You’ve Got Questions: Does James’ Teaching About Faith and Works Contradict Paul’s Teaching About Faith and Works?
When climbing from lowlands to mountaintops, one must often pass through clouds. While ascending to the peak, sight soon becomes fogged. When you enter a layer of clouds, it helps to have a guide to help you avoid loose rocks that you can’t see as you try to get the best views of the mountaintop. I hope that this article will serve as a guide to clarification regarding the compatibility of the teachings of Paul and James about faith and works. If you’ve studied the Scriptures for long, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. We often receive questions along the lines of “Explain how these verses do not contradict!” or “Look, here is an error in the Bible!” If you are troubled in answering your skeptics or just desiring clarity from theses passages of Scripture, I pray that you are helped by the information presented here. I want you to get the best view of the mountaintop of truth that is evident in these passages.
The Obstacle in Our Journey
The obstacle that we have approached in our journey of Bible study is this: Does James’ teaching on faith and works contradict Paul’s teaching on faith and works? To answer this question it is important to understand that there are difficult passages of Scripture. There are verses that appear to contradict each other. We must remember that the Bible was written by approximately 40 different authors over a period of around 1500 years. Each writer wrote with a different style, from a different perspective, to a different audience, for a different purpose. We should expect some minor differences. However, a difference is not a contradiction. It is only an error if there is absolutely no conceivable way the verses or passages can be reconciled.
James writes in his letter “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24; out of context), while Paul writes to the Romans “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28; also out of context). Some see an apparent contradiction by saying that Paul is teaching salvation by faith alone and James is teaching salvation by faith plus works. This apparent problem is solved just by examining the contexts of the passages.
The Clouds Dissipate
To begin, let’s look at an earlier verse where this concept began: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (James 2:21 ESV). On the surface, James may seem to contradict Paul. Paul denies that Abraham was “justified by works” (Rom. 4:2), arguing from Genesis 15:6 that Abraham’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). However, James’ assertion in this verse (that “Abraham [was]. . . justified by works”) is based not on Genesis 15:6 but on Genesis 22:9-10, where (many years later) Abraham began to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Thus, James apparently has a different sense of the word “justify” in view here, as evidenced by the different Scripture passages, and the different events in Abraham’s life, to which James and Paul refer. The primary way in which Paul uses the word “justify” emphasizes the sense of being declared righteous by God through faith, on the basis of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice (Rom. 3:24–26), whereas the primary way that James uses the word “justify” here in James 2:21 seems to emphasize the way in which works demonstrate that someone has been justified, as evidenced by the good works that the person does (see Matt. 12:33–37).
With that biblical concept in mind, some clouds have hopefully dissipated as we now look at the verse in question. “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). James again seems at first to contradict Paul’s teaching that one is justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28), but the two are compatible. For James, “faith alone” means a bogus kind of faith, a mere intellectual agreement without a genuine personal trust in Christ that bears fruit in one’s life. Recall how the “demons believe—and shudder” (2:19). He is arguing that simple mental assent to the Christian faith does not save anyone. The faith that saves, as both Paul and James both affirm, embraces the truth of the gospel and acts accordingly. Therefore, the conclusion drawn is that James, in agreement with Paul, argues that true faith is never alone: it always produces works (Eph. 2:10).
I have heard it said well before that Paul is emphasizing the purpose of faith: to bring salvation. While James is emphasizing the results of faith: a changed life. Paul expects just as much of a changed life as James does: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). James and Paul do not disagree in their teaching regarding salvation. They approach the same subject from different perspectives. Paul simply emphasized that justification is by faith alone while James put emphasis on the fact that genuine faith in Christ produces good works.
