Bible Insight: “Salvation” in The Book of James

How long since your soul has been saved? The automatic response to this question by the average believer would be to state the time in their life when they trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior. The rationale for this comes from an inadequate understanding of the use of the word for salvation in scripture. This myopic view of the subject causes great interpretational problems in many passages.

For example, the statement “He who endures to the end shall be saved” is explained by many in some form of “perseverance of the saints” type formula. The common idea is that 1) He who does not endure was never truly saved, or, 2) If he does not endure, he will lose his salvation. Both these interpretations are false! The fact is that the above statement is made only twice by the Lord Jesus Christ (Mat 10:22, Mat 24:13; Mar 13:13). The references in Mat 24 and Mar 13 are to the same incident. In each of these passages it is clear the historical context is the tribulation (Mat 24:9&15; Mar 13:14). The critical focus is the second coming of the Lord (Mat 10:23, Mat 24:30, Mat 24:37; Mar 24:27).

The “salvation” in view here is not eternal salvation at all. Rather, it is deliverance from fear and anxiety (cf. Mat 10:19, Mat 10:26, Mat 10:28, Mat 10:31; Mat 24:4, Mat 24:6; Mar 13:5, Mar 13:7, Mar 13:9) resulting in failure to proclaim the gospel boldly (Mat 10:32-39; Mat 24:44-47; Mar 13:32-37). Those faithful believers living in the tribulation will overcome fear, boldly proclaim the Name of Jesus, and will be physically delivered by the return of Christ (Mat 24:21-22).
 The same interpretational problems arise when people approach the book of James with the idea that any time the word “saved” occurs in Scripture it refers to eternal salvation. James uses the word “save” or “saved” five times. In none of these passages is he speaking of eternal salvation. It is evident The Book of James is addressed to those already believers as he addresses them 19 times as “brethren”, or, “beloved brethren”. In addition, he refers to their new birth in Jam 1:18 as a previously accomplished fact.
How then does James use the word “save”? I suggest that all five uses of the word speak of believers being delivered from spiritual failure in relation to the main theme of the book, which is enduring trials through faith (Jam 1:2-8). In relation to the main theme, James gives a promise (Jam 1:12) to “the man who endures temptation”. Surely the phrase “when he has been approved” implies that he “endures to the end”. Such a believer is “blessed” in this life, and in eternity “will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (cf.Rev 2:10). Thus the believer who in faith endures life’s trials is “saved” from loss of blessing in time and lost reward in eternity.
Let’s briefly look at the five occurrences of this word in James. First we find the word “save” in Jam 1:21. This verse is clearly addressed to “beloved brethren” (Jam 1:19). James urges them (and us) to purify their lives of uncleanness, and “receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” In the context, the danger is of being deceived (Jam 1:16 & Jam 1:22) resulting in failure when tests and trials come along, as illustrated in Jam 1:22-27.  The “hearer only” knows but does not live the word out in life. Because the “doer also” receives the word with a cleansed life and a meek submission to the Spirit of God (cf. Jam 1:4:5), he will be “saved” from failing the trials of life, and in the end will be rewarded (Jam 1:1:12).
Next, in Jam 2:14, James asks if faith without works can “save” anyone. Obviously the “hearer only” has faith, but without works. That the “salvation” here refers to deliverance from failing the tests of life is obvious from James’ illustration (Jam 2:15-16). One of the tests of life is that of love for other believers (Joh 13:34-35, Joh 15:9-14). The “hearer only” sends the needy brother or sister off with good wishes but no help. It is the common “I will pray for you, brother”, but no helpful action. Faith without works is a faith that is “unprofitable” (Jam 2:14, Jam 2:16b). In other words, it is useless! Such a faith is “dead” (Jam 2:17 & Jam 2:26). The examples of “doers of the word” include Abraham and Rahab. Both of them acted on their faith, and their claim to trust God was “justified” by their actions. Earlier, Jesus said, “Wisdom is justified by her children” (Mat 11:19; Luk 7:35). James is using the word in just the same way. Whether faith or wisdom, both are “justified” (declared to be right) by those who live accordingly. That this “justification” is in the eyes of men is clear from the phrase “you see” (Jam 2:22, Jam 2:24). In other words, it is by our visible and tangible actions that we prove our claim to possess the intangibles of faith or wisdom. The “hearer only”, though a believer, is not a living witness to the power of faith or the rightness of wisdom.
In Jam 4:12 we have the third use of the word “save”. Here, in rebuking the judgmental believer (a “hearer” but not a “doer” of the word), James reminds us that the Lord Jesus is the “One Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy”. While it is true that Jesus can save and destroy eternally, this is not James’ point. In Jam 4:1-5 James paints a dismal picture of schisms and in-fighting among believers. Tragically, this is more often the condition in our churches than it should be. Motivated by selfish lusts, these brethren seek to “destroy” one another with the tongue (cf. Jam 3:1-12 with Gal 5:15). In their judgmental attitude, they “speak evil of” one another (Jam 4:11). James compares this to “murder” (Jam 4:2 with Mat 5:21-22). Rather, they should leave all judgment to the Lord Jesus, who alone knows all the fact, and is able to “save” (i.e deliver both us and our fellow believers from sin) and to “destroy” (i.e. bring to judgment and remove) all that is unacceptable to Him (cf. 1Co 3:10-17 with Jam 1:11 – both passages use the same word for “destroy” employed here). One of the greatest tests of the Christian life is judging (Mat 7:1-5). We can overcome this temptation only by the word of God, engrafted in our souls by the Holy Spirit.  Only His gracious indwelling power can make us “doers of the word”.
The last two times James uses the word “save” are in regard to a believer suffering from illness, specifically as a result of sin in their life (Jam 5:15 & Jam 5:20). In the first instance, James promises that “the prayer of faith will save the sick”. This is the united prayer of the elders who have been called (Jam 5:14) by the sufferer. If sin is the cause, confession and repentance are essential (Jam 5:15-16a). It is in this case that James affirms “The effective prayer (in-wrought by the Spirit) of a righteous man (a believer in obedient fellowship with God) avails much.” In the same context, one may see a fellow believer who is living in outright rebellion against God. By effective prayer and intervention (cf. Gal.6:1-2) the “wanderer” may be brought to repentance (“turn back”) and thus be delivered from premature physical death. It is the addition of the word “soul” that confuses many. But in James time, “soul” was a synonym for “life”. See Mat 16:25-26 where the word “soul” (psuche) is translated both “life” and “soul”. Remember also that James began his argument in Jam 1:21 by saying only the engrafted word is able to “save your souls” (i.e. lives).
Such cases as Ananias and Sapphira (Act 5:1-11) and that of the immoral man in 1Co 5:1-5 shows that death is a very real possibility for the rebellious believer. This also adds weight to Paul’s statement in Rom 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die.” If someone snatches a child from in front of a speeding car, we say that “he saved the child”. No one would even think of “saved” here as referring to eternal life.  The point is that in the time of the writing of the New Testament, people used the word “save” exactly as we do today. The next time you see the word “save” in the Bible, look at the context of the passage. Ask yourself, “What is the author speaking of being ‘saved’ from?” This may “save” you from a lot of confusion in the future!

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