Seminaries and search committees in the dance of death...
Pastors are called to warn their sheep. This is the reason the Apostle Paul declares his innocence of the blood of those he pastored, saying he never failed to warn them. His warnings were both public and private and he gave them every last warning God commanded him to give. (See Acts 20.)
This is not true of Reformed pastors, today. There is a great absence of pastoral care among us and the pastor whose ministry is characterized by warnings must justify those warnings while the lethargic and conflict-avoiding Reformed pastors around him who trade in flattery and presumption are viewed as paragons of clerical virtue.
Think of the spiritual destruction of their sheep caused by such careless pastors and we tremble. Let's keep in mind, though, that people choose their own churches and pastors, and thus a certain measure of blame belongs on the congregants themselves. They have a chaplain rather than a pastor because they prefer a chaplain to a pastor. They prefer a man who can keep a good religious shine on their Reformed veneer providing religious cover for friendship with the world.
If this were as far as it went, it would be bad enough. Remember how our Lord took pity on the crowds because "they were sheep without a shepherd?" This is the condition of all those souls who have chosen churches and pastors who are committed never to warn their sheep. But it goes further. The damage caused by faithless shepherds extends beyond their own parish to sheep tended by faithful shepherds, also. Richard Baxter describes the process by recording the irritation sheep have with
They say, "You are so precise and you keep talking about sin, and duty, and make such a fuss about these things, while pastor so-and-so, who is as great a scholar as you and as good a preacher, will be merry and joke with us and leave us alone, and never trouble himself or us with this sort of talk. You can never be quiet and you make more commotion than needs to be made; you love to frighten men with talk of damnation, when sober, well-educated, peaceable pastors are quiet, and live with us like other men." 1
Sheep in a vital church of repentance and faith who are cared for by a faithful shepherd who never stops warning them, with tears, begin to disdain their own pastor and to demonstrate a certain spiritual lethargy towards his warnings. They hear other Reformed pastors and elders accuse their pastor of being "rigid," "moralistic," or "graceless," and they begin to wonder if it isn't true? Why is their pastor so precise and why does he make such a fuss over sin?
Yet, the Bible is a book of warnings. And if your pastor's ministry isn't characterized by warnings given with tears, he isn't Biblical. The Judgment Seat of God will confirm it.
In order to judge yourself rightly, you must know that seminaries today, and especially those boasting most proudly of their academic prowess and scholarly works, have an identical curriculum summed up by this statement: "If you ever have conflict in your church, you have failed." And this fits well with the Reformed church today. It is risk-averse and elders and their wives don't want a pastor who has been taught to warn God's sheep day and night and from house to house, with tears. It's too serious. Too dangerous.
A real shepherd would offend the clerk of session. He would offend the clerk's wife. He would offend the moderator of the deacons. He would offend the choir director, the organist, an elder's son, and a deacon's daughter. Risks would multiply. Thus the Reformed church's heroes are men who caused necessary conflict in other ages sufficiently removed from our own time and congregations that their conflict won't inconvenience us.
But then, what do we think every time we open the Bible and read? Is our habit with Scripture to say to ourselves, "This doesn't apply to me?"
And what of our fathers like John Calvin? When we read his expositions of Scripture, do we say to ourselves, "such an explanation was needed by the wicked and presumptuous sheep in Calvin's congregation, but it's not needed by the righteous and graceful sheep in my congregation today"?
Try to imagine the graduates of establishment Reformed seminaries today such as Covenant, Reformed, Westminster, and Escondido expositing James 2:14 ff. by warning their flock against false faith just as Calvin does here:
Calvin on James 2:14-25:
But here a question arises, Can faith be separated from love? It is indeed true that the exposition of this passage has produced that common distinction of the Sophists, between unformed and formed faith; but of such a thing James knew nothing, for it appears from the first words, that he speaks of false profession of faith: for he does not begin thus, “If any one has faith;” but, “If any says that he has faith;” by which he certainly intimates that hypocrites boast of the empty name of faith, which really does not belong to them.
