James and Paul on Justification

John G. Reisinger

My preparation for this article on the apparent contradiction of Paul and James caused me to totally rethink my basic approach to the book of James. I realized that my whole understanding of James' view of justification was framed entirely in terms of his 'different' view, or emphasis, in relation to Paul's view. I thought, "Paul emphasizes faith and James emphasizes works." I was kind of like the people who think that Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God and Arminianism emphasizes the responsibility of man. We who understand both positions know that Calvinism has a far stronger view of man's responsibility than Arminianism. We also know that both groups believe in both the sovereignty of God and the moral responsibility of man, but the two views are as different as night and day. Both groups define both of the terms from totally different starting points. If we imagine Paul is emphasizing faith and in any way down-grading works or think that James is emphasizing works and denying salvation by grace alone through faith alone, then we have missed the point of both Paul and James. If we build our whole doctrine of justification only on what either Paul or James says, we will not have a biblical doctrine of justification. If we start by assuming one of the two writers is correct and is trying to correct the other one we will misunderstand both Paul and James.

Before we look at where Paul and James are said to disagree, let's note where they are in complete agreement. James insists that "faith without works is dead." Cut that anyway you want to but it will always come out that works, in some sense, is tied up, in some way, with true saving faith. But is that any different than Paul's teachings? Does not Paul insist on the same thing? The following text is quite clear:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10.

Paul insists that God has sovereignly ordained that our faith should cause us to walk in good works. Is that not exactly the same thing that James is saying? Are not Paul and James insisting on the same thing, namely, that works accompany true faith? Is not Paul emphasizing the necessity of a Christian walking in good works just as strongly as James?

We know that Paul is clear that sovereign grace imparts a new nature in regeneration that enables us to believe. Neither free will nor works of any kind play a part in the new birth. Even our faith is the direct result, never the cause, of that regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. But does not James teach the same thing?

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. James 1:17, 18.

Those two verses teach the absolute sovereignty of God in regeneration as clearly as anything Paul ever said. So where does that leave us? It seems quite clear that James and Paul are in agreement concerning the Doctrines of Grace.

I think one of the problems is that some people start with Paul and insist that we must reconcile James to what Paul said. Paul is the authority on justification and he has said all that there is to say on the subject. Others start with James and insist that we must qualify Paul so that he agrees with James. This implies that Paul either went a bit too far or else he failed to cover all the bases. Regardless, such views forget that the Holy Spirit moved both Paul and James to write as they did. It seems to me that both of these approaches must elevate either Paul or James above the other. This in turn must soon lead to thinking that one is correcting the other one in some way. The moment we begin to think like that we have lost the unity of the Scripture. We have already seen in the two passages quoted above that there is really no difference in Paul and James on either the subject of sovereign grace or the necessity of works in a true believer in some sense.

Unless we believe Paul and James actually contradict each other, we are forced to believe that they both sometimes use the same words in two different ways. Let me give a few examples. We will work with Romans 4:1–5 and James 2:14–26. It is perfectly clear that James and Paul are using the same man, Abraham, to prove that justification, in some sense, is both by faith and by works. The two passages will allow no other interpretation. "Was not our Father Abraham justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" (James 2:21) sounds pretty clear and dogmatic to me. "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness" is just as clear and just as dogmatic. It also seems that the two statements are contradictory. The question is, "Are Paul and James really saying two different things or are they using the terms faith and works in two different ways?"

First of all, when James talks about works in this section he is talking about works done by a man after he is converted. When Paul talks about works in Romans 4:1–5, he is talking about works done by an unsaved man prior to any conversion. That fact alone throws a lot of light on the subject. Paul is speaking of works having absolutely nothing to do with the ground of a sinner's acceptance before God. Works done by a sinner before regeneration and works done by a saint after regeneration are two different things. Works done to merit forgiveness and works done because we have been forgiven are not the same at all. James and Paul are talking about works in an entirely different context. We must keep in mind before conversion and after conversion.

It is clear that both James and Paul are talking to people who profess to be children of God, and in both cases Paul and James are challenging the validity of their hearers' conversion. However, each man is using a different yard stick upon which to base his challenge. Paul is saying, "You cannot be saved by grace unless it is 100% grace. Any mixture of works and grace totally destroys the truth of grace." For Paul (cf. Romans 4) salvation comes to the one who entirely quits working to earn salvation and turns in faith alone to the promise of God. "To him that worketh not" means exactly what it says. Paul is challenging the assurance of the legalist who would attempt to get into heaven by his own works.

