Reconciling James and Paul On Justification

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Many who are new to studying the Bible come to a point where they have to wrestle with these two seemlinly contradictory passages: Romans 3 and James 2. In this article, I show that the meaning of each is plain when we understand the context of the books: Who is the author? Who are they writing to? For what reason? How are they using the words “justify”, “faith”, and “works”?

It is important that we know know to reconcile these passages because there are many false teachings that are based in a clear misreading of these passages.

I originally wrote this article in response to an article on Let’s begin!

The tough passages of Scripture must be interpretted in light of the rest of Scripture. On the surface, Paul and James seem to be contradicting each other. Obviously, that’s not the case. Before making a judgement about these passages, I first read through each book to understand where each passage fits in the author’s letter.

As I read through both books separately, it became clear that this article is injecting the context of Romans into the book of James. Paul and James are not referring to the same thing when they say “faith” and “justify”. Let me show you what I mean.

In Romans, Paul is attacking the idea that we could earn God’s love through our own righteousness (spiritual GPA, rule following, morality). That’s why Paul says…

[21] But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– [22] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: [23] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, [24] and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, [25] whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Paul is saying that our own obedience is not enough. No amount of church attendance, rule keeping, tradition, ritual practices, or family origin can make us right with God. We need a substitute; someone else who is perfect, righteous. When we turn from our sin and trust in Jesus (faith), a great exchange happens. In that moment, all of our sin is credited to Jesus and His righteousness is credited to us.

In his book, James is addressing a completely different audience. He is addressing a group of people who wanted a get-out-of-hell-free card but had no love for Jesus or desire to follow him.

[14] What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?

James is constrasting the difference between genuine faith and mere profession of faith. He is addressing people who are outwardly Christian. They “say they have faith”, but inwardly they have not turned from their sin and trusted in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

[21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; [23] and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. [24] You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James is not using “justified” in the same context that Paul is. Paul speaks about us being justified before God. James speaks about our profession of faith being proven to be genuine.

Look at the context of Genesis 12. Abraham was justified before God, declared righteous, only on the basis that he trusted that God would be faithful. Romans 3, 4, and 5 make clear that at this moment, Abraham was justified (past tense) before God. It wasn’t that he began to be justified. No, he was justified.

Even though Abraham was changed on the inside, there wasn’t much evidence of this change on the outside. So God tested Abraham, and his faith was proven (justified) to be genuine. It wasn’t that his obedience made his faith genuine, it just validated it.

Using the example of Abraham, James argues that genuine faith will become evident through a changed life.

How do you know that a tree is alive? It bears fruit! If a tree doesn’t have any fruit, and hasn’t for a while, it’s probably because the tree is dead. This is James' point. If you claim to trust in Jesus, but you life isn’t any different than it was before following Him, then your faith probably isn’t real.

On the other hand, you can staple fruit to a tree, but that will never make it come to life. No amount of outward morality or religion will make a sinner right with God. This is Paul’s point.

In Ephesians 2, Paul says this:

[1] And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience– [3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

[4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– [6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, [7] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. [8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Our heart is the root and our changed life is the fruit. Before trusting in Jesus, we are physically alive but spiritually dead. When we trust in Jesus, we are raised to life. We are justified, declared righteous, in God’s sight through our faith in Jesus. Then, the Holy Spirit begins to bear the fruit of a changed character in us over time (See Galatians 5).

We are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus, not through baptism or any other sacrement. The verse says “through faith”. We are not saved by our works, meaning any of our rituals or obedience. And yet, though Paul says we aren’t saved by good works, if our faith is genuine, it will result in good works.

We do good works, not to be justified, but because we have been justified!

We get baptized not to receive more grace, but because we have already received ALL of God’s grace by faith.

This is the Gospel. Any message that we need to do XYZ in order to receive more grace or more righteousness is a false gospel. It is the antithesis of the teachings of the entire New Testament.

Further Reading:

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