Does James Contradict Paul?
By John Piper. Â©2013 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. 18 But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." 19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. 20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS," and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one. 31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law. 4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? "ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS." 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
God's Word Does not Contradict Itself
We believe that the Bible is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). It is the very word of God, written. Therefore, we believe that the Bible is true and coherent. It does not teach us things that are false. It does not contradict itself. We believe this because Jesus Christ has made himself real to us and has shown himself to be the trustworthy Son of God. He has taught us that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). He commissioned apostles to teach the church and promised to lead them into all truth (John 16:13). And he has given us his Spirit to open our eyes to see reality for what it is (1 Corinthians 2:14-15). So we have come to receive his Word as the very Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13), free from error and contradiction, because God is true and not a God of confusion.
The Ambiguity of Words
But this does not mean that there are no problems for us in the Bible. We are finite. We are sinful. We are culturally biased. And language itself can confuse us when different words carry the same meaning, and when the same words carry different meanings. Take the simple English word "rock." It might mean a stone, or a kind of music, or something you do in a rocking chair, or a man's name. Or take the Greek word zelos which can be "jealousy" in a bad sense or "zeal" in a good sense. So if someone says to you, "I think we should strive to overcome all zelos in our lives," before you agree or disagree what should you ask him? You should ask him to define the term zelos. Or consider an Englishman saying, "Let's play football this afternoon," to which you respond, "No, I'd like to play soccer." What a waste if you spent the afternoon arguing about which you should play, when the word "football" to an Englishman, and the word "soccer" to an American mean the same thing.
So the same words can have different meanings. And different words can have the same meanings. This is true in the Bible as well as in all other books and conversations. Jonathan Edwards came to the end of one of his journal entries after arguing that the phrase "moral duty" was a redundancy, since "every duty whatsoever is a moral duty." And the last sentence is a sigh of resignation to the world of words: "O, how is the world darkened, clouded, distracted, and torn to pieces by those dreadful enemies of mankind called words!" (Miscellany #4). Of course, that's an overstatement, and while words are at times maddening, they are also a precious means of communicating.
But we do feel like Edwards sometimes when trying to solve problems in the Bible. The inspiration of the Word of God is like the incarnation of the Son of God. When the Son of God became a human being he became vulnerable to abuse and death. When the Word of God became human language, it became vulnerable to ambiguity and misunderstanding.
Apparent Contradiction between Paul and James
All of that introduction is simply to set the stage for the apparent contradiction between Paul and James on the doctrine of justification by faith.
Last week I made a case from Romans 4:1-5 for the truth that we are justified by faith alone, not by works. You can already see it, for example, in Romans 3:28, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law;" and especially in Romans 5:5, "To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness." So God's verdict of not guilty and his imputing his own righteousness to us in Christ at the beginning of the Christian life is by faith alone, with nothing else commending us to God. We trust his free grace to forgive us and acquit us and count us as righteous because of the work of Christ. That's how we get started in the Christian life – justified by faith alone.
Now you have just heard the verses in James that seem to contradict that. Let's note them again. James 2:21, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?" And James 2:24, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." So you see that James not only says that a person is justified by works, but he also denies that justification is by faith alone. At least he uses words that, on the face of it, in isolation, seem to mean something very different from Paul.
Does James Refute Paul or an Abuse of Paul's Teaching?
So the key question here is: Does James aim to refute the doctrine of Paul that justification is by faith alone, which would mean there is a massive contradiction in the Bible? Or does James aim to refute an abuse of Paul's teaching and bring a corrective for the churches he was writing to? I want to try to show you that James is not contradicting Paul here but teaching something compatible with Paul's teaching and correcting a misuse of Paul's teaching.
Paul was very aware that his teaching of justification by faith alone was being distorted and misused by those who said, "Well, if we are justified while we are ungodly by faith alone, and this magnifies the grace of God, then let's just keep sinning, because we are secure anyway and God's grace will get more glory." You can see this, for example, in Romans 3:8, "And why not say (as we are slanderously reported and as some claim that we say), 'Let us do evil that good may come'? Their condemnation is just." So he knows he is being slandered: "Paul teaches that the more evil you do the more good comes of it, because God's grace is glorified in justifying the ungodly."
Or consider Romans 5:20. Paul says, "The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more." Paul knows what some are saying, "Well, if grace abounds where sin increases what shall we say?" Romans 6:1, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" That's what they were saying, "Let's continue in sin that grace may increase."
Now Paul has answers to this kind of superficial distortion and abuse of his teaching. He has answers in virtually all his letters to show how good works and love necessarily flow from real justifying faith. For example, in Galatians 5:13 Paul says, "You were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." So we have a wonderful freedom from the commandments of God as a means of justification. But does Paul then just lay the works of love on top of that freedom as a layer of legal duty? You got a good start through justification by faith alone, but now there is another way, besides faith, to do what you ought to do and become a loving person?
Faith Works through Love
No. Look at Galatians 5:6, a crucial text in seeing Paul and James in harmony with each other. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." So when Paul dealt with the abuse of his doctrine of justification by faith alone, he said: It's not added works like circumcision that will win God's favor. What then? It is "faith working through love." Notice very carefully what he says. What counts with God? "Faith." But what kind of faith? Faith that "works through love." He does not say that what counts with God is "faith" plus a layer of loving works added to faith. He says that what counts with God is the kind of faith that by its nature produces love. But it is faith that gives us our right standing with God. The love that comes from it only shows that it is, in fact, real living, justifying faith.
