James, Paul, and Doug Wilson

In response to some comments in a previous post, I thought I would demonstrate some of what I am saying about the Federal Vision / Auburn Avenue proponents by looking just at one post by Douglas Wilson on his blog:

What are we to do with James’ apparent contradiction of Paul? In James 2:14-26 the writer is apparently in direct conflict with Paul. According to Paul, justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law-see for example, Gal. 2:14-21; according to James, a man is justified by works and not only by faith (James 2:24). Upon closer examination, however, the contradiction is seen to be one of form and not of substance; and like other apparent contradictions in the Bible it serves only to reveal the Scripture combination of rich variety with perfect unity.

So what is meant by faith? According to James faith without works is dead; according to Paul faith is all sufficient for salvation. But what does James mean by faith? The answer is perfectly plain. The faith which James is condemning is a mere intellectual assent which has no effect upon conduct. The demons also, he says, have that sort of faith, and yet evidently they are not saved (James 2:19). What Paul means by faith is something entirely different; it is not a mere intellectual assent to certain propositions, but an attitude of the entire man by which the whole life is entrusted to Christ. In other words, the faith that James is condemning is not the faith that Paul is commending.

The solution of the whole problem is provided by Paul himself in a single phrase. In Gal. 5:6, he says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love.” “Faith working through love” is the key to an understanding both of Paul and James. The faith about which Paul has been speaking is not the idle faith which James condemns, but a faith that works. It works itself out through love. And what love is Paul explains in the whole last division of Galatians. It is no mere emotion, but the actual fulfilling of the whole moral law. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Gal. 5:14). Paul is fully as severe as James against a faith that permits men to continue in sin. The faith about which he is speaking is a faith that receives the Spirit who gives men power to lead a holy life.

And so what is meant by works? Moreover, as the faith which James condemns is different from the faith which Paul commends, so also the works which James commends are different from the works which Paul condemns. Paul is speaking about “works of the law”-that is, works which are intended to earn salvation by fulfilling the law through human effort. James says nothing in chapter 2:14-26 about works of the law. The works of which he is speaking are works that spring from faith and are the expression of faith. Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice only because he believed God. His works are merely an evidence that his faith was real. Such works as that are insisted upon by Paul in every epistle. Without them no man can inherit the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:21). Only-and here again James would have been perfectly agreed-such works as that can spring only from faith. They can be accomplished not by human effort, but only by the reception of the power of God.

Wilson is asserting here that the way to reconcile the seemingly disparate statements of James and Paul is to recognize that James and Paul are using certain words differently than each other. Fair enough. That’s what everyone has said. But the difference is in the words that he thinks are being used differently. The commonly Reformed understanding is to assert that the two authors are using the word “justification” or “justified” differently. But Wilson asserts that it is in fact the word “faith” that they are using differently.

James, says Wilson, is using the word “faith” to indicate mere intellectual assent. He is condemning a mere intellectual assent which produces no works. Therefore, when James says that a man is justified by faith and works, that he is using the word “justified” in the same manner as Paul. The conclusion, then, is that James is teaching that our status with God is seen as righteous because of our faith and our works. This is a straightforward denial of sola fide, of salvation by grace alone.

Paul, on the other hand, is using faith to assume the presence of works, according to Wilson. And then not only are James and Paul using the term “faith” in a different sense, but “works” as well. “Works” according to Paul then, is referring not to general good acts, but specifically to good works that are done seeking to earn merit with God. Paul, therefore is claiming (according to Wilson), just like James, that we are justified by faith including our moral character and good behavior, just not by works done for a particular motive. Our works can therefore be part of our justification (in the Pauline sense of how we achieve a status of righteous with God) as long as those works are done for good motives. Again, a straightforward denial of the Reformational teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. He has made our works, our behavior, a part of the grounds for our justification. This is not, admittedly, something Wilson states directly, but when he says that the faith of James is “mere intellectual assent” to the Gospel and that works are the good deeds and life that follow, then it follows from the statements of James that we achieve righteousness before God by intellectual assent plus good behavior.

Compare this with Calvin, from his commentary on James 2:20-26:

The Sophists lay hold on the word justified, and then they cry out as being victorious, that justification is partly by works. But we ought to seek out a right interpretation according to the general drift of the whole passage. We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.

When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon.

That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has deceived the Sophists, we must take notice of the two fold meaning, of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, “Shew to me thy faith,” etc. In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, as when any one says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable chest, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known.

