Summary: Paul and James agree. Faith works. How? Here's where we need both of these to help us understand.
What is going on here? Are Paul and James contradicting one another? Does James hold a gospel that teaches justification by faith with works while Paul’s gospel teaches justification by faith without works?
Because James is so strong on works or deeds done through faith we might misunderstand what he means. Just as Paul, who was so strong on grace and faith apart from works is easily misunderstood. Paul even anticipates the misunderstanding in Romans 6 saying, shall we continue to sin, that grace may increase? And he answers, “God forbid!” Paul is actually not weak on works at all. He is fighting against legalists who thought they could live good enough lives to win God’s favor and save themselves. Paul speaks strongly against the idea that anyone can work their way into salvation. If that were true, Jesus would not have had to die for us. We could do it ourselves.
James is on the other hand. He is writing to an audience some of whom say they have faith, but their faith is like the devil’s faith. It is a useless and empty sort of faith that can’t save anyone. It is a faith that doesn't work. James says, a faith that won’t work is dead.
Paul and James agree that faith in God through Jesus Christ is how we are saved. James is not dealing with people who are trying to work their way into salvation. He’s dealing with people who claim to have saving faith, but are not following Jesus. Holding faith in Jesus with favoritism toward the rich while dishonoring the poor, James says, is sinful. Failing to follow the royal law, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” is a sin. Getting angry at God’s word when He tells us to turn from moral filth and the prevalence of evil around us prevents people from humbly receiving the word planted in us that can save our souls.
Remember, James grew up with Jesus. He sounds a lot like Jesus in his teachings. James may have spent years not believing in his half brother Jesus, but now he does. He calls himself a servant of God and of the Lord, Jesus Christ. We don’t know when James came to faith in Jesus as his Lord and Savior, but we do know when Paul did. Paul’s saving event not only shaped his faith, it shaped his understanding of salvation by faith.
Think of it. Paul, who was Saul of Tarsus, was saved by Jesus Christ in a most amazing way. Even up to the time of his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was a Christian’s worst nightmare. He was out to destroy the church and even went to the authorities to receive legal permission to go to foreign cities to find followers of Jesus and arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem to be punished. His story of conversion is told three times in the Bible: Acts chapters 9, 22, and 26. Saul was working against the Christian movement as hard as he could and on his way to Damascus it happened. Jesus appeared to Saul. Jesus called him even as Saul was running as fast as he could the wrong way. This was a converting event. Blinded by the light of Jesus’ appearance, Saul, led by the hand into Damascus, sat, waiting on further instructions from Jesus in the home of a man named Judas who lived on Straight Street. As he waited, Saul didn't eat or drink anything. But he sure prayed. God even gave him a vision of Ananias coming to him to lay his hands on him so that he can see again. Ananias came, told Saul that God had chosen him to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to be a witness and bear the name of Jesus Christ before kings and Gentiles. Then as he laid his hands on Saul, Chapter 9:18 tells us that as soon as Saul could see again he got up and was baptized. Verse 20 says, “Immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God.”
(1 Corinthians 15:10) Later Saul, now called Paul wrote, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not in vain, but I worked harder than all the rest, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”
That’s what happens when we are saved by faith. It is not of ourselves. It is a gift of God. And saving faith is never without the fruit of good deeds. Both Paul and James make that abundantly clear. If you read Ephesians 4-5 you will see clearly that the faith that saves us through grace in chapter 2 is not without works. Paul would stand behind James as he wrote chapter 2 and say, “Amen!” James would stand behind Paul as he wrote Ephesians 2 and say, “Amen!”