Protestantism has a self-imposed limitation on its ability to advance the Kingdom of God; it has no theology of Kingdom work. Its marching orders tend to be a personal and subjective reading of Scripture-"the leading of the Spirit." Such objective rules are often man-made pietistic directives yet imposed as moral absolutes.
The Unfinished Reformation
The problem is not a new one. As my father noted in his introduction to The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume I, the Protestant Reformation clarified the doctrine of justification as being a gift of God's grace which is received by faith alone. This clarified how man is justified, or declared righteous ("saved") by God. The Reformation, however, never came to a consensus on sanctification, how the believer grows in grace, how he lives as a Christian, his "operating instructions." My father's belief was that sanctification was through the instructions God gave-Biblical law; we are saved by grace and are then by God's regenerative power enabled to obey Him. This belief in Biblical law as authoritative for Christian obedience is called "theonomy."
The Reformers spent so much time attacking the Roman idea of justification by works (as did Paul-see Galatians), they would often go on tangents against "the law" without distinguishing whether they were speaking of justification or sanctification. When the issue was clearly the ethical standard of the Christian, they often spoke in support of the law. The same imprecision dominates such discussions to this day.
Despite its failure to come down on a specific means or guide to sanctification, Protestantism generally looked to Scripture for its directives in all moral matters. Sometimes those directives were reduced to "principles" men were to apply, or the law was reduced arbitrarily to the Ten Commandments; but when push came to shove, "God's Word," even if found in the Old Testament, directed Christian thought. Most Reformers were repulsed at the idea of a rigorously antinomian theology (literally anti-law, i.e., a view that God's law did not apply in the Christian era) such as was advocated by the Anabaptists, and this opinion held sway for many years.
First Pietism, Then Dispensationalism
It was Pietism that really moved the Protestant view of sanctification to one that was personal and subjective. Not only was personal sanctification affected, but the whole idea of Christian responsibility, indeed of what it meant to be a Christian, shifted under Pietism. Puritanism did not survive the influence of Pietism.
Then, in the late nineteenth century, dispensationalism developed a theology that excluded God's law from the entire church age. Under the influence of C. I. Scofield's editorial notes, published early in the twentieth century, dispensationalism and its antinomian position came to dominate Protestant thinking.
Even supposedly "Reformed" churches are often both antinomian and dispensational. Though they might reject the multiple dispensations of Scofield, they often cling to the idea of two such dispensations and hold Old Testament over against New Testament, Old Covenant over against New Covenant, and see law and grace as totally incompatible. The opposite of law, however, is lawlessness, which is what antinomianism is by definition. The opposite of grace, moreover, is man getting the punishment he deserves for sin.
Another currently resurgent view that limits the validity and applicability of Biblical law is the two-kingdom theory, which posits that much of God's Word is for the church, but not for the unbelieving world. Too often "Reformed" only designates those who believe in some sort of sovereignty of God in soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) yet deny that same sovereignty in one area after another.
James Appeals to the "Royal Law"
The second chapter of James may be one of the most controversial passages in the New Testament, at least within the antinomian church. Some have suggested James's statement that Abraham and Rahab were "justified by works" is anti-grace, contrary to Paul's teaching on justification, or even non-canonical. The importance of this passage is that James specifically addresses the relationship between the profession of faith, behavior, and righteousness, which is what the believer's sanctification is all about.
In the first nine verses James talks about a specific "work" (here merely an action or behavior and not an attempt to merit God's favor) which is inconsistent with the faith. It is about a "bad" work and implies a corresponding "good" work consistent with the faith.
Twice (vs. 5 and in 1:12) James has referred to Christians as those who love God. He is saying that if you love Jesus Christ, then let's talk about that profession as it relates to works, or behavior.
Two things were inconsistent, James said: faith in Jesus Christ and "respect of persons." He describes a specific scenario which would not have been at all improbable. He pictured that a man came into their assembly (literally synagogue, a term used by Christians as late as the fourth century). The man was well dressed and wealthy, a prominent man. When he arrived, he was offered a good seat and others were expected to sit on the floor or stand.
James condemns this action as first, divisive. Paul condemned this same evil in I Corinthians I (11-13, 26-31) and had come to the same conclusion that James does in verse 5, "Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?" This is the second reason such behavior as James described was unacceptable-it showed an incorrect view of how God works. Paul's words echo the same theme in I Corinthians 1:27-God has chosen foolish things to confound the wise, and weak things to confound the mighty. God works through channels and means that appear to us as least likely to succeed. The reason is that no flesh should glory (I Cor. 1:29) except in the Lord (v. 31).
It was as natural then as now to look to "celebrity Christians" as potential "friends in high places," as people who could help the faith, but in doing so we often despise evangelizing and edification of the poor and show our ignorance of what God has told us about how He operates. Many of these powerful men in the early church likely came out of curiosity, to see what this new movement was all about. James notes that some of them were actually leading persecutions and blaspheming Jesus Christ. His point is, why are you groveling for their favor?
