Does James Contradict Paul's Teaching On “Faith Alone”? (1 OF 3)
This last week as we began our celebration and study of the Protestant Reformation, I preached on the historical, theological and practical significance of the doctrine of Sola Fide (faith alone). Martin Luther—along with the other reformers—sought to answer the question: “How can we be saved?” Their answer: “by FAITH ALONE”.
The entire thrust of this statement serves to discredit the very prevalent thinking that works are a necessary prerequisite for salvation. But—as the reformers boldly argued—the whole of scripture testifies that our works do not commend us before God…rather they condemn us! Consider, the following verses: Ephesians 2:8-9, John 3:16, John 5:24, John 6:28-29, Acts 16:31, Romans 4:2-5, Romans 10:9, Philippians 3:8-9, Galatians 2:16, Titus 3:5, Hebrews 11:6—just to name a few. The Bible is [by no means] silent on this topic!
Perhaps one of the clearest one-liners in the Bible (concerning salvation) can be found in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
Sounds clear, right? I think it is. What, then, do we do with this verse in James 2?
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
Did you catch that? Paul clearly states that we are justified by faith APART from works, yet James says that we are justified by works and NOT by faith alone. And just to make make things even more confusing: both of these authors (writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), quote the exact same verse in Genesis 15:6 as a prooftext for their [seemingly contradictory] positions.
So what are we to make of this? Are James and Paul at odds here? And if they are, how can we consider the Bible trustworthy if it contains such blatant “contradictions”? The way that we view passages like these may have far-reaching implications on our view of scripture, doctrine, Christian living, and even our understanding of the nature of God. So…
DOES JAMES CONTRADICT PAUL’S TEACHING ON “FAITH ALONE“?
No. Not one bit. In fact, I believe that a careful study of these passages will reveal that James and Paul are in FULL AGREEMENT on faith, works, salvation, and Christian living. In the following three posts, I aim to give 3 reasons why James does NOT contradict Paul:
#1 PAUL AND JAMES ARE WRITING WITH DIFFERENT PURPOSES IN MIND.
In the opening chapters of Romans, Pauls’ main point is to explain how salvation works. He begins by explaining that while we all intuitively know that God exists (Romans 1:19), we have suppressed that truth in our hearts (Romans 1:18) even though our consciences bear witness to our guilt (Romans 2:15). This universal rejection of The Creator (Romans 1:25) has subjected all of us to God’s just punishment (Romans 2:5). Our rebellion is so pervasive that it contaminates our whole being. Because of this,
“…all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.'” (Romans 3:9-12)
Paul’s point: Your works cannot get you OUT OF this mess…because they got you INTO this mess!
The context of James chapter 2, however, is entirely different. James is not concerned with teaching his audience how they can be saved, but how they should behave since they ALREADY ARE saved. In fact, James already shows agreement with Paul’s understanding of salvation by saying:
“Do not be decieved, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1:16-18)
So, what is the origin of the “good works” James is going to introduce in the following chapter? God! Not only that, but how is it that a person is “brought forth by the word of truth”? “Of [God’s] own will”. This could hardly be called salvation by works.
WHO IS THE AUDIENCE?
But let’s look even closer at the intended audiences of these two passages: While Paul’s primary audience is believers (Romans 6:3-6), he addresses all of humanity (both Jews and Greeks) (Romans 2:9-11), and makes claims that apply to the whole world (Romans 3:23, Romans 8:20). However, James writes exclusively to the Church (i.e. those who identify as already having saving faith). Consider James 2 (the chapter in question): James refers to his audience as brothers (James 2:1, 5, 14), as those who are persecuted/oppressed (James 2:6), as those who are “called” (James 2:7), and as those who expect to be judged under the “law of liberty” (James 2:12).
To expect that what follows (James 2:14-26) is instruction on how a person can be saved completely misses both the primary audience and intended purpose of James’ writing.
SO, TO SUMMARIZE:
Paul is writing to explain how a person must be saved, while James is writing to encourage good works in those ALREADY saved.
In the next post I will address what Paul and James mean when they use the word “faith”.