Revisiting James and Paul on Justification

Jas 2.14-26, with the contention that ‘faith without deeds is dead’ and using the stories of Abraham and Rahab to show that ‘a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone,’ has often been regarded as James’s denunciation of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith.[1] Furthermore, this apparent inner-canonical tension between James and Paul has in turn led to an allergy towards the epistle of James in some ecclesial traditions which have been shaped principally by Pauline thought. Protestants in particular have ordinarily clung to the doctrine of sola fide, justification by faith alone, based largely if not exclusively on their reading of Paul. And yet, the only place where the words ‘faith alone’ occur in the New Testament is in Jas 2.24 where James explicitly denies that faith alone justifies. This would seemingly make James not merely an opponent of Paul, but of the entire Protestant Reformation too. This is precisely why Luther was so adverse to the letter and why many counter-reformation Catholic apologetics appealed to James with great frequency and earnestness.[2]

It helps if we remember that sixteenth and seventeenth century debates about whether justification is by the imputation of merit or by the infusion of charity are simply not what James or Paul are talking about. In addition, the Jacobean account of justification does not necessarily render the Protestant doctrine of sola fide as exegetically invalid; it only requires that the doctrine involve careful articulation in order to avoid accusations of promoting ethical laxity.[3] With those caveats in mind, I submit that it is possible to bring James and Paul together on justification once we situate them in their respective context.

For a start, James is not shirt-fronting Paul and Paul might actually be receptive to the concerns that James raises. James appears to be offering, almost as an aside, a clarifying response to Pauline teaching, not composing an anti-Pauline tract.[4] As proof of that at no point does James demand that converting Gentiles undergo circumcision and adopt the Torah, nor does he insist that Jewish Christians must separate from Gentile Christians for the sake of ritual purity – Paul’s trigger points for unleashing polemical fury (see Gal 2.11-14; 5.12; 6.12-14; Phil 3.2-3)! According to Acts, while James affirmed Paul’s ministry and message, he had concerns about those who were taking Paul’s teaching in a possibly antinomian direction and rumours that Paul was actively leading Jews away from obeying Torah (see Acts 21.20-21)! What James offers here is not so much a denunciation as a qualification to Paul’s teaching, so that final justification is never independent of moral transformation? Added to that, Paul was very much aware that his instruction on God justifying ungodly-Gentile-sinners by faith apart from works of Torah got him accused of promoting ethical laxity, and he actively refuted the notion that his gospel licensed immoral behaviour (see Rom 3.8, 6.1-2). I can imagine Paul reading Jas 2.14-24 and replying, ‘I hear ya bro, but I got this, let me read Romans 6 and Galatians 5 to you.’

Furthermore, the apparent discrepancy between James and Paul dissipates when we observe what they are each arguing for and against. They are using the same language, but they have different referents in mind, and they address difference concerns.

James and Paul on ‘Faith’ and ‘Works’
SubjectPaulJames
FaithTrust in God’s redeeming action in Jesus and allegiance to Jesus as Messiah and Lord. Such faith justifies.Mere assent to the existence of God which does not lead to upright conduct. Such faith does not justify.
WorksConnected with the Jewish way of life codified in the Torah, a kind of ‘doing’ that leads to ‘boasting’ in ethnicity and effort. Such works do not save.

Loving expression of faith in action. Such works are required for salvation.

Paul is against those who demand that Gentiles become Jewish proselytes as a condition of being a follower of Jesus. James is against those who teach salvation by mere assent without commitment to actually following the words of Jesus. James and Paul can be brought together when we remember that James’s statement that ‘faith without deeds is dead’ can be correlated with Paul’s remark that ‘the only thing that counts is faith working through love.’[5] In addition, James’s reference to the ‘word of truth’ and the ‘implanted word, which can save you’ is very similar to Paul’s ‘message of truth, the gospel of your salvation’ and his statement about how faith comes from ‘hearing the message and the message is the word of Christ.’[6] These two towering apostles agree on this: the word of truth brings salvation and transformation.

That said, James and Paul do materially disagree on the significance of Gen 15.6. Paul employs the passage to prove that Abraham was justified prior to his circumcision, while James opts for a standard Jewish approach that read Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22 as the reason he had righteousness credited to him proleptically in Gen 15.6.[7] Alas, there is diversity in the New Testament!

In the end, we do best to imagine James – much like he did for Peter at the Jerusalem Council – as standing in the breach between Paul and his Jewish/Jewish Christian critics, censuring extremes, assuaging concerns, and looking for common ground.

[1] Jas 2.24, 26.

[2] See Johnson 1995, 140-43.

[3] See Reasoner 2005, 25; Vanhoozer 2016, 71-107.

[4] Despite the persistence of efforts to read James as an anti-Pauline writing (e.g. Hengel 1987), Johnson (1995, 111) rightly points out that it is unfair to take 12 of James’s 108 verses as the key to its purpose and aims. The letter is so much more than a repudiation or even a qualification to Pauline teaching.

[5] Jas 2.26; Gal 5.6.

[6] Jas 1.18, 21; Eph 1.13; Rom 10.17.

[7] See Gal 3.6-18 and Rom 4.1-25 versus Jas 2.21-23 and 1 Macc 2.52.

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