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,
12 thoughts on “Credo Magazine Review of BACK TO FAITH”
I love this quote: “There is no doubt that Lybrand and his free grace counterparts will fail to be impressed by these arguments.”
That’s true. Bradburn argues that the context in James 2 is salvation from Hell because “saved” and “faith” and “justify” have to do with salvation from Hell elsewhere in the NT. Umm… those words clearly appear elsewhere in the NT where salvation is NOT the context, too, so what does this establish? Is he denying that what someone might be saved FROM has to be determined by context? He’s exactly right… that argument didn’t impress me in the least.
The other argument about a parallel with Jesus teaching also seems problematic and possibly circular in that they seek to justify an interpretation of one passage on the basis of interpretations of other passages which themselves might not be well-justified. But regardless, I assume Jesus needed no assistance from James… I don’t see anything in your understanding of James 2, Fred, that would contradict Jesus’ teaching about anything. If there was such a thing, Bradburn would be right to offer Jesus’ words as a correction. But if your understanding of James 2 doesn’t contradict anything Jesus said, nor contradict anything else in scripture, then whether it parallels Jesus’ words is irrelevant. Seems to me that there are A LOT of passages in the NT that don’t parallel the parable of the sheep and the goats. Right? Must our understandings of those passages be wrong, too?
This seems like a fairly sorry attempt at “straightening out those crooked teeth.” (I think the teeth were pretty straight to begin with!!)
Well… This was rather depressing! =( But at least they reviewed it and gave some positive feedback before defending James 2 even though… Well, that’s not what it says…
That being said, whenever I show that James 2 is all about works enriching our faith (in anything), I’m given the same response- to anyone outside of FG circles- at least to my knowledge.
Thanks for the thoughts! Frankly, I give Lucas a lot of credit…the first version of the review really didn’t communicate that we love the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone apart from works (and that I believe many of our Reformed brothers believe it as well…but with the inevitable confusion as they invade the gospel with works from time to time.
I agree with all of your points…except I do see converts to the view regularly (hang in there Phillip)!
The most curious thing to me is that he seems to admit that there is an instance in James that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘saved-from-hell-to-heaven’ —and so, why MUST the other instances mean that?
Clearly, the issue of theology dominating the text is in play. I would be really interested in seeing how they answer the Romans Catholic arguments from James.
Agreed! Thanks for the encouragement! =)
Rock on, Fred!!
Just so it is recorded…here’s my response on the Credo site:
Just a note to thank you for your review of Back to Faith. Of course, I would have preferred to have convinced you…but time will tell.
Two quick things—
1. There is a growing number outside of ‘Free Grace’ circles who hold to this Sanctification-not-Salvation view of James 2:14ff (because it answers the questions that bothered Martin Luther so much, and tries to hang with the text instead of a theology, I think). In fact, Darryl L. DelHousaye, the President of Phoenix Seminary (I don’t think he is exactly FG…in fact, he was John MacArthur’s youth pastor at one point) is an example of one who holds the view.
2. My chapter on James 2:14ff is available as a downloadable free gift right now for anyone who would like to read it. It’s available at https://www.backtofaith.com
In particular, I appreciate your understanding of my own heart for Sola Fide and keeping the gospel clear.
Fred R. Lybrand, author, Back to Faith
P.S. I think of myself as a 1.5 Arminian and feel many kindred things with Credo House.
Are you saying that the faith described in James 2 is perfectly fine in and of itself, but that it simply needs to be coupled with works? If so, what differentiates your understanding of the faith described in James 2, from a Roman perspective of the same faith? As far as I understand the Roman position, they understand dead faith to be a faith that is genuine, but still needs to be coupled with love (fides formata caritata) i.e. works in this context.
I do not think faith as described in James 2 is perfectly fine…in fact, it is very sick (to the point of being ‘dead’). And yet, faith with works is very much alive / healthy.
The key distinction is that I do not believe that James is speaking of a faith that is related to salvation / justification / getting into heaven.
The Roman Catholic view sees faith in James as incomplete (so I’m not sure they would say that it is actually OK either). Yet, your point is very much in the direction I understand of their view…faith gets one ‘in’…but works brings it to completion (Heaven – in the Catholic view).
James is speaking of a living / sanctifying / growth faith. It is directed to believers. When a believer fails to act on his faith…well, frankly, his faith dies (atrophies…is useless).
If you look to the upper right on this page you can get my chapter on James 2 if you’ll give me an email address to send it to.
Again, thanks for your question.
I’ll wait for your work on James 2, and let you know what I think once I read it!
In short, when we add works to anything we believe to be true (our faith in something), that faith is energized- given life that it didn’t have before.
Looking at the last post, I am about 1.5 years behind but I just recently found your site and felt led to comment. I am going to do it in parts because of my schedule, so mark this as Part 1.
I think that it is important when taking about James 2:14-26, that we understand that there are three tenses of Salvation (or Sanctification). Past, Present and Future.
The past tense of salvation, also called positional sanctification, is what is in view in such passages as Acts 4:12; 16:31 (makes it real simple in response to the Roman jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (note that no works were added to this saving faith). Eph. 2:8-9 which also shows ‘for grace you were saved (saved here is a Greek perfect tense [one of the past tenses] which makes a extremely strong doctrinal affirmation). Paul makes it very clear in this passage that works are not a part of “saving” faith. Faith alone in Christ alone is the theme of the past tense of salvation, ‘we were saved by grace through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast’. Paul makes it perspicuously clear that works are not involved in the past tense “when we believed” for the very first time. Romans also addresses this in 3:21-4:1-5, 9:32-33. Also see Gal. 2:16, 3:1-14.
James 2:14-26 is not talking about the past “believed” moment of salvation but of the present “believing” or what is known as progressive or experiential sanctification. Notice in Eph. 2:10 that we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we could walk in them. The key word in this passage is walk which is a very common verb for Paul. This passage says were are created in Christ Jesus for good works. In another words you are in Christ (past tense or positional) now through faith and the natural journey of your new walking Christian life is to do the good works that God has prepared for you. Note that walk is a progressive concept. We are a new creation, a new born babe in Christ and we must learn to walk just as any baby crawls, starts to learn to stand, learns to walk (and falls a lot) and walks. Walk by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh, Gal. 5:16; Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, Eph. 5:15; Walk as children of the light, Eph. 5:8. So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, Php. 2:12. Work out in this passage in the Greek is a present tense noting continuous action, middle voice meaning our volition is involved but as Gal. 5:16 points out, we need the Holy Spirit working in us to accomplish anything in the Christian life and it is in the imperative mood which means this is a command. The key is our dependence upon the Holy Spirit who was promised and given to us and it is through Him we are able to perform good works apart from the energy of the flesh. James is talking about our walking or the present tense of salvation. James 1:22 tells us ‘But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves’. So his audience is already saved believers because the Word would be foolish to them as Paul notes in 1 Cor. 2:14. James is about the rubber meeting the road, you are saved, so get off your duff, take the information you have learned and put it to use. It is a call to believers to fulfill those good works that God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. James is about action and his audience is believers because he is giving them example after example of how to live the Christian life. Notice James 1:2, Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. James it talking about working off the spiritual flabbiness that we get in our lives when we live on the sidelines and don’t get in the game, when we don’t run in the race, when we don’t fulfill those good works that God prepared for us to walk in.
More to come…