Faith and Works: Paul vs. James

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/05/2013

One of the thorniest textual problems any Christian can face is the apparent contradiction between Paul and James. Is justification by faith, as Paul claims, or by works, as James seems to say? This problem actually has a very simple solution.

For some Christians, one of the thorniest problems in the Bible is the apparent contradiction between Paul and James. It’s enough to make anyone committed to complete inerrancy wither.

In Romans, 5:1–2, Paul writes, “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God.”

James seems to say just the opposite, “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” This appears to be a first rate contradiction.

I have seen people twist themselves into theological pretzels trying to deal with this problem. There are a few unresolved conflicts in the Bible, but this is not one of them.

Justified by Faith

In Romans 4:1–5, Paul lays out his case for justification by faith. He goes back to the very beginning, citing Abraham as the archetype:

What shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ’And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.

Paul makes two points here. First, if Abraham is justified by works, if salvation is his personal accomplishment, dependent on his effort alone, then he can brag about it. Second, any system of works makes God indebted to the one who qualifies. Salvation is not a gift, but a wage paid to the one who earns it.

Then Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to prove that neither is the case: “Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

Two Terms

Two different terms used to illustrate Abraham’s salvation. The first is “reckoned,” and the second is “justified.” As you will see, these are two aspects of a single act of redemption.

The word “reckoned” is a term that emphasizes an action God takes on behalf of poor sinners. To “reckon” means “to credit to the account of.” God responds to our spiritual poverty with the abundant gift of righteousness. He places it into our empty bank accounts, under our names. In Paul’s words, “Though [Jesus] was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”

This transaction took place early in Abraham’s life. We read in Genesis 15:6, “Then he [Abraham] believed in the Lord and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Paul reminds us that Abraham “grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore also it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

From that time on God saw not Abraham’s spiritual poverty, but his wealth. Abraham’s moral bank account was rich with God’s righteousness.

“Justification,” our second term, is the result of this transaction. It means “to declare free of blame; to absolve.” Because God reckons righteousness to us, He declares us free from guilt, absolved, and pardoned. Reckoning, the action, leads to justification, the result. Therefore, salvation is a result of justification, which comes by faith.

Ever Heard of the Ten Commandments?

Salvation must come from God and not ourselves for one very good reason: Our bank accounts are truly empty. Once, while I was discussing God’s qualifications for heaven with a waitress, she said, “God will approve of me.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

The question was a pivotal one, but she’d never considered it. After a long, awkward silence she offered feebly, “Well, I don’t take drugs.”

“That’s good, but I think God is concerned about more than that,” I countered. “Have you heard of the Ten Commandments?” I began to list them.

  1. Have you ever given allegiance to anything else above God in your life?
  2. Have you ever used any thing as an object of worship or veneration?

  3. Have you ever used God’s name in a vain or vulgar fashion?

  4. Have you consistently honored God by worshiping Him on a regular basis?

  5. Have you ever disobeyed or dishonored your parents?

  6. Have you ever murdered anyone? (Jesus said in Matthew 5:22 that if you’re merely angry with a brother, you violate this principle).

  7. Have you ever had sex with someone other than your spouse? (Jesus said that if you look upon someone and entertain the thought, you’re guilty of sin here.)

  8. Have you ever taken something that was not yours?

  9. Have you ever told an untruth about someone else?

  10. Have you ever desired to have something that was not yours?

We’d only gotten through two before she began to wilt. “Now you’re making me feel guilty,” she complained. That’s the point. We are guilty, each one of us. This is God’s Law. These are God’s requirements. Yet is there anyone who doesn’t consistently violate every one?

Any attempt to whittle down God’s requirements to make them easier is doomed. The Pharisees tried this, asking Jesus which commandment was the foremost of all. Jesus answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Which of us does not violate each command hundreds of times a day?

The Built-in Defeater

We want to compare ourselves to other people, but that doesn’t work. We may fancy ourselves law-abiding citizens, but the truth is we’re a lot more like Hitler than like Jesus Christ, and His righteousness is the standard.

Saved by works? The Law gives us no hope because it has a built-in defeater to any attempt at justification by works: The Law demands perfection.

“Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Galatians 5:3).

James agrees. He writes, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10).

In God’s view, there are only two kinds of people: innocent and guilty. One violation of the Law, one sin, makes you guilty. This is enough to silence the most noble mortal: “...that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God” (Romans 3:19).

“The Scripture,” Paul concludes, “has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Galatians 3:22).

