Credo Magazine (not associated with Credo House) published a review of Back to Faith. Credo Magazine describes itself as “… self-consciously Evangelical, Reformational, and Baptistic,” so it stands to reason that they would seek to uphold the tradition found in the cliche [We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone].
Honestly, I am grateful for the interaction on such an important issue as the role of faith and works in the life of the Christian.
In the posts ahead I am going to address different aspects of the review, but would like to first simply post it in its entirety:
Back to Faith: Reclaiming Gospel Clarity in an Age of Incongruence. By Fred R. Lybrand.
Reviewed by Lucas Bradburn
Thirty or so years after the “Lordship salvation” controversy overtook the evangelical world, the debate still continues. While the issue no longer is at the center of theological conversation, the two sides in the debate—typically identified as “Lordship salvation” and “free grace theology”—continue to produce books. Representing the free grace camp, Fred R. Lybrand has recently contributed to the discussion with his book entitled Back to Faith: Reclaiming Gospel Clarity in an Age of Incongruence. Right off the bat Lyband’s readers are prepared for the book’s thesis through his provocative dedication to both John MacArthur and Zane Hodges, veteran players in the lordship debate. It quickly becomes apparent which person had the greater influence upon Lybrand.
The purpose of Lybrand’s book is to call his readers back to an understanding of the Gospel that is free from any inconsistencies. He argues that while many evangelical Christians hold firmly to the doctrine of sola fide—believing that salvation is granted by grace alone through faith alone—they also unconsciously undermine the power of this doctrine by maintaining that good works should necessarily and inevitably flow from faith. This incongruity is concisely seen in the popular cliché, coined during the Reformation, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Although it is trite, Lybrand argues that this cliché is not true. He explains,
Does faith guarantee works? In the final analysis the best we may be able to say with certainty is, ‘God alone knows.’ However, there is a strong case to be made for the possibility that works are not guaranteed in the life of the believer, and so may be described as ‘normal but not necessary.’ If this distinction is not kept in mind and the cliché is given too much room, then…works inevitably invade the gospel of ‘faith alone in Christ alone’ and works will undermine assurance because of the confidence rested on them (from the preface, x).
Lybrand subjects the cliché—and the theology that stands behind it—to a rigorous critique. While he does point out the logical, theological, and practical problems inherent in the cliché, his most incisive critique comes at the level of the exegetical. He writes, “The cliché, ‘it is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone, is incessantly promoted on the basis of one supreme passage: James 2:14-26” (63). Lybrand attempts to show that despite the popular approaches to this passage—especially those perpetuated by the Reformed tradition—the central message of this passage does not support the theological assumptions codified by the cliché. Lybrand explains,
James is concerned with dead faith; however this faith is a true faith that can die, rather than a false faith that never existed…James is addressing brethren and beloved brethren (James 2:5) and establishing concern for dead faith. Therefore, James 2:13 speaks of ‘judgment being without mercy’ as directed, not to the lost or unsaved which occurs at the Great White Throne of Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15), but rather at the Bema Seat judgment where believers are evaluated according to their works (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:9-10)” (101).
Thus, contrary to popular opinion, James has in mind very temporal, rather than eternal matters in this text. Viewed in this light, the cliché has very little to stand upon. Indeed, Lybrand notes, “The cliché…lives or dies by James 2” (108).
What can be made of Lybrand’s thesis? Before offering a brief response to his arguments, I want to first note a few positive aspects of his book. First, although his work stands in line with typical free grace material, it does offer a fresh and extensive exegetical section on James 2:14-26. Out of all of the free grace treatments I have read, Lybrand’s is one of the most formidable. Second, Lybrand does a good job keeping his thesis in mind throughout the book. He does not chase rabbit trails, but sticks tightly to his arguments pertaining to the cliché. Third, Lybrand evinces a definite zeal for the Gospel. Although I do not agree with his conclusions, I am so grateful for his concern and sensitivity to proclaiming a clear, biblical Gospel message. His passionate love for the doctrine of sola fide is evident all throughout the book and I am confident that readers will be challenged by the appeals he offers.
Having stated the strengths of the book, let me now turn to the weaknesses. As I see it, Lybrand’s book suffers from a number of significant problems. Space prevents me from adequately responding to his accusations that the cliché—and the theology that undergirds it—is logically, theologically, and pragmatically invalid. In my estimation, Lybrand fails to convince in all three of these areas. But, then again, these are not his most powerful objections to the theology of the cliché. It is his exegetical critiques—centered mainly on James 2:14-26—that have the most teeth. These teeth, though, are crooked and in dire need of straightening.