According to Calvin, it is the word “justified” that these two authors are using differently- Paul referring to the grounds of our status with God, and James to the way that our status with God is demonstrated, both of which are common uses of the word. Paul then is the one of these two talking about how this righteous status with God is achieved- that is, only by faith and not by anything of ourselves. James, on the other hand, is talking about how we show and prove that faith. Wilson, by saying that Paul and James are talking about justification in the same sense, has imported the works of the law into faith, changed the nature of faith and denied the gospel. Perhaps he is unaware that he is doing this, but he has yet to issue any retractions that I am aware of.

As far as intellectual assent goes- Paul said to the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” This is intellectual assent and there is no “mere” about it. An intellectual assent to the truth of the Gospel is exactly what is required for salvation and it is all that is required. Any intellectual assent which is honest and not a lie will produce action- if I assent to the proposition that a train is coming, I’m going to get off the tracks. But these actions or behaviors can in no way be regarded as the grounds of our salvation. If they are, then the doctrine of justification by faith alone is destroyed.

Contra Wilson, James never says that the devils have an intellectual assent to the propositions of the gospel. He says merely that they believe in God and are afraid of him. Many have this belief. The Muslims have it. Does that mean that all the Muslims need to do is add some good works to their belief in God and then they’ll be fine? Intellectual assent which is honestly believed will produce action. If I honestly assent to the Gospel, then it will produce results in my life. It will change the way I act. If it doesn’t, it’s because I either believe the wrong things, or I am lying about my belief. And this is just what James says- faith without works is dead. Not that I have to add works to my faith for it to be satisfactory to God, but that a faith which produces no action is just a lie, and I cannot be saved by a lie. But “faith” just means “belief”. This idea that mere assent is not enough is the same as saying that mere “belief” is not enough. And yes, I know that many fine orthodox men use this language. But essentially, what it’s arguing for is that I must add something- emotional intensity, behavior, or something else, to mere “belief”. If there is a difference between “belief” and “assent”, I would like very much to know what it is. “Faith” just means “belief”.

10 thoughts on “James, Paul, and Doug Wilson

  1. Matt,

    Yeah, not trying to throw chestnuts, just genuinely interested in who and what you are reading to give you your information on this AND equally interested in your own thoughts regarding the various threads of NPP/AAT/FV theology. Thanks for answering my questions and I will look up that website you mentioned.

  2. Anonymous says:


    Your post was spot on. In defense of the orthodox men I know who explain faith as notitia: facts of the faith, assensus: intellectual assent to those facts and fiducia: trust in those facts; does not your use of the word “faith” include all of these elements?

    Heidelberg Catechism q. 21 What is true faith? It is not only a certain knowledge in which I accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word but also as a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me through the gospel that not only to others but to me also God has given the forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation, both of sheer grace solely for the sake of Christ’s saving work.

    Peace in Christ,


  3. Joseph,
    Thanks for the comments. I find the WCF three-part definition of faith as leaving a little bit open for some problematic understandings of faith. I guess my question is, if I assent to the facts of the gospel, then how could I not trust it? If I don’t trust it, then I have not truly assented. I do very much prefer the Heidelberg formulation, which just says I must know the facts of the gospel, and believe that those facts apply to me personally, and not just to people in general. The WCF, on the other hand, seems to want to add some kind of expected behavior or attitude to assent, which really should be viewed as simply the expected response to true assent. If you make it part of faith, to add some expected behavior or attitude to belief, then I worry about opening the door to a corruption of sola fide.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I know the facts of the federal tax code. I know that I own the money; but I do not love those facts or really even like those facts. I guess the distinction you are embracing lies in the meaning of “faith.” Is the meaning of Biblical faith actually its correct application? Do you think it is possible for a person to know the facts of the Gospel similarly to how Paul describes fallen humanity knowing the true God; however, hating God and disobeying Him and even encouraging others to do so. Or could someone understand the facts of the Gospel and then fall away such as Hebrews 6 describes. Of course these people were never part of God’s elect, but the verbage seems to imply that they understood the Gospel. Hebrews 6:4-6 4 For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

    I don’t think that your comments about Wilson involved mere semantics; however, a narrow definition of leaves room for exploitation.

    I’m comfortable with the H.C. that I quoted; I’ve really grown to love the H.C. I like its first person perspective. I’m trying to teach it to my little (Q. 1).

