Theological Studies – Justification balancing Paul and James

This article graciously provided by our good friend Luke Schmeltzer – Theological Studies and other free theology resources available through here


“What must I do to be saved?” Each of us knows, whether we are willing to recognize it or not, that humanity is plagued with a great moral problem. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, no matter how many laws we enact, we just keep sinning. We know we need to be saved, saved from ourselves if nothing else. The secular world will answer this question many ways, but each of them will ultimately boil down to one core command: “Try harder!” The world and its false religions will all sell the same bill of goods; mankind can only be saved by doing better. We must achieve racial harmony, end inequality, achieve enlightenment, obey every law, and then we will finally be saved. The problem is that we are sinners who need a Savior. Ultimately, we need to be saved from the God whose law we have broken, and the Christian message is that Jesus Christ who is God in the flesh is the One who came to save. Through Christ, we may be justified and set in right relationship with God, but what part in this salvation do we have to play?

You will get different answers depending on who you ask. The battle typically rages between two camps: one marked “Justified by Faith Alone” and another marked “Faith + Works!” These sides are typically represented by the Reformed and generally Protestant traditions in the first group and Roman Catholics chiefly in the other, but the point of this article is not the historical battle between the two. The core of the conflict is this: both sides seem to have Scripture to support their side, and at first glance that appears to be very true. The “Faith Alone” side are quick to quote the Apostle Paul, who contended that “a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus.” The concept of justification by faith alone rings through much of Paul’s writings, and it is essential to his arguments in Galatians 2-3, Romans 3-5, and Ephesians 2. However, opponents of that view will be quick to quote from the epistle of James, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” That verse cuts straight through the faith alone argument, doesn’t it? And doesn’t that mean the Biblical authors contradict one another?

Not quite. First, we should clarify what a genuine contradiction is. The logical Law of Noncontradiction can be explained that one cannot be something and not be something at the same time and in the same relationship. Because we trust that the same God inspired all of Scripture and that He is not the author of confusion, there must be something deeper going on; there must be more to this conflict. The question is solved when you begin to examine the passages in their original context, avoiding the dangers of proof-texting. When you proof-text, that is, when you take a certain passage at face value outside of its immediate context and use it as a tool to solve a problem, you run the risk of missing the point of the passage completely. This is frequently done with verses like “Do not judge so that you will not be judged,” or “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” You may well fall into error here by completely misinterpreting these texts, using them as tools to address issues they were never meant to. 

When we take these verses, with Paul saying justification is by faith apart from works and James saying not by faith alone, and bash them together as if they were opposing each other, we undermine the unity and coherence of Scripture. We also pit two Spirit-inspired Apostles against each other, missing what they were actually saying in the text. When examined in context, these verses are in no way contradictory. In fact, they work together beautifully to guide us toward a balanced Christian life. It has been said that there are at least two ways to fall off a horse: to the right or to the left. In the Christian faith, it is easy to fall too far to one extreme or the other, so these two writers stand beside us to keep us in the middle.  

Paul and James are writing at two different times, to two different audiences, with two different intentions. Paul is often writing didactically and doctrinally to the churches he loves. Under the pressure of a controversial sect called the Judaizers, the churches are being influenced to go back to the Jewish law to find their hope for salvation. To be a Christian, according to the Judaizers, one must first be a Jew. In Romans chapter 4, Paul labors the point that no one is justified by obedience to the Law, not even our father Abraham. While the legalists insisted on justification being by faith plus circumcision and ceremonial obedience, Paul writes that “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Referencing the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 15, Paul says that Abraham was accounted to be righteous when he believed in God’s promise, even before he was circumcised. 

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When we go to James 2, we see him using that exact same verse from Genesis 15, but James is writing with a different intention. When James addresses the believing Jews dispersed around the Roman world, he writes to combat their lawlessness and lack of self-control. James quotes the same verse in James 2:23, but he is using it to describe his obedience to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. James argues that Abraham’s justification is made evident when he is obedient to God’s command, for obedience is the natural product of a saving faith. His faith was perfected, meaning that though his justification was rooted in his faith in God years earlier, his faith was proven to be true when it produced the necessary fruit of obedience. James explains in the following verse that “faith without works is dead.” So James, to call the disobedient children of Abraham to prove their faith, reminds them that a person who is truly justified is one who has been changed by the saving power of Almighty God. This change, this regeneration, makes us spiritually alive in Christ, and those who are alive in Christ possess a living faith that obeys the commands of Christ out a deep and abiding love for Him. A living faith is a working faith. 

So, when we put these two pictures together, we see the necessary balance to which Christ has called every one of us. We cannot seek to save ourselves by adding to Christ’s perfect obedience; we will never be justified by our own obedience to the Law. It is only by a genuine faith in Jesus Christ that we are counted righteous in Christ, justified as He is justified. However, neither can any of us simply sit back and enjoy our sin, for a faith that does not produce the good fruit of obedience is a dead faith, which is no faith at all. We are justified by faith in Christ alone, but this justifying faith is evidenced by obeying the Lord that we love. For Christ has said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” And again, “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit… So then, you will know them by their fruits.” 

This is a balance that is plain in the writing of both James and Paul; all you need to do is read them as a whole in context and trust the God who inspired them both. Our justification is ultimately rooted in our faith in Christ, but faith in Christ will necessarily lead to a life that bears the good fruit of faith in Christ. As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” We are saved through faith, and we are saved for good works. We must never reverse the two. We must walk the narrow path, the ditch of legalism on one side and the ditch of lawlessness on the other. As prone as we may be to let the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other, we must seek balance and stability. We must live in faith that Christ will lead us along the way.


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