James and Paul on Faith

Biblical Studies Aug 25, 2013

I was sitting in on the “Open Forum” (an free-for-all Q&A time where students can interact with our faculty members on any issue) and one of the students asked about the apparent contradiction between James’s and Paul’s teaching on faith.

This question reminded me that I had written a paper on a few weeks ago and thought you all might find the discussion interesting. Hope it’s helpful!


Sola Fide Sorta Kinda

It is more than a little bit awkward for this protestant to realize that the only occurrence in the New Testament for the phrase “faith alone” is in James 2:24 where he says, quite explicitly that, “man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (NASB, emphasis added) It is similarly uncomfortable to see that Paul seemingly contradicts James saying that it is “the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly is credited as righteousness.” (Roman 4:5) And it is downright annoying that both Apostles draw their argument from the same Old Testament text, “Then he [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) This presents us with two texts by two apostles that ask a rhetorical question about Abraham, argue for contradictory positions, quote the text and come to exactly opposite conclusion. The table below displays these texts side-by-side.

Romans 4:1-4 James 2:21-24
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Criterion for Contradiction

This tension in the text, however, only exists if we assume that the texts are in fact talking about the same thing in the same way to the same people. In other words, we can only conclude that it is a contradiction if Paul is talking about the intersection of faith and works in the same way that James is talking about it. On the other hand, if they are speaking differently, then it is not a contradiction, it is just a disconnection. To discern this, the following questions will be explored, (1) what do Paul and James assume about the faith and works for their audience? And (2) are they quoting Genesis 15:6 in the same way?

What Do Paul and James Assume About the Faith and Works for Their Audience?

To answer this question, I will not focus on the intended audience of the books, but rather the intended audience of the respective passages. Both Paul and James clearly identify their target audience by the way they argue. For Paul, he is attempting to bring a theology of faith unifying Jews and Greek under the justifying work of a unified God. He writes,

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. (Roman 3:27-30)

It would appear then, that Paul is at least writing to an audience who has works of Torah, but perhaps not faith. James seems to be confronting the reverse,

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:14-16).

Therefore, James’s audience, it would appear, has quite a bit of faith but no works at all, putting their situation at the opposite end of the spectrum as the Romans’ situation.

Are They Quoting Genesis 15:6 In The Same Way?

When James speaks of Abraham’s “works”, he mentions a specific work: the sacrifice of Isaac. James asks his reader, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” (James 2:21) The sacrifice of Isaac happens seven chapters after the faith expression. In James’s argument, Abraham believes God in Genesis 15 and obeys God in Genesis 22. James then sees this obedience as a “fulfillment” of the promise making his faith “completed”: “…as a result of the works, faith was perfected [NASB margin, “or completed”]; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says…” (2:22b-23a). So James seems to see Abraham’s work teleologically.

Contrariwise, Paul has no such end in mind in this passage. Instead, he continues to discussion the Genesis 15 promise. In other words, rather than jumping ahead to Abraham’s obedience on how his obedience is an expression of the faith he had in God’s promise, Paul lingers on the faith/promise experience. Paul writes that “…the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness….” And explains how the Psalmist saw this faith/promise as well, “just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works…” (Romans 4:5-6). He then goes on to quote Psalm 32:1-2a, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity…”

This is not to say that Paul does share James’s teleological view of works as a fulfillment of the promise given to those who believe. In Galatians 5:13-14, Paul expresses a similar, Law-fulfillment to those who have freedom from the law because of their faith. He explains,

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

More pointedly, when trying to exhort people to righteous living (as James is trying), Paul uses similar language to that of James. For example, Paul writes to the Philippians and says, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling…” (2:12). In this text we have both obedience and works shown to be salvific, much in the same way as James describes it. In fact, he very clearly instructs them to “work out” their “salvation”. Furthermore, he considers his ministry to be bringing people into an “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5, 16:26).

Textual Conclusion

Therefore, James, speaking to an audience who claims faith while expressing no “justifiedness” (or righteousness), says that such a “faith” is not a faith at all because it is fruitless. Paul, speaking to a group of people who have so much self-made “justifiedness” that it amounts to Spiritual bragging rights (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9), says that that true righteousness comes prior to obedience to any law. James is arguing that obedience flows from believing God’s promise. Paul is arguing that justification flows from believing God’s promise.

At the beginning of this paper, the established criterion was that Paul needed to be talking about “the intersection of faith and works in the same way that James is talking about it…” But Paul is not talking about the intersection of faith and works like James is, Paul is, in fact, not talking about that intersection at all. Paul is not addressing obedience in this passage, suggesting that he contradicts James is, in effect, arguing from silence –an unnecessary argument from silence because, as we saw in Philippians 2:12, Paul is not silent on the issue that James addresses and when Paul speaks, he agrees with James.

In this light, it is clear that Paul and James are not contradicting each other; they are simply disconnected from each other, trying to speaking different but related truths to vastly different audiences. The confusion comes because they very similar language and examples –proving that the entire conversation predicates on an amateur insistence that Romans 4 talk about what Philippians 2 is talking about for the sole reason that it match what James is talking about. It is a completely unnecessary convolution.

Teaching All Of It

Confidently concluding that James and Paul actually agree on the role of faith and works gives me a solid foundation for Christian ministry. Paul argues that what is started by the spirit cannot be finished by the flesh (Galatians 3:3). He also tells the Philippian church that his confidence is in the fact that, “…He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) Paul similarly exhorts his reader to “walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16) and that they should “work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). James puts it all succinctly and simply says “…just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”

These teachings are the blueprint for true, Spirit-filled ministry. If ministry is going to be truly efficacious and truly lasting, it has to reach out for the whole counsel of God. In that way, it isn’t actually complicated, God has clearly mapped out the road to heaven: justification, sanctification, glorification (Romans 8:30), all written by God and designed for our participation and his glory (Ephesians 2:10).

This “all of it” calling brings a more subtle application to me, personally. The Biblical authors do not shy away from difficult, theological discussions. But for them, the discussions are never abstract. In the ministry counsel I hear often, it is full of false dichotomizing, “Essential” and “non-essential” doctrines. God’s “sovereignty” and “free will”. “Content” and “Application”. However, when Paul and James see such issues, they address all of them head-on. This is the sort of “reaching for all of it” ministry that I want to have: to see the whole theological board and teach the people of God from all of it so they can pursue all of God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength.

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