The Place of Works & Faith in Salvation: Do Paul and James contradict each other?


I recently wrote an essay on the supposed contradiction between Paul and James on the place of works and faith in salvation (the particular areas of contention are found in two specific passages Romans 3-4 and James 2). I thought I would share with you the 5 solutions to the problem that I have come across in my research . . .

1. There is no ‘solution’

This position states that the two simply cannot be reconciled, because we are encountering an issue of diversity in early Christianity. This is of course one way of viewing the differences between Paul and James, but such a view would give rise to other questions of uniformity and inspiration . . .

2. Using the word ‘Faith’ and ‘Works’ in different ways

If James and Paul were united in their theology, scholars have theorised, there must be an alternative explanation for the differences in Pauline and Jacobean theology. Some resolve the apparent contradiction by defining what Paul and James meant when using the words ‘works’ and ‘faith’, within their specific contexts. John Drane argues that when Paul uses ‘faith’ he refers to it in a technical and general sense that characterises the Christian life; both belief and action being components of this faith. James, on the other hand, refers to a faith that is specifically belief; belief in God, as opposed to atheism. Therefore on the basis of this reasoning Paul and James’ views of justification do not contradict.

This understanding of the Pauline and Jacobean views of justification seems reasonable for contextual reasons. Paul makes it clear in Romans that Christians are to live a life worthy of their calling, in other words, faith is supposed to be accompanied by good works.[1] Likewise, it is clear that when James is referring to faith-without-works it is defined primarily by belief, as he writes you believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe – and shudder! This is clearly not referring to the same type of faith that Paul describes as producing good works through the Spirit.

3. ‘Works of the law’ opposed to ‘Works’

Another way of reconciling the two authors is by looking through the lens of recent scholarship connected with the New Perspective on Paul. James Dunn invented the phrase ‘boundary markers’ to refer to the 1st century Jewish understanding of salvation, i.e. circumcision, food laws and the Sabbath.[2] This is what, Dunn states, is referred to when Paul uses the phrase ‘works of the law’. Therefore, when we approach the tension between Paul and James’ views of justification, we see that Paul refers to saving faith apart from works of the law,[3] hence revealing that he is referring to ritual boundary-markers, instead of moral works. Also, when Paul argues that the promise was achieved by faith alone he says that it was received before Abraham was circumcised. Therefore, he argues that the ‘works of the law’ are not necessary for salvation. From other parts of his letters it is clear that Christian faith is supposed to be accompanied by (moral) ‘works’, or ‘living by the spirit’, by which he means right living.[4] Whereas when James refers to ‘works’, he means moral actions rather than ritualistic requirements of the law. Therefore, James uses an example to explain the type of ‘works’ he is referring to: If a brother or sister is poorly clothed (and you don’t) give them the things needed for the body, what good is that?[5]

Tom Schreiner argues that this interpretation fails:

The new perspective solution fails . . . for it is not evident that Paul restricts ‘works of the law’ or ‘works’ to ceremonial works or those that divide Jews from Gentiles.

In addition to Schreiner’s comment there does seem to be one anomaly with the solution provided by the new perspective. Romans 4:6-8 links Abraham’s blessing to a prophetic Psalm where David writes: Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.[6] Paul specifically related this quote to the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works. As such it does seem that when Paul writes about ‘works of the law’[7] or ‘works’[8] when explaining the doctrine of justification by faith, he does indeed relate works to moral works, perhaps in addition to ritualistic works defined by Dunn. Paul explains that their ‘lawless’ deeds are forgiven. i.e. it refers to moral requirements that are not met, rather than ritual requirements that are met.

4. ‘Can that faith save him?’ The accusative pronoun.

R. T. Kendall brings an additional solution to the mix. He looks at the Greek grammar in the text. The pronoun in the sentence Can that faith save him?[9] is accusative, he argues. Thus, he says that James is not talking about the Christian who is the possessor of the faith in question, but rather the poor man in James 2:6. Therefore James is not referring to the salvation of the Christian, but rather the salvation of the poor man, as faith without works will not save the poor non-Christian, as there is no evidence of a changed life in the Christian wishing to bring him to faith.[10]

Kendall pre-empts the obvious retort to his solution: It is strange that James refers to a person reasonably far back in the text. But Kendal argues that this is not an unusual occurrence in the New Testament.[11] However, I would argue that it is also strange that later James writes: . . . faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Therefore the person with the faith-without-works in effect has no faith. Death means that something is no more. Therefore even if were to agree with Kendall on the reference to the poor man, it would still be odd that James would say that faith was dead without works, if James thought that faith without works was still active in saving.

5. James is responding to a distortion of Pauline teaching

Lastly we come to a solution that I think best fits with both the text and the historical context: Works are the outward evidence of saving faith. Therefore, faith without works is indeed dead. A persistent lifestyle of sin would suggest that one did not posses saving faith. Paul also makes this clear in Romans 6: . . . you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.[12] Paul and James’ use of faith and works in regard to justification differ because of the context in which each author was writing. Paul was an Apostle to the Gentiles and wanted his congregants to know that they were free from the works of the law, defined by both Jewish boundary markers and moral requirements. He instead emphasised being ‘in Christ’, and following the Spirit, which would lead to moral living. James, on the other hand, although teaching the same things as Paul (i.e following God, and therefore teaching his congregants to follow the Spirit) was leading a church that contained a faction who were ‘zealous for the law’[13] as we saw above. These Christians seemed to believe that Gentile believers needed to be circumcised and follow the law of Moses.[14] Rumours had reached Jerusalem that Paul taught a theology that ‘forsook Moses’[15], and presumably Jews also believed, as a consequence, that Paul taught an antinomian theology. As such, James is countering this twisted version of Paul’s teaching. Tom Schreiner also argues for this interpretation because the two authors address different situations and circumstances, and those situations must be taken into account.[16]


I would love to hear your thoughts . . .

[1] Romans 6: 12-14

[2] Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul. 2011. The New Perspective on Paul. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 14 November 2011].

[3] Romans 3: 28

[4] Romans 6: 12-14

[5] James 2: 15-17

[6] Psalm 32:1-2

[7] Romans 3: 28

[8] ‘works’ is used instead of ‘works of the law’ in the passage concerning Abraham: Romans 4:1-12

[9] James 2: 14

[10] Kendal, R. T., Justification by Works, p. 168

[11] Kendal refers the reader onto James, Preaching through the Bible by M. A. Eaton, ch, 13 & 14

[12] Romans 6:16

[13] Acts 21:20

[14] See above in section ‘Background: Jewish & Hellenistic split’ & appendix

[15] Acts 21: 21

[16] Schreiner, Tom, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, p.603

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