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James and Paul on Faith, Grace and Works

This article, written in March of 2024, is a spin-off of the Interpretation Hints and Challenges chapter of our Introduction to the Book of James.  The overriding challenge in the Book of James is his section on the relationship between faith and works or deeds (Jas 2:14-25).  Many throughout history have erroneously interpreted this section to mean that James was teaching that good works are required, or are the basis for salvation.  When compared to the writing of the Apostle Paul, particularly in Ephesians 2:8-9, some even claim that a conflict exists between the two divinely inspired writers of Scripture.  There has been much literature written on this subject over the centuries.  The sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther did not reject the biblical authority of James, but he did believe the book carried less authority than that of the Epistles of Paul.

Thus, in this article, we’ll dig into the subject and attempt to answer such critical questions as, “Are the writings of James, the half-brother of Jesus, and those of the Apostle Paul conflicting or are they contributory?”, and “Are works required for salvation?”.  Along the way, we’ll also examine the views of other NT writers and characters, including that of Jesus himself.

Table of Contents

Definitions and Usage of Key Terms

Since many of the key terms used in this article can have varying meanings and applications depending on the context and intention of the author, we’re including the following definitions, usage and explanations.


Human works as a noun can be defined as “efforts, deeds or acts, particularly those that contain moral, charitable and ethical aspects”.  In the Bible, works can be good (1Cor 15:58) or evil (Gal 5:19-21).  In regard to Justification (act by with a person is brought into a saving relationship with God through no merit of our own), human works are useless, but the works of Christ are absolutely essential.  Our justification by faith alone leads to good human works as we rely on the Holy Spirit for our Sanctification (process of being consecrated to God and made holy at our Glorification).


The short definition of grace is “unmerited favor”.  God loves and accepts us, providing us with an undeserved method of being saved by faith alone based on the works of Christ alone.  He also offers us forgiveness whenever we fail in our day-to-day living (Rom 6:15).  The Greek word for grace is charis, which is also often translated as “grace” or “mercy”.


The secular definition of faith is “a confident trust in someone or something”.  In the bible, the author of Hebrews defined faith as “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” Heb 11:1.  The word faith however, can take on a variety of different usages and meanings.  This is critical to understanding our subject of the differing emphasis of Paul and James, so we offer the following “word study” info.

Differing Usages of Faith in the New Testament (NT)

The two Greek words translated as “faith” in the NT are pisteuo (verb) and pistis (noun).  In addition, the related adjective pistos is translated as faithful, certain, sure, credible, confident, believing, trustworthy, dependable, reliable, and trustworthy.  The noun and adjective both appear almost 250 times each in the NT, while the verb appears roughly 70 times.  For our purposes, we’ll examine the various usages of the noun and the verb. 

Beginning with the noun pistis, it can mean “faithful, true, or trustworthy” (Mt 25:21, 2Tim 2:2, Rev 2:13), “sure or certain” (Ac 13:34, 1Tim 1:15), “belief or confidence” (Jn 20:27), or even with regard to a “specifically Christian believer” (Ac 10:45, 16:1, 2Cor 6:15).  It is often used to offer a proof, or future guarantee of a present promise or pledge, such as the resurrection of the Christ being the proof (pistis) that He will one day judge the world with righteousness (Ac 17:31).  It may also refer to the substance of the belief itself (Jude 3),  The most frequent use of pistis is the case of believing in God (1Pe 1:20-21) or Christ (Eph 1:15).  The Apostle Paul defined pistis as being fully convinced that God has the total ability to accomplish all that He has promised (Rom 4:21).

Likewise, the verb pisteuo can mean “to believe, or accept to be true” (Mt 9:28, Mk 1:15, Luke 24:25, Jas 2:19), “to have an opinion” (Rm 14:2), or “to believe in; trust in the Gospel” (Mt 27:42, Jn 3:15-18, Ac 13:48).  Not surprisingly, the most frequent usage of pisteuo, like the noun, is as an indicator of belief in the truth of the Gospel (Mk 1:5, Ac 15:7), belief in God and/or Jesus Christ (Jn 2:11, 3:15-18, 14:1, Tt 3:8, Ac 16:31, 1Pe 1:8).

