Is Justification by faith or by works? Does Paul Contradict James?
Martin Luther, the great leader of the Protestant Reformation, believed that the epistle of James was not inspired and should not be included in the canon of Scripture. He believed this primarily because, in his understanding, James taught that sinners would be saved by their obedience to God’s law. In other words, Luther rejected the book of James because he believed it taught justification by works. Luther said about James, “I do not hold it to be of apostolic authorship…firstly, because, in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the bible, it ascribes justification to works.” (Luther, Martin. Martin Luther, Selections from His Writings. 1st ed. Anchor Books, A271. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1961. 25.)
Is this true? Should we remove the epistle of James from the Bible? What does the Bible teach regarding justification? Do Paul and James contradict one another? In this paper I hope to demonstrate that James and Paul do not contradict one another, but that both teach justification by faith. I will do this first by explaining what the apostle James teaches in the second chapter of his epistle, then I will proceed to explain what Paul teaches in his epistle to the Romans. Finally, I will conclude this paper by summarizing a few principles of interpretation that I have used in deriving my position that the two men do not contradict one another.
Justification according to James
The primary concern of James from verse 14 to verse 26 of his second chapter is to communicate the spiritual truth that faith without works is dead. All that he wants to get across to his readers is what one wrong understanding of saving faith looks like. He does not expound a great deal on the essential nature of saving faith, but instead, he counteracts a false understanding of saving faith.
In verse 14, he introduces his antagonist. He describes a man who believes that faith can be without works. “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). It is important at this point, to notice that James does not say that this man possess faith, but rather, that he “says” that he has faith. It is also important to note that James is, from henceforth, speaking about a certain type of faith. James has presented a man that believes that faith is without works, thus he uses the word “faith” in that sense. Whatever your specific version of the english bible says at the end of verse 14, you need to realize that in the greek new testament, James uses the greek noun for faith, with the article, which is unusual.
In this case then, it is important to translate the use of the greek article as “this faith” and realize that James is referring to a specific type of faith and not faith in general. (Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 2002. James, Epistles of John, Peter and Jude. 90.) Thus, James is referring to, not the faith that saves, but to the false faith of verse 14.
In verses 15 and 16, James proceeds to explain that this type of faith is useless, by giving us an example. He tells us a story about a neighbor who provides no physical help to his friend. Someone, who needs food and clothing, comes to a house asking for both. But the neighbor at the door does not provide any shelter or clothing. Instead, he gives his friend at the door a cordial wish of well-being.
No matter how you look at the genuineness of the man doing the well wishing, you must understand the point being expressed. The man, doing the well-wishing, provided no help to the man in need. Thus, to the man in need, the well-wisher was useless. In the same way, faith without works, is useless. James restates this main point in verse 17, “Even so faith, it it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”
In verses 18, James develops this improper understanding of faith. He develops his antagonist argument by presenting the claim that one could separate faith from works. “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’”
James then proceeds to answer his antagonist by saying that James will show him, the true nature of his faith, by works. “Show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
James then gives an example that illustrates how wrong it is to think that one may divorce faith from works. He does this by referring to the faith of demons. “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” This example is very illuminating. It makes us think about the nature of faith, specifically; rather or not saving faith is equivalent to head knowledge.
The account of Jesus’ life in the four gospels is very clear regarding the head knowledge of the demons. Mark’s gospel gives us several accounts wherein, the demons clearly illustrate that they understood who Jesus was. “Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’” (Mark 1:23,24).
The demons believe in God. The demons are even orthodox in their understanding of God. They believe in the Trinity (or at least in the deity of the second person of the Trinity). But even the demons know that they are not saved, for they say, “Have you come to destroy us?” (Mark 1:24). So then, let it be known that head knowledge is not true faith. Thus, it is wrong to separate faith from works and to make faith simply cognitive in nature. Many know the gospel story. Many people would even acknowledge the deity of Christ or the resurrection. But that, in and of itself, is not saving faith.
