“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5)
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? . . . faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone . . . by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:14, 17, 24).
Paul and James appear to be in hopeless disagreement. Paul insists that a person is justified by faith wholly apart from works, whereas James declares faith alone inadequate for justification. What is the solution? To begin with, we must acknowledge Paul’s emphatic claims to have visited with James personally and to have found their beliefs to be in complete agreement (Galatians 2:1-2, 6-9). The controversy is therefore not based on substantial disagreement in theology, but on terminology; these two men are defining the terms “faith” and “justification” differently. Paul is focused on a true, heart-involved faith, whereas James is referring to a shallow, purely intellectual assent. Concerning the term justification, Paul has in mind a person’s legal justification in the sight of God whereas James is concerned with a man being justified in the sight of other men. This kind of justification, on James’ view, was brought about by works which, to be sure, were prompted by genuine faith. A careful reading of James makes clear that he is concerned with the Christian’s practical witness in the world. The examples he cites of people being justified refer to their justification in the sight of others. Paul said that Abraham was justified in the sight of God by faith (referring to Genesis 15:6). James said he was justified when he offered up Isaac (referring to Genesis 22). Abraham was indeed justified in the sight of God the moment he believed, but justified in the sight of men by his stupendous display of obedience, earning him the reputation as the friend of God (James 2:23). The account of Rahab is identical. Her act of faith justified her in the eyes of the invading Israelites (James 2:25; cf Joshua 2, 6:22-25). This definitional disagreement, far from calling into question the validity of the New Testament text, actually helps to confirm its authenticity. The “contradiction” between these men is so obvious that had Christians been systematically editing and rewriting the New Testament in order to make it conform to some standard doctrinal statement, it would certainly have been either eliminated altogether or the text would have been expanded to include an explanation. The fact that the “contradiction” was left unaltered confirms the fact that God Has ensured the preservation of His precious word down through the ages. With renewed confidence and encouragement, let us therefore commit to expressing our faith in good works today, for God’s glory and for the good of others!