James and Paul


JAMES 2:24.—“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

THIS affirmation of the inspired apostle James seems to flatly contradict that famous assertion of the inspired apostle Paul which is so often quoted, as containing the pith and substance of the evangelical system. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, after proving that all mankind are guilty before the law, and consequently cannot be acquitted by it, draws the inference: “Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Rom. 3:28.) This doctrine has come down from age to age, as the cardinal truth of Christianity. The Church has been pure or corrupt, according as it has adopted or rejected it. Protestant as distinguished from Papal Christianity rests upon it as its proof text. Men are evangelical or legal, according as they receive or reject it. And yet St. James, in the text, affirms distinctly and positively, that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

There is certainly a verbal contradiction between these two apostles.

Should these two isolated passages of Scripture be read to an inhabitant of Saturn; should they be taken out of their connections, and be made known to any one who was utterly unacquainted with the Scriptures as a whole; should they be found, like some old Greek or Sanskrit inscription, cut into a marble tablet, with nothing going before them to explain, or following after to illustrate, their meaning, they must undoubtedly be set down as conflicting with each other. The words in the one statement contradict the words in the other.

But a verbal contradiction is not necessarily a real contradiction. Inconsistency in words is compatible with consistency in ideas. In order to charge a contradiction in the thought, or doctrine, we must evince something more than a contradiction in the language. The letter sometimes kills the sense, but the spirit makes it alive. It is the ulterior meaning, which must be gathered from the intention of the writer as seen in other parts of his discourse, and especially from the immediate context, that must interpret the phraseology.

Human language is an imperfect instrument to express so subtle a thing as thought. Hence we shall find that, oftentimes, it labors under the idea or truth which is sought to be conveyed by it, and this laboring appears in a verbal contradiction. Some of the very highest truths, owing to the poverty of human language, can be expressed only in phraseology that involves an utter inconsistency if taken according to the mere letter. Consider, for example, the schoolman’s definition of the Divine omnipresence. “God,” he said, “is a circle whose circumference is everywhere, and its center nowhere.” This diction is utterly self-contradictory. Read it to a mere mathematician, who should have no inkling of the great truth that was sought to be conveyed by it; who should look at it as a purely verbal and mathematical statement; and he would tell you that there is and can be no circle whose center is nowhere, and its circumference everywhere, and that the terms of such a proposition are absurd. And yet it is one of the best definitions that have been given of the omnipresence of God. It impresses the inscrutable immensity of the Deity, the mysterious boundlessness of his being, upon the mind, in a very vivid and striking manner. And it is the impression made, which is the truth and fact in the case.

Take, again, the famous statement, that “the soul is all in every part of the body.” The purpose of this verbal contradiction is, to show that the immaterial spirit of man cannot be localized in a section of space. The soul of a man is not seated in the hand, or in the foot; in the heart, or in the head. It is not contained and confined in any one part of the human body, for it causes the movements of every part. It thinks through the brain; it feels through the nerves, and it lifts weights through the hand. It exists, therefore, in one part as much as in another; and therefore no one organ can be asserted to be its sole locality and residence. And yet, on the other hand, it would not be correct to say that the soul is diffused through the whole body, and has exactly the same form and figure as the body. The soul has no extended form, or figure; as it would have if it were spread out through the whole material structure. It is not correct to say that a part of the soul is in the head, and another part is in the foot, and another part is in the hand. The soul cannot be subdivided and distributed in this manner. The whole soul is in the hand, when the hand is lifted up; and in the foot, when the foot is set down. The whole soul, the entire conscious ego, is in each nerve, and at every point of it, when it thrills; and in each muscle, and at every point of it, when it contracts. And to express these truths and facts, so mysterious and yet so real and true, the philosopher invented the verbal contradiction, that “the soul is all in every part of the body.”

