Note: Devotion taken from last Sunday's sermon on James 2:14-19 (audio not yet available).
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:17).
In the opening sermon in our current preaching series through James I noted that one of its key themes is the importance of good works in the Christian life. The apostle James declares that a faith without works is a dead faith (see 2:17).
This is one of the most controversial aspects of this epistle. How can it be reconciled with Paul’s teaching in Romans 3:28: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”? Or what about Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:16: “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ….”?
The prophet asks in Amos 3:3: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” Can Paul and James walk together? How are we to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements?
There have been some who have attempted to muffle one or the other. Some of our Roman Catholic friends have, as it were, wanted to silence Paul and his message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, as revealed in Scripture alone.
On the other hand, there have been some Protestants who have wanted to silence James. The great Reformer Martin Luther in a preface to the book of James wrote, “He [James] does violence to Scripture, and so contradicts Paul and all Scripture. He tries to accomplish by emphasizing law what the apostles try to bring about by attracting men to love. I therefore refuse him a place among the writers of the true canon of the Bible….” (in Dillenberger, Martin Luther, Selections, 36). Thankfully, his position on James eventually softened.
The truth is that the earliest believers saw no contradiction between Paul and James. They acknowledged both to be sacred Scripture, both as being breathed about by God. As Christ himself declared in John 10:35: “the scripture cannot be broken.”
I recently read one theologian who suggested that James was inspired by God and added to the Scriptures to serve the function of guarding against “a false reading of Paul” (Childs, The New Testament as Canon, 29). He might well have added that Paul’s letters were added to guard against a misreading of James.
We know there were those from the very beginning who misused Paul’s bold preaching and teaching of the doctrines of grace. Peter in 2 Peter 3:15-16 talks about the epistles of “our beloved brother Paul … in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest [twist], as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”
Paul even seemed to be aware of this himself. In Romans 6:1 Paul asks, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” He was asking, By my teaching about grace, am I saying that it does not matter how you live? Am I saying you should sin boldly so that grace may abound? Paul answers in Romans 6:2: “God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” Paul later adds that since we have been buried with Christ in his baptism and raised with him in his resurrection, “even so we also should walk in newness of life” (v. 4).
What Paul calls walking in newness of life is what James describes as a faith that is not alone, but which is accompanied by good works. What James calls “dead faith” is really no faith at all. It is what Paul calls being unregenerate or “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1).
Must Paul and James be reconciled? No, they stand in agreement, with one complementing the other.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle