A Comparison of Romans 4 and James 2:14-26

by Jim Sasser

Recently, we have been listening to a speaker on this radio station discussing the 4th chapter of Romans as compared to the 2nd chapter of James. It was obvious, from some of his statements, that he was trying to make Paul teach salvation by faith only and at the same time cause James to be in agreement with such.

In trying to accomplish such a thing as this, one has to do a lot of shuffling of Scriptures, a lot of assuming and presuming, a lot of inserting and asserting. Such is condemned by the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9. One cannot be completely open and plain with the teaching found in the writings of Paul and James, and yet claim that a person is saved from his past sins by faith only because neither Paul nor James teaches such. Let me hasten to add that their teaching is in complete harmony and there are no contradictions found anywhere in the Bible.

Now, let us take time to read some of the two books in question: The Book of Romans and the Book of James. We will begin reading in the third chapter of Romans about verse nineteen. If you have your Bibles, read along with us. Having read from Romans, we will now read from the Book of James. We will read from chapter two, beginning with verse fourteen.

The Book of Romans was written primarily to the Jewish Christians in Rome. The first chapter tells us of the plight of the Gentiles and how very degraded they had become in their manner of life. In chapter two, Paul rebukes the Jews for being so pious and self-righteous but yet being engaged in some of the same things that the Gentiles were engaged in. Then, in chapter three, he tells them, in spite of their smugness at being Jews, God's chosen people, that under the Christian dispensation, all were under sin, both Jew and Gentile, and that all had to be saved in the same way; by the grace of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

And that is the argument we find Paul making as we come to the text that we have read in your hearing today. Now, let us turn our attention to the two portions of Scripture in question and do some studying of what is taught therein. In Romans 3:19, Paul was talking to the Jews, and they could not deny that their own inspired prophets had said, "And all the world may be brought under the judgment of God." But Paul also proves from the Scripture that the Jews too were under the judgment of God.

In Romans 3:20, had the Jews kept the law of Moses perfectly, they would have been justified by that law; but Paul had proved by their own Scriptures that they had not so kept the law. He had shown them to be guilty of many and grievous sins: "for through the law cometh the knowledge of sin." That which might have been the means of their justification had, on account of their sins, become the means of their conviction. Paul had shown how both Jew and Gentile had sinned under their respective places before God, therefore, a suitable plan was needed to justify both.

In Romans 3:21, a plan of righteousness has been manifested made known or brought to light. This plan is distinct from law. And yet the Jew should not have been astonished at the inauguration of this new plan of righteousness, for both the law and the prophets had borne witness concerning this plan of righteousness -- "being witnessed by the law and the prophets."

Paul does not say that this plan of righteousness was taught and developed by the law and the prophets, but that they bore witness, gave their testimony, concerning this plan of righteousness which was now, apart from the law, brought to light.

Romans 3:22-24, these verses, along with Romans 3:21, connect closely with Romans 1:16-17. This righteousness which is apart from the law is attained through faith in Jesus Christ; and it is for all who believe, for there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. All, both Jew and Gentile, need this gospel salvation; for all have sinned -- all have come short of the glory of God. This salvation for all was according to God's plan and purpose.

God had chosen Abraham and his seed for a special purpose. The Jews had failed to grasp God's purpose; they thought of Jehovah as their God, and no one else's. In their thinking, he was a tribal, or national, God. In fact, it took a special miracle, on a housetop, to convince Peter that Jehovah was God of more than just the Jews. So, in order to correct this deep-seated idea among the Jews, Paul had to frequently remind the Jewish Christians that now there was no distinction between Jews and Gentiles.

Law cannot declare a person just, or free from guilt if he had violated it in only one point. Justification by law was impossible, for all sinned. But, apart from law, a plan of righteousness had been revealed through Jesus Christ. This plan definitely was of grace, we in no way deserved or merited it, yet it was a teaching and doing plan of grace (Titus 2:11-12). To justify a person is to pronounce him just, or righteous; to declare him not guilty. Of course, if a person kept the law perfectly, he would be justified by the law; he would be declared not guilty. If God forgives a sinner, there is then nothing against him. He is free from guilt -- he is as righteous as if he had never sinned.

Grace is unmerited favor. It is a benefit bestowed without pay -- the gratuitous bestowal of a thing that a person needs. The sinner needs forgiveness -- he needs to be righteous. Only through God's grace is it possible for a sinner to be for- given, or to be justified. No matter how many things we may be required to do as conditions of forgiveness, and many are required, it does not destroy the fact that, on God's part, His forgiveness and justification are of grace. So, no amount of works will destroy the fact that forgiveness is by grace.

