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James & Paul cite the same Old Testament story in their arguments about faith & works.

From James:

21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?

22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?

23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. (James 2:21-23)

From Paul:

Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. (Galatians 3:6)

...

But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. (Galatians 3:11)

Note that they've both referenced Genesis 15:6:

And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

--

In using this story, James is making an argument for the importance of works, whereas Paul is arguing against the efficacy of the works of the law.

I'm not asking if this is a contradiction, that's been covered elsewhere, and I grant the possibility of a difference between "works" and "works of the law".

But I find it curious that they were both in attendance at the Jerusalem conference (see Acts 15:1-29) where the works of the law were discussed in detail, and they've appealed to the same example to support distinct arguments. It seems too good to be a coincidence.

Two questions:

  1. Is it likely that one is responding to the other? Or...is it likely that one is responding to how people have misinterpreted the other? Who is responding to whom?
  2. Does this exchange reflect the mounting tension before the Jerusalem conference, or is it more likely to be a result of the conference?
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You've inspired an interesting scenario. I can imagine the following exchange between Paul and James in front of Peter at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-29).

James alluding to Genesis 22 asked Paul, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?"

Paul alluding to Genesis 15:6 replied, "Yes, but before our father Abraham offered Isaac upon the altar, even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness already."

Paul argued for the priority of faith which had to come before works.

At the end of the Jerusalem Council, James concluded:

Acts 15:19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood."

Paul would wholeheartedly agree with abstaining from sexual immorality. As for food polluted by idols, there is some flexibility.

1 Corinthians 8:8b we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. ...
13Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.

What about meat of strangled animals and blood?

Paul thought this rule was superficial:

Colossians 2:20 Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: 21“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? 22These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. 23Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Believers may over-interpret this freedom. As a counter-balance, he wrote in 1 Corinthians 6:

12“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Paul was a deeper thinker. Sexual immorality affects a person's heart, not his stomach. No man is justified by the law. Faith has to come before the works of the law.

Faith & Works - Is Paul responding to James or James responding to Paul?

I think they were respectfully responding to each other at the Jerusalem Council as to the role and degree of importance that faith and works play.

Does this exchange reflect the mounting tension before the Jerusalem conference, or is it more likely to be a result of the conference?

I don't think there was a mounting tension before, during, or after the Jerusalem Council. There was some tension, but not mounting in the sense of aggressive evidence. At the end of the conference, there was an agreed-upon communication. After the conference, both Paul and James attempted to clarify their positions in their letters.

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Short answer

There would have been no conflict between Paul and James at the Jerusalem council because in their letters they cited Gen 15:6 for a different purpose.

Furthermore, "works" in Galatians means differently and has a different relationship with faith than in James. In Galatians "works" means obeying the law of Moses to be declared righteous (i.e. justification, the initial stage of faith), but in James "works" means living out a pre-existing faith by obeying the law of Christ.

Therefore there is no need for Paul to respond to James or vice versa.

Longer answer

The Jerusalem Council

The Jerusalem council is NOT about which law of Moses to obey for a Gentile to be righteous, but about which practical observances that Gentiles need to do in order to get along with their fellow Jewish Christians in the same church. That is why Christians can now eat their steak raw as long as their dinner companions are not Jewish. I agree with Joseph Fitzmyer's interpretation of the council's decision, summarized in the wikipedia article:

Joseph Fitzmyer disputes the claim that the Apostolic Decree is based on Noahide Law (Gen 9) and instead proposes Lev 17–18 as the basis, see also Leviticus 18. He also argues that the decision was meant as a practical compromise to help Jewish and Gentile Christians to get along, not a theological statement intended to bind Christians for all time.

Circumcision was the main law in question, and both James and Paul would have agreed that circumcision is not necessary for Gentiles. When reading James letter in its entirety we can get a clear sense that James was NOT talking about circumcision at all.

James 2:14-26

  • James was exhorting Christians who don't perform "works" as a result of their faith, which the NLT dynamically translates as "actions" (v 14) and "good deeds" (v 18) instead of "works" in the more literal ESV translation. An example of "works" James cited is in vv 15-16, which we can characterize as acts of love flowing from faith.
  • James cited Gen 15:6 to highlight that being righteous (as we Christians need to be like Abraham) means doing the appropriate actions that flow from faith, just as Abraham sacrificed Isaac as flowing from his faith in God's promise to bless him with many descendants although Isaac was his only son. Abraham here was expecting God to perform an even greater miracle by providing him with another boy, since Abraham and Sarah were at least a decade older from the previous miracle.
  • My interpretation is that what James mean by "works" is the law of Christ: the OT laws that Jesus has fulfilled and transformed into law of love. Unmodified OT Laws are not in view here.

