If you’ve ever read Romans or James, you’ve encountered the apparent theological “debate” between James and Paul. On the surface, there appears to be a contradiction between these two biblical authors, as seen below:
“a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24)
“a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom 3:28)
What are we to make of these verses and how are we to understand the biblical doctrine of Justification? Douglas J. Moo’s commentary on James (Pillar) is helpful, which I’ve taken the liberty to express into the following two points:
(1) Biblical faith is much more than mere mental ascent. Commenting on Paul and James’ use of the word “faith” (Gk. pistis), Moo writes,
“A more profitable approach is to compare the word “faith” in Paul with the phrase “faith alone” in James. The addition of “alone” shows clearly that James refers to the bogus faith that he has been attacking throughout this paragraph: the faith that a person “claims” to have (v. 14); a faith that is, in fact, “dead” (vv. 17 and 26) and “useless” (v. 20). This faith is by no means what Paul means by faith. He teaches that faith is a dynamic, powerful force, through which the believer is intimately united with Christ, his Lord. And since faith is in a Lord, the need for obedience to follow from faith is part of the meaning of the word for Paul. He can therefore speak of “the obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5) and say that it is “faith working through love” that matters in Christ (Gal. 5:6). This is exactly the concept of faith that James is propagating in this paragraph. Once we understand “faith alone,” then, as a neat summary of the bogus faith that James is criticizing, we can find no reason to expect that Paul would have any quarrel with the claim that “faith alone” does not justify.” (141)
Only if one’s understanding of faith is completely void of good works is one able to ascertain the concept that Paul and James contradict each other. Yet Paul himself wrote to the Ephesians that believers were “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). There is no contradiction between Paul’s understanding of faith, nor of James’. Thus, it would seem that any advocates of “works based” Christianity need avoid the red herrings when addressing the issues of how Protestants understand Justification.
(2) The meaning of words must be determined by both context and the author’s specific usage. This is generally known as and related to the “one-meaning fallacy.” It is the “view that every appearance of a Hebrew or Greek term should be translated by the same English word” (Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spirial, p. 90). Yet when studying scripture, our goal is to discover the author’s intended meaning before we draw out application. We also want to resist the “selective use of meaning” fallacy. This is where we choose the meaning of a word based on the meaning that we personally like best. No! Again, our goal is to determine the biblical author’s intended meaning.
So how does this relate to James and Paul? I’m pretty confident that James and Paul intend two different ideas when using dikaio? (“justified”). Or, as Moo writes,
“… resolution of the tension can come only when we recognize that James and Paul use “justify” to refer to different things. Paul refers to the initial declaration of a sinner’s innocence before God; James to the ultimate verdict of innocence pronounced over a person at the last judgment. If a sinner can get into relationship with God only by faith (Paul), the ultimate validation of that relationship takes into account the works that true faith must inevitably produce (James). As Calvin puts it, “… as Paul contends that we are justified apart from the help of works, so James does not allow those who lack good works to be reckoned righteous.” (141-42)
So how do we reconcile Paul and James? Simple. We let them speak for themselves and we see that Paul and James are essentially saying the same things, though making clarifications so that those who may abuse their teachings are unable to further the cause of legalism or the cause of licentiousness. We need both Paul and James.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.