Dan Popp
James vs. Paul?
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
December 11, 2010

When the Romans Book Club last convened, we read this from the pen of the apostle Paul:

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. [Romans 4:1-5 RSV]

Now some have said that James, in the biblical letter that bears his name, directly contradicts Paul above. In Chapter 2, verses 14-26, James writes:

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [NKJV]

This is the way to talk to people of that kind: 'You say you have faith and I have good deeds; I will prove to you that I have faith by showing you my good deeds — now you prove to me that you have faith without any good deeds to show.' [Jerus]

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. [NIV, RSV]

You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. [KJV]

It's obvious to me that the two apostles are addressing different problems, and that their views are complementary, not contradictory. In Galatians, Ephesians, Hebrews, Romans and other letters, Paul is telling people to shed the stinking rags of their self-righteousness. Works salvation is idolatry, and God hates idolatry. Paul was hounded to death — literally — by legalists.

James, on the other hand, finds himself surrounded by people who are saying all the right doctrinal things, though it's clear that Jesus has not yet changed their lives, or even their values.

The truth is important. The early church spent enormous energy combating heresy. But orthodoxy alone will not save anyone. The Pharisees were more orthodox than many "Christians" today: They believed in a bodily resurrection, in a final judgment, in miracles, in angels, and in the veracity of the Scriptures. If mental assent to certain doctrines (another checklist!) could get us into the kingdom, the Pharisees might have a good case.

Let me pick out a few nuggets from this passage and make some brief comments.

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? [NASB]

Answer: Yes, if the man is the robber on the cross on Jesus' right. "Today you will be with me in Paradise." (Read Luke 23:39-43) But James isn't talking about the extraordinary cases; he's talking about where we live.

So also faith if it does not have works (deeds and actions of obedience to back it up), by itself is destitute of power — inoperative, dead. [Amp]

The only confusing thing here is that James is being more charitable than most of us would be. If you show me someone who says he's been a Christian for years even though he still lives like a pagan, I would be tempted to say that this person has no faith, or false faith. James kindly "believes all things" and takes the fellow at his word that he has faith. The apostle explains that this faith is dead — leaving open the possibility of resurrection.

You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder! [ESV]

(Conversely, if you believe in more than one god, your theology is worse than the Devil's.)

It's clear that James is speaking against what many preachers today call "head knowledge," vs. "heart knowledge;" academic information about Jesus, versus personal experience of Him. To be a Christian is to live in Christ, and have Him live in you. No one can do that without being changed. "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation," according to Paul. (2 Cor. 5:17).

If the point that live faith produces fruit is James' signature message, there's no greater champion of it in the New Testament than Paul. In a previous essay I've mentioned Ephesians 2:8-10: "For by grace you have been saved through faith...not as a result of works...For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works...." It's not by works, but it is for works.

Likewise James harmonizes perfectly with Paul when he teaches God's sovereignty in our reclamation:

[God] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. [1:18 NIV]

Those are certainly God's works, not ours. I didn't have much to do with my own conception, and that's the metaphor James is using here. God chose, then God begat (per Young and the KJV). We, in our new spiritual birth and being, are something he created. I can no more make myself a "new creation" than I could create myself in the first place!

The only thing we need to understand in order to reconcile James 2 with Romans 4 is that works follow faith, and not the other way around. Paul is preaching against dead works — the kind we might do to make ourselves acceptable to God. James is preaching against dead faith — the kind we see when polls show that the divorce rate among Christians is about what it is for everyone else.

In case anyone is still unconvinced, here's a quick thought experiment. Let's ask James this question: If Abraham had sacrificed Isaac without God's command to do so, would he have been declared righteous? What if he had sacrificed Ishmael instead of Isaac? I believe that James (or any rational person) would say that such works could not have saved him, because they would have been based on presumption, not faith.

And that exposes the core of the matter. Faith is always belief in a promise or a command of God. God takes the initiative, and in faith we choose to act on what He has said. Paul will lay out the chronological sequence of faith in Romans 10, if we ever make it there.

At the next meeting of the Romans Book Club I hope to make some progress in Romans 4, as Paul concludes his argument for grace.

© Dan Popp


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