When debating covenant theologians (in this context, covenant theologians are those who believe Paul and Jesus, James and the twelve taught the same ministry), it is not a fruitful use of time to talk about the differences between Paul and James:
Jas 2:24 You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
It is not enough to show these Christians that both Paul and James have near identical, opposite statements (even using the same Greek work for works/deeds and justification). The faith-alone crowd will attempt to claim that James was speaking in a different context about a non-salvation issue. Alternatively, the works-faith crowd will likewise try to explain away Paul (by saying he is only referring to symbolic law).
Although the two statements on face value contradict, one would have to build an overaching contextual framework for both in a failed attempt to change the immutable minds of the covenant theologians. It does not work.
Instead, the better path is Acts. Acts contains at minimum 3 very distinct instances of the apostles still teaching Jewish symbolic law: Acts 10, Acts 11, and Acts 21.
In Acts 10, Peter is praying on a rooftop. This is about 5-10 years after Jesus had died. Peter sees a vision. It is unclean meat. Peter is revolted.
Act 10:13 And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.”
Act 10:14 But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.”
Act 10:15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.”
Act 10:16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again.
It takes the voice over three times to get through the Peter. Peter is adamant against eating non-kosher food. This tells us something extremely important about all the previous books of Acts: works were still being taught up until that point. There was no hint with Peter that the kosher food laws had been abolished. Peter becomes thoroughly confused:
Act 10:17 Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate.
Peter wonders about this for a while. This new revelation was shocking to him and he did not know what to make of it. It was not until men from Cornelius arrived that Peter put events together. Of note is Peter’s intelligence. Although his vision was not about Gentiles, Peter learned that the Gentiles being grafted in was paralleled in the kosher food law vision. Peter is not a dense individual, but until this point, Peter had not even considered that kosher food laws were abolished or Gentiles were grafted in.
Again, Peter was the head of the church, an apostle of Jesus, and had fellowshipped with Jesus for 3 years during Jesus’ lifetime and the 40 days after Jesus rose from the dead. Peter knew what Jesus taught. The clear conclusion was that whatever Jesus taught, it included kosher food laws and Gentile exclusion.
In this text, Peter has no clue that the kosher food laws were in jeopardy or that Gentiles were going to be accepted into salvation. Peter states as much. Peter is summoned to a Gentile’s house, and Peter’s first reaction is to talk about how Jewish-Gentile relations are still taboo:
Act 10:28 Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
Not only is Peter astonished at this, but also Peter’s friends:
Act 10:45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
None of these people, even after listening to the ministry of Jesus for three years, had any clue that the Gentiles would be accepted by God. In the next chapter, even more Jews are shocked at this. The text makes clear that they had only been going to the Jews thus far (Act 11:19).
As of Acts 10, no one had any clue that the symbolic law, including kosher, was not still required. For an entire 5-10 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, all Christians were teaching Jewish law! They are all shocked when kosher food laws are deemed non-enforced and Gentiles are given salvation. There is no way that Jesus taught anything except keeping the Mosaic Law. But the covenant theologians will hold that Peter was confused. They believe that for 5-10 years, the entire church was confused about the basic salvation method.
In Acts 15, Peter and James resolve a dispute between their converts and Paul. James and Peter’s converts confront Paul in Galatia and start preaching circumcision. Paul responds harshly and the matter is appealed to Peter and James. Peter and James, at this time, are still preaching circumcision. They hold debates on the issue, with various Christian factions arguing their points. This was not a resolved issue at this point (14 to 18 years after Jesus).
Peter solves the dispute by producing a letter explaining that the Gentiles (only the Gentiles) are exempt from circumcision. This pacifies the Jewish Christians who were in arms about Paul teaching not to circumcise. Both Peter and James, until this point, had not been teaching faith alone, had still been teaching circumcision. All of Christianity believed that circumcision was critical to salvation. This is at least 14 to 18 years after Jesus’ death. To stress this point: 14 to 18 years later, all of Christianity still believes that circumcision is necessary. The incident in Acts 10 did little to change Peter’s core teaching. Peter may or may not have taught kosher food laws, but he definitely was teaching circumcision. Peter’s compromise still mandates Jews circumcise, and only creates an exception for the Gentiles. If the text does not make this clear, the entire resolution is summarized in Acts 21.
In Acts 21, Paul for the last time goes to Jerusalem. There Paul meets with James and the elders. James summarizes Acts 15:
Act 21:25 But concerning the Gentiles who believe [contrasted to the Jews in the previous verses], we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
Notice “we have written”. This is James talking. James is summarizing the resolution of Acts 15. The resolution was that the Gentiles would not have to follow the Mosaic Law, but the Jews would still be required to keep the law. James had been preaching circumcision for 30 years after Jesus. Additionally, James is very concerned that Paul was teaching Jews not to circumcise.
The other events in Acts 21 are of interest as well. Paul is prophesied to be harmed in Jerusalem, but Paul goes anyways. Paul meets with James and the elders to tell them what great things were happening among the Gentiles. James interrupts. James points out that Christian Jews in Jerusalem were all zealous for the law. James relays reports to Paul that Paul had been teaching Jews not to circumcise (true reports (see Romans)). James reminds Paul that the compromise was that Gentiles did not have to follow the law, which did not extend to Jews. James asks Paul to pay for purification of certain Jews to prove to the Jewish Christians that he still taught works.
Paul accepted. But the Christian Jews and religious Jews riot. Paul is rescued by Romans and shipped aboard.
What this tells us is that all of Jerusalem still believed in circumcision. Furthermore, Peter and James did not preach against circumcision or else would have suffered similar fates. In fact, James encourages Paul to counter Paul’s own previous preaching on circumcision. There is no evidence that Peter and James ever gave up teaching circumcision and works for the Jews. Acts shows this very evidently.
When covenant theologians are forced to address Acts, they would rather talk about crazy theories that reconcile the book of James with the works of Paul. That is why showing that basic read skills and the book of Acts thoroughly discredit their theology: theology that they force onto Acts and create crazy narratives if explored.
Questions that Covenant Theologians will not answer:
Prior to Acts 10, was Peter under the impression that the Kosher food laws were required?
In Acts 21, did James believe that circumcision was still required for Jews?
In Acts 15, had the issue of gentile circumcision been resolved yet in the church?