Monday, February 6, 2012


Paul and James

Every four years the American people are subjected to the presidential primary races with all their trimmings.  We get to watch and hear candidates and potential candidates in conflict.  It happens in both parties, though the incumbents are sometimes spared.  Men, and occasionally women, tear apart each others’ proposed policies and programs, and often each others’ characters and ethics.

Then when a candidate is finally chosen, the combatants become instant allies.  All is forgotten (if not necessarily forgiven) and the chosen one is backed up in his or her attacks on the candidate of the opposing party.

Many people view the Bible in similar fashion, as though it is some sort of political campaign.  Biblical writers are seen as holding opposing views on historical and theological essentials, though they usually stop short of calling each other names.  Yet, though they disagree, somehow they have all united in their claims to speak God’s truth and have been combined together in the Bible.  These supposed conflicts have provided the grist for many “learned” studies made by theological liberals or “higher critics.”  They have also been the source of heated discussions in many Bible studies and Sunday school classes, often ending with a choosing of sides and a battle of proof-texts.

The most well-known of these supposed conflicts in the New Testament is that between Paul and James over the question of faith and works and their place in the salvation process.  A superficial reading of some chosen texts could possibly lead to the conclusion that these men were arguing with each other.

Paul:  “Knowing that a person is not declared righteous by works of Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, we also have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be declared righteous by faith in Christ and not by works of Law, because no flesh will be declared righteous by works of Law.”  (Galatians 2:16 – written somewhere around 48 AD.)

James:  “What’s the profit if someone says he has faith, but doesn’t have works?  The faith isn’t able to save him, is it?  …Even so, faith if it doesn’t have works is dead, by itself.

But someone will say, ‘You have faith.’  I also have works!  ‘Show me your faith without the works.’  And I’ll show you the faith by my works!  ‘You believe that God is one; you’re doing well.’  Even the demons believe and shudder!

Do you want to know this, you vain man, that faith without works is idle?  Wasn’t Abraham our father declared righteous by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith worked together with his works, and by works faith was perfected.  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘And Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…  For even as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead!  (James 2:14, 17-24, 26 – written about 48.    The “straw-man” dialog translation was suggested to me years ago by a professor at seminary – Zane Hodges.)

Paul:  “What then shall we say that Abraham, our father according to the flesh has found?  For if Abraham was declared righteous by works he has a boast – but not before God!  For what does the Scripture say?  ‘And Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness.’  Now to the one who works, the wage is not credited as grace, but as something owed.  But to the one who doesn’t work, but believes in the One who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.”  (Romans 4:1-5 – about 56/57 AD).

We see the same expressions used over and over by James and Paul:  “declared righteous” (or “justified” – dikaioo), “faith” (pistis), “believe” (pisteuo), “by works” (ex erga).

We also read in Acts and Galatians 2 of a conflict going on.  But we should notice that nowhere is there any mention of a direct conflict between Paul and James.  And the conflict is not between “faith and works,” but rather over whether non-Jewish believers in Christ should become Jews and observe the Old Testament Law, as well as over whether Jewish believers should associate with non-Jewish believers.

So how do we deal with this apparent conflict?  Well, first of all, as those who accept all Scripture as “God-breathed,” we need to start with the assumption that any conflict between Paul and James is only apparent, that in some way these passages are consistent with each other.  I know this criterion won’t please those who don’t accept the doctrine of inspiration, but it is the same criterion we’d use when reading any book or article.  We’d assume that it was self consistent.

We should also recognize that these passages must be read in their contexts.  Pulling lines and even paragraphs out of context may be a great debating technique, but it is a poor way of ascertaining truth.  A check of the context should show that, in spite of appearances, James and Paul were not writing to each other or with each other in mind.  In fact, it is highly probable that each was unaware of the others’ writings, at least in the earlier letters.

Paul, in Galatians (if my dating is correct) had recently returned to Antioch from his missionary trip to central Asia Minor (present day Turkey).  He had made converts mostly of Gentiles (non-Jews), and planted a number of churches (Acts 13 and 14).  It wasn’t long after this that he heard of what he termed “a different gospel” being preached among these new converts (Galatians 1:6-9; cf. Acts 15:1ff), teaching that faith in Christ was not enough – they must also practice the Old Testament Law.  It was (among other things) to counteract this teaching that he wrote Galatians.

Paul’s later letter to the Romans was to a mixed church, composed of both Jewish and Gentile elements.  His main purpose seems to have been to reconcile differences between the groups.  His argument was that all – Jews and Gentiles were in need of God’s grace for salvation.  Romans in many ways restates the arguments of Galatians, only in a much more orderly and logical form, perhaps with a bit less of the passion he showed to the Galatians.

James, on the other hand, was not a missionary.  He was apparently the chief elder, or pastor of the church in Jerusalem.  His letter was sent to the Jewish believers in Christ who were scattered due to the early persecutions (James 1:1; Acts 8:1; 11:19; see also the word “synagogue” used for their assembly in James 2:2).

