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Were James and Paul fighting over good works versus faith or were they actually in agreement? 

Can we believe both Paul and James when it comes to the subject of works? Are they at odds with one another? On the surface, it would appear that, without looking closely at the context, there would seem to be a disagreement between them. In fact this is why some people try to create an argument between James and Paul usually picking the writings of Paul while shunning James. We believe that the Bible, properly understood and in context, does not contradict itself. If James is wrong and Paul is right, there is a seeming contradiction in the Bible.  

Fr. Martin Luther saw the book of James as being at odds with his "faith alone" concept because James believed and I quote "not by faith alone." Luther, being at odds with the book of James, is why he called the book of James “a book of straw.” Luther did not differentiate between the good works as spoken of in James and the works of the Law, circumcision as spoken of by Paul.

  • Was there a disagreement between Paul and James between faith and works?
  • What has works got to do with circumcision if anything?
  • Why do people believe that Romans 3:28-30 is speaking against good works?
  • Why do many Protestants today believe in faith alone?
  • Paul never spoke against good works in fact he spoke for good works.
  • Does the book of James make any reference to salvation?

Was there a disagreement between Paul and James between faith and works? As a hint to answering the faith works question, I suggest reading Acts Chapter 15, the Jerusalem Council.  There were believers from Judea insisting that you must be circumcised in order to be saved “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic Law” (Acts 15:5). Peter spoke against circumcision; “Why then are you putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10-11)? “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic Law” (Acts 15:5). And so the issue was settled once and for all and for all time; Peter had spoken.  And this is why today, neither Protestants or Catholics require circumcision.
Even though this controversy was settled, there were still Jews who were who insisting on circumcision for salvation.  In fact so large was the issue that Paul had Timothy circumcised to make it easier to work among the Jews; “On account of the Jews in that region Paul had him circumcised” (Acts 16:3). 
We yawn when we hear the word the circumcision in a Bible reading because it doesn’t mean anything to us.  Today, no one is insisting you must be circumcised in order to be saved.  However, at the time of the apostles it was a huge issue and it would be a reason not to convert.  Paul in his extreme frustration says; “Beware of the mutilation!  For we are the circumcision...“(Phil 3:3). “Would that those who are upsetting you might also castrate themselves!" (Gal 5:12).  And so even though the issue of circumcision was settled at the Jerusalem council, the battle raged on and it took a long time for all the believers to accept the words of Peter regarding that particular work of the law called circumcision.
What has works got to do with circumcision if anything?  Peter, in Acts 15, says that circumcision was not necessary and Paul was affirming Peter's decision. Paul said in Romans: For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom 3:28). Now, the obvious question is this.  Isn’t Peter speaking against circumcision in Acts 15, and Paul speaking against good works in Romans 28?  No, the Apostle Paul is not speaking against good works; he is speaking against and I quote, "works of the law" in Romans 3:28, and we find in verse 30 that particular work of law called circumcision.

Notice that works of the law and circumcision are both listed in Romans 3:28-30 and there is no record of GOOD works being listed in Romans 3:28-30.

So now the question remains, what was James speaking about when he used the word works? "See how a person is justified by WORKS and not by faith alone" (Jm 2:24).  Is he speaking for works of the law and circumcision, or is he speaking for good works done in love?  Please note that in the context, James is speaking about good works. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead”(Jm 2:14:17).  

The Apostle Paul says: For we consider that a person is justified by                              FAITH apart from works of the law (Rom 3:28).
Context: works of the law, circumcision

The Apostle James says: See how a person is justified by WORKS                               and not by faith alone (Jm 2:24).                                                                                        Context: good works, feeding and clothing the hungry

When Paul speaks against works, it is not good works, but works of the law and circumcision is in the context.  When James speaks for works he is talking about good works and lists among other things feeding and clothing the hungry.

When James speaks for good works with faith and Paul speaks for faith apart from works of the law, they were not fighting with each other. They were actually speaking about two different things, therefore we can believe both Apostles.

