James and Paul – Faith and Deeds


As noted in the preceding chapter, Paul used the example of Abraham to illustrate the ideal of faith. In Genesis 15:6: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” This passage underpinned Paul’s gospel. According to Paul, anyone who believed or had faith in the blood of Christ would be considered righteous and forgiven before God.

James also used Genesis 15:6 in his letter. According to James’ interpretation, it was not just faith but faith accompanied by works which set Abraham apart.

You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:20-24)

Let us apply some logic to the example of Abraham. If Abraham had refused to offer Isaac on the altar, would Abraham have been considered righteous by God? Abraham could have said, “I believe in you God, but I will not do what you ask. Try me again next week!” No, Abraham went against his own better judgment and began offering his son in sacrifice. That was faith. An utterance from our lips does not prove faith, yet our actions show our worship. If we cheat and steal, our actions show that we worship money, even though we may go to church twice a week and proclaim Jesus.

James wrote: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” (James 2:17) and “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.” In short, faith is not really faith without good works. In essence, James was telling Paul and his disciples that their faith was absolutely worthless unless accompanied by action. And the first action would be circumcision, the seal in the everlasting covenant between God and man.

In Galatians, certain men came from James who taught that following the law of God was necessary for salvation. (Gal. 2:12; 3:1-4) This also was the case in the King Izates conversion as related by Josephus (Ant. 20.34-48). Paul, afraid to lose his following, asked them, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Here, Paul directly opposed James’ theology of faith made relevant by actions.

Remember, James stated that even the demons believe. He, therefore, did not hold to the simple faith or belief as espoused by Paul. Paul wrote in Romans 10:9: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Paul substituted believing in the resurrection for obeying the law. James certainly believed in the resurrection, yet he also knew that God required man to obey His laws. According to James, you could not substitute belief for following the law. To James, belief was made alive by following the law.

Paul wrote about the difference between his Gentiles and the Jews, the difference between faith and works:

What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. (Romans 9:30-32)

This Pauline theology has been accepted over the past 1900 years by the Gentile Church, but it was never accepted by the Jewish Christians as represented by James and Cephas. Certainly, Paul did not preach his new gospel in the early years of his ministry. This evolution in thought, prodded by revelations from the Risen Christ, made Paul view the Gentiles differently. He planned to reach them through a unique message, a mixture of the Jesus story with the prevalent mystery religions of the day. In that way, his Gentile followers really did not need to change dramatically. If Paul had followed the ways of Jesus, James and Cephas, then he would have had to preach the law and circumcision to his followers. This would have slowed the growth among the Gentiles. In his desire to reach and convert as many Gentiles as possible, Paul abandoned the original message of Jesus and created his own hybrid religion. In the end, due to the Jewish war with Rome, Paul’s version won out.

View my new book, Judas of Nazareth, at www.danielunterbrink.com

Daniel T. Unterbrink
Author of Judas of Nazareth, available from these booksellers:


About danielunterbrink

Dan Unterbrink has dual degrees from Ohio State. THE THREE MESSIAHS is his third book on Christian origins, underscoring his passion for the subject.
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One Response to James and Paul – Faith and Deeds

  1. Jonathan Hoffman says:

    Paul’s theology of justification by faith was cited in Romans 4:3, which quotes Gen 15:6, but it appears to me that the Hebrew in that verse actually states that Abram was praising the righteousness of God for making the promises in the preceding verses rather than God praising the righteousness of Abram for believing in God’d promises. Ramban concurs!

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