Instead, James makes the case that “faith works”. Let me say that point in another way. Faith will be accompanied by obedience to God’s law. Faith will not produce perfect obedience, and faith may not even produce consistent and constant growth in obedience. However, when a person places faith in God, that person will produce works. Thus, it can be rightly said that “faith works”.
Then James goes on from verse 21 to verse 25 to make this aforementioned point clear via two illustrations. First, he shows that Abraham illustrates that “faith works” and secondly, he will show that Rahab illustrates that “faith works”. From here on out, I will refer to true saving faith as faith that works – or just simply – faith works. But please understand what I mean by that phrase. I do not mean that faith will function correctly. Rather, I mean that true faith manifests itself by acts of obedience.
Years before Abraham sacrificed Isaac, the Scriptures say, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). But how can I or you or anyone know for sure that Abraham possessed true faith? Could it not be that he was a fake, like Simon (Acts 8), or Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5)? We know because of what Abraham did. Thus, James tells us that the integrity of Abraham’s faith was manifested by his works, (Calvin, Jean, and John Owen. Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles. Edinburgh: Printed for the Calvin Translation Society, 1855. 315.) and in that sense he was justified by his works.
Notice in verse 22 how James structures his argument. Works is not the main thing that is being improved by faith. Instead, faith is the main thing, and faith is being made perfect by works. “You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;” I cannot emphasize enough the order of words. It is faith that is perfected and not works that is perfected. Because it is faith that justifies a man. The issue in the mind of James is rather someone has the right type of faith.
So then we come to the problematic verse of the chapter and that is verse 24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” But we must understand what James says in this verse from what he has already said in this chapter. A man is justified by his works, in the sense that, his faith has works. In other words, a man that claims he has faith but does not have works is not justified. We must understand that James is omitting the word faith and using the word works, to combat the false understanding of faith presented in verse 14. Faith without works is not faith at all and thus a man is not justified by faith – at least not that type of faith. But a man who has faith that is perfected by works is justified and, in that sense, the man is justified by works.
James goes on to give another example of true saving faith by using a gentile harlot named Rahab. In the same way that Abraham was justified, Rahab was justified. Not only are Jews justified by faith that works, but gentiles are justified by faith that works.
It is important to note that Rahab believed God before she hid the spies in the same way that Abraham believed God before he sacrificed Isaac. It is not to be misunderstood that works justifies a man. No! Faith justifies a man and the moment someone has faith, that is true faith, then they are justified. James is more concerned about this faith being manifested as true faith. But do not misunderstand true faith as taking place at the moment of works.
In order to help you understand the faith of Rahab, we need to go back to the book of Joshua. Rahab heard about the Israelites coming to destroy Jericho. She said to the spies,
“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the terror of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land have melted away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. When we heard, our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you, for the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Joshua 2:9-11).
This confession of faith by Rahab in Joshua 2:9-11 is most fascinating. She heard the gospel, not by a preacher, but by hearsay! She simply heard about Israel and the God that went before them from others and she believed that Israel’s God was the true God. How fascinating! Today, the revelation of God to man is complete, but to her, God’s revelation was incomplete. But, nonetheless, she had true faith in what she knew and was justified. And all of this happened before she hid the spies. But by hiding the spies, her faith was perfected and in that sense she was justified by works. But in reality, we know that she was justified in the same way that Abraham was justified.
To bring this passage of scripture in James to a close, the author sums up his argument in verse 26. “For just as the body without the Spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” He essentially says what he said at the beginning, namely, that faith without works is dead. James is primarily concerned about refuting a false understanding of faith. He does not give a full explanation of the nature of faith like Paul in the epistle to the Romans. Instead, James is simply describing faith from the perspective of what faith is not and faith is not without works. Faith is not divorced from works so that it becomes simple head knowledge like the demons. Thus, he concludes that faith without works is dead.
