Do James & Paul Contradict One Another?
“Don’t Paul & James contradict each other about faith and works?”
Many critics like to pick very selective verses from the writings of Paul & James to make it seem that these early Christian leaders had opposite teachings. If, however, you are familiar with the entire New Testament, this argument falls apart. James & Paul believed and taught the exact same gospel, they just emphasized different parts according to the needs of the people they were writing to. Here is what they both believe:
The Law is good, but it can never earn us salvation since people cannot fully obey it. However, God has revealed His means for salvation, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus. We must accept this unearned gift of salvation from God through faith, repentance and becoming a disciple. Good works are a necessary symptom or sign of genuine faith. If a person’s “faith” does not produce good works it shows that it wasn’t real faith in the first place (and won’t save him). So although both faith and works are necessary, faith is the foundation. Since salvation comes through Jesus’ atonement on our behalf, trying to “earn” salvation through law is basically denying Jesus’ unmerited gift.
Both Paul & James’ writings fit with this view. Does Paul hate the Law as the critics allege? Listen to some quotes from Paul:
“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.” (1 Tim 1:8)
“Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” (Romans 3:31)
“It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” (Romans 2:13)
“There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 2:9-11)
“we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
So Paul is saying that the Law is good and the goal of our faith is a lifestyle of good works.
Likewise, although James emphasizes that faith without works is dead, he certainly doesn’t teach that the Law is a path to earning salvation:
“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)
People who think obedience to the Law brings salvation don’t write things like that!
James is emphasizing something that Paul would agree with, that a “faith” which doesn’t result in any good works is fake and invalid faith. In the middle of this passage, James acknowledged that Abraham’s faith was the original root of his saving righteousness:
Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (James 2:23)
So although faith and works are both important, salvation comes on the merit of faith not on the merit of works. There is no contradiction here.