James, on the other hand, is also challenging the salvation of his hearers but for a different reason. James is not talking to people who are trusting in works to get them to heaven. He is talking to people whose whole religion is made up of talking without any doing. He is talking to people who have no works in which to trust! James is not discussing the way of salvation but whether a given individual is really in the way of salvation. James is not discussing whether we are saved by faith or works, or a combination of the two, but rather, "What is the nature of saving faith?" Paul is declaring that man is saved by faith alone and James is saying that true faith is never alone but is always accompanied by works. James is talking about the nature of true saving faith. In so doing he is using the same terms as Paul. How are the following verses any different than the teaching of James?

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are [these]; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told [you] in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19–21

Paul is obviously talking about the need to do just as much as is James. Paul, in this text, is insisting just as strongly as James on a faith that produces tangible effects. Is Paul not clearly saying in this verse that, "Faith without works is dead"? Is there even the slightest difference between Paul and James on the need for works? Look at another passage in Romans:

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Romans 8:14

Paul is not denying salvation by grace through faith any more than James is in his epistle. Paul is here emphasizing the necessity of works and denouncing a faith that does not produce works just as strongly as James.

Let us move on to another apparent difference that is in reality the same thing from two different perspectives. When Paul is talking about works, he is using the word in reference to "works righteousness." It is the righteousness that is earned by obeying the law that is the focus of Paul's argument in Romans 4. It is works righteousness that earns a sinner acceptance with God by obeying the law covenant. That is not the main concern of James. The books of Romans and Galatians both deal with the law/grace issue. James is not directly concerned with that issue. Like Abraham's justification, it may appear on the surface that law and grace are the big thing in James but it is not. The issue is not law/grace but faith and works, and it is not works of righteousness from the law but rather works of faith from the new heart. It is a straightforward discussion on the nature of saving faith. The 'works of the law' versus the 'works of faith' are surely seen as radically different but that is not the main purpose of the epistle. The main idea in James is "faith without works is dead," but that is also one of the main themes of Paul. Paul is just as much an enemy of "easy-believism" as is James.

One of the most striking things in both Paul and James is the particular aspects of the law that they both use to prove their point. They both honor the law and insist that true faith obeys the revealed will of God. In some ways James is far closer to both our Lord's teaching and the Old Testament prophets like Micah and Paul would be closer to Moses. No one can question that one of the constant recurring themes in James is God's concern for the poor. James keeps bringing that subject up and reproves those who know the law but do not show mercy. Actually it is the centerpiece of his case against easy believism. Notice that the context of James 2:14–26 is about demonstrating our faith by showing a genuine concern and love for the poor. It is not a lack of 'law righteousness' that James is denouncing but a lack of sincere love and pity for those in need. The primary point of chapter two is to show that the same God that commanded that we not kill or commit adultery (cf. James 2:11) also commanded that we feed the hungry and cloth the poor. James is saying, "You may keep yourself from murder and adultery but if your law righteousness does produce the fruits of the Spirit in love and giving, you have missed the boat."

The accusation that we "blaspheme that worthy name" (2:7) is not in reference to breaking the tables of stone but to violating the "royal law according to the Scriptures." That is a deliberate, and most interesting, way of speaking about the Christian's rule of duty. In fact the whole section clearly shows that James is pressing the believer's conscience with the "law of Christ" as the fulfillment of the whole law of Moses. It is called the "royal law" because it is the law of our King, and also because it governs priests and kings. Breaking this "royal law" is referenced, not to breaking the Ten Commandments, but to failing to obey the clear commands of Scripture concerning our duty to the poor. We are declared guilty "according to the Scriptures," not guilty in the sight of the law covenant given to Israel.

Another point of agreement between Paul and James is their attitude to the law of Christ as the believer's rule of life. James and Paul reduce the law of God to the commandment given by our Lord. Paul says, "The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself' " (Galatians 5:14). James quotes the same law, "If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, 'Love your neighbor as yourself,' you are doing right" (James 2:8). It is interesting that James calls this law the "royal law" and to obey it is "doing right." He does not say "fulfils the law" but is "doing right." It is important to note the context in which both Paul and James quote this second greatest commandment in all of Scripture. First notice Paul:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other" (Galatians 5:13–15).