The alternative to this "bad" behavior was the "royal law." In verse one he had referred to Jesus as Lord, i.e., Master or Sovereign. His royal law, also called the "perfect law of liberty" (1:25), forbade such treatment of Christians in Leviticus 19:18 which commanded us to "love thy neighbor as thyself." James says those who have such "respect of persons" sin and he very specifically says why; they had not violated a principle or a subjective idea of morality, but God's law.
The law is a unity, James then says (vv. 10-13), not a multi-choice. If you break one law, you are guilty. Amazingly, many antinomians believe that's why all the law must be repudiated, because it makes us all guilty men! It does make us all guilty, but the answer to our sinfulness is not the repudiation of God's royal law; it is the atonement of Jesus Christ!
All God's law is moral law, unlike statist, statutory law (not wearing your seat belt is not a moral offense, for instance). The royal law says, "love thy neighbor," yet they were despising the poor (v. 6). The law of God is the standard, not the status of men; if we want God's grace and mercy we must show God's grace and mercy (v. 13). There are no subjective opinions or emotions here; James is saying obey God's law!
James's insistence on mercy is an echo of Micah's words, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly (i.e., "do justice") and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)" Micah spoke of justice which is the same thing as righteousness. In Scripture, those God declares righteous are often called "the just." To "do justly" is to do justice or righteousness. The bad action or work James referenced was thus unrighteous, or unjust by definition, because it violated God's law and was thus sin (v. 9). Their "works" declared them unjust, unrighteous before God's law.
When James asked what good it did "if a man say he have faith" without good works, he references a claim to faith without any action or works to accompany it. He then referenced the poorer brethren, perhaps some of those who were snubbed in the worship assembly. Were words enough to them? If they were cold and hungry, was a blessing to "be ye warmed and filled" anything but a cruel act of insensitivity? James's point is that charity necessitates more than words. The larger point he makes is that being justified (or the just, or righteous) of God means more than a mere profession; it must be accompanied by action. James then bluntly states, "Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" (v. 17).
The dead faith is not that of a man justified by God, because God's justification is always accompanied by regeneration. Our Lord never said, "By their profession and testimony ye shall know them," but rather, "By their fruit ye shall know them." Dead faith is an intentional oxymoron. Profession without regeneration, without godly works, reveals the deadness it truly is. Real faith is manifested by the works of regeneration; it is shown by what a man does. Without such works of righteousness the mere profession is best described as a deadness.
Seeing Justness in the Justified Man
James is not anti-faith, but anti-easy-believism, that one can just say "yes" to Jesus and acquire the benefits of God's declaration of righteousness (which is what the doctrine of justification refers to) without the expectation that he must actually act as a just or righteous person.
Not all belief saves. That is not some form of hyper-Calvinism, but the Word of God as given through James-"Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble" (v. 19). Demons believe in God; they know He is real and who Jesus Christ is better than we do, but that belief is not a saving faith. Again, James says, such faith is dead (v. 20).
How Abraham Was "Justified by Works"
The most disturbing part of James to some is versus 21-22: "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?"
The word "justified" here has caused no end of discussion. Many have feared James claims God's declaration of justification came because of Abraham's works. Note however that verse 22 as well as the entire context of the full story in Genesis makes clear Abraham had faith in God before the action or work. His prior faith was made perfect, that is, revealed as mature when it manifested itself in his action, his works. With a real faith, Abraham was seen by God as willing to sacrifice his son. God's declaration is that Abraham, motivated by faith, was acting as a mature believer, and his action, or work, was pronounced to be righteous. Abraham's obedience declared him to be a righteous man of faith in contrast to those whose faith is never more than words.
Abraham's faith is referred to several times. His faith caused his works, his faith was made mature (v. 22), and he believed God (v. 23). This parallels what Paul said in Romans 3:28, that "a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." The point made by James is that faith by a just or righteous man must lead to works of justness or righteousness, which is obedience to the "royal law." Paul concluded his statement on justification with a similar insistence, "Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law" (Rom. 3:31).
Righteousness as behavior, as works, is not an abstract or subjective entity. There can be no justice except God's justice, His righteousness. The Christian confession that is void of acts that reveal righteousness is a dead faith, an oxymoron. When God declares us righteous, His regeneration makes His righteousness our new operational context. The extent to which we are commanded by the pursuit of that justice or righteousness announces us to be, in fact, the just of God. Abraham and Rahab were declared to be just or righteous because their conduct was just, or righteous.
The "dead faith" James spoke of controls too many in the church today. Such "faith" cannot advance the Kingdom. It is our works that manifest the nature of our faith. Are they the works of justice and righteousness by those justified by God's grace, or are they the works of dead men with nothing but an empty profession?