This is a topic which has become near and dear to my heart, first as a seeker and lover of the truths of the scriptures and secondly as a pastor. I have met MANY believers who have nearly been shipwrecked in their faith or have fallen into serious error due to misunderstanding what Paul and James were actually saying.
Some of this is due to “little-to-no” actual studying of the passages in question. Other times it is due to bringing to a study, preconceived ideas which blind us to what is actually being taught. Taken together with these two problems is a way of viewing scripture which is wholly inconsistent with God’s method of inspiration rather than dictation.
Truth be told…the answers to this, and in fact MOST questions regarding scripture, are not hard to find and anyone who truly seeks for the truth could find it. So in the end, each individual is responsible for their own knowledge of the truth or their own falling into error.
Where do people “see” dis-harmony?
Well, people “believe” they see disharmony because of the way Paul and James address the topic of salvation.
James mentions the need for works, while Paul “appears” in a few places to outright deny the need for works at all.
I will give you two of the most famous passages which are used to illustrate this claimed difference, and then I will address them as clearly and concisely as I am able.
Romans 3:21-31, “(21) But now without the law there is a revelation of the righteousness of God, to which witness is given by the law and the prophets; (22) That is, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ, to all those who have faith; and one man is not different from another, (23) For all have done wrong and are far from the glory of God; (24) And they may have righteousness put to their credit, freely, by His grace, through the salvation which is in Christ Jesus: (25) Whom God has put forward as the sign of His mercy, through faith, by His blood, to make clear His righteousness when, in His pity, God let the sins of earlier times go without punishment; (26) And to make clear His righteousness now, so that He might Himself be upright, and give righteousness to him who has faith in Jesus. (27) What reason, then, is there for pride? It is shut out. By what sort of law? of works? No, but by a law of faith. (28) For this reason, then, a man may get righteousness by faith without the works of the law. (29) Or is God the God of Jews only? is He not in the same way the God of Gentiles? Yes, of Gentiles: (30) If God is one; and He will give righteousness because of faith to those who have circumcision, and through faith to those who have not circumcision. (31) Do we, then, through faith make the law of no effect? in no way: but we make it clear that the law is important.“
James 2:14-26, “(14) What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can his faith save him? (15) If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, (16) and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? (17) In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (18) But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. (19) You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe–and they shudder. (20) Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? (21) Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? (22) You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected. (23) So the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called God’s friend. (24) You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (25) And in the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different route? (26) For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.“
The topic & audience matters
Now the simple answer to this is that there is only ONE Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Both of these men are writing of salvation, only they are emphasizing different aspects of the same Gospel.
James was addressing Christian Jews. As such, many Jews had begun to forsake the works of the law since they knew they had righteousness with God by faith in their Messiah Jesus.
James was making it clear, that IF you truly ARE right with God by faith, your works will not contradict that by walking contrary to God’s nature which is revealed in the law.
James makes NO mention of righteousness being OBTAINED by works alone. He only says that if you HAVE righteousness, it is by faith (relational trust) and ANYONE who has genuine relationship with God by trust, will ALWAYS gives testament to that inner change by how they live their lives. They will produce works which uphold the character of God as revealed in the law.
Paul on the other hand, is addressing Christian Gentiles who were very familiar with the Old Testament Law. Paul, being a Jew who was preaching Jesus as the prophesied Messiah, would naturally cause the Gentiles to have questions regarding the necessity of keeping the law in order to be made right with God (to have righteousness). This would hold especially true regarding the need for circumcision to enter into covenant with God in the first place. Paul CLEARLY states that RIGHTEOUSNESS is obtained BY faith APART from the works of the law.
So to recap this distinction…
James was telling Jews that IF they truly have OBTAINED righteousness by faith in Christ, it will be evidenced by their works which will agree with the character of Christ, Who lived the law.
Paul was telling Gentiles that there was no way to OBTAIN righteousness by works of the law, but only through faith in Christ Jesus.
You see – two different audiences and two different topics!
Paul regarding Works
What Paul does NOT say here in Romans nor ANYWHERE for that matter, is that the works of the law are NOT important for those made righteous in Christ. In fact, Paul affirms the complete opposite MANY, MANY times!
