[Texts: James, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians]
As you may have noticed, James’s letter is not easy to reconcile with Paul’s teaching on faith apart from works. On the face of it, James seems to be saying that we do good works in order to be saved, which scrambles our brains if we also know Paul’s firm lines about nobody being able to boast about their efforts toward salvation. Why does James seem to promote opportunities for boasting? Is there any way to reconcile these two writers?
Here are three thoughts to pack along as you read James’s little letter with Paul leaning over your shoulder. One thought has to do with time, and the other two focus on a couple key vocabulary words.
First, about timing: although James’s letter follows the epistles of Paul in our New Testaments, it was actually written much earlier.* This James was not one of the Twelve (that James was murdered by Herod early on; see Acts 12), but he was a significant figure among the leaders in the Jerusalem church, which was kind of the Command Central of the Jesus movement at the outset.
As events transpired in those early days and as news of conversions began rolling in from unexpected corners of the Empire, James mediated a theological conference/strategic planning meeting in Jerusalem to figure out how to accommodate the many new Gentile believers. Just about everybody at the start of this Messianic movement was steeped in Jewish categories of thought, which logically led many of them to assume the continuing and universal necessity of Jewish works of the law (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath-keeping).
The ministry to the Gentiles challenged these assumptions, though, as it became unavoidably apparent that the Holy Spirit was already at work in these converts entirely apart from Jewish law-keeping. At the James-led Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the Jewish church leaders officially conceded the point. Paul would later expound on the theological significance of it all, especially in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Ephesians. But prior to both the Council and Paul’s theological explanations came the epistle of James to the scattered Jewish believers in Jesus.
So this is the historical and theological context of James’s message that “faith without works is dead.” Knowing this order of events helps us keep James’s thoughts, and even his vocabulary, in proper perspective. Specifically, two words that both James and Paul use, justification and works, aptly illustrate the difference between their respective contexts.
When James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he seems to be contradicting Paul’s unequivocal statement in Romans that “by works of the law no man will be justified.” But when James wrote his letter, he (and the Jewish church) had not yet wrestled formally with the reality and implications of Gentiles entering into the people of God sans Jewish particulars. His words describe the vindication or verifying of faith by compassionate deeds, for in this way one’s faith is justified—that is, confirmed—by one’s actions.
On Paul’s part, in his (post-Council) letters to the Romans and Galatians, both of which are theological exposés of wrong assumptions about Jewish priorities, the word justification evokes a courtroom scene in which judicial action acquits or condemns the accused. In such a setting, Paul says, those all-important Jewish “works of the law” do not amount to guaranteed favor with the Judge.
In sum, Paul’s concern is different from James’s, and so he uses these two terms differently. For Paul, justification has to do with acquittal before the Judge (rather than confirmation of the reality of one’s faith, as in James), and works are narrowly considered as the special obligations placed on Jews under the law (rather than merely compassionate actions). To put it even more simply, for Paul the words have a specialized, religious significance, while James intends them to convey everyday realities.
Making this chronological and theological distinction between James’s and Paul’s use of these two terms may help put some contemporary Christian teaching into perspective as well. If you have ever been baffled by the characteristic Reformed portrayal of Christians erring by “trying to earn God’s favor” through their deeds, recall that the Reformers who rediscovered Justification By Faith in the sixteenth century were writing and thinking in the midst of a Roman Catholic context. In close imitation of Jewish law, Roman Catholic religion was full of do’s and don’t’s and specific demands that a truly religious person must fulfill to obtain (and maintain!) God’s favor.
In a Protestant context today, this ritualistic error feels remote, and thus this refrain about the danger of trying to “earn God’s favor” seems out of place when the “works” in view are deeds of compassion. But perhaps the critique comes home more personally whenever we notice that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” about religious practices, whereby our Christian rituals (prayers, communion, liturgy – or listening to Christian radio, or having our daily Quiet Time) have gained a good-luck-charm status. (“If I do this just right – or enough times – then I’ll get my wish!”)
We should not, however, confuse the warning against vain effort in religious “works” with a caution against exerting ourselves in the just and compassionate deeds we’ve been called to do.* As James insists, living faith actually requires some work to show it is alive.
*Notice, by the way, that this means that the NT letters are arranged in groups by author—i.e., Paul, followed by Not-Paul—and then by size and order within these groups. You have to do a little more digging before you figure out their historical chronology.
*Granted, “deeds of compassion” can sometimes become our religious good-luck charms, too. But I think the analogy of manipulating God’s favor through our ritualistic spiritual exercises fits Paul’s meaning most closely.
References to “boasting,” “justification,” and “works/works of the law” come from Ephesians 2, Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and James 2.
Approximate dates of relevant events: Epistle of James, early 40s AD — Jerusalem Council, c.49 AD — Epistle to the Galatians, early 50s — Epistle to the Romans, c.57AD. Think about how different the theological and church context is in each case, despite the proximity of these dates!
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