Saved by Faith or Works? Did James and Paul Contradict?

In this post, let us investigate the seemingly contradicting statements of James and Paul in their written letters. More importantly, let us understand how faith and works complement each other to help us improve our relationship with God!

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Martin Luther, the man who was mainly known as the catalyst of Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, called the Epistle of James the Epistle of Straw.

Because he found it hard to reconcile the teaching of Paul and James, he deemed that James’ writing was inferior to the writings of Paul.

A lot of Christians share the same sentiment. Thus, it is not a big surprise why James’ writing is put almost at the end of the New Testament even though James was known to be one of the leaders of the Jerusalem church.

What is the reason that James’ writing was ridiculed by some people? It is because of His teaching about faith and works.

People readily receive Paul’s teaching because they wrongly believe that Paul supports the abolition of God’s law. On the other hand, James was thought to teach that we still need to follow the law.

So, between Paul and James, because of the natural tendency of people not to submit to God’s law, they would rather choose Paul.

Therefore, we need to ask the question, are we saved by faith or by works? Did Paul and James contradict each other?

This is a vital subject to discuss because if there is a contradiction here, Christianity will fall apart. 

Join us now as we take a deeper look into this subject and find out the truth.

The Bible verses concerned

Let us first take a look at the verses that are of particular concern to us; James 2:24 and Romans 3:28.

James 2:24 tells us:

“Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”

Romans 3:28, part of Paul’s writing, tells us:

“For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands.”

On the surface, we might have a problem here. But for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, these verses are reconcilable.

Saved by Faith or Works? Did James and Paul Contradict?
Saved by Faith or Works? Did James and Paul Contradict?

Examining the context

The key to this problem is context – context, CONTEXT, and CONTEXT. By looking at the context we will see what Paul and James are really talking about.

Let’s Examine Paul’s Account in Romans 3:19-28. We read:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law

This is a handful of verses. So, let’s take a step back to see better what this section of the Bible really says.

Romans 3:20 tells us that the Law defines what sin is.

From this verse, it is very clear that if there is no law, there is no sin.

We read again:

Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

When we sin, the law demands the penalty of sin, which is death!

NO matter how hard you try, keeping the law will NEVER save you. When you commit sin, it automatically demands the penalty of DEATH. 

No matter how many good works you perform, no matter how perfect you try to follow the Law; IT WILL NEVER EVER MAKE UP FOR THE SINS You have previously committed. 

Thus, every one of us is under the curse of the law which is death.

Romans 3:24-25 tells us that only by grace and death of Jesus Christ or Yahshua the Messiah that we are freed from the curse of the Law. 

Jesus died for our sin. The death penalty should have been executed on us, but Jesus died for our sin so that we may live.

Romans 3:27 tells us that we cannot boast of our own works or righteousness before God because salvation is a gift of God. Through faith in God, we can trust Him that we will be saved.

Romans 3:28 comes to the conclusion that a man is justified by faith and not by law.

Historical background of Paul’s writing

HERE IS THE TWIST. Why was Paul saying all these? 

The Jews in Paul’s time are so self-righteous in their own eyes that they claim that through their works, they can EARN salvation. 

This is the very attitude Paul is fighting! The Jews are even teaching others that by their tradition and law-keeping, they are made right with God. Paul out-rightly contradicted this thinking.

The Jews have made many traditions that are contrary to God’s commandments. Yahshua had to confront the Pharisees and Sadducees, many times, because of their traditions that made God’s Law a burden and of no effect.

This was the MAIN point of Paul!

Understanding James’ message

Now, let’s take a look at what James wrote in James 2:20-26:

20 But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? 23 And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.

25 Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. 

In this letter, James was condemning the Christians of ‘intellectual’ faith. Christians are equipped with the right knowledge about God’s way of life, but the problem was that they didn’t apply what they learned.

James argues in 2:21 that Abraham was justified when he offered his son, Isaac.

He argues that ACTION should follow faith!

Head knowledge or head faith only will not save you. He said that even the demons believe there is God; however, what you do with that belief changes everything.

In James 2:24, James said that “not by faith ONLY”. He means we must have FAITH but it should NEVER EVER stop at that. Action is needed to demonstrate faith. 

Believing is one thing but acting on that belief is completely different.

It is worth noting here that James did not mention the word LAW. He is talking about WORKS instead.

THEREFORE, there is really no contradiction in Paul’s and James’ statement.

Final words

At the final analysis, the points of Paul and James can be summed up in this statement:


Paul and James were working back to back. They have their own battle to fight through their letters. 

One was fighting the notion that we can earn salvation through our works while one was fighting the notion that faith is enough without works.

Instead of contradicting each other, Paul and James actually complemented each other. 

To end this blog, let me leave you with this scripture to prove further that Paul does not champion abolishing God’s law.

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5 thoughts on “Saved by Faith or Works? Did James and Paul Contradict?

  1. Pingback: 10 Biggest Lies Your Pastor Probably Had Told You | Christian Living 101

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  4. What about water baptism? People say that we aren’t saved by baptism because it’s a work. But nowhere in the Bible is it called a work. In Acts 2:38 we are commanded to be baptized for the remission of sin therefore it is Obedience and Not a work. It’s God who cleanses our sins through baptism, Not us. When we are obedient to God He sanctifies us through baptism. There are many other references to baptism for remission of sin, yet you didn’t address this topic and you can’t ignore the scriptures that refer to baptism for salvation.


    • Hi Carol,

      The blog on this page is basically about James and Paul’s perspective on works and faith. I didn’t mention baptism here because it wasn’t my main concern at the moment.

      However, let me tell you here that baptism is an important part of our walk with God. It’s an outward expression of our commitment to the Almighty.

      Christ was baptized, a sinless man. How much more should we be baptized, right?

      So, we must follow the Master’s example and also be baptized.



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