When we study their words closely, Paul and James are actually in profound agreement about the nature of faith and works.
Paul vs. James
By Chris Bruno
In the 1990s, Rich Mullins’ music stood out among many other Christian musical artists, not only because of his unique, kind of folky sound, but also because of the depth and substance of his lyrics. He had a way of making well-known theological truths and their implications come alive for me during my high school years. But he introduced some new concepts to me as well. For example, I grew up as a low-church Baptist, and to be honest, listening to his Songs album around in the late ’90s is probably the first time I remember hearing about the Apostles’ Creed (to be fair, I may have missed it somewhere along the way). To this day, when I say the Creed with my family in morning or evening prayer, it is at least partially because of Rich Mullins’ song “Creed.” Another song on that same album was called “Screen Door.” This one left me a little uncomfortable. Even though I think I liked it, I didn’t quite know how to evaluate the way he sang about faith and works. As I look back on it now, I think I understand and like that song more than I did when I was in high school. Find it and listen to it. He says that faith without works is like “a screen door on a submarine.” It’s worthless. It not only captures James’s teaching on justification, but it also reflects the letters of Paul well.
James writes that a kind of empty intellectual assent that does not result in good works is a faith that can never justify: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (James 2:8). This royal law is nothing short of the new-covenant reality of God’s law written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit (James 1:21, 25). James also emphasizes caring for the poor and vulnerable as the evidence of God’s grace in our lives: “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court?” (James 2:5–6). If we are not caring for the poor, the widows and the orphans—the people around us who cannot sustain themselves—then we are demonstrating that our faith is phony. And James was arguing against just this kind of phony faith. We could say that James was combating a false faith that fails to give works their proper place as the necessary fruit of saving faith. Rather than seeing how faithful works are the inevitable fruit of faith, James’ opponents apparently said that the only thing God requires for justification is that we affirm the facts of the gospel. Maybe they even cited Abraham’s faith in Genesis 15 as proof.
When James reads the story of Abraham, he does not skip past Abraham’s faith in God’s promises or ignore the status that God granted Abraham through his faith. Abraham really did believe that God’s promises were true, and God really did count Abraham as righteous and therefore a part of his covenant people (Gen. 15:6). The moment he believed God’s promises, Abraham’s status before God was “righteous.” But this righteous status had to be “fulfilled.” If Abraham claimed to believe God but failed to obey him, then he would have proven that his faith was fake and that his justification was a sham.
We must be careful not to say that James thought Abraham’s obedience somehow earned his status before God; that was already granted by faith on the basis of God’s promises. Instead, Abraham’s obedience confirmed or fulfilled the status God had already graciously given to him. He was actually beginning to evidence his status as righteous through his good works. When this righteous status was fulfilled in his obedience, it proved that Abraham’s faith was a real saving faith. Even though Abraham’s righteous status was given by faith, this faith could never remain alone. Works need to show for the faith. While James is arguing against phony faith, Paul is arguing against phony works that are rooted in a failure to see that faith is enough. Paul’s opponents did not understand that justification is by faith alone. Instead, they thought good works mixed with faith were somehow part of what God requires in order to declare his people righteous.
Paul’s ministry and writings came in a different context and addressed different concerns than James’, but we also saw a lot of continuity with James. Paul certainly teaches that justification is by faith alone apart from works of the Law (Rom. 3:28; Gal. 2:16). He also insists that genuine, justifying faith is “seal[ed]” (Rom. 4:11). It is marked by ongoing hope (Rom. 4:12). Pauline faith must work through love (Gal. 5:6). In fact, Paul sees loving one another as the primary way new-covenant believers who have received the Holy Spirit fulfill the law (Rom. 8:4–5; 13:9). Like James, Paul emphasizes that caring for the poor, widows, orphans and the vulnerable is an essential fruit of saving faith (Rom. 15:26; Gal. 2:10). Remember, Paul and the apostles in Jerusalem agreed that caring for the poor was a priority in their ministry, so both James and Paul emphasize this as an important area of good works that flow from faith.
Paul, like James, was reading Genesis 15:6 faithfully. Abraham was declared righteous through his faith. However, when Paul applies this truth in Romans and especially in Galatians, he is coming from a different angle. Instead of asking whether we can have saving faith without faith-fueled good works, Paul is asking whether our faith is the only way that we are united to Jesus and declared righteous before God. To this question, he gives a resounding yes. We are declared righteous before God through faith, not works. However, when Paul reads the story of Abraham, he does not ignore Abraham’s ongoing faithfulness. In the last part of Romans 4, we saw that Abraham’s faith was growing to full conviction, and this was on display especially when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Paul’s reading of Abraham’s growth in faith is actually very close to James 2. Romans 4:20 tells us that Paul “grew strong” in his faith. James 2:17 and 26 tells us that faith without works is dead. Both are emphasizing that the kind of faith that truly justifies is a faith that requires ongoing growth. Both James and Paul would say that true justifying faith can never remain alone.
