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”.