Forgive me, but I couldn’t help myself on the title. But don’t leave yet! So much debate has gone on through the centuries over the issue of the Christian’s relationship to the law, and the nature of salvation in relation to works and faith. Anyone who has done even a small amount of New Testament study has come across Paul’s wonderful affirmations of the just living by faith, and justification by grace, through faith, not of works, etc. Even easier to find still is the book of James’ affirmation that faith without works is dead, and that justification is by works too and not faith alone. So is this contradictory? Why two seemingly opposite answers to the same question? Now, news flash.. I will not be ending the debate today. But I do wonder if we have our template wrong for understanding this really tough question.
For me, the problem starts with the fact that both authors are appealing to the same Old Testament quotation in their respective treatments; Genesis 15:6, which states, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This verse refers to Abraham’s trust in God who told him that he would have a son, a true biological one. This quotation in Genesis comes within a broader conversation between God and Abraham about this very promise because, as of yet, God had given Abraham no seed. Abraham questions God, because at that time, Eliezer of Damascus, his servant, was set to be the heir to his estate and this was not a good thing. This of course, precedes the famous smoking oven passage where God ratifies his covenant with Abraham, then specifically mentions the land of promise after telling Abraham what would happen to his progeny. So this I think will do to at least set some context for thinking about the quotations.
I find it so interesting that Paul spends much time in Romans, before he quotes this passage dealing with the righteousness of God. at least 5 times he mentions it. God’s righteousness is “revealed in the gospel” (1:17), it may be shown when men are unrighteous(3:5); it is “now manifested apart from the law”(3:21), given through faith in Jesus(3:22), and it is shown in God’s giving of Jesus to be the propitiation(3:25-26). So God’s righteousness is important in the course of the book so far, and it is in Paul’s interest to defend it and express it. But he also says that the Law and the Prophets attest to this (3:21), and that this faith in what is portraying God’s righteousness in this powerful way, does not overthrow the law, but in fact upholds it! (3:31). So now following Paul’s line of reasoning, it seems fair to say that Abraham gained nothing according to the flesh (4:1) as neither did the Jews to whom Paul was referring to in the previous chapters (3:9-19, 2:12-13, 2:28-29). Paul then relates that Abraham believed in what God told him, and it was counted to him as righteousness. He then will go on to expound how this is applicable now to Gentiles, but this is simple enough.
As for James, this is where it gets tricky because Paul seems to take this passage at face value. Yet, when James quotes this verse, he refers to it as being fulfilled at the time when Abraham offered up Isaac on Mount Moriah which is 7 chapters later in the book. It does seem strange. And this is where I propose we understand James a little differently. If we remember in the beginning of the letter/epistle, James begins it with, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Jam 1:2-4) I wonder if we should understand James’ quotation and his understanding of the Abrahamic story against the backdrop of these verses. That Abraham is seen as the “faithful sufferer” or the “enduring trial-bearer” who, through the binding of Isaac, the test of offering his “beloved son” (Gen 22:2), had his faith made “perfect” or complete(Jam 2:22b). The only correspondent missing is the joyfulness at the trial, but I should think that therein lies the exhortation because of the precedent set before it. And this would fulfill the Scripture in a different way. In the very next chapter, after God’s Angel intervenes and blesses Abraham, reaffirming the covenant made to him, Abraham is able to obtain the very first piece of the land that God had promised to give him in his purchase of the cave of Machpelah which would become the family burial site. And this ties in both of the promises from the original context in a really neat way.
So like I said before, I don’t plan on solving the debate, and I don’t necessarily expect many to agree with me, but it does seem a coherent and different way to harmonize the two apostles. This is especially true given that after Paul’s discourse on Abraham, he slides into some surprisingly similar statements. After he has concluded that we have been justified by faith in Jesus Christ, in verse 3 he says, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3-5) Given the joy, suffering, endurance, and shamelessness, I’d say these two are a little more harmonious than they are given credit for.