Paul and James On Faith and Works

By Mark Nitz

(Editor’s Note: The following article appeared in Firm Foundation [8 February 1983] and Sentry (28 February 19831. I was somewhat surprised that the editor of Sentry printed the article without comment. 1 am quoting the Sentry article because it contained the footnotes of the article.)

One of the thorniest problems in the history of Biblical interpretation is determining the right relationship between faith and works. This problem can be most clearly seen in one’s effort to harmonize Paul and James in their respective epistles. Both authors quote Genesis 15:6 with respect to Abraham and draw what appears to be different conclusions. Paul declares that justification is not upon the principle of works but upon that of faith (Romans 3:28). James declares that “by works a man is justified and not only by faith” (James 2:24). Are the conclusions of these two inspired writers irreconcilable, or is there harmony to be found? G.C. Berkouwer suggests three possible solutions that have been given in the past to the problem raised by James’ relation to Paul: (1) James is debating with Paul. (2) James is- contending, not against Paul, but against an antinomian misconstrual of Paul’s doctrine of justification through faith. (3) The letters of Paul and James are concerned with different problems and are not in the least contending with one another. They are rooted in the same assumptions and are in no way incompatible.(1) It is the purpose of this article to defend the third position mentioned by Berkouwer: that is, Paul and James are in harmony with one another.

Different Purposes

It is most important to note at the beginning that James and Paul were writing for different purposes.(2) Paul’s purpose was to explain how the gospel works, the method of justification through Christ. This can be seen not only in Romans but also in Galatians. James, on the other hand, is reproving idle brethren. Apparently some had become inactive as Christians. James tells them that a faith that permits them to do nothing is a dead faith. Thus, Paul is dealing with the gospel system which we are under, justification coming through faith rather than law-keeping. James is dealing with the nature of that saving faith.

Paul does not deny the essentialness of good works. Concerning the judgment of God, he once wrote, “who will render to every man according to his work’s (Rom. 2:6). Throughout Paul’s epistles he makes an unmistakable relation between works, faith, and the judgment.(3) “It is not to be denied that for Paul, too, the works and affairs of man play a role in the final drama of God’s judgment.”(4)However, Paul sets works in contradiction to faith as the basis of one’s justification. Works and faith do not exclude each other in practice, according to Paul’s writings. However, they do exclude each other as a means (or basis) of justification (or salvation). That is to say, no man can be justified by both at the same time. He is either saved because he deserves it (principle of works) or he is saved although he does not deserve it (principle of faith).

Paul views good works as the by-product of salvation; not the basis of it. “By grace have ye been saved… created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:8-10). We work (obey God) because we are saved, not in order to get saved.

James, on the other hand, does not negate the importance of faith.(5) Neither does he deny that justification is by faith. He simply emphasizes that there is more to faith than mere assent (or “the faith of demons”). True faith makes itself apparent by the life that results from it. This being the case, there would be a sense in which works, are indirectly related to justification, since the faith that saves is a faith that obeys. Faith is worthless if it cannot be seen in the good life that follows.

A good summary of this section can be seen in the following: “We are not justified by faith and works (Paul). Nor are we justified by faith without works (James). Rather we are justified by faith that works (James and Paul).”(6)

Works and Motivation

Another way to resolve the apparent dilemma between Paul and James is to understand the different motivation one might have for performing good works. This difference can be seen in the expressions “works of human merit” and “obedience of faith.” Though the actual works in both cases may be the same, the motivation is entirely different.(7)

The works of which Paul says one is not jusified by are “works of law” (or human merit). This system makes salvation dependent upon one’s ability to keep laws. His reward is given as wages earned; his performance being the determining factor. The problem with such is that only perfect works will save. To violate the law in one point is to be guilty of the whole law (James 2:10). It is the legalistic mind that views one’s Christian life as meriting for him the favor of God. He is like the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14), deceiving himself into thinking he is actually good enough to be accepted by God. “Legalism is not law-keeping but law-depending. It is not the idea of doing the law but trusting in one’s performance for salvation.”(8) Paul declares that the gospel has freed one from this legalistic motive for obedience. Being justified by faith, one is now free to serve God simply because he wants to. Paul calls this the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), the “labor of love” (1 Thess. 1:3) and “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). This involves a much different and higher motive.

The works by which James says he would “show” his faith (2:18) and of which “faith is made perfect” (2:22) are the same works which Paul calls the “obedience of faith.” This obedience is that which springs from faith and is the expression of it. The motivation is love, not the meriting of a reward. When Paul’s “justification by faith” is properly understood it will multiply good works. It puts one’s work into focus. Works are the fruit of a new life, not the creation of it. We are not saved by our good works but unto good works. Being free from a system of law with its fear and reward motives, one is free to serve God out of love, the strongest possible motive. Martin Luther said it well when he declared that “our faith in Christ does not free us from good works but from the false opinions concerning good works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.”(9) Luther was apparently able to find agreement between Paul and James.(10)


Those who argue that James contradicts Paul often point to the use that each makes of Abraham. Paul uses Abraham to show that one is justified by faith without the works of law. James uses him to show that “mere faith” is insufficient.

