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Justification: Paul vs. James

Job 25:4 
How then can man be justified with God? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman?

How did the Holy Spirit answer through Paul? 

Romans 3:28 
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

How did the Holy Spirit answer through James?

James 2:24 
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

That is two different answers to the same question. Martin Luther acknowledged the difference between Paul and James, but he didn’t understand the difference. In frustration and confusion he referred to James as “an epistle of straw” and wanted to light his stove with it. He wrote, “Many sweat to reconcile St. Paul and St. James, but in vain. “Faith justifies” and “faith does not justify” contradict each other flatly. If anyone can harmonize them I will give him my Doctor’s Hood and let him call me a fool.”

The answer, of course, is to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). There are some clear distinctions between the teaching of James and Paul due to the fact that they were writing to different groups under different dispensations. Paul wrote to the Body of Christ and James wrote to the scattered twelve tribes of Israel (1:1). Paul wrote concerning the mystery (Rom. 16:25) and James wrote concerning the prophesied kingdom program of Israel (Jam. 5:1-11). The supposed contradiction clears up when we rightly divide the word of truth.

Those that claim James was written to the Body of Christ have to water down the epistle and make changes in a number of passages to try and make it match Paul’s epistles. They say that James and Paul teach the same thing about justification, just with a different emphasis. They say that Paul speaks of being justified before God and James speaks of being justified before men. Where did God ever tell us to be justified before men? Christ rebuked the Pharisees for justifying themselves before men (Lk. 16:15)!

The difference between Paul and James on justification is that Paul is talking justification by the faith OF Christ (e.g. Gal. 2:16) and James is talking about justification by a MAN'S faith (Hab. 2:4). Faith must be tried and proven. Christ accomplished our salvation by His perfect faith (Titus 1:2; Phil. 2:8). We are justified by His perfect and proven faith the moment we simple believe on Him (Rom. 3:19-24). Therefore, justification by the faith of Christ is instant and permanent, but justification by a man's faith is a process because his faith must be proven. 

We must be clear that works in and of themselves do not justify a sinner in the sight of God in any dispensation. Salvation has always been an issue of faith, but God’s message has not been the same in every dispensation. The gospel of the kingdom requires works to prove faith (Mk. 1:4-5; 16:16; Acts 2:38). In the tribulation period, if a man believes the gospel of the kingdom he will work to endure to the end and be saved (Matt. 24:13-14). In this present  age of grace, if a sinner believes the gospel of the grace of God he will stop trying to work for salvation and rely totally on the finished work of Christ (Rom. 4:1-5).

How could Paul and James both use Abraham to teach something different about justification? James used Abraham as an illustration of being justified by faith that works (Jam. 2:21-24). In Genesis 15 we read that Abraham’s faith was counted for righteousness. In Romans 4, Paul used Genesis 15 to prove that is possible for God to impute righteousness to a man on the basis of faith. James points out that Abraham was justified by a faith that worked because forty (the number of testing) years after Genesis 15 he proved his faith by works in Genesis 22 when he was willing to offer up his son Isaac. Abraham’s works in Genesis 22 proved that he really believed what God said in Genesis 15 because Isaac was the promised seed and Abraham believed that God would resurrect him to fulfill the promise (Heb. 11:17-19). Abraham was called “the Friend of God” because he was obedient to God (John 15:14). In Genesis 22 God tested Abraham’s faith just as in the tribulation he will test the faith of the “twelve tribes scattered abroad." Yes, Abraham was justified by faith, but it was a faith that worked. What if Abraham would not have taken Isaac up on that mountain? Notice in Jam. 2:22 that Abraham’s works made his faith perfect (or, complete). Therefore, what God said in Genesis 15:6 was fulfilled in Genesis 22. Abraham was not “justified before men” in Genesis 22 because he and Isaac were on that mountain alone and it was God that testified “NOW I know that thou fearest God, seeing that thou hast not withheld thy son, thy only son from me.” 

As members of the Body of Christ we are made perfect by faith ALONE (Col. 2:10). Paul focused on one aspect and made the proper application to his audience, but James applied the whole experience of Abraham to his audience.

Why did James also use Rahab as an illustration of being justified by faith that works (2:25)? Forty (the number of testing) years after she heard the report concerning Israel she proved her faith by hiding the spies (Heb 11:31). She is a picture of the Gentiles who will enter the kingdom because they are a blessing to the seed of Abraham. I don't see how anybody can read the plain words of Matt. 25:31-46 and think that works are not required in the tribulation period! 


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