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Synopsis: Faith and Works, James and Paul

The most highly visible passage in James involves the apparent tension between Paul and James on the question of faith and works. The most striking “contradiction” is between James 2:24 – “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” – and Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”

As the author of this study guide, I must say that I wish every Sabbath School class could be exposed to the lively Good Word discussion on this lesson in which Pedrito Maynard-Reid played a key role. His Bible Amplifier volume on James (Pacific Press, 1996), reinforces the key points, but it was his tenacious verbal emphasis on the fact that James was emphasizing social concern, not theoretical theology, that made his point – and that of James – come clear.

In print, PMR (James, 114) calls James 1:27 the “thesis statement” of which chapter 2 is the natural expansion: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Later, noting that chapter 2 opens and closes with hospitality illustrations, PMR argues: “The positioning of these two hospitality illustrations is another strong evidence that the entire chapter 2 of James should be read as a unit” (James, 122).

In the end, PMR makes this pointed statement about the relationship between Paul and James: “To have Paul and James in opposition is to misunderstand each author. They are not engaging each other; they are not involved in a debate. They are combating quite opposite problems” (James, 115).

It is also worth noting that James does not cite the same “symptoms” that Paul addresses in his discussion of salvation. Not even once does James mention circumcision or Jewish ritual practice. James is concerned about social issues, reaching out to those in desperate need. The two books might have been seen quite differently even today if it hadn’t been for Martin Luther’s intense concern with issues of personal salvation. Given his consuming passions, Luther found no help at all in James and thus called it an “epistle of straw,” virtually outside the canon.

Another way of approaching the issue is to note the diverse meanings of key words in the discussion. Crucial in that respect are 1) Justify, 2) Faith; and 3) Works. Note the following points about each.

1. Justify. The Greek verb meaning “justify” (dikaioô) with its cluster of related words reveals a remarkable spectrum of meanings. The noun form rendered “justification” (dikaiosynç) is translated in Matthew 6:1 as “piety”: “Beware of practicing your dikaiosynç before others” (NRSV). The English word “theodicy” means “justification of God” (in the presence of evil). But in Germany where the Lutheran emphasis is strong, I discovered that many of the believers were reluctant to speak of “justifying” God; God justifies human beings, humans do not justify God! In that setting, the English word “vindication” is generally more acceptable.

In the broad sense, then, to justify is to show the rightness of the action. In James, by helping the poor, one is not finding “justification” in the sense of salvation, but is simply confirming the “rightness” of the deed.

2. Faith. As PMR notes, James never defines faith for us (James, 117). He suggests that in James, “faith” indicates “one’s trust in God.” James could also be said to move closer to the Old Testament concept of “faithfulness.” Interestingly enough, in the famous line from Habakkuk 2:4 which informs both Paul and Luther, the KJV translates: “the just shall live by his faith.” Modern translations, the NIV, for example (also the NRSV), read, “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.” James is rooted in that earthier sense of a faithful life, not the sense of simple trust in God as is suggested by Paul’s use of the term.

3. Works. To break the theological stranglehold of Lutheran theology when reading James, it would be much more accurate to use the term “deeds” rather that “works.” James simply wants to see that the faithful life is marked by social outreach, by good deeds. Using the term “works” muddies the waters.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Faith/Works: Breaking the deadlock. What is the best way to develop the point that Paul and James are not arguing with each other? Can the reading of James 2 as a whole be effective in that respect?

2. Telling factors. Which of the following could carry some weight in letting the message of James be heard in its own right, not just as an argument with Paul:

A) James does not quote any other NT book and is not quoted elsewhere in the NT.

B) The book preserves the traditional, ethical concerns of early Jewish Christianity, but never mentions circumcision or dietary matters.

C) The phrase “by faith alone” comes from James (2:24), not from Paul. But it was Luther who borrowed the phrase from James, “by faith alone,” putting it to radically different use.

3. Diversity of perspectives. Could addressing the differences between James and Paul be a means of helping us to see other examples of diverse perspectives in Scripture? Ellen White argues that students need to learn from different teachers. And in that connection she argues for recognizing the diversity found among the New Testament writers: “Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, a John, a Paul?” she asks. “It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way. Certain Scripture truths appeal much more strongly to the minds of some than of others.” – Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432

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