Romans 3:28 - For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
Romans 4:5 - But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
Romans 5:1 - Therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
James 2:14 - What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
James 2:17 - Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
James 2:24 - You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.
James 2:26 - For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
In all of Scripture there are probably no two authors who appear to contradict each other more than James and Paul. In reference to the crucial doctrine of salvation, one author seems to be saying that there is nothing a person can do to merit salvation, while the other author seems to be saying that a person's good deeds do play a part in salvation. This is a significant difference! The fact that Paul says that justification is by faith alone, without works, and James says that justification is by faith with works, certainly seems to be an unresolvable conflict in doctrine.This apparent contradiction was significant enough for the great reformer, Martin Luther, to give the book of James a lower status in the canon of Scripture! Some scholars believe that Luther's position on James has been overstated, but he did refer to the Epistle of James as "a right strawy Epistle." But how can this be? Both Paul and James were inspired writers. God is the ultimate Author of both Romans and James, and God cannot lie. Scripture must interpret Scripture! Are we to suppose that James and Paul are now in heaven reconciling their differences in theology?! Or is there a way to harmonize the writings of Paul and James, because, as the Word of God, these writings cannot contradict each other?
What Paul and James Don't Say
As a first step in harmonizing these Scriptures, we should observe what both of these inspired writers do not say, as compared to exactly what they do say! Notice that James does not say that good works can save a person, nor does he say that justification results from some kind of mixture of faith and works--like 50% faith and 50% works. What he does say is that faith without works is dead! And he does indicate that good works are definitely associated with saving faith. Notice that Paul does not say that any kind of faith saves a person, nor does he say that saving faith doesn't result in good works! What he does say is that a person is justified by faith and not by works. And he does indicate that works are not the basis of salvation. So already we see that the writings of James and Paul are not necessarily on a collision course. Although they at first appear to be completely contradictory, they are really not opposite statements at all, nor are they in logical contradiction to each other. In order to clearly understand the teachings of James and Paul, we need to examine what they say more closely.
Perspective is Important
Question: What looks like a square and a triangle at the same time?
Quick wrong answer: Nothing, because such a thing is impossible!
Thoughtful correct answer: A pyramid! Viewed from the side--from ground level--it looks like a triangle. Viewed from above--from the air--it looks like a square.
The illustration above helps us to better understand the statements of Paul and James. When James and Paul write about saving faith, they're not contradicting each other--they are just looking at faith from different perspectives! Paul is looking a faith from above--from the divine perspective. God knows the quality of a person's faith without having to see the results. Before God, the quality of a person's faith is not determined by, nor is it dependent upon, good works.James, on the other hand, is looking at faith from the ground level--from the human perspective. We cannot see the heart, as God can, but we can see the results in the life of a person who claims to have faith. True faith will prove its profession by good works. In other words, the perspective from which saving faith is viewed can determine how faith is defined. It may appear on the surface that the two definitions of faith contradict each other. But if, from God's perspective, the faith that saves is a faith apart from works, but, from man's perspective, that faith results in good works which people can see, then there is bound to be a "perspective difference" in the description of saving faith.
Abraham as an Example
The fact that both James and Paul used Abraham as an example certainly is significant and important to our harmonization of these texts. Notice that, as a part of their argument, both authors quote Genesis 15:6, "Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness." It is critical to the harmonization to see how each author uses this Scripture in his argument. Paul's point is that Abraham was declared righteous by God even before he was circumcised (a work of obedience) and long before the Law was given. In other words, there's nothing Abraham did to earn his salvation. He just believed God! "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness'" (Romans 4:2-3).James' point, on the other hand, is that Abraham's faith was perfected, or proved, by his works. "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; 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." (James 2:21-23). But notice closely that James does not say that Abraham's works of faith resulted in God's declaration of Abraham's righteousness. No! The declaration was made in Genesis 15:6, about 30 years before his work of faith of offering up Isaac recorded in Genesis 22. That's why James says precisely that "the Scripture was fulfilled which says 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness'" (2:24). So we see that there really is no contradiction between James and Paul. The works of Abraham were essential, not because they had some kind of intrinsic merit to justify him, but because they proved or manifested the genuineness of his faith. The point is clear in the minds of both Paul and James that Abraham was justified in God's sight long before any works of righteousness were performed.
