St. Paul and St. James, first century apostles and two authors of New Testament writings, referred to Abraham - with Paul conveying in Romans 4:2 that he was not justified by works, yet in James 2:21, James appears to say that Abraham was justified by works. Also, this presents the issue: are we justified by works - or by faith? This theological question necessitates a further examination, and indeed appears to present either an alleged contradiction or a conundrum. (Photo credit: Rembrandt - 1606-1669, The Sacrifice of Isaac)
The first text in question - Romans 4:2, says, "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God." Perhaps by understanding the context it may allow the reader to better understand what is said. Romans 4:1-5 says, "What then shall we say that Abraham, the forefather of us Jews, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about - but not before God. What does Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness' [Genesis 15:6, 22). Now to anyone who works, their wages are not credited to them as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness."
The text of Genesis 16 is again quoted by St. Paul in Galatians 3:6, which says, "So also Abraham 'believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'" St. James also quotes from this particular passage in James 2:23-24, "And the Scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called God's friend. You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone." The apparent issue presented by these texts is that the by taking into consideration the context of Galatians 3, which says that the sons of Abraham are justified by faith and not works of the law (Galatians 3:11), and James 2 says that we are justified by works and not by faith alone. This alleged contradiction has a rather simple explanation.
St. Paul is focusing on the faith of Abraham, whereas St. James is focusing on the works. Paul did not say "faith alone," nor did James say that "works alone" would provide justification. The two New Testament writers approach the topic from two separate perspectives - neither of which are contradictory, but complementary. Without the testing of faith through Abraham's offering of Isaac (which God halted), would Abraham have been justified? Abraham's work - the offering - was also a test of his faith, which demonstrated that Abraham truly trusted the Creator of the Universe, and for believing God, "it was credited to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). No contradiction exists, but a theological misunderstanding.
Furthermore, another alleged contradiction presents itself with James 2:24 and Galatians 2:16. As aforementioned, James 2:24 says, "You see that people are justified by what they do and not by faith alone." However, Galatians 2:16 says, "a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ." The two passages from Scripture appear to demonstrate that the theological teachings of Paul and James were quite different, and indeed perhaps an initial reading of the two would make one determine that. This has also led some theologians to question whether or not James belongs in New Testament cannon. An examination first of the term involved would be advisable.
"Justify" in terms of theology refers to declaring one innocence of guiltless - it means to declare righteousness, not make righteous. When we speak of justification, we must understand that there is a difference between justification and salvation. Justification is not salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 declares, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." It is true that faith without works is dead (James 2:26), because it indicates that the lack of works (or deeds) after salvation by grace through faith in Christ is showing an unchanged life, or even a spiritually dead heart. Proverbs 27:19 says, "As water reflects the face, so one's life reflects the heart."
|Credit: Rembrandt (1606-1669)|
The life of one who has accepted Christ ought to reflect the change that has occurred (and will continue to occur). Whatever justifies also proves that the individual has been made righteous already. In other words, works or deeds are evidence of salvation - not a cause of salvation, but an effect of it. This is what St. James refers to in James 2:14 and 17 when he conveys that faith without works is dead. Jesus (who is God) taught that "every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7:17-19).
Also, by examining the context of these New Testament letters, St. Paul was combating legalistic works righteousness, also called "the works of the law," which is an attempt to become righteous apart from Jesus; St. James was combating those who claimed faith but never demonstrated by their works and their life. It is these people to whom John, in 1st John 2:4 wrote, "Those who say, 'I know him,' but do not do what he commands are liars, and the truth is not in them." In other words, those who claim to follow Christ but do not follow His commandments demonstrate their own unrepentant heart by this non-action. This is not to say that true Christians will never disobey or have problems, but that the unrepentant heart is evident from the life and deeds of a person who claims to be saved (or expresses belief in God and His Word) yet does not show it.
James was speaking of works of faith with salvation whereas St. Paul was speaking against the works of law without salvation. No such contradiction exists, nor do theologians need to reconsider James' place in New Testament cannon. Works of the law do not justify a person, but works of faith certainly demonstrate one's belief and heart. 2nd Corinthians 5:17 teaches, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here!" In Ezekiel 36:26-27 we read, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you: I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws." As John 10:26-30 declares, Christ's "sheep" hear his voice and follow him, and the works (fruit) of those who do what he commands are evident in their life (Galatians 5:22).
We hope this entry has proved helpful, useful, and informative. Simply put, no contradiction exists between the previously mentioned passages, but a theological misunderstanding of some. From the outset it may appear as a contradiction, but upon further investigation, it is evident that this is not the case. Thank you for taking the time to read this entry. Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, visit our facebook page, or visit our ministry website. If you have any further questions feel free to email us - but we ask that you remain civil. It is the mission of this ministry to "