You’ve heard of their irreconcilable differences, but what if a closer look reveals they are reconcilable? Grace Revolutionaries have to deal with their apparent contradictions.
It will be shown that Paul’s approach and James’s approach to faith and works come from different angles, but they don’t contradict.
First, let’s look at the raw data of key terms, so we can grasp the spirit of James’s short epistle.
Here is a keyword count:
Lord – 13 (some in OT)
Jesus – 2
Christ – 2
God – 18
Father – 3
Spirit – 0
Lawgiver – 1
Judge – 1
Grace – 2 (one in OT quotation)
Faith / believe – 18 (same root word in Greek)
Works – 8
One thing is certain: the epistle is not grace-centered. But it does emphasize faith over works, though not one without the other.
Written to Jewish Christians, it is more God-centered.
The importance of these raw data is that Paul’s practical theology of law and works v. faith and grace is much more developed and Christological (Christ-centered) than is James’s practical theology of faith and works. (However, we shouldn’t draw the false conclusion that James neglects Christology; he does not. Rather, he has other themes and purposes and emphases.)
More specifically, as we reach the target passage in James 2:14-26, Christ is not mentioned at all. God is mentioned three times in that passage: once in reference to demonic belief, and twice in a reference to Abraham and the Old Testament. Grace is not found at all in those verses.
With that in mind, the corresponding feature about 2:14-26 is that if God is barely mentioned and neither Christ nor grace is brought up at all, then the whole passage must be about proof of faith before the eyes of man. One quick example is v. 18: “But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (NIV). The key word is show. You can see it.
Thus this entire passage is about evidence or proof of faith, which is good works. Any observer can detect works or behavior with his own eyes, as he examines someone who claims to have faith.
But in 2:14-26, good works don’t cause saving faith. James follows a different cause-effect, as we shall now see.
Exegesis of James 2:14-26
Exegesis means a detailed reading of the passage, sometimes focusing on the individual words and their nuanced meanings.
This is my translation, which is more literal than published translations, which are more polished or flowing. If you would like to see published ones, go to biblegateway.com.
14 What (practical) good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this faith save him? 15 A brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food. 16 If someone among you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and fed,” but does not give them the necessities of his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Verse 14 launches the discussion. The man claims to have faith, but does he? If so, what kind of faith? Would it save him?
We will learn in v. 19 that demons have a certain kind of “faith,” but they are never saved and do no good works for humankind.
Back in v. 14, can that bare, minimal faith save the human person? This question is framed by Greek construction that requires a negative answer—no.
Paul would agree with this passage because he too believed in works that spring from faith (Eph. 2:8-10). There Paul links grace and faith—both gifts from God—and salvation. Then from them flow good works.
Paul also says in Philippians 2:12-13:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (NIV, emphasis added)
You can’t work out what has not been worked in. Salvation has been granted to the Philippians, and now they must obey and continue to work out their salvation, as God is working in them.
Anyone addressed in James’s epistle that does no work at all does not show evidence of saving faith.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that there is one God. You do well! Even the demons believe—and shudder.
These verses may be the key ones because they describe what kind of faith James has in mind. It is clearly only mental assent to or agreement on the basics. In our parlance today someone would say, “I believe that God exists.” But this minimal, mental faith alone does not save him. Saving faith must be more directional and personal, not propositional. It must be faith and trust in God.
How could Paul disagree with James’s (simple) way of expressing this? He wouldn’t. He is all about a personal faith and trust and reliance in and on God through Jesus Christ. From this faith flow good works.
20 O empty man, do you want to know (have evidence) that faith without works is unproductive? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and works were working together, and his faith was completed by his works. 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by works and not by faith alone.
Verse 20 again describes the kind of faith James has in mind: argos, which in Greek is the negation of “work.” It is unproductive, inoperative, worthless, or useless. This is not saving faith, but a minimal kind of belief that demons have, which are not saved and do no good works.
In 21, “considered righteous” is sometimes translated as “justified,” but the NIV (and I) choose “considered righteous” because Abraham is examined by the audience, who can draw their conclusions about his faith and works. They consider him a righteous man because they see his good works. They can now see with their own eyes that he had exercised saving faith. But if one insists on translating it as “justified,” then a man of saving faith is still inspected by observers because this justifying faith will show proof or evidence, which is visible good works. He shows signs in the eyes of people of being justified.
In 22, Abraham offering Isaac in Genesis 22 was done about thirty years later than God’s declaration in Genesis 15:6 (v. 23, next). Abraham believed God, and this faith was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called a friend of God. And then after that declaration, he proved his saving faith by doing a good work—the ultimate good work since it was about sacrificing his legitimate heir.
Faith comes first, and then good works. Good works complete—but do not cause—saving faith, for the good works are an outward sign or proof or evidence of the inner, saving faith that Abraham already had.
In 23, James quotes Genesis 15:6. It is God’s declaration of Abraham’s faith in him before Abraham did any work for him. Once again, faith comes first, works after. This is the evidence James needs to see when someone claims to have saving faith, not bare, minimal belief that even demons have.
To reemphasize the main point, good works is the outward sign or proof or evidence—but not the cause—of saving faith.