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The Supposed Contradiction Explained

We begin with a Spoiler Alert: The writings of James, Paul and other NT authors are consistent and without contradiction.  The perceived differences can easily be explained by understanding each author varying emphasis, audience, and context, and the differing false doctrines that they were attempting to  correct.

We first examine one of the most familiar texts on salvation by faith and grace alone.  The Apostle Paul wrote For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:8-9).

The “problem” text is James 2:24, You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone (NIV), or You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (ESV).  Taken out of context, this would be a major heresy.  However, when we examine it in context, we clearly see the author’s intention:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  You believe that there is one God. Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.  You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.  In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?  As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead (Jas 2:14-26).

We clearly see from the context that James was rebuking his primarily Jewish audience for the error of libertinism, the belief that because a person has been justified, he or she could thus live any way that they choose with no restrictions.  Paul however, was often battling a different heresy, that of legalism.  Legalists believed that a person can earn his or her salvation by obey in the law of Moses and by doing good deeds.  Paul also rejected the libertine heresy in his letter to the Romans, What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?  By no means!  We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Rm 6:1-2).  In addition, we see Paul further agreeing with James in the next verse following Ephesians 2:8-9 in which he continues: For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10).  In addition, Paul also wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in which the main theme was “Salvation by grace alone”, the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Gal 5:6).  Finally, Paul exhorts his readers to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Php 2:12).  Here, Paul is not saying to work for your salvation, but allow God to work though you in the sanctification process.  See our three tenses of salvation for additional info.

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Additional Commentary

Differing Literary Genre

Another factor that can lead to a misunderstanding of the various text and views is the differing literary types of the writings.  The Apostle Paul writes using the genre of the Epistles which generally concentrates on a systematic treatment of specific doctrines and the practical applications of each.  Although the Book of James is also considered an epistle, it also has an Old Testament “feel” to it, perhaps due to the fact that it was the earliest of the NT books.  It is written in the genre of Hebrew wisdom literature.  In fact, it has over a dozen quotations or illusions to the Book of Proverbs, and has even been called the “Proverbs of the NT”.  As we noted in the referenced wisdom genre article, “In contrast to some other genres, the authors of wisdom literature generally recorded their observations and experiences relating to their lives and within God’s Creation and reality.  Yet, like the other literary forms within Scripture, these writings were also produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and rooted in historical reality.  The authors typically leave it up to the reader to relate these experiences to the remainder of redemptive history, and to apply the wisdom to our own lives.”

Thus, Paul is writing from a divinely-inspired doctrinal standpoint, while James is writing from a human observation standpoint, but no less inspired.  I heard an excellent illustration about 20 years ago that may help in visualizing the two views.  Suppose Paul and James was walking down a street during a chilly day, observing the various houses on each side of the street.  Paul turns to James and says “God has divinely revealed to me which houses have a fire in their fireplace”.  James replies, “That’s great Paul, but I can also tell by the smoke coming out of the chimneys”.  James was saying that anyone with true saving faith would produce external evidence of that faith.

Looking at James’s verses again (from the ESV), we see the key is in the various “s-words”

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”  Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe—and shudder!  Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas 2:14-24).

In the modern day USA, Missouri is known as the “Show Me State”, yet James was the original “show me” pastor.  Anyone can confess to an intellectual knowledge that Jesus is Lord.  As James states, even the demons are absolutely aware that Christ is real, but they certainly don’t possess salvation.

I remember reading a story a number of years ago that appeared in a systematic theology book.  I don’t remember the book title or the name of the theologian (possibly Millard Erickson?), but it contained an account that is very pertinent to this discussion.  The theologian attended a speech by a seminar professor who was speaking on the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of salvation.   As the speaker went through the doctrine, the theologian was amazed at his knowledge and that he seemed to have a perfect perfectly orthodox understanding of Paul’s writings.  In fact the theologian muses that, if the Apostle had heard the speech, he would likely exclaim “Wow, somebody finally gets my exact meaning”.  But just then, the speaker paused and declared, “but we all know that this is complete nonsense!”  The speaker had a near flawless interpretation but he didn’t believe it.  After the speech, the theologian asks the professor’s wife what she thought of the speech.  She replied that she could not follow all the technical arguments, but that she believed in the basic gospel as presented by Paul.  So, who had the true knowledge, the professor or his wife?  The professor was like the demons, having correct intellection knowledge but not saving faith.

