Does James contradict Paul on justification by faith alone?

May 18, 2017

“St. Paul in Prison” by Rembrandt.

In last night’s Bible study in Galatians, we covered Galatians 3:5-6: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” 

False teachers from the Jerusalem church known as “Judaizers” had infiltrated the Galatian churches that Paul had planted. They were teaching Gentile church members that in order to be fully Christian, they needed to observe aspects of Jewish ceremonial law—including circumcision and dietary laws. From Paul’s perspective, if you add any requirement to the gospel that he proclaimed to them—no matter how small—you lose the gospel entirely. We are justified by faith alone.

The coup de grâce to Paul’s argument is the example of Abraham. These Judaizers would consider Abraham their father in the faith; what is true of Abraham must be true of all believers. Yet, as Paul reminds his readers, Abraham’s faith was “credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6) before God gave him any law—including circumcision, which appears two chapters later.

To have one’s faith “credited as righteousness” means to receive righteousness as an unearned gift of grace through faith. Therefore, since scripture proves that Abraham himself was justified by faith before he became “Jewish,” why would the Judaizers insist that these Gentiles become Jewish in order to be justified?

It’s a great argument!


What about James, who seemingly uses the example of Abraham to make the opposite point. In James 2:21-23, he asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’—and he was called a friend of God.”

Is this a contradiction?

No. First, notice that James is citing a different episode in Abraham’s life than the giving of the covenant (Paul’s example) from Genesis 15. James refers to the test that God put Abraham through about 40 years later—when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. God was testing the authenticity of Abraham’s faith. After all, suppose Abraham had been obeying God all these years in order to receive the blessing that God had promised him—rather than obeying God for God’s sake. If that were the case, then asking Abraham to destroy the means by which the blessing comes would surely expose this sin.

Passing the test didn’t “justify” Abraham; rather, it proved that he possessed “justifying” faith. And the apostle Paul couldn’t agree more: he also teaches that our obedience to God proves that we possess saving faith—even in Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

Paul could have said that what counts is faith, period. Instead, he describes the kind of faith that he’s talking about: “faith working through love.” In other words, to quote an oft-repeated maxim, “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies doesn’t remain alone.” This statement summarizes both Paul’s and James’s teaching on justification.

One Response to “Does James contradict Paul on justification by faith alone?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    These are all excellent points.

    Justification is through Jesus + nothing.

    But, immediately after justification, or regeneration, all sorts of things start to happen. They are a result, not a cause.

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