Why do people believe that Romans 3:28-30 is speaking  against good works?  There are people, of the best of intentions, who believe that faith alone is in Romans 3:28 even though it doesn't actually say that.  One of the pillars of the Protestant Reformation is faith alone. Where does faith alone come from?  It happened at the time of the Reformation and it happened when a Catholic priest added the word ALONE to Romans 3:28. His name was Fr.  Martin Luther. For we consider that a person is justified by faith [Alone] apart from works of the law (Rom 3:28).  Why did he add the word ALONE to his Bible?   In his own words, he claimed to be the doctor above all Popes! 

"We hold that a man to be justified by faith without the works of the law by faith alone." His  answer to Emser's exposition of his perversion of the text was: "If  your Papist annoys you with the word alone, tell him straight away: Dr. Martin Luther will have it so: Papist and ass are one and the same thing." Whoever will not have my translation, let him give it the go by: the devil's thanks to him who censors it without my will and knowledge. Luther will have it so, and he is the a doctor above all the doctors in Popedom" (Luther and the Bible, Ohare; Amic. Discussion, 1, 127).    

Suffice it to say, Fr. Luther's strong point was not humility.  The reason that he can put an extra word in the translation of his Bible is because "Luther will have it so!"  It is interesting in that Fr. Luther claims to believe in faith alone as his ultimate authority and yet at the same time claims his own authority.  Not only did he put himself at odds with the Church; he was also at odds with the other reformers who didn't see him as the doctor above all other doctors.

And so this explains why many, but not all, non-Catholics believe in faith alone. In fairness to Protestant Biblical societies today, they no longer have the word alone in Romans 3:28.  And even though the word alone has been removed from non-Catholic Bibles, the concept stuck and so many non-Catholics today still believe in the concept of faith alone.  Faith alone is in the Catholic Bible; however, it is preceded by two words, "NOT BY faith alone" (Jm 2:24).

Why do many Protestants today still believe in faith alone? Again these people have the best of intentions and are often times good Christians.  First of all, most do not know the history of the words faith alone and the tie to Fr. Luther.  They are simply unaware that they are using Romans 3:28 and other verses out of context.  They honestly  believe in their tradition and it never occurs to them that they are using part of the Bible out of context. They  do not realize that Romans 3:28-30 is not speaking against good works. They do not see the word law in, works of the LawThey are taught to quote verse 28, without verse 30, the context. In verse 30 you see the very work of the law that they were dealing with and this was circumcision.  I would say that many are not aware that along with James, both Jesus and the Apostle Paul spoke for good works and even tied good works into salvation. Some  can except this; many cannot.  

Even after the context is explained to them, it is difficult for some to accept.  They were taught faith alone from the time they were a child and somehow it still must be true.  It is unthinkable that faith alone is not Biblical.  They may have been taught that the Catholic Church is wrong about everything or most things. This would mean that the Catholic Church was right about something.  Perhaps, if I had their background, I wouldn't be able to make a change either. As for me, it is not my job to change anyones mind.  Jesus said "You will know the  truth and the truth will set you free."  And so once I express the truth my job is done.  It is now between them and Jesus.  Whether a change is made or not is totally up to them.  God bless them either way. 

Fr. Martin Luther, and his admirers today, believed that Romans 3:28 is speaking against good works; however, the verse does not say good works. It cites justification “by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rm 3:28) and in verse 30 lists circumcision. “He will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith” (Rom 3:30).  In Acts 15, at the Jerusalem council, Peter said we are saved by Grace, not circumcision. Paul, in Romans 3, is simply affirming Peter’s decision that circumcision is not necessary. 

Paul never spoke against good works in fact he spoke for good works.  Please note on the subject of good works, Paul is in sync with James and believed in good works as well. • “By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works" (Rm 2:5-7). 

Does the book of James make any reference to salvation? I had one person say to me that there is nothing having to do with justification and Salvation in James chapter 2, so we can totally disregard any thing, James has to say when it comes to justification.  We only need to believe Paul.  The problem with this scenario (to his surprise), is that James 2 does use the language of justification and salvation. 

I have a friendly suggestion for those of us who like to discuss the faith works issue; include the context.  It just might end the argument before it begins.