James was opposing the false teaching that minimized the need for works that flow from faith, and Paul was opposing the false teaching that requires both faith and works as a necessary part of our initial justification. But both of these false teachings are more similar than we might realize at first. Both perspectives minimize the seriousness and power of sin. James’ opponents minimized the seriousness and power of sin by assuming that a transformed life does not matter after we believe the gospel. As long as we say the right things and maybe even feel the right feels (depending on whatever your particular tradition emphasizes), then we don’t have anything to worry about. Sin is really not that big of a deal. James would condemn that way of thinking to hell. If we are not transformed by our faith, and if our righteous status is not fulfilled by our ongoing growth in holiness, then our so-called faith is literally demonic.
Paul’s opponents also minimized the seriousness and power of sin, but in the opposite way. They did not assume a transformed life doesn’t matter; they assumed that it was the only thing that matters—or at least they assumed that it was necessary before God will truly accept us. They taught that sinful men and women can somehow do enough to earn their righteous status by keeping the Law and/or protecting the uniqueness of their ethnic status. If our actions or ethnicity are an essential part of gaining a righteous status before God, then sin is really not that big of a deal. If we can overcome it ourselves to gain God’s favor, then the credit ultimately goes to us. Paul also condemns that way of thinking. In Galatians, he calls this another gospel. And anyone who teaches another gospel is accursed, condemned, or, to be frank, damned to hell (Gal. 1:9).
The solution to these problems is not to run away from good works because of the temptation of legalism or to try to do more to win God’s favor. Instead, the solution to both is to see the gospel and its implications more clearly. A clear understanding of the all-sufficient work of Jesus as the perfect and necessary sacrifice for sin crushes our failure to take ongoing sin seriously (James’ opponents) and the assumption that human good works or status can somehow gain God’s favor (Paul’s opponents). Both James and Paul see the gospel, which demands that we respond with the kind of faith that produces good works, as the solution to these problems. And both men agree that the life-transforming power of the gospel is on display clearly in Abraham’s justification and subsequent growth in faith and obedience, just as it will be on display in everyone else who truly believes.
James and Paul were dealing with different challenges to faith, works and justification. James was explaining the difference between phony faith—faith that only gives lip service—and real, saving faith. When Paul talks about faith, he always refers to true saving faith. While James contrasts genuine faith and fake faith, Paul does the same with works. What he calls “works of the law” are what we can call phony works. They are works that try to win favor with God and gain us a place in his covenant people. The problem is these don’t actually do us any good. When James talks about works, he always refers to works that flow from faith and fulfill our righteous status. So then, when James and Paul talk about justification, they are looking at different points in a believer’s life, using Abraham as the model. For James, justification is God’s declaration that we are declared righteous. Our righteous status is given through faith (Gen. 15:6). However, James also insists that if this status is authentic, it will be “fulfilled” by our works. He emphasizes our good works that flow from true saving faith.
Paul agrees, but he tends to emphasize God’s initial declaration when we first believe. However, he does not hesitate to teach that our righteous status will be demonstrated or proved through our faithful good works, which then declare our status on the day of judgment.
According to both James and Paul, in our initial moment of justification, we receive the status “righteous” through faith. Both James and Paul agree that justification is a declaration of our status. It is what theologians call a “forensic declaration.” When we hear the word forensic, we might think of when a detective on a TV crime drama will call in the forensics team. We might think of the forensics team or the forensic report in the context of investigating crime. But the goal of these investigations is to gather evidence to present in court. The word forensic itself refers to a law court. When we use it in theological context, we are referring to God’s eschatological court of judgment. Justification is God’s declaration in his “courtroom” that we have the status “righteous.” The moment Abraham believed God’s great promises pointing toward the Messiah Jesus, he was declared righteous, his sins were forgiven, he was right with God, and he was a part of God’s covenant people. Justification, then, is God’s declaration first that we are righteous in his sight and then by implication that we are a part of his covenant people.
However, James also says that justification requires faith and works, and Paul talks about a hope for a future righteousness (Gal. 5:5). Justification, like so many other doctrines in the New Testament, is both “already” and “not yet.” That is, God’s new-covenant promises have already begun to be fulfilled through Jesus, but they are not yet complete. Many people illustrate this concept by talking about the time between the Allied invasion of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and Nazi Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945. The war was essentially over, but there was still almost a year of combat left. In the gap between the already and the not yet, a lot can happen.
