Have you ever been hung up by the apparent contradiction between Romans 3:28 and James 2:24?
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” That’s Paul in Romans.
“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” That’s James.
Josh Lomas recently reminded me of this little story/example I did for a study back in the high school youth group. I’m interested to know if it resonates with any of you as a way to see these verses complimenting each other instead of contradicting. (As usual, it has to do with context, good close reading, and letting the authors speak for themselves.) After the story I included my notes from the study which spell out some details explicitly. Let me know what you think.
How works and faith figure into our salvation: A Picture of Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 working together.
A man stands before God to face his final judgment. He is told that he faces God’s wrath for being sinful and being a sinner. He is asked if he has evidence to show that the verdict is wrong. Can he show that he is righteous and not wicked? Can he prove he should be saved from God’s wrath? The man says, “I have good works to show that I am righteous, and should not face God’s wrath.” The books are searched. The man is not found in the Lamb’s book of life. The record of his life shows only many works that fall short of God’s glory. The verdict from the throne is: “That is not enough. You have a sin debt too great to pay with good works. And even those things you did were not good, because they were all tainted by sin (Is 64:6). So by displaying works tainted by sin, you have only added to your guilt. You will be judged according to your works. The verdict is: Guilty. You will not be saved from the wrath of God.” And Paul would stand up and say, “Yes! No one will be justified in His sight by the works of the law. A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:20 & 28).
A second man stands before God to face his final judgment. He is told that he faces God’s wrath for being sinful and being a sinner. He is asked if he has evidence to show that the verdict is wrong. Can he show that he is righteous and not wicked? Can he prove he should be saved from God’s wrath? The man says, “I have faith.” He is asked to demonstrate that this faith is true. Can he show that he trusts Jesus Christ for salvation? The books are searched. The man is not found in the Lamb’s book of life. The record of his life shows that the man had no change of life, no repentance and no fruit to show true faith. Instead of any good works, the man only has tainted, evil works, just like the first man. The verdict from the throne is: “It is not enough to say you have faith. If you had believed in Christ, you would have experienced a new life within which would have caused you to do good works. Your faith would have come out in obvious ways. You would be able to show that you had truly trusted Christ as your only hope to escape God’s wrath. The verdict is: Guilty. You will not be saved from God’s wrath.” And James would stand up and say, “Yes! If a man says he has faith, but does not have works, can that kind of faith save him? No! This faith is dead and useless. If this man had works to show, it would have proved his faith was not alone, but was alive and real. He would have been justified and saved” (James 2:14, 17 & 24)
A third man stands before God to face his final judgment. He is told that he faces God’s wrath for being sinful and being a sinner. He is asked if he has evidence to show that the verdict is wrong. Can he show that he is righteous and not wicked? Can he prove he should be saved from God’s wrath? The man says, “I have faith.” He is asked to demonstrate that this faith is true. Can he show that he trusts Jesus Christ for salvation? The man says, “I am only a sinner and deserve judgment, but I trusted what Jesus did on my behalf. My only hope is that He is righteous, and that I belong to Him. But if my life must be examined, it will be found that I was a changed person after I was born again. The Spirit of Christ energized me so that, with the time I had left, He used me to do things that glorified God.” The books are searched. It is found that there are no evil works recorded for this man. They have all been wiped off the records. The only place the man is found recorded is in the Lamb’s book of life, where it is written that the man’s life began with the birth he experienced the day he believed in Jesus. From then on, only good works, done in faith, planned for him by God, are recorded. In his short life, he bore fruit that obviously came from a new life within. The verdict from the throne is: “Well done, good and faithful servant. The verdict is: Righteous. Because you are in Christ by faith, and He is righteous, you are saved from the wrath of God. And as you have served Me faithfully, receive rewards and enter into the eternal joy of My kingdom.”
And James and Paul would stand up together and say, “Amen!”
And here’s some further notes, from a study on James 2:14-26…
Question: Does James (2:24) disagree with Paul? See Romans 3:20-28.
Reason 1: James and Paul are writing about different subjects.
Paul was writing about the fact that all people are condemned, and they can’t work their way back to God.
James was writing about people who already claimed to be saved and right with God.
Paul says that you get right with God by faith, and not by doing things.
James says, if you’re right with God, it will show now because your life will change.
Reason 2: Therefore, James and Paul are using two words differently in these two verses.
- Paul says “Justified” to mean the original verdict when you first are “saved” (Rom 4:1-5) this comes just by believing God, like Abraham (see Rom 4:1-5)
- James says “Justified” to mean both that you are shown outwardly to be righteous, and to refer to the final verdict when you stand before the throne and are finally “saved.” this will prove itself by a changed life of obeying God, like Abraham. (James 2:21)
- Paul says “faith” (Rom 3:28) meaning living, saving faith.
- James says “faith” (2:24) and adds “alone,” meaning this sham faith that is “dead.” see also 2:17 (“by itself” not “having works”
Reason 3: The rest of their writings show that James and Paul believe in the same kind of faith: One that works. or… A faith that powerfully changes your life and makes you live in new, God-pleasing ways.
Both James and Paul believe in an active, living faith that transforms a life and produces good works. Both James and Paul believe this faith will produce evidence that will show that it is real when you stand before Christ’s judgment seat.
See these verses for Paul’s thinking on how works come from faith: Gal 5:6, Ephesians 2:8-10, Titus 2:11-3:2 & 3:8, Philippians 2:12-13
See these verses for in James for James saying that faith is central: 1:3 (assumed), 1:6 (needed), 2:1 (assumed), 2:5 (chosen have it), 2:17 (present, but not alone), 2:22 (senior partner), 2:23 (what needed to be fulfilled)