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Salvation in the Catholic Epistles
The Catholic Epistles are the epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude. They are referred to as Catholic because unlike Paul’s epistles which are to a specific church these appear to be addressed to more general groups of churches, they are also referred to as the General Epistles. The authors were all eyewitnesses of Jesus ministry to some extent. Peter and John were among the twelve apostles, James and Jude were half-brothers of Jesus.
In the Epistle of James there is only one section on salvation, and it is part of a section that deals with faith. The verses most familiar are found in 2:14-26, but the section really begins in 1:21 with the pertinent verse for our purposes being v. 22-25 “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like man observing his natural face in a mirror: for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” This passage is making the simple point that we must act on what we hear from the scriptures. The person who does nothing with what he knows receives no benefit from knowing, it is only the person who acts on what he knows that receives a blessing.
James uses a similar argument in 2:14-26. “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” This passage troubles many because it is seen as questioning salvation by faith when in fact it does nothing of the sort. What James is doing is questioning the benefit of a lifeless faith attempting to motivate his audience to works. This is exemplified in vv. 17-18, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Here James makes clear that he is not promoting salvation through works, but works because of salvation. The challenge by some is that they have faith in their works, his challenge to them is to show their faith without their works, there can be none. For him faith is pre-eminent and the works display the faith, faith is the foundation of the works rather than works being the foundation of faith.
What follows next is a warning against an intellectual faith. “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe - and tremble. But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?” vv. 19-20. Even the demons believe and it makes no difference to them. Belief should make a difference in our lives, it should make a difference in what we do. Some would use v.20 as a contradiction against Paul’s teaching in Romans 4. But while Paul uses different language the point is the same as can be seen from Romans 6.
James makes use of the same example from Genesis but goes further. In Genesis 15 God makes a promise to Abraham that a son of his body would be his heir, and in v.6 it is said “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” This is the passage quoted by Paul in Romans 4. James however includes the passage from Genesis 22 where Abraham is asked to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham’s faith is justified because faith involves a promise and an expectation that the promise will be fulfilled (see Hebrews1:1 and 17-19). Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac therefore shows his expectation that God would still fulfil his promise.
From v.22 we see that it is faith that enables works, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” It was faith that worked, faith that enabled the works, and faith was made complete (the meaning of perfect), the circle of faith was closed. Therefore, 20 years or more after receiving the promise Abraham was prepared to act on that promise.
What James is intending to teach is that the Christian cannot be a bump on a log, we cannot continue living as sinners and we cannot do nothing. “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” If a body is dead it doesn’t move, if there are no works to accompany our faith we appear as dead. If we have faith we have an expectation of God fulfilling a promise toward us. There must be some benefit to faith and this is to be seen in our works. We might say, get up and show people you’re alive.
Peter’s epistles do not contain a straight forward examination of faith or salvation. What we learn here is by the way as Peter examines other topics vital to his audience. Within the greeting we find one of the key elements of salvation, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” v.3 The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a vital element of the gospel, one that is reiterated many times throughout the gospels and epistles.
Peter also makes clear that the sufferings of Christ were foretold in the Old Testament, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven - things which angels desire to look into.” Peter is therefore making the statement that Old Testament prophets when they spoke of the suffering Messiah were ministering not to their own times but to the times of Christ and to us. At the end of the first chapter Peter reiterates the raising of Jesus from the dead as being vital to our faith and salvation.
In chapter 2 Peter provides a statement that clarifies the teaching of James, v.24 “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness …”. This statement shows that we do have a reason for works, but one which looks back to salvation rather than forward, one that is based on what Christ has done for us in the past rather than what will happen in the future.
In chapter 3 we have a statement that is important to note in regard to the teaching of the Gnostics, v. 18, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit. The death of Christ was a real act and not simply a spectacle, it has meaning for us in being real as it has meaning for God. The resurrection of Christ would mean nothing if he did not die, and if he did not die we would still be separated from God.
John in his epistles is not teaching the gospel but he does make some statements that are relevant to salvation, “And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son, Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. 1 John 3:23 This is the only commandment recorded by John, from this flows all else.
The measure of salvation is developed in 1 John 4, “In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” vv. 9-10. Here we see that is God that initiated salvation and that the sacrifice for our sins is to be found only in His Son (compare John 3).
When reach 1 John 5:12-13 we have the reason John wrote this epistle and it centers on believing in the name of the Son of God. Belief is the only ground of salvation, it is the only ground for remaining saved and in this the epistles of John agree with the gospel of John.