Gal 3:1-22

  • Paul was rebuking the Galatians of falling prey to false teachers who require them to do "works of the law" in order to be righteous, such as being circumcised, observing Sabbath and Holy Days, etc.
  • Paul cited Gen 15:6 to highlight that to be righteous does NOT require doing "works of the law", but requires faith in Jesus (v 5), just as Abraham had faith in God's promise so "all nations would be blessed through him" (v 8). As further proof of the sufficiency of faith, Paul reminded them that they have received the Holy Spirit (v 2) without obeying the law of Moses (such as circumcision) just as God fulfilled his promise to Abraham (by provisioning Jesus to be born through his line) without keeping the law (v 18).
  • My interpretation is that what Paul mean by "works" here is the law of Moses untransformed by Jesus.

Comparison of Paul and James's use of Gen 15:6

Although both Paul and James reiterate God's pronouncement of Abraham as righteous, they highlight different aspects of Gen 15:6 in the above sections of their letters:

  • James highlights his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, thus believing that he will be given another miracle to fulfill God's promise. At this point, Abraham already had faith (having accepted the covenant in Gen 15), so James highlights Abraham's "post-conversion" action flowing from faith.
  • Paul highlights Abraham's initial trust in God's covenant promise with him (before Isaac was born): initial stage of faith with no actions required on his part other than simple belief, just as how we believe in Jesus's promise to us by faith.

In other parts of their letters we can easily see how both Paul and James are in agreement that believers are to produce evidence of their faith, NOT by obeying the unmodified law of Moses (as part of the Mosaic covenant) but by obeying the law of Christ (as part of the New covenant).

The NLT translation makes the difference clear by avoiding the word "works" altogether. Instead it opts for "actions" and "good deeds" in James and "obeying the law of Moses" in Galatians. So yes, the crux of the difference is to see the difference between "works" and "works of the law" as you allowed in your question.

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they've appealed to the same example to support distinct arguments.
It seems too good to be a coincidence.

What makes you think either is responding to the other?

What makes you think they disagree with each other?

They are saying the same thing in two different ways, each stressing a different part.

  • Both reference: And he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness
  • Paul says: no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith
  • James says: by works was faith made perfect

Neither is saying that works can earn salvation. Works are simply a confirmation of faith.

It's a natural progression:

Belief in God → Faith in what God says → Obedience to God → Works naturally resulting from that faith.

The problem is:

  • Some people will see only the goal, that true Christians will be doing good works, so they skip the earlier steps and concentrate on the last one (much as a teenager that wants to be an actor will practice walking the red carpet and posing for the press, but not practice memorizing lines or getting up at 5 in the morning for two hours of makeup).
  • People like Paul will notice this mistaken trend and preach that it is wrong, that faith is the important thing, not simply doing good works.
  • Some people will listen to Paul, and misinterpret it, thinking that works don't matter.
  • People like James will notice this mistaken trend and preach that no, faith isn't real if it doesn't produce works.
  • Some people will listen to James, and misinterpret it, thinking that works are what is important.

Paul was stressing the fact that it is faith, not works, that earn salvation, while James was stressing the fact that works are the obvious result of faith.

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  • Hi @Ray Butterworth, thank you for your thoughts. I am not convinced that they disagree with each other either--but I do think their arguments are distinct. I have seen their arguments used by other people who disagree with each other, and wonder if the same thing happened in the 1st century (Gal 2:12 might be a case of this). This was the reason I included the possibility "is it likely that one is responding to how people have misinterpreted the other?" – Hold To The Rod Mar 16 at 3:34
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There is always a conflict between the ‘Law’ and ‘Faith’. And there always will be. One is of, or for the flesh, the other is of the spirit. Paul’s letters are saturated with this ‘battle’.

But, it’s all about righteousness. Abraham was righteous ‘by faith’, but' the Jews, while under Mosaic Law, were righteous via the sacrificial system, whereas Paul was preaching a gospel where righteousness came via rebirth, being ‘born again’.

But what about ‘works’? Where do ‘works’ fit? This is key to your question. All righteousness will result in ‘works’. That’s how it becomes evident to those who observe. Abraham’s Righteousness was evident in what he did. The sacrifice of Isaac reflected faith - his belief. He knew Isaac would live, he knew by faith, because God said so earlier via promise.

He’s the point - righteousness results in works. Where as under Law, righteousness came by works, by what you did. So, work for righteousness, or work ‘in’ righteousness. One is motivated by the flesh, one is motivated by your spirit. One is a result, one is a demand.

So any biblical conversations about ‘works’ needs to put into context. The assembly in Jerusalem was a scene for debate over Law vs Faith. The Jews were blinded by the Law, it was pivotal to their ‘rule’ (Sanhedrin). Works were pivotal - because they could be ‘seen’, and thereby ‘judged’.

To clearly see and understand ‘righteousness’ in the pre-Law Abrahamic days, in relation to ‘works’, look at Lot. He was righteous, but look at the issue this causes those who want to judge him by his ‘works’. Lot is a dilemma to some doctrinal views.

As to James, he was the leader in Jerusalem. He was, and does clearly explain that works are still part of the gospel, as they have always been. But we understand that these [good] works are not as a result of Law, having to, but result of a change of heart, wanting to.

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