"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life."
I pointed out to them that in the Greek, the word "know" there is in the perfect tense, which means that it's an event that happened in the past with results that continue forever. And that "have" is present tense, meaning right now. We can know that we have eternal life, and looking forward, there's absolutely no reason for us to ever doubt it.
This took us into a discussion about what it means to believe in Christ, and about Grace. And in a fashion typical of the cults (Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses) they claimed to believe in God's Grace, that they are saved by Grace, etc. But I asked them what it was that God was going to look at in their lives to determine whether they can enter that "Third Heaven". And their answer was that God was going to examine their works. That their entrance to Heaven would be determined by their obedience, keeping the commandments, etc. Of course, with that admission, they betray their belief in Grace. They don't believe in Grace at all. They believe in earning their salvation.
I pointed this out to them and I used my skydiver illustration to demonstrate that their reliance on their works means that they don't trust Jesus Christ; that they trust themselves instead. Their works, their performance. They're wearing a reserve 'chute when God wants them to jump out of the plane with only one 'chute. I explained to them the concept of eternal security and that, while God doesn't want me to be a schmuck the rest of my life, He wants me to obey, He wants me to do work in this life, the fact is that I'm saved whether I'm a schmuck for the rest of my life or not. That's Grace. I said "Some people hear that and say 'That's not fair!'" and I said "They're right. It's not fair. That's what Grace is. We don't earn it, we don't deserve it. By definition, Grace is not fair." It would be a contradiction in terms to say that Grace had to be "fair".
But here's where we get to the real issue… One of the "missionaries" feigned agreement on much of that but revealed his disagreement by whipping out James 2:17. He said "Yes, but James says that 'faith without works is dead.'" In other words, if you don't do works, you can't be saved. And if that's what James meant, he would be contradicting many other passages in the New Testament which clearly state that salvation is not of works.
We have a huge problem within Christianity today, and that problem is that many Christians' understanding of salvation works out to be indistinguishable from how Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons understand the concept. I've had JWs and Mormons both deploy James 2:17 to assure me that works have to be in there somewhere… that shouldn't surprise anyone. But I also have CHRISTIANS using James 2:17 to make exactly the same point!! Does anybody else see a problem here? If the cults are using James 2:17 to teach that works are actually required for salvation, and Christians are using the same verse in the same way, then don't you think we should look at James 2:17 a little closer? If the cults are using it to teach their works-based salvation, shouldn't that tell us that we should not use it that way and that maybe that's not even close to what James meant when he wrote it?
Recently I've been trading e-mails with the hosts of a call-in Christian radio show, "The Don Johnson Show". I heard a show they did where they make it very clear that they believe that works are required for salvation, even as they claim to believe that salvation is by Grace and not works. So I sent them a polite e-mail asking for clarification and, well, they confirmed to me that, while they claim to believe in salvation by Grace apart from works, they do believe that we must do works to be saved. That doesn't really clarify anything, now does it?
The host of the show, Don Johnson, sent me his book entitled "The Road to Heaven: A Traveler's Guide to Life's Narrow Way" and I received it a few days ago. The chapter in which he discusses his view of "work" as it relates to salvation leads off with… guess what verse? That's right: James 2:17.
This is a major problem because "popular" Christianity has abandoned Grace and has a gospel message that is essentially no different than that of the cults. This is a disaster, I'm afraid.
Grace means "undeserved, unmerited favor." The only concept of salvation that is consistent with Grace is a salvation that happens even if we do diddly-squat. And again, in order to be consistent with Grace, salvation cannot be something that we can lose. If we can lose it, then we're doing something to keep it and it no longer depends upon Christ, but rather on our own works. That is not Grace.
In my next post, I'll explain what James 2:17 actually means and how we should use it.