The freedom that a Christian has under grace is the spiritual ability, actually the indwelling Holy Spirit, to fulfil the whole law which is nothing less than "loving your neighbor as yourself." James calls this commandment of "loving your neighbor as yourself" that fulfills the whole law "the royal law found in Scripture." He sees this law as giving the freedom to love your neighbor as that expressed in refusing to show favoritism and treating the poor with respect (cf. James 2:8–12). James is not concerned with "works righteousness produced by law obedience." He is concerned with the fruits of the Spirit expressed as works of love in personal relationships, especially as those relationships involve the poor.

Look carefully at James' clear reasoning in 2:8–17. Notice carefully his use and argument concerning the use of the Ten Commandments versus the royal law.

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James 2:8–17

First of all, the basic exhortation is in verses 12 and 13. "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! We are to speak and act with the realization that we are going to be judged. The rule by which we shall be judged is the royal law and this royal law is found "in the Scriptures," verse 8. James then quotes our Lord's quoting of Leviticus 19:18. The thing to notice is that the Christian's duty for which he will be judged is not referenced to the Ten Commandments but to our Lord's commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Again, this is in total agreement with Paul. Notice how Paul does the same thing. He references the Christian's rule of duty, not to the Ten Commandments, but to the "sound doctrine according to the glorious gospel."

Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust. 1 Tim 1:9–11

It constantly amazes me that the people who insist that the "law was given to redeemed Israel (therefore it is still in effect in the church today) for their sanctification" never mention this verse. They do the same thing when they try to get the Ten Commandments back into the Garden of Eden. The law was given to sinners to convict them of sin. Adam had no need of the law unless he was guilty of the sins mentioned in these verses. Memorize and understand the above words, "The law was not made for a righteous man." The law was not made for Adam or for saved Israelites or Christians today. It was made for the ungodly. The Christian is under a much higher law than the old covenant law given to Israel.

It also amazes me that these same people never see that Paul does not say that all of these awful things are condemned not because they are contrary to the law, but because they are contrary to the "sound doctrine" that is set forth "according to the glorious gospel." The rule of life for the believer is the sound doctrines set forth in the glorious gospel and not the tables of covenant or Ten Commandments. This clear fact is not just set forth in 1 Timothy 1:9–11, it is the uniform teaching of the New Testament Scriptures. Look at Paul's words to Titus:

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority. Do not let anyone despise you. Titus 2:9–15

The grace of God has a teaching and constraining power of its own. The mantra that "love is blind without law" has been used to bleed the grace of God of all power to change and direct a saint's life. We will grant that the new morality deified love and sat it on the throne of God. However, the answer is not to throw love out the window and then deify law and sit it on the throne of God. God is not law anymore than He is love.

Notice also that the goal of Paul's exhortation is not that the law, for its own sake, might be upheld, but that even a poor Christian slave's attitude of service might make "the teaching about God our Savior attractive." Everything is Christ centered and grace empowered, not duty centered and law empowered! Why does Paul instruct a servant to obey his master? Because the Ten Commandments teach it is a servant's duty to obey his master? No, that is not correct. Look at the text:

Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ. Ephesians 6:5

The servant is to obey "as unto Christ." His eye is to be on the risen Lord and not on Moses. His obedience must grow out of an attitude in his heart that only the Holy Spirit can put there. The servant's goal is to glorify Christ his master. And how does he do that? By obeying the rule of Christ in such a way that "the teaching about God our Savior [is made] attractive." Oh, that some godly men whom I greatly admire would only learn that we are ambassadors of Christ and not Moses!

Look carefully at James' exhortation to obedience. Notice again the reference point and ground of his appeal.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does. If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:22–27

James equates "listening to the word" to looking into the "perfect law that gives freedom." That perfect law is the gospel of grace (cf. Romans 8:1–4). The freedom that the gospel gives is, on the one hand, the freedom of conscience to go boldly into the Most Holy Place with a conscience cleansed (cf. Galatians 2:1–5), and on the other hand, it is the freedom from self gives the ability to love and serve others (cf. Galatians 5:13, 14), especially the poor, for Christ's sake. The man who obeys this perfect law that gives this kind of freedom is the truly godly and sincere religious man. He is not a talker but a doer. The really godly man is not the pious self-centered man with no compassion. No, no! The true man of God's lifestyle is clearly defined by the Holy Spirit. It is a "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." Reformed theology has not always had a good track record in this kind of religion.