Differing Usages of the Verb “Save”

The Greek verb that is translated as “save” (sōzō), can have different meaning depending on the context.  We make a mistake if we read the entire salvation process into each usage.  Of course, it is often used to to refer to the full-blown salvation process, but it can also refer to rescuing or preserving from danger or other situations.  Regarding usages in James:

James 1:21:  Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.  This is referring to the ability of the Word of God to save us from our sins.

James 2:14:  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  This could refer to either eternal salvation, in which case it would be denied, or to the evaluation at the end-times Judgment Seat of Christ (see “Eschatological Influences” below), in which a believer would be permitted into heaven while salvation but lose any awards (2Cor 5:10).

James 4:12:  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.  But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?  The speaks of God’s sole authority to save those who repent from its penalty, and destroy (send to hell) those who refuse to repent.

Differing Laws

Another method of illustrating the differences between Paul and James is that Paul is speaking against those, primarily Jewish Pharisees and Sadducees, that believed they could earn salvation by keeping the Mosaic laws.  James, however is admonishing his readers to be judged by the NT law, the law of liberty.  Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas 2:12).

Once again, Paul agrees with James when he writes, Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1-4).  Note that verse 4 frees us from the Mosaic law since, in Christ, we are considered to have fulfilled the law.

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The Example of Abraham’s Faith

Both Paul and James pointed to Abraham as an example of faith. 

James:  You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?  Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?  You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.  And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.  You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone (Jas 2:20-24).

Paul:  What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?  If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.  What does Scripture say?  “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rm 4:1-3, see also Gen 15:1-6; Heb 11:8-19).  It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith (Rm 4:13).

Like most all Christians, our faith is progressive and Abram was no exception.  Although he was mostly faithful, leaving his home to a new land that God would show him (Gen 12:1-9).  Yet, when a famine came to the land, he went down to Egypt allowed his wife Sarah to be taken into Pharaoh's palace on false pretenses rather than trusting God for their safety (Gen 12:10-20).  After God made a covenant with him, promising him to make a great nation from his descendants (Gen 15), he and his wife doubted they could have a child at their ages, so Sarah persuaded him to have a child with her Egyptian servant Hagar (Gen 16).  Despite his failure, God renewed His covenant and changed his name to Abraham.  He commanded Abraham to name him Isaac and he would be the child of the covenant (Gen 17).  Moving forward to chapter 22, we see Abraham’s faith had grown very strong, so that he was even willing to sacrifice his son of the promise (Gen 22:1-18).

In Hebrews chapter 11, often called the “Hall of Faith”, we read:  By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.  By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.  And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore (Heb 11:8-12).

Critics have seized on James 2:21 (ESV), Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  At first, this appears to be problematic.  However when we look at the rest of the quote You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.  You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?  For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (Jas 22-26).  Again as we noted above, James is giving inspired observation from a human point of view and speaking of justification before men vs Paul speaking of justification before God (note the previous smoke from the chimney illustration).  Paul’s position appears to be that faith produces good works, while James is stressing that good works prove your faith before men.

Eschatological Influences

Some students of the Bible believe that James could have been influenced by the end-times predictions from the OT, and thus may have had the Judgment Seat of Christ in mind with his faith and deeds relationship.  Paul had yet to write about the Judgment Seat (2Cor 5:10 and Rm 14:10-12), but there were many OT writings concerning end time judgments available, such as from the prophets Daniel, Isaiah, Joel and several others.  Even if the OT didn’t detail the concept, that would not  present an obstacle to an inspired writer like James.  The Apostles were well aware of the end-time prophecies when Christ was alive, even if they didn’t have a complete understanding.  Shortly before his ascension, he had this interaction with his disciples:  On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Ac 1:4-8).

