Do James and Paul contradict each other?

James teaches justification by works in James 2:20-26. In order to bring his point home James uses two familiar examples from the Old Testament: Abraham and Rahab. In speaking of these two examples we find a phrase that has caused many scholars much discussion and even resulted in some classifying James as contradictory to the rest of scripture. James states clearly that Abraham and Rahab were “justified by their works.” How are we to resolve this seeming inconsistency with Paul’s clear teaching of justification by faith apart from works (See Romans 4: 5, Eph 2:8)? At first glance it seems that there is no way around James and Paul’s statements. Paul is saying one is justified by faith and James is saying one is justified by works. However, a deeper study of this text will see that Paul and James are not in contradiction but instead complement each other.

The key to understanding Paul and James is their use of the word justified. It is important to understand that words do not always carry one wooded definition but are capable of semantic ranges. That is, words can have more than one meaning. This is the case with justification. When the Apostle Paul uses the word justification he means God’s declaration that a believing sinner stands righteous before him. However, justification can also mean “to vindicate” or “to prove” or “demonstrate” something to be true or just. Let’s take a look at a few passages of scripture that use “justify in the latter sense:

•             Luke 10:29

In Luke 11:19 a lawyer came to Jesus to put him to the test by asking “what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks the man what he thought the law stated and the man responded by quoting the Shema. Jesus tells the man to go and do this and he would live. The next verse is what I want to point out. Verse 29 says “But he, desiring to justify himself said to Jesus who is my neighbor?” The word “justify” here is the same word we find in both James and Romans. However, this man was not using the word justify here in the sense of making himself righteous before God rather, he desired to “show himself righteous” before others who were listening.

•             Luke 16:15

A similar passage is found in Luke 16:15 wherein Jesus says of the Pharisees “you are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” Again, justify here is to be taken as a demonstration before men not a legal declaration before God.

•             Matthew 11:19

Matthew 11:19 Jesus says “Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” Jesus is saying here that wisdom will be proved true by observing what it produces.

•             Psalm 51:4

Finally, in Psalm 51:4 David writes concerning his sinful actions: Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. David meant that God would be shown righteous in his words.

In all of the above passages the word justified is defined as proof or a demonstration of righteousness. This is also the way I believe James is using the word justified. The only way we can be sure is by the context.

The immediate context most surely seems to indicate that justification is referring to a demonstration of one’s profession of faith. Look again at verse 18. “Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works.” This clearly indicates that works is something that is shown or demonstrated as proof of a true faith. James in essence is saying “you have faith well then prove it!” As an example of someone demonstrating their faith James refers to the great man of faith; Abraham. We read in verses 20-24 “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.”It is important to realize that when Paul used Abraham to prove that one is declared righteous in God’s sight by faith he had in mind a faith that was living and active. However James is writing to a group of people who see faith as only some simple proclamation detached from any type of good works. Therefore, James uses Abraham and the incident with his son Isaac in Gen 22 as an example of faith being demonstrated by one’s actions. This is why James writes in verse 22 “you see that faith was active along with his works and faith was completed by his works.” The word completed here means that Abraham’s works were the fulfillment of his true faith. In other words James is not saying that because of what Abraham did he was declared righteous before God. Rather, Abraham’s actions proved that his faith was genuine! This is clearly seen in the Gen 22 Narrative when God says to Abraham in verse 12 “now I know that you fear God.” God knew because Abraham proved it to him!

Freedom, Media, and Discernment

As Christians we are free (Gal.5:1). Freedom however, is not permission to do whatever we would like; to carry a license for sin (Rom 6:1). The idea of freedom as understood in the Bible is freedom from the bondage of sin and the availability to walk by the Spirit. The apostle Paul pictures this freedom as a death and resurrection. That is, we die to sin and its power and are raised to walk in newness of life (Rom.6:11). Therefore, as sons and daughters of God we are truly free!

Yet there is an uneasy paradox that leaps from the pages of scripture into our daily lives-although we are freed from sin we still struggle with it on a daily basis. How can Paul state on the one hand that we are freed from sin and its power while on the other hand maintain the fact that our fleshly desires are very real and we still struggle with them? It seems obvious that both realities exist in tension with each other. We are freed from sin in the sense that Christ has taken our sin upon himself and covered our transgressions upon the cross. Therefore, when we come into Christ we are truly freed from sin, alive in Christ. However, while in this present evil world, sin still shadows over us. We are still marred with selfish desires and tarnished with unholy habits. It is the Spirit then that has been given to us to lead, guide, and help us discern how we should live our lives. Since then we are free from sin we are able to live by the Spirit.

When it comes to living by the Spirit there are certainly obvious ethical areas in which the scriptures are clear and straightforward. For example, no one would question whether murder or sexual immorality is wrong. It is clear that areas such as these are clearly taught in the bible as sinful. But what about areas that are not as clear, those grey lifestyle decisions? How are we to know whether or not something the Bible doesn’t explicitly speak on is o.k. or not? It is in these situations we as spirit-led Christians are called to use spiritual discernment based on biblical principles.

Media is one example on how we can approach these types of issues. The Bible is silent on what type of movies and television shows we should and should not watch, for obvious reasons. We as 21st century believers must then apply biblical principles to such areas in order to help us discern what is beneficial and not beneficial. A sample text that may give insight on this particular topic is Philippians 4:8 which says “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This passage and other similar passages can be used as lenses in which we discern whether a particular movie or television show is appropriate to watch. We may consider asking ourselves questions such as “is this movie pure? Or is it honorable? While the Bible doesn’t directly speak to specific issues such as what types of movies one should watch it does give us basic principles to help guide our decisions.

We are indeed free in Christ. However, we still struggle with sin. The Spirit therefore, is essential in living out the Christian life. Moreover, the scriptures have given us clear commands on issues that are non-debatable. Yet, there are areas in the Christian life that are not as black and white. When faced with such case by case matters we must heed biblical principles while seeking spiritual discernment. I believe if honestly approached we will pursue to “think upon such things.”

First Works and Rebaptism

I listened to a preacher today preach on Revelation 2:6. In his sermon he maintained that Jesus’ phrase “do the works you did at first” referred to one having to be baptized again. Apparently this church re-baptizes individuals numerous times. The logic is as follows: (1) Revelation 2:1-5 teaches that one can lose their salvation. This is what is meant by “lost your first love.” (2) Because one has fallen from grace they are commanded to do their first works again. This is taken to mean those things that one did when they first became saved; the “process of salvation.” (3) The process of salvation is as follows: believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. (4) Therefore, one needs to be re-baptized.

Here are some fallacies I see in this deduction: First, while I maintain that one can lose their salvation (Heb 6:4-6) this doesn’t seem to be the case for the church at Ephesus. In verse 5 Jesus says that if they do not repent then he will in fact “remove their lampstand.” While the church is in danger of losing their salvation they are not yet in the position. Secondly, to say that the “first works” refers to the plan of salvation is merely an implication read into the text. There is no contextual evidence to take this phrase in this way. Thirdly, to say that “first works” refers to the plan of salvation goes against the larger biblical teaching of salvation by grace apart from works (Eph 2:8-9). To say that “first works” refers to the plan of salvation is to imply that one is saved by “works.”

What seems to be intended by “first works” is faithful Christian conduct. That is, the church of Ephesus needs to repent of the unrighteous “works” and return to the righteous “works of God. In light of this I do not see Revelation 2:5 as a text favoring the practice of re-baptism.