One of the best-known tensions in the Bible is the seeming contradiction between Paul and James.
- Paul: We’re justified by faith, apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28).
- James: A person is not justified by faith alone (James 2:24).
If you’ve been around the Bible, you’ve likely considered this problem. Christians throughout the centuries have puzzled over it, and we might even say the central controversy of the Protestant Reformation hinged, at least in part, on how to understand the difference between Paul and James.
So what’s going on here? If we’re committed to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, our default answer will be that these two apostles can’t contradict each other. But what are they really saying? If we’re intellectually honest, do we have to admit a contradiction?
What Kind of Faith?
If we read James 2:24 isolated from its context, we could have a real problem, because if James means the same thing that Paul means by “faith” in Romans 3:28 or Ephesians 2:8–9, then James would be flat-out contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone. One of the fundamental rules of biblical interpretation, however, is that every text must be interpreted in its context. To understand rightly what James means by “faith alone,” we must read it in its context.
The central controversy of the Protestant Reformation hinged, at least in part, on how to understand the difference between Paul and James.
In James 2:14, the apostle points to a faith that “does not have works.” He then asks, “Can that faith save him?” He further explains what he means by “that faith” in verse 19. It’s the kind of “faith” that the demons have. That is to say, it’s a mere intellectual assent. The demons believe that “God is one.” They believe the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is true. They know Israel’s God is the one true God and that he will judge the world. As a result of this, they tremble. Not only do they believe the truth, but they have a proper emotional response to the truth. But this is not justifying faith.
James goes on to explain the kind of faith that justifies by pointing to the example of Abraham. And this example is perhaps where we can see most clearly both the different emphases of James and Paul and their fundamental agreement about the nature of justifying faith.
Both Paul and James quote the same verse: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). But it’s crucial to notice the time in Abraham’s life that each author is considering. In James 2, we’re standing in Genesis 22, when Abraham was preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Lord. Whatever squeamishness this story might produce in us, the sacrifice of Isaac is the fundamental act of obedience in Abraham’s life.
The sacrifice of Isaac is the fundamental act of obedience in Abraham’s life.
But Genesis 22 took place several decades after Genesis 15. Abraham was about 75 years old when God first called him (Gen. 12:4), and Genesis 15 was probably just a few years after Genesis 12. Isaac wasn’t born for decades—when Abraham was 100 years old (Gen. 21:4). And Isaac was probably close to his teenage years when Abraham brought him to the mountain to be sacrificed. In fact, one Jewish tradition says that Isaac was 37 years old in Genesis 22. At least we know Isaac had to be old enough to carry a bundle of wood for the sacrifice to the top of the mountain (Goodman, 130–31).
When we put all of this together, we see that Abraham’s obedience in Genesis 22 took place after decades of believing and waiting on God’s promises. James is pointing to this obedience when he says that the Scripture was fulfilled (James 2:23). When faith is rightly understood, Abraham was justified by faith alone. Yet his justified status didn’t remain alone. I think that is the sense of James 2:21, so that the role of works in justification is different from that of faith. Abraham was justified—granted the status “righteous”—when he believed God’s covenant promises. Full stop. Yet that righteous status had to be fulfilled by his faithful works.
James insists that the kind of faith that truly justifies results in transformation. It’s a faith that moves beyond believing what is true and even having a fitting emotional reaction. It’s a faith that rests in God’s promises and acts on those promises. It’s a faith that is ultimately inseparable from good works.
Different Than Paul?
James argues that any so-called faith that doesn’t result in good works is no saving faith at all. Is this actually any different from what Paul says in places like Romans 3–4, Galatians 2–3, and Ephesians 2?
Unlike James, who was arguing against a wrong view of faith, Paul fought against a wrong view of works. Regardless of how one defines “works of the law,” it seems that some argued that certain works had to be done for God to declare someone righteous. Paul responded emphatically that justification is by faith alone apart from the works of the law. But this doesn’t mean that he ignored the necessity of faithful good works.
Consider what Paul says in Romans 4, where he also quotes Genesis 15:6. Unlike James, who looks from Genesis 22 back to Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15, Paul looks forward from Genesis 15 to the rest of Abraham’s life. And as he looks forward from that moment when Abraham was justified by authentic faith, what was the outcome?
When understood in their proper context, it’s clear James doesn’t contradict Paul; on the contrary, they complement each other quite well.
Later in the chapter, Paul writes that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:20–21). His faith became stronger as his conviction in God’s trustworthiness to keep his promises increased. This certainly sounds like an increase in holiness and good works. And as the rest of Romans (not to mention Paul’s other letters) bears out, Christian obedience was certainly expected for those who are truly justified (see Rom. 6:1–14).
When James says we’re not justified by “faith alone,” he clearly doesn’t refer to the kind of justifying faith that Paul points us toward in Romans 3–4; when Paul says that we’re justified apart from the “works of the law,” he clearly doesn’t refer to the kind of faithful good works that James has in view.
When understood in their proper context, it’s clear that James doesn’t contradict Paul; on the contrary, they complement each other quite well.