happy to know that the rendering there is correct. The phrase should be translated, “Can faith save him?” The reason “that” is provided is that the Greek article ho immediately precedes and modifies “faith” (gk. pistis) and rarely can be translated a weak demonstrative pronoun. The article, however, has many uses, and one of the most common, which James seems to be using here, is to identify abstract nouns, such as, in this case, “faith.”

Having stated that faith cannot save a person, James then proceeds to give an example. A brother is in need, and a man in his faith says good things, but does nothing for him. What is the result? The brother will die in his need because the man did not help him. Faith alone did not save, which is exactly what James had already said in 1:21. Were the man to put his faith into action, his brother’s life could have been delivered (“saved”). Thus, James is right in that faith without works is dead. It can deliver no one from anything.

Commentators are unanimous in thinking the next few verses are James’ attempt to deal with an objection, much as Paul frequently does throughout his writings. This objector interrupts, saying, saying, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” This, of course, is not the way we normally look at this. We usually put the closing quotation and “by my works,” and we have James’ response begin at “You believe.” Still others limit the objector’s words to “You have faith and I have works.” There are two reasons for the lack of agreement on the limit of the objection. The first is that there were no quotation marks in Greek, so the reader must decide where a quotation begins and ends based only on context. The second is that each statement in the objection seems to agree with the argument James is making! Look at each statement:

You have faith and I have works.” James certainly wants this to be the case. In fact, James’ entire point is that he wants his readers to engage in more works.

Show me your faith apart from works.” This, of course, is impossible, which is exactly the point James already made in his own example above.

And I will show you my faith by my works.” Again, this is the very point James is trying to make. The only way to demonstrate your faith is through works.

You believe God is one. You do well; even the demons believe and shudder!” The phrase “God is One” is the Shema, which comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and was the basic expression of orthodoxy among Jews. Thus, this “objector” complains that James is orthodox, but that is worthless, because even demons are orthodox, which accomplishes nothing. Yet it is obvious that this statement, again, is only reinforcing James’ point, which is that faith, or orthodoxy, apart from works, means nothing.

In light of this, we should not view this section as the words of an objector at all, but rather as a witness James is calling in to make his point in a different way. The verse begins with, “But someone may say.” The word “but” here is the Greek word alla, which is the strong disjunction in the Greek language. It can usually be translated with “on the other hand” or “nevertheless” to demonstrate its force. However, occasionally, it can be used to heighten a point by stating it in a different way. One such example of this is found in John 16:2, which the NIV renders as follows:

“They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact [alla], a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.”

Clearly, alla in this verse does not mean “on the other hand.” Rather, the word is meant to heighten and intensify the point Jesus is making. James uses the same technique here. He had just argued that faith without works is dead, since it is by itself. You could render the next phrase, “In fact, someone might even say . . .” In this view, James is restating is point in another way to show his readers that their claims to orthodoxy are useless!

Having made his case, James returns to his point, asking, “But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” Again, the NASB’s rendering of the word “but” here is probably off, since it implies that James is arguing against his witness. The Greek word behind this “but” is the word de, which is a weak disjunctive, and can be rendered many ways, including “now,” “and,” “but,” “still,” “yet,” etc. This should be read, “Now are you willing to recognize . . .”

By now, James’ basic point is very clear. Orthodoxy (right belief) without orthopraxy (right practice) is useless. To bolster his point, James offers a few examples from the Old Testament. First, he notes that Abraham was justified by works and not by faith alone when he offered up Isaac.

We should note here that if anyone still wants to argue that James is not talking about a works based salvation, then this verse kills that idea. Now if we take this passage to be salvation from Hell, we have a major problem, because it says that Abraham was “justified.” This doesn’t merely mean delivered. This is that judicial term that Paul uses to refer to the crediting of righteousness. One again, the traditional Reformed view simply does not take the text seriously. Either this passage denies Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, or it is teaching something else.

How, then, was Abraham justified by works? James says,

“Because his faith was working with his works, and his works perfected his faith. Therefore, the Scripture was fulfilled that Abraham believed and was justified.”

Thus, we “see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” At this point, there are two possible ways to handle the passage. First, we can point out that the word “alone” should be better rendered “only,” meaning that James actually is arguing for one justification by faith (which is what Paul talked about) which resulted in righteousness and one justification by works, which resulted in vindication of that faith, most likely before men. This view works grammatically and fits with the context.

Another way to look at the passage is to deny that James has Paul’s use of the word “justify” in mind at all. In fact, if James wrote his epistle in the early forties, then the chances are that he had never even heard Paul’s sermons, so the thought of using the word in its Roman legal context likely never crossed his mind. He probably was using it in the more common sense of “vindication.” Notice that James says Genesis 15:6 was “fulfilled.” Further, notice that James points out that Abraham was then called “a friend of God.” It appears the justification he had in mind was not at all Abraham’s being declared righteous, but instead, his having the right to be declared a friend of God and the father of the faithful. In either view, there is no reason to think that James’ doctrine at all contradicts the Pauline notion of justification by faith alone.

James then continues to press his point. In verse 25 he gives the example of Rahab. It is absolutely the perfect illustration of his point. Rahab had helped the spies out of Jericho because she had believed in their words. However, she then perfected, or matured, or vindicated her faith by helping the spies. The result was her salvation, not from Hell, but from death! Merely believing the spies’ words would not have saved her. She would have died with the rest of the city. But because her faith was working with works, she was saved. And thus, James concludes the matter for the time being with the summary statement that faith without works is dead. Works animate faith. Faith is the body. Works are the spirit, so to speak.

In conclusion, there is no reason to suppose that this passage in James at all contradicts Paul’s idea of salvation by grace through faith. It cannot be used, however, to prove the idea that real faith necessarily produces good works. James never questions whether or not his readers are really believers. On the contrary, he consistently refers to them as “brothers.” His point is that believers ought to make it a point to live out what they profess to believe if they want to experience the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10.