Verse 38: "But My righteous one shall live by faith." The righteous ones here are us who have been saved through faith in Jesus. For the righteous ones to live by faith means that those who are saved shall live by faith day by day. Many have asked me, "If justification is by faith, and the justified ones still have to live by faith, are there then two faiths?" Well, I shall talk about the second faith later. For now, just remember that every justified person must live by faith.
"And if he shrinks back, My soul does not delight in him." "He" refers to the righteous one. "If he shrinks back." Only a believer has the possibility of shrinking back. Although a justified person is saved, it is still possible for him to shrink back. "My" refers to God. God has no pleasure in a justified person who shrinks back.
Verse 39: "But we are not of those who shrink back to ruin but of them who have faith to the gaining of the soul." What happens when one shrinks back? He shrinks back to ruin. Believers have eternal life and shall not perish. However, it is still possible for us to shrink back to ruin. What is ruin? It means that everything has become vain, destroyed, and finished. But we are "of them who have faith to the gaining of the soul." Here again, this word speaks of the salvation of the soul. To shrink back is to shrink back to ruin; to come forward is to come forward to the saving of the soul. We either shrink back to ruin or come forward to the saving of the soul.
Some think that since "shrink back to ruin" sounds so unpleasant, it must not refer to Christians. However, only a Christian has the possibility of shrinking back. Sinners have nowhere to shrink back to. Where can they shrink back to? Whoever does not believe in the Son, his sins are condemned already. Only a Christian has the possibility of shrinking back. A believer should actually be rewarded for his works on earth. But because he shrinks back, all is lost. Although he has preached the word in the Lord’s name, cast out demons in the Lord’s name, and performed many miracles, the Lord will not acknowledge any of those. Instead, He will say to him, "I never knew you. Depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matt. 7:23).
However, "we are not of those who shrink back to ruin but of them who have faith to the gaining of the soul." Here it speaks of the salvation of the soul through faith. What is this faith? What is meant by "but of them who have faith to the gaining of the soul"? Let us read Hebrews 11:1. "Now faith is the substantiation of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." This is the faith for the salvation of the soul. This is the faith which the righteous ones live by. Chapter eleven should immediately follow the last verse of chapter ten. This faith is "the substantiation of things hoped for"; it is not the faith in Jesus. This faith can save your soul. This faith is "the conviction of things not seen"; it is not faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John mentions many times that one receives eternal life by believing in the Son. Those instances refer to the faith in the Lord. Here faith refers to a thing.
What is the thing? Let us read Hebrews 11:13-16. "All these died in faith, not receiving the promises but seeing them from afar and joyfully greeting them and confessing that they were strangers and sojourners on the earth. For those who say such things make it manifest that they seek after a country of their own. And if indeed they continued to remember that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return; but as it is, they long after a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed of them, to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them." Have we seen it? What does it say this faith is? It is believing that God has prepared a city for them in the kingdom; it is believing that they are but strangers and sojourners on this earth, that this earth is not their country, and that everything they have is in the future and not in this present age. A city standing firmly cannot fall. The righteous ones believe in this daily, and they live by this faith. The soul is saved by this faith. Unfortunately, many believers forget that they are merely strangers and sojourners on the earth!
Verses 17-18: "All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variation or shadow cast by turning. He brought us forth by the word of truth, purposing that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures." Verse 17 mentions the gift; verse 18 says that God brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. These two verses go together. Verse 17 says that God gave a gift; verse 18 says that this gift is the eternal life which God has given us. This shows that those who received this Epistle of James already had the gift. They were already the firstfruits; they had already been brought forth of God by the word of truth and were already saved.
Verses 19-21: "You know this, my beloved brothers; but let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God. Therefore putting away all filthiness and the abundance of malice, receive in meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls." That the hearers were addressed as the beloved brothers in verse 19 proves that they were saved already. It is as if James is saying, "You know that you have been regenerated and are saved, but this is not enough; you still need to `receive in meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.’" James shows us very clearly that even though a man is regenerated, his soul is not yet saved; he still needs to receive the word that is able to save his soul. The salvation of the soul is a matter which comes after regeneration. If a person is not regenerated, it is not possible for his soul to be saved. God has preached to us the word, which is the gospel of the kingdom. Now we must lose our soul-life today. I have already mentioned twice that there are many things which we ourselves are unable to do. However, if we are willing to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, He can do these things for us. Gaining the soul is similar to gaining eternal life; if a sinner refuses to be saved, God will not put him in heaven. Whoever will, may certainly drink freely the water of life. Nevertheless, if one is not willing to come to the Lord, He has no way to save him. Likewise, if we are not willing to lose our soul-life, neither will the Lord put us into the kingdom. We must ask the Lord to bring us to the point where we are willing to lose our soul-life; then the Lord can have a way.
(Collected Works of Watchman Nee, The (Set 1) Vol. 17: Notes on Scriptural Messages (1), Chapter 6, by Watchman Nee)