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Scripture on Sunday – James 2:20

JamesJames 2:20
Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren?

James continues the assault on the position of his interlocutor, this time pressing his point with a question. In verses 18-19 he countered the idea that faith and works can be separated, as though some people have faith, while others have works. The two cannot be separated: such “faith” is not faith at all, but simply knowledge about God rather than true reliance on God (see Moo, 107). This verse now serves as an introduction to a new phase in his argument: James will prove his point using Scripture, specifically, the examples of Abraham and Rahab (vv. 21-25).

“Do you want to be shown…?” (Theleis de gnōnai) is the first of three rhetorical questions in this section. James also will introduce the Abraham and Rahab examples with questions (vv. 21, 25). Gnosis typically means “to know” but here has the sense of “to be shown”. “You senseless (or foolish) fellow” (ō anthrōpe kene) is direct address in the second person singular. Again, even though it is possible that James’s hearers had been exposed to a distorted form of Paul’s teaching, it is better to understand this rhetoric as directed against an imaginary debating partner: such rhetoric was commonly practised in the ancient world. James is not using harsh words against an actual person, of the kind he will shortly reprove (3:9-10; 4:11; cf. Matthew 5:22; see McKnight, 243).

The adjective kene literally means “empty,” though it is used metaphorically in many places in the New Testament, including James 4:5. Here, James may be addressing his “empty-headed” opponent. Most commentators, however, suggest that the term refers not simply to intellectual but also to moral deficiency (e.g Moo, 107; Davids, 126; Vlachos, 95). This fits the context well: the person without works is not simply lacking understanding, but is out of step with the generous mercy and goodness of God.

The last phrase drives home James’s point with a play on words: “that faith without works is barren?” (hoti hē pistis kōris tōv ergōn argē estin). The word for “barren” or “useless” (argē) is negatively related to the word for “works” (ergōn). It means “no-work”—that is, a faith without works does not work! It is useless, barren, unfruitful and unproductive; it will not produce the salvation and blessing for which one hopes.


Garmen 1999In early November I clocked 1000km on the bike, and then decided to ride 100km per week. I have succeeded in the 100km per week every week except one, and that week I was unwell for several days.

It took more than six months to achieve the first 1000, but just over two months to reach 2000; well almost…On Saturday I thought the next 1000km would tick over – alas!

Reading Karl Barth on Election (7)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:63-76, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Although Barth applauds the christological focus the Reformers brought to their discussion of election, he is not yet satisfied, for the Reformers’ focus is pastoral rather than theological; there remains behind and before Jesus Christ, the decision of the electing God apart from Jesus Christ. In a dozen probing questions Barth lays bare his central concern: it is not sufficient to speak of Christ as the mirror, the medium or the instrument of the election, particularly so if behind Christ stands the inscrutable decision of a hidden deity. If the decision of election is that of the hidden God, it will inevitably overwhelm and subvert the pastoral focus on Jesus. If so, can one truly obtain the assurance sought by the Reformers?

Barth canvasses and compares the doctrine of the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Remonstrants, arguing that there can be no ground ceded to Pelagianism in the doctrine of election. Beginning with the Remonstrants, Barth argues that they were semi-Pelagian, pre-cursors of modern Neo-Protestantism who make humanity the criterion of the knowledge of God, of God’s relationship to humanity, and of Christian doctrine. As a result, they refuse to acknowledge divine sovereignty in election for the human agent is independent over against God (67). Although the Remonstrants spoke of Jesus Christ as the “foundation of election,” they did not mean by this that he was the subject of election (68).

As directed against the decretum absolutum the statement (“Jesus Christ is the [foundation of election]”) does not contend for the dignity of Jesus Christ, but for the dignity of man standing over against Jesus Christ in an autonomous freedom of decision. … What they did want to say, and what they actually did say in this statement, was that in the distinctive sense of the word there is no divine decision at all. There is only the establishment of a just and reasonable order of salvation, of which Christ must be regarded as the content and the decisive instrument (68).

The 17th century Lutheran doctrine also sought to correct Calvin’s proposition by locating the origin of election in the universal mercy of God. Jesus Christ is the decreed means of salvation for the Son in all eternity pledged himself to be the perfect satisfaction in the stead and place of all. God foreknows those who will obey his call to faith and obedience, and so those who will be saved. Thus God’s election is determined by his foreknowledge, and therefore “by the actuality of an object which is distinct from God” (71).