Verse 24 is not expressed as Paul would have done it, but this is James, not Paul. The key words are “considered righteous.” Again, this word choice or translation supports the flow of the entire passage, namely, that human observers look for evidence of saving faith, the evidence of which is good works. These observers consider Abraham to be righteous because he (nearly) sacrificed his son thirty years later—a good, visible work that anyone can see.
Still in 24, “not by faith alone” means faith is inert, unproductive, inoperative, or useless when it just sits by itself in the heart of the believer—it may not be true faith, but minimal mental assent. True faith must be kinetic, operative, productive, and active. Faith alone does not make a person to be “considered righteous” in the eyes of man. It is by righteous deeds that he is considered righteous before the good-works inspectors.
Here is the sequence that James has in mind for Abraham’s case (the arrows mean “produce” or “lead to”):
Believing → credited with righteousness and called friend of God → proof or evidence is good works (nearly sacrificed Isaac).
But James does not reverse the sequence, as if good works is the cause of saving faith.
Again Paul would not disagree with vv. 20-24 because of the sequence. Paul is into good works after saving faith. In fact, saving faith and the already-saved believer’s good deeds working together is essential.
25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.
James refers to Joshua 2, the entire chapter. Rahab heard about Israel. She believed that Israel was favored by God. She trembled at the thought of the Israelites coming into Jericho’s territory and conquering her city, so she hid the two spies (“messengers”) and made a pact with them to spare her and her family, and they agreed. She and her relations were spared.
The sequence of Rabab’s story: hearing → believing → being saved → working.
In verse 25 it is implied that her belief produced some level of salvation, in an Old Testament sense. Heb. 11:31 is careful to point out that Rahab first had faith, and then she worked to rescue the spies. It is her faith that places her in the Hall of Faith.
Paul would again agree with James, but with a more elaborate theology. He writes in Romans 10:13-15.
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” [Joel 2:32] 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (NIV)
Note how a person’s faith is directed towards the Lord. But before the person can call on the Lord, he must believe. How can he believe if he doesn’t hear the gospel? A proclaimer of good news (the gospel) must be sent out to preach it.
In Rom. 10:13-15, the sequence is more developed in Paul, but the essence is the same:
God’s sending → a preacher’s preaching → man’s hearing → believing → calling on Lord → being saved → working
It is in the three chapters of Romans 12-14 that he talks about doing good works, after a believer’s salvation is secured by grace.
In a modern factory, there is a whole department of Quality Control. They go around carefully examining the product to see if it meets the design specifications. James leads the QC Department to examine your good works (the product) to see if you have saving faith (God’s salvation design).
James’s simple (but not simplistic) theology can be boiled down thus:
1. If you have saving faith, then you’ll show evidence or proof of it by doing good works like Abraham and Rahab did.
2. You have saving faith.
3. Therefore, you’ll show evidence or proof of it by doing good works like they did.
Showing evidence or proof flows out of saving faith; saving faith does not flow out of good works.
Let’s deny the consequent (the then clause):
1. If you have saving faith, then you’ll show evidence or proof of it by doing good works like Abraham and Rahab did.
2. But you don’t show evidence or proof it by doing good works like they did.
3. Therefore, you don’t have saving faith.
You might have minimal mental assent like demons have. Your “faith” is unproductive, inoperative, useless, or worthless.
Still another way of boiling down 2:14-26 is as follows:
1. If you do good works like Abraham and Rahab did, then you have shown evidence or proof or result or effect (but not the cause) of saving faith—you already had saving faith first.
2. You do good works like they did.
3. Therefore, you have shown evidence or proof or result or effect (but not the cause) of saving faith—you already had it first.
Once again, not to point too fine a point on it, in James’s theology, good works is the evidence or results—not the cause—of saving faith.
That’s James’s cause and effect.
James does not mention Christ in 2:14-26, at all. This means his theology is “bare bones” or minimal. Instead, James is writing about the evidences of faith that any human can spot in the one who claims to have faith. What are the outward signs of saving faith? Good works. A man with saving faith is considered righteous (or justified) by his good works in the eyes of man.
Stated differently, James 2:14-26 is about fruit inspection (Matt. 7:16-20). Can a human observer see the good works of someone who claims to have saving faith? If the observer cannot see good works, then he is permitted to conclude that the claimant does not have saving faith. But if he can see good works, then he can conclude that the claimant has saving faith.
If we need to boil James’s faith-works practical theology down, we can go to a verse in Matthew’s Gospel:
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16).
The entire evidence-based passage in James 2:14-26 is in complete agreement with Paul’s theology, though Paul’s theology is fuller.
Specifically, Paul would have mentioned the role that grace and the preaching of the Spirit-energized gospel plays in bringing about faith in Christ. God’s gift of grace and gift of faith in the person of Christ produce salvation in the listener. It is that kind of faith that can save a person (James 2:14). And then and only then is his faith completed before humans or demonstrated by good works that God has prepared before, while God is working in the believer to do and act.
Nonetheless, both Paul and James agree on the same basic sequence:
Saving faith → good works
Not: good works → saving faith
So Paul and James don’t need to be “divorced” in the eyes of the church. Their differences are not irreconcilable.
It is remarkable how much they agree, and as far as I can see they don’t contradict each other whatsoever, once we grasp their different points of view and angles.