Romans Chapter Four Versus James Chapter Two-Can They Be Reconciled?

            There probably aren’t two more diametrically opposed points of view in all the Scriptures about how salvation is obtained than Romans four and James two.  Over the years many theologians have attempted to reconcile these two seemingly opposite methods of salvation.  Martin Luther struggled with this so much that he at one point was ready to throw the book of James right out of the Bible because it did not match up well with Paul’s doctrine of being saved by grace through faith.  Paul writes in Romans four that a man is saved by faith apart from works and he uses Abraham as his example.  James, on the other hand, writes in James chapter two that one is not saved by faith alone.  Works are required to validate faith and James also uses Abraham as his example.  Well, who is right and who is wrong?

2 Timothy 2:15 tells us to rightly divide or handle the word of truth.  As I have written before and have come to believe is the most effective way to understand the Bible, one has to look at a passage of Scripture with a few things in mind.  Who was it written to, by whom and under what set of circumstances or economy.  In other words, was the Scripture written to the Body of Christ under the doctrine of grace?  Or was it written to the Jews under the covenant doctrines?  When we examine the Scriptures  that are in question in this article with a keen eye on these important interpretation techniques, the answer to the question of whether Romans four and James two can be reconciled, I believe, is a resounding yes.

Let’s first look at what Paul wrote in Romans four pertaining to Abraham.  We need not go into the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith as Paul makes it so clear throughout all his epistles that we are not saved by works.  See Ephesians 2:8-9 if this is unclear.  In Romans four Paul makes the case that Abraham was justified by faith by believing God back in Genesis 15:6.  5And He (God) took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them “And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6Then he (Abraham, then called Abram) believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:5-6) The next point that Paul makes in Romans is that this “reckoning” or crediting to Abraham was before the covenant of circumcision was given to Abraham by God.  In other words, Abraham didn’t do anything to receive righteousness from God except believe.  In fact, Paul points out in Romans 4:4 that if one tries to work for salvation, then it isn’t a gift.  It is due the worker as a wage for the work performed.  Paul is showing here that one of the revelations given to him is that salvation is a free gift.  Again refer to Ephesians 2:8-9.  8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Paul then goes on to show that Abraham, therefore, is the father of all who believe; both the circumcision believer as he received the covenant of circumcision by God in Genesis 17 and the uncircumcised believer as Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness before he was circumcised himself.

Now let’s examine James chapter two with the same scrutiny we gave Romans.  The first thing that jumps off the page is verse 24 which seems to contradict Romans and Ephesians.  24You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” As we read James 2:14-26 we see James putting forth the case that faith has to be followed by works and that no one is saved without them.  Abraham is then used again as evidence that this is the case.  James uses Genesis 22 for his purpose of showing how Abraham’s faith was alive as works accompanied it.  Genesis 22 is the account of Abraham obeying God and taking his “only son” Isaac to be sacrificed to the Lord.  James then quotes Genesis 15:6 as being “fulfilled” as now Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness; after the works of obeying God.  James uses the same Scripture that Paul uses, but to show something totally different.  When I first read this in James I thought that James was pulling a fast one.  He used a Scripture from before Isaac was even born to support his faith-works idea.  This faith-works relationship started with the conditional covenant of circumcision given to Abraham.  Genesis 17:14 makes it perfectly clear that this covenant was conditional.  As we look at the history of the Israelites and their journey with God, we see that they had to follow the law in order to remain in the covenants of God.  This carried right into the Gospels as John the Baptist preached repentance and baptism as a requirement for the Jews.  He was calling the Jews back to God.  16“And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.” (Luke 1:16) We see that it was God’s will that even the Pharisees were brought back to God through baptism.  30But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” (Luke 7:30) Peter preached the same message in Acts chapter 2 and the only way God would send the Christ back was if the nation of Israel repented and was baptized-works.  Their whole program from the beginning of the nation was a faith-works program.  Their blessings were conditional.  James 2:8-12 clearly shows what “works” James is referring to-the Law of Moses.

So, is there any doubt why James wrote that faith required works to support it?  That’s why James looked further into the book of Genesis to support his claim.  The account of Abraham sacrificing Isaac was after the conditional covenant of circumcision was instituted.  I have read authors and heard preachers try to explain away the controversy between Paul and James by saying that Paul was talking about being justified before God and that James was speaking of being justified in front of man to show that a person’s faith was real.  This idea does not stand up to close study though as the example James uses from Genesis 22 was Abraham showing his works to no one but God.   10Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.  11But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Genesis 22:10-12) There were no other men on the mountain when this occurred.  They had waited at the bottom and had no idea what was going to happen.  Also, in Luke 16:15, Jesus  absolutely prohibits men from justifying themselves before other men.  James, who was a strict Law keeper, clearly would not be condoning something that Jesus taught was wrong.

The reconciliation of Romans four and James two is revealed when the first verse of James chapter one is read.  James is writing to the “twelve tribes (of Israel) who are dispersed abroad.” Paul is writing to saved believers in the Body of Christ.  Further evidence of the separate ministries can be seen co clearly by reading Galatians two, which is Paul’s account of the Jerusalem council of Acts 15.  Paul writes in Galatians 2:8 that Peter and effectually the other eleven were Apostles of the circumcision (Israel) and that Paul was the Apostle of the Gentiles.  In Galatians 2:9 Paul tells us that he and the Apostles shook hands and agreed that Paul would go to the Gentiles and that the Apostles would go to Israel.  Why?  Paul had a different message than the twelve.  A reading of Romans four and James two is the epitome of this separating of the two messages.  Paul shows that believers are justified by faith alone, while James’ message followed the Jewish program for being right with God, which included works.  Genesis 15:6 actually does work for both; one on the basis of faith, the other on the basis of faith-works.

Written by Paul D. Pedro of Oakdale, Minnesota.

All Scriptures are taken from the New American Standard Bible.

Emphasis added by the author.