Resolving The Tension in Justification Between Paul, James, and Jesus

There appears to be an illusive contradiction between the teaching of Paul and James, at least in terminology. On the one hand, Paul taught that one is justified by faith apart from works (Rom 4:5).[1] Whereas James, on the other hand, taught that one is justified by faith plus works (James 2:24). A prominent belief within Christendom is that the Bible is the Word of God and, consequently, is true (John 17:17) and, therefore, contains no contradictions between authors.[2] How the theology of Paul and James are understood in harmony with one another has been a topic of debate among Catholic and Reformed theologians for centuries. Nonetheless, a careful examination of the teaching of Paul and James on justification shows the Reformed doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) to be more consistent with Scripture. This study also considers Christ’s own teaching on justification to guide how Paul and James are to be read.

Paul’s teaching of justification in the book of Romans

If there is one book of the Bible that can, by itself, be used to make a convincing case for sola fide it is Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this document, Paul systematically lays out how one is justified before God using several arguments to show that it is by faith apart from works. Since Paul’s concern is the gospel of salvation itself (1:16-17) and James’ concern is a different issue — a dead faith apart from works (James 2:26), we will examine Paul’s arguments first, then move to James’ epistle.

Paul begins with a summary statement about the Gospel itself: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom 1:16-17). The emphasis here for how a person is to receive God’s righteousness, whether they be Jew or Gentile, is faith. There is no mention here of works of the law, religious rituals, or good deeds. This would have been a weak summary statement of the Gospel had Paul meant to summarize justification by faith plus works for the reason that it leaves out crucial information concerning it. Immediately following his gospel summary, Paul brings an indictment against all humanity for their inability to obey the law and warns of the wrath they will experience from God unless they receive his righteousness for salvation (1:18-3:31). 

Paul, then, gets to the heart of the issue in the church of Rome. He addresses a false view that sees good works as essential for one’s own justification. This view is directly opposed to what Paul has already established, that justification is received by faith through Christ “apart from works of the law (3:28). In an endeavor to refute the false view, he develops two deductive arguments. 

The first argument is constructed from Romans 4:2 and its context.[3] It goes as follows: If Abraham was justified, even partly, by works, then he has ground for boasting; Abraham had no ground to boast before God (v.2); therefore, Abraham was not justified before God by his works. The first premise is denied for several key points previously stated. Just a few verses earlier in chapter three Paul wrote, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (v.23) and, therefore, need to be justified. The proceeding verse affirms that justification is “by his grace as a gift” (v.24), which we are told was a means to “show his righteousness” (v.26). This righteousness, which the law and the Prophets bore witness to and has been manifest apart from the law (v.21), is the “righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (v.22). Paul is trying to show that despite human depravity, God has made his righteousness available to all through Christ, but the only way we are told this is to be received is by faith.

After Paul’s very concise Gospel presentation of how God’s righteousness comes by faith, he draws attention to the challenge this poses to those who presume to work in order to be justified. He inquires rhetorically, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith” (v.27). The word “law” here is better understood as “means” or “principle.” There are two contrasting principles of justification at work here; one by works, the other by faith. Only one is capable of excluding boasting which must be the principle of faith for the reason that if works were mixed in as a supplementary means of justification, then there would be some grounds for boasting. 

Paul drives home his point with the illustration of Abraham’s faith. He says, 

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (4:1-3).

In order to support his argument, Paul references the faith of Abraham in Genesis 15:6. What is significant about this Old Testament (OT) passage in regards to justification by faith? Just before he made a covenant with Abraham, God promised to make his descendents as numerous as the stars in heaven. Abraham responds: “And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Notice the sequence here. Abraham believed the LORD and as a consequence to his faith, God counted righteousness to him. It is important to point out that this story occurs before the sign of circumcision (Gen 17:1-14), before Abraham offered up Issac as a sacrifice (Gen 22), and before there was anything called “law” (Gen 26:5). God counts Abraham to be righteous not on account of any good works, whether they be sacramental or moral, but on the basis of faith. Paul’s reasoning, then, is that if Abraham had no grounds to boast, then his justification was solely on the grounds of his faith. 