We are declared righteous before God through our faith. This faith is our trust that God keeps his covenant promises through Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign as King. In his work to redeem us, he took our sin on himself. We could say that sin was “counted” to him. We then receive his righteous status because we are united to him, the only truly righteous one. This is what many call “double imputation.” Our sin is imputed to Jesus, and his righteous status is imputed to us. He gets what we have coming to us (judgment), and we get what he has coming to him (blessing and life). Theologians argue about the best way to talk about this, but I’m still convinced that the doctrine of imputation that was clarified in the Reformation is the most helpful way to summarize what Paul in particular is teaching. We are united to Christ by faith, so we receive the status that he has won: righteous before God. The implication of our union with Christ is that his righteous status is counted as our own. This imputation is the “already” of our justification.
However, there is still more to come. Our righteous status, to use James’s language, needs to be fulfilled. To be clear, this does not mean that our “justification” (status as righteous) and “sanctification” (growth in righteousness) are two ways of saying precisely the same thing. Instead, we could say that our righteous status requires a transformed life. If we are truly declared righteous through faith in Jesus, then we are truly united to him. In Romans 6, Paul says that our baptism symbolizes and seals this union. Just as Jesus died and rose again, our baptism is a death and resurrection into Christ so that we have a mysterious but real union with him. I’m tempted to use an illustration of two people who are handcuffed together in a movie, but don’t want to wander into heresy. Let’s just say that because we are really united to Jesus, we go where he goes and we get what he gets. When we are united to Christ, we receive the same verdict before God that he did. He is the Righteous One, and we share his righteous status. Our union with Jesus also demands that we will be transformed into his image. We might even say that justification and sanctification are two distinct but inevitable outcomes of our union with Christ.
In his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin helped me better understand the relationship between justification and sanctification. Calvin writes,
“Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.”
For centuries, Protestants and Roman Catholics have debated the exact nature of our justification. Roman Catholics have argued that the righteousness given to Abraham was “infused.” If I am drinking lemon-infused water, then it is water that has lemon mixed into it. I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between lemon-infused water and lemonade. Anyway, Roman Catholics might say that righteousness is actually “mixed into” us. That is, justification is an actual transformation of our nature or character. Reformed Protestants have emphasized that this righteousness was declared or imputed to Abraham on the basis of Christ’s own righteousness. Theologians call this “alien righteousness.” Not an alien like E.T., but alien in the sense of something that comes from somewhere else. Justifying righteousness is a righteousness that comes from outside of us first; only after we are declared righteous through Christ is our character transformed.
You can probably guess which side of this debate I land on. While moral transformation is necessary, if we are not making the distinction that the New Testament makes between justification and transformation (or sanctification), we are in danger of falling victim to the same errors that Paul was debating. Without a doubt, there are many differences between first-century Jewish Christians who claimed their Law-keeping and ethnicity combined with faith were the foundation for justification and sixteenth-century Roman Catholics, who claimed their good works combined with faith were the foundation for their justification. However, their fundamental error is still similar, because both saw faith plus something else as necessary to be justified. Both James and Paul would wholeheartedly disagree with both of these views.
These apostles would also wholeheartedly—and maybe even more strongly—disagree with anyone who says that we can be ultimately saved apart from faith-fueled good works. Again, I want to be careful and clear here: Justification is by faith alone. We are declared righteous through our trust in God’s promises in Christ alone. But this declaration of our righteous status must not remain alone. It will produce good works. Whether we live for just a few moments, like the thief on the cross who rebuked the other criminal for mocking Jesus, or for decades, like Abraham who grew strong in faith and fulfilled his righteous status with faithful works, our faith will bear fruit. As John Piper rightly concludes, “Let us make no mistake: Our works of love are necessary.” We will not be saved apart from our works of love.
Many, many, many books—maybe too many—have been written about Paul’s doctrine of justification, but these usually do not give much attention to James. Many books have also been written about James on justification. Even though these usually interact with Paul, they don’t always demonstrate the deep unity Paul and James share. We’ve seen that James was not reacting to Paul’s teaching, as some scholars argue, and that Paul was not a radical who rejected James’ teaching on the necessity of works.
They were both reading Genesis faithfully and both applying it in their own contexts with pastoral wisdom. Both James and Paul see that in Genesis 15:6, Abraham was truly declared righteous through his faith. He had been forgiven and had been granted a righteous status before God. Both James and Paul recognize that Abraham’s faith was pointing forward to the promised Messiah Jesus. Everyone who trusts in God’s promises in Jesus, like Abraham, truly receive a righteous status through faith. Finally, both James and Paul teach that this status will be progressively fulfilled in the ongoing life of faithful good works for every believer.
Rich Mullins’s “Screen Door” used to make me a little nervous. I thought maybe it sounds too Roman Catholic, and we shouldn’t say that faith is one hand and works are the other. In any case, the point of the song is exactly the point of what we’ve seen in both James and Paul: faith without works is useless.
Excerpted from Paul vs. James: What We’ve Been Missing in the Faith and Works Debate (Moody Publishers, 2019) by Chris Bruno.