And the same use of language meets us in everyday life, as well as in the speculations of the philosopher. When, for instance, you are mourning the loss of a beloved friend, and you wish to convey the truth, that his death was gain to him but loss to you, you say, in concise and pointed, yet verbally contradictory phrase: “It is the survivor that dies.” When, again, you desire to express the truth, that indiscriminate praise is worthless; that a critic who pronounces everything presented for his judgment to be good and excellent, deserves no regard; you do it in the sententious, but verbally contradictory proverb: “He who praises everybody, praises nobody.” Again, would you express the truth which Solomon conveys in his question: “Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it,” you do it in the homely verbal contradiction: “Too much of a good thing, is good for nothing.” These examples might be multiplied indefinitely. The proverbs of a nation—which are the condensed and pointed sense of the people, the truest of truths—are very often couched in phraseology that, if taken in a literal signification, is absurd.

Before we conclude, therefore, that two writers are in conflict with each other, we must first determine their general aim and purpose, and interpret particular individual statements accordingly.

Two questions always arise, in this comparison of one author with another.

First, are they looking at the same thing; and, secondly, if so, do they occupy the same point of view. The perspective point is everything, in judging of the correctness of a picture. And this is specially true of religious objects, and truths. The spiritual world is so comprehensive and vast, that no observer can see the whole of it at once, and from a single point of vision. He must pass from point to point, and obtain view after view. He must walk about Zion, before he can tell the towers thereof. It is because of the infinitude of divine truth, that there are so many apparent contradictions—so many “paradoxes,” as Lord Bacon denominates them—in the Christian system. It is for this reason, that there are more verbal contradictions in the Bible than in any other book. In one place we read: “Answer a fool according to his folly”; and at another: “Answer not a fool according to his folly.” Upon one page we are told that, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin”; upon another that, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

These propositions are verbally contradictory, and yet when read in their connections, and explained in the light of the general drift of Scripture, they convey the highest truth in the most striking and impressive manner. The several authors of the inspired volume look at the great system of religious truth from many points of view, and each sees and depicts a different side of it. And he is the wise man who, instead of employing the microscopic vision of a fly crawling over a cornice, or some small ornament of the great temple of truth, is able to survey with the eye of an architect all their individual representations, and to combine them into one grand and all-comprehending scheme.

These remarks prepare us to consider the verbal contradiction between the apostles Paul and James, and to determine whether it is a real and irreconcilable one. The two writers are contemplating the same thing—the sinner’s justification before God. Paul asserts that “a man is justified by faith, without the works of the law”—that is, by faith only. James affirms that “by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” Both are speaking of the sinner’s justification; but not to the same class of persons, and, therefore, not from the same point of view. One is arguing against sincere legalists, and the other against hypocritical believers. This explains, and harmonizes, the difference between them.

I. St. Paul is addressing legalists

Legalists, a class of errorists who maintained that man’s works of morality are the ground of his justification; are a satisfaction of the law for past transgressions, and entitle him to the rewards of the future life. The religionist of this class makes the same use of his own virtues, acts, and merits, that the evangelical believer makes of the blood and righteousness of Christ. He rests in them for justification and acceptance before God. Now to this class of persons, the apostle Paul says: “By the works of the law, shall no flesh be justified; by the deeds of the law, there shall no flesh be justified; a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law.” (Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:20, 28.) It was with reference to their particular opinion, that a man’s own works could atone for sin and merit heaven, that the apostle asserts that man’s works are worthless and useless.

Standing upon this position, and addressing moralists and legalists, he could say without any qualification, that a sinner is justified by mere and simple faith in Christ’s vicarious sacrifice, without the addition to it, or combination with it, of any of his own works, good or bad. The expiatory work of Christ is in and of itself a complete satisfaction, and there is no need of completing the complete. There is no need of gilding refined gold, or painting the lily. There is no need, even if it could be done, of supplementing or perfecting the Divine provision for the forgiveness of sin, by a human agency.

The oblation of Christ is sufficient, alone, and by itself, to satisfy the broken law; and he who trusts in it as the sole ground and reason of pardon, need not bring with him a single jot or tittle of his own work. And when any sinner begins to look around for something wherewith to appear before the awful Eternal Justice, and answer its demands, he discovers the worthlessness of even the best of human works. There is nothing expiatory in human virtue. There is no judicial suffering in it. Good works do not bleed; and “without the shedding of blood there is no remission.” To attempt, therefore, to expiate sin by performing good works, is not an adaptation of means to ends. It is like attempting to quench thirst, by eating bread. Bread is necessary to human life considered as a whole, but it cannot slake thirst. So too, good works are necessary to human salvation taken as a whole, but they cannot accomplish that particular part of human salvation which consists in satisfying the law for past transgressions.

