Over the centuries theologians have gone to great length to debate
and discuss the apparent discrepancy between James and Paul when it comes
to the subject of "faith and works". Many of the Reformers,
Martin Luther included, did not like the book of James and even felt that
it should not be part of the Canon of Scripture. Honestly, after studying
and reading both Jamesís letter and Paulís letters, especially to the
Romans and Galatians, I donít see any discrepancies between the two men
and their thinking.
Letís see what James has to say in James chapter two
In chapter 2 verse 14 James begins the discussion concerning faith
and works. This is where Luther and others had their problems with James.
The point is made when James says, "what good is faith without
works". Then he goes on to say, and this was a tough one for Luther,
"can such faith save them?" The KJV says, "can faith save
you". There is no precise word in the Greek for the word
"such" as seen in the NIV. The translators of the NIV, I am only
assuming, put the word "such" in this sentence because that is
how they felt the word "faith" should be interpreted.
The point that James is making is that there are two kinds of
so-called faith. One that will produce good works, which in reality, is
the only true faith, and the other being faith that does not produce
fruit. This second kind of faith is really no faith at all, because faith
by its very nature is productive. Thus James is not saying, "can true
faith save you"? He is saying, as the NIV says, "can such faith
save you"? The "such faith" refers to a false faith, that
as we know, cannot save anyone.
Without going into all of the Scriptures, which you can read in my
commentary on Romans, Paul clearly says that faith alone saves you and
nothing else. This is where the apparent conflict between Paul and James
arises, and the reason why Luther and others did not like the book of
James. Yet to me it is clear. Paul and James are not talking about the
same kind of faith. Paul is saying that true faith, really trusting Jesus
will save you. Paul would also admit that true faith will be seen and
evidence in your actions. James is saying that false faith will not save
you. A faith that is not productive is not really faith, and therefore can
do nothing for you in relation to salvation. It is as simple as that. Why
the major conflict over the years is beyond my thinking.
James uses an example of a poor brother who has no food or clothing.
If we simply tell him "go, I wish you well", as James says, then
what good are those words to him. You might as well say, "good
luck" to him. What he needs is more than words. He needs some food or
clothing. He may also need help in figuring out how he can go about making
sufficient money on his own in order to buy his own food and clothing.
In verse 17 of chapter 2 James says, "in the same way, faith
without works is dead". Faith, or our trust in Jesus should be more
than words. If it is only in words, then it is not true faith. If we truly
trust Jesus, it will be evident in the way we live. The more we trust
Jesus, the more it will be seen in our life. The less we trust Him, the
less it will be seen. Once again, trusting in Jesus is productive. This is
the issue that James is speaking to.
In verse 18 James assumes an argument that someone might present him
concerning this issue. Some might say that they have faith and another has
works, or vise versa. James says that I claim to have faith and you will
see it by what I do, not by what I say.
He goes on to say, "you believe that there is one God, good,
even the demons believe thatÖ" This gets to the core of what true
faith is. Faith is not mental assent to the truth. Faith is trusting
Jesus. In our modern-day language we equate the words believe and faith to
simply mentally accepting something as true. Yet Scriptural belief and
faith does not mean simply accepting something in your mind as being true.
Scripturally speaking, faith is a loving commitment to Jesus. Faith is
trusting Jesus for your salvation and the rest of your life as well.
In verse 20 James sounds like Paul himself when he says, "you
foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deed is
useless". What James is about to say next is the main reason for the
apparent problem between him and Paul. At this point maybe even Paul
himself, if he had read this letter, would have to step in and make sure
that what he was saying was not being misinterpreted.
In verse 21 James says, "was not our ancestor Abraham
considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the
alter"? Later, in verse 24 James says this, and this is the verse
that we must deal with in relation to what Paul said. "We see that a
person is justified by what he does and not by faith aloneí.
