A brief inquiry into the disparity between faith and works.
How the writings of James and Paul work together to bring to bear the eschatological effects of the gospel.
There is an ostensible discord between Paul’s and James’s treatments on faith and works. “For we conclude,” Paul affirms, “that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). The crux of Paul’s argument throughout his letter to the Romans revolves around the particular necessity of faith alone (Rom. 11:6). James, however, seemingly writes in contradistinction when he declares, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). These passages represent an apparent flaw in the New Testament presentation of the gospel. In fact, the beloved reformer Martin Luther even quipped that James is “an epistle of straw,” dismissing it as an apostolic piece of writing. “It is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture,” Luther declares, “in ascribing justification to works.”To be sure, the citations from Paul’s and James’s epistles are grammatically divergent, representing polar opposite assertions. Nevertheless, to extend that disparity theologically is both treacherous and tantamount to shipwrecking one’s faith altogether.
The fact of the matter is these seemingly disparate principles are not at all in contradiction with each other. Rather, they work melodiously to bring to bear the eschatological effects of the gospel. “Therefore, when properly interpreted,” R. Bruce Compton maintains, “there can ultimately be no conflict between the statements of the two authors.”To understand the full symphony of the gospel, one must take care to notice the wonderful harmony of James 2:20–26 and Romans 3:28—4:4. And it is of peculiar importance that both paragraphs are preoccupied with the Old Testament figure Abraham and the righteousness that was “credited to him” (James 2:23; Rom. 4:3).
Both James and Paul center their analyses of faith and works on the person of Abraham, most likely because Abraham “often exemplified the characteristics of the ideal Jew.”Likewise, Abraham represented the primary patriarchal figure by which the story of God’s covenantal deliverance of man is initialized. He, therefore, embodies the gist of early Jewish religious thought and practice. The same Mosaic reference from Genesis forms the lynchpin of both assertions. “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6; cf. James 2:23; Rom. 4:3) As such, Abraham serves as the exemplar by which faith and works function in accord with one another.
This is primarily identified as one understands the specific contexts which paved the way for each apostolic letter. For instance, Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians is a polemic against the annexation of their faith with works of the law in order to achieve justification (Rom. 3:20). Such notions were commensurate with invalidating the grace of the gospel by which one is declared righteous (Rom. 3:24–26). Paul’s insistence on faith alone is, therefore, articulated to combat the conviction that “something else” was necessary for one’s justification (Rom. 3:28). Faced with an opposite dilemma, James’s letter serves as a polemic against heterodox Christians, which, he will assert, is a contradiction in terms (James 1:22–25). The forceful diatribe of the uselessness of “faith that is dead” is meant to stir to action the people of God in works of love and mercy and “undefiled religion” (James 1:27), not in an attempt to procure the favor wherein one is justified but so as to epitomize the concomitant effects contained in the gospel. “The works that are to accompany faith thus find their ultimate origin in God,” B. Eastman affirms. “Thus for both James and Paul the demand for Christian works is predicated upon one’s experience of grace.”
Therefore, there is no discrepancy. “The issue here is not one of definition,” writes Compton, “but one of perspective.”Both James and Paul are upholding the good news of justification by faith alone, as seen in Abraham, but are employing it in their epistles to counter opposing corollaries. The controversy which concerns James is not where one finds justification, but rather, what one does in the aftermath of receiving justification by faith. It is unbecoming of the gospel to proclaim one’s generosity in charitable niceties and hospitable amenities without ever actually proffering them to a “brother or sister” in need (James 2:15–17). Paul would even agree (Rom. 3:31; 12:9–10; Gal. 5:6; 6:10). The “senseless person,” then, that James strives to address is one who, after accepting salvation by faith, sits on their hands and cherishes their faith only through verbal assent only (James 2:18–19). Such persons are those whose faith is dead (James 2:26). Faith that is alive is fundamentally manifested in works of mercy (James 2:12–13). After all, “a saint is not one who serves God in order to be forgiven,” as Scottish churchman Horatius Bonar affirms, “but one who, having found forgiveness, serves God in love and liberty as a forgiven soul, and with an enlarged heart.”
Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of James, 1546,” in Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1986), 35:395–97.
R. Bruce Compton, “James 2:21–24 and the Justification of Abraham,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 2 (1997): 21.
N. Calvert-Koyzis, “Abraham,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 1.
B. Eastman, “Faith, Faithfulness,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 365.
Compton, “James 2:21–24 and the Justification of Abraham,” 32.
Horatius Bonar, The Grace, the Service, and the Kingdom (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851), 22.