Do Paul and James contradict each other about faith?

Question / Comment - Do Paul and James contradict each other about faith?


Please reconcile Paul and James in this regard: ROMANS 3:20, 28 vs. JAMES 2:17, 24.


JPN Reply:


there is a little bit about this in one of the Q & A's in the following link:

I'll add the words of J Vernon McGee as well below which shed further light.

All the best.


J Vernon McGee - Thru the Bible Commentary
James 2:14

In verses Jas_1:14-26 James shows that God tests faith by good works. There are those who say that we have in this section a contradiction to the writings of Paul, because Paul made it abundantly clear that faith alone could save you. We have his clear statement in Gal_2:16—"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (italics mine).

I have divided this section up as follows: (1) The interpretation of faith (v.
Hab_1:14); (2) the identification of faith (vv. Jas_1:15-20); and (3) the illustration of faith (vv. Jas_1:21-26).

First we have the interpretation of faith. When we understand the definition of faith as it is used by Paul and James in the context of their writings, we can see that Paul and James are in perfect agreement, that they are discussing the same subject from different viewpoints.

Paul says that a man is not saved by the works or the deeds of the Law. In
Rom_3:28 he writes, "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." In Galatians, as we have noted, Paul says that a man is justified not by works but by faith in Christ Jesus. How then are we going to reconcile Paul and James? As someone has said, "Paul and James do not stand face to face, fighting against each other, but they stand back to back, fighting opposite foes." In that day there were those who were saying that you had to perform the works of the Law (the Mosaic Law), that you had to come by the Law, in order to be saved. Paul answered that by saying that the works of the Law will not save you and that only faith in Christ can save you. Both Paul and James, therefore, are defending the citadel of faith. To see that, we need to understand the use of their terminology. Paul says that saving faith—a faith which is genuine and real—will transform a person's life. Paul said of himself, "But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ" (Php_3:7). A real revolution took place in his life when he came to Christ. In 1Co_15:1-2 Paul wrote, "Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain;" that is, unless it was just an empty faith (italics mine). Now let us look at what James has to say—

James is not talking about the works of the Law. He simply says that the faith which saves you will produce works, works of faith. The faith that James is talking about here is professing faith, that which is phony and counterfeit. Paul refers to the same idea when he says in
1Co_15:2, "… unless ye have believed in vain." Paul also wrote, "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith …" (2Co_13:5).

One of the greatest dangers for us preachers of the gospel is that we like to see people converted, and we are willing to accept a brazen and flippant yes from some individual who says, "Yes, I'll trust Jesus." However, it might be just an impertinent, impudent, and insolent nod of the head; it is so easy today to be as phony as a three-dollar bill.

The story is told that the Devil had a meeting with his demons to decide how to persuade men that God was nonexistent. Since they themselves believed in His existence, they wondered just how to do it. One demon suggested that they tell people Jesus Christ never really existed and that men should not believe such fiction. Another demon suggested that they persuade men that death ends all and there is no need to worry about life after death. Finally, the most intelligent demon suggested that they tell everyone that there is a God, that there is Jesus Christ, and that believing in Him saves, but all you have to do is profess faith in Christ and then go on living in sin as you used to. They decided to use this tactic, and it is the tactic the Devil uses even today.

Paul and James are in perfect harmony in their teaching. When Paul speaks of works, it is works of the Law. He says in
Rom_3:20, "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin." He is saying in effect, "Yes, the Law is a mirror—it reveals you are a sinner—but it cannot save you; the works of the Law cannot save you at all." James also says that you have to have something more than just the works of the Law. He wrote, "For whosoever shall keep the whole law and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (v. Hab_1:10). As someone has put it, "Man cannot be saved by perfect obedience, for he cannot render it. He cannot be saved by imperfect obedience because God will not accept it." The only solution to this dilemma is the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and both James and Paul emphasize that.

Gal_2:16 Paul made it clear that men are not saved by the Law, but later in that epistle he wrote, "And let us not be weary in well-doing …" (Gal_6:9). There is a lot of doing that goes with believing. "Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal_6:6-7). In this section of his epistle when James speaks of works, he is speaking of the works of faith. Paul also wrote about works of faith: "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love" (Gal_5:6). Both of these men taught that faith must be a working faith. As John Calvin put it, "Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone."

Saving faith, therefore, is alive; professing faith is dead. We have a lot of so-called professing Christians today who are members of churches. They are nothing in the world but zombies. They are walking around as if they are alive, but they are dead.

