Paul’s core theology described within his letters in the New Testament may appear to disagree with the theology of James. Where Paul contends that justification comes to the person of faith only through the faithfulness of Christ and not by their works, James affirms rather harshly that, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (NRSV, James 2:17). Paul is emphasizing within his theology that actions in observance of or obedience to Mosaic Law hold absolutely no power in justifying the Jew or the Gentile to God. When we examine James, however, the believer is forced to reconcile the concept of a faith alone and apart from action or works as being completely empty and barren. If action in obedience holds no saving power, is it still relevant in faith and is it still relevant to God? I would argue that the two teachers are highlighting different facets of what faith encompasses. Upon first glance, James, an advocate of action, and Paul, an advocate of faith, may seem to be in conflict, but they are not. They are complimentary theological components reflecting an overall embodiment of faith in Christ to the believer.
A simple understanding is that when we claim to have a faith in Christ, there must be an external reflection or action produced by that faith. In other words, a genuine faith will result in action in obedience to God. Both Paul and James use Abraham as a model conveying this notion, although the two writers are clearly underscoring two individual segments of faith. James uses the Abraham model to highlight that Abraham’s belief in what God said combined with his action in obedience to that belief brought his faith into full completion (NRSV, James 2:22-24).
Paul, in both Romans and Galatians uses the Abraham model to concentrate on the believer’s inability to justify themselves through their mere observance of Mosaic Law. He argues instead for faith and belief in Christ’s faithfulness and points to Christ’s obedient action on the cross as the only action worthy of reconciling us to God. When Paul says, “But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” (NRSV, Rom 4:5), he means that true trust and belief in Christ’s faithful action (not ours), in his death for our sins and by his resurrection; this is our justification. Otherwise, if redemption were obtainable through our own obedience to the Law, we’d be relying on ourselves and our abilities; a pretentious exaltation of self that renders Christ’s obedient act useless.
When James emphasizes deeds or works, he is not referring to works that we accomplish for the sake of redeeming ourselves, or acts which put us in a better standing with God. He is referring to an action in obedience initially produced by faith. Faith should always accompany an action; and that action is love. Faith and action in love go hand in hand. Paul confirms this in Galatians when he says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith made effective through love” (NRSV, Gal 5:6). Obeying Mosaic Law to gain a self-obtained justification is what Paul argues against. James is not disputing Paul’s claim, but is instead pointing to a faith which is refined and tested, producing right works and good deeds toward others; an expression of love. Supporting Paul, James proclaims, “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (NRSV, James 1:25). The “law of liberty” that James refers to is not the Law handed down to Moses. It is the Gospel of Christ.
Essentially, James and Paul are both reiterating Jesus’ summation of the greatest commandment: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (NRSV, Mark 12:30-32). A faith in Christ exhibits action in love. Love, in the context expressed by Christ and reaffirmed by Paul and James, is a verb. A lack of action would point to a misdirected understanding of Christ’s command to love one another; “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (NRSV, James 2:15-17).
James’ strongest argument defending his claim is: “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (NRSV, James 2:18-20). Similarly, Paul implores the church in Corinth to obey, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (NRSV, 1 Cor 11:1). And coupled alongside his theological argument, Paul states in unison with James, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. . .” and “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all…” (NRSV, Gal 6:9-11).
Although there is unique diversity among these two key New Testament writers in their focus and expressions, their unity is built and formed upon the foundation of Christ and the Gospel. There is no opposition in their theologies. The centers of Paul and James’ teaching, although different, work in tandem to further mature the believer’s relationship to Christ. They both hold the believing community accountable to their active response in their faith and their sanctification; to grow and to persevere; to love, encourage, and show humility; to display their faith in action. This response in faith to Christ is what validates us and effectively transmits the message of the Gospel to the rest of the world.