The Epistle of James
Does Paul Contradict James?
Does it seem sacrilegious to ask such a question? Should two writers of Holy Scripture contradict each other? From the viewpoint that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, the answer is an emphatic NO. God does not contradict Himself. But some have implied that a contradiction does exist.
“The Epistle of Straw”
Martin Luther called James “The Epistle of Straw.” He rejected it as inspired and denied its rightful place in the sacred Canon. To understand his position, one needs but a bit of sober reflection on the hard bondage of salvation by works to which he was subjected. He was so sincere and devoted to the rigours of self-denial and the chastisement of the body to reach inward sin, that he almost wrecked his health. When he was saved by grace through faith, he rejoiced greatly and revived the long-lost doctrine of justification by faith. After revelling for some time in his new-found freedom, he became alarmingly shocked when he read the Epistle of James. His first reaction was that it was as worthless as straw, hence he called it the “Epistle of Straw.” Without carefully studying the Epistle to discover what the Spirit of God might have in it for him, he rejected it.
A Veritable Gold Mine
The Epistle of James is a veritable gold mine. It is one of the most practical books in the Bible; and, one might add, one of the most neglected. Not many sermons are preached on this book, and it is seldom the theme for Bible Conference discussions. The resulting loss is ours, for it contains unvarnished truth so applicable to our day.
A superficial reading of the Epistle might cause one to suspect that a conflict does exist between the teachings of Paul and James on the subject of justification. Paul, in Romans 3:28, says, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” Then James, (2:24) says, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith only.” Paul uses Abraham as an Old Testament illustration of justification by faith without works when he says in Romans 4:1-3, “What shall we say, then, that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God. For what saith the Scripture, Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness.” James also uses Abraham as an Old Testament illustration of justification by works when he says in 2:21-23, “Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him for righteousness, and he was called the friend of God.”
Not Contradictory But Complementary
A superficial reading of the above passages may cause one, as it did Martin Luther, to suspect that a contradiction does exist between these two writers on the subject of justification. But we are not satisfied with the superficial; we want to dive beneath the surface to understand what caused these two men to write as they did. We can confidently say that there is no contradiction here. A careful study of their respective writings will reveal that instead of contradicting, they complement each other. Or as someone has said, “James and Paul are not standing face-to-face fighting each other, but back-to-back fighting opposite foes.”
Justification In Sight Of Men Or God?
A simple way to harmonize this apparent difference in teaching is to say that James is writing about justification in the sight of men, while Paul is writing about justification in the sight of God. However, the simple way is not always the correct way. We maintain that both James and Paul are writing about justification in the sight of God, and, even so, there is still no contradiction in their respective writings. There are two valid reasons for maintaining this position.
In the first place, why should God devote one book out of the sixty-six in the Bible to prove justification to man? What is man that God should need to prove anything to him. There are eleven major heterogeneous religions in the world, so there is hardly any point in proving anything to man with such widely differing views on religion. Then so far as Christians are concerned, they differ widely on Baptism, Eschatology, and even Soteriology (Calvinism and Arminianism). There is not even a unanimity of opinion among Christians on the subject of justification. God has, therefore, no need to prove justification to man.
Then in the second place, the two illustrations James uses to prove justification by works are of such a nature that men would condemn rather than justify the ones performing such acts. Who, among men, would justify Abraham for offering his son as a burnt offering upon an altar? Or who, among men, would justify Rahab for harboring two spies from an enemy camp and helping them escape capture? No one would. But God can see something in those two acts that man cannot see, therefore, out of those two acts Abraham and Rahab stand justified before Him.
So, then, since both James and Paul are writing about justification in the sight of God, how can we reconcile the apparent contradictory statements they do make on this subject? To arrive at a satisfactory answer to this question, we need to know something about the authors, the time in which they wrote, and the occasion for their writing. We are sure all apparent contradictions will disappear when this is done.
Who Wrote James?
We ask then, who wrote the Epistle bearing this name? There are three men who are of note in the New Testament bearing the name of James. First, there is James, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee and Salome (Matt. 4:21; Mark 1:19; Luke 5:10). He and his brother, John, were called by Jesus while they were mending nets in their father’s boat. These two brothers and Peter seemed to be intimates of Jesus and were present on several occasions that the rest of the twelve were not present, such as, the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37), the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1), and the inner recess of the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33). This James was put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2) too early in the history of the Church to have written this Epistle.
Then there is James, the Less. He was another of the twelve apostles. He was the son of Alphaeus and Mary (Matt. 10:3; 27:56; Mark 15: 40) — this Mary was the sister of our Lord’s mother. Nothing is recorded about him other than that he was one of the twelve, and this would rule him out as the author of this book.
Lastly, there is James, the brother of our Lord (Gal. 1:19), the son of Joseph and Mary. If the sons of Joseph and Mary (Matt. 13:55) are named in the order of their birth, James would be next to Jesus in age, for he is named first. It is possible he was not more than two years younger than Jesus. He was not one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, and was not a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ in the early part of His ministry (John 7:5). Just when he became a believer, we are not told. But when he became a believer, he put his whole soul into the work for Christ. His other brothers also became believers of Jesus and are numbered with the apostles and others who were gathered in the upper room for prayer after the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:14). James was honored by a personal appearance to him of Christ after His resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). He acquired the title of apostle in much the same way that Paul and Barnabas did. He occupied a prominent place in the leadership of the early church at Jerusalem, and presided, so it is assumed, over the conference held at Jerusalem (Acts 15) where the status of the Gentiles in the Church was taken up. At least, he summarized the findings of the conference and wrote that historic document which welcomed the Gentiles into the Church and freed them from bondage to the Jewish law. Every indication points to this James as the author of the Epistle of James.