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Paul and James, Faith and Works

One of my favorite historical/theological conversations is the faith/works debate. There are two reasons I enjoy visiting this topic with college papers and personal study. For one, the debate has served as a sort of catalyst for massive change in Christian theological history (Protestant Reformation). The other reason I am fascinated by it is that it is central to the definition of Christianity. Christianity’s focus on God’s grace in salvation through faith is one of many features (Jesus being the foremost) that distinguish Christianity from all other religions.

However, there was, and to some extent still is, a tension in the Christian community about the relationship between faith and works in salvation. Historically, the debate has been framed as having two mutually exclusive sides. The faith side says that all you need to be saved is faith in Christ, regardless of your works. The works side says that if you don’t have works then you are not saved.

The evidence for this theological battle comes primarily from the Apostle Paul and Jesus’ brother James. In some theological circles, Paul and James’ letters are often used to “prove” that the early Church was constantly at odds, casting doubt on apostolic unity. However, in my reading of their letters, I don’t see Paul and James as necessarily at odds. Therefore, I will present the proof texts commonly used to show that Paul and James were opponents. By placing these texts side-by-side, however, I hope to demonstrate that the two were actually in agreement.

Let’s start with Galatians. Paul wrote this letter to address issues that arose in the Galatian community. According to chapter one, a group bringing a law-observant “gospel” had infiltrated the community, drawing enough believers to compel Paul to write arguably his most strongly worded extant letter. Here Paul gives us his view on works and faith: “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” A few verses later he reaches a theological crescendo: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Paul was saying that to believe salvation can come through works of the law is to empty Christ’s death of meaning.

James appears to have held a starkly different view of the law. In James 2, he reveals his view of the law:

“For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder…’ So speak and so act as those who are judged under the law of liberty.”

First and foremost, we see that James still considers the law active and authoritative for believers.

In the next section (verses 14-26), James takes aim at who could very well be Paul. He talks about those who say “You have faith and I have works.” He pushes back against this claim, charging “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” He continues his line of argument referencing Rahab, who I will return to later, before concluding “faith without works is dead.”

So, we appear to have Paul saying that works are unimportant for salvation and James claiming that works are necessary for salvation. Let’s look at Romans chapters 5 and 6. At the end of Romans 5, Paul says “one act of righteousness (Christ’s death) leads to justification and life for all men.” Paul is saying that righteousness is required for salvation. However, because we are incapable of achieving righteous status before God through our own actions due to our sin, Christ has done the perfect works that we can’t. Through faith, we receive the righteousness of Christ’s works as though we had done them ourselves, beginning a spiritual transformation in us.

Then we have Romans 6. Paul seems to address the same group James did, saying “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” So, in a practical sense, Paul and James agree: righteous works are involved in the salvation process. It begins when one truly places his or her faith in Jesus Christ, but it does not end there. After salvation, we begin to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, enabling us to “walk in the newness of life” with our Lord.

Let’s go back to Rahab, one of James’ cases of justification by works. To recap, Rahab took in two spies sent by Joshua to scout in Jericho. She protected them from the king and let them stay in her home, allowing them to bring their report back to Joshua. She told them the following:

“I know that the Lord has given you the land… For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt… And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted… for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.”

This is what prompted Rahab to take in the Israelite spies. She heard what God had done and came to believe that Yahweh was God. This faith moved her to help the Israelites (read: do good works). This is the salvation process for us as well. We first hear, then we believe. After we believe, we are justified in Christ and then become gradually molded into his image, resulting in good works.

With the understanding that James used this story as evidence, we can acknowledge that Paul and James were not so far apart. I believe the simplest way to understand the two’s doctrines of faith/works together is this: genuine faith produces genuine works.

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Sage Blalock

Follower of Christ. Proud husband to Jamie. Nihilistic Tennessee Volunteers fan. BA in Philosophy w/ concentration in Religious Studies, ETSU '16. Classical Studies Minor ETSU '16. Wake Divinity '19. Interests: Game of Thrones, The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, and food. Big fan of food.

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