Let’s look at two different Scripture passages: one is from Paul, the other from James. At first glance these verses seem to directly contradict each other. Much of the controversy about the grace message can be resolved by a proper understanding of what each of these titans of the early church, Paul and James, really meant.
Romans 11:6 says, “And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.” Paul is saying that grace and works are mutually exclusive, you are saved by grace alone without works, or it is not grace at all.
James 2:24 says the exact opposite, “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” James 2:24 directly contradicts Romans 11:6. Paul says we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Then James comes along and says we can be justified by our works, and not by faith alone. So, who is right?
Now compare another two verses. Paul says, “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Romans 4:2). Again James says the exact opposite. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:21-22). According to James, Abraham’s actions proved he had faith.
Different revelations of God
Martin Luther was so frustrated with the book of James that he called it an “epistle of straw.” He actually suggested that we throw the book of James out of the Bible. But, we can’t just tear pages out of the Bible if we don’t like them. Instead, we must wrestle with the full council of God until we come to a more complete understanding of God’s character.
John Calvin tried to resolve this issue by saying that when Paul uses the word “justified” he means something different from what James means when he uses the same word. For Calvin, Paul is talking about us being justified before God, but James is talking about us being justified in front of men.
A friend of mine, Greg Fraser, says “Different people have different revelations and understanding of God”—and he used the metaphor of a diamond to explain what he meant. When a diamond is held up to the light, each angle reflects a different color of light. Each facet of a diamond reveals a beautiful new view. In the same way, there are many different facets to God. He is infinite and it is impossible for the human mind to fully grasp everything there is to know about Him.
This is part of understanding both Paul and James. Paul reveals one facet of God’s character; James reveals another. Paul had a revelation about grace; James had a revelation about good works. Grace and good works are both part of God’s character. At first glance, the two early church leaders appear to contradict each other, but they are both looking at the same God. Both grace preachers and holiness preachers emphasize important aspects of what it means to be a Christian.
Different contexts for writing
In Romans, Paul was writing against legalism. He was addressing and warning believers about the dangers of looking to the Law for righteousness. But in his book James was combating an altogether different idea—the idea that you can be saved and live like the devil. The main issue for James was not the Law, but “lawlessness.” Lawlessness is the opposite of legalism. James had to address teaching in the church that said it makes no difference how someone lives because God’s grace is there to save them. When we understand this important context with regard to James’ teaching it begins to clarify the seeming contradictions between him and Paul.
Paul taught that people who are under grace are free. But what about the man who thinks he understands Paul’s teaching and says, “Because I am under grace, I can go to the bar and get rip-roaring drunk.” Is this man acting out of grace?
Let’s look at what James said: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror;for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:22-25).
Incidentally, Paul affirms this same idea when he writes, “for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified” (Romans 2:13).
Also, John emphasizes the importance of “doing” (keeping) God’s commandments when he writes, “Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter through the gates into the city. But outside are dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and whoever loves and practices a lie” (Revelation 22:14-15). Notice that in this verse, the first, second, sixth, seventh, and ninth commandments are referred to.