Spirit of Grace Ministries
Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Did James and Paul Preach the Same Gospel?

By Dennis Pollock


In the last 20 years, there has arisen a substantial subset in the evangelical church who have taken exception to the idea of repenting of sins when we are saved. In fact, they usually go beyond that. They consider it almost blasphemous to tell a sinner that when they accept Christ, there must be a transformation from a selfish life to a life of love, from a sensual lawless life to a holy life. They insist that we say nothing of such things when trying to convert men and women to Jesus. Some of the more radical ones will suggest that it doesn't matter how you live or how moral or immoral your lifestyle is. If you have believed in Jesus, you have been accepted as God's child, even if you go right on fornicating, lying, stealing, and beating your wife.


They justify this stance with the writings of the apostle Paul. They are so obsessed with Paul that most of them have decided that the words of Jesus are totally irrelevant to Christians today. We must listen to Paul and ignore Jesus, at least His teachings in the gospels.


But then there is the troublesome little Book of James. If ever there was a book these Paul-obsessed folks hate, it is James. Many see James and Paul as being on two different teams, and since Paul gets a lot more press in the Bible, they have decided that James is to be ignored. The German theologian, Martin Luther, was of this mind. He disliked James so much that he called James' little book "an epistle of straw."


As a reminder, Paul hammered home the theme of "justification by faith," and insisted that it is faith in Jesus that saves us and faith that makes us acceptable in God's sight. In Galatians, Paul writes:


…knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)


Saved by Faith, not Works


Paul is saying that by our works, good deeds, or noble intentions we can never be acceptable in God's sight. We are only made acceptable through faith in Jesus. This is something that every evangelical believes, including me. We are saved by faith in Jesus. So far, so good. Almost nobody disputes this.


But controversy arises when some suggest that lifestyle and morality do not matter for the Christian. If we simply say the "sinner's prayer" and believe in Jesus, we can then live any way we want, sin as much as we want, and engage in sex with whoever we want. This has never been accepted by the majority of the church, and thank the Lord, it is not accepted by most Christians today. But there are a growing number of professing Christians who hold this concept.


With that as background, let's look at some of what James has to say, as he weighs in on this issue. In the second chapter of James, he comes out swinging. He writes:


What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (James 2:14)


James said What????


If this were not in the Bible, a lot of Christians would consider this statement heretical. "Can faith save him?" "Can faith save him???" We want to say, of course, faith can save us! Did not Paul tell the jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved."? Did not Jesus say, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."? Does not Ephesians tell us: "For by grace you have been saved through faith"? (Ephesians 2:8). If faith does not save us, what in the world do these and dozens of other similar verses mean?


But as we look at what James is saying, we find he is not talking about the God-given faith that transforms lives; he is talking about someone who "says" he has faith but does not have good works to go along with his faith. In other words, James is saying "that kind of faith does not save anybody." God's faith, Holy Spirit-empowered faith saves men and women but anemic, insipid, pseudo-faith that involves saying the right things but has no accompanying good works to go with it does not save. Faith that has no kindness, compassion, godliness, and the willingness to make sacrifices for others does not save us.


James goes on to say:


If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)


"What Does it Profit?"


Here he talks of an "unprofitable blessing." Some fellow believer comes to your door in tatters and nearly starving. Although you have money, food, and clothes you could share with this destitute brother or sister, you cannot trouble yourself to give them anything. Instead, you speak a "blessing" and send them on their way. "Go in peace, be warmed and filled." James says, "What does that blessing profit them?" A blessing that is in words only, but has no accompanying actions, is worthless and is in truth no blessing at all. And then James makes his point about faith that has no works to it, saying, "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." In other words, faith without works, faith without compassion, faith without holiness, and faith without the love of God is no faith at all. It may look like faith, you may talk like you have faith, you may say all the right Christian sayings and slogans, but your faith is lifeless and worthless, and in God's eyes, all you have is a fake faith, which is no faith at all.


The apostle declares: "Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (James 2:18). The strongest evidence of faith in a believer is a lifestyle of good works and righteous living. If this evidence is absent, faith is absent, real faith, that is, Holy Spirit faith. All you have is some kind of mental belief, not a true heart belief.


James still is not finished. Next, he talks about demons, saying:


You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe–and tremble! (James 2:19)


Orthodox Doctrine not Enough


The orthodoxy of doctrine and belief is not enough, according to James. He is making the point that demons are very orthodox in their beliefs. They could easily pass a theology test. And yet they tremble, knowing that they will one day face the terrible wrath and judgment of God. And James is not so subtly hinting that many Christians who live lawless lives are in the same situation. They are orthodox enough. If they are asked, "Do you believe in one God?" their answer would be yes. "Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?" Again, their answer would be yes. "Do you believe Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world and rose again?" And their answer would once again be yes. They are surely believers!


But James says they are members of the "First Church of the Demons." Their beliefs are correct, but their lives are all wrong. James then talks about Abraham and insists that by being willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, "faith was working together with his works, and by works, faith was made perfect." Abraham's faith was not dead faith; it was living faith that resulted in him being willing to obey God, even in the most difficult of commands – the command to sacrifice his own son. After pointing this out, James concludes: "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only." 


This kind of teaching absolutely drives the hyper-grace crowd crazy. They will not speak of it or teach it, and if they happen to be reading in James, they will surely skip over it as fast as their eyes can skip. Justified by works? – This is surely heresy! And yet here it is, spelled out plainly, and included in the sacred writings we call the New Testament, the most important part of our Bible.


James sums up his teaching on this issue by saying: "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." (James 2:26). There are medical definitions of death, but the Biblical definition of death is this: once our spirit leaves our body, we are dead. And James tells us that a person claiming faith but not possessing godly character to accompany that faith is a walking dead man. Although he may attend church and say things like, "Praise the Lord," he or she has no spiritual life in him and no real faith at all.


Who's Right?


So Paul says we are justified by faith and James says that we are only justified if our faith has good works attached to it. Who is right? Whose side shall we join – Paul's or James'? The answer is that they are both correct. Faith in Jesus does indeed save us, and faith is the only thing we need – as long as it is living faith that has good works attached to it and accompanying it. The question is not a matter of faith OR works; what we need is faith THAT works


And there is nothing wrong with telling someone whom we are attempting to persuade to become a Christian that when they put their trust in Jesus, they will and must turn away from sin and selfishness in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul, the great preacher of justification by faith, said this, in describing his approach to winning sinners to Christ:


I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. (Acts 26:19-20)


Paul let sinners know from the start that they must repent of their ungodly lifestyles, and begin to evidence good works, deeds of compassion, and godly behavior that "befitted repentance." To those who insist that they are on Paul's side, and therefore refuse to ever suggest that we must repent of our sins and live godly lives as believers, they need to read Paul's writings a little closer. Paul not only preached about being justified by faith; he also hammered home the necessity for Christians to live godly lives, writing: "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Romans 6:1-2).




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