Folks who like to critique the Bible love to point out contradictions. Even those who believe the Bible is God’s Word sometimes struggle with passages they fear contradict. I recently recognized something about one of the more famous questions regarding possible contradiction in the New Testament: Romans 4 vs. James 2. I want to share this to provoke some thought and hopefully some constructive discussion.
Before I begin, let me assure you I don’t believe the Bible contains actual contradictions. Certainly, there are speed bumps that stop us in our tracks and force us to study harder. This post is about one of them–a supposed contradiction. However, I’m not going to resolve or answer the supposed contradiction in this post. I just want to make sure we see what is really at stake. If we are not careful in our study of these passages, we may do some shoddy explaining to make them fit without actually dealing with the real issue of what each passage says.
And so, with that in mind, what I really want to point out is that the supposed contradiction between Romans 4 and James 2 is really much worse than most people claim.
The Problem as It is Usually Explained
Unfortunately, as people have debated these two passages, specifically Romans 4:1-8 and James 2:14-26, they have only scratched the surface of what seems to be a contradiction. Usually, you’ll hear someone begin a sermon or an article like this: “Romans 4 appears to say that we are justified by faith alone and not by works while James 2 appears to say we are not justified by faith alone but by faith and works.”
Then the sermon, article, or paper begins with this watered-down explanation of the passages’ difficulties and progresses to try to resolve them. They will usually explain in one of two directions. Either the passages don’t actually contradict because both of them actually say we are justified by faith alone without works or because both of them actually say we are justified by faith and works.
The Real Problem
Again, I don’t believe these passages actually contradict. However, I do fear that because I haven’t thoroughly looked at what both passages actually say in the past, I’ve been satisfied with resolutions that fall short. Because I haven’t paid attention to the actual words and statements, but have been distracted by theological points and presumptions of sides that have developed over the past 500 years, I haven’t seen what potential contradiction really needs to be resolved. The issue is not simply that Paul supposedly says we are justified by faith alone and James supposedly says not by faith alone but by faith and works.
Please notice very carefully that James 2:22, 24 says:
You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works…You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (ESV).
Then notice very carefully that Romans 4:4-5 says:
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (ESV).
Please note that James is clear. You want to be the person who has faith and works. Bringing up a discussion about “faith that works” vs. “faith plus works” is immaterial at this point. Also talking about works as the cause of salvation vs. the effect of salvation distracts from the real issue. James says you want to be a person who has faith and does works.
Please note that Paul is also very clear. You want to be a person who has faith and does not work. According to Paul, the person who believes and does not work is counted as righteous. I think it is very important to note what Paul does not say. Too many times I’ve glossed over this and missed what he actually says. He does not say the person whose faith is counted as righteousness did work but we must understand it wasn’t the work that made him righteous. What Paul actually says is this person believes and does not work. It took me a while to let that sink in. But check it yourself. If you are reading an actual translation and not a paraphrase Bible that is a person’s interpretation rather than a translation, you will see that Paul said this person believes and does not work.
So, if we want to explain these passages and resolve them, we must not simply argue theological positions that have been developed over the last 5 centuries. We need to ask how can Paul say that the righteous are those who believe and do not work, while James says the justified are those who have faith and do work?
See the follow-up to this post here: Coming to Terms with Paul and James