Are Paul and James at Odds over Justification?

A young man in my apologetics class at Blue Grass Baptist School asked me an excellent question.  I’m always skeptical, I confess, because my students have learned the fine art of asking me a question that sends me on a 10-minute diatribe that may have arisen from being inquisitive but also from getting me off the subject—and thus having less on which I shall test them. 

We were discussing Christian cults and how many deviate or outright deny three key tenets of orthodox Christianity:

  1. A denial of the deity of Christ
  2. A denial of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. 
  3. A denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ.

It was this second tenet that drew this student’s question.  He pointed me to James 2:24:  “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  This passages appears to contradict the apostle Paul’s contention that “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).   So, are Paul and James at odds over justification?

Not at all. 

Paul’s perspective was showing how the Gentiles would also be included in the benefits of salvation through Christ’s work, not their work in keeping the Mosaic law.

11Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called "the uncircumcision" by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Paul’s objective demonstrates that one’s guilt is removed through the substitutionary work of Christ, not the selfish work of the sinner. 

James on the other hand came at it from a different perspective:

14What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.

Whereas Paul addresses those outside of Christ on how they may come in, James addresses those already in Christ who contend they had faith, but were bearing no fruit. 

One student asked, “But Dr. Perry, what about Rahab in James 2:25"?”—which reads, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”  The account of Rahab appears in Joshua 2, when those who were scoping out the Promised Land, ready to go to war to obtain it as God had promised (and given to) them.  They enter into the home of Rahab.  Rahab heard their story, believed in the God who sent them, then acted on that faith.  She was justified based on her belief—and that belief was translated into action.

Paul basically said, “You are justified by trusting in Christ alone.”  James said, “You show you are justified by acting on your trust in Christ.”

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