Those who claim that Paul and James taught the exact same gospel have an understandably hard time understanding the book of James. James outright contradicts Paul on several occasions. The most pronounced example is that of Justification:
Jas 2:24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only…
Jas 2:26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
Paul links works and “the law” throughout Romans, using them as synonyms. If Paul directly says salvation is not of works, and James directly states that it is, then Christians have a very distinct problem. Paul and James would be preaching different things at the exact same time (their ministries overlapped).
The Acts 9 Dispensationalist easily points out that James was written to the Jews (Jas 1:1). Paul’s ministry was to the Gentiles. James himself produced a letter stating that the Gentiles could be saved without the works of the law (such as circumcision). But later on, James learns that Paul is teaching Jews not to circumcise and James goes ballistic (commanding Paul to pay to have people circumcised).
But some Christians just do not want to believe that there were theological differences between Paul and James. They attempt to bypass the contradiction in James and Romans by word definitions. To the “moral works equals salvation” they will claim that works decried by Paul are only the symbolic works (like circumcision). To the antinomian, they claim that justification means different things in James and Romans. I will address the later.
This point is made by notable Soul-Winner, Pastor Anderson.
Now James uses plenty of terminology commonly found in Paul: “faith”, “save”, “justified”, “works”, “law”, “righteousness”, and “judgment”. The antinomian, in order to maintain that James preaches the same thing as Paul, has to redefine all these words. “Salvation” is changed from “Salvation to heaven” to “Salvation from hunger”. “Righteousness” and “justified” are changed from a “right standing before God” to a “perception by others about a believer”. “Judgment” is changed from a “final judgment by God” to a “present judgment by man”. Works and law are changed from the “moral and symbolic covenant of Abraham” to “good deeds”. The problem is that these changes are not justified by the text of James. In fact, the only reason that the antinomian tries to change their meaning is because they are uncomfortable with the implications.
James starts his letter talking about temptations.
Jas 1:12 Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him…
Jas 1:15 Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
James was addressing Christians in sin, who were justifying giving into their temptations by claiming that it was God’s doing. God was at fault. James rebukes them and explains that only those who “endure” will receive (in the future) the “crown of life”. Sin brought death. To James both life and death were literal, as Jesus stated that when the Kingdom returns the angels would gather the wicked and kill them!
Mat 13:38 The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;
Mat 13:39 The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
Mat 13:40 As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world.
Mat 13:41 The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity;
Mat 13:42 And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
To James, the good would be saved and the wicked killed. This theme is repeated throughout his letter. James fills his letter with enough references to the apocalypse that we know he is not just writing general statements (drinking too much alcohol leads to drunk driving which leads to death) nor is he talking about heaven and hell. James focuses on something that will soon disrupt the lives of the people to whom he writes. To James “the judge was at the door”, “people should not say what they were doing in a month”, “the coming of the Lord was nigh”. For this, people needed to reform themselves.
James warns people that if they only believe without works, they deceive themselves!
Jas 1:20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
Jas 1:21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
Jas 1:22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves
James distinguishes between “doers of the word” and “hearers of the word”. To James, mere “hearers of the word” could not “save their souls”. Literally translated “save your lives”.
James gives examples of doers and hearers. The man who does not control his own tongue, his religion is in “vain”. This means his religion is worthless. His religion will not save him from God’s judgment:
Jas 1:26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
Jas 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
Undefiled religion before God included positive works, such as visiting the orphans and widows combined with separating from the world (this is a Jewish concept of remaining a chosen people). Positive works play a large theme in James, he specifically states that “to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
James highlights prejudice, treating people unequally as a major sin worthy of death:
Jas 2:9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
Jas 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
Jas 2:11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
Jas 2:12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
This is not man’s law of which James speaks. James is not concerned with criminal penalties or social justice. James links violations of the “law” with God’s law, which he calls the law of liberty (a term only James ever uses). By this James seems to mean that although people were once sinners that God would have mercy on them and erase their past sins conditionally. But James points out that God’s mercy is conditional only if that individual also shows mercy:
Jas 2:13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
Now James reaches a critically cited passage, in which he explains that faith without works is dead. Pastor Anderson claims that this means that if someone has faith but does no good, then this benefits no other people. It is plausible, but that is not the context.