More from Paul
When considering what Paul has to say about the relationship between faith and works, it is important to bear in mind what he wrote in his other epistles. For example, in Galatians 5:6 he wrote, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." "Faith working through love" sounds a lot like James, doesn't it? No way was Paul opposed to good works! It's just that they must be seen for what are: evidence of saving faith, not the essence of saving faith.When we rightly quote the well-known verses of Ephesians 2:8-9 as a proof text against the false teaching of salvation by works, let's not forget that Paul also wrote the very next verse as well. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10). Clearly Paul is not "against" good works! The purpose of his treatise to the Romans was to annihilate any idea that a person might be justified on the basis of meritorious works. Mankind can do absolutely nothing in order to merit favor with God. We are saved on the "by grace through faith" basis alone.
More from James
Does the following verse about the sovereign will of God sound like James or Paul? "In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures." Now that certainly sounds like the apostle Paul in the book of Romans. Right? Wrong! It comes from the pen of James in James 1:18. In view of such a verse we can see that James' emphasis on the importance of works is certainly not in the sense of earning salvation.
When thinking through what James says about the relationship between faith and works, there is another important point to keep in mind. The works that James presents as examples from the lives of Abraham (2:21-23) and Rahab (2:25) are anything but good works! Apart from faith, these works were attempted homicide (Abraham) and treason (Rahab)! These works are a far cry from what we normally consider good works, such as helping the homeless and promoting peace. These "works of faith" of Abraham and Rahab were not meritorious good works because, apart from faith, they would certainly not qualify as good works at all!So it is obvious that James is not arguing that the works of Abraham and Rahab added to their faith. His point is that the works of Abraham and Rahab proved that their faith was genuine--the works were a result of their already existing faith. Although Abraham and Rahab were quite different in reference to the social and religious spectrums, they were both willing to give up what was closest to them--family and country, respectively--as evidence of their saving faith in God.
It is also very important to notice how James begins his discussion of faith and works. "What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?" (James 2:14). In other words, anyone can say they have faith, but such a profession may be words only. Can that kind of faith save a person? The answer is obviously a resounding, "No"! A faith that gives mere intellectual assent only is no better than the belief of demons, as James goes on to say in 2:19! Certainly that kind of faith cannot save a person. That kind of faith is a counterfeit faith.Well then, what kind of faith can save a person? James answers that question. It is a faith that shows itself to be genuine by works of obedience. The works themselves do not participate in the process of justification, but they are evidence of the kind of faith which is necessary for justification. The heroes of faith of Hebrews 11 did not just say that they had faith, and they did not just have a belief about God in their heads. No! Their faith involved their hearts as well as their heads, and evidenced itself by "works of faith." Those works did not save them, but they gave solid evidence of their true and saving faith.
An Approach for Evangelism
The different approaches taken by Paul and James to the faith/works question is a good way to evangelize and counsel different individuals today. For those individuals who think that they must earn their way to heaven or that they are not good enough for heaven, we could share the truth of Romans: Salvation is apart from works! If on the other hand, certain "loose-living" individuals think that they're on their way to heaven because they "went forward" or "raised their hand" or "signed a card" at an evangelistic crusade when they were young, we should share the truth of James with them. Faith which does not manifest itself with an obedient lifestyle should be questioned, because faith apart from works is not a genuine faith--it is a dead faith.
So Paul and James do not contradict each other. Their collision course is only apparent after all! As inspired writers their statements must be in harmony, and we've seen that they do harmonize. Justification is not by works--it is by faith alone! But justification is not by faith which is alone. Good works accompany faith not as the path to salvation, but as the proof of salvation. Saving faith is not a dead, cerebral, inactive "faith." True saving faith is a faith that results in a life of obedient works! Saving faith is a faith that works.