Someone who comes from a Reformed tradition might read that title and break out in a theological rash. I get it. And don’t worry: I promise not to spread heresy. The assertion that we are saved by “faith alone” is core to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and the teaching of Martin Luther and the Reformers (no, that’s not a band). And that fundamental dogma is also why so many believers still look a little sideways at the letter of James.
But does James really contradict Paul? It’s tempting to think so, particularly when encountering statements like the following:
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:22-24, NRSV)
“Justified by works and not by faith alone.” It certainly sounds like James is teaching the opposite of Paul and Luther, particularly since Paul seems to use the same quotation about Abraham to make a different argument, namely, that Abraham was justified for his faith and not for anything he did.
But part of the confusion is that Paul and James (and for that matter, Luther) are using the same words — “faith” and “works” — in different contexts for different purposes. Let’s step back a bit and remember what James is trying to accomplish in his letter.
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James is concretely addressing things he’s seen in the behavior of church members toward one another; he’s getting in their business. Believers are fighting with each other. They’re slinging angry words and not listening to one another. They’re acting in ways that seem more Roman than Christian, favoring the rich and dishonoring the poor. And nobody, it seems, has a problem with this.
James has a problem with all of it.
The underlying problem is theological. Reading between the lines of the letter, it appears that folks are content to treat “faith” as nothing more than intellectual belief, as if behavior doesn’t matter. That’s not to say the people think “anything goes,” particularly if James is addressing a primarily Jewish audience. But they just don’t see the connection between the gospel they supposedly have believed and the way they treat or talk to each other: Do I believe that Jesus is the Messiah? Of course I do, you blithering idiot!
Previously, we’ve seen James use a hypothetical scenario to show them the absurdity of that position: Would you ignore someone who straggled into your congregation naked and starving? Would you just tell them to have a nice day and do nothing for them? Leaning further into that absurdity, he resorted to a bit of sarcastic humor: Are you really so clueless that you need me to show you that faith without works doesn’t work? And in the verses quoted above, James does indeed begin to show them that faith without works doesn’t work, using first Abraham and then Rahab as examples (we’ll explore these in upcoming posts).
But what does he mean, then, when he uses Abraham to show that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”? Note that he doesn’t say that anyone can be justified by works alone, which would be the true opposite of Paul. No, James is arguing that faith and works — belief and behavior — are an organic unity.
Paul would hardly take issue with that. And neither, really, would the Reformers.
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Paul was taking a stand against the idea that one could be justified before God by following the rules of the law of Moses (and everything that had been added to the law over the centuries), or more subtly, that we could add to the saving work of Christ on the cross by doing things for God. We are justified by the grace of God through faith in Jesus, not by any good works we might do. Period.
But Paul would hardly think of our behavior, our works or deeds, as irrelevant. How often did he have words of correction — sometimes harsh words! — for churches that were behaving badly? He knew full well that what we do should be consistent with what we believe, and used his pastoral authority accordingly.
And that, essentially, is the point that James is trying to make. His stand is against a kind of “faith” that leaves behavior untouched. Both James and Paul stood on the teaching of Jesus: the essence of the law came down to the two great commandments to love God wholeheartedly and love your neighbor as yourself. James wasn’t seeing a lot of neighbor-love, and wrote a letter to remind believers that their faith should show in their conduct.
If he had posted that letter on the Internet, Paul would have given it a like.