Does James Contradict Paul?

Part 8 in an 8 part series. View series intro and index.

Over the centuries, some have argued that the apostle James in his letter contradicts Paul’s doctrine of justification.  The proof text for this, they say, is James 2:14-24.  James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24).   The argument people make, however, is that we need faith in Jesus plus works, not simply faith.  This is unconvincing for (at least) two reasons:

  1. James’ context is to convince people that intellectual faith is not enough to save them.  He says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?” (2:14).  In other words, there is no fruit of the Spirit in this person’s life (Gal. 5:22-23).  Are they even saved in the first place?  Probably not, James would say.  James wants his readers to not have dead faith or demon faith (vv. 19, 26).  He says that faith without works is dead—meaning that it is not alive and therefore doesn’t exist.  It’s not really there at all.  So in Paul’s mind, justification is a legal act of God in which he declares a person not guilty.  In James’ mind, justification is a person’s righteous actions that happen because of God’s legal act.  If the first kind of justification never happens, the second will never happen.  James wants people to test their faith.  Is it simply intellectual? traditional? cultural?  Make sure, James says, that you aren’t dead or demonic.
  2. Paul continually quoted and referred to Abraham being justified at a much earlier time than James refers to.  James refers to Abraham being justified in his actions much later in his life.  The Greek word dikaioo can also mean, “To show, exhibit, and evidence one to be righteous, such as he is and wishes himself to be considered.”  James is concerned with practical, daily living (the book is referred to as “The Proverbs of the New Testament”).  When James writes that Abraham was “justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar,” he is referring to an action later than what Paul refers to.  Paul quotes over and over again Genesis 15:6 in Romans 4.  Abraham doesn’t offer up Isaac until Genesis 22:10.  Perhaps there were 15 or 20 years in between these events (Abraham had to wait for Isaac’s birth, and Isaac would have been old enough to walk up the mountain with Abraham).  That is why James writes, “The Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (v. 23).  Abraham simply proved he had faith with his works.

This is a clear teaching in Scripture and one that separates Christianity from essentially ever other religious system in the world.  Christianity teaches that we come to God by faith because of his grace.  Other religions teach that we come to God by mustering up good deeds, hoping that we will have accomplished enough.  This takes all the pressure off of us to perform for God or “keep our slate clean” before him.  It shows that God is a loving,  gracious, merciful, compassionate, and forgiving God.  Wayne Grudem said, “This fact should give us a great sense of joy and confidence before God that we are accepted by him and that we stand before him as ‘not guilty’ and ‘righteous’ forever.”

That deserves a great “Amen!”