Justification according to Paul
If you are familiar with the bible to some degree, you may have wondered, “Does James contradict Paul?” The reason why some people think that James contradicts Paul is partly due to the fact that Paul clearly teaches justification by faith. Secondly, it is due to James use of words in verse 24. But do Paul and James contradict? What does Paul teach in Romans concerning justification?
After teaching in the first two chapters of Romans, that all men are under sin he says, “For we have already charged that both Jews and greek are all under sin” (Rom 3:9). Paul is combating the claim of the Jew that because they are Jews, and have the law, they are saved (Rom 2:17). Thus, he points out from the old testament that there is none righteous (Rom 3:10-18) and concludes by saying that by the deeds of the law, or by law abiding, no one will be justified (Romans 3:19, 20). It is within this context that Paul claims that a man is justified by faith. He makes that clear first in Romans 1:16, 17; and He concludes with this again in Romans 3:21-24. But he makes it most clear in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
A sensible man will acknowledge that Paul teaches justification by faith. However, having explained that James does not teach contrary to Paul, I am now going to explain that Paul also teaches that faith without works is dead. It is not beneficial to only point out that Paul teaches justification by faith. In light of what has already been said about James, I need to go on to explain that Paul also teaches that faith will be accompanied by works. In other words, both Paul and James have the same understanding of saving faith.
The primary way that Paul teaches that faith will be accompanied by works is by explaining faith in a positive sense. What I mean by that is simply that Paul does not explain faith from what it is not (like James) but rather from what it is in its true nature. In a word, Paul teaches that faith unites the Christian to Christ and by virtue of the Christian’s union with Christ, the saving benefits that Christ procured are given to the Christian.
In chapter 6 of Romans, after completing his primary case for justification by faith, Paul goes on to answer the accusation that if a man is justified by faith, then what keeps that man from living a lawless life? “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!” (Romans 6:1). Paul then proceeds for the remainder of the sixth chapter to teach that when someone places their faith in Christ they become united to Christ. Thus, as Christ died, they died. And as Christ was raised from the dead, they are freed from the slavery of sin. “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin” (Romans 6:6,7). The key phrase in the previous verse is that the Christian is freed from sin. In other words, Paul is teaching that when someone places their faith in Christ for salvation, that not only means that they are declared righteous and are justified before God. But that they are also released from the chains of sin and its enslaving power. In the same way that Christ was raised from the dead, so also is the Christian released from their state of slavery to sin.
In order to understand Paul’s teaching on faith, it is helpful to first understand what Paul teaches regarding man’s slavery to sin. He is, as it were, chained to slavery and thus, by implication of his chains, completely unable to break from those chains in obedience to God. “And you were dead in your trespasses and sin” (Ephesians 2:1). Thus, by faith a Christian is united to Christ, and by his union with Christ, the Christian is not only justified, but also freed from the chains of sin and empowered to obey.
But does it necessarily follow that Paul mandates that the Christian must obey or that the Christian is simply able to obey? Is it not possible that a Christian could have true faith and not obey even if he has the power to obey? Or is the Christian obligated to obey? As Paul develops his grand argument in Romans, he makes it clear to the Christian, that faith must have works, or in light of what James says in his epistle, faith works. Paul makes this very clear in chapter 8 by stating that the Christian is obligated to live in the Spirit. “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die. But if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:12-14).
Thus, Paul obligates the Christian to obey the law, not to be saved, but because they are saved. By virtue of the Christian’s union with Christ, they are empowered to live in accordance with the Spirit of God. Thus, Paul can say as strongly as James, that faith without works is dead. Both Paul and James teach that the Christian, as Abraham and Rahab illustrate, will obey God.
Three Important Principles of Interpretation
Now that I have explained to you that Paul and James do not contradict one another, I want to clearly explain a few principles of interpretation that I used in this paper and that you can apply to your study of Scripture. First, the immediate context of a passage of Scripture must be carefully understood. Secondly, the regional context must also be carefully understood. Finally, the reader of Scripture must understand that God is true and cannot lie.
