The James Vs. Paul Cage Fight

We all know what Paul thinks about salvation, summed up succinctly in verses like Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.

James, however, tells a different story in 2:24:

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

So I look down to the commentary in my NIV Life Application Bible, and it says, “James and Paul are not contradicting but complementing each other.”

Oh really?

Now I grew up hearing the arguments that Paul and James both agreed in the need for deeds to be the evidence for faith. But those are pretty weak. Because the whole argument for those who believe we are saved only by grace through faith is that none of us is able to perform enough good works to meet God’s standard. Is that any less true after salvation? And if you read James, he isn’t saying, “You’re saved by faith but you need to have good works, too.” He’s saying, “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

Paul and James both use Abraham as an example – Paul says Abraham was justified by faith alone because he believed in God before the Law existed, and James said Abraham was justified by works because he was willing to sacrifice Isaac. They both even cite the same Old Testament scripture (Gen. 15:6)!

Now James does believe faith is necessary for salvation, which is what Paul would say, but he also believes works are equally necessary, something I don’t think you can find in Paul’s writing.

So we bend over backward, twisting ourselves into knots trying to reconcile these two early apostles who simply disagreed with each other about how God works his salvation. It’s certainly understandable why: Salvation is a big deal! It’s an even bigger deal when you believe God is going to condemn every last unsaved person to eternal torment in hell. With stakes that high, it’s pretty important to figure out who is saved and who isn’t, and it behooves us to have a Bible that clearly, easily and understandably points the way to salvation.

Except the Bible does not do this.

After all, you tell me. If it’s so clear that we are saved by faith alone, not by anything we can do, then it’s not just James that has to be reconciled into this paradigm. It’s Hebrews, too.

What is the single overriding theme of Hebrews? Arguably, it’s perseverance; the author (Apollos? Priscilla?) is very concerned that his or her audience stay with the faith. And in 6:4, it’s pretty clear that committed, on-fire, filled-with-the-Holy-Spirit Christians can “fall away.” Later in the chapter, the author mentions the audience’s “work” and implores the audience to “show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure.”

But it’s not just James and Hebrews; it’s Jesus!

In Matthew 25, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, by what criteria does he determine who goes “into the unending fire prepared for the devil and his angels?” As Keith Green so succinctly puts it at the end of his musical treatment of that passage, the judgment is based on “what they did and didn’t do.”

But then we have Paul, who sees works as futile, and the Law as something to show us how incapable we are of doing enough good works to reach heaven, leading him to the conclusion we are saved only by faith (Galatians 3:24). This is summarized most obviously in Romans 3:28:

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law.

These contradictions are difficult to reconcile – in fact, I’d argue they are irreconcilable; as children we are told they can be reconciled, but those arguments are pretty unconvincing. Paul is clearly saying something different from James. There’s no middle ground between “apart from” and “and”.

The only way this makes sense is if we throw out our preconceived notions of the Bible as internally consistent and recognize that each book is a separate voice – that the texts of the Bible are in conversation with each other. Just as various Old Testament writers disagreed about God’s attitude toward foreign nations, so the New Testament writers are not in agreement about the role of good deeds in a salvation system based on faith. We are seeing the remnants of the first big debate within Christianity, just decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But that leads us to an unsettling question: If damnation is at stake, shouldn’t God have been a little clearer about this? This is kind of a big deal.

I understand why faith-only has gained such a strong foothold in the argument; it makes more sense. How do we know when we’ve done enough works to gain admittance to heaven? If we go by God’s perfect standard, none of us makes it. But when Jesus says we’re only going into the Kingdom based on how we’ve treated the poor, and Hebrews says we can lose our salvation, and James says works are an integral part of our justification, it doesn’t matter how much sense faith-only makes because it’s not what they’re teaching.

So we have to decide what kind of god God is. Because if we’ve gotten this wrong, there are a whole lot of people who are going to be pretty hot despite saying the sinner’s prayer (which isn’t in the Bible) and accepting Jesus into their hearts (also not in the Bible) because that’s what they were told to do.

In which case, our agency doesn’t matter at all. We do what we can to do what we know God wants us to do, but in the end, it’s not up to us. It’s up to him and his sovereignty. And if that’s true, there are really only two views of salvation that put proper emphasis on the sovereignty of God: Calvinism and universalism.

Which I think explains the skyrocketing popularity of John Piper and Rob Bell – two theologians with completely incompatible views of salvation who perhaps aren’t that different after all.


3 thoughts on “The James Vs. Paul Cage Fight”

  1. I wonder whether some of these terms actually meant the same thing to the different writers. Does justification mean the same thing to James mean the same thing as saved to Paul? Is works the same thing as observing the law?

    I think of works as the proof of faith. True faith is lived out in works. James here looks to me as if he is trying to instruct his readers on the difference between faith that is just a feeling or just lip service, and faith that is a life-changing response to God.

    1. Yeah, I find it’s difficult to write about more overtly theological topics such as this one because there’s so much baggage to either work through or ignore. For example, I felt bad after finishing this that I didn’t talk at all about Scot McKnight and N.T. Wright’s points that we focus too much on personal salvation in general. That’s probably why I stick to historical stuff and politics, haha.

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