Paul & James on Faith & Works by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
Many readers of the New Testament misinterpret both Paul and James, thus concluding that their statements about faith and works contradict each other. That is simply not true! There are differences in emphasis, but no contradictions in teaching, if one understands both properly.
Paul and James agree that both "faith" and "works" are essential parts of Christian life, although they have different roles. Paul and James also agree that salvation ultimately comes from God and from Jesus Christ, not from us or anything that we do.
However, since Paul and James wrote to different audiences in different situations about different problems, their letters have different presuppositions and different emphases. To combat the opinion of some people that circumcision and other "works of the law" were necessary for Gentile converts to early Christianity, Paul stresses that the foundation of our salvation is the death of Jesus, not the laws of Moses. To combat the opinion of other people that professing faith in God is enough for salvation, James stresses that Christians must put their faith into concrete action.
What Paul and James actually wrote:
Galatians 2:16 - "Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in/of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in/of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law." (see all of Gal 2:15—3:14)
Romans 3:28 - "For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law." (see all of Rom 3:21—4:25)
James 2:24, 26 - "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone... For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead." (see all of James 2:14-26)
The common but incorrect interpretation, leading to an apparent contradiction between Paul and James:
Paul supposedly said: Justification comes not by our good works, but by our faith in Jesus alone.
James supposedly said: Justification comes by our good works, not by our faith in God.
Errors with these interpretations:
Paul is not talking about "good works" in the sense of "charitable acts"; rather, he says "works of the Law" (Gal 2:16; 3:2-12; Rom 3:28), which refers to the Jewish/Mosaic laws on circumcision, sacrifices, dietary restrictions, etc.
When James says "works," he means acts of charity = care for widows, orphans & the poor, love for neighbors, etc. (James 1:27; 2:8; 2:15-16)
Paul is not opposed to "good works" or "charitable actions"; he sees them as necessary consequences (although not the foundation) of authentic Christian living (see Gal 5–6; Rom 12–15).
Conversely, James is not opposed to faith; he presupposes it, and then stresses that authentic faith must be put into action (James 2:14-26).
Paul is not talking primarily about our "faith in Jesus," but rather the "faith of Jesus" in God (i.e., Jesus' own trusting in God; see Gal 2:16, 20; Rom 3:22, 26); based on this foundation, our faith in God/Jesus is a necessary (but secondary) response.
In contrast, Jamesdoes mean people’s faith, primarily believing in God (2:23) but also believing in Jesus (2:1).
Paul does not presuppose the same definition of "faith" as James does; for Paul, "faith" means "trusting" God, or "entrusting oneself" to God's plans (Rom 4:3-22).
For James, "faith" is more of an intellectual assent to theological truths, e.g., "believing that God
is one" (2:19; even demons can "believe" in God's existence).
Paul did not write the word "alone" in Rom 3:28; Martin Luther was the one who added the word "allein" in his German Bible translation. James does not write "by works alone" but stresses "not by faith alone"; he maintains that both have to go together.
The Example of Abraham,
Interestingly, to argue their points, both James and Paul appealed to the example of Abraham in Gen 15:6, but in a different way.
Genesis 15:6 - "And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness."
Galatians 3:6-9 - "Just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' 7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.' 9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed."
Romans 4:1-3, 10-12 - "What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.' ... 10 How then was it reckoned to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the ancestor of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, 12 and likewise the ancestor of the circumcised who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the faith that our ancestor Abraham had before he was circumcised." (see all of Rom 4:1-25)
James 2:21-23 - "Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (cf. Gen 22:9-18) 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. 23 Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God.
In other words, Paul argues that Abraham was justified (in Gen 15) before he was circumcised (in Gen 17),
while James argues that Abraham's faith/trust in God was completed and evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (in Gen 22).
Rather than contradicting or disagreeing with each other, it seems that James (probably written after Paul's letters) intended to correct some misinterpretations of Paul's teachings that seem to have arisen in some circles of early Christianity.
Definitions of Key Terms:
"faith" = trusting acceptance of God's will (cf. Rom 4:3-5)
"works of the law" = regulations of the Jewish Torah (cf. Rom 3:28-31)
"faith" = intellectual assent to theological truths (2:19)
"works" = good deeds; putting religion into action (1:22-27)
Foundation of Justification, Reason for Salvation:
Jesus' actions: the "faith of Jesus" in God (cf. Rom 3:22, 26)
trust, that led to his death on the cross)
not our actions: not fulfilling the "works of the Law" (cf. Rom 3:28)
adoption: God gave us birth by the word of truth (1:18)
and election: God chose the poor to be heirs of the kingdom (2:5)
Consequences for People, Results of Being Saved:
1) We need to have faith/trust in Jesus (Rom 1–11) and
2) We need to live ethically, doing good not evil (Rom 12–15)
1) Our faith in Jesus, and 2) our works of charity;
both are necessary together (2:14-26)
Example of Abraham:
Abraham was justified by faith (in Gen 15)
already before he was circumcised (in Gen 17)
Abraham's trust in God (declared in Gen 15) was shown
and completed by his willingness to sacrifice Isaac (in Gen 22)