Do Paul and James Contradict?
Written by my friend Gene Taylor
Many people are persuaded that the writings of James and Paul contradict on the topic of faith and works. Martin Luther even labeled the book of James “an epistle of straw, and destitute of evangelical character” because of this very reason.
In reality, any misunderstanding of the writings of these two men is not their fault but that of those who have not “rightly divided” the word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15).
Nearly all those who believe that the writings of James and Paul are contradictory hold the position that people are saved by “faith only.” In an effort to defend their position, they make light of the book of James instead of studying it in order to see that it and Paul’s writings are in complete harmony. They either misunderstand or completely disregard the true motive and purpose behind James’ book.
A careful study of the book of James shows it complements the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul deals primarily with the doctrine of justification before God which comes, not through merit, but through the grace of God. James, on the other hand, shows that it is hypocritical for one to say he believes in God while living ungodly. The believer must apply the word of God to his life and take it into his heart. He must show his faith by doing the will of God.
Paul, especially in the books of Romans, Corinthians and Galatians, writes of the problems brought on by Judaizing Jews who wanted to bind parts of the Law of Moses on Gentiles who were obeying the gospel. He showed that the Old Law had been a law of works and that the blessings people got from it were earned. It did not require faith for one to become a child of God, as does the gospel, the law of faith, (Rom. 3:27). Physical birth, not faith, made one a Jew, a child of God under the Old Law. So Paul, explaining the difference between the Old Law and the New, penned his dissertations on faith — a concept that was new to the Jews. He was contrasting the works of the Law of Moses with the obedience of faith. James, in his epistle, wrote of the new law, the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:25).
James, speaking of the new law, shows that even though it is a law of faith, works are necessary for justification (Jas. 2:24, 26). Practical application of faith toward God, brethren and other people makes a person’s religion meaningful, fruitful, and true. If one has the true faith of a dedicated believer, he will exemplify that faith in his life and will manifest it in his works.
But as Paul wrote, and James agreed, the law of Christ, the law of faith, excludes glorying or boasting. While it does require certain works of believers (Titus 2:14), since it is God who requires them, they are His works and not man’s. They declare the believer’s confidence in and reliance upon God and in no way give anyone who does them any reason to boast or glory in self. Doing works of righteousness gives glory to Father and Son.
Though Paul, affirming the Old Law had been abolished (Col. 2:14), rebuked the self-righteous Judaizing Jews who tried to bind it on the Gentiles, he exhorted Christians to continued obedience — doing the good works for which they were created (Titus 2:14). He told Titus to remind believers “to obey, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). In this matter, as in all others, Paul and James are in complete accord.