Keep Digging and Digging
The Bible is a book that is not merely for reading. It is a book for studying so that it can be applied. Through careful study in the contexts of our passages above, the answer is discovered. If vigorous study of the Word is neglected, then it is like swallowing food without chewing and then spitting it back out again—no nutritional value is gained by it. The Bible is God’s Word. As such, it is as binding as the laws of nature. We can ignore it, but we do so to our own detriment, just as we would if we ignored the law of gravity. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough just how important the Bible is to our lives! Studying the Bible can be compared to mining for gold. If we make little effort and merely “sift through the pebbles in a stream,” we will only find a little gold dust. But the more we make an effort to really dig into it, the more reward we will gain for our effort. “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:16).
The following message was delivered at Ohio Valley Baptist Church on the 8th day of September 2013:
What God is Like in Salvation
Let me just say this: the more you know God, the more you want to know God. The more you feast on His fellowship, the hungrier you are for deeper, richer communion.
And the truth is, that clear knowledge of God from the Word of God is the kindling that sustains fires of affection for God. This is a great reason our love for God sometimes grows cold, because we’re not immersing ourselves in the Scriptures. And probably the most crucial kind of knowledge you can have is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. And that’s where Ephesians 2 comes in. Let’s look at it together.
Paul wrote Ephesians to the churches around Ephesus. He had a very close relationship with the Ephesians (and you can read about that in Acts 19, 20). We read of Paul’s last encounter with them in Acts 20 where Paul says to the Ephesian elders that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” He then gives them careful exhortations to take care of the church and then we read that “when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. And there was much weeping on the part of all. . . they embraced Paul. . . [and were] sorrowful most of all because. . . they would not see his face again” (vv. 23, 36-38). So he had a close relationship with them. He wrote this letter during his imprisonment in Rome, and what makes this letter different than many of his others (Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians) is that there is no specific problem that seemed to have inspired this letter. Unlike the “problem churches” of Galatia (O foolish Galatians!) or the sexually immoral church at Corinth.
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
What Has Brought Us to This Place in Ephesians?
Paul has just prayed that his Christian readers might know the greatness of God’s power towards them, and then praised God for exercising that same mighty power in raising Christ from the dead and exalting Him to be head over all things for the church. Now we come to our text which can be divided into three sections.
Dead In Transgressions and Sins (2:1-3)
Following this prayer, he now concentrates on his readers in a special way. He is describing their pre-Christian past in terms of their being “dead in the transgressions and sins” (v. 1). Concerning “dead in trespasses and sins,” Paul was telling the Ephesians, “Hey, dead is dead.” He was telling them that they were dead in trespasses and sins, they were totally unresponsive to God. They were dead.That they had no natural tendency to desire or want God, and they as human beings, being sons and daughters of Adam, enter the world spiritually dead. Now what did God say of Adam if he were to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? God said, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17 ESV). This is exactly what has taken place. Paul teaches elsewhere that “just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12) Paul teaches in Romans 5 that we have been set in the mold of Adam’s sin. And what we have inherited from Adam is guilt, shame, and yes death. The “trespasses and sins” refer to offenses against God in thought, word, or deed.
Dead is Dead
This passage is describing all of humanity and that includes us! Dead is dead and apart from the grace of God, we too are “dead in our trespasses and sins!” Every one of us have sinned (Rom. 3:23) and the Scripture says “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Before Christ, before God transformed us through His Spirit, before He made us a new creature (2 Corinthians 5:17), before God justified us (in one moment), before God grafted us into the family of God (the universal church), before we were reconciled to God, before we were ever “born again” we were dead in our trespasses and sins We have been born of the seed of Adam, and we have absolutely nothing good in us! Nothing. We have no natural tendency to want God, “there is none that seeks God” (Romans 3:11).
Paul also says that the Ephesians followed the “course of this world” that they looked, thought, and acted like the world. In the same way, we too were following the course of this world right through the gate that is “wide and the way [that is] easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many” (Matthew 7:13). In addition, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6) The apostle also says that they followed the “prince of the power of air” which is a reference to Satan himself. And as has been well said before “Satan’s not concerned about the lost; he already has them in his grips. It’s Christians he is trying to tear down.” And how true is that. Those without Christ are in his grips.