That he calls it then faith, is a concession, as the Rhetoricians say; for when we discuss a point, it does no harm, nay, it is sometimes expedient, to concede to an adversary what he demands, for as soon as the thing itself is known, what is conceded may be easily taken away from him. James then, as he was satisfied that it was a false pretext by which hypocrites covered themselves, was not disposed to raise a dispute about a word or an expression. Let us, however, remember that he does not speak according to the impression of his own mind when he mentions faith, but that on the contrary he disputes against those who made a false pretense as to faith, of which they were wholly destitute.
Can faith save him? This is the same as though he had said, that we do not attain salvation by a frigid and bare knowledge of God, which all confess to be most true; for salvation comes to us by faith for this reason, because it joins us to God. And this comes not in any other way than by being united to the body of Christ, so that, living through his Spirit, we are also governed by him. There is no such thing as this in the dead image of faith. There is then no wonder that James denies that salvation is connected with it.
15. If a brother, or, For if a brother. He takes an example from what was connected with his subject; for he had been exhorting them to exercise the duties of love. If any one, on the contrary, boasted that he was satisfied with faith without works, he compares this shadowy faith to the saying of one who bids a famished man to be filled without supplying him with the food of which he is destitute. As, then, he who sends away a poor man with words, and offers him no help, treats him with mockery, so they who devise for themselves faith without works, and without any of the duties of religion, trifle with God.
17. Is dead, being alone. He says that faith is dead, being by itself, that is, when destitute of good works. We hence conclude that it is indeed no faith, for when dead, it does not properly retain the name. The Sophists plead this expression and say, that some sort of faith is found by itself; but this frivolous caviling is easily refuted; for it is sufficiently evident that the Apostle reasons from what is impossible, as Paul calls an angel anathema, if he attempted to subvert the gospel. (<480108>Galatians 1:8.)
18. Yea, a man may say. Erasmus introduces here two persons as speakers; one of whom boasts of faith without works, and the other of works without faith; and he thinks that both are at length confuted by the Apostle. But this view seems to me too forced. He thinks it strange, that this should be said by James, Thou hast faith, who acknowledges no faith without works. But in this he is much mistaken, that he does not acknowledge an irony in these words. Then ajlla< I take for “nay rather;” and ti<v for “any one;” for the design of James was to expose the foolish boasting of those who imagined that they had faith when by their life they shewed that they were unbelievers; for he intimates that it would be easy for all the godly who led a holy life to strip hypocrites of that boasting with which they were inflated.
Shew me. Though the more received reading is, “by works,” yet the old Latin is more suitable, and the reading is also found in some Greek copies. I therefore hesitated not to adopt it. Then he bids to shew faith without works, and thus reasons from what is impossible, to prove what does not exist. So he speaks ironically. But if any one prefers the other reading, it comes to the same thing, “Shew me by works thy faith;” for since it is not an idle thing, it must necessarily be proved by works. The meaning then is, “Unless thy faith brings forth fruits, I deny that thou hast any faith.”
But it may be asked, whether the outward uprightness of life is a sure evidence of faith? For James says, “I will shew thee my faith by my works.”
To this I reply, that the unbelieving sometimes excel in specious virtues, and lead an honorable life free from every crime; and hence works apparently excellent may exist apart from faith. Nor indeed does James maintain that every one who seems good possesses faith. This only he means, that faith, without the evidence of good works, is vainly pretended, because fruit ever comes from the living root of a good tree.
19. Thou believest that there is one God. From this one sentence it appears evident that the whole dispute is not about faith, but of the common knowledge of God, which can no more connect man with God, than the sight of the sun carry him up to heaven; but it is certain that by faith we come nigh to God. Besides, it would be ridiculous were any one to say, that the devils have faith; and James prefers them in this respect to hypocrites. The devil trembles, he says, at the mention of God’s name, because when he acknowledges his own judge he is filled with the fear of him. He then who despises an acknowledged God is much worse. Thou doest well, is put down for the purpose of extenuating, as though he had said, “It is, forsooth! a great thing to sink down below the devils.”
