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:

The common but incorrect interpretation, leading to an apparent contradiction between Paul and James:

Errors with these interpretations:

  1. 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)
  2. 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).
  3. 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, James does mean people’s faith, primarily believing in God (2:23) but also believing in Jesus (2:1).
  4. 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).
  5. 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.


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.

. Paul James
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)
(i.e., Jesus' 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)
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)

Return to the main webpages on
Paul's Letter to the Galatians or Paul's Letter to the Romans or the Epistle of James.

Electronic New Testament Educational Resources

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This page was last updated on April 17, 2009
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