Paul’s second argument is constructed from Romans 4:14 and its context.[4] The line of reasoning here is: If it is only adherents to the law who are to be the heirs of the promise, then faith is null and the promise is void; it is not the case that only adherents to the law are to be heirs; therefore, the faith that counted Abraham as righteous is not null and the promise is not void. The denial of the first premise is seen in the fact that both faith and the promise pre-date the law which was originally a guarantee “to all his [Abraham’s] offspring” the efficacy of having faith in God as Abraham had (4:15-24).[5] Furthermore, it cannot only be adherents to the law who are to be heirs, for this would exclude Abraham himself, but to all who share his faith who, consequently, are considered his offspring (vv.16-17). The crux of this second argument is that being counted righteous through faith in God still stands as well as the promise attached therein. Since only faith was said to be the means by which Abraham was counted righteous, and any works would have given him unwarranted grounds to boast, Abraham was, therefore, justified by faith alone. 

James’ teaching on justification

Paul’s argument for a justification by faith which excludes works from having any part in it seems settled, however, in the epistle of James there appears to be a contrary statement: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). When this passage is taken at face value, it looks as if James is negating everything Paul taught on justification. As was already mentioned, Catholic and Reformed theology both hold to Scripture inerrancy, therefore, Paul and James cannot be teaching contrary doctrine. Their teachings on justification must be understood in harmony with one another. 

The Roman Catholic Church has attempted to reconcile the theology of Paul and James by making the argument that the second chapter of James presents works as instrumental in being justified before God.[6] Additionally, when Paul spoke of justification apart from works (Rom 3-4), he was speaking of works in the Mosaic law and did not mean to exclude the role of New Testament (NT) ethics in justification. James is not speaking of works of the law but the works that are required of all Christians in order to be accepted and justified before God. 

Does this view successfully refute the Protestant view of justification by faith alone, and how would Reformed theology answer the Roman Catholic interpretation? Rome’s first interpretive error is a failure to recognize that Paul and James are addressing two completely different issues. Where Paul is addressing how one is justified before God (vertical justification) despite their fallen condition, James is addressing justification before men (horizontal justification) as being upright in character. A brief examination of James’ use of “faith” and “justify” leads to the conclusion that the sense in which he uses these key terms are different from how Paul uses them. 

James, in his epistle, is speaking of a different kind of faith than the saving faith Paul spoke of in Rom 3-4. The faith in James 2:24 is referring to an intellectual assent to what is true, not saving faith. It is merely an acknowledgement of certain truths about God. This is indicated when he draws a contrast between two different kinds of faith in a challenge to his audience: “… Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (v.18). Here, we have the word πίστις (faith) used in two contrasting senses within the same verse: Faith without works vs. faith with works. Within the same book, chapter, verse, and by the same author we have “faith” used in two different senses. Thus, opponents of Sola Fide cannot claim that πίστις (faith) has only one meaning. 

It is clear that the “faith” in verse 19 is a non-saving faith. James tries to show the shocking implications of those who maintain a faith without works by humiliatingly placing them in the same category as demons.[7] He says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” The term “believe” here is πιστεύω which is the verbal form of πίστις used in verse 24 for “faith.” It is not even a possibility that the “faith” here can be a saving faith for the reason that God has not made salvation for demons (fallen angels) an option (2 Pet 2:4). Thus, James is not dealing with a saving faith, but one that is merely intellectual and, therefore, useless (v.20). 

Following the contrast between dead faith and, by implication, a living faith, James brings the term “justify” into the discussion and, like Paul does in Romans, uses Abraham to support his argument. He says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?” (v.21). Catholic apologist, Rober Sungenis makes the argument that Paul and James use “justify” in the exact same way. Moreover, he claims that Paul’s teaching on justification should be interpreted in light of James and not the other way around.[8]

However, notice the difference between James’s example and Paul’s in Romans 3-4. Both use Abraham to support their argument for particular grounds of justification but with different periods of his life. If Sungenis is correct that Paul and James use “justify” in the same way, then when was Abraham justified before God, during the time frame Paul gives or James? If the answer is James, then Paul’s entire argument in Romans 3 and 4 fails for the reason that he rests his entire argument on the Genesis 15:6 account. If the answer is Paul, then James’ argument fails for the reason that Abraham was already justified before offering up Isaac to be sacrificed. 