In Romans 3:28, from this verse, we may draw hurtful conclusions, if we do not keep in mind Paul's line of argument. Paul is not contrasting faith and the obedience of faith, but he is contrasting justification by works of law and justification by faith. In Romans 1:5, he speaks of "the obedience of faith" -- that is, the obedience of which faith is the source or foundation -- an obedient faith. Works of law is an entirely different thing from the obedience of faith. When Paul talks about faith, he means an obedient faith. Many people stumble through the Book of Romans without ever recognizing and realizing the fact that Paul makes that plain in the very beginning of the Book.

To make works of law refer to the obedience of faith is to enshroud ourselves in a fog of confusion form which we will not be able to emerge with any clear ideas of the gospel plan of salvation. To be justified by works of law requires that works, as measured by law, be perfect. A sinner can never be justified by works of law, for no amount of works will change the fact that he has sinned. But the death of Christ upon the cross made it possible for those who believe (engage in the obedience of faith) to be justified. But just here, we need to be careful that we do not accept a hurtful error, namely, the limiting of faith to the mental acceptance of Christ as the Sacrifice for our sins. Because, saving faith, in the gospel plan of salvation, is obedient faith. Not to the works of the law, but to the works of grace supplied by God through Jesus Christ and revealed in the New Testament.

In Romans 3:29-31, just because we accept the gospel plan of salvation, that plan that has been furnished by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, as we read in the New Testament, does not mean that the Law of Moses and the Law of the Patriarchs of old had no rhyme nor reason. Because, actually, the Law of Moses fulfilled its purpose in directing the Jews toward and up to the coming of Christ (Galatians 3:23-25) But, when it fulfilled its purpose it was superseded by that which was by grace through Christ to all men (Titus 2:11-2).

So, really the law of Christ, the plan of salvation revealed in the gospel, established the end of the very purpose of the Law of Moses. But, the promise of salvation for all men, not only the Jews, was promised to and through Abraham, separate and apart from the Law of Moses. Actually, the Law of Moses stands somewhat as a parenthetical expression sandwiched in between the promise given to Abraham and its fulfillment in Christ. So, the gospel plan of salvation, that salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:5-10), as revealed by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, that plan whereby we can work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12), that plan supplied by the wonderful mercy of God, through His Son Jesus Christ, is not dependent upon keeping the Law of Moses as the Jews thought, especially the keeping of the fleshly rite of circumcision. This is the burden of Paul's writing to the Romans and he uses Abraham as an example, as we will see in the fourth chapter, to prove that salvation and justification are brought about by the obedience of faith rather than the keeping of the Law of Moses.

In Romans 4:1-2, to see clearly the meaning of an author, it is necessary that we get his background, and be able to grasp the purpose of his writing. Why did Paul labor so earnestly to set forth the distinction between the law and the gospel and to prove that men are justified by faith, and not by works of law? In much of what he said in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews, he set forth plainly that the gospel was a thing apart from the Law of Moses, that the Law ended at the cross and that the gospel is God's perfected plan for man's redemption. But what was behind all this effort? What special need was there for so much teaching along this line? The reader of these Books mentioned will also find some very pointed teaching along the same line in II Corinthians, Ephesians, and Colossians. Why was it so necessary that all the churches be informed in these matters?

Because the first converts to Christianity were Jews. They were so wedded to the Law of Moses that they broke away from it very slowly. At first, they even thought that the gospel was for Jews only. The conversion of Cornelius convinced them that God had also granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life (Acts 11:18). But they still thought and contended that these Gentile converts to Christianity had to keep the Law of Moses. After the church was planted at Antioch, "certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). When an appeal was made to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit through them decreed that the Gentiles should not be required to keep the law. But this decree did not stop the mouths of some of the more extreme Judaizing Christians. These went about among the churches, making much trouble in the churches where there were Gentile members. They sought to make the church of the Lord Jesus Christ a mere sect of the Jews and the gospel of Christ a sort of adjunct to the Law of Moses. Judging from a human standpoint, they would have succeeded had it not been for Paul. Because he fought them on every point of their contentions, they were his bitter enemies.

These Judaizers put a lot of stress on their fleshly relation to Abraham and the fleshly rite of circumcision. So, in effect, Paul said to them: "You put so much stress on the flesh, now tell us what Abraham obtained or accomplished according to the flesh. He came out of heathenism and therefore had no fleshly connections of when he could boast, and he was also justified before he was circumcised. He was not justified by works of the flesh or law, and therefore he could not boast toward God." Then, Paul quotes Scripture to remind them that Abraham was justified, before circumcision, by a plan contrary to their Judaizing contentions.

