When people criticize the Bible, they often point to contradictions. “The Bible says this here, but says the opposite over here!” This proves, they say, that this cannot be God’s book, it’s no different from any other human book with the usual errors and mistakes.

Usually it’s quite easy to show that these are only “seeming” contradictions. If we interpret God’s Word correctly, we will usually be able to show how both verses or passages are true.

However, sometimes it’s not so easy. Sometimes it’s very hard. Sometimes it looks almost impossible. One of these “impossible” passages is James 2:24, probably the biggest “contradiction” in the Bible.  Let me state this problem as clearly as I can.

In at least three places in Romans alone the Apostle Paul says that we are saved by faith alone without works (Romans 3:20, 28; 5:1).

But when we turn to James 2:25 we read: A man is justified by works, and not by faith only (James 2:24).

The problem is obvious, isn’t it? Many verses in the Bible teach that we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. But James says that faith alone without works is not enough.

High Stakes
The stakes are very high here, because it’s not just a minor matter about the number of soldiers in Israel’s army; it’s about the most important matter of all – how sinners are saved.

Can these opposing statements be reconciled? I believe they can, and the key is to understand that although Paul and James both speak of justification, they are speaking about two different kinds of justification.

This isn’t some kind of verbal trickery, making words mean just what we want them to mean depending on what we want to believe. No, words only have meaning in relation to other words. We need to look at the surrounding words to figure out what each word means. The surroundings make all the difference.

For example, if you’re fishing in a boat and someone says, “Will you get off the net?” you look around your feet to see if you are standing on the landing net. But if you’re sitting at a computer and Dad says to you, “Will you get off the net?” you’re looking for the “Close Browser” button. Same word, but different surroundings make the word mean something completely different.

Surroundings
So what are the surroundings of “justification” in Romans and James?

In Romans, the context is our standing before God, God’s view and verdict upon us.  In that sense, God justifies us by our faith, He counts us as righteous because of the faith that He alone can see.

In James, the context is our standing before people, their view and verdict upon us. In that sense, people justify us by works, they conclude we are righteous because of the good works they see in our lives (being unable to see if faith is in our hearts).

The whole letter of James is about practical Christianity – how we are to live out our faith. Chapter 1 covers doing the Word not just hearing it (v. 22), care for orphans and widows (v. 27), and keeping ourselves unspotted from the world (v. 27). Chapter 2 says, “Stop being snobs and start treating rich and poor alike” (vv. 1-13). Chapter 3 is about the way we use our tongues, chapter 4 addresses relational conflict, and chapter 5 calls us to deal fairly with our employees and pay our bills on time. It’s all about the visible practice of Christianity.

No Surprise
No surprise then when we come to the latter part of chapter 2, James is utterly focused on the need for faith to produce works, fruit, public profit, evidence of spiritual life, etc. It’s not about our relationship to God but our relationship to other people. It’s not about how God sees us but how people see us. It’s not about how we get spiritual life, but how we demonstrate that we have it.

The biggest contradiction is not Romans v James. The biggest contradiction, says James, is a Christian without good works.

  • Sam Loveall

    Dr. Murray, I appreciate your ministry here and I value the chance to read your writing each day. But with this one, I can’t help but think you’ve nearly rewritten James 2:14-26 to make a point that it doesn’t make in itself. And so, I humbly submit the following for your consideration:

    Beginning with (at least) v. 14, all the language clearly links both the faith and the works to justification before God, not before other people. V. 14-20 is about “work-less faith” not saving a man — “Can his faith save him? . . . Faith without works is useless.”

    Vss. 21-24 speak to Abraham being justified before God, not people, because his faith “perfected” or “fulfilled” his faith — “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness”.

    Of course Paul and James don’t disagree with or contradict each other; they write about the same kind of faith and the same kind of justification. The thing that makes James’ approach so down-to-earth and practical-living-oriented is that he goes a little further in describing the kind of faith that Paul preaches — a faith that, if it doesn’t motivate Godly works, isn’t really faith at all.

    To say that “It’s not about how God sees us but how people see us. Its not about how we get spiritual life, but how we demonstrate that we have it” is to rewrite the message of the chapter.

  • Joshua Caleb

    I think Sam’s concerns are well taken, however, we arrive at same conclusion. Saved by faith, and saving faith always works.
    We are not justified in God’s eyes by any works, the works we do demonstrate/complete/perfect that saving faith.
    Compare scripture with scripture, pair James 2:23-25 with Hebrews 11:8-18, 31. for example, the faith Abraham and Rahab exhibited was not simply mental assent, but active trust, putting feet to faith, perfected by acts that demonstrated the faith.
    Great post Dr. Murray

  • Kenton

    But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works… You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. (James 2:18, 22, 23 ESV)

    The key to understanding James is “I will show you my faith by my works”.

    When Paul talks about Abraham’s faith, the sort of faith that warrants righteousness, this is what he says:

    No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:20-22 ESV)

    Abraham’s faith was made evident by his worship. Hebrews also confirms that true faith is evident by obedience:

    By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8 ESV)

    So why is there such a “contradiction” between Paul and James? It’s because the difference lies in how each views *works*. They mean different things to each.

    Paul has in mind the works of the Law (that is, the Torah). He makes that clear in 3:28 – “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” The sorts of acts that would seemingly justify – I pray three times a day, I fast twice a week, I give alms often – are utterly worthless because of sins. Abraham obeyed God, but he did so apart from the works of the Law, on the basis of what God can and will do, not what he could do. And that’s Paul’s point in Romans: Gentile believers obey Jesus as Abraham obeyed God. They share his faith.