Without personal holiness no man shall see the Lord, and yet no amount of personal holiness can wash out the stain of guilt. All this, which tallies exactly with St. Paul’s declaration, is understood by the sinner, the instant he sees guilt and atonement in their mutual relations. While he perceives very clearly, that in reference to other points, and other purposes, Christian character is indispensable, and good works must be performed, yet having respect to the one single, momentous particular of deliverance from the penalty of the law, he very clearly perceives that good works are good for nothing. They cannot enter into the account, for purposes of justification, even in part. The atonement for sin is not partly the death of Christ, and partly the merits of the sinner. It is the death of Christ alone, without any works of the law.

“I feel”—says Chalmers—“that the righteousness of Christ unmixed with baser materials, untempered with strange mortar, unvitiated by human pretensions of any sort, is the solid resting-place on which a man is to lay his acceptance before God, and that there is no other; that to attempt a composition between grace and works is to spoil both, and is to deal a blow both to the character of God, and to the cause of practical holiness.”

Such is the doctrine of the apostle Paul respecting justification, as enunciated from his point of view, and having reference to the moralist and legalist.

II. We are now, in the second place, to examine the doctrine of the apostle James, upon the same subject, as stated from his point of view, and with reference to a wholly different class of persons.

For, the errorists whom St. James was combating were hypocritical believers, and not sincere legalists. They did not deny the doctrine of justification by faith. They did not, like the moralist whom St. Paul opposed, affirm that man could be justified by the works of the law, either wholly or in part. On the contrary, they were orthodox in theory, evangelical in phraseology, and profuse in their declarations that works were useless, and that nothing but faith could save the soul. This is evident from the course of the apostle’s reasoning with them. “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say [pretend] he hath faith, and have not works? Can [such] faith save him?

If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be you warmed and filled: notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body: What doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works is dead, being alone.” This reasoning implies, that the opponents of the apostle James were not in the least tinctured with the Judaistic theory of justification by works, but were using the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith in such a way as to abuse it. They were not zealous sticklers for the law, but hypocritical and false professors of the gospel.

Accordingly, St. James combats, not St. Paul’s true faith, but the spurious faith of these errorists.

He attacks what he denominates “dead faith.” Probably there is an allusion here to St. Paul’s use of the word, when he speaks of “dead works,” and of being “dead to the law.” James tells these hypocrites, who are boasting of their faith, and making it the cloak of licentiousness, that as there is a dead work, spoken of by St. Paul, so there is a dead faith, such as they are professing; and neither the dead work nor the dead faith can save the soul. The class of errorists whom he opposes “said” they had faith. They pretended to trust in the person and work of the Son of God; but they had never been truly convicted of sin, had never felt godly sorrow, and had never exercised an evangelical peace-giving confidence in atoning blood. They were hypocrites.

Their faith, in James’s phraseology, was “alone.” It had no connection with works. It was not an active and operative principle in the heart, but the mere breath on their lips. It was a counterfeit, and not the genuine thing of which St. Paul speaks. Now, in disparaging such a hypocritical non-working faith as this, and affirming that it could not justify a sinner, St. James is not disparaging sincere and true faith, and falls into no real contradiction with St. Paul. Standing upon the position of James, and called to address the same class of persons, Paul would have spoken in the same manner.

He would have plainly told hypocritical men who were professing an inoperative and spurious faith, and making it an opiate for their conscience, and a cloak for licentiousness; who were saying to the naked and destitute Christian brother, “Depart in peace, be thou warmed and filled,” but were doing nothing for his relief—he would have plainly and solemnly told them that such faith could not save them. He would have asked the same question with James: “What doth it profit, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works; can faith [that has not works] save him?” There would have been no danger of legalism, or of misconception; for they would have understood that by “faith,” he meant their faith—their non-working and hypocritical profession.

And standing upon the position of Paul, and called to address an altogether different class of errorists, who expected to atone for sin by their own works and merit, the apostle James, with his Old Testament conceptions of law and expiation, and his stern uncompromising view of sin as guilt, would have spoken of a living and true faith in the sacrifice of the Lamb of God—“our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory,” as he affectionately and reverently calls him—as the only act whereby a sinner can be delivered from his guilt, and the curse of the violated law.