Now that, I think, is what James was trying to get across to his churches. Loveless faith is absolutely useless; and anybody that comes along and says "We are justified by faith alone, and so you don't have to be a loving person to go to heaven" is not telling the truth.
Let's see how James corrects this distortion of Paul's teaching. Here's where you have to watch out for words – what does James mean by the words he uses? Even when his words may seem to be in conflict with Paul, is the meaning in conflict?
James' concern is with a kind of counterfeit faith that does not produce love. This faith cannot justify anybody. Verse 14: "What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" You see his concern. "Can that faith save him?" Such faith is not going to save. What kind of works is James interested in? The same kind Paul is – the works of love. Verses 15-16: "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?" So James' concern is that people have real saving faith, not counterfeit faith. And the difference is that the real faith produces loving behavior.
He has three ways of describing this counterfeit faith. First in verse 17, he says it is dead: "Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself." It is dead faith. If faith does not "work through love" as Paul said, it is dead. Second, in verse 19 he says, "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder." There is a faith that even devils have, namely, belief in right doctrine. The faith that justifies and works through love is not simply belief in right doctrines like, "God is one." Devils can be orthodox at the intellectual level. They believe. But it doesn't save them. So there is dead faith and devil faith. Third, he says in verse 20, "But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?" So there is useless, idle, ineffective, vain, empty faith.
So there are three ways in this passage that James talks about faith to show that the faith he says cannot justify is a faith that Paul would totally agree cannot justify – dead faith, devil faith, and useless faith -faith that has no vital life that works through love.
Abraham as an Example for Both Paul and James
Now how does James make his case from the life of Abraham – which was what we saw Paul doing in Romans 4? Well, he does it like this. He takes two events in the life of Abraham. The first (in James 2:22) is from Genesis 15:6. God promises Abraham a great host of descendants though his wife is barren. Verse 23 cites Abraham's faith from Genesis 15:6: "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." That is exactly what Paul does with that event and that verse (Romans 4:3). One thing is reckoned as righteousness: faith. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned as righteousness. Faith, not works, was reckoned as righteousness.
But then James notices that in Genesis 22:1 "God tested Abraham" by commanding him to offer up his son Isaac. What was God testing? He was testing his faith. What was he looking for? He was looking for the kind of obedience or works that shows Abraham's faith was not dead faith or devil faith or useless faith. So the issue in James 2:21 (where Abraham offers Isaac) is not the first act of justification that put Abraham in a right standing with God. The issue is the test: was Abraham's faith the living kind of faith that produces the "obedience of faith" or the dead kind that has no effect on life?
"Justification by Works" Defined by Paul and by James
So when James says in verse 21 that Abraham was "justified by works" he has a meaning in mind different from Paul's when Paul denies that a man is justified by works (Romans 3:28; 4:2; 4:5). James is answering the question: Does the ongoing and final reckoning of Abraham's righteousness depend on works as the necessary evidence of true and living faith? James' answer to that question is Yes. And Paul's answer is also Yes, in Galatians 5:6 (the only thing that counts is "faith working through love"). If you ask James and Paul, "How does an ungodly person get right with God and receive the righteousness of God in Christ as a gift?" both James and Paul would answer with the words of James 2:23: "Trust God (trust Christ) and that faith alone will be reckoned as righteousness."
But if you ask them, "Does justification as an ongoing and final right standing with God depend on the works of love?" Paul is going to say, "No, if by works you mean deeds done to show that you deserve God's ongoing blessing (the point of Romans 4:4)." And James is going to say, "Yes, if by works you mean the fruit and evidence of faith like Abraham's obedience on Mount Moriah." And Paul is going to say, "I agree with James, based on his definitions." And James is going to say, "I agree with Paul, based on his definitions."
So when Paul renounces "justification by works" he renounces the view that anything we do along with faith is credited to us as righteousness. Only faith obtains the verdict, not guilty, when we become Christians. Works of any kind are not acceptable in the moment of initial justification. But when James affirms "justification by works" he means that works are absolutely necessary in the ongoing life of a Christian to confirm and prove the reality of the faith which justifies.
For Paul, "justification by works" (which he rejects) means "gaining right standing with God by the merit of works." For James, "justification by works" (which he accepts) means "maintaining a right standing with God by faith along with the necessary evidence of faith, namely, the works of love."
To put it yet another way: When Paul teaches in Romans 4:5 that we are justified by faith alone, he means that the only thing that unites us to Christ for righteousness is dependence on Christ. When James says in James 2:24 that we are not justified by faith alone he means that the faith which justifies does not remain alone. These two positions are not contradictory. Faith alone unites us to Christ for righteousness, and the faith that unites us to Christ for righteousness does not remain alone. It bears the fruit of love. It must do so or it is dead, demon, useless faith and does not justify.
The glory of Christ in the gospel is not merely that we are justified when we depend entirely on Christ, but also that depending entirely on Christ is the power that makes us new, loving people. Depending entirely on Christ is how we are justified and how we are sanctified. Paul struck the one note. James struck the other. Both are true and together they bring Christ the glory due his name.