This dilemma is avoided if two different meanings of the term “justify” are assigned. Where Paul speaks of a justification that counts one righteous before God, James speaks of a justification that declares one righteous before men. With this in mind, James’ example is most appropriate for the reason that the offering up of Isaac was an external demonstration of good works and obedience to God. David R. Maxwell is right in his analysis:

The fact that Paul and James each ascribe “justification” to a different point in Abraham’s life suggests that each author is using “justify” (δικαιόω) in a different sense. In Paul, as we have seen, “justify” (δικαιόω) refers to God crediting righteousness to the believer. In James, however, “justify” (δικαιόω) means that Abraham is shown to be righteous.[9]

Thus, the Williams NT translation offers a more accurate rendering of James’ statement as, “You see that a man is shown to be upright by his good deeds and not merely by his faith.”[10]

James’ use of “justify” is not unique to him. There are other accounts in Scripture that use the term consistently with James. For instance, Luke says, “And when all the people heard Him [Jesus], even the tax collectors justified God…” (NKJV, Luke 7:29). Since it would be absurd to presume that sinful tax collectors could justify God by way of imputed righteousness, a better understanding of Luke’s statement is that the tax collectors, because they heard the wisdom of Christ’s words, declared God to be just. Moreover, just a few verses later, Jesus says that, “wisdom is justified by all her children” (v.35). Again, since wisdom does not have a need for imputed righteousness, the best meaning of “justify” here is to declare one righteous.

Sola fide is consistent with Christ’s teaching on justification

So far we have seen sufficient evidence to conclude that the reformed solution in reconciling Paul and James is more consistent than the Roman Catholic solution. Perhaps a third party NT teaching on justification will confirm what has already been stated. In order to get further confirmation, one must consider Jesus’ own words on justification. 

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus teaches salvation through faith in his miracles of healing afflicted individuals. We hear a recurring phrase from Jesus, “your faith has healed you” (Matt 9:22; Mark 5:34; 10:52; Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42). The Greek word for “healed” comes from σῴζω which can also mean “saved.” Jesus deliberately inserts a double meaning in his statement. Physical healing is intended to be a metaphor for spiritual healing. This is confirmed by the fact that one of the instances in which he uses the phrase is not directed toward the healing of a physical disorder but the forgiveness of a sinful woman (Luke 7:50). Thus, the lesson of Jesus’ healings is that faith is the means by which spiritual healing or salvation comes, not works.

In John’s gospel we see that it is on the basis of faith that those who believe in Jesus are declared: children of God (John 1:12), inheritors of eternal life (John 3:16; 18; 5:24; 6:40; 47; 11:25-26), and not condemned (John 3:18). The salvific language here mentions nothing about works as a contribution to these divine privileges. 

There is perhaps no clearer teaching of sola fide in the four gospels than Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18:9-14. This parable single handedly confirms justification by faith alone and, at the same time, negates a faith plus works model of justification. Jesus aimed his message at “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (v.9). In other words, the parable is directed at those who presume to be in right standing before God because of their own good works. 

After the Pharisee reports his perfect track record of abstaining from external sins, he enumerates his pious works that distinguished himself from others (v.12). These works are opera superrogationis, that is, works that go beyond the law’s requirements to make sure they are fulfilled.[11] For instance, if fasting was a part of the requirement to “afflict” oneself in Lev 23:27 on the Day of Atonement, it would have been only once a year. It is stated that the Pharisee goes far beyond this by fasting twice a week, possibly a reference to a fast practiced by many Jews on Monday and Thursday (Didache 8:1). In addition, He tithed more than what was required. Whereas the law prescribed that only farmers tithe their produce, he makes a tithe for everything he purchases.[12] In regards to the outward requirements of the Torah, the Pharisee is blameless, both in his abstaining from sin and in his pious works that went beyond the letter of the law. He has sacrificed much to achieve this status.   

At this point in the parable, there is no conflict in a faith plus works model of justification for the reason that this model would by definition, deny that salvation is by works alone. Thus, proponents of faith plus works would understand Jesus’ parable to be a lesson against the idea of justification by works alone. However, The problem Jesus is pointing out in the Pharisee is not that he thinks he can be justified by works alone but that he can be justified by faith and works. We see this in verse 11 where the Pharisee admits that his moral conduct was a gift from God’s divine grace (v.11). This is not an individual who believes they are justified by good works alone for the reason that he credits his good works to God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads similar in its view of good works:

The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.[13]

The prayer of the Pharisee demonstrates that he believes, like the Catholis Catechism does, that good works are to be attributed to God. Thus, Jesus is not rebuking justification by works alone but a trust in one’s own works accompanied by faith in divine grace. 

The parable then shifts to a tax collector to develop a contrast between the humility he shows and the self exaltation of the Pharisee. The tax collector has no record of good works to boast about, so instead, he admits his moral bankruptcy (v.13). It was known during this time that tax collectors would cheat those they collected from by demanding more than what was required of them in order to make a profit for themselves (Luke 3:13; 19:8). Furthermore, collecting taxes for a pagan occupying power would render them impure.[14] Hence, they were referred to as “tax-collectors and sinners” (Matt 9:11; 11:19). He presumably has made much from cheating those he collected from and the restitution decreed in Number 5:7 is unlikely to be made since the amount of money he stole or the number of those he extorted might have been unknown. Therefore, he has no reason to hope for forgiveness from God. 