    I guess a more practical question for you involves the assurance of pardon. I’m just assuming that your service includes a corporate confession of sin each week followed by an assurance of pardon (i.e., Eph. 2:4-10 followed by a word from the pastor). Please don’t misread my email (emails are flattened out and can often be misleading; if you don’t have an assurance of pardon that doesn’t mean your not worshipping correctly; as long as a congregation, by God’s grace, worship Him in Spirit and truth, true worship takes place.)

    My question is this: If you give an assurance of pardon following a corp confession of sin, do you just say, “if you believe the gospel facts be assured of your salvation?”

    I find myself wanting to encourage the congregation in a WMC understanding of the absolute necessity of good works found within the life of a person professing faith in the LORD Jesus. I don’t think a very helpful assurance is “if your of the elect, be assured” and if I say “if you believe the gospel be assured” because I know full well that in a southern congregation dozens of people intellectually understand the gospel facts but there only in church because they’ve been forced to come, and I don’t want to give them any reason to have a false assurance.

    So we’re kind of back to the beginning. To say a person has faith, do we use that word “loaded” with the information given by WCF and HC, but not communicate the details.

    I really think that the H.C. use of “but also as a wholehearted trust” is the same as the WCF’s fiducia.

    Peace in the LORD,


  5. Joe,
    Thanks for the comments, and sorry for the long delay in answering.

    The difference in believing the facts of the gospel and the facts of the income tax are not a fundamentally different kind of intellectual operation. What makes them different is the facts believed. If I believe that I am a sinner alienated from God and worthy of hell but that Christ underwent terrible agony and shame in order to redeem me from that fate and reconcile me to God, there is only one proper response to that. Only one possible response- joy and thankfulness. The facts of the income tax are a good deal more ambiguous in terms of the response required.

    The description of the two elements of faith in the HC are “knowledge and trust”, but both are defined in such a way as to be embraced by a rich and thorough concept of assent. I know the facts of the gospel and I believe them to be truth, not just in the abstract but for me personally. But the WCF, in having three elements, knowledge, assent and trust, seem to need to add something to the idea of assent. Now if all you interpret that to mean is that it’s not enough to be acquainted with the gospel facts or just to say that it’s true, but to really believe that it’s true, then I really have no issue with that at all. But if it’s possible that I believe in (assent to) the gospel and yet am not saved because I have failed to add some other element (trust) to my belief, then that seems to open the door to just the kind of theology we are struggling so hard with now.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I agree.

    Would you mind responding to my comments concerning the confession and sin and assurance of pardon? I would really like some advice.



  7. Anonymous says:

    Just an interesting tidbit for you, Matt. Both the OPC and the PCA have their GA next week and both will be dealing with NPP and FV.

    I think I understand why the RCUS may have a little more of a debate about those issues. It seems that the three forms doesn’t use explicit language for the cov. of works; however, the WMC does. Does it really make sense that the OPC and PCA would have such a debate, being confessional churches that have a confession at odds with the NPP, FV teaching. I’ve been told that’s why Norman Shepherd left the OPC.

    What do you think?

  8. Joe,
    We don’t have a separate corporate confession and pardon in our services; we typically address that in the pastoral prayer. But to answer the broader question, I give my people (and myself) assurance of pardon based on belief- do we believe that Jesus died for our sins? Do we believe the gospel? This is the language of Scripture- Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved. I think that anything else is adding to, and I am uncomfortable with it. I can exhort my people all day long about what the pardoned life will look like, but I believe it is a dangerous error to ever include any part of that life in the grounds for that pardon.

    The WCF is more explicit than the 3FU on the covenant of works, as far as the terminology goes. But there’s plenty in the 3FU to roundly condemn the teachings of the FV / NPP. Our debate was really about the merits of the particular report we produced. I saw absolutely no dissent on the merits of the FV theology.

    Thanks again for the comments.

  9. To address another part of your comments, the Presbyterian denominations, IMHO, opened this door by allowing loose subscription to their creeds. It started with Sabbath observance, then creation, now justification. The creeds aren’t going to do anyone any good if you don’t use them for their intended purpose- as a fence to define what’s acceptable and what’s not. The Presbyterians have a continual problem knowing what’s really a violation of their “system” and what isn’t, since they walked away from strict subscription.

  10. Hey, great post, Matt. I am a friend of Lee Johnson, and am ordained PCA. I agree that the loose subscription is the underlying problem here, although some steps have been taken to correct some ofthe problems. Lee can tell you how much I am fighting the FV and the NPP. You might be interested in joining a debate group that I have started (maybe you’re already on it, for all I know).


    Would like to have you join us.

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