Saved By Faith or Works? A Look at the “Contradiction” Between Paul and James


“The Bible is full of contradictions!”

I hear people say this all the time. Most of the time, if you were to ask that person to name one, they can’t. But that is not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that don’t seem to fit with the rest. Indeed, there are parts of the Bible that certainly appear to be flat-out contradictions. These apparent contradictions become all the more troublesome when they address increasingly important issues. For example, one of the main questions every religion aims to answer (including Christianity) is “How can a person be saved?” By this they mean, how does a sinful person become forgiven and made right with God, and therefore go to heaven when they die instead of hell? Without a doubt, this is a very important question!

The Bible does address this question a number of times, but two occasions in particular seem to be at complete odds with one another, making some feel that the Bible is not consistent with its message. These are the two verses that are so commonly pitted against each other:

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

James 2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Do you see the obvious problem here? Romans says people are saved (justified) by faith alone, while James says people are not saved by faith alone. It can’t possibly be both, so which one is it?

Dealing With Contradictions

Just as real estate agents use the slogan “location, location, location” to make a point, so Bible translators often will shout “context, context, context” to make a similar point. The purpose of highlighting the importance of “context” in Bible interpretation is because the Bible is a complex book. It is actually more like a library, consisting of 66 books written by different people at different times in different locations to different audiences for different purposes. What this means is you can’t just pull out two random sentences and say that they contradict without first asking some important questions.

In this case, the two most important questions are:

  • Who wrote it?
  • Who were they writing to?

In answering these two questions, we can shed some light on this confusing problem.

Who Wrote It?

It would be right to say that the author of the whole Bible is God. 2 Timothy 3:15 says that “all Scripture is breathed out by God”, meaning that the whole Bible comes from the mouth of the Almighty. Therefore, if God wrote the book, there would be no contradictions in it (and no errors, for that matter).

Yet simply saying that God is the author is an over-simplified answer, because God wrote the Bible through human authors. It was his plan to communicate with mankind through human agents, declaring his message to the world using chosen people as the medium. We see this articulated by Peter, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, when he says in 2 Peter 1:20-21…

[20] knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. [21] For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

This means that Peter saw the Bible as God’s Word being written through human authors; that the Holy Spirit was causing a human writer to record exactly what God wanted them to.

Humanly speaking, the texts in question (Romans 3 and James 2) were written by the apostle Paul and the apostle James, respectively. This is extremely helpful information because we know quite a bit about both of these men.

Paul: From Terrorist to Evangelist

Paul, who was previously known as Saul of Tarsus, was a Jewish Pharisee who hated Christians. He believed that they were distorting the message of God by promoting Jesus as the Messiah, and therefore went on a rampage to shut down the Christian movement. This included him going from town to town imprisoning Christians and, at times, even having them martyred. Then one day, on his way to Damascus to arrest more followers of Christ, Jesus miraculously appeared to him on the road, blinded him, and told him that he was chosen by God to be a Christian preacher. Paul converted and became a believer in Jesus, and spent the rest of his life traveling from town to town preaching the gospel of Jesus, writing books of the Bible, and starting new churches, all while suffering much for his new faith right up until he was eventually killed by the Romans.

(See the book of Acts, especially 7:54-8:3, 9:1-43, and 13:1 to the end of the book.)

James: Jesus’ Little Brother

On the other hand, James was a brother of Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph (Galatians 1:19, Matthew 13:55). Initially James did not believe that his brother was the Son of God (John 7:2-5), but changed his mind after Jesus appeared to him following his resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:7). His new faith in Jesus lead him to become part of the early church (Acts1:14) and eventually to become one of the main pastors in the church at Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9).

Paul and James, Ministry Partners

What we see in the Bible is that Paul and James not only knew each other, but were in full agreement concerning the message of Christianity and supported each other’s ministries. This is so crucial to us who are trying to reconcile the passages in Romans 3 and James 2, because friends who agree with each other don’t need to be reconciled!

It is evidence of our cultural arrogance to look back on the Bible and cry “contradiction!” when the very two authors would have never said such things about one another. This is made plain by the interaction between Paul and James on at least three occasions.

Galatians 1

Paul and James met (possibly for the first time) about 3 years after Paul’s conversion. Galatians 1:18-19 says…

[18] Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. [19] But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

Paul at least met James on this visit, though his primary purpose was to meet with Peter (Cephas). This is noteworthy because Peter also was a key church leader, and this meeting appears to have no disapproval on the part of Peter or James concerning Paul’s beliefs.

Galatians 2

A second, and more significant, meeting took place between Paul and James much later into Paul’s ministry. Galatians 2:1-2,9 records…

[1] Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. [2] I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain….[9] and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

How crucial this encounter is! Unlike the first meeting in Galatians 1, the substance of which is unknown, this meeting in Galatians 2 gives important details as to what happened among these men. Paul’s purpose in going to Jerusalem to see James (and Peter and John as well) was to share with them what he is teaching in order to make sure they approve of it. He laid before them what he believed the gospel to be so that he would make sure he wasn’t messing it up. The conclusion of the meeting, as verse 9 shows, is that James, Peter, and John all gave Paul “the right hand of fellowship”, meaning they believed he was teaching the same gospel as they were and therefore viewed themselves as partners in ministry.

This is no small point. James, Peter, and John all talk about false teachers in the books of the Bible that they wrote, and they don’t speak of them kindly. These three men were very serious about making sure Christianity was being taught properly, and would not have in one thousand years extended “the right hand of fellowship” to someone they thought was a false teacher. The fact that they closely examined Paul’s teaching and approved of it speaks volumes. It is simply untenable for us to think that Paul and James are teaching opposite truths in Romans 3 and James 2. These were men who knew each other very well and approved of each others teaching and ministry.