Barth finds much to affirm in the Lutheran correction: the emphasis on divine grace and mercy as the ultimate ground of election; the Son’s self-offering in the eternal and secret counsel of the trinity; the object of election as the whole of humanity without exception; and the necessity of human faith and obedience. He laments the refusal of Reformed theology to allow the Lutheran correction to inform its own “unsatisfactory and dangerous doctrinal forms” (72). Yet, Barth ultimately rejects the Lutheran proposal even while affirming their intent to avoid the decretum absolutum. He does so because they have abstracted a theological principle—divine foreknowledge—and applied it to God. In so doing they also abstract the elected man, whose decision thus precedes and so conditions God’s election. The Lutheran position therefore reduces election to salvation—there is no election as such, and opens the door again to Pelagianism. Thus it is hardly surprising that the Reformed did not follow this Lutheran path. In this view, God is no longer truly and freely the electing God. The initiative of God’s election has been lost, and with it, God’s freedom, and so also, God’s grace.

If we inspect it closely, their teaching has nothing whatever to say about the fact that God elects. It says only that God has determined to actualise, and has actualised, His general redemptive purpose in such a form that in its operation it does necessarily give rise to a selection from amongst men. Naturally God knows about this selection from all eternity. He also affirms it by fulfilling His purpose in this particular form. But He affirms it only secondarily, and the fact that He affirms it does not mean that it is His selection in the strict sense of the word. This construction excludes the initiative of a free divine election. And at this point, in spite of all other differences, in spite of its intended and avowed anti-Pelagianism, the Lutheran teaching occupies common ground with the Arminian doctrine rejected at Dort. For this reason, and quite decisively, it can never be acceptable to Calvinists (73).

The Calvinists decisively rejected the tenet of praevisa fides (foreknowledge of faith), and with it the whole Lutheran doctrine of predestination. As they saw it, it is at this decisive point in the whole relationship of God with man that the complete freedom of grace should always be maintained. They thought it better to cling to the decretum absolutum than in attempting to avoid it to enter on a path which seemed as though it must ultimately endanger the basic interest of the Reformation (74).

Thus Barth wants to retain God’s election as election and not simply as salvation. It must be true, free, and so gracious, election. There must be no Pelagianism in salvation. All abstraction with respect to God and humanity is denied. Election must be gospel, and so also Christological. Jesus Christ is not merely the instrument or mirror of election but the subject of election. That Jesus Christ is the electing God means that there is no decretum absolutum. That Jesus Christ is the elected human means there is no praevisa fides.

Longest Ride

Longest RideOn Saturday I went for my longest ride so far—at least since I have been recording my rides. I do remember riding two-and-a-half hours a couple of times on my old bike, and even three hours once, so perhaps I rode 50K then. Or not. In any case, I have been recording my rides for the last six to eight months, since I have been using my new bike—an entry-level racer. Prior to that, I had a good hybrid bike that I really enjoyed, but it was stolen. It took me almost six months to save for the new one.

I try to ride at least a couple of times a week, usually after work one day and usually between 20-25K. On a Saturday morning if I can get out, I try to ride for about 30-35K. Last Saturday, though, I added an extra leg to my ride, and by the time I was approaching home I was only about 100 metres under 50K; so I took a slightly longer route and just clocked over!

Now I know that some riders will wonder at this boast. One guy at work rides further than this every time he rides to work and home again. But for me, it’s a good feeling, and something I want to do some more. In my last church two friends did the Bike-for-Bibles ride from Perth to Sydney—about 180K per day for 34 days! They trained for about twelve months, I guess to develop bum callouses. I am not quite in that league—yet! But who knows?

My next ride (tomorrow after work) will see my odometer click over 1000 kilometres. Again, not many for most cyclists, but not a bad start for a rookie. I might even see how quickly I can get to 2000…

Worship on Sunday

Every once in a while I am invited to preach at Mt Hawthorn Baptist Church here in Perth, something I always enjoy. The worship leader there, Gordo,  is a passionate guy who plays a fabulous bluesy guitar, and it seems that, each time I have been there, he includes this old hymn in the service. Last time I was there I challenged him in front of the congregation, “So, what does Ebenezer mean anyway?” He rose to the challenge coming straight back with his answer: “It’s a pile of stones, meant in the Old Testament as a memorial to God, usually remembering some great thing God did, or one’s commitment to God.” Great stuff!

I love the third verse, especially, and these lines always hit close to home:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

This version is not as good as the Mt Hawthorn version, especially when the whole congregation is in full voice, but it will have to do!

A Prayer on Sunday

Morning-Prayer“Lord Almighty, we say we want to serve you,
we say we want to help others less fortunate than ourselves,
we say we want justice.
But the truth is, we want power and status because we so desperately need to be loved. Free us from our self-fascination and the anxious activity it breeds,
so that we might be what we say we want to be—loved by you
and thus capable of unselfish service. Amen”
(Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken, 49).