    In contrast, James has these in mind:

    If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (James 2:15, 16, 21, 25 ESV)

    All of these things are done apart from the Law. They are not works of the Law. Rather, they are entirely based upon faith in God. More importantly, they are not cause for merit. Because the biggest confusion is that justification = merit-based approval. This is what Paul was opposing. These actions do not glorify man, but God.

    Now yes, there is some difference of context, in that Paul is talking about the ungodly becoming godly through faith upon conversion, while James is talking about being approved by God as one whom He has already called. But, this distinction is not absolute because James includes Rahab, who became included in Israel because of her faith-driven actions, as Hebrews also states: “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” (Hebrews 11:31 ESV)

    The common denominator is that this sort of works banks on what God has promised and what God can do. Abraham obeyed, believing that God would give his seed life through a dead womb, and give his son back to him from death. Rahab obeyed, believing that God would save her family from His wrath and destruction. We obey (turning away from sins and to God via Christ), believing that God will justify and raise us up on the basis of His raising up Jesus, who died and was raised for us.

    None of these works in themselves have meritorious value, and that is the difference. That is where the Jews went wrong. And all of these are done apart from the Law. So Paul and James are on the same page.

  • Kenton

    This contradiction also doesn’t exist because even when Paul says we are justified by faith apart from works of the Law, he also can say, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). So even Paul sees a judgment based on works after a justification based on faith. James is perhaps viewing this judgment when he says “justified by works”.

    • Jim

      This is the way that I approach James as well. The idea of works are two entirely different things intended for two entirely different audiences. I would also point to Ephesians 2:8-10 where Paul clearly states that we are not justified by works, yet we were created to do good works. For me, that is the clearest bridge between Paul and James and a good example of the two meanings of the terms.

  • DavidB

    The key point is: Faith alone justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone. Eg. it is accompanied by regeneration, and the works flowing out of that. Thus if there is no proof of accompanying works then no justification happened; whatever kind of faith was exercised it proved not to be saving faith. So in that sense a man is not justified by faith alone. The Westminster confession phrases all this very well, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, this was sorted out centuries ago. But we should be aware of the massive and dangerous confusion existing in the church on this issue.

  • DavidB

    “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.” WCF 11:2

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  • Mark

    Eventually someone is going to notice that the only place the Bible uses the term “faith only” is in James 2:24 where we are told that we are NOT justified by faith only. Because people have decided we are justified by faith only they (and they add the word “only” after the word faith all through Scripture) they have created a contradiction between Paul and James that does not exist. Read Hebrews 11. Faith always acts. Always. Or it isn’t real faith. That’s James’ point. When that faith acts that doesn’t earn or merit anything – it just shows trust and faith. Ask Namaan if faith and works go together! Why some have decided faith must exclude works is beyond me … and I’m sure it would flummox Paul and James.

    • Richard

      Bravo!

  • http://www.sixtyguilders.org Bernard

    Everyone seems to be skipping over the first part of James 2:24, which goes a long way towards solving the problem: “*You see that* a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” James is talking about the human onlooker’s perspective. The Greek verb translated “see” can also be translated “perceive” so James is saying that you can perceive whether a person is justified not by his claim to have faith but by his actions, since real faith always generates godly actions. This interpretation fits the surrounding context, while preserving the usual meaning of “justified.”

    James is not talking about how a person is justified in the sight of God, which is through faith alone in Christ alone. He’s talking about how human onlookers might perceive whether or not someone has been justified in the sight of God.

  • Tony

    I concur with a number of the comments above and have one question or comment to add. Is the challenge for us here perhaps because James and Paul are not using our established theological terms with everything we have connected to those terms? James says that demons believe (pisteuo) and they shudder (2:19). I don’t think Paul would say that that demons have faith, nor would a Reformed theologian. I wonder if our focus in looking at this apparent contradiction should be on James and Paul’s definitions of faith and not so much on their definitions of justification.

    • Morgan

      Totally agree.

      I don’t go along with the (pretty novel) conclusion that’s they’re describing different perspectives and all that.

      Paul says we’re saved by grace through faith. Because we have faith, God ‘reckons’ that to us as righteousness. So what is it?

      Well, James defines a saving, or living faith. Real faith. He goes to great lengths to say that a saving/living faith (contrasted with what he calls ‘dead’ faith) does some things. It’s active. Does that now earn us anything from God? Does it obligate him to do anything for us? Certainly not.

      Big problems come out of our struggles with those definitions. Reformed folks (whom I respect IMMENSELY for their love of God and purity) became so afraid of the ‘W’ word that just about any physical action whatsoever can’t possibly be anywhere near when they talk about salvation. (*COUGH baptism COUGH COUGH*). The ‘formula’ essentially became faith – generally any physical action = salvation.

      Low church folks like myself erroneously came up with our incredibly dangerous and anti-gospel formula of law-keeping. So faith + works = salvation. In other words, you do the best you can to earn your way to heaven, essentially by works of law, and God will ‘make up’ the rest via grace. That invites and encourages legalism. And despair.

      The answer, Paul and James’s answer, is between the two. God imputes righteousness to us when we have an active, “living” faith. Because that’s the faith that Christians by definition will have when they react to Christ’s sacrifice. And yeah, there are some physical acts that seem to always accompany coversion accounts in the Bible, notably in Acts. Did anybody ‘earn’ anything at all by works? Nope.

      Love y’all.

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  • John Hutchinson

    I must respectfully disagree with your understanding of this passage and your distinctions between that of God and that of men. This passage, more so than Hebrews 11, is actually giving a ‘philosophical’ definition and psychological dynamics of the nature of faith itself. However, much rumination on the passage is required to properly see this in its depth.