“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” – Paul, writing in Romans 3:28
“You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” – James, writing in James 2:24
Supposed contradictions in the Bible can be unsettling. I had a few aggressive professors in university who offered up Biblical contradictions in a proselytizing sort of way. They were looking to win converts to their atheistic (or, in one case, theistic evolutionary) ways by attacking the trustworthiness of the Bible.
I had attended a Christian high school and had almost entirely Christian friends, so I’d never run into this type of attack before. I didn’t know how to respond. Did trusting God mean just ignoring these challenges? Should I just keep believing despite all these seemingly irreconcilable difficulties being offered?
Well, contrary to some popular Christian notions, our faith in God isn’t meant to be blind. We trust Him, not despite the evidence, but because of His track record – He has proven Himself trustworthy again and again. And because we can trust Him, we can go all “Berean” on these supposed contradictions. We can look at them closely, without fear, knowing that because God is true, these contradictions are no contradictions at all.
Now, not only can we proceed without fear, we can even delve into these with a spirit of anticipation. Why? Because some of these “contradictions” are among the most enlightening passages of the Bible – we can look closer knowing that by better understanding these difficult passages we are learning more about our God.
A CLOSE LOOK AT ONE DIFFICULTY
One of the most illuminating “contradictions” occurs in James 2.
It’s here that James seems to take a direct shot at much of what Paul writes. In Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 the contrast is clearest. Here Paul takes a stand for faith apart from works, while James is certain that both faith and works are needed.
This is a big problem here – the Bible appears to contradict itself about the most important of matters: how we are to be justified!
We aren’t the only ones confused. In his book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament Robert H. Stein calls James 2 the one biblical passage that has “probably caused more theological difficulty than any other.” Martin Luther, who loved Paul’s book of Romans, also had problems with the book of James, in part because of this seeming works vs. faith dilemma.
ENGLISH TEACHERS TO THE RESCUE?
There is a problem here, but it turns out it is the sort of problem that can be solved by any decent high school English teacher.
It was your English teacher who taught you words can have multiple meanings. For example the word bad means both not good (“You are a bad boy!”) and very good (“You is bad boy!”) depending on the context.
While words have a degree of flexibility to them, there are limits to this flexibility – if a word could mean absolutely anything, no one would know what it meant (the word bad might mean both not good and very good but it doesn’t mean blue, root beer, or canoeing).
The word faith also has a degree of flexibility and even has numerous dictionary meanings. As Robert Stein notes, it can mean any one of the following:
- a religion (the Hindu faith)
- a branch of a religion (the Protestant faith)
- a specific set of theological doctrines (A church’s statement of faith)
- a living vital trust in God (she has real faith)
The problem that many people have with James 2 and the contrasting passages written by Paul, is that they assume both James and Paul are using the word faith in exactly the same way. This isn’t so.
If we take a look at the context in which Paul uses the word we find him speaking of:
- faith that seeks to please Christ (2 Cor. 5:7-9)
- faith coupled with love for the saints (Ephesians 1:15)
- a faith like Abraham’s (Romans 4:9)
- and a faith that is accompanied by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:14).
James uses the same word quite differently. He talks of:
- a faith that allows Christians to see brothers in need and ignore them (James 2:14-16)
- a faith that is purely intellectual (James 2:19)
- and a faith that even demons have (James 2:19).
James and Paul are not using this word the same way!
There is also a notable difference in the way that James and Paul use the word works. Paul talks about works as something men boast about before God (Romans 4:2) or as a legalistic way of earning salvation (Gal. 5:2-4) or as something that people rely on instead of God’s grace (Romans 11:6).
James on the other hand talks about works as the natural outgrowth of faith. James’ use of the word works includes Rahab’s hiding of the spies (James 2:25) taking care of the poor and other acts of compassion (James 2:15-16) and works as acts of obedience to God (James 2:21).
So again, Paul and James’ meaning is significantly different.
If Paul and James mean different things when they use the words faith and works, then the apparent contradictions between Romans and James, turn out to be no contradictions at all. But it is only by studying these “contradictions” that we can get a proper understanding of the relationship between works and faith. James’ book can be seen as a rebuke to Hyper-Calvinists – people who take the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to mean they don’t have to do good works. Paul’s many letters are a rebuke to people on the other end of the spectrum – Pelagians who believe that they have to earn their own way into heaven by doing good works.
And in between these two polar opposites are Calvinists who know that faith without works is indeed dead, but that our works do nothing to earn us salvation. It is indeed by faith alone. And by grace alone.
The result of wrestling with this seeming contradiction is that we’ve gained in our understanding of what God has done for us, and what God expects from us!
So how then are we to deal with supposed Biblical contradictions? Ignorance is not bliss. We don’t need to turn a blind eye. God is trustworthy and that means we can trust that His Word will not contradict itself. We can trust that examining the Bible closely will not be dangerous, but only to our benefit.
Trusting God also means that when answers are not so easily had, or just aren’t coming at all, that shouldn’t lead to doubt. We will be able to resolve the vast majority of troubling texts presented to us but we also need to understand some difficulties will remain, and some questions may not be answered for years. Why is that so? Because omniscience is one of God’s attributes, not one of ours. We aren’t going to understand everything.
But even if we are limited, there is still so much more we can learn about God. So trust Him enough to seek solutions to any biblical difficulties you’re presented with. And trust Him enough to be content when you only get 9 out of 10 questions answered.
There are a number of very helpful books for digging into Bible difficulties including Robert Stein’s “Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament,” James W. Sire’s “Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible,” D.A. Carson’s “Exegetical Fallacies,” and Jay Adams’ “Fifty Difficult Passages Explained.”