Have you ever heard someone say the Bible has a lot of contradictions? Often, critics of the Christian faith will attempt to dismantle the validity of the Bible by suggesting that the Bible “contradicts itself.” One of the classic examples is the alleged contradiction between Paul and James.
Here is how it goes.
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” – James 2:24
“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ… because by works of the law no one will be justified.” – Galatians 2:16
Is this a contradiction?
And Why does this even matter anyway? First, because if the claim that the Bible has contradictions is true, then the Bible’s authority is compromised. However, it will be shown that no contradiction is present. Secondly, when we isolate passages and try to pit them against each other, we are actually missing the argument (and the point) that the biblical writer is making.
Contrary to the criticism, Paul and James are complementary, not contradictory.
Let’s hear James and Paul speak for themselves!
Like James, Paul uses Abraham as a case study in communicating his point; but with a different angle. Notice how Paul, in Romans 4:1-5, puts forth Abraham as an example of how to obtain a right relationship with God. The contextual argument is not concerned with the proper use of works, but the improper. The opponents of Paul were attempting to persuade the early Church that the law of Moses (think Leviticus) had to be strictly adhered to as part of our justification. Clearly this is a different type of “works” from James’. Earlier in the flow of Paul’s argument, Romans 3:20, we see the assertion “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
The law shows us our depravity, but it doesn’t provide our solution.
Our hearts are corrupt and dead, unable to uphold our side of the covenant relationship with God.
Abraham is a fascinating example for Paul to use because, ironically, Abraham was justified even before the law was given to Israel. Grant Osborne writes: “The message of the chapter is that God at all times (the old covenant as well as the new) centered his salvation on faith commitment to him.” So, if justification by faith existed before the law, then it had to exist apart from the law. For Paul, the law is good (1 Timothy 1:8 and Romans 7:12), as it reflects righteousness. But the law cannot impart righteousness, only faith can (Romans 4:3 cf. Genesis 15:6); therefore, it is wrong to try to earn righteousness through adherence to the law. Humans will constantly fall short of God’s glory and standard (Romans 3:23) and that is why justification is a gift (Romans 3:24).
It has been the hope, even from the Old Covenant, to have our spiritual DNA re-written; to be given a new heart that pleases God, and is responsive to Him (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26 and Jeremiah 24:7; 32:40).
Paul’s case study of Abraham emphasizes the beginning of faith (origin); James, the completion of faith (goal).
Paul, the initiation into right-standing and relationship with God; James, vindication in our professed relationship with God. With a systematic approach towards Scripture, considering James, Paul, and even other biblical authors—it can be stated that righteous standing before God makes for a right relationship with God; and a right relationship with God makes for righteous living towards other human beings.
The short, but powerful letter to Titus helps cement the point that Paul and James are not at odds with one another. Two passages will suffice the point: Titus 1:16 and 3:5. Titus 1:16 talks about the false teacher who professes faith, but denies God by their works. To “profess to know God means to openly express faith, allegiance, and loyalty to God.” Their alleged faith is proven to be a lie as their lifestyle reveals the contradiction of their confession. This sounds a lot like James’ view of “dead” faith (James 2:17, 26).
The chronology here of mercy before works does not pose a problem for James; as Paul states that God’s mercy is the basis of our salvation, not our own efforts.
It is after we are shown divine mercy that we are able to respond with demonstrations of mercy towards others. James is addressing an audience who claims to have faith, but it seems part of his audience still are dead in sin because they possess a dead faith. His rationale of the relationship between faith and works hopes to show his audience that those who truly have been saved by God’s mercy will demonstrate obedience acts of compassion; this in contrast to the numerous problems of partiality and selfish ambition his audience seems to have.
A more profitable approach is to compare the word “faith” in Paul with the phrase “faith alone” in James. The addition of the word “alone” shows clearly that James refers to the bogus faith that he has been attacking throughout this paragraph: the faith that a person “claims” to have (v. 14); a faith that is, in fact, “dead” (vv. 17 and 26) and “useless” (v. 20).
