Paul and James: The Issue Of Justification

Law conceptThe Apostle Paul makes a compelling argument on justification in Romans 3:1-4:25.His stance is that it is faith that justifies the believer and not works of the Law [1]. In his case, he takes aim at circumcision being a requirement for salvation and dismisses the notion all together[2]. His intent is to show that the circumcised and the uncircumcised are both united under the blood of Christ which is sufficient atonement for all of man [3]. He delves into the story of Abraham in Romans 4:1-25 and makes the case that Abraham was declared righteous [4] because of his faith well before he received circumcision as a sign. Paul’s conclusion is not to say works should not be a part of the Christian’s life, it is to say that circumcision and works themselves are not sufficient for salvation and only faith in Christ can save the sinner be they Gentile or Jew.

Paul’s thesis occurs in Romans 3:21 where he states: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”[5] Douglas Moo contends that here is where “Paul reveals the very heart of the good news: God’s righteousness is available to all who put their faith in Jesus Christ.”[6] Here, faith becomes the chief requirement for salvation and justification which adds fuel to Paul’s case that Gentiles are justified under the blood of Christ just as Jews are.  Verses such as John 14:6 and Acts 16:31 compliment this stance well.

Paul’s conclusion appears to contrast with the writings of James in James 2:14-26. While Paul says that salvation and justification come from faith alone, James appears to say that faith needs works attached in order for the believer to be justified [7]. The contrast is really the result of a misconception of the topic and use of “justify” by both Paul and James.

When Paul utilizes “justify”, he does so referring to the initial identification of the sinner with Christ where God considers the sinner reconciled unto Him (see Romans 4:5) [8]. James uses the term “justify” from the stance typical of Judaism: the acquittal verdict one ultimately receives over their life [9]. As Walter Elwell states: “The justification that concerns James is not the believer’s original acceptance by God, but the subsequent vindication of his profession of faith by his life.”[10]

It is important to remember that Jesus Himself said in Matthew 12:37, “For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned.”[11] Also, Matthew 7:13-29 has Jesus attesting to putting actions with words and faith.

Paul’s view is that works and faith are separate in relation to our standing before God while James makes the case that faith and works are inseparable in relation to the life of a believer and the judgment ultimately rendered by God [12].  When James speaks of “faith alone” in verse 24, he is referencing a person with no action that matches their words (see James 2:15-16) which can also be understood as head knowledge with no heart knowledge (see James 2:19) and he is speaking of a Christian faith that is not genuine [13].

Gary Burge and Andrew Hill draw a very distinct parallel between the view of James detailed above regarding “faith alone” and that of Paul: “with this Paul would have had no argument; he also stressed that it is faith ‘expressing itself through love’ that counts (Gal. 5:6).”[14]

You would be hard pressed to find any Christian disagree with either point delivered by Paul or James. They complement one another and fit into Christ’s call for the lives of every Christian. There will always be those who disagree with what Paul says or what James says. Famed theologian Martin Luther is openly critical of James, but in his preface to Romans, Luther describes the vibrant Christian life as well as James and Paul: “O it is a living, busy, active mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good things incessantly.”[15]

[1] Romans 3:21-31

[2] Romans 3:27-31

[3] Romans 3:21-26

[4] Genesis 15:6

[5] NIV Translation

[6] Douglas Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000): p. 126.

[7] James 2:20

[8] Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill, The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012): p. 1532.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology,  (2nd ed.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2001):p. 643.

[11] NIV Translation.

[12] Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill, The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary: p. 1532.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.


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My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. I post theology and have leaned towards an emphasis on domestic violence and forgiveness. I serve as Ambassador for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I hold a Masters of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor from Liberty University. I have studied in the two “major fields” of theological thought. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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