Since both Paul and James center their arguments on Genesis 15:6 (see Grace IV), it seems to me important that we note how they use the word dikaioo (“justify” or “declare righteous”) as well as when in Abraham’s story this justification occurred.  Paul takes the Genesis passage literally, that this justification took place immediately.  Abraham heard the LORD’s promise; he believed; God declared!  That’s all there was to it!

Does James disagree?  No.  James knew the story.  He read the same Scripture.  But James adds a new angle to the story.  It’s what happened later that he’s concerned with.

Abraham was about 80 years old when the events mentioned in Genesis 15 occurred (compare Genesis 12:5 and 16:3).  But James fast forwards his readers about 30 years to Genesis 22.  Abraham’s promised son Isaac, who was born when Abraham was 100 (21:5) is grown.  He was weaned (21:8) and was able to carry wood and to carry on a conversation with him.  It is at this time that the LORD calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  And it is by this act, this “work,” as James tells us, Abraham was “justified.”

There is no contradiction here.  These are two totally different acts of “justification,” separated by 30+ years.  When Abraham was about 80 years old, the LORD declared him righteous on the basis of his faith.  But when Abraham was over 110, he declared himself righteous by his works.

This act, James sees as “perfecting” Abraham’s faith, bringing it to completion.  By this act Abraham “fulfilled” God’s pronouncement that he, Abraham, was righteous.  The judicial act is treated by James as though it were a prophecy which took 30+ years to fulfill.  Though James places faith and works together, the works follow faith in order.  Faith comes first; works perfect the faith.

We should also notice that James’ examples of works are not “works of the Law,” such as Paul was arguing against, but works of simple obedience.  In James 2:15, 16, he speaks of feeding and clothing the poor; and in 2:25, he gives the example of Rahab protecting the spies.  And if we check out her story in Joshua 2, this “work” followed her confession of faith (Joshua 2:9-11).

So when James speaks of works, he is not speaking of works as required along with faith for justification, but as that which follows naturally from faith and “perfects’ faith.  In this he is in complete agreement with Paul:

“For we are His design (poiema) created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Though the word “save” (sozo) is usually understood to be speaking of our initial “salvation,” i.e., our justification by God, it has a broader range of meanings.  James uses the word 5 times (1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:15, 20), and though in 4:12 it is contrasted with “destroy,” in 1:21 and 5:15 and 20, it is applied to the “brothers.”

“So then my beloved brothers … receive the implanted word which is able to save your souls” (1:19, 21).

“… and the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick” (5:15).

“My brothers, if any of you should wander from the truth and someone should turn him  around … the one who turns the sinner from the error of his way, will save a soul from death …” (5:19, 20)

So when James questions whether faith can save someone who doesn’t have works, he is not speaking of God’s justification of the believer, but of what happens after that.  He is speaking of faith and works in the life of the justified believer, of salvation as it is worked out in our daily lives.

Compare what Paul says in Philippians 2:12 and 13:

“So then my beloved ones … with fear and trembling, work out your own salvation; for God is the one who is working in you, both to desire and to work for His good pleasure.”


Canadian Atheist said...

So in other words even the people who wrote the Bible interpreted it differently, making it even more apparently useless when it comes to creating a fool proof document?

And I've never understood believers love of Abraham - a man who heard voices and was willing to kill his own son. As Hitchens once said (paraphrased) that if God had asked him to kill his own son, he'd say 'no' F you.

I enjoyed the read though. Thanks.

Bill Ball said...

Though Paul and James approached the Genesis passage from different perspectives, they weren't in disagreement as to its meaning. This would rather seem to be evidence of the NT's consistency. And as I learned long ago in my engineering days, "It's impossible to make something foolproof because fools are so ingenious."

By the way. why would Hitchens be carrying on a conversation with someone (he believes) is nonexistent?

Canadian Atheist said...

You said: By the way. why would Hitchens be carrying on a conversation with someone (he believes) is nonexistent?

Ha ha! He was debating a believer and used the story of Abraham to show how immoral some passages of the Bible are.

You said: Though Paul and James approached the Genesis passage from different perspectives, they weren't in disagreement as to its meaning.

They had conflicts over the meaning, which means they interpreted it in two different ways. That's one big argument against Christianity. Obviously, if every believer has a slightly different interpretation of the Bible, God wasn't all that good at getting his message across.

Some believers take the words literally even and some say it's metaphor and they interchange the two to interpret the Bible the way they want to see the world.

Many don't take the Genesis creation myth to be literally true for example.

gary said...

good explanation bill. i just began to understand james 1:19 a while back. at least I think i understand- that,just as when i first believed in the true God,it was a major struggle of wills. now,after being saved and living by faith i still have this tendency to battle truth and become angry when god's word gets in my face. trusting in god's resourses is always easier than trusting in the lord.

XLT said...

I recently taught through the first two chapters of James in the absence of the regular Adult SS rotation at our church. I was fairly shocked at the ability most had developed over the years to rationalize their conflicting understandings of Paul and James. The very thought that there might be another type of justification involved was very difficult for many to swallow.

I am now getting ready to teach the same material to a broader group in our Women's Bible study groups... please pray for me with that :). Thanks!