In Romans 4:3, is a quotation from Genesis 15:6. Jehovah had just promised Abraham a son and a posterity as numberless as the stars, though he was old and Sarah was past the normal age of childbearing. "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness." One of the strangest things in all the field of Bible exegesis is the contention so generally made, that this language of Paul as taken from Genesis refers to the justification of Abraham as an alien sinner, one that has never really known God, nor been in the good graces of God. It seems to be taken for granted that up to the time spoken of in this verse, he was an unforgiven, condemned sinner. It has been argued that Paul here spoke of Abraham's justification as a sinner and that James 2:21-24, spoke of his justification as a righteous man. It is surprisingly strange that any person who claims at all to be familiar with the history of Abraham would so contend, for the facts are all against such a supposition.

But, what are the facts of the case? Actually, for a number of years previous to the promise to Abraham of a son and numerous other descendants, Abraham had been a faithful servant of God. Let us consider a few things said of him:

  1. God had appeared to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees and commanded him to go into a land which would be shown him, and promised to bless him, and to make a great nation of him, and to bless all families of the earth through his seed, Genesis 12:1-3; Acts 7:2-3.
  2. "By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed to go out unto a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing whither he went" (Hebrews 11:8). By faith he obeyed and trustingly did as commanded, not knowing where he was going. Strange conduct indeed for an unforgiven, condemned sinner!
  3. When he reached the place of Shechem, in the land of Canaan, "Jehovah appeared unto Abram, and said, 'Unto thy seed will I give this land: and there builded he an altar unto Jehovah, who appeared unto him" (Genesis 12:6-7). Why this promise, and why this worship, if Abraham was then an unforgiven sinner?
  4. Abraham moved on from there to a mountain between Bethel and Ai; "and there he builded an altar unto Jehovah, and called upon the name of Jehovah" (Genesis 12:8).
  5. After his unfortunate visit to Egypt, he returned to the altar between Bethel and Ai; "and there Abram called on the name of Jehovah" (Genesis 13:3,4). Can anyone believe that an unforgiven sinner was thus worshiping Jehovah and calling on His name?
  6. When he returned from the slaughter of the kings who had taken Lot captive, Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, "blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of God Most High" (Genesis 14:19). As Abram was blessed, or happy, and as he was described as "Abram of God Most High," it is certain that he was not a condemned alien sinner.
  7. After these things and before the promise of a son, the Lord said to him: "Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward," (Genesis 15:1). That settles it. God would not tell an unforgiven sinner not to fear; neither is He the shield and exceeding great reward of such a sinner.

Why have not all these things been taken into consideration by our super-exegetes and scholars? It is certain, therefore, that the language of Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:3, does not refer to the justification of an alien sinner, and they greatly err who so apply it. It is true that Paul was trying to convince the Jews that this justification happened before the giving of the law, but he was using this well-known fact to offset their claim that a person had to be circumcised after the manner of Moses, or he could not be saved. Their own father Abraham, of whom they boasted, would be cut off by their arguments for the law.

In Romans 4:4, Paul is not condemning salvation by works in this verse; he is merely stating a truth. We can rest assured that if we could so work as to bring God into our debt, to the extent of our salvation, He would pay that debt. But for that to be true, a person's work would have to be perfect -- he would have to so live as to never sin, never incur any guilt. But if a man sins once, salvation can never come to him as a matter of debt. Such a man can never be justified by works of law. He needs forgiveness, and the law does not forgive; it condemns. No perfection of works will blot out, or forgive, a sin already committed, nor make void the grace in the forgiveness of that sin.

Much random talk has been uttered in respect to Romans 4:4 and much of it is very hurtful. It has been made to do service in an effort to prove that a sinner could do nothing in order to be saved. Paul had no such point in view. If we keep in mind his argument, all along the line in the context, we will have no trouble in seeing his point; but if we switch his language from his line of argument and make his language refer to the conditions on which pardon is offered to an alien sinner, we misrepresent him and lose ourselves in the confusion of our own notions.

In Romans 4:5, note that Paul says nothing about "the one who depends on works," nor "the one who depends not on works." He speaks of the one who works and the one who does not work. Works, in both Romand 4:4,5, must have the same significance, for Paul had not changed his subject. Only perfect works, works without any guilt of sin, can bring salvation as a debt. The one "who worketh" is, therefore, the one whose works are so perfect that he has no guilt of sin. But no one has so lived. Hence, to the one whose works is not perfect, but who believes in Jesus Christ, God reckons, or counts, his faith in the direction of righteousness. Certainly, in no place or in any way, does Paul say that God makes a person righteous that will not obey Him. If so, he puts a premium on the very thing from which the gospel is intended to save and contradicts other things said by him.