Since the tax collector has no record of good works, he appeals solely on the mercy of God (v.13). The physical act of beating his chest and keeping his head bowed indicates his remorse over his own sins. 

Finally, Jesus concludes with his remarks that only one of these men went home justified and it wasn’t the Pharisee (v.14). The point of the parable is clear: for one to be exalted and justified before God requires a great humility. This humility takes the form of admitting one’s own moral bankruptcy and appealing only to the mercy of God. The Pharisee who had both faith in God’s divine grace but also trusted in his own righteousness was not justified. Paul’s arguments in Romans are virtually identical. It could be said that Paul’s message is Jesus’ parable in rhetorical form rather than story form. 

Something must be briefly mentioned regarding Jesus’ warning statements that urge the believer to obey God as to avoid divine judgement. These warnings are spread all over the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 10:33; 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; 8:38; 9:26; 12:8-9; 13:1ff.; Luke 17:22-35).[15] Jesus’ warnings present tension in his teaching on justification by faith alone. They pose the question: how can Jesus be teaching that salvation is by faith alone when he also urges his followers to obey so that they may escape God’s judgment? Godwin Etukumana offers an interpretive solution:

Our salvation is irrevocable, but there is a need for Christians to demonstrate this irrevocability of their salvation with good works and alertness while waiting for Jesus’ coming. The warnings should act as a means of grace to those who fulfil the early Christian community’s ethos of suffering, perseverance and unrelenting faith in the power of the cross and the resurrection of Christ as the church waits for his second coming.[16]

Jesus’ warnings go hand in hand with James’s statement that a faith without works is useless. Christians ought to produce good works for the reason that it verifies that we have genuine saving faith. As Paul says in Philipians 2:12, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The faith that saves is a faith that will produce good works. Yet it is the faith alone which saves. The importance of producing good works is that it confirms that one’s faith is, indeed, saving faith and not a mere assent to what is true.  In conclusion, resolving the illusive contradictory statements of Paul and James requires the allowance for the terms “faith” and “justify” to mean different things as the context warrants. For Paul, “faith” means saving faith and “justify” means to be made righteous before God. Whereas “faith” for James in 2:24 means an accent to the truth and “justify” means to declare one as upright. Since Paul argues that it must be by faith apart from human merit that saves, and James’ epistle does not contradict him, therefore, the reformed doctrine of sola fide is most consistent with Scripture as opposed to the Roman Catholic view of justification. Jesus’ own teaching on justification also is consistent with the reformed view, although more work should be done in reconciling Paul and James with Jesus, rather than comparing only the two.


 [1] “ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version,” Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, (2016), 2164.

[2] Bruce R. Compton, “James 2:21-24 and the Justification of Abraham,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 2 (Fall 1997): 20-21. 

[3] Michael Jemison Rhodes,  “‘Apart from Works’: An Exegetical and Theological Reflection on Romans 3.21-4.25 and the New Perspective on Paul,” Heythrop Journal 57, no. 4 (July 2016): 649–50.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ryan C. Jenkins,“Faith and Works in Paul and James,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 633 (January 2002): 63. 

[7] Donald Verseput, “Reworking the Puzzle of Faith and Deeds in James 2:14-26,” New Testament Studies 43, no. 1 (January 1997): 97–115. 

[8] Charles E. Powell, “Not by Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159, no. 635 (July 2002): 371. 

[9] David R. Maxwell, “Justified by Works and Not by Faith Alone: Reconciling Paul and James,” Concordia Journal 33, no. 4 (October 2007): 376. 

[10] Lorin L. (Lorin Lee) Cranford, “An Exposition of James 2,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 29, no. 1 (Fall 1986): 29. 

[11] Hanna Stettler, “Did Paul Invent Justification by Faith?,” Tyndale Bulletin 66, no. 2 (2015): 174. 

[12] Ibid

[13] “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, (1994): 541.

[14] Hanna Stettler, “Did Paul Invent Justification by Faith?,” 175.

[15] Godwin A. Etukumana, “How Does One Interpret the Synoptic Gospels’ Warning Passages While Affirming the Irrevocable Nature of Salvation?,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 74, no. 3 (2018): 6.

[16] Ibid

Published by Ben Moore

Ben is a Christian worldview writer who holds a BA in Economics and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Biblical studies at Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his beloved wife live and serve to see the Gospel permeate throughout all areas of life.

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