What they're often getting at is that you can't trust what people say; you can't trust the claims that they make because those claims might be false.
Now I don't think James is saying anything of the sort, however I do agree that you can't trust what people say. If we're looking for a reliable indicator of whether someone is saved or not, a person's claim to believe in Christ doesn't really settle the issue. And nothing will, actually… I have good reasons to believe that making such determinations is above our pay grade.
However, it's often taught (from James 2 and other misunderstood passages) that works must accompany, complement, or otherwise "back up" one's faith in order to prove that faith to be valid.
But folks seem to overlook something obvious here… a person's good works can be no more reliable as an indicator of whether they're saved than their speech can. Neither is reliable because either one can be falsely motivated.
That aside, a victim of this popular teaching called in to Stand To Reason--an apologetics-oriented radio program and podcast hosted by Greg Koukl--and the discussion which ensued was, I think, instructive… though not in the way the host probably intended.
The caller, whose name is Art, identifies R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur as teachers he listens to frequently, and the host affirms that these are "solid" teachers. But Art has a problem. He isn't sure whether he is a "true" believer or not. And the reason he gives is that he doesn't see any evidence of a change in his life. Art has been taught to depend on his performance for assurance of his salvation, and since he sees poor performance, he is fearful that he is not saved.
This comes out vividly when the caller says "I'm pretty well convinced that I'm going to hear 'Depart from me, I never knew you.'"
The odd thing about the caller's allusion to Matthew 7 is this: For some reason the caller thinks that the folks Jesus turned away in that passage were turned away because they lacked works. Now that's just strange, because clearly the folks in that passage did have works. They prophesied; they cast out demons; they did many wonderful works. But Jesus tells them "Depart from me, I never knew you." But weren't these people looking at their works for their assurance? And isn't that exactly what Sproul and MacArthur have taught Art to do? Because the folks in Matthew 7 have held up their works as their justification, Jesus turns them away… they're not turned away for a lack of works. It's clear that the caller has been taught to rely on his works and now he's fearful he'll be turned away because of his poor performance.
Now the way Koukl responds to this is very interesting. But first, consider a quote from Koukl on a previous program when he was discussing "faith alone" vs. "faith plus works."
"There are other passages which have to do with our behaviors and our works, and the classic one is James Chapter 2, but I see these as indicatives. In other words, the genuine Christian is going to display a change in life in some measure that's palpable, that's measurable… You can't just talk it. You've gotta walk the walk."
Notice there's no equivocation in this statement. According to Koukl, a genuine Christian is going to display a change in life. The caller, however, is saying that his life displays no such change. If Greg Koukl's understanding of this issue is correct, then the caller's doubts are appropriate… are they not?
Over and over again I hear, from various popular teachers, that good works validates faith in Christ, and necessarily so. In other words, if you lack good works, then you were never really saved to begin with. Here's a quote from Norm Geisler which reflects this view:
"Only the kind of faith that produces good works can save. While we are saved by faith alone, nevertheless, the faith that saves is never alone. It is always accompanied by good works."
And here's what Jim Wallace--a frequent substitute host on Greg Koukl's show and host of his own "Please Convince Me" apologetics podcast--says about this:
"…as a fruitful Christian, a Christian who has been transformed, you will see a difference in my life, I will see a difference in your life, and James talks about it. If you're not seeing that difference in your life, there's good reason to believe that maybe you were never saved to begin with."
John MacArthur backs this up with this:
"Behavior is an important test of faith. Obedience is evidence that one's faith is real. On the other hand, the person who remains utterly unwilling to obey Christ does not evidence true faith."
So when the caller says, quite emphatically, that he HAS NOT undergone a change in life, you would think Koukl would have to say something like, "Well, I'm afraid the Bible is rather clear on this question: If you lack works, you must not be saved." Of course, it would be a pretty brutal thing to say to someone under the circumstances. But… does Koukl believe that the Bible teaches what he says it teaches, or doesn't he?
So, in response to the caller Koukl asks the caller if he's concerned about this. And when the caller then professes to be concerned, Koukl renders his verdict and concludes that the caller really is saved. Where in the Bible would we find the idea that you can be assured of your salvation if you're concerned about whether or not you're saved?
And notice something else… now all of a sudden we're trusting the caller's profession that he's concerned What happened to all that skepticism over what people say? When it comes to people professing to believe in Christ, Koukl is full of skepticism toward their claims. And so are many Calvinist teachers, such as James MacDonald:
"Profession does not equal conversion."
And here's the same idea in the Bible Believer's Commentary on James 2:
"…James is describing the man who has nothing but a profession of faith. He says he has faith, but there is nothing about his life that indicates it."
So, the message here is to not trust someone's claim regarding their faith in Christ. But if we can't trust someone when they claim to believe in Christ, then why should we trust them when they say they're concerned about not being saved? What if Art isn't really concerned and his profession of concern is just an act? If Art's profession of concern doesn't have to be backed up with works, then why must his faith be backed up with works? If Art is really concerned, then why doesn't he straighten up and fly right?
In the end, Koukl does get something right because he does finally direct Art back to the question of whether Art's trust is in Christ. But unless someone reaches Art and explains to him that his salvation doesn't depend on his performance, then Art will never know whether he's saved or not until (perhaps) it's too late.
There's a good reason for all of this confusion. Certain passages in the Bible have been distorted and misunderstood to teach that we can get assurance from our works. But there's a very simple reason why this is impossible: Our works didn't make us any promises.
What I mean is this: To make a promise to someone is to "assure" them of something. That promise is the "assurance," and you either believe the promise, or you don't. It makes no sense to say "I believe the promise" and then say "But I don't have assurance." If you have the promise, then you have the assurance. The only reason to lack assurance is to not believe the promise!
What we have here is a situation where popular Bible teachers are teaching their congregations not to believe the promises that Christ made. They're teaching people to rely on their own works for the assurance of their salvation rather than to rely on the promise of salvation itself. And from this, we get people like Art who, by evaluating their works, have no reason to believe they're saved.
When pastors teach their congregations to rely on their works for assurance, they are asking their congregations to wear a reserve 'chute when they jump out of the plane, because they fear the main 'chute might not open.