A girl once asked her Sunday school teacher, "How can I be a Christian and still have my own way?" The teacher gave to her
Rom_8:5 which says, "For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit." If you are a child of God, you cannot have your own way. You are going to do His way. "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be…. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you …" (Rom_8:7, Rom_8:9). Paul says that now that you are indwelt by the Spirit of God, you can produce the fruit of the Spirit in your life; if you don't, there is something radically wrong. A Christian doesn't do as he pleases; he does as Christ pleases.

During the depression there lived in Pittsburgh a tycoon who was having all kinds of problems in his life. He went to his pastor and, after talking over his problems, he said, "I love my Savior. I love my family. I love my church. I love my business. But there are times I feel like walking out on all four of them." The pastor looked him straight in the eye and said, "Well, why don't you?" The man replied, "The reason I don't is that I am a Christian." May I say to you, saving faith which makes one a Christian will lead to good works. However, we are so anxious to get church members that we accept them on the slightest profession. As a result, many churches are filled with professing Christians who are really unbelievers.

When we understand how Paul and James use the words faith and works, we can see that they are in total agreement in their teaching.

Now James deals with the identification of faith. Saving faith can be recognized and identified by certain spiritual fingerprints. There is a verification of genuine faith. James gives us this practical illustration—

James 2:15-16

Pious cliches and Christian verbiage are not the evidence of saving faith. There must be a vocation to go along with the vocabulary. You can be very pious and say to an individual, "Brother I will pray for you, and I know the Lord will provide." My friend, the Lord put you there as a child of God to do the providing. I get a little weary sometimes when wealthy Christian laymen pat me on the back and say, "Dr McGee, you are doing a fine thing. You are doing the right thing in giving out the Word of God," but they do not have a part in supporting this ministry financially. I have a hard time believing they are sincere. You may piously say to someone, "Oh, brother, I'm for you." Are you for him? Are you back of him? My friend, a living faith produces something—you can identify it.

The Lord Jesus said, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (
Joh_13:35). Then in Rom_13:8, Paul says, "Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law." The point is that you cannot say you are a child of God and live like a lawless individual. I do not mean that whenever a bum asks you for twenty-five cents in order to buy wine you should give it to him. And I do not think that you should believe every individual who professes to be a Christian. We need to test them out to see whether they are or not. My heart is warmed when I think of a certain man I know who is rendering financial assistance to someone in need and of a lady of means who is supporting a missionary abroad and telling no one about it. May I say to you, you are telling by your life whether your faith is genuine or not.

James 2:17-18

"Faith, if it hath not works, is dead." The faith is dead? Why? Because living faith, saving faith, produces works. You have to draw that conclusion from James' illustration. He is talking about the fruit of faith. Paul talks about the root of faith. Those are the separate emphases of each man, but both Paul and James say that faith alone saves. Paul also says that faith is going to produce fruit—"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace …" (
Gal_5:22). The Lord Jesus said, "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit …" (Joh_15:5).

A minister once talked to a man who professed conversion, and he asked, "Have you united with the church?" "No, I haven't," the man replied. "The dying thief never united with the church, and he went to heaven." The minister asked, "Have you ever sat at the Lord's table?" "No, the dying thief never did, and he was accepted" was the answer. The minister asked, "Have you been baptized?" "No," he said, "the dying thief was never baptized, and he went to heaven." "Have you given to missions?" "No, the dying thief did not give to missions, and he was not judged for it" was the reply. Then this disgusted minister said to the man, "Well, my friend, the difference between you two seems to be that he was a dying thief and you are a living thief."

My friend, we often sing, "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise," but we do not even use the one tongue we have. And we sing, "Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small," and then we give nothing at all to Him. James says it is faith that saves, but saving faith produces something.

Their Reply:

Your thoughts and those you sent by J Vernon McGee did clarify the issue of faith & works as put forth by James and Paul for me. The picture of these two not nose to nose in direct opposition on the matter but rather supporting each other upright by the leverage of their backs together, shoulder to shoulder (with arms linked for even added strength in unity) concentrating their preaching on declaring two distinct aspects (James the fruit; Paul the root) of the prerequisite that genuine faith in the grace of God; in the redemptive power of Messiah by His shed blood to secure our salvation shall generate works by those justified by that saving faith such as Abraham and Rahab the harlot. Indeed the works are the effect not the cause. We can only be seen righteous by God once we repent then receive the One He sent: (JOHN 1:12, 13, and 17).
JPN Reply:

Great... well said - thanks. Pleased that it helped and I really liked that bit about them standing back to back as well. You are right that the two thoughts aren't in conflict with each other... they are just dealing with separate foes.

All the best