Larger Catechism, #70 [Excursus: Paul vs. James?]

Excursus[1]

Having dealt with the Reformed view of justification by faith alone, we also need to address the matter of Paul and James. I believe there is a solution to the following —

A. Paul’s statement: “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28, lit. translation—  λογιζόμεθα ⸀γὰρ ⸂δικαιοῦσθαι πίστει⸃ ἄνθρωπον χωρὶς ἔργων νόμου)

B. James’s statement: “justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24, ὁρᾶτε ὅτι ἐξ ἔργων δικαιοῦται ἄνθρωπος καὶ οὐκ ἐκ πίστεως μόνον)

Johnson says, “It is obvious to every reader that James is saying something different from what Paul said. The question is, How different?”[2] We believe the two are very different. The solution lies in clarifying four different and significant issues surrounding this debate.[3] Once we recognize them, the “problem” disappears, not because of some slight of hand or some sneaky word play but because the issues that James and Paul were pursuing were entirely different. Even the highly liberal scholar Kummel sees a way through this difficulty by recognizing the different circumstances in James and Paul: he says, “If the distinctions in the terminology and the divergent polemical aims of Paul and James are taken into account appropriately, and if accordingly, between the two forms of theological statement a considerably larger area of commonality can be established…”[4] If we let the two respective inspired writers speak on their own terms and in their own contexts, then I believe we will find that a formal harmonization will not be necessary.

I believe the four areas in which James and Paul differed are the following:

1. Different historical situations

2. Different use of the word “faith”

3. Different use of the word “works”

4. Different use of the word “justification”

Of the four, the last item has been the traditional solution. In a sense, if the first three areas are proved, then the last point need not apply. One could argue that the word justification is used in the same way for Paul and James providing we understand the first three points. But I believe it can be shown that James was driving at a different point in his epistle (we’ll call it an “epistle” though there is debate as to its actual genre).

Different historical situations

It is obvious to many NT scholars that James and Paul are dealing with different sets of problems. They are not addressing the same circumstance and different questions were being answered. Paul was dealing with works righteousness while James was dealing with no righteousness. Paul was countering legalism while James was contending with antinomianism. Paul was destroying the notion of merit-righteousness while James was establishing the necessity of holiness. But this is no longer an accepted view. E.P. Sanders and James Dunn have argued that Paul was not writing a polemic against legalism. These two men have influenced new NT scholars. Dunn actually argues that Paul’s major concern was over the issue of Jewish nationalism and exclusivism.

In Rom. 10:3, Paul makes it clear that the Jews were “seeking to establish their own” righteousness and would not submit to the righteousness that comes from God. Romans 4:4-5 demonstrates that Paul was writing against those who trusted in their own works.[5] Paul did not want anyone to imagine that God justified on the basis of one’s works. Paul’s polemic in Romans (as well as in Galatians) was against those who believed that some performance of the law merited God’s approval. So Paul said that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

James, on the other hand, is dealing with something entirely different. Chapter two addresses those who show favoritism and he encourages adherence to the “royal law” (v. 8).  In verses 8-13, James encourages adherence to the moral law (notice, no reference to any ceremonial or ritual laws). He is encouraging obedience. When we come to vv. 14-26, James continues the same theme. “What good is it, my brothers…” is his question for this section. What benefit is it not to have “works” (obedience, evidential works)? The example he uses is critical to understanding his concern. He has already condemned favoritism and now he denounces the professing believer who neglects a brother in need. He is not arguing against works righteousness; he is condemning the absence of righteousness. Paul’s concern is soteriological while James is ethical. Paul is concerned with the way of salvation through faith in Christ while James is concerned with the way of life in salvation. Paul wrote against “works righteousness” while James combated a “lack of righteousness.”

Paul and James therefore wrestled with two different church settings. This observation means that we should expect different emphases. Their circumstances were not related at all and therefore their bold statements may appear to be contradictory. A family that lives in a dry climate may say, “Always save the waste water and put it in the backyard.” This same family, if they moved into a very humid and wet environment may say, “Never worry about saving water and make sure our waste water is removed as far as possible from our premises.” On the face of it, the statements are contradictory but the contexts clarify the statement. So, Paul and James made their statements in two different situations. Paul would have said the same thing as James were he in the same circumstance as James’s. Once we recognize this, then we will begin to see that different solutions had to be offered. Unfortunately, they utilized the same vocabulary within different circumstances.  That is why the subsequent discussions have to show how they differed from each other.