In response to Lybrand’s exegetical objections, I offer the following brief defense of James 2:14-26. If what Lybrand said about the cliché is true—that it “lives or dies by James 2”—then by defending the Reformed interpretation of James 2 I will both vindicate the theology of the cliché and undermine Lybrand’s thesis with one fell swoop. To that end, I offer the ensuing four exegetical arguments
First, a bird’s eye view of James 2:14-26 suggests that it concerns something other than temporal salvation. The collective terms used by James throughout this passage such as “faith,” “save,” “works,” and “justify” are found in other NT texts that clearly deal with salvific issues. For instance, Romans 4:1-5:11 is a section of Scripture in which similar terms are found—“works” (4:1), “justified” (4:1; 5:1), “faith” (5:1), and “saved” (5:9-10). On top of this, both sections use Abraham as an example of faith and reference the same OT text for support (Gen. 15:6). These parallels suggest that James 2:14-23 has similar concerns in mind—issues relating to eternal salvation.
Second, both the immediate and wider contexts of James 2:14-26 lead to this conclusion as well. The passage is sandwiched between two statements concerning the judgment (2:13; 3:1). While it is possible that these may refer to the bema seat judgment in which Christians will be rewarded, it seems better to take these as a reference to the judgment unbelievers will undergo. James suggests that his readers can avoid this judgment if they have the right kind of faith: “can that faith save him?” (2:14). Save him from what? Since this follows on the heels of 2:13, it seems that true faith delivers a person from some kind of judgment. Because Paul declares that all believers must appear before the judgment (bema) seat (2 Cor. 5:10), there is no way that James can have this particular judgment in mind since he clearly indicates that those who have faith will be delivered from this tribunal.
Third, the word “save” (sozo) is used five times by James (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:15; 5:20). Although Lybrand claims “each reference deals with temporal deliverance and not salvation from hell to heaven” (79), a closer reading of the data yields a different statistic. At least four out of five times James uses the term “save” in reference to eternal salvation. In James 1:21 he says, “…in humility receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” When this verse is viewed next to 1:18, it becomes clear that the same word that brings about a believer’s regeneration also results in his salvation. In 4:12, the word “save” has even clearer connotations: “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.” It is hard to see this in reference to anything other than eternal salvation. James also seems to use the word “save” in a similar way in 5:20 when he writes, “My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” These references demonstrate, at the very least, that Lybrand’s claim is not as cut and dry as it appears to be. Of course, even if James used the word “save” in a temporal sense in every text outside of 2:14, he still could have used the term in its technical salvific sense in 2:14. But a brief survey of his work does seem to yield the conclusion that the majority of the uses of “save” in James refer to eternal salvation. Before moving on from this point, it is worth mentioning that Douglas Moo notes that out “of the 30 occurrences of ‘save’ outside of James in the NT epistles, 29 clearly refer to eschatological deliverance, the possible exception being Heb. 5:7” (The Letter of James, 124).
Fourth, there seem to be direct parallels between Jesus’ teaching and James’ writing. Of particular importance are the similarities between the parable of the sheep and the goats recorded in Matt. 25:31-46 and James 2:14-26. In both accounts, the illustration is used of a person who is lacking in sufficient clothing (Matt. 25:36, 43; Js. 2:15-16). In the parable, those who did not help the person in need wind up in “eternal punishment” (v. 46), and in James’ account those who fail to meet the practical needs of the destitute are said to have a “dead” faith (v. 17). It is hard not to see the connection between these two passages. What Jesus recognized in the “goats” is the same thing James recognized in those with “dead faith.” Surely the judgment the goats were in danger of is the same judgment those with dead faith were in danger of.
There is no doubt that Lybrand and his free grace counterparts will fail to be impressed by these arguments. It is telling, though, that the vast majority of Christian commentators—from the patristic era to the present—have been persuaded by the evidence presented above, as a perusal of the literature on James will amply demonstrate. Indeed, as far as I can tell, no one outside of the free grace camp understands James 2:14-26 the way Lybrand does.
One can certainly appreciate Lybrand’s concern for the gospel of grace and his zeal to defend the doctrine of sola fide. In the end, though, it seems to me that his understanding of this doctrine is diminished. Lybrand’s thesis notwithstanding, the historical and biblical doctrine of sola fide is accurately represented in the cliché, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, but the faith that justifies in never alone.”
Lucas Bradburn is an M.Div. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He is married to Allison and they have one daughter, Anna. Lucas blogs at Guarding the Truth.
I’d love your comments and thoughts below,