The book of James is a compilation of wisdom sayings that relies heavily on Hebrew wisdom literature and Jesus’ teachings, especially Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Thus, there are several themes that are addressed in James, and one of these themes is the relationship of faith and works. James is writing to a Jewish-Christian audience concerning those who claim to be in a reconciled relationship with God but are neglecting works of charity and love. James is addressing some who are compartmentalizing their faith into a solely creedal expression. James states, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that, and shudder” (2:19 NIV). This is the “faith along” mentality that James is confronting─a faith apart from actions. James is attacking the bogus faith that has reared up─the faith that a person claims to have (2:14); the faith that is dead (2:17, 26); the faith that is useless (2:20). For James, true saving faith reveals itself in its good works (Davids 458).
James may have been responding to an early misunderstanding of Paul’s oral teaching. Paul’s phrase “justification by faith alone” may have been used and perverted by some as an excuse for a lack of christian charity and service to others (Moo 26). Thus, James seeks to defend Paul’s true teaching by confronting the “perverted Paulinism” (Moo 26). James states, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (2:24). James’ focus is on the ultimate declaration of righteousness pronounced over people at the final judgement where their true faith relationship with God will be validated by their good works that true faith produces (Moo 141).
Paul’s thoughts on faith and works are presented to different audiences than James. Paul writes to Jews and Gentiles, and so he is addressing different concerns relating to salvation. Thus, Paul needs to speak to the human condition of both Jews and Gentiles, and their relationship to the “works of the Law” and to good works in general. Paul quotes from the Psalmist in Romans 3:10-12, “No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one.” This is Paul’s perspective when teaching on justification by faith and not by works of the Law or by good works in general. Paul writes, “a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal 2:16). Paul’s main argument is that Gentiles do not need to become Jews to enter the kingdom of God. Gentiles do not need to follow the Jewish rituals to be declared righteous, but rather it is through faith in Jesus that God declares them righteous (Davids 460).
Once people enter into a relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ, they become “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”(Eph 2:10). Paul explains that good works are the evidence of faith and the result of the grace of God in the life of believer. In fact, Paul encourages believers to express their faith with good works. He writes, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”(Gal 5:6). Thus, in view of Paul’s teaching on faith and works, James and Paul would agree on the relationship of faith and works in the Christian life (Davids 460).
Davids, P.H. “James and Paul.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald Hawthorne et al. Inter-Varsity Press, 1993.
Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (PNTC) Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.