Do James and Paul Contradict Concerning Grace?
By James White
Scripture is a song, borne of the Spirit, repeated over time and countless generations, a gift of precious worth to those whose hearts are in tune to its underlying faith-inspiring tones.
No matter how closely we may examine any one text, we must remember that it is but one movement in the symphony that is “Scripture” as a whole. The glorious balance and harmony of God’s revelation in Scripture is found in the entirety of its testimony. Only when we allow all the parts to speak, first in their own context, but then, together, without assuming (as is so often the case in Western culture today) contradiction, but allowing for harmonization, can we ever find the unified message of Scripture.
An Apparent Problem
When the immediate context of an author is ignored, it is very easy to make allegations of inconsistency and contradiction with other biblical writers. When two writers use similar language but in different contexts, insinuations of error and conflict will surely surface, especially from the pens of those who are seeking to overthrow biblical teaching. One of the classic examples of this is found in the repeated assertion by critics that there is a fundamental contradiction between the views of James and Paul on the matter of faith and works. Scholars often assert the contradiction as a given, almost never allowing for any harmonization of the two writers.
A fair analysis of the relevant texts, however, demonstrate that James and Paul are not, in fact, in conflict, but instead are teaching the same truths in two different contexts. The conflict is apparent, not real. It only appears as if there is contradiction, when the reality is quite different.
We begin with Paul’s assertion that we are justified in the sight of God by faith alone. This is the essence of his argumentation from Romans 3:21 through 5:1, but can be summarized in his statement, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).1 Despite the modern attempt on the part of some to turn justification into a statement solely about church membership,2 the reality is that Paul is addressing how those who find themselves justly condemned as sinners can find peace with God (Rom. 5:1). Paul teaches clearly in Romans and Galatians that God has made a way of peace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that all men, Jew and Gentile, must come to Him through this one gracious way. The receipt of this peace is by faith, so that it might be in accordance with grace (Rom. 4:16). No amount of law keeping can bring a person a right standing with God, for to Paul, the law brings a knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 3:23–24). It was never God’s purpose that the law be a means of obtaining righteousness. Instead, the one who breaks the law is condemned thereby (Gal. 3:10–11).
Paul’s primary proof of the fact of justification by faith apart from deeds of the law is Abraham (Rom. 4:1–3, Gen. 15:6). Since Abraham was justified before God by faith in the promises of God prior to any kind of legal obedience on his part (such as his receiving the sign of circumcision), the priority of the promise to law is established. It is just this example that raises the allegation of conflict with James…