In Romans 4:4-5, which we have been studying, Paul did not have a special reference to the salvation of alien sinners, as will be seen by observing his quotation from David. The connection in Psalms 32, from which Paul quotes, shows that David had made a special reference to his own forgiveness. He did not have in mind the forgiveness of alien sinners, but the forgiveness of a servant of God. God counts the man righteous, whose sins are forgiven To such a man the Lord does not reckon sin, because his sins have been forgiven, and he is no longer guilty. Such a one is righteous.

Paul and James

Now, let us take a look at some statements of both Paul and James. Paul says, "But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness" (Romans 4:5). James says, "Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith" (James 2:24). Paul says, "For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath whereof to glory" (Romans 4:2). James says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar?" (James 2:21). Some have thought that there is a conflict between Paul and James but rightly considered there is not even a seeming discrepancy between them. However, James does flatly contradict the explanation that is sometimes given to Paul's language here. But the trouble comes from misunderstanding Paul or misapplying James, or maybe both.

Paul was talking about works of law; James was talking about works of faith. Paul was showing the Judaizing Christians that no one could be righteous, or justified, by works of law, for not one kept the law perfectly, and that to be justified or made righteous, a person must believe in Christ. Paul was arguing that works without faith would not justify, and James was arguing that faith without works would not justify. To exclude either is to fail of justification. Both Paul and James referred to Abraham to illustrate their points. Abraham was justified without works of law, but he was justified by works of faith. James laid down the principle that faith without works is dead, and will not justify. He used Abraham as an example and then drew the broad conclusion that a man -- any man -- is justified by works, and not by faith only.

An effort is sometimes made to explain Paul and James by saying that Paul was talking of justification of an alien sinner and that James was talking about the justification of a Christian. It is argued that an alien sinner must be justified by faith only, in order that it may be by grace, and that if the sinner has to perform any conditions, his salvation is of works and not of grace. But what about the Christians? If works of faith destroy grace, then the works which they say a Christian must perform to be justified destroys all grace from the life of a Christian. How is it, according to these teachers, there can be no grace involved if the alien sinner has to do any works, but on the other hand, in the justification of a Christian there must be works?

But the theory that is put forth by these false teachers, that Paul argues for the elimination of all works and conditions in the salvation of an alien sinner, not only contradicts James, but it also contradicts Paul himself. If all works are eliminated, then faith itself is also eliminated, for we are told that faith is a work. "They said therefore unto Him, What must we do, that we may work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe (have faith) on Him whom He hath sent" (John 6:28-29). And Paul tells us emphatically that eternal life is granted to those who "by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption" (Romans 2:6-7). To seek "by patience in well-doing" requires human effort. Again, Paul says, "But thanks be to God, that, whereas ye were servants of sin, ye became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto ye were delivered; and being made free from sin, ye became servants of righteousness" (Romans 6:17-18). They obeyed from the heart. That means that their faith expressed itself in obedience to God. By this obedience, they were made free from sin. Here again, is human effort.

Grace provided the plan by which sinners are saved, or made righteous, and grace tells us how to come into possession of that salvation. If people would quit arraying the commands of God against the grace of God, they would have a clearer vision of the scheme of redemption. God's grace is in every command He gives. The sinner was lost; God prepared a way by which he could get out of that lost state. That was grace. But that was not enough. He needed to know how to find that way, and how to walk in it. It is as much a matter of grace to tell him how to find that way, and how to walk in it as it is to provide the way. But when the way is fully prepared, and full directions are given as to how to find that way, and how to walk in it, the next move is up to men. "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works" (Titus 2:11-14).

The whole matter is well illustrated by the events on Pentecost in Acts 2. The way had been prepared and revealed to the people; and then, in response to their question, Peter told them how to get in the way. That was a matter of grace. Then Peter exhorted them to save themselves. Many did as they were commanded and were thereby saved from their past sins. They were prompt in their obedience as if their salvation depended wholly on works. And actually, as far as what they could do about it was concerned, their salvation was wholly a matter of works.

Yes, my beloved brethren and friends, we are saved by grace through faith, the obedient faith. I trust that this study has been helpful. Much more could be said, but this will suffice for now. Be obedient, by faith, to the teaching of God's grace.

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