There are two proofs of this latter assertion, to which we direct attention for a moment.

In the first place, the apostles James and Paul both alike accepted that statement of the essential principles of the gospel which was formulated in the Apostolic convention. In the fifteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, there is an account of an assembly of the apostles and elders, to discuss the question in dispute between the converted Jews and the converted Gentiles, whether obedience to the Mosaic law was necessary in order to salvation, or whether a simple faith in the person and work of Christ was sufficient. The decision was unanimous, that faith in Christ was the only essential requisite. This decision was sent out in a letter to all the churches, and has gone down from century to century, as an inspired declaration of the real nature of Christianity. James advocated, in the convention, the same views with Peter and the other apostles, and lent the weight of his authority and influence, in favor of the doctrine of justification by faith without the works of the law.

In the second place, there is proof in this very Epistle, which St. James addresses to “the twelve Jewish tribes which are scattered abroad,” that he considered faith, and not works, to be the cardinal truth of Christianity. In the course of the discussion, the supposition is made, that faith and works can be separated, and exist the one without the other: “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works.” (James 2:18.) The apostle, in his answer to this, so shapes his statement, as not only to deny the possibility of any such divorce between the two, but also to show that he considered faith to be the root and principle, and works only the fruit and evidence, of justification. For although he is laying a very strong emphasis upon works, yet he does not say, in reply to this supposition that faith and works can be separated: “Shew me thy faith without any works, and I will shew thee my works without any faith.” But his answer is one that Paul himself would have given in a similar case: “Shew me thy faith without thy works”—a thing that is impossible—“and I will show thee my faith by my works.”

The implication of this answer is, not only that true and living faith cannot exist without showing itself in good works, but that good works are secondary to faith, as being its effect and evidence. Works are not the root, but the branches. And in dealing with a legalist, we can easily imagine St. James to accommodate the language of St. Paul, used in another connection: “Boast not of the branches. But if thou boast, remember that the branches bear not the root, but the root bears the branches. Boast not of your works; but if you boast, remember that works do not produce faith, but faith produces works.”

The doctrine of St. James, then, to say it in a word, is, that a man is justified by a working faith.

In some passages of his Epistle, “works” signifies “true faith.” The text is one of them; and it might be read: “Ye see, then, how that by a working faith a man is justified, and not by a faith that has not works.” In order to present, strongly and impressively, the truth at which he was aiming, he resorts to a well-known rhetorical figure, and puts the effect for the cause—the works of faith, for faith itself. “Works” stand for “working faith,” when he asserts that “Abraham was justified by works, when he had offered up Isaac his son;” and that “Rahab was justified by works, when she sent the messengers out another way.” In these instances, the term “works” denotes the genuine faith that works, in contradistinction to the spurious faith that does not work. Dead faith has no energy, and no work in it. Living faith is full of energy, and full of work; and therefore, by the metonymy of effect for cause, may be denominated “work”—as Christ so calls it, when he says: “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (John 6:29.)

This also explains the meaning of St. James, when he says, that “Abraham’s faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect.” Abraham’s act of obedience to the Divine command to sacrifice his son, was a work that proved beyond all doubt that his faith was sincere and “perfect,” and not spurious and hypocritical. This “work,” therefore, might well stand for, and represent, the mighty “faith” that produced it. In saying that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by works,” St. James is conceiving of, and describing faith as an active and working principle, like that which St. Paul has in mind, when he speaks of “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6); when he thanks the Thessalonians for their “work of faith” (1 Thess. 1:3); and when he urges Titus to preach in such a manner, that “they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:8). The contradiction between the two apostles is, therefore, verbal only, and not real. Both hold the same evangelical doctrine.1

This exhibition of the agreement between Paul and James leads us to notice, in closing, the importance of guarding the doctrine of gratuitous justification against abuse, by showing the natural and necessary connection between it and sanctification.

