“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye 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.” (James 2:21-26)
The misinterpretation, misuse, and outright abuse that has been made from this passage in the Book of James is staggering. From smug skeptics who use it to attempt to overturn the validity of the entire Bible to sincere Christians who use it to validate their beliefs that one must ceaselessly strive to maintain their Salvation in Christ through their own efforts, fewer passages of Scripture have been more controversial than this one. One cannot get very deep into discussing how Salvation works without dealing with these verses in James.
Regardless of what position a person takes on the matter, it is almost impossible to bring up anything about how to obtain Salvation in a denominationally mixed group of Christians without having a to offer a reconciliation between the writings of Paul and those of James. Those who lean on this passage in James to support a “Salvation by faith plus works” are invariably challenged by those who adhere to a strict “by faith alone” method. Similarly, it is very hard to talk about Romans 4:1-8 or Ephesians 2:8-10 in a large group without somebody objecting and bringing up James 2:14-26.
It seems interesting to me that there are so many who are willing to disregard entire books of the Bible (such as Romans and Galatians) along with huge portions of other books of the Bible based entirely upon what they believe 13 verses of Scripture (James 2:14-26) are teaching. On the other hand, it seems irresponsible and dishonest to want to bury and disregard those 13 verses rather than really consider what they are saying. The great Reformer, Martin Luther, went so far as to call the Book of James:
“An epistle of straw compared to [Paul’s epistles] ; for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel in it.”(1)
He was motivated by the desire to counter against the use of this particular passage by some in the Roman Catholic Church to support a “Salvation by works” doctrine.
But disparaging James’ entire epistle is also not necessary in order to address the apparent contradiction between Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:21-26. Let us now examine these passages in order to see if there really is a contradiction between James and Paul, or if they both have something important to say to us:
Two Different Types Of Readers
The first step in determining what is being said in these two passages of Scripture (Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:21-26) is to consider that they were both written within an entire book of the Bible. Neither passage was intended to be lifted out and isolated from the rest of the book they appear in. Interpreting any passage of the Bible out of the context in which it was written is a very dangerous and misleading practice. Nor is it a solid technique of Biblical interpretation to build an entire doctrine around an isolated verse or two. To rip a single verse or short passage from the context in which it was written and proceed to use it to validate a particular doctrine is not a sensible approach to studying the Bible. Countless heresies and cults have been born by somebody doing just that. We should always remember that ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16) and we should always consider what the entire Bible says before accepting any doctrine.
So, let us consider the context in which these two passages appear. The first thing that we should look at is exactly who James and Paul are talking to.
While the Book of Romans was addressed to the “saints”, or Christians, in Rome (Romans 1:7), the portion of the epistle in which Romans 4:1-8 appears is dealing with how a person initially receives Salvation. In other words, it is focusing on the unconverted and demonstrating that God has always justified people by faith. The case that Paul is making is that a person is not justified by their own works, especially the “works of the Law” (Romans 3:20-21, 28).
James, on the other hand, is writing specifically to those who are already professing Christians. His letter is addressed to the scattered Jewish Christians throughout the Roman Empire (James 1:1-2). Rather than laying out a systematic Theological discourse, like the Book of Romans, the focus of James’ epistle is on practical Christian living. James is not trying to teach doctrinal issues to his readers, but offer sound, practical wisdom. The overriding theme of James 1:2-2:26 is the testing of our faith, whether it is genuine or not. As the modern colloquialism goes: “Are we walking the walk or are we just talking the talk?”
Faith, Works, And Justification
More than anything else, a lot of confusion between the two passages has been due to these three terms appearing in both. Additionally, Romans 4:2 appears to be a direct contradiction of James 2:21. They are both referring to Abraham, and both mention him being “justified.” James says it was by works, Paul says that it was not by works. At least one of them is wrong, right? Let’s look at what each writer is referring to when he uses these three words:
Paul uses the term “faith” throughout the Book of Romans to describe a real and abiding trust in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Faith is the means by which anyone can secure Salvation apart from their own merit by God’s Grace alone (Romans 3:21-22, 28). That a person might be paying mere lip service and feigning a genuine faith in Christ is not the issue in Romans, nor is it even brought up. The faith that Paul is talking about naturally leads one to commitment and obedience to the will of God because it is a true and living faith. Paul is presuming that his readers will understand that faith in Christ is not a spurious, superficial statement made without any corresponding action. Paul understood this. In one of his most pointed letters concerning the error of mingling works with faith for Salvation he sternly warns his readers that anyone who would profess faith in Christ and live like he hadn’t is only deceiving himself and mocking the Grace of God (Galatians 6:7-8).
James uses the term faith in this portion of his epistle to describe an unproven, untested “faith.” Apparently in the Church of his day (like the Church in our day), there were those who professed a faith in Christ but their actions did not back that profession up. They were all talk and no action (James 2:15-16). This was a cold, dead “faith” that really wasn’t a faith at all. The Christian life is not an intellectual philosophy whose theories and notions are discussed exclusively in remote ivory towers. Even the men and women of faith described in Hebrews 11 are not noted for the faith that they merely said they had, but by the actions which proved the faith that they had. However, James was not saying that every Christian must give all their belongings to the poor and serve a mission in another country in order to prove that their faith is real.
Next time, Lord willing, we will pick up right here and consider what these two men had in mind when they mentioned works.
(For Part 2 of this series, Click Here)
(1) Quotation found in the preface of Martin Luther’s Commentary On The New Testament