Jas 2:14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
Jas 2:15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
Jas 2:16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
Jas 2:17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
Although James’ example involves food, when people imitate that James’ point involves nourishment of others this draws the illustration too thin. This would be like reading the potter and clay parable and then claiming people are made of clay. James is showing how only with positive actions can faith save. In verse 14 this is explicit. James 2:17 answers the rhetorical question in James 2:14 asking if “faith without works can save a particular individual”. This is not about “saving” others. This question is not about society. James talks about the faith, works and salvation of one individual. If a person says that he has faith, but has no works, then his works cannot save him!
James then points out a natural criticism of faith without works:
Jas 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
Jas 2:19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
The man in question is not displayed as being “incorrect”. James is not correcting the hypothetical man, but using the hypothetical man to further criticize “workless faith”. He compares those with faith and without works to “demons”, further emphasizing that James’ concern isn’t social, but spiritual and eternal.
James then uses Abraham as an example. James talks about how “works” perfected Abraham’s faith. The implicit teaching is that if Abraham refused to sacrifice Isaac, then he would have lost his right standing with God (righteousness). Those who believe that James and Paul taught the same thing will try to redefine the terms, as explained before. But the text references Abraham’s imputed righteousness (as described by Gen 15:6). This was righteousness before God. It is in this context that Abraham’s work justifies him. Justifying is the process of making someone righteous. Abraham’s work made him righteous before God.
Chapter 3 leads to chapter 4 in which James describe various problems among his churches. Very bluntly he tells them that sin makes people enemies of God:
Jas 4:4 Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
James’ use of the term adulterer should not be taken literally. His point is not that people are cheating on their spouses; James is saying that people are cheating on God. This marriage imagery (between God and Israel) is common place throughout the Bible.
James then calls for repentance of sin:
Jas 4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Jas 4:8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.
To James repentance of sin saved people from being killed by God’s angels. Next while reminding people that the end is near, James points out that some people will definitely be killed by God:
Jas 4:12 There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?
Jas 4:13 Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:
Jas 4:14 Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.
Jas 4:15 For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.
Notice this saying “if the Lord will, we shall live”. Verse 12 points out it is God who “saves or destroys”. People should always be in fear of being counted among those who are going to be killed. James next points to the “rich” as examples of this wrath:
Jas 5:1 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you…
Jas 5:3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.
Because the rich have defrauded people of money, this was the reason that “misery” would come upon them. This was the reason their “flesh would be eaten as it were fire”. It was not because they “didn’t believe in Jesus”, it wasn’t because “insane wealth leads to a miserable life”. This was about the judgment during the coming Kingdom of God. James uses God’s war name to illustrate:
Jas 5:4 Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
The “sabaoth” means “armies”. God is the “God of hosts”. He commands armies of angels. Jesus preached, as quoted before, that these legions would round up the wicked and kill them. To this is what James alludes. He calls it the “day of slaughter”:
Jas 5:5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.
To top it all off, James warns the Christians that they too are in danger of the same slaughter:
Jas 5:8 Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.
Jas 5:9 Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.
James tells them “the judge” (God) is standing at the door. When guests are at the door, that means they are one step away from being inside the house. When James says “the coming of the Lord is nigh”, this was not an interpretive statement.
James ends his letter with an interesting statement that if a Christian converts a sinner then that Christian would have a multitude of sins forgiven. James is saying “if you are worried, here is how to secure your salvation”. Fitting James’ sincerity, the book ends abruptly afterwards (which would be curious if James was just writing broad letter listing general life guidelines):
Jas 5:20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
James preached about about salvation from the coming apocalypse, salvation through good works, and describes how Christians can best live their lives to avoid being judged. Modern Christians wildly misread the book of James. This is understandable because the apocalypse never occurred as predicted and Christians are at a loss to explain why. They want James to speak to them today. They want James to fit their pet theology. But it just doesn’t. It was written to a first century Jew in an apocalyptic mindset.