This “useless” faith is by no means what Paul means by faith. Paul teaches that faith is a dynamic, powerful force, through which the believer is intimately united with Christ, his Lord. And since faith is in a Lord, the need for obedience to follow from faith is part of the meaning of the word for Paul. He can, therefore, speak of “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5) and say that it is “faith working through love” that matters in Christ (Galatians 5:6). This is exactly the concept of faith that James is propagating in this paragraph. Once we understand “faith alone,” then, as a neat summary of the counterfeit faith that James is criticizing, we can find no reason to expect that Paul would have any quarrel with the James.
James and Paul could be likened to a doctor goes to see two different patients with two very different pieces of advice.
To the first one he says: “Stop moving around, you need to rest!” To the second one he says: “Start moving, you need to exercise more!” Is the doctor contradicting himself? No. The first patient had knee surgery and needed to keep pressure off of his leg. The second patient was having heart issues due to a sedentary lifestyle and so he needed to exercise and move more. Different patients, different problems, different treatments. When understood properly, Paul and James complement each other by diagnosing and treating two different audiences.
There are three types of faith that are uncovered in James 2: dead faith (characterized by apathy and callousness towards a neighbor); demonic faith (characterized by acknowledgment without allegiance towards God); and dynamic faith (characterized by a responsive trust to God).
These three types show forth how diverse a claim of faith can be, and how faith can be tested and proven genuine through the outworking of obedience. Dead faith was shown by the person who allegedly professes faith but has no actions that substantiate the claim (James 2:14-18). Demonic faith was swiftly stated as having proper doctrine but is absolutely void of devotion attached to it (James 2:19). Dynamic faith was shown through the case studies of Abraham and Rahab where the revelation of God’s character produced a belief that responded in obedient action (James 2:21-25).
Looking back to James’ illustrative example in 2:15-16, we see the case of the needy being overlooked by a fellow brother or sister. Kurt Richardson explains this well:
“The poor need more than mere words; so does the believer who needs the saving act and wisdom of God. A word of blessing without an act of blessing is like the promise of salvation without the saving act of God in Christ.”
It is not that God needs our good works for His own benefit or for some sort of good/bad spiritual scoreboard. Instead, our neighbor needs our good works. Our acts of compassion reveal the inner workings of the genuine reception and recognition of God’s compassion towards us, then through us for others.
Just like workless faith being dead, it is equally counterfeit to express works with an agenda of earning favor with God. That isn’t compassion, that is coercion. It is attempting to coerce the grace of God towards us, as opposed to demonstrating grace out of affection. We are affected by the grace of God and then compelled towards compassion as a natural by-product of what we become through the implantation of the Holy Spirit inside of us.
The stunning conclusion is that James is not proposing faith plus works for saving faith (a formula based on addition). Rather, faith—the kind of faith that naturally produces works—as true saving faith.
As was discussed, James unites faith and works as bonded together. In verse 18 James says that he will show his faith by his works (the means of demonstration). The works didn’t come to create faith, and the faith that exists does not reside without its partner—works. Peter H. Davids, in his commentary on James, synopsizes this point: “Works are not an ‘added extra’ any more than breath is an ‘added extra’ to a living body. The so-called faith which fails to produce works (the works to be produced are charity, not the ‘works of the law’ such as circumcision against which Paul inveighs) is simply not ‘saving faith.’”
Concluding with the words of Charles Spurgeon:
“Faith and obedience are bound up in the same bundle. He that obeys God, trusts God, and he that trusts God, obeys God. He that is without faith is without works; and he that is without works is without faith. Do not oppose faith and good works to one another, for there is a blessed relationship between them.”
-  Grant R. Osborne, Romans: Verse by Verse, Osborne New Testament Commentaries (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 111.
-  Daniel C. Arichea and Howard Hatton, A Handbook on Paul’s Letters to Timothy and to Titus, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1995), 280.
-  Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 122.
-  C. H. Spurgeon, “The Necessity of Growing Faith,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 31 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1885), 478.
- This blog post was inspired by a blog post from Adventures in Theology. Used with permission. The full argument can be found on the blog post there.