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Does James Contradict Paul? Part 3 Faith Works

Part 2 we saw that Paul was the champion of salvation by grace through faith.  Our next task is to look at the book of James.  Does he teach we are saved by works?

Does James contradict the teachings of Paul?

Many people have struggled with some verses from the book of James.  Martin Luther once called the book a “straw epistle” when compared to the writings of Paul and Peter.  His complaint was it appeared James contradicted Paul and taught we are saved by works and not by faith alone.  Is this true?

In the verses leading up chapter 2 verse 21, James wrote practical aspects of showing the love of Jesus to others.  He dealt with how we should approach suffering, controlling the tongue, doing what God says, and not showing favoritism.  Up to this point James wrote a very practical book for the follower of Jesus Christ.  Beginning in verse 21 James wrote verses that seem to contradict the words of Paul.

James 2:21-26 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22  You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23  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. 24  You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25  In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26  For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” 

Looking at the underlined verses, some people wonder how this book ever got in the Bible.  Paul in Romans said we are justified by faith and not by works. James seems to teach just the opposite; we are justified by works and not faith.  On the surface this looks like a contradiction.

If God is the true author of the Bible we cannot have a contradiction.  God cannot contradict Himself.  How do we reconcile these two sets of passages?

One of the keys to solving the problem is to understand the word “justified.” It has more than one meaning. Paul used one definition of justified in Romans 4 and then James used a different one in chapter 2. It is not uncommon for words to have more than one meaning.  It is the context that dictates what definition is in view.

This is a very important point to remember when studying our Bibles.  Meaning is not derived by looking up a word in the dictionary.  The dictionary can give us the range of meanings but context will reveal the correct definition.

Let’s look at the word justification. There is a difference between when God justifies a man and when a man justifies himself. When I say to you, “Justify yourself,” what am I asking you to do? I am asking you to provide a reason for your actions, prove to me something about the nature of what you did.  You are being asked to show me something.  When God justifies a man, He doesn't show him something. He gives him something; God gives him righteousness.

So justification has two meanings. First, God justifies the ungodly. What does that mean? He gives them righteousness. He applies it to their account. He “reckons them righteous” is how Paul puts it.  One meaning of the word justify is to give righteousness.  God grants righteousness to all who believe.  The second meaning of the word justify is to prove to be righteous.  It has to do with a demonstration, just like when I ask you to justify yourself.  James says if you say you have faith prove it by your life; justify it by your works.

How do we know there are two different meanings that are in view? Both Paul and James quote Abraham, but they quote different periods of his life. Paul in Romans 4 quotes Genesis 15:6 “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteous.” This was the time Abraham becomes right with God.

Later on in his life, long after this event, God tested Abraham in Genesis 22.  It was a test of his faith. God says take Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice on the altar. When he obeyed God and does what he was told to do, God stopped him in the middle of it and said, you don't have to do this anymore, I have provided a substitute.  God then made a very important statement. In Genesis 22:12 He said, “Now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me.”  Abraham proved his saving faith was real; his obedience demonstrated his righteousness.

When Paul sought evidence for Abraham’s justification he quoted from Genesis 15.  When James wanted evidence for Abraham's justification, he quoted from Genesis 22, many years later.  Here Abraham demonstrated his righteousness and proved himself to be righteous.

Further, what's interesting is that not only did James quote Genesis 22, but he sees Genesis 22 as a fulfillment of Abraham’s salvation in Genesis 15. We read, James 2:22, 23 “You see that faith was working with his works [He obeyed God and was ready to sacrifice his son Isaac.], and as a result of the works, faith was perfected [shown complete; it was the real deal]; [23] 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. [1].”  James says in v. 23 and the scripture was fulfilled.  How was it fulfilled?  Abraham believed God and He made him righteous. 

Bottom line Paul and James are actually saying the same thing concerning a person’s salvation.  Both are saying we are saved by faith and not by works.  However, James goes further by saying a true faith will always result in actions; in doing good deeds.  In other words Abraham “proved” his faith by his works.

Go to part 4 here



[1] Koukl, Greg, “Faith & Works: Paul VS James,” Stand to Reason Web Site, 1995

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