Does James and Paul Contradict the Doctrine of, “Grace Alone”?

I was spending time in the Bible couple days ago and these words struck me.

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, CSB). I continued on reading, “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?”

What does James mean in saying we are justified by works? I thought Christians were saved by “faith alone” which Paul says, “by grace” and “through faith” (Eph. 2:8–9). Works seemed to be excluded as the basis of salvation.

So, does Paul contradict James? Why do Paul and James sound so different? Why does it appear at first glance they contradict?

As we even celebrate the 500th year of Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther, which has influenced Protestants since the 16th-century hated the New Testament book of James so much that he wanted it completely OUT of the Bible as it seemed to contradict the doctrine of Sola Fide (Latin: by faith alone).

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The Real Danger of Faith without Deeds

Intellectual faith without deeds is an empty claim. Intellectual faith consists of giving assent or mental agreement to a series of propositions or doctrinal truths about Christianity

James 2:14–26 repeatedly argues that faith without works doesn’t save on the last day. Those who claim to have faith but lack good works aren’t saved by such a claiming faith (Jas. 2:14). So also, faith without works is “dead” and “useless” (2:17, 20, 26).

“Real faith shows itself in deeds.” You simply cannot find an example of real faith that does not show itself in works. We have no room for some people to emphasize faith while others stress deeds. You must have both. The genuine commitment to Jesus Christ demonstrates its presence by deeds. Faith produces works. You can’t have one without the other.

Christians are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. Real faith is not passive but is active.

It is better to simply admit that people who live like non-Christians are likely to be non-Christians.

Salvation by Allegiance Alone

The Greek word πίστις (Greek: pistis), generally rendered “faith” or “belief,” as it pertains to Christian salvation, quite simply has little correlation with “faith” and “belief” as these words are generally understood and used in contemporary Christian culture, and much to do with allegiance.

Faith alone justifies, but only the kind of faith that inevitably produces good works.[1]

As Martin Luther the reformer famously stated,

“Therefore, faith is much more than an agreement to a set of beliefs or a prayer that we say one time rather than obedience to Jesus, the church throughout the world today is crowded with confused people, many of them who they are Christians when they are not.”[2]

In short, for many today “faith” is defined as the opposite of the evidence-based truth. This is neither a biblical nor a Christian understanding of faith.

Only the believers are obedient, and only the obedient believe.[3]

Fruit vs. Root

“I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” James could not be more explicit. He is confronting the concept of a passive, false “faith,” which is devoid of the fruits of salvation. The best solution to this text is to say they are the result and fruit of faith.

Faith alone, having no works to distinguish it, is dead. Anything with life produces fruit. The living is the acting, creating things that reveal their nature and character. Faith in Jesus produces actions revealing the nature and character of Jesus. The dead lie still doing nothing. So, faith that lies still, inactive, proves it is dead. True faith brings salvation and life, not death.

True faith is only real when it manifests itself in obedience and love towards others. Paul actually says the same thing, teaching what ultimately matters is “faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6, NIV).

The fruit of your life reveals the root of your heart.[4]

In Titus 2:11-14, Paul writes to Titus, “He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people totally committed to doing good deeds.”

Therefore, when the gospel takes root within our hearts, this changes everything. The purpose of the gospel proclamation is to cultivate obedient allegiance to Jesus the king among the nations (cf. Rom. 15:18). Works, not intellectual statements, are the only acceptable demonstrations of your claim to have faith.

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Two Different Audience

James is not at odds with Paul. They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the gospel.

Paul wrote to churches where people were tempted to trust in their works for salvation, while James wrote to those who were disposed to think intellectual assent could save them.

“This is not a matter of who got the OT right; this is a matter of hermeneutics in a Jewish world” [5] In other words, Paul combat legalism, while James combat antinomianism.

Now, I am not certainly questioning Luther’s stand in the 95 theses of grace alone. We are not able to do this without the grace of God. Christ gave us his life so that we don’t live at the cross any longer, we died there. Paul makes it clear that it takes much more than the death of Christ to help us; we must be saved by his resurrection life.

As Dr. Thomas Schreiner professor of New Testament interpretation and associate dean for Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky said it well,

“In the beauty and completeness of God’s Word, Paul and James teach complementary, not contradictory truths.”[6]

 

 

[1] Matthew W. Bates and Scot McKnight, Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017).

[2] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York, New York: Viking, 2017).

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1st edition (New York: Touchstone, 1995).

[4] Robby Gallaty, Bearing Fruit: What Happens When God’s People Grow (B&H Books, 2017).

[5] Scot McKnight, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2011).

[6] Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2008).

5 Comments on “Does James and Paul Contradict the Doctrine of, “Grace Alone”?

  1. Pingback: Does James And Paul Contradict The Doctrine Of, “Grace Alone”? | A disciple's study

  2. Well done!

    With some reluctance I add this additional point to strengthen your already sufficient argument.

    Both Paul and James use Abraham as an illustration of their teaching. In Romans 4, Paul uses Abraham’s faith in the events of Genesis 17; James (2:21-22) uses Abraham’s actions in the subsequent events of Genesis 22. Thus his actions showed his faith.

    Rahab is also used to the same effect, (Hebrews 11:31 [received the spies]; James 2:25 [sent them off another way]).

    Again, thank you Jonathan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the reply! Yes, I agree. We can go in deep with even Abraham that is mentioned there seeing in light of what Paul speaks of that in Romans as well. Fascinating!

      Actually, I was talking to someone recently and realize this is much more than a theological issue, it is at the core of it, a discipleship issue. If we are saved by acknowledging belief in a specific doctrine, and yet spend most of our lives ignoring God’s will and using him for our own personal selfish purpose, we are unlikely to be the type of person who will want to be in heaven with God for all eternity.

      The true biblical Christianity is all about Christ (Christo-Centric Discipleship) In fact, the theology of the apostle Paul, what I mean by is the whole theology of the entire Pauline Epistle too often is truncated in a self-centered reading which has become endemic in the Western 21st century Evangelical circles. The problem lies is that it becomes characterized by the implicit clash between those who get their faith from the biblical gospel and topped up with few bits of Paul’s writing and those who based it on verse wit ha few illustration from the Gospel.

      As A. W. Tozer said, it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian and we fail to do that as we don’t see the whole scope of scripture.

      Like

  3. Great Post, Jonathan. I appreciate what you said here: “Faith alone justifies, but only the kind of faith that inevitably produces good works.” It’s crucial to properly define faith, especially in new evangelicalism. I recently wrote a post on my blog entitled: “Is faith alone in Christ alone biblical?” if you are interested in reading it. Keep up the good work brother!

    Liked by 1 person

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