It is an irony of history that the only place in the Bible where the battle-cry of the Protestant Reformation, “faith alone” (sola fide), explicitly occurs is James 2:24, a text which plainly says the
Is James right or is Paul right? Many Christians since the Protestant Reformation have clearly chosen Paul over James, but I have been arguing in this chapter that there is no reason to choose between them. They are both contained within the New Testament and neither should be used to marginalize the other. We desperately need to hear both messages. This is the diversity of Scripture whereby different authors wrote to different audiences at different times for different purposes.
James wrote to people who claimed to have faith but used their faith as an excuse for laziness and inaction. James makes the strong point that a faith that is not accompanied by a transformed
life is empty and useless. On the other hand, Paul wrote to mixed Jew/Gentile churches
who were struggling with the relationship of works, particularly the works of the law, to salvation. The particular challenge in Paul’s context is the claim that Jewish works of the law were required
in order to be right with God and be included within the people of God. Paul strongly argues that such works are not required for justification, but that God justifies all (Jew and Gentile) on the
basis of faith in Jesus Christ with no requirement of works. Paul very strongly elsewhere focuses on the necessity of good works in the life of a believer (“the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5; 16:26; “created in Christ Jesus for good works” in Ephesians 2:10; “work out your own salvation” in Philippians 2:12).
Despite the different audiences, the reconciliation of James and Paul should not depend on the way they use the words “faith,” “works,” and “justify” with different meanings. Paul’s argument
against works cannot be limited completely to the ceremonial and ritual works of the law, and Paul and James’ understanding of final justification is basically equivalent. It is true that Paul would never have conceived of saving faith as mere intellectual assent to orthodox doctrine (see the demons of James 2:19), but that point by itself does not result in reconciliation.
I propose that the key to reconciliation should rather be sought in recognition of the distinction between merit and grace. Paul’s broad argument is directed against meritorious works: works engaged in to merit, deserve, or earn justification and salvation. This is what Paul seems to be opposing in Titus 3:5: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” Salvation is not by human
achievement or righteous works. We do not and never will deserve it. It is based solely on God’s mercy and grace.
James’ teaching seems to make works equal in importance to faith in the reception of salvation, but denies merit to both faith and works. Salvation is God’s choice and gift (James 1:18). Paul
likewise often positively linked faith and non-meritorious works (Romans 1:5; 2:6–8; 6:17–18; 1 Corinthians 13:2; Galatians 5:6; 6:7–10; 1 Thessalonians 1:3). This solution seems to offer the best
hope of emphasizing the unity of Paul and James without distorting the clear thrust of James’ words.