>James vs. Paul? The dynamic between Faith and Works

>For those who were not at the service on Sunday, I preached on James 2:14-17. James 2:14-17 states this:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

Is James contradicting Paul here? James goes on to say specifically Abraham and Rahab were justified by works in verses 21-26. Paul states in Romans 3:23-27 that we are justified freely by grace and the propitiation of Christ Jesus our Lord (“for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.“) Many in scholarship today and in the past saw no way to reconcile James and Paul. What about James and Jesus? James was a half-brother of our Lord, but some could say that James and Jesus both teach a justification by works and Paul teaches a justification by faith. Look at Matthew 5:17-20:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.

How do we reconcile this? The words justify, righteous, and righteousness all come from the same root Greek word – dikaios. Justify in Greek is simply the verbal form of the word righteous. To justify is to make righteous. So when Jesus says that unless our righteousness / justification exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven and James says that Abraham and Rahab were justified by works and faith without works are dead, how do we reconcile that with Romans 3-6?

First, we need to realize that the way Jesus and James define and use the word justification is different than the way Paul uses it. James uses the term to refer to an expression of the faith that is in you. The justification is an evidence or a proof of saving faith. And thus, what Abraham did in his agreeing to sacrifice Isaac or Rahab in assisting the spies was to evidence the saving faith that they already possessed. Genesis 15:6 records that when Abram believed in the covenant that God made to him, Abraham believed the Lord, and God counted it to Abram as righteousness. The event referenced in James about the almost sacrifice of Isaac did not occur until Genesis 22. Therefore, Abraham was already justified by faith in Genesis 15, 7 chapters before he was “justified by works”. You see how James is using this term differently – as an evidence or a proof. Regarding the Matthew 5 passage in the Sermon on the Mount, my ESV study bible notes (written Michael J. Wilkins) state this (this is not gospel but I agree with him):

“Jesus calls his disciples to a different kind and quality of righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees. They took pride in outward conformity to many extrabiblical regulations but still had impure hearts. But KINGDOM righteousness works from the inside out because it first produces changed hearts and new motivations (see Rom. 6:17; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 5:22-23; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 8:10), so that the actual conduct of Jesus’ followers does in fact ‘exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.'”

This is deep stuff – BUT IT IS CRITICAL. The idea of justification by grace through faith because of the propitiatory work of Christ on the Cross (Propitiation is another word for ATONEMENT) is so mind boggling that we many times cannot grasp the concept even after salvation. Last night during class as we were going through Romans, my professor Dr. Steven Carlson mentioned this (in paraphrase):

Works righteousness and the idea that you can earn salvation or favor from God through works is the default religious view of fallen humanity. After the fall, there was within us a desire to still commune with God and to get back to that relationship. The problem is that in our fallen state, we by default assume that it is through “being good” or “good works” that this comes about. Thus, every religion in the world assumes works righteousness leads to salvation except Christianity (and I suppose Hinduism / Buddhism, which simply denies that sin exists, which is why it is so popular today).

Many of us who have lived within an evangelical context read the previous statements and say, “Sure, we get that you are saved by grace through faith and not by works, what else is new?”

But the following is what I think the hidden danger of legalism in the church:

Are you a closet legalist? A closet legalist is one that believes in salvation by grace through faith and not by works but once saved does good works to either reap the blessings of God or stave off the chastisement of God. We may think this is a proper reading of Scripture, but it robs us of the God of Scripture. It makes our God out to be some cosmic ogre demanding repayment of a stifling debt or a divine Santa Claus “making a list and checking it twice to see who’s been naughty or nice!”


In the Heidelberg Catechism question 86 says this: “Since we are redeemed from our sin and its consequences by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why must we do good works?” In other words, if salvation is by grace, why be good? The answer that the catechism gives is very instructive: “So that with our whole life we may show ourselves grateful to God for his goodness and that he may be glorified through us.” We offer service to the kingdom of God not to gain his affection but in loving thankfulness for his affection. (Question 86, pulled from Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, p. 314)

It is my prayer that Christian evangelicalism will have a revival during the coming decades that will reclaim the true Gospel teaching of faith-righteousness in Christ Jesus. We truly are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come. All this is from GOD WHO THROUGH CHRIST RECONCILED US TO HIMSELF AND GAVE US THE MINISTRY OF RECONCILIATION (II Cor. 5:17-18).

Amen, Christ Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father from everlasting to everlasting!


>Sermon tomorrow

>I will be preaching tomorrow night during the evening worship service at Dresden First Baptist Church. The title of the Sermon is “Diet Faith”. We will be looking at James 2:14-17. Here is the text:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith, but does not have works? Can this faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself. (HCSB).

May God be glorified in the services tomorrow at Dresden First Baptist Church!