Paul and James use the same vocabulary: they both talk about faith, works, righteousness and justification, and about the relationship between these things. Yet Paul is adamant that justification is by faith alone, and not by works (e.g. Romans 1:17, 3:22-24; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8,9); while James appears to contradict him by insisting that works are also essential for justification (James 2:14-26). What is even more puzzling is that they both use Abraham as an illustrative example (Romans 4:1-3; James 2:21-23), and they quote the same Old Testament text (Genesis 15:6) to support points of view that seem to be completely opposed to each other. How can they reach such differing conclusions?
It is important to note that James is not envisaging justification by works done in a spirit of self-reliance; faith has to be the source of the works and the driving force behind them (James 2:22). And Paul doesn’t teach justification by faith alone in the sense of a faith that is disconnected from obedience; he expects believers to “demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20) and to work out their salvation (Philippians 2:12). He consistently taught his converts the importance of loving deeds as well as faith (e.g. Galatians 5:6; I Thessalonians 1:3; Colossians 1:3,4), and was as eager for them to show practical help to the poor as even James could wish (Galatians 2:10). So is his overall message essentially different from that of James? Love for one’s neighbour is not an optional extra, but integral to a genuine Christian faith.
James, however, is much more forthright about the necessity for good works than Paul is. Paul seems to imply that a verbal profession of faith in Jesus is sufficient to be saved (Romans 10:9,10); but James will not let this stand alone (James 2:19). As he has already pointed out, a verbal declaration that is not accompanied by the appropriate actions is just empty words – and words alone achieve nothing (James 2:14-17). Therefore, merely to know the truth about God is insufficient; everything depends on what you do with that knowledge. James pushes this through to its logical conclusion: it is the presence (or absence) of good works that makes the very practical difference between salvation and judgement. Rahab’s case illustrates his point well: it was not her declaration of faith in the supremacy of the God of Israel (Joshua 2:11), but her action in helping the Israelite spies, that caused her life to be saved when Jericho was destroyed (Joshua 6:17; James 2:25).