Some have interpreted James’ message in 2:14-26 to be antithetical to Paul’s declaration of the gospel. While James says “that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (2:24), Paul proclaims, “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…” (Ephesians 2:8-9a). So, are they contradicting one another?
Let’s briefly explore an answer to the question: Can James’ use of faith, works and justification be harmonized with Paul’s use of the same terms?
When one understands that James and Paul were writing in completely different contexts and confronting completely different issues, the challenge to understand their seemingly contradictory positions becomes far easier to reason through.
James’ introduction of faith in v. 14a is one of primarily intellectual assent and obedience to God, separated from works and seen as a viable avenue for salvation. He argues that works must accompany faith, otherwise the faith is proven dead, useless, and unable to save (vv. 17, 20, 26). When Paul discusses faith, it meant acceptance of the gospel and personal commitment to its truths and to Christ. So James is referring to an imposter-faith while Paul is talking about the real deal.
Also, these “works” are not the same “works of the law” which Paul denounces as necessary for salvation. James is talking about works of love and caring for those who are in need.
The two apostles interpret justification and faith differently as well. For Paul, Abraham was justified by faith by trusting God and obeying his commands, such as the sacrifice his son Isaac. For James, justification by works took that same trust and obedience and understood it as Abraham’s willingness to demonstrate his faith by leading his son Isaac to the alter, i.e., to do something, to take action. True faith, James says, will always lead to action. Paul makes similar claims in Galatians 5:6, Ephesians 2:8-10 (the beginning of which is included above), and Philippians 2:12-13.
In many ways, James is working on the same premise as the OT prophets who denounced piety and religious practice that lacked righteousness or proper action (such as Amos 2:1-16). For James, to be called righteous one must display acts of mercy as Jesus (Luke 18:14) and the apostolic leaders preached (Acts 3). Works and faith may exist as individual entities but they are inseparable when it comes to the Christian faith.
As James closes this passage, he reasons faith is useful when joined together with works, but alone it is dead, like a body without breath (2:26). The claim is not an undervaluing of faith, but a statement of the reality that a Christian cannot expect to see hunger and need in his or her community and ignore it, assuming his or her salvation is secure based on the verbal confirmation of belief in Christ. Abraham’s life was shaped by his works. Christ preached a message of recognition, but also of mercy, love, and action. No less should be expected or demanded from those who claim to love him.
We see then that while Paul and James were making different points in different contexts to different people, they can agree that a working faith is a faith that works.