Does James Really Contradict Paul? by Chris Bruno for The Gospel Coalition
GNN Note – That’s an excellent question!! The Book of James has long been one of my favorite Books of the Bible.
One of the best-known tensions in the Bible is the seeming contradiction between Paul and James.
- Paul: We’re justified by faith, apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28).
- James: A person is not justified by faith alone (James 2:24).
If you’ve been around the Bible, you’ve likely considered this problem. Christians throughout the centuries have puzzled over it, and we might even say the central controversy of the Protestant Reformation hinged, at least in part, on how to understand the difference between Paul and James.
So what’s going on here? If we’re committed to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, our default answer will be that these two apostles can’t contradict each other. But what are they really saying? If we’re intellectually honest, do we have to admit a contradiction?
What Kind of Faith?
If we read James 2:24 isolated from its context, we could have a real problem, because if James means the same thing that Paul means by “faith” in Romans 3:28 or Ephesians 2:8–9, then James would be flat-out contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith alone. One of the fundamental rules of biblical interpretation, however, is that every text must be interpreted in its context. To understand rightly what James means by “faith alone,” we must read it in its context.
In James 2:14, the apostle points to a faith that “does not have works.” He then asks, “Can that faith save him?” He further explains what he means by “that faith” in verse 19. It’s the kind of “faith” that the demons have. That is to say, it’s a mere intellectual assent. The demons believe that “God is one.” They believe the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is true. They know Israel’s God is the one true God and that he will judge the world. As a result of this, they tremble. Not only do they believe the truth, but they have a proper emotional response to the truth. But this is not justifying faith.