Thus, we see that Apostles and the first-century church were well aware of the OT prophecies and many expected Christ to return in their lifetimes.  John, in the final chapter of the Revelation, records Jesus’s message that “I am coming soon” (Rev 22:7,12,20).  John then echoes His words. “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).  Peter wrote of the day of the Lord in his third chapter of his second epistle, the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.  Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming (2Pe 3:10-12a).  He also encouraged his readers to make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him (2Pe:3:14b).  Finally, he warns his readers, Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position.  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be glory both now and forever!  Amen (2Pe 3:17-18).  This is not an affirmation that true believers can lose their salvation, but a warning to those who do not persevere in the faith to the end, thus proving that their faith was only superficial and temporary, that they never actually possessed salvation.

The possible central theme of the end times judgment in James 2:14-26 is supported by its surrounding context.  James 1:10-11 references coming judgment for the rich due to their pride, and for their oppression of the poor (5:1-6).  In addition, the verses surrounding James’s section on faith and deeds also contain warning to transgressors of the law (2:9-13) and to teachers (3:1) and gossipers (3:5-10).  Thus based on the context and its emphasis upon future judgment, it is certainly possible that James is referring to the Judgment Seat of  Christ at the end of days.

If so, that could also help explain James’s emphasis on doing good works.  The Judgment Seat will be an emphasis on evaluation for the things we have done (or not done) in this life.  It is for believers only so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2Cor 5:10).  Those bound for hell will face a different judgment, the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15).

Although this end times theory for James is consistent with his writings, we certainly can’t rule out other valid interpretations that are also consistent with the biblical text.

Other Voices

  The Apostle Peter also appears to agree with James.  He writes in 2nd Peter 1:3-11:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election.  For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The author of Hebrews also gave similar exhortations and warnings.  “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future.  But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house.  And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory (Heb 3:5-6).  Also, See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.  We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end (Heb 3:12-14).

Finally, we offer the words of Jesus Christ Himself, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Mt 7:21-23)

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Final Thoughts

It’s relatively easy to find “apparent” contradictions in the Bible when taking certain passages out of context.  Yet when we properly understand each passage in its theological and historical contexts, our objections fade away.  As we have shown, both Paul and James believed that a person could not be credited as being righteous by observing the law, but only through the grace and faith that comes from God.  James placed an emphasis on the importance of good works as evidence of our faith (as opposed to libertinism), while Paul  emphasized that a person could not achieve salvation by doing good works (legalism).  Technically speaking, Paul was speaking of Justification, the act by which a person is brought into an unmerited right relationship with God, while James was emphasizing Sanctification, the ongoing process by which we are being consecrated (set apart for service) and made holy with an accompanying change in life-style.  James is stressing that merely hearing and understanding of the word is not enough, we must also obey it (Jas 1:22-25).  James was stressing that good works are the result of saving faith, not the cause.

The Paul “vs” James debate was a key point of dispute during the time of the Reformation in the seventeenth century.  Many Roman Catholics appealed to a faulty interpretation of James to support the incorrect view that, by doing good works, a person could actually merit salvation when combined with God’s grace.  The reformers responded with the orthodox view of sola fide (faith alone) and sola gratia (grace alone), which is the only way that we can be perfected (Mt 5:48).

Now, there is one case in which works are absolutely essential for our salvation.  Please hold the stones while I explain.  I’m not referring to any human works.  All human works are useless when it comes to our justification (Eph 2:8-9).  However, the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is absolutely essential for our redemption and salvation (Is 53:6, Rm 6:23, Heb 9:22-28).  The cross was God’s essential and only plan for salvation.  There was no “Plan B”. 

We close with a final defense of the veracity and trustworthiness of the Bible, which guards and precludes the authors from falsehoods.  The same One True All-Knowing, All Powerful God, Creator of all there is, inspired (literally “God-breathed”, Greek theopneustos) the writings of James, Paul, Peter, the author of Hebrews, and all other authors, keeping them from errors or contradictions.  Therefore, when we think we may have found an error of contradiction in the Holy Scriptures, keep digging.  We should also remember that a lack of total understanding of a passage or passages on our part does not constitute an error or contradiction by the God who cannot lie (Tit 1:2, Heb 6:18)

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