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?

P.S. an interesting article on the subject here that contributed to my question in the first place--didn't want to throw the responses by putting this in the initial question

  • Hold To The Rod, the article you link is clutching at straws, in the impossible task of reconciling Paul and James on Faith and Works. I believe you should consider my Answer, and its conclusion :) Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 6:19
  • @Miguel the question here isn't about reconciling James & Paul...although unsurprisingly most answers put in a plug for it anyway =). It's a question of why two distinct (and to some, irreconcilable) arguments make their case from the same data point. I find Ellison's approach--that James' & Paul's views were misrepresented--rather straightforward, and easy to believe given how many times Paul has been misrepresented in the centuries since Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 17:29
  • @Miguel I find Paul's teachings make a lot more sense if grace ("charis") is understood in the first century sense of the word, rather than in the 16th century sense of the word. I've got some videos on my channel about the word "grace", if that's of interest. Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 17:34
  • Hold To The Rod, I am always interested :) Perhaps you should add a P.P.S. where you summarily explai the difference of the understanding of grace ("charis") "in the first century sense of the word, rather than in the 16th century sense of the word". Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 17:55
  • @MigueldeServet in Greco-Roman antiquity "charis" was regularly used to describe a treaty or covenant bond created when a stronger party gave something (that could not be earned) to a weaker party, creating a relationship in which the weaker party had obligations. It was a gift, but a gift that came with expectations. Luther's doctrine of justification would have been quite foreign to Paul's readers. I shared a few details on the site here & gave a more extended discussion on my channel here Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 1:09

7 Answers 7


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.


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.

  • I think there's a problem with the view that Gen 15 was Abraham's point of conversion or his initial stage of faith. The actual narrative points to Abaraham trusting and putting his faith in God back in Gen 12, evidenced by his willingness to walk over 500 miles for the promise. Gen 15 represents on-going faith/trust and not initial faith/trust.
    – Austin
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 6:55

Ellicott correctly observes about this section of james 2:14ff -

(14-26) FAITH AND WORKS.—We now enter on the most debatable ground of the Epistle; a battle-field strewn with the bones and weapons of countless adversaries. It is an easy thing to shoot “arrows, even bitter words”; and without doubt, for what seemed to be the vindication of the right, many a hard blow has been dealt on either side—so many, indeed, that quiet Christian folk have no desire to hear of more. The plain assertions of holy Scripture on this matter are enough for them; and they experience of themselves no difficulty in their interpretation.

The old story of the Knights who smote each other to the death upon the question of the gold and silver shield, each looking at it only from his own point of view, may well apply to combatants who cried so lustily for “Paul” or “James.” But, now the dust of conflict has somewhat blown aside, it would be hard to prove that the Apostles themselves were ever at variance, or needed such doughty champions at all.

I agree - Paul and James were NOT at odds with each other - they were discussing different things:

  • Paul in Rom 3:28 (see also Gal 2:21, 3:24, 5:1, 18, Rom 3:21, 6:14, 15, 7:6, 8:3, 10:4, etc) is discussing justification and what brings us to faith in the first place. Works, no matter how good, do not earn favor with God - we already have God's favor by His grace!
  • James in Jam 2:14-26 is discussing what happens to a person AFTER conversion and how a converted Christian behaves. The converted Christian is a law-abiding person who is loving, joyful, peaceable, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Gal 5:22, 23) - completely unlike the previous person before conversion indeed!!

Both are completely correct. The Gospel means nothing if it does not transform the person miraculously to be a different person. As Paul says in Eph 2:8-10

For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance as our way of life.

Note what this is saying: we are saved by grace to do good works. (This Paul writing not James!)

James says the same thing - the saved person is a transformed person - if there is no transformation then there was not a real conversion in the first place. Further, Paul goes on to tells how this transformation occurs:

2 Cor 3:18 - And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His image with intensifying glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.


