St Paul is a tremendous man. His feats made him a legend in his own life time, and we know that his letters were accorded the reverence given to Scripture. But he must have been a tiresome man at times. He did not suffer fool gladly, and like most such, had a wide definition of ‘fool’. It is clear from Galatians 2 that Paul attributed his problems in Antioch to James, and some have seen the two men divided on the issue of justification by faith.
Yesterday two of our regulars here, Servus Fidelis and Geoffrey Sales showed two things which appertain to Paul and James – how easy it is to misread what someone else meant, and how good it is to be humble when you think you are disagreeing. That is certainly how I see James and Paul and the issue of justification by faith and works.
We know that people did misinterpret Paul (2 Pet. 3.14-16). Paul says so himself indicating some people took his message to mean that we should go on sinning. He says that some have “slanderously reported” that Paul taught that we should do evil so good may come from it (Rom. 3.8). If someone took Paul to say this, and then told James that this was Paul’s message, we should expect a reaction like we find in James’ epistle.
I don’t see a disagreement between James and Paul on this matter. I see a disagreement between James’ understanding of Paul and James’ own teaching. I am sure there was likely tension between James and Paul because James is known as being a law adhering, temple visiting Jew. When Josephus recounts James’ martyrdom he says that a Sadducee names Ananus had James put to death for being a law breaker, yet many reacted negatively to this since they understood Ananus’ act to be “unjustified” (Antiquities XX.9.1).
St Paul never criticises good works, but for him the essence of justification lies in God’s act of love manifested in Jesus and His sacrifice – Jews and Gentiles are one because of the the justification they have received ‘through faith in Jesus Christ’ (διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ). Paul never said anything against good works. He criticised works of the Law coming from the flesh, but he is not opposed to the idea that if we are filled with the Spirit, we do good works in His name. Likewise, James does not make a fuss about whether or not Christians should obey the Sabbath, or eat seafood, or wear clothing made of two types of material, but he does challenge the idea that faith by itself will not lead to works. It is here, in the realm of actve Christianity, and not in the abstractions of theology, that the two men’s views were reconcilable.
That is to not say there were not difference of emphasis which may well have led to disputes. Paul wanted to show that faith rests on the foundation of God and not on the works of the Law; you cannot, Paul tells us, ‘earn’ salvation. Paul is talking about man before he comes to the faith. James is concerned with man when he has come to the Lord, and he argues thata living faith must express itself in action. They might also have agreed that that action should be more than sterile disputes over the meaning of words. Christ is action; He is a call to action.