Posted: 10 May 2011 12:00 AM PDT
"FOR WE MAINTAIN THAT A MAN is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom. 3:28). So writes the apostle Paul. "You foolish man," argues James, "do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? … You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.… As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:14–26, especially vv. 20, 24, 26).
The formal contradiction between Paul and James is so striking that it has called forth relentless discussion across the centuries. Many contemporary critics, skeptical that God has really spoken in the Bible, think the passages are irreconcilable, and that together they demonstrate that from the beginning there were disparate branches of Christianity with distinctive and even mutually contradictory interpretations. Others think that the real secret to the relationship between Paul and James lies in very different meanings of "works" or "deeds."
Several explanatory syntheses have been offered, but they cannot be evaluated here. It may be helpful, however, to reflect on the following points:
(a) Paul and James are facing very different problems. Paul is facing those who want to say that works, whether good or bad, make a fundamental contribution to whether one becomes a Christian (see one of his responses in Rom. 9:10–12). His answer is that they do not and cannot: God's grace is received by faith alone. James is facing those who argue that saving faith is found even in those who simply affirm (for instance) that there is one God (James 2:19). His answer is that such faith is inadequate; genuine faith produces good works, or else it is dead faith.
(b) Issues of sequence are thus at stake. Paul argues that works cannot help a person become a Christian; James argues that good works must be displayed by the Christian. But on this point, Paul would not disagree; see, for instance, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11.
(c) Paul's dominant usage of "justification" has to do with that act of God by which, on the basis of Christ's work on the cross, he declares guilty sinners acquitted and just in his eyes. Such justification is entirely gracious (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). James focuses rather more on "justification" before peers (James 2:18) and even on final judgment. A genuinely Christian life, says James, must be a transformed life. Again, Paul does not disagree: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10). The allotment of rewards may be of grace, for even our good deeds finally spring from God's grace—but the deeds are not therefore less necessary.
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