James, Paul, and Justification

By Cory Carwile

...nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. Galatians 2:16; Paul

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. James 2:24; James (half-brother of Jesus and pastor of the church in Jerusalem)
The apparent tension between Paul and James has been a topic of much debate and discussion throughout the history of the Church. That said, we shouldn't think Paul is speaking against James in Galatians 2, and neither should we think James was the leader of the Judaizers Paul argues against in Galatians and in Romans. The best argument for this is from the earlier parts of Galatians: in Galatians 1:18-2:10, Paul identifies James (and Peter, whom Paul closely identifies with James) as major pillars of the faith. Paul's credentials to the church in Galatia are that James and Peter offered to him the "right hand of fellowship," showing that they apparently had no issue with Paul's teaching (or vice versa). It's true that only a few verses later (2:10-14) Paul speaks of his disagreement with Peter, who behaved legalistically after "certain men came from James," but this was hardly a declaration of heresy; Paul is saying Peter is acting inconsistently with the teachings of Gospel, but is not saying that Peter (or James) is in error. The point is that Paul considered James to be one of the leaders of the Church, and considered James' blessing proper credentials for teaching among the congregations of Christians throughout the world — Paul does not see himself in conflict with James, and James seems to think the same of Paul. But if James and Paul are on the same side, then why the apparent disagreement (a major disagreement indeed!) in the books of James and Galatians?

Much of the tension comes from the ambiguity of the language used in James and Galatians. When Paul speaks of justification, he normally is referring to our ultimate, objective status before God, our legal standing with God, if you will. In this sense of justification (arguably the most important sense) we are justified by our faith: God isn't looking to see if we've been "good enough" to earn Heaven, but only if we've placed our faith in His only Son, Jesus Christ.

When James speaks of justification, by comparison, he is mostly speaking of the outward evidences of our changed heart. Namely, sincere saving faith (the kind Paul normally talks about as justifying us) will always manifest in our lives as good works. This is why James says things like "Show me your faith apart from works, and I will show you my faith by my works" (2:18) and "faith apart from works is dead" (2:26). It isn't that James is diminishing the importance of faith, but rather emphasizing the need for our faith to overflow in good works visible to ourselves and others. James is speaking against a hypothetical someone (or someones) who says "I don't do any good works, but that's fine because I have faith, and that's what saves me." James is saying (correctly) that such faith is a dead, insincere faith.

Similarly, Paul is quick to point out in Galatians that justification by faith alone entails the expectation of good works and a loving attitude: "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another" (Galatians 5:13-15), "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another" (5:24-25). Paul, who spends most of the book talking about how we aren't saved through works of Law, but rather by faith, also insists that our faith does not excuse us from doing good. There is an expectation that if we are really saved by faith we will do good works, as that shows God's Holy Spirit living within us. Though he doesn't put it in so many words, Paul also believes that faith without works is dead.

The other reason for the tension between these two writers may be the different audiences they are writing to. Paul, on the one hand, is writing to a group of Christians who believe they need to keep the Law of Moses (or at least certain parts of the Law of Moses) in order to be saved. On the other hand, James is writing (presumably) to Christians who believe they are at full liberty to behave however they want, since their faith has already saved them. Both the errors Paul and James are writing against are spiritually destructive, both will lead to a shallow, incomplete Christianity, and thus both errors require strong, direct language in their refutations. Thus, even though Paul and James both admit that good works are the outflowing of true faith, both use strong language against their opponents which comes off as harsh when compared with one another's writings.

James is not saying that one earns one's way into Heaven, as evidenced by his insistence that works are a display of one's genuine faith, but he was writing to an audience that was denying the need for living a God-honoring life, and he needed to be emphatic in his rebuke. Yes, our faith will manifest in good works done for the sake of honoring God. If it does not, we have reason to think our faith is not genuine. It was imperative to James that his audience understand this.

Paul understood that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was easily perverted into the kind of laissez-faire attitude James is writing against: he refutes the idea himself in passages like Romans 3:8 and Romans 6:1. But in Galatians he is addressing a different audience. He is speaking to people that are being taught that they must keep the Mosaic Law in order to be saved — specifically, that they must be circumcised. Their problem is not that they are rejecting good works, but rather than they are believing their works will earn them the right to enter the Kingdom of God.

It is my conviction, then, that Paul and James are not contradicting each other in their teachings, but rather are like two soldiers standing back-to-back, fighting opponents coming from opposite directions. One writer addresses one extreme, the other writer addresses the other extreme. As such, we don't need to make a decision as to who is "more right" or who is interpreting Jesus most correctly. Rather, they are brothers in Christ arguing two important points about the faith.

Image Credit: Randy Heinitz; "The Best Present I Never Got"; Creative Commons

TagsBiblical-Salvation  | Biblical-Truth  | Controversial-Issues  | Theological-Beliefs

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Published 1-3-17