The Letter of James presents many challenges to readers of the Bible.
For one thing, what James teaches about faith and works can seem to
contradict what Paul teaches on the same subject in Romans and
Galatians. Both discuss topics such as faith, works, and
justification, yet they seem to draw different conclusions, with Paul
asserting the saving power of faith over works and James defending the
saving value of works as an expression of faith. Martin Luther
believed Paul and James to be in such sharp disagreement that he
relegated the Letter of James to an appendix in his 1522 edition of
the New Testament. This is not an option for Catholics, who maintain
the inspiration and authority of the book, nor have other Christians
followed Luther on this point. Still, the question remains how to
reconcile the teaching of Paul and James on faith and works. Consider
the following quotations.
Romans 3:28 "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law."
James 2:24 "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."
On the surface, it seems as if Paul affirms what James denies, and
James affirms what Paul denies. However, when we delve below the
surface and examine these statements in their proper contexts, we
discover that Paul and James are not in disagreement at all. In fact,
they share a common doctrine on faith and works, though they draw
attention to different aspects of it. This is not surprising, since
they address different pastoral situations in the early Church.
First, when Paul speaks of justifying faith in Rom 3:28, he is
talking about the faith of the convert that leads to Baptism. In
other words, the apostle is making a general statement about how man
is brought from sin to salvation. This process begins with faith and
leads the believer to Baptism, which Paul teaches is the sacrament of
our justification in Christ (1 Cor 6:11; Gal 3:25-27; Tit 3:5-7).
James, on the other hand, is dealing with a much different situation. He is talking, not about the faith of the convert, but
about the faith of the professing Christian. He is making a general
statement about those who already "hold the faith of our Lord Jesus
Christ" (Jas 2:1). The point, then, is that Paul and James discuss the
role of justifying faith in two different contexts, namely, before and
after the believer is incorporated into Christ.
Second, it is important to notice that Paul, when he denies
justification by works in Rom 3:28, is speaking very specifically
about works of the Mosaic Law. His point is that no one can earn
or merit the free gift of grace by obedience to the Torah. Whether one
observes its moral commandments, such as those of the Decalogue, or
its ritual and ceremonial obligations, such as circumcision, dietary
laws, or Sabbath observance, none of these works—apart from the grace
of Christ—can bring about the justification of the sinner. There is no
reason to think that James would disagree with this. After all, when
James affirms justification by works, he is talking, not about works
of the Mosaic Law performed apart from grace, but about works of mercy
performed by those who are already established in grace (Jas 1:27;
2:15-16). Again, Paul and James are discussing different scenarios.
Paul denies the saving power of Mosaic works, performed on the
strength of human nature, while James affirms the value of Christian
works, performed by the grace and power supplied by Jesus Christ.
Third, since Paul in Rom 3:28 is addressing issues related to
conversion, it follows that he is talking about our initial
justification in Christ, that is, the critical moment when God makes
the believer righteous by an infusion of his Spirit and life. Apart
from this divine action in the believer, human works—even those done
in compliance with the Mosaic Law—are simply unable to merit the grace
of our first justification in Christ, which is rather the free gift of
his grace. James, we must recognize, is not contradicting this
teaching when he says that believers are "justified by works" (Jas
2:24). Unlike Paul, he is not talking about the initial
justification of the sinner at all; nor is he referring to works of
the Mosaic Law undertaken to establish one's standing before God.
Rather, he is discussing the ongoing justification of believers
who put their faith into action and strive to live the gospel in
practical and charitable ways. These are works of Christian obedience
undertaken in response to the grace of Christ. In this context, where
Christian living is made possible by the grace of God, works do indeed
contribute to our increase in righteousness and justification. This
teaching of James is in full harmony with the teaching of Paul (Rom
2:13; 6:12-19). More could be said about this issue, and additional
distinctions could be made. Suffice it to say, there is no real
discrepancy between Paul and James on the matter of faith and works.
James does not contradict Paul. In fact, many scholars believe that
James is refuting a popular misunderstanding of Paul's doctrine of
justification. Is it merely a coincidence that Paul and James both
discuss faith, works, and justification? Or is it merely happenstance
that these doctrines are illustrated by turning to the figure of
Abraham, whom Paul hails as a man of faith (Rom 4:1-12) and James
hails as a man of faithfulness (Jas 2:21-23)? Probably not. James is
correcting those who took Paul out of context and minimized the
importance of works as a proper and necessary expression of faith in
the Christian life. This is why he stresses that faith in Christ
entails the obligation to live faithfully in Christ through good
works. Thanks to the preservation of both Paul and James' writings in
the New Testament, we have the benefit of having this clarification
and of responding to the full message of the gospel.