Did James Contradict Paul?
Read James 2:20-21 (ESV)
Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?
Does anything in this passage from James confuse you? Why?
We know that Paul taught that we are not justified to God by the works that we do but through our faith in Jesus Christ. In Romans 3:28, Paul wrote: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
In Romans 4:5, Paul continued: “And to the one who doesn't work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” But he didn’t stop there. In Romans 5:1, he said, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul even explained this doctrine in another letter, his letter to the Galatians: “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
That is why so many people read the words of James in today’s verses and think: Wait, what? Did James and Paul disagree on core doctrinal issues? James said that our works do justify us and Paul said they don’t. Is James being heretical here in claiming that we can be justified to God by our works?
No, James was not being heretical. Considering the context of these verses solves the problem. In fact, reading verses in context rather than isolated from the rest of the text, solves most difficulties people have in understanding the Bible. Apologist Greg Koukl, with the Stand To Reason ministry, gives Bible readers this rule: “Never read a Bible verse.” Instead, he said to always read a paragraph at the very least. When we pluck verses from their context we can miss the big picture of what the author is communicating.
If you’ve been reading along with us the past week or so, you know that James has been explaining that faith apart from works is dead. He has not been arguing that works save us but that works demonstrate our saving faith. James has been explaining, in great detail, that faith and works are intrinsically linked. If you have one without the other, you have a useless faith!
That is what he is trying to communicate in today’s passage. Just as he wrote in James 3:18, when he mentioned that some people were trying to say “You have faith and I have works” as if you could have one without the other. Consider James’ argument in response to that line of thinking: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” How can we demonstrate a true, active and living faith if we never put our faith into action? James said that we can’t. A faith without works is a stagnant and useless faith.
James went on to give the example of how Abraham demonstrated just how strong his faith in God was when he obeyed God and offered Isaac up as a sacrifice. We’ll talk more about how Abraham put his faith in action tomorrow.
For now friends, remember this: Paul and James both believed that a saving faith is a changing faith. Paul spoke of becoming a “new man” with a changed life with changed behavior (Ephesians 4:20-24). He also believed it to be an active faith as evidenced in his first letter to Timothy in which he also commanded the rich to “do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share…” (1 Timothy 6:18).
But it wasn’t just Paul and James who made the point that genuine faith shows itself through works. The apostle John stressed loving in works instead of just words (1 John 3:17-18). Likewise, the apostle Peter spent most of 1 Peter 1 discussing that it is because of God’s great mercy that we can experience salvation through faith but then he wrote: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct…” (1 Peter 1:14-15). James did not contradict Paul, he was in agreement with Paul and with Peter and John. Works do not save us, our faith does. But our faith is a faith that works. Four apostles and early church fathers all agree on that.
Lord, I do not want to have a stagnant, useless faith but a living and active one! Help me live it! Thank You for speaking through Your apostles. When we read their writings carefully, we can see clearly that they were of one heart and mind about Your teachings and we can fully trust what they wrote. Your Word is a gift! Amen.