We did not finish looking at James 2:8–17. If verses 12 and 13 are the basic exhortation, then verses 8–11 define the real difference between pious but empty talking and true religious doing. The Scripture often gives a lesson in terms of greater and lesser. The examples usually amaze us. We would not have classified the same laws as 'weighty' that Jesus did when He upbraided the Pharisees for being ever so careful to do some things while leaving weightier things undone. I fear that some sovereign grace people get a bit nervous with James simply because he puts certain sins in a different light than we do. We go very heavy on adultery and murder, and so we should. However, James reminds us that the same God who wrote those commandments on the tables of the covenant also commanded us to love and care for the poor and needy. James' argument that if you break one point of the law you are guilty of breaking it all is given in the context of comparing murder and adultery with showing favoritism to the rich and neglecting the poor. James will not allow us to pick and choose between any of those things. They are all equal laws for the Christian.

The parable in verses 14–17 is powerful. James show how empty and futile a pious law abiding life is if it not empowered by love to my neighbor as myself. The dead faith in James is not the man who breaks the law and commits murder or adultery, but he is the man who refuses to feed the hungry even as he piously promises to pray for the poor man. The parable is not meant to teach the theology of justification. It is meant as pure sarcasm to a legalist without a heart of compassion. Can you imagine a godly Christian telling a starving brother, "I will pray that God will meet your need," and then closing the front door and sitting down to a turkey dinner. That is the kind of 'works' James is talking about. That is the kind of faith James is ridiculing. That is not the kind of justification James is defending. In the form of a clear parable James is showing what he means when he insists that Abraham was justified by works. Here is a paraphrase beginning at James 2:14:

Verse 14—"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith [He may say this to God, to himself, to other people but his saying it does not make it true], and have not works? can faith [or that kind of faith] save him?" The key word is the word say. The entire discussion is based on the assumption that saying you have faith is not enough to prove that you actually do have faith. The obvious question is clear. Can true faith exist in a person's heart without any evidence at all? James is saying, "No."

Verses 15, 16—"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?" Such a scenario profits no one at all. It does not profit God's gospel, the poor naked and hungry man, the community looking on, or the individual who refuses to help a brother in need. The obvious answer to James' question is, "It profits nothing or anyone, period." We could add, "The 'nothing' in verse 16 and the 'no' in verse 14 would both be true even if it was a pious Calvinist speaking and acting (no pun intended).

Verse17—"Even so faith, if it hath not [any] works, is dead, being [totally] alone." Again, we insist that the subject of James is not, "How are sinners saved, by faith or by works?"—but rather, "What is the nature of true saving faith?" A dead faith to James is the same as not true faith. I am totally opposed to holding assurance of salvation hostage to 'fruit inspectors' who use guilt to manipulate and control sincere Christians. However, this text insists that faith cannot exist without some works. As we mentioned before, both Paul and James wed faith and works in some sense and to some degree.

Verse18—"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." The key here is to see this as a conversation between two people without any reference to God at all. We cannot see another person's heart nor can we even perfectly judge our own. James comes back to the "a man may say" and he means exactly the same thing that he meant in verse 14. Saying I have faith does not prove that I have faith. The whole point here is that the only way another person can give any credence to my testimony that I have faith is if that person sees the evidence of my faith in my works. This is a "you show me" and "I will show you" dialogue that does not consider God at all. He does not need us to tell him nor does he need to see anything outward. He sees our heart. We cannot see each other's heart nor can we adequately judge our own.

The one thing that "work mongers" (Martin Luther's phrase) totally miss in this passage is the meaning of the word works. Verses 17 and 18 are as dogmatic as anything you can read. James forever kills easy-believism. However, the works that proves the validity of the true faith have nothing to do with the tables of the covenant, or Ten Commandments. The parable of verses 14–18 never mentions or in any way, either explicitly or implicitly, tie the works up with obeying those tablets. The whole 'fruit testing' is built on our feeding and clothing a hungry and naked brother. It is the royal law of love that is the standard for judging the faith that truly justifies. Me thinks that maybe we need a little more of both James and Paul on the subject of the works that prove we have saving faith.

(From: Sound of Grace-Volume 5, #8)


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