Paul, as seen in our passage above, goes so far as to say that faith does not make void the law, but it actually establishes the law – proving it’s importance even under the New Covenant! He also tells the gentile churches that if they conduct their lives as if they were unbelievers, living in sin, they are clearly estranged from Christ. What is that, but an admission that works ALWAYS accompany true saving faith?
James regarding Faith
What James does NOT say throughout his book is that faith is not necessary. James in fact affirms the absolute necessity of faith in Christ Jesus for righteousness and salvation. In fact, the section of his letter in which his statement regarding the necessity of works ACCOMPANYING faith, begins with the words “My brothers, hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ without showing favoritism.”
James was NOT against faith, but only against false faith or what we might call mere mental assent. James own words emphasized this…
James 2:18-22, “(18) But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith from my works. (19) You believe that God is one; you do well. The demons also believe–and they shudder. (20) Foolish man! Are you willing to learn that faith without works is useless? (21) Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? (22) You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was perfected.“
Words are important
I think something which could help to clarify this issue is an understanding of what scripture is and what the words “law“, “grace” and “sin” mean.
First, Paul writing to Timothy (a half-Jew/half-gentile), told him that ALL scripture was profitable for what we should believe, for conviction of truth, for correction of error, for instruction on living righteously SO THAT the man of God may become MATURE, and completely equipped for every good WORK. [Paraphrased from 2Tim. 3:16-17]
Now this is HUGE because the New Testament writings were NOT officially recognized as or considered scripture until 629AD at the second counsel of Trullan. So what scripture was Paul talking about? The Old Testament! It was the ONLY bible they had!
This is where the importance of the words “law” &”sin” come in.
The word “law” as it is used throughout the Bible is VERY ambiguous. It CAN mean:
- The Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) – Matt. 12:5
- The Ten Commandments – Matt. 22:36
- The entire Old Testament
(Not to mention the civil, ceremonial, dietary and health laws)
In ANY of the above cases, the word “law” is always used in reference to the Old Testament or some section of it.
Now regarding the word “sin” we need to know that it has NO definition apart from the law.
You see the Gospel of Jesus Christ was and is inherently a Jewish gospel. It is one which is open to ALL, but it was FIRST to the Jews and SECONDLY to the gentiles. As such, the language and beliefs are STEEPED in Judaism*.
So when a New Testament writer speaks of “sin” we need to understand what they were saying.
The word “sin” is DIRECTLY tied to the word Torah!
The word “Torah” is a noun which means “the teachings or doctrine”. It COMES from the root word “yarah” a verb which means “the mark” as something an arrow is shot at.
The word most commonly used for “sin” means to “miss the mark” or to “disobey the teachings“.
This is why, in the New Testament the word for “sin” is used so often immediately near the word “lawless“. It means to live as if there is no law (teaching or doctrine) or as if the law does not matter at all. Remember that Paul said earlier that the law is both established and declared as important BY the New Covenant!
Consider the following verses from these various New Testament writers…
- Matt. 7:23; 13:14 – Jesus tells us that those who practised “lawlessness” will be told that He never knew them.
- Matt. 24:12 – Jesus speaking of the time just before His second coming when many will apostate from Christ, describes it as a time where lawlessness will abound, and the love of many will grow cold.
- Acts 2:23 – Luke refers to those who crucified Christ as lawless.
- Romans 4:7 – Paul says that those are blessed whose lawless deeds are forgiven (making lawlessness a BAD thing which NEEDS forgiveness).
- 2 Cor. 6:14 – Paul asks the rhetorical question, “What fellowship could righteousness have with lawlessness?”
- 2Thess. 2:8-9 – Paul calls the anti-Christ, “the lawless one“, whose person is according to the works of satan himself.
- 1Timothy 1:9 – Paul says that the law is written to those who live as if the law is not important.
- Titus 2:14 – Paul tells Titus that Jesus gave Himself up for us to redeem us from every lawless deed.
- Hebrews 8:12 & 10:17 – That writer reminds us of the promise from the Old Testament that under the New Covenant God would be merciful regarding lawless deeds and would not bring them back to mind as He did annually on the day of atonement under the Old Covenant.
- 2Peter 2:8 – Peter speaks of the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as “lawless“.
- 1 Jn. 3:4 – John tells us that EVERYONE (believer or not) who commits sin, commits lawlessness (or lives as if there is no law).
So you can readily see that the New Testament – with ONE voice – calls all sin lawlessness. This reflects a Jewish understanding of sin!
The last word we need to consider is the word “grace“.
Grace essentially means, God’s influence upon our hearts and it’s evidence in our lives including gratitude.
How do the “law” & “grace” come together?
Well, many times Paul talks about no longer being “under” the Law but “under” grace. This term “under” means to be a slave or under the oppressive control of another.
Paul illustrates this in Romans 7 by using the binding covenant of marriage as an illustration. We are no longer “married to”, “bound to” or “under the oppressive control” of the law.
That does NOT mean that the “works” which were laid down as “right” throughout the Old Testament, are somehow now “wrong”. No, right and wrong are what they are because of the character of God upon which they are based and defined.
- We are not to lie, because God is not a liar.
- We are not to steal because God does not steal.
- We are not to break covenant, because God does not break covenant…etc.
So, in order for right and wrong to change under the New Covenant, the New Covenant would have to have changed the nature of God Himself. The scriptures make it clear though that God does NOT change!
Paul tells us that the written law was something OUTSIDE of us and USED to be CONTRARY to our nature [Col. 2:14]. So the written requirements which WERE peripheral to ourselves, has been taken out of the way, and the contrary nature of our hardened hearts has been replaced with a new and softened heart – just like the Old Testament prophesied.
Ezekiel 36:24-27, “(24) For I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries, and will bring you into your own land. (25) I will also sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your impurities and all your idols. (26) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (27) I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and carefully observe My ordinances.”
Jeremiah 31:33-34, “(33) Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days”–the LORD’s declaration. “I will place My law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. (34) No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying: Know the LORD, for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them”–the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.”
Now to address one final objection. Some may read the above passages and say, “well that was written to Israel, not to Gentile believers”. As I said earlier, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Jewish Gospel. It was to the Jews FIRST then also to the Greeks. Paul clearly says, that not all Jews are of Israel.
Romans 2:27-29, “(27) A man who is physically uncircumcised, but who fulfills the law, will judge you who are a lawbreaker in spite of having the letter of the law and circumcision. (28) For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. (29) On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart–by the Spirit, not the letter. His praise is not from men but from God.”
…and beyond that we see those prophesies in Ezekiel & Jeremiah fulfilled IN GENTILES in Romans 2:13-16,
“(13) For the hearers of the law are not righteous before God, but the doers of the law will be declared righteous. (14) So, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, instinctively do what the law demands, they are a law to themselves even though they do not have the law. (15) They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences testify in support of this, and their competing thoughts either accuse or excuse them (16) on the day when God judges what people have kept secret, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.”
So NOW, rather than having an external list of “do’s” and “don’ts” we have an inward “list” which has been written upon our hearts. Furthermore, we are not UNDER that “law”, but rather we are under His direct influence!
God in the person of the precious Holy Spirit works WITHIN the true believer, causing them to will and do after the law – that is, after His good pleasure! [Phil. 2:13]
Wrapping it up
Neither Paul nor James were claiming that one is MADE righteous by the works of the law (Torah).
It is true though, that BOTH Paul and James taught that works consistent with the righteous REQUIREMENT of the law (Torah) will be fulfilled IN ALL true believers because we have been made righteous and therefore we walk not according to our flesh but according to the Holy Spirit!
I hope that this will help to clarify what on the surface “appears” as a disagreement between Paul and James – or that it will at least help start you on the right course to finding the rest of the answers you seek.
I know this was a LOT of information. If you have ANY questions or comments, I would consider it a privilege to hear from you. You may contact us from the “contact us” page.
*Judaism is NOT another belief system all together, though it DOES contain a different covenant (several for that matter). From the perspective of the New Testament writers, the Old Testament was the prelude to the New Covenant. Without it, Jesus could never have even been recognized as the Messiah, since it was the ONLY source of information regarding Messiah. Also, the Old Testament spoke clearly about the coming in of the Gentiles. The scriptures from beginning to end – from Genesis to Revelation are a progressive work of God revealing His passion for, pursuit of and redemption of mankind…BEGINNING with the Jews out of honor for Abraham and his trust (faith) in God!