St. James, in his day, found a class of persons in the church who made Christ a minister of sin, and who “sinned,” knowingly and wantonly, “that grace might abound.” Because the blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin, they inferred that they might indulge in sin. If they stained themselves, it was easy to wash the stain out. Because good works could not avail, either wholly or in part, to atone for transgression, therefore they need not perform them for any purpose whatever. The righteousness of Christ was sufficient for their justification, and therefore they need not follow after holiness, or seek inward sanctification. In this way, they abused the grace of God, and converted that truth which is a savor of life unto life, into a savor of death unto death.

It is often remarked, that the greatest of blessings when perverted becomes the greatest of evils. And so it is with the doctrine of gratuitous justification. If any man makes use of it as an opiate to his conscience, and a means of indulging himself in sin, or ease in Zion, he becomes fearfully selfish, and fearfully hardened. He treads the atoning blood underfoot. There is evidence in the Epistle of James, that those who were thus maltreating the gospel, and abusing the doctrine of free grace in Christ, were very far gone in earthliness and sin. The kind of sins which the apostle rebukes, and the style in which he does it, evince this. He severely reproves them for their regard for human distinctions, in exalting the man with a gold ring and goodly apparel, and humbling the poor man in vile raiment; for their reckless use of the tongue, in slandering and boasting; for their grasping after office and authority, in endeavoring to be “many masters;” for their quarreling, envying, and even “fightings”—moving the apostle to address them sternly: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?” for their inordinate avarice, which led them to “keep back the hire of the laborer by fraud, and to heap up treasure for the last days;” for their sensuality, in “living in pleasure and wantonness on the earth, and nourishing their hearts as in day of slaughter.” (James 2:1–9; 3:1–5:6.)

These sins, thus specified and rebuked, seem to have crept into the Jewish-Christian churches to whom St. James addressed his Epistle; for there is no reason to suppose that he would have thus particularized them, had they not been in existence. And they are aggravated transgressions. It was no ordinary corruption that had come into these scattered churches, by the abuse of the doctrine of free grace.

Human nature is the same now that it was then; and it becomes necessary, therefore, for the believer to guard against even the slightest tendency to live at ease in the Church, because the Church is not under law but under grace. If the blood of Christ is a complete atonement for our sin, this is a reason why we should resist unto blood striving against sin, and not a reason why we should supinely yield to sin. If there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, this is a reason why we should dread to incur any new condemnation, and not a reason why we should add to the already immense debt which Christ has assumed for us.

The effectual preservative against such a tendency as this, is to remember the wholesome doctrine of St. James, that a man is not justified by a dead faith, but by a working faith. A dead faith has no justifying efficacy, because, as St. Paul remarks of a heathen idol, “it is nothing in the world.” It is a nonentity. A dead faith—a faith that does nothing, and produces nothing—is nothing. It is a pretence. It is sheer hypocrisy. It can no more save the soul, than sin can save it.

Try yourself, then, by this test. Does your faith in Christ’s atonement work?

When you have trusted in the blood and righteousness of Christ for acceptance with the holy God, do you find that this reliance of your heart then goes out into acts? Does it go out in love, peace, joy, long-suffering, meekness, hope? These are internal acts of the mind and heart, and they are the fruit, and evidences of faith. Does it go out in external acts—in prayer, praise, labor for the good of souls, discharge of the various duties of a Christian profession? If this is your happy case, yours is a working faith, and a justifying faith.

Notice that these works—this peace, joy, hope, prayer, praise, Christian benevolence, and discharge of duty—are not the ground and reason of your justification, but only the effect and fruits of it. You are accepted of God, and acquitted by him, solely and simply because you confide in Christ’s death for sin. You are justified by this one act of faith in Christ’s atonement, apart from any of these resulting works. And being thus justified, you then act out your faith in and by these works—internal and external. There is no legality in your experience, and yet you keep the law with great particularity.

While you do not look to the law in the least for justification, you nevertheless magnify and honor the law by your obedience to its requirements. You do not obey the law in order to obtain the forgiveness of your sins. They are already forgiven for Christ’s sake. That part of your salvation is secure. But you obey the law because you are forgiven; because you love to obey; and because it is the command of God to obey. You obey it because your faith in Christ’s blood is living, and not dead; is working faith, and not inoperative faith; is sincere faith, and not hypocritical faith—the genuine principle which St. Paul praises and defends, and not the counterfeit which St. James condemns and attacks.

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 286–301.

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