Do James and Paul agree on their teachings of faith and works?
This question has generated much scholarly debate. “Many commentators follow the tack taken by [Martin] Luther and insist that James directly sets himself in opposition to the view of justification taught by Paul,” (Moo, 121). Is this a theologically sound position?
When you begin reading the Pauline Epistles, especially Romans, you quickly discover that Paul unequivocally believes “faith alone justifies” (cf. Rom. 3:21-31). He goes on to say in Ephesians that salvation is a gift of God’s grace that cannot be earned (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). Paul clearly believes that man is justified by grace through faith. Yet, when we approach the writings of James, we read, “faith without works is dead” (cf. James 2:26). Do Paul and James agree or disagree on the doctrine of justification? Is it by grace alone through faith alone? If so, is it to the inclusion or exclusion of works?
To begin tackling this question, let’s first define the term justification. At the moment of conversion we are united by faith with Christ, and it is through our union with Him that we receive the benefits of the atonement (Keathley, 745). What does it mean to be justified? It means that God declares us righteous and in right “legal” standing before Him. How can the holy God of all creation, according to His standards, declare a sinner righteous? Rest assured it has nothing to do with anything we have done. Rather, it has everything to do with what God in Christ has done for us.
One who is justified has received the atoning work of Christ upon the cross as the wrath-exhausting, substitutionary sacrifice for sin. Christ not only satisfied God’s wrath over our sin, He exhausted the entirety of God’s wrath for our sin. He turned the cup of God’s wrath upside down and drank every last drop. The Righteous One [Christ] took our sin and bore God’s wrath in our place. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21 NASB). Because of Christ we have been reconciled to God and declared righteous to stand in His holy presence (cf. Col. 1:19-22). One who has been justified has been acquitted of the penalty for sin; not on the basis of what they have done, but on the basis of what God in Christ Jesus has done.
Therefore, based on the teaching of Scripture, justification is completely the work of God’s grace. There is no merit one could offer God that would earn them the gift of salvation. God’s Word is consistent in this teaching. Therefore, since James and Paul were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God to pen the words of Scripture we can be confident that their writings contain no contradictions. This being true, how are we to reconcile their seemingly contradictory teachings? We now turn our attention to this question.
There are several basic hermeneutical principles that must be employed when attempting to rightly divide the word of truth. These principles include: historical and literary context (what is the flow of the argument being presented?), exegetical and lexical information (are there any grammatical and syntax clues?), and audience (who was James and Paul addressing in their letters?). Careful analysis of these sources of information will lead one to recognize that Paul and James were writing in different settings and addressing different issues within the church. We cannot discuss all of this in the space given, but let’s gain a brief overview.
Encouraging believers to hold firmly to the gospel is a common theme of Paul’s letters. For example, Paul encouraged Timothy to guard the treasure of the gospel from false teachers (cf. 2 Tim. 1:8-14). Paul encouraged churches in the region of Ephesus that the gospel breaks down walls of division between Jews and Gentiles, and all have now been reconciled in “one body to God through the cross” (cf. Eph. 2:14-16). Paul wrote to remind the church in Rome that all (Jews and Gentiles) are guilty of sin before a holy God (cf. Rom. 3). Justification is only possible by faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 3:21-30, 5:1).
Paul also wrote to combat false teachings and misunderstandings in the Jewish community. For example, he addressed the idea of ethnic justification. Not all of Israel descended from Israel and not all descendants of Abraham are children of promise (cf. Rom. 9:1-7). The point here is that justification is not based on family heritage or Israelite descent, nor is it based on someone else’s faith. All must personally respond in belief to the truth claims of the gospel. Faith is non-transferable. The faith of a mother or father cannot be transferred to a son or a daughter.
Paul was also dealing with those who were religious in keeping the Law. He used a lot of ink in Galatians and Romans to address their religiosity. “Justification takes place apart from law works of any kind” (Morris, 187). Paul makes crystal clear the fact that justification (being declared righteous before God) has nothing to do with works. He goes on to affirm this in Ephesians 2 when he says that all by nature are “children of wrath…BUT God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)…for by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (cf. Eph. 2:1-10 NASB). What did we do to earn our justification? Nothing. We were dead when God demonstrated His love toward us (cf. Rom. 5:8). Dead people can do nothing. The gracious and merciful truth: had God not intervened on our behalf to provide atonement for our sin we would be subject to eternal destruction.
James wrote to address believers who were trying to divorce faith and righteous living. If a person has faith does it matter how they live? Of course, you don’t have to look far to see this kind of disease plaguing the lives of those who claim to be followers of Christ. Evangelical culture is cluttered with those who profess Christ, and yet, live as though they have never heard His name. There is a difference between being religious and being gospel-centered. People go and worship on Sunday and then return to the dregs of the world on Monday. James responds to this by saying (and I paraphrase) “that kind of faith doesn’t save.” If a person has faith it will be evident in how they live. Could a person claim to be saved and yet never truly be regenerate? According to James, “Yes.” That’s why he goes on to say, “faith without works is dead” (cf. James 2:26). Faith that has no expression of works is really dead faith. If a person is a true follower of Jesus Christ, then it will be demonstrated in how they live. “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18 NASB).
Ultimately, James is highlighting the importance of serving Jesus Christ. Works are the spontaneous acts that come from the fruit of the Spirit that demonstrates faith. Where there are no works there is no faith. “He [James] has no idea of disparaging faith, which he everywhere assumes as present and which he highly values. His point is that faith and works are inseparable in any properly constituted Christian life, and he argues this clearly and effectively” (Ropes, 35). Saving faith is revealed by works and not attained by works. James strengthens his argument by giving practical examples of what true saving faith ‘looks’ like in the life of a Christian. Consider just a few examples: The works of our tongue (how we talk to others) will evidence true faith (3:1-12). The works of our wisdom and good behavior (how we treat others) will evidence true faith (3:13). The works of the attitude of our heart (free of bitterness, jealousy, and arrogance) will evidence true faith (3:14-18). The works of our financial resources (how we spend our money) will evidence true faith (5:1-6).
James and Paul agree whole-heartedly that justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Both agree that “works” is not the means of justification. Rather, true faith in the Lord Jesus Christ produces works. Faith precedes works. Works serve as health indicators of faith.
How healthy is your faith?