Recalling The Past for Magnification of God’s Mighty Action in Christ
What I want you to notice is that Paul is recalling their pre-Christian past, not to humiliate or depress them, but to draw attention to God’s mighty action in Christ! That what happened on the cross was the blazing center of the glory of God and the greatest outpouring of His grace and compassion that the world has ever seen. The fact that the God who is “rich in mercy” has acted on their behalf when they were totally depraved, totally undeserving, totally unresponsive, totally separated and in fact dead is what makes the good news Good News indeed! Have you ever heard of what the most popular Bible verse is? “God helps those who help themselves.” You’re eyebrows are raised justly, because you know as well as I do that it’s not in Scripture. The Ancient Greeks came up with the phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” and Paul is saying the exact opposite: God helps the helpless. What’s more is God helps His enemies who have transgressed His holy law!
Bankrupt Without Jesus
How are we to see the cross as Good News if we don’t first understand the weight of our sin? How can we see Christ as the greatest treasure if we don’t realize that we are totally bankrupt without Him? How can we know we need eternal life if we don’t first realize that we are dead, hostile to God, and enemies of God? If you don’t realize you’re a sinner, you won’t recognize your need for a Savior. Certainly, one of the most humbling things for us as believers is realizing how undeserving we are of what God has done for us through the cross.
Because of His Great Love and Mercy God Made Us Alive With Christ (2:4-7)
Paul then tells the Ephesians what mighty acts God has done for them through Christ. This is the total opposite of what Paul has already said about the sinful state of man. Just when things seem hopeless, Paul utters the greatest phrase in the history of the universe: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us. . .” (v. 4). It is essentially important to understand that Paul is saying here that God’s “great love” flows completely from God’s own heart, not from anything good foreseen in us and not anything we have done to deserve it.
In v. 5, Paul resumes his thought from earlier by saying “even when you were dead. . .” And he is saying that the Ephesians have experienced the same power of God that was effective at Christ’s resurrection! The Bible says that the same Spirit that rose Christ Jesus from the dead is the same Spirit that lives in us and has given us life (Rom. 8:11). Furthermore, he is talking about the amazing miracle of salvation. That all in one moment everything changes. God gives you spiritual life at conversion based on nothing that you had done. In v. 6 Paul says that because of Christ’s resurrection, those who believe in Him are given new life at conversion and will be given renewed physical bodies when Christ returns. Of course, “seated us with him in the heavenly places” is a reference to heaven.
Heaven: Everlasting Enjoyment of Jesus
There aren’t many things more comforting and overwhelming than to know that because of God’s immeasurable grace, that we will spend eternity with Him forever! Just to know that we will forever be in the presence of Almighty God in never-ceasing worship! Everlasting enjoyment of Jesus! Listen to what Revelation says, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). Read that again. And again. What grace is this! Hallelujah! He isn’t saying that we will be receiving the worship, but He is describing an intimate, everlasting love that we will experience forever. I don’t know about you, but all I want to do is to be on that throne with Him.
No more disease or sickness is great. The greatest family reunion you’ve ever experienced will surely be pleasant. No more sorrow, pain, death or sin is eradicated. Mansions, streets of gold, a place prepared for us, and walls of jasper will be great. . . But what makes heaven good? We don’t ask ourselves this question often enough. The supreme good of heaven is the fact that God is there and we will finally see and savor God Himself! What makes heaven good is the everlasting presence of Almighty God and how we will never, ever be separated from Him! Glory to God. Thus, you have the beauty of God’s mercy and grace that Paul talks about: That the gospel is the story of how God did everything necessary, most painfully in the death of Jesus, His Son, to enthrall us with what is most deeply and durably satisfying: God Himself!
