A reader posed the following question which has caused difficulty for many believers: Did James contradict Rabbi Saul (Apostle Paul) regarding salvation by faith or works? Before we examine the weightier issues related to this topic let us first establish that we are saved by grace so that no man may boast before God.
This is what Paul wrote:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).
Paul is saying that we do not receive salvation through the performance of good deeds. It is by grace (a gift of God) through faith (a gift of the Spirit) that we are saved .
This is what James—the half-brother of Yeshua—wrote, rather plainly:
Faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17).
At first read it seems as if James and Paul are not on the same page. On the contrary, James enhances Paul’s teaching by suggesting, so to speak, that the proof is in the pudding.
To appreciate what James was teaching we must understand the spiritual climate of his day. The faithful were growing in numbers from amongst both Jews and Gentiles. Those of the Pharisees, who believed in Yeshua, were teaching that the Gentiles needed to observe Mosaic Law and be circumcised.
There was much dissension and debate within the Jerusalem assembly whether Paul’s doctrinal teaching of grace was, in effect, blasphemy. During his first missionary journey to Lystra, Jews from Antioch and Iconium dragged Paul outside the city and stoned him, leaving him for dead. As the disciples gathered around him, he got up and continued preaching and praising God.
Paul traveled on to Jerusalem to testify before the Council of Elders. James was head of the Jerusalem assembly, and he had the opportunity then to dispute any of Paul’s teachings.
Peter stood up and admitted that the Jews themselves could not obey the law which he likened to a curse:
Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are (Ac 15:10).
After Peter’s testimony, James spoke to the assembly saying:
Therefore it is my judgement that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him (Ac 15:19-21).
James very clearly establishes the foundation of Mosaic Law, but the sticking points were the hundreds of statutes and ordinances—like circumcision and dietary restrictions—that Jewish believers wanted to impose upon the Gentiles.
The Council drew up a letter to be distributed amongst the Gentiles for their instruction:
For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well (Ac 15:28-29).
This edict was sent out with the authority of the Council of Apostles and Elders; and we cannot ignore that there were no instructions regarding circumcision or keeping of Shabbat (Sabbath)—signs which Jehovah gave specifically to the children of Israel.
We know that James wrote his epistle to Jewish believers who had been dispersed due to persecution. The doctrine of grace was difficult for them to understand, and some mistook it to mean that the law of works was abrogated.
James exhorts his readers to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves (Jas 1:22).
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world (Jas 1:27).
We are saved by faith for good works. Or as Paul wrote to Titus:
Christ redeemed us from every lawless deed to be a people zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14).
We conclude that James and Paul are in agreement.
Next: Christ is Our Atonement