The Letter From James
A Comparison With Paul's Thought in Romans

There are so many similarities between the letter of James and the Paul's letter to the Romans that comparisons are inevitable. The two letters share many ideas and even figures of speech. One can hardly read one without being reminded of the other. Yet on the key issue of faith and work, the two letters appear to be opposed.

James and Romans have different (but overlapping) topics and audiences. The theme of James is expressing our faith, or of being so committed to God's desires that we can't help but act on our faith. A major subtheme of James is the equality of rich and poor before God, which is expressed by reversing their status. This letter is addressed to all Christians dispersed over the world. The major theme of Romans is the liberating transformation which Christ brings to his people, while a major subtheme is the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God. Romans, of course, is addressed to the church in Rome as Paul anticipates travelling there.

The two letters have numerous points of agreement, of which we will note several. These examples illustrate a strong identity in outlook, but this intensifies the question of their seeming disagreement.

First, then, on the matter of passing judgement. James says, "God is the only lawgiver and judge. He alone can save and destroy. Who do you think you are, to judge your fellow-man?" [James 4:12] Paul writes, "Who are you to judge the servant of someone else?" – meaning, of course, God's servants. "It is his own master who will decide whether he succeeds or fails." [Romans 14:4] And near the end of Romans, Paul pleads, "So, then, let us stop judging one another." [Romans 15:13] Both letters, then, condemn setting ourselves up as judges of anyone, and especially those who are, like us, trying to follow Jesus.

In the same vein, James condemns discrimination against the person who does not fit our preconceived notions of propriety. In the section on the rich and poor in worship, James says, "If you treat people according their outward appearence, you are guilty of sin, and the Law condemns you as a lawbreaker." [James 2:9] As Paul says, "God judges everyone by the same standard." [Romans 2:11] James then goes on to make the point that violating any of the rules in the Old Testament law makes one a lawbreaker. He cites particularly the rule on loving our neighbors and then concludes with the need for mercy, for "mercy triumphs over judgement" [James 2:13] What James implies here is what Paul states explicitly, that "everyone has sinned and is far from God's saving presence." [Romans 3:23]

Both letters spend much time on humility, although for the most part they have differing emphases. (See particularly James 4 and Romans 15.) They have a fundamental agreement, however, that our proper humility comes from understanding how we are dependent on God. James makes a point against making boastful plans when in fact we are dependent on the opportunities which God provides. He concludes, "But now you are proud, and you boast; all such boasting in wrong." [James 4:16] Paul emphasizes how we can't create our own relationship with God and asks, "What, then, can we boast about? Nothing." [Romans 3:27]

Both letters view sin and death in the same way. James says "evil desire conceives and gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." [James 1:15] Paul uses a more commercial metaphor, saying "sin pays its wage – death". [Romans 6:23] Paul also says, "For when we lived according to our human nature … all we did ended in death." [Romans 7:5; see also 8:6] In both letters, death and failure are seen as the natural and inevitable consequence of living apart from God.

For this reason, both authors insist that we need to turn away from the standard measures of what is good and desirable. Paul advises us, "Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of you mind." [Romans 12:2] James speaks even more sharply, saying that "to be the world's friend means to be God's enemy." [James 4:4]

How then, in the face of all this agreement, can these two letters speak so differently about faith and action? For James says plainly, "It is by his actions that a person is put right with God and not by faith alone." [James 2:24] But Paul says, "For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith and not by doing the works of the law." [Romans 3:28] If these statements were not themselves opposite enough, James and Paul use the same example from scripture, that of Abraham's offering of Isaac, to illustrate their differing points.

In examining this difference, we need to keep in mind the whole message of each letter. James is writing about living a committed life, one which goes "all the way" [1:4] to perfection. faith which does not lead to action is a dead thing [2:26], but faith and action should work together. In understanding James' remarks about Abraham, the key verse is this: Abraham' "faith and actions worked together; his faith reached its goal in his actions." [James 3:22] So James teaches that what we do must arise out of what we believe if we are to be true to our faith.

Paul, on the other hand, is arguing that we can't make ourselves righteous by what we do. "God puts people right by their faith in Jesus Christ," Paul writes. "God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all; everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence." [Romans 3:22-23] When Paul discusses the example of Abraham, he emphasizes that Abraham's work did not earn righteousness, like wage paid, but God's accounting accepts his faith in place of what was actually due. [Romans 4:4-5]

Paul then says that Abraham is the father of those who "live the life of faith". [Romans 4:12] Paul does not minimize right action; actually, more of the letter to the Romans is on how to live than on salvation by faith. After we have been transformed by God, we "will be able to know the will of God – what is good and pleasing to him." [Romans 12:2] To know the will of God is to have "the wisdom from above" which James speaks of. [James 3:17] Our wisdom, James says, will be proven by "good deeds performed with humility and wisdom." [James 3:13]

We may conclude, then, that James is writing about the way that true faith expresses itself in life, whereas Paul is writing about the gift from God that allows us to live such a life.

Even so, we should not try to force an identity of views between James and Paul. Trying to do that may be nothing more than boastfully denying our own limited understanding of God's truth and of the unique teaching in each letter. A more modest example is given by the Jerusalem Bible in its footnote to James 2:14-26. "The different points of view of James and Paul … are not wholly irreconciable," it says. "It is perfectly true, however, that in order to teach the same truth as Paul, James in different context and under different circumstances explains the case of Abraham in a completely different way from Paul."

Scripture quoted in the comparison between James and Romans is taken from or based on Today's English Version (American Bible Society, 1976).

September, 1994
Formatted February, 2006

This page is valid HTML

Pivot Rock Ensign