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James Versus Paul: Justified by Faith or by Works?

October 9, 2023

There is this debate out there about James and Paul, specifically, that they are in conflict with each other. And at first reading it appears as though they contradict each other theologically. Well, relax. They don’t and I’ll show you why I say that. This is an important issue to discuss because there are people out there who don’t believe that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant word of God as we do. These enemies of our faith will point to the apparent contradictions between James and Paul as proof. We who believe that the Bible is without error need to be able to intelligently respond to their argument. We need to be able to defend our position.

This debate, this conversation is not new. It’s been going on for a very long time, since the early days of church history. Origen of Alexandria was a Christian theologian in the late 2nd and early 3rd Century. He considered James’s letter to be one of the “mixed” epistles as opposed to the “genuine.” This did not mean that it had no place in Scripture but such writings fell into another group that he labeled “spurious.”

Caius Marius Victorinus, a theologian in the 4th Century, associated James's teaching on works with the heretical Symmachian sect. He openly questioned whether James' teachings were heretical.

Martin Luther, much later, in the 16th Century, prefaced his German translation of the New Testament this way: “St. James’s epistle is really a right strawy epistle, compared to these others [Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 1 Peter, and 1 John], for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” He apparently changed his position later on.

So, this perception of James being in conflict with Paul has been the subject of much debate by theologians for centuries. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for a while.

So then, why the controversy over James? Consider the following examples.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” James says this in James 2:14: “What use is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?”


Paul writes in Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

James states this in James 2:18: “But someone may well say, ‘You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’”


Paul writes in Galatians 2:16: “nevertheless, knowing that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law; since by works of the Law no flesh will be justified.”

James says this in James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”


How do we resolve this apparent conflict between what Paul says and what James says?

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING! I’m not a big fan of proof texting for this very reason. You can prove just about anything by taking words out of context. Politicians do this all the time. “Well so and so said this - - -” Well, what was the context in which he said it? That’s why I spend so much time when I teach giving you context, so we can see where the writer is coming from.

So, in regard to James and Paul and what they wrote, we need to understand their context. They each had a different focus. Paul’s focus is on the unsaved man, the guilty sinner, and how he might get right with God. James’ focus is on the saved person, the professing believer, and how he might show his faith and demonstrate that his faith is real, is genuine.

They were both correcting errors in the church – but different errors. Paul was correcting the error of legalism, specifically, that salvation is by faith in Christ plus the works of the law. James is correcting the error of antinomianism. This is the false teaching that says, “after a person is saved what they do or how they live doesn’t really matter.”

Both James and Paul provide examples from Abraham’s life – but their examples came from different aspects of his life which they then used to reinforce their main points. Paul has in mind Abraham’s attitude toward God, his acceptance of God’s word.” In Romans 4 and Galatians 3 Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Then [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and [God] credited it to [Abraham] as righteousness.” James looks more at Abraham’s character and his faith in action, specifically in Genesis 22 when Abraham was willing to offer up his son Isaac on the altar. “[Abraham’s faith] was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected.” (James 2:22)

I maintain that they are actually in agreement. The conflict between James and Paul is only apparent. It’s not real. Paul agreed with James. He taught that good works must accompany saving faith (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 3:8; Galatians 5:6; Philippians 2:11-12). James agreed with Paul. He taught that a person inherits the kingdom of God only by faith (James 2:5) and that Abraham was justified by faith (James 2:23).

Like I said, context is everything.

So, in closing, let me harmonize Paul and James this way: We are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ (Paul’s teaching). The faith that justifies us is not alone; it must be accompanied by good works (James’ teaching). Hebrews Chapter 11, also known as the Faith Chapter is filled with examples of faith IN ACTION. In the end, genuine faith proves itself to be real by what it produces in a person’s life.

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