Before we go further, we need to see Paulís words on this point
because Paul uses the same person in Abraham to say that a man is
justified by "faith alone". Paul says, that there is " a
righteousness of God apart from the Law Ö which comes through faith in
Jesus Christ". (Rom. 3:21) He also says, "if in fact Abraham was
justified by works, he had something to boast about Ö Abraham believed
God and it was credited to him as righteousness". (Rom 4:2-3) Paul
goes on to say in Rom. 4:5, "Öto the man who does not work, but
trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as
We continue to see what Paul has to say in Gal. 2:16, "Ö a
man is not justified by observing the law but by faith in Jesus ChristÖbecause
by observing the Law none will be justified". One last quote from
Paul. "you ware trying to be justified by the law have alienated
yourself from Christ, you have fallen from grace." (Gal. 5"4 )
I think that you can see by these limited statements of Paul that he
believed that salvation came by faith alone, and nothing else. Yet we have
the words of James who says that salvation does not come by faith alone
but works as well. So how do we reconcile this apparent discrepancy in
Scripture. This is how we do just that. We first realize that James is
speaking about a false faith and Paul is speaking about a true faith. Both
James and Paul would agree that true faith would produce good deeds and
that false faith would produce nothing.
We should note that both men are approaching the subject from two
different perspectives. Paul presupposes when he is talking about faith
that you realize he is talking about real faith. James is presupposing
that you understand his concern about people not living up to what they
say. This type of person has a false faith, and this is the faith James is
talking about. Therefore James is saying that if someone has real faith,
that real faith will produce real works and the combination of the two
save them. He actually says that in James 2:22. Thus works is a natural
outgrowth of faith. You canít have one without the other, therefore you
could logically say that both save you.
Also, most of the time when Paul speaks of works, he is speaking
about works of the Old Testament Law. He says that simply obeying the Law,
simply doing the works it tells you to do, canít save you. James is not
necessarily speaking about works of the Law. James is speaking about works
that are a product of faith. So as in the fact that James and Paul are
speaking about two different kinds of faith, they are also speaking about
two different kinds of works. Paul speaks of works of the Law that canít
save you. James speaks about works of faith that can save you when
accompanied by faith.
The bottom line is that if James and Paul were in the same room,
they would agree. They would agree that true faith saves you and nothing
else. They would agree that true faith will produce good works. They would
agree that works of the Law cannot save you. Yet because of Paulís very
strong emphasis on being saved by faith alone, James would feel the need
to make a balancing comment. The words of balance are that true faith is
productive. True faith is linked with good works. You cannot separate the
two. It will produce works and donít think any differently.
When Paul was giving his defense before King Agrippa he makes an
interesting comment that fits into what we are saying. He says, "I
preached that they should repent, and turn to God, and prove their
repentance by their deeds". (Acts 26:20) This makes Paulís position
very clear on the subject. James would have no problem with these words.
Paul clearly expected people to "prove that they have repented by
showing it in their deeds, the things they do".
I like the way James says that "faith is made complete" by
good works in verse 22. This is, what he really wanted people to know.
That is faith in word alone is not complete. It is not real. Yet when he
sees works as a result of faith, then he knows that faith is real. The
natural consequence of true faith is some sort of good works.
In verse 25 we see James using another example of someone who had
true faith. He has just used Abraham, now he uses Rahab. She helped some
Jewish spies by giving them a place to stay one night. She herself was not
even a Jew, yet God viewed her deeds and called her righteous. Yet this
woman must have had some type of trust, if not in the God of the Jews, in
the people she kept over night, in order to do this good deed.
James finishes his argument by saying, "as the body without the
spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead". The simple fact that
faith is not merely mentally accepting the truth as truth. Faith is giving
your life to the truth and following it. This means that we give our lives
to Jesus and trust Him, for He is the ultimate truth. There is a vast
difference between mental assent to the truth and trusting in the truth
which is Jesus Himself.
In conclusions, Paul and James donít disagree. They come from
different perspectives when talking about this subject. Paul is strong on
faith alone. James feels the need to make sure people donít take Paul
wrong and therefore balances Paulís words by saying that true faith will
produce works, and therefore you cannot separate faith and works in the
discussion. Both would agree that true faith saves, and false faith doesnít
save. Both would agree that works of the Law will not save. Even though
James says that faith with works saves, he is not talking about the works
of the Law as Paul does. I am sure Paul would agree.
When speaking of faith, Paul speaks of true faith. When James speaks
of faith in James 2 that canít save you, he is speaking about false
faith, not real faith. When Paul speaks of works not saving you, he is
speaking about works of the Law. When James speaks of works saving you, he
is talking about works resulting from faith, which cannot be separated
from true faith.