The first principle of interpretation that must be understood is the importance of the immediate context. If the average person was to pick up James 2:24 and only read that verse then, the average person would conclude that a man is justified by obedience to God’s law. However, from the immediate context, as already proven, we understand that James is referring to works as the type of faith that contains works as opposed to faith without works.
Take another passage of Scripture for example. 1 Peter 3:21 says, “…baptism now saves you…” If we were to take that phrase out from its immediate context, then we would think that the waters of baptism themselves save. However, if we read its surrounding verses, it is clear that Peter is not teaching that the waters of baptism save, but rather an appeal to God thru Jesus Christ.
Perhaps my favorite example of a verse that is taken out of its immediate context is from 2 Chronicles 7:14, “ If My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” There is a sign, on one of the main highways in Opelika, Alabama, that simply has this verse on the billboard. And the hope is that Christians will see this sign and pray for America and then God will answer our prayers and heal our land. The problem is that 2 Chronicles 7:14 teaches no such thing. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is speaking to Israelites during the time of Solomon’s reign. “My people” refers to Israel and not America. God has made no such promise to America or any other country. I may have busted some of your bubbles, but that is the simple and plain truth. The kingdom of God is no longer isolated to a specific nation or land. Nor has God promised that he would heal a country, even if the Christians, in that country, genuinely appealed to Him. God has only promised to save the individual who repents and believes in the name of Jesus.
The second principle of interpretation is what I call the regional context. In other words, a general knowledge of the entire book is helpful with the interpretation of specific verses. For the purpose of our discussion about James and Paul and their apparent differences regarding justification, it is paramount that we understand the purposes of each epistle. James is writing to Christians who are in a state of persecution. He assumes they understand the gospel. He assumes that they understand the way of salvation. No place in this epistle does he expound on the way of salvation. He simply refers to them as “brethren” and moves on.
Unlike Paul, the epistle of James is very practical and proverbial. He gives specific guidance and several exhortations. In James chapter 2, he is most concerned with the antinomian tendency of someone who believes they can separate faith from works. Thus, the reader would be smart to consider what James is trying to do in the latter half of that chapter. He is not giving a systematic presentation on justification, but simply refuting a misunderstanding that has massive practical ramifications.
On the other hand, Paul in the letter to the Romans does not assume that the Romans understand the gospel. He has never been there and is burdened that they understand the mysteries of Christ. Thus he states his thesis in Romans 1:16,17 and goes on to systematically present and defend that thesis until the end of chapter 11. Paul is mainly concerned about destroying the legalistic understanding of the Jews and the way of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles. He does not get to practical issues until chapter 12.
Finally, the Christian must understand that God is true and cannot lie. All apparent contradiction are no contradiction at all, but only user errors. Not only should a Christian pay close attention to the immediate and regional context of a difficult passage, but the Christian must come to Scripture with the presupposition that it is what it claims to be – the true word of God. And by virtue of it being the word of God it is always true and coherent for “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18). The Scriptures speak one message for they were compiled by one author (the Holy Spirit) through the pens of several men. Thus, when a problem arises that is difficult to understand, the Christian would be wise to fall back on the position that their current understanding must not be adequate to solve the conundrum and refrain from concluding that the Scriptures are confused. This does not make the Christian’s faith a blind faith or divorced from the need to analyze the original documents and search for answers. All I am saying is that the Christian must remember that God is true and Cannot lie. Apparent contradictions must, therefore, by a misunderstanding by the reader and not an error on God’s behalf.
If you take these simple principles with you to a difficult passage, I am confident that you will be able to solve most problems. Certainly, these principles help us realize that Paul and James are not in contradiction. Instead, both teach that works must follow the person who places their faith in Jesus; for faith without works is dead.