There is only one hope: God’s mercy. The Scripture is replete with this teaching. “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy” (Titus 3:5). “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 10:6). “If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2:21).

That’s why Paul states clearly, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies [absolves] the ungodly, his faith is reckoned [credited] as righteousness” (Romans 4:5).

But we still have a problem. Why does James contradict Paul by saying we’re justified by works and not by faith alone? He even quotes Abraham for proof of his point, just as Paul did.

One Word, Two Meanings

Whenever one encounters an apparent contradiction, it’s good to keep in mind a basic rule: Always first explore the possibility of a reconciliation between the two. Not all statements that appear to contradict actually do.

Take the two statements “Napoleon was a very big man” and “Napoleon was not a big man; he was a small man.” At first glance, these two sentences appear contradictory. The word “big” is equivocal, though. It can mean two different things. Napoleon was a big man regarding his impact in history, but was small in physical size.

Consult any dictionary and you’ll discover that virtually every word has more than one meaning. The word “peace” could mean cessation of hostility between two parties. When a war is over and the fighting stops, there’s peace. Romans 5:1 carries this sense: “Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Peace” could also refer to peace of mind, a freedom from anxiety or worry. This is what Paul had in mind when he promised that, after prayer, “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Proper interpretation of any passage depends on a clear understanding of which meaning is in view.

The word “justify” is no different. It has two meanings, not just one. In addition to “absolve, declare free of blame,” it can also mean “to demonstrate or prove to be just, right or valid; to show to be well founded.” In the case of salvation, the first is the cause; the second is the effect.

This second definition is what is usually in view when we use the word “justify” in English. “Justify your position,” we say. We’re asking for evidence; we want proof.

The Bible frequently uses this sense of the word, too. Jesus taught that a person’s true nature will be evident in his conduct:

The good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned.

Jesus teaches here that the man with good treasure brings forth good fruit, which “justifies” him. This external display demonstrates the quality of the man within. This is not justification in the sense of salvation. One’s words don’t absolve him (first definition). Rather, they bear testimony of the inner man (second definition).

The Crux

Now we face a key question. Which definition did James have in mind? How do we know when he uses the word “justify,” that James is not referring to salvation—as Paul clearly is—but rather is pointing to the proof of salvation?

This is remarkably simple to determine. The cause must come before the effect. Salvation must come first, before it can be evidenced in a changed life.

When Paul makes his case for justification by faith, he cites the beginning of Abraham’s walk with God in Genesis 15:5–6: “And He took him outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

The justification James has in mind comes much later in Abraham’s life, recorded in Genesis 22:12:

“And he said, ’Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.’”

Paul and James are cite two different times in Abraham’s life, events separated by 25 years. They can’t be referring to the same thing.

The works of Abraham that James mentions were a result of justification which came by faith a quarter of a century earlier. Abraham was not being saved again. Rather, he was showing evidence of his salvation. He was being confirmed in the justification by faith that had already been accomplished years before.

Abraham’s faith was no passive, intellectual exercise. He proved his faith to God. The words of the text show this to be true: “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” God witnessed Abraham’s faith first-hand, as it were. It was demonstrated. That’s why James concludes, “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ’And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”

James speaks to the man who is all talk and no action. His simple message is that true salvation always proves itself. That’s why he asks, “What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” The apostle John echoes the same sentiment: “The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him.”

One Coin, Two Sides

James and Paul go together. Like two sides of the same coin, they don’t conflict with each other; they complement each other. Both teach us something vital. Paul looks at what goes on internally; James talks about the external results. Paul says, “We’re saved by faith.” James says, “This is what saving faith looks like.”

My own interpretive paraphrase captures the sense of it:

(21) Consider Abraham for a minute (remember him, the father of true faith?). His life is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. He demonstrated to everyone the content of his faith when he obeyed God by offering up Isaac on the altar. (22) His action was a clear, visible demonstration to us that his faith was not a bunch of words. To him, faith and works went hand in hand; they were two sides of the same coin. The exercise of one caused the other to grow. (23) Years before, God had declared Abraham righteous because of his faith (“And Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” Genesis 15:6). Abraham’s obedience regarding Isaac was visible proof that God’s earlier declaration of his faith was accurate and well deserved. Abraham’s actions fulfilled God’s word, demonstrating his friendship with God.

The entire truth is conveniently captured for us in one passage, Titus 3:4–8:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.

Christians need “justification” plus “justification.” Faith alone saves, but faith that is alone is not the genuine article. It’s not saving faith.

Resources for Additional Study

Decision Making and Will of God