Different use of the word “faith”

James is fighting against a certain type of faith. Paul is pitting faith against works as a means of justification. Let us consider James’s view. In 2:17, James states that “faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (NIV) — (NASB has, Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself; οὕτως καὶ ἡ πίστις, ἐὰν μὴ ⸂ἔχῃ ἔργα⸃, νεκρά ἐστιν καθʼ ἑαυτήν). He reiterates this point in different words in 2:20 —“faith without deeds is useless” (ἡ πίστις χωρὶς τῶν ἔργων ⸀ἀργή ἐστιν); and in 2:26, “faith without deeds is dead” (ἡ πίστις ⸀χωρὶς ἔργων νεκρά ἐστιν). James is combatting dead useless faith.

Let us unpack this a little bit. We must recognize that “faith” itself is insignificant. If I have faith in Buddha, then I can be certain that such faith cannot justify. All would concur. Then naked faith can do nothing; it is not the power of faith that justifies. James is teaching that this “said” faith (“someone says he has faith but does not have works” v. 14,  ἐὰν πίστιν λέγῃ τις ἔχειν ἔργα δὲ μὴ ἔχῃ) is not saving faith. In v. 18, a similar pronouncement is made, “But some will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Lest we be led into some esoteric view, James particularizes it in verses 15 & 16. A professed faith that neglects our brethren is simply a clear demonstration that the faith that they profess is useless and dead. “James is disturbed at a faith that has no works to demonstrate its reality in the life of a believer.”[6]

Paul, on the other hand, is saying that when it comes to justification, faith is the sole instrument — works do not play any justifying role. God’s righteousness is manifested “apart from the law” (Rom 3:21) and that man is justified by faith “apart from the works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). When Paul is dealing with justification by faith, he is pitting this gospel truth against those who “rely on the works of the law” (Gal. 3:10). So, in a sense, he pits faith against works of the law when it comes to justification. He is not arguing that this justifying faith is like the faith James was condemning. Certainly, if we would just step back and consider James’s situation, we would have no problem seeing Paul stating the same things as James given the context and given the “kind” of faith James was combating.

Paul is contemplating a faith that serves as a point of entry into life while James has in mind a faith that professes to have life.  Paul views faith as a means of justification. James views faith as a living faith and not a useless one. They are not opposed to each other because they do not have the same concept of faith.

It is interesting to note that men like Rudolph Bultmann and Paul Tillich would be the first to declare “faith alone” but their views are entirely different from Paul’s and James’s. Tillich believed that faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned” and drew from that all manner of foolishness.[7] Both James and Paul would say “Tillich’s faith” cannot justify because it is useless and dead as to its content and consequent fruit. Peter Davids suggests that someone must have been saying something like, “We believe; don’t bother us further, especially about charity.”[8] That may well have been the slogan James was refuting; it certainly fits the context.

Different use of the word “works”

We look at the words “works” and assume that certainly Paul and James are dealing with the same concept.[9] This is probably the easiest thing to overlook.  First of all,[10] the exact vocabulary of James 2:24 is not found in any of Paul’s writings. In Rom. 3:20, Paul uses “by/from works of the law” while James uses “by works.” In Rom. 3:28, it is “without works of the law” and in 4:16, it is “not only to the adherent of the law.” In the original Greek, it becomes clear that the exact phrases are never used. Secondly, the vocabulary differs at critical points. James never uses nomos or law in this section. Paul says, ‘without works of the law” — the works are always “works of the law.” James, on the other hand, never uses the word LAW in this section.

Paul’s phrase “works of the law” is a reference to positive acts of obedience. These acts of obedience to God’s law can never justify us. Again, he is dealing with one’s entry into salvation. James, on the other hand, uses “works” in the life of a believer. A professing believer should show works of holiness in his life or else it is empty. It may be better to translate everything in this section as “deeds.” The English word “deeds” connotes a demonstrative faith while the theologically technical word “works” denotes acts of obedience unto justification (which Paul refutes).

