Paul and James: Why My Own Book Title Is Wrong

0 comments Posted on October 1, 2019

by Chris Bruno

I have a confession to make. I don’t agree with my own book title. I recently wrote a book called Paul vs. James, but I don’t really think Paul and James disagreed. Okay maybe that is a bit of an overstatement—I don’t actually disagree with my own book. Lest my publisher get too angry with me, probably a better way to say it is that the title gets at a common misunderstanding. 

The truth is, we sometimes have the idea that Paul was in one corner and James in the other, ready to fight each other. We think that they were making subtle (or maybe not so subtle) jabs at one another. Paul says justification is by faith apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3:28), but James says we are not justified by faith alone (James 2:24). How could we ever say that these two statements are not contradictory?

One of the keys to understanding what James and Paul are really saying is understanding how they use certain words, and probably the most important of these is when James uses the word “faith.” When Paul says we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law, he means that we are trusting in Christ alone and casting ourselves on Him as our only hope in life and death. But when James says we are not justified by faith alone, he is using the word in a very different way than Paul does.   

How then does James uses the word “faith”? He begins his discussion on faith and works by asking, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?” (James 2:14a, NIV). Notice how he is setting up his discussion; he is talking about someone who claims to have faith but does not have good works that result from that so-called faith. He then asks, “Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14b). The obvious answer to the question is no, of course not. James is saying that there is a kind of faith that is no faith at all. 

A few verses later, in verse 19, James says that the demons have a kind of “belief.” They know true things about God. They know that there is one true God, and they know that He will judge all of creation one day. Because of this, James says, they shudder. The demons know what is true and even have a right emotional response to that truth—they shudder because they know they will be judged one day. But this is not true faith!  So we can know the historical facts of the gospel and really believe that Jesus died and rose again, but this alone is not true faith according to James. Knowing historical facts about Jesus and actually trusting Jesus to save you are two very different things.

What then is true saving faith? James explains what true faith looks like by pointing to the example of Abraham. It is important to see the place that James starts in Abraham’s story in Genesis. He does not begin in Genesis 12, when God first called Abraham, or Genesis 15, when Abraham believed God (we’ll come back to that in a moment). Instead, he starts in Genesis 22, when God asked Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Regardless of what you or I may think of this episode, in Genesis it is the fundamental example of Abraham’s loyalty and obedience to God (see Gen 22:12-18). It is how he displayed his good works.

It is only after he reminds us of Abraham’s obedience that James points back to Abraham’s faith. When Abraham obeyed, James says, “the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ [Gen 15:6].” Abraham believed God’s promises, and he was counted as righteous. That is to say, he was justified. But Abraham’s status as righteous before God was later fulfilled by his actual obedience. His faith alone really did justify him, but his faith did not remain alone. 

So when James says that we are not justified by faith alone, he is talking about a kind of “faith.” It is a “faith” that does not produce good works. It is “faith” that is simply believing certain facts are true—what we might call intellectual assent. It is a phony faith. But this is not true saving faith. Like Abraham, if we have saving faith, then our lives will be transformed. If we have been declared righteous through faith in Christ, then we will be transformed into His image. This does not mean we’ll be perfect in this life, but what it does mean is that we will be slowly and surely shaped into the image of our Savior, just like Abraham was.

There is a lot more we could say about this subject (which is why I wrote a book about it!), but a good starting point is understanding that for James, there is a kind of faith that is not faith at all. And I think Paul would agree. 

Chris Bruno (PhD, Wheaton College; MDiv, Southern Seminary) serves as assistant professor of New Testament and Greek at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN. He previously taught Bible and theology at Cedarville University and Northland International University and served as a pastor at Harbor Church in Honolulu, Hawaii. Chris and his wife, Katie, have four sons.

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