By Bill Warren, Ph.D., NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek
Question: Why does James say faith and works are both required, but Paul says only faith is required?
Bill Warren Responds: On the surface, some have seen James and Paul’s statements as contradictory. James says, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). Paul, on the other hand, says, “by means of grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is a gift from God, not from works, so that no one might boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). When statements such as these are read, they do indeed look to be contradictory. But let’s look deeper than just at the surface level of these statements.
Many overlook the differences in the ministry contexts for James and Paul. James writes to an audience that is almost if not totally Jewish Christian. His ministry challenge is not at all the same as what Paul is facing. James is battling against what I would label “cultural religion,” a problem that tends to minimize the Gospel’s call for holy living and social concern. For some of his recipients, simply being part of the dominant religious culture was enough, so the idea of a transformation of their behavior and character was not essential. The challenge James faces is to tell them that a faith that makes no difference in how we live is a false faith that is worthless. Our following of Jesus cannot be allowed to degenerate into little more than being part of the cultural religion of our surroundings. Such a faith will never transform us or our families or our society.
On the other hand, Paul is dealing with having non-Jews accepted into a larger Christian community dominated by Jewish Christians who want to require them to conform to all of the normal marks of Judaism. Paul insists Gentiles do not have to convert to Judaism in order to worship a Jewish Messiah. The battle is not easy since Jewish Christians can point to Genesis 17:9-14 as requiring circumcision as the mark of God’s covenant with His people.
In essence, they criticize Paul for not believing or practicing the clear teaching of the Torah. Paul’s replies in both Romans and Galatians that Genesis 15:6 takes precedence as the more general principle since it is prior to Genesis 17. Believing God is all that God requires for entry into the people of God, not the Jewish marks of obedience like circumcision, Sabbath observance, dietary laws, and other purity laws. Gentiles can become part of the people of God simply by making a faith pledge of loyalty to Jesus as their Lord. No one has the right to add to this basic entry path at the heart of the gospel.
The apparent conflicts between Paul and James can be explained mostly by seeing that they are actually dealing with quite different problems and contexts. For Paul, no one should try to add more entrance requirements to the gospel than that of a faith pledge of loyalty to Jesus, while for James no one should water down the Gospel by eliminating the call to holy living that impacts both moral and social behavior. Today, we likewise sometimes struggle with how to get those who call themselves Christians to live with more evidence of their commitment in their daily lives, a “James” type of struggle. And we also struggle against requiring those who come to Christ from other backgrounds to become “like us” in order to be accepted by us, a “Paul” type of struggle.