Acts 21

This is shown once again later on, as recorded in Acts 21:17-20…

[17] When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. [18] On the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. [19] After greeting them, he related one by one the things that God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. [20] And when they heard it, they glorified God.

Once again, Paul and his ministry team go to Jerusalem to meet with the church leaders and share what they have been up to. After hearing of Paul’s work abroad, the elders, a group that includes James, are excited about it and glorify God.

As these three encounters show, it is simply impossible to believe that James and Paul did not agree on how someone is saved. They believed the same gospel and gladly worked together. Therefore, there must be another explanation! Getting to the bottom of our next crucial question will show us the answer.

Who Were They Writing To?

Consider this illustration. Imagine for a moment that you are sitting outside of a gymnasium where a basketball team is practicing. You hear the coach begin to yell, “You’ve got to pass more! Stop shooting the ball!” merely moments later, you hear the same coach yelling “Shoot the ball! You’ve got to learn to pull the trigger!”

At this point you have two options. One is to believe that this coach has an inconsistent message, that he gives directions that simply contradict each other. Such a coach would be quite useless and unhelpful. The alternative view, however, is to consider that the coach might be yelling at two separate players. In the first case, the coach is trying to teach the team ball-hog to stop being selfish and include his teammates, while the second time the coach is encouraging his young, but shy, sharp-shooter to have confidence in his three-pointer. As such, the coach is not being inconsistent, but tailoring his message to fit the needs of whomever he is addressing.

It is the same way with the Bible. Books of the Bible were written with different audiences in mind, and therefore how an author conveys a point will be tailored to that particular people group. This is the case with the books of Romans and James.

Romans, authored by Paul, is written primarily to new Christians and unbelievers. The Roman culture was a religiously diverse society, mainly made up of secular people. They were not very familiar with the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) and relatively ignorant of God’s Word. As such, Paul is writing to them as naive people, and explaining plainly this truth: no one gets to heaven by anything they do. This is what he means in Romans 3:28 when he says “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Salvation does not come through works. There is nothing a person can do to earn their salvation. A person can be religious, a helper of the poor, baptized, born into a family with faith, go to church, and still go to hell. This is because no one is justified, or saved, by works. Nothing you do, no matter how good or holy or impressive you think you are, is enough to earn a way into God’s presence in heaven. Rather, salvation comes through faith – trusting in the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sin, and we receive his forgiveness through faith alone. You simply can’t earn your salvation. It is a gift to be received by faith!

On the other hand, James is writing to a mainly Christian audience with a Jewish background. They, like he, converted from Judaism to Christianity when they believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Therefore, James’ audience is made up of people who are highly educated in religious matters. What James is specifically addressing are people who say that they have faith, but have no evidence of faith in their lives. They profess to be followers of Jesus, they just don’t do anything Jesus asks of them. So, in James 2:24 when he says “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”, he means that you can’t say you have faith and then not have anything to show for it. You can’t claim to be a Christian and then not do what Jesus has called you to do. What that shows is you really have no faith to begin with!

Paul and James Both Believe in Salvation By Faith

We know this is true because, just a few verses earlier, James introduces his subject this way in James 2:14-17 (emphasis mine)…

[14] What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [15] If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, [16] 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? [17] So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

When put in context, we see that James is not promoting salvation by works, but rather faith that is real and alive. Notice in verse 14 what he does not say. James doesn’t say, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can those lack of works save him?” No, he asks instead, “Can that faith save him?” This shows that James believes a person is saved by faith. But what he takes issue with are people who say they have faith, but no works. This is an oxymoron in his mind. True faith that is alive will produce good works. That is, people who truly believe in Jesus will experience a change in their lives. You can’t say, “I became a Christian and then nothing happened.” That is not real, living faith. James calls that “dead” faith, which is really not faith at all.

This is consistent with the message of Jesus as well. Jesus taught that those who truly believe in him will produce fruit, referring to good works. This means that when a person truly becomes a Christian, things change. They don’t stay the same. God will produce fruit in their lives as evidence that their faith is real. Just as a dead tree doesn’t produce any fruit, dead faith doesn’t produce fruit either. That’s why Jesus says in John 15:8 “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” The bearing of fruit (good works) is the proof that a person is a disciple of Jesus.

Lastly, Paul also addressed the same issue (people claiming faith without any evidence of it), albeit in a different way. He says in Romans 6:1-2…

[1] What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? [2] By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

Here Paul anticipates a false conclusion by his readers. He explains that salvation comes by faith and not works, and then assumes that some people will hear that as “You are saved by grace, so go do whatever you want! Sin away! It doesn’t matter what you do anyways.” Paul argues that believing you can continue in sin (the opposite of good works) because salvation comes by grace through faith is wrong. Those who put their faith in Jesus but continue to rebel against God’s laws show they don’t have true faith. In this way, Paul and James and Jesus show that they all believe the same thing: Salvation comes by God’s grace as a gift to be received by faith, and if that faith is real, it will be evidenced by a changed life.

What It All Means

This is the gospel – the good news – that Christianity offers the world. You don’t have to go to hell. You can be forgiven. You don’t have to earn that forgiveness – indeed, you can’t! But you can be forgiven through the grace offered to you by Jesus Christ. He died to pay the penalty for your sin, and this is a gift you can’t earn. It is meant to be received by faith. Anyone who receives this gift will live a life of thankful obedience to God, not because they are trying to earn forgiveness, but because they are forever changed by the amazing love of God.

Along with Jesus, Paul, and James, I say the same thing. We all are sinners in need of salvation. The only way to be saved is through faith in Jesus Christ. His demonstration of love on the cross, if received, will change you from the inside out and produce a life of love and good works. To this I beckon you. Jesus is calling. You need him. Won’t you come home?

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