Paul vs. James, A Contradiction?

There seems to be a contradiction in Scripture that a man is justified (declared righteous) by faith according to Paul, but justified by works according to James (Rom. 5:1; James 2:24). It’s either one or the other.  It can’t be both, can it?

But actually, it is both. A mountain climber may have faith to climb mountains. But in order to demonstrate his faith in his ability to others, he actually has to climb the mountain. Merely saying he can do it doesn’t show his faith in his ability to others.

Concerning the book of James, a majority of pastors and Bible teachers teach that good works and righteous living are always a result of faith. If there are no works then there is no faith. In other words, if you’re not living ‘right’ then you’re not saved and on your way to heaven. What they fail to understand is that James is written to believers who have been justified by faith in the court room of God. Being justified by faith is a one-time act of hearing (understanding the gospel) and believing it, which causes an irreversible change in your final destiny.

Five evidences that James was writing to Believers
1. At least 15 times in the book, he addresses them as brethren or beloved brethren; a reference to their spiritual relationship in the Lord (James 1:2, 9, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1, 10, 11; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12, 19)  
2. In chapter 1 verse 3, they were experiencing trials which were testing their faith. They had to be in the faith for their faith to be tested.
3. They were “brought forth” by the word of truth (1:18). They were born again.   
4. According to Chapter 4 verse 5, they were indwelt by the Spirit of God; “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”.   Only believers have the Spirit.
5. James warns them not to hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with partiality. (James 2:1) “Our’ demonstrates that the writer and the audience were in the faith. Some of them were misusing their faith in their relationship with rich and poor.
Dead does not mean non-existent

The reason most commentators assign some of these people to the unbelieving realm is because they have “dead” faith (2:17). They teach that ‘dead’ faith is equal to no faith. But dead doesn’t mean non-existent. In the context, it means useless. It doesn’t profit. These believers were living a self-absorbed and carnal lifestyle like the Corinthian church (I Cor. 3:1-4).  

Only God can see a person’s heart

Faith that is evidenced by appropriate works justifies that person before others. They can’t see what you believe, but they can see your faith in action.  They were to “speak” and to “do” as those who will be judged by the law of liberty”. (James 2:12) Their talk of faith (speak) was to align with their walk of faith (do).

Paul vs. James

The apostle Paul was opposing the Jewish works-righteousness mentality; that a person could be restored to a relationship with God by works (Rom. 3:1-5:1). James was addressing a lack of righteous living of the believer

Paul taught the doctrine of justification; being immediately delivered from the penalty of sin and declared righteous in position forever, by faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Good works should follow in a believer’s life, but often they must be learned and sometimes they are lacking (Eph. 2:10; Titus 3:8, 14; I Cor. 3:15).

James addressed the need for these believers to be delivered from the power of sin. This is referred to as practical sanctification. Their lack of works and righteousness failed to evidence the inward reality of their faith to others. 

CATEGORY     PAUL’S Teaching     JAMES’ Teaching 
Issue:     Works-righteousness     Lack of righteous living 
Justification:     Before God by faith    Before others by works 
Salvation:     From the Penalty of sin    From the Power of sin 
Works:     Believers should do    Believers not doing (useless) 
Context:     Justification    Sanctification 

It takes time for new believers to grow in their faith. Some never grow much. Abraham was saved in Genesis 15:6 and demonstrated that his faith had matured in Genesis 22 about 20 years later (Rom. 4:3; James 2:21-24). Maybe instead of writing people out of the kingdom, we should try to have a conversation with them about the gospel. If they have believed the gospel, then we should help to assure them of their salvation. And then if we have a good relationship with the person, we can help them “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18).


Learn more about your security in Christ.

Check out, Assurance of Heaven, an in-depth Biblical study into how you can know you have the certainty of going to heaven and learn to share the faith with others. Download a FREE Study Guide that compliments the book.

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