In summary, we may say that Paul is wrestling with works of the law that are a means of justification while James is confronting “works” or deeds that are entirely absent in the ones who profess to be justified. Paul is dealing with the role of works, once again, as it pertains to entering into life while James is dealing with deeds that give evidence of the one who professes to have life. In summary, Adamson’s words may be helpful here, “Faith is the inspiration of works, and works are the proof of faith.”[11] Another commentator put it this way, “Where ‘Paul denies the need for ‘pre-conversion works,’ James emphasizes the absolute necessity of post-conversion works.”[12] Works of the Law are entirely absent for Paul when it comes to justification. Works are always present in James when it comes to one’s expression of faith.

Different use of the word “justification”

The same form of the word “justify” is not in Paul and James. Paul (Rom. 3:20 [δικαιωθήσεται]; Rom. 3:28 [δικαιοῦσθαι]; James 2:21 [ἐδικαιώθη]; James in 2:24 [δικαιοῦται]). The exact word is never used which suggests that James perhaps was not arguing against Paul.[13] Though all four passages may have the passive voice, none of them have the exact same form.

Does that necessarily mean that James and Paul have defined the words differently? Not necessarily.  But the context adds something to this. In verse 18, James is saying “I will show you my faith by my works.” His concern is to demonstrate the reality of the faith before men.[14] This seems to be clearly the case in v. 21. Abraham was justified by works or vindicated by his deeds.[15] The justifying means of faith was not denied by James as he cites Gen. 15:6 in verse 23. So, the justifying in verse 24 could well be translated as “vindication.” Or, it is as Trapp says, “It is faith that justifies the man; but they are works that justify faith to be right and real, saving and justifying.” (Trapp on v. 21).

However, if we take it to mean the same thing (namely, that justification means the same thing in both James and Paul), then we can still see that the “faith alone” that James refutes is the useless dead faith he already demolished.[16] Genuine humble faith always works though one’s deeds do not earn salvation or merit justification. Remember, faith is full of works but the works in faith do not justify because we are justified by faith alone.


[1] This is taken from my lecture notes on the General Epistles.

[2] Luke T. Johnson, “Letter of James,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. et al. Leander E. Keck, 12 (Nashville: Abington Press, 1998), 197.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, James, ZECNT, vol. 16 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 139 argue that ‘faith,’ ‘works,’ and ‘justify’ are used differently between Paul and James.

[4] W. G. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, rev. ed., translated by H. C. Lee (Nashville: Abington Press, 1973), 415.

[5] See T. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 93-121 for an excellent defense of this position against Sanders, Dunn, et al.

[6] R. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 48 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1988), 96. Adolf Schlatter seems to believe that James was focusing on the demonstrative aspect of faith in his A. Schlatter, The Theology of the Apostles, translated by A. J. Kostenberger (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 88-89. “Mere confession cannot be considered to be a sufficient demonstration of faith but only works, since words do not yet reveal the essential characteristic of faith” (89). Works “lend visible expression to our faith.”

[7] See his infamous P. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1957).

[8] P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 132.

[9] Of course, we are not arguing that the words “works” are different— they are exactly the same but the two writers use them differently.

[10] The basic structure of this argument is taken from P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 130-131.

[11] J. Adamson, The Epistle of James, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 38.

[12] Craig L. Blomberg and Mariam J. Kamell, James, 132.

[13] Most liberal and critical scholars assume that James was refuting either Pauline theology or most likely an aberrant form of Pauline teaching. L. Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, translated by J. E. Alsup (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:208-209 argues that James was refuting a “slogan” used by some disciples of Paul. Apart from that, much of what he says is quite helpful, pp. 209-211. Martin entertains a similar thesis, R. P. Martin, New Testament Foundations (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 2:362.

[14] The divines would say  in foro humano, in the human forum or court.

[15] The word justify (dikaioo) usually means to declare righteous but there are a few times where it means something like “demonstrate to be right” or “vindicate” as in Mt. 11:19. “Wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (cf. Lk. 7:35; 10:19; 16:15) This probably is the best way to explain what is going on in the passage.

[16] Most NT scholars believe any attempt to deny that both James and Paul are using the same concept of justification is doomed to fail. See B. Weiss, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 3rd revised ed., translated by J. E. Duguid (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, [1879]), 1:257 n.4.

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