20. But wilt thou know. We must understand the state of the question, for the dispute here is not respecting the cause of justification, but only what avails a profession of faith without works, and what opinion we are to form of it. Absurdly then do they act who strive to prove by this passage that man is justified by works, because James meant no such thing, for the proofs which he subjoins refer to this declaration, that no faith, or only a dead faith, is without works. No one will ever understand what is said, nor judge wisely of words, except he who keeps in view the design of the writer.
21. Was not Abraham. 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.
22. By works was faith made perfect. By this he again shews, that the question here is not respecting the cause of our salvation, but whether works necessarily accompany faith; for in this sense it is said to have been perfected by works, because it was not idle. It is said to have been perfected by works, not because it received thence its own perfection, but because it was thus proved to be true. For the futile distinction which the Sophists draw from these words, between formed and unformed faith, needs no labored refutation; for the faith of Abram was formed and therefore perfected before he sacrificed his son. And this work was not as it were the finishing, or last work. Formerly things afterwards followed by which Abraham proved the increase of his faith. Hence this was not the perfection of his faith, nor did it then for the first time put on its form. James then understood no other thing, than that the integrity of his faith then appeared, because it brought forth that remarkable fruit of obedience.
23. And the Scripture was fulfilled. They who seek to prove from this passage of James that the works of Abraham were imputed for righteousness, must necessarily confess that Scripture is perverted by him; for however they may turn and twist, they can never make the effect to be its own cause. The passage is quoted from Moses. (Genesis 15:6.) The imputation of righteousness which Moses mentions, preceded more than thirty years the work by which they would have Abraham to have been justified. Since faith was imputed to Abraham fifteen years before the birth of Isaac, this could not surely have been done through the work of sacrificing him. I consider that all those are bound fast by an indissoluble knot, who imagine that righteousness was imputed to Abraham before God, because he sacrificed his son Isaac, who was not yet born when the Holy Spirit declared that Abraham was justified. It hence necessarily follows that something posterior is pointed out here. Why then does James say that it was fulfilled? Even because he intended to shew what sort of faith that was which justified Abraham; that is, that it was not idle or evanescent, but rendered him obedient to God, as also we find in Hebrews 11:8. The conclusion, which is immediately added, as it depends on this, has no other meaning. Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God; he is justified by works, that is, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits.
25. Likewise also was not Rahab. It seems strange that he connected together those who were so unlike. Why did he not rather choose some one from so large a number of illustrious fathers, and join him to Abraham? Why did he prefer a harlot to all others? he designedly put together two persons so different in their character, in order more clearly to shew, that no one, whatever may have been his or her condition, nation, or class in society, has ever been counted righteous without good works. He had named the patriarch, by far the most eminent of all; he now includes under the person of a harlot, all those who, being aliens, were joined to the Church. Whosoever, then, seeks to be counted righteous, though he may even be among the lowest, must yet shew that he is such by good works. James, according to his manner of speaking, declares that Rahab was justified by works; and the Sophists hence conclude that we obtain righteousness by the merits of works. But he deny that the dispute here is concerning the mode of obtaining righteousness. We, indeed, allow that good works are required for righteousness; we only take away from them the power of conferring righteousness, because they cannot stand before the tribunal of God.
We must seek pastors like the Apostle Paul and John Calvin; pastors who warn us day and night, with tears. And if we're going to find pastors like the Apostle Paul and Calvin, we must repudiate establishment seminaries whose central message to their students is, "If there's ever any conflict in your church, you've failed." Tell that to Luther. Knox. Lloyd-Jones. The Apostle Paul. John the Baptist.
Tell that to Jesus.
- 1. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, (Banner of Truth, Carlisle PA: 1974) p. 85.