It is not the case that James was responding to Paul, otherwise he could have openly condemned him as a heretic and consequently Paul's name wouldn't have survived in history because the errors James addressed were not some minor personal conflict like the partiality of Peter.

[ESV Galatians 2:11-14] 11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

But what is evident from James epistle is that he is responding to the growing heresy of faith alone that is misunderstanding or misusing Paul's arguments. The gentile churches must have been using those arguments of Paul's faith justification as an excuse for a work-less dead faith or faith alone theology, resulting in a damning heresy. So it was necessary to silence these people and what better way to use the same example of faith justification to show that those saints like Abraham did not stop at faith but continued to perfect their faith with works of obedience. Paul and James are not in contradiction since Paul wrote against the ability of law for being expired and no longer valid form of justification, the law was not eternal and only way of justification; whereas James against the faith alone doctrine that has lacks works as lawlessness.

[ESV James 2:21-26] 21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

There is no indication that Jame's topic is relevant to the Acts 15 council, which was solely focused on the decision and realization of the expiry of the Mosaic covenant, it did not give any liberty from the law of Christ or the moral works, fruits of faith. The point of controversy was that the churches of the first heresy refusing grace from the law; and the second heresy neglecting to obey the commandments in the name of faith alone. It is noteworthy that John and Peter too seems to address the second heresy in their epistles. They refuted sinful churches and clarified the real meaning of righteousness, holiness and lawlessness and sin to them.

[ESV 1 Peter 1:13-17] 13Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile,

[ESV 2 Peter 1:3-10] 3His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.

[2 Peter 3:14-17] 14Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. 15And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. 17You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.

[WEB 1 John 3:4-11] 4Everyone who sins also commits lawlessness. Sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away our sins, and in him is no sin. 6Whoever remains in him doesn’t sin. Whoever sins hasn’t seen him, neither knows him. 7Little children, let no one lead you astray. He who does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. 8He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. To this end the Son of God was revealed, that he might destroy the works of the devil. 9Whoever is born of God doesn’t commit sin, because his seed remains in him; and he can’t sin, because he is born of God. 10In this the children of God are revealed, and the children of the devil. Whoever doesn’t do righteousness is not of God, neither is he who doesn’t love his brother. 11For this is the message which you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another;

  • +1 This seems most rational. James is responding to people's abuse of Paul's arguments.
    – Austin
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 7:02

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.

  • 1
    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?" Commented Mar 16, 2021 at 3:34

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.


Faith vs Works, Paul vs James

  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?

I will refrain from answering the two specific questions above, and try to provide essential evidence, from Paul's and James' letters, that there is a real difference in the way Paul and James, respectively, confront the question of Faith vs Works.


There are some passages, in Paul's letters, that make it difficult to deny that he is an upholder of "faith alone" (even if this expression, applied to Paul, is an anachronism - the expressions sola fide, "justification by faith alone", "nur durch den glauben", "per la sola fede" appeared at the end of the XV century). For instance:

For no one is declared righteous before him [God] by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20 - NET)

N.B. I recommend to read footnote 2tn appended by NET Bible to Rom 3:20, because it shows that to affirm that Paul, by "works of the law" referred only to things like circumcision or dietary laws, and not to all the Law (including the "two commandments" on which "hang all the law and the prophets" - see Mark 12:28-31) is a dead end.

Even more (even shockingly) strong is the affirmation of "faith alone" here:

But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Rom 4:5 - NET)

Then again, Paul clearly affirms that love is the "fulfillment of the law":

Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:10; cp. Gal 5:14)


James affirms with unmistakeable clarity that "faith without works is dead". Here:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that – and tremble with fear.
20 But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And similarly, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26 NET)


Paul has an "ideological", almost fanatical prejudice in favour of "faith only" (Rom 3:20; 4:5). Prehaps he "fell in love" with his understanding of Ps 143:2, just as he "fell in love" with his understanding of Habakkuk 2:4 (see Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11; see also Heb 10:38)

James calls Paul's and everybody's attention to Paul's excesses, and tries to suggest to Paul the right way.

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