Paul vs James – Faith vs Works?
Students of the New Testament will confront what appears to be a contradiction between the teachings of Paul and James on the principles of faith and works leaving many to wonder, “Is faith without works dead?” The following passage is in the words of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified… Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. (Galatians 2:16; 3:6-7).
Paul’s epistle to the Romans in Romans 3:28; 4:1-3 have similar teachings.
In contrast, James said:
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (James 2:20-21, 23-24)
These scriptures seem to pit the words of Paul against the words of James. Does justification come by faith alone, or is faith truly dead unless accompanied by works as evidence of faith? And are works essential to justification? This question has been debated for centuries between Catholic, Protestant, and LDS Christians, and usually this doesn’t bode well for either Paul or James.
While it is true that taking scriptures as a whole can help to clarify the doctrines taught by Paul and James, the matter still remains that these two apostles seemed to have a contradiction.
The clarity comes when these scriptures are studied in context. Was Paul’s message to the Galatians tailored to fit their specific need? What exactly was the context?
Context of Paul’s Message to the Galatians
We have every reason to believe that Paul’s message on faith was in response to the Jewish-Christian false doctrine that the Gentile Christians needed circumcision and other rituals in the law of Moses in order to be saved. In other words, this teaching can be understood in relation to what extent the Gentile Christians were to abide by the law of Moses. The law of moses had hundreds of commandments and prohibitions. While the apostles did teach that the Gentile Christians ought to abide by the Lord’s moral law detailed in the law of Moses, they affirmed that it was not necessary to abide by the rituals of the law of Moses.
Paul was very mindful of the atonement of Jesus Christ. In essence, to him, a believer who felt it was necessary to obey the law of circumcision was essentially saying that the atonement of Jesus Christ was without effect. This was, at many times, the context of Paul’s teachings about faith and works, and it is in this context that his teachings should often be understood.
What, then, are the works spoken of by James?
With Paul’s teachings being misunderstood and misrepresented today, is it not possible that they were also misunderstood and misrepresented in ancient times? If James’ teachings were in response to those of Paul, it seems to me to be more likely that they were intended to clarify and support Paul’s teachings, rather than to contradict them.
The key here seems to be the difference in what Paul meant by the word “works” and what James meant by the word “works.” Paul’s usage of the word “works” in this context was directly related to the rituals of the law of Moses. James’ usage of the word “works” referred specifically to actions and good deeds in line with the doctrine one professes to believe.
James is making a declaration about the nature of faith – that it is not a passive principle, but that it is very active. In other words, faith without works isn’t really faith at all, is it? One might say “I believe,” but true belief always brings evidence via works. James is affirming that real belief in Jesus Christ propels one to act in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, thus the scripture:
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? (James 2:14-20)
What does it profit a man to believe that there is a God and that Jesus is The Christ, if that belief has no effect on that man’s life? Even devils believe that there is one God, yet that belief alone does not cause them to embrace righteousness. Therefore, real faith must be something more than simple belief.
Is James’ declaration that man is saved by his own works alone? Or is he just showing us what true faith really is? I believe that James is giving us clarity on the topic of faith—that true faith is not a passive inclination. True faith in Jesus Christ is evidenced by our works. Grace creates good works.
In sum, it is clear to me that when these teachings are understood in their context, there is not any contradiction between Paul and James. Paul was teaching the Gentile Christians that they ought not live the “works” of the rituals of the law of Moses, while James was teaching that complete faith exists with Christlike works and obedience to the laws and ordinances of Christ’s gospel, or not at all.
Both James and Paul taught that faith in Jesus Christ was absolutely essential. Both of them had to be tried by faith before coming to believe in Christ. And both of them evidenced their faith by good deeds, obedience to the new covenant of Jesus Christ, and ultimately by dying the martyr’s death. They sealed their testimony of the risen Lord with their own blood.
All this being said, there is another level of understanding about Paul’s and James’ teachings about faith and works, as well as about the general topics of grace, faith, works, justification, justice, and mercy that this blog post doesn’t even begin to adequately address. I urge you to read more about the topic here: Salvation by Grace or Works?