And before we move to the next section, Paul tells us God’s further purpose of why He lavished His grace upon us when we were undeserving: “so that in the coming ages. . .” (v. 7). That God saving us was a demonstration of His grace for all eternity. So that we will forever marvel at the great mystery of God’s love and grace for a humanity who are fully deserving of capital punishment.
God’s New Creation (2:8-10)
Now we come to one of the most favorite sections in the Bible. This salvation which met the dreadful needs of the human predicament involved delivery from death, wrath, and slavery, described in vv. 1-3. This entire passage implies that everything about salvation is a gift. Here’s why it must all be about grace: If there were one iota in this entire salvation process where credit could be given to you, then you would get the glory. But because salvation is something God directs, carries out, and sustains, He gets all the glory. God’s passion is for His glory and anything that wounds that glory is sin. Concerning v. 8, the point being made, then, is that the response of faith does not come from any human source but is God’s gift. Paul teaches here that salvation in every aspect is not your own doing.
Now Paul talks about how we are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. . .” (v. 10). Paul is saying that salvation is God’s workmanship from first to last! God initiates salvation. He directs our salvation (Romans 9:11; Ephesians 1:4-6), He carries out our salvation (by sending Christ to absorb our punishment; Acts 20:28; Romans 8:32), and sustains our salvation (those God saves are eternally secure; John 10:27-29; Romans 8:29-30). Let me say again: God loved us before time (before the foundation of the world He chose us as a people for His own possession, Ephesians 1:4; Romans 9), He carried out our salvation by sending Christ to atone for our sin and to die in our place (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24), and He sent us His Spirit to indwell us with His life and give us the power we need to live the Christian life (Romans 8; Ephesians 6:18-20), and He sustains and keeps us to the end. Paul attests to the perseverance of the saved to the Philippians : “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:8).
Good Works Are the Consequence
Good works are the results of a changed life and this is in direct contrast to what Paul said we previously walked in. Now he says to “walk” in good works (v. 10) Of course we know, just by the facts stated in this text that salvation is “not a result of works” (v. 9); however, as we know the Scriptures teach that good works are the results of a life changed by the grace of God: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). Salvation is not based on works, but the good works Christians do are the result and consequence of God’s new creation work in us. Some argue here that there is a contradiction in Paul’s teaching on good works and James’ teaching on good works. However, Paul is emphasizing the purpose of faith: to bring salvation; and James is emphasizing the results of faith in Christ: a changed life. There is no contradiction. This truth can even be discovered without bringing James into the picture. We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works. . .” (v. 10)
Faith or a Delusion?
Faith is more than a feeling. As we see in Hebrews 11, faith should have a story attached to it. Recently I was reading an article about a psychiatrist and his wacky patients. In the article he addressed the beliefs of his patients that had no basis in reality. A patient may sincerely believe he could fly—but that didn’t mean anything because there was nothing to back that up. The patient might be an abusive husband that sincerely believes abuse is wrong—but he doesn’t really believe that because his stated belief is contradicted by reality. The psychiatrist didn’t call these things “beliefs” that his patients had. He called them “delusions.” And folks, a belief, no matter how sincere, if it’s not reflected in reality, it is not a belief; it’s a delusion. What’s more, is if you think you’re on the right road because of what you have done, then you’re wrong! We are saved, as our text says, because of the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”(v. 7).
For example, if someone asks you “Are you a Christian?”. . .and your mind immediately goes to the fact that you teach a Sun. School class, you go to church, you put some money in the plate, you volunteer from time to time. . . then we need to get our perspective in a different place!
Because do you really want to take credit for your salvation when you stand before God at judgment (Heb. 9:27)? No you don’t! You want to say “By grace I was brought to faith! By Your immeasurable love and grace!” It was that grace that triumphed over your resistance to God.
In conclusion, I ask you this morning, What will you say at the judgment?
The Bible says in the gospel of John, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God” (1:12). Have you received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? He will not turn away anyone who wants to come to Him. I plea to you that you would run to the cross for the “immeasurable riches of His grace.”