There is a common misconception within the church that the apostle Paul and the writer of the book of James disagree about the nature of Faith and Works in a Christian’s life. This misconception believes Paul only cares about Grace, whereas James focuses on works. However, looking at the Bible this way fails to realize the Bible is one book telling a unified story. Instead of seeing a disagreement, how might the church look at these seemingly opposing views to better understand the Christian life?
The verses at the heart of this misconception comes from James 2:24: “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.” Just reading this verse outside its context is how this misconception gets propagated in the church. Instead, we will look at what James says in the context of his entire argument. Basically, out of context, it seems James is arguing salvation (righteousness) requires not only faith, but also works. Looking at the verse in its larger context will clear up this misconception. Doing this will show that Paul and James do not disagree as much as it may appear.
Paul emphasizes that a person does not and cannot do anything to earn salvation (Romans 3:20, 28). It is the free gift of God’s grace that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:26). James does not disagree with this point. He never tries to refute this fundamental belief. Instead, James is only teaching what real faith is and what it looks like. If a person really does believe something, they will act on that belief. If you believed a tornado was going to hit your home and completely destroy it, you would not stay there. You would do everything you could to get your family and your valuables to safety. James gives us an example of the kind of empty “faith” he is talking about in vv. 14-17:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James is saying that this person has no faith at all. This person does not actually have faith, but they only say they have faith. Belief alone is not faith. James continues in vv. 18-19, “But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” So we are not off the hook for simply being passive in our faith. Our faith in Jesus Christ, which leads to a life lived in the Spirit, is one that produces fruit. For we are saved by our faith, and our faith changes our hearts and our minds so that we follow Christ and live in the Spirit.
But faith is the key. Both Paul and James acknowledge this. In fact, they both use Abraham as the example of what real faith looks like. In vv. 20-23, James says,
You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 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.
The Scriptures say that Abraham believed and it was attributed to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6). Paul used this quote exactly to show that it was not the Law that saved (Rom. 4:3). James uses this quote because he is addressing people who are only saying they have faith. Nothing else in their lives indicates they actually believe what they say. They are “all talk.” So James points out that Abraham, because he had faith in God’s promise, was willing to act obediently, even to the point of sacrificing his son Isaac.
Here is an example of the kind of faith James is talking about. Imagine for a moment another scenario: What if you were walking through the woods and came upon a rope bridge spanning a small valley? The side of the slope is very steep, and covered with thorns and loose rocks. A small stream snakes through the bottom of the valley below. As you approach the bridge, you notice a forest ranger patrolling the area who also needs to get to the other side of the valley. The ranger assures you that the bridge will hold and is in excellent condition, but you watch as he begins to make the difficult climb down the side of the hill instead of taking the bridge. Confused by this, you call out to him, “I thought you said the bridge was in good shape to cross?” He yells back, “It is.”
I bet you wouldn’t take the chance to cross that bridge! This is the kind of faith James is talking about. The ranger has no problem making the statement that the bridge is in good condition and perfectly safe to cross, however, his actions speak otherwise. He does not act in a way that corresponds with what he has said. If the ranger really believed the bridge was safe, he would have no problem crossing it for himself.
Even though Paul and James have different emphasis in mind, they still agree that faith is absolutely essential. And from that faith, flows the work of the Spirit. This is the order that must be followed: faith and then action. If one is to truly do the law––having right actions, feeding those who are hungry, clothing those who are cold, etc.––one must believe in Jesus Christ and have their lives transformed by the Spirit.
Does your faith require you to act? Or are your actions simply an attempt to live a right life apart from faith in God? It can seem like a simple distinction, but the implications are life-changing. Let us know what you think in the comments below.