Though both authors quote Genesis 15:6 to make their point. They refer to different portions of Abraham’s life. James starts with Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son Isaac, recorded in Genesis 22 (James 2:21). Throughout this incident Abraham demonstrates his faith. This “work” was an act of faith. James then proceeds to quote Genesis 15 in special connection with the offering up of Isaac. It is as if to say Genesis 15 is fulfilled in what occurs in Genesis 22. Abraham’s works justified his claim to faith. His life, viewed as a whole, shows the inseparable connection between faith and works. The perfection (or completeness) of Abraham’s faith was demonstrated by his willingness to obey.

In the command given to Abraham lies the touchstone of his faith, and in his obedience Abraham’s faith was revealed as real in the reality of life. If when the test came, the faith had not been matched by works, then it would have proved to be an incomplete faith. The works showed that the faith had always been of the right kind and completed it.(11)

Thus, James is not denying that faith saves. Neither is he saying faith must be complemented by works of the law in order to be efficacious. This would indeed contradict Paul and make of none effect the blood of Christ (Gal. 2:21). Rather he is contesting a “dead faith” – that which does not bear the fruit of good works in one’s Christian walk.

The apparent conflict between Paul and James vanishes when one sees the difference between works of law and works of faith (each with their respective motives). That for which James is contending is not denied by Paul. That which Paul declares in his gospel is endorsed by James. This harmony can be seen in the excellent summary by J.D. Thomas:

When Paul says that we are not saved by works, he means “works of human merit.” Man cannot achieve or earn his salvation. It is definitely based on our faith (trust or reliance). James, in. insisting that faith must be accompanied by works, is not talking about works of merit, but about “obedience of faith” and, in the same sense that a mother who wouldn’t nurse her child obviously would have no love for it, he says that a faith that will not work is dead and will not bring salvation. So there is no real tension between Paul and James after all. They both teach “justification by faith,” but James merely points out that the faith must be of a certain kind. He is not saying that the works that one must do have legal merit.(12)


1. G.C. Berkower, Faith and Justification (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1954), p. 131.

2. K.C. Moser, The Way of Salvation (Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Co., N.D.), p. 53.

3. cf. Rom. 6:2; 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:6; 5:22; 6:7-9; Col. 3:23-25; 1 Thess. 2:13.

4. Berkouwer, p. 105.

5. J. W. McGarvey, “Justification by Faith,” Lard’s Quarterly (January, 1866) p. 114-115, 119-129. McGarvey brings the apparent dilemma clearly into focus by summarizing James as saying, “Justified by faith, not without works” as opposed to Paul, “justified by faith, without works of law.” McGarvey suggests that the controversy centers around a definition of “works” as used by each author.

6. Jack Cottrell, His Truth (Cincinnati: New Life Books, 1980), p. 81.

7. J.D. Thomas, “Baptism and Faith,” Restoration Quarterly, I (4th Quarter, 1957), p. 168. Note the excellent illustration used by Thomas to demonstrate how similar works can have different motives. A nurse, working at a hospital, nurses a sick patient back to health for the pay she will receive at the end of the week. That same nurse, as a mother, will nurse her sick child back to health, not to receive pay but simply because of her love for the child.

8. Edward Fudge, The Grace of God (Athens, Alabama: Edward Fudge Publishing, 1971), pp. 13-14).

9. Martin Luther, Christian Liberty (original 1520), tr. and rev. by W. A. Lambert and H.J. Grim (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957), p. 11.

10. Martin Luther, What Luther Says – an Anthology, compiled Ewald M. Plaas (Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1959), s.v. “Faith,” 1472, 1475. Luther is quoted as saying, “Fruits do not make the tree, but the tree is known by its fruits… so faith is a piece of hypocrisy if it does not produce works …. He (St. James) wants faith to justify its genuineness by works; not that man is justified before God by works, but that the faith which justifies before is recognized by the witness of its works.” Luther also showed that it was a perversion of Sola Fide to teach that one did not have to keep the commandments.

Also see Robin A. Leaver, Luther on Justification (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1975), pp. 42-46. The chapter entitled “Ex Operatum” contains Luther’s views concerning good works and how faith and works are related. The author believes Luther’s low opinion of James was based primarily upon textual criticism rather than a theological problem. Leaver points out that Luther accepted the main teaching of James – “Faith without works is dead.”

11. Berkouwer, op. cit. p. 136.

12. Thomas, op. cit. p. 168.

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 12, pp. 355, 357-358
June 16, 1983