James and Paul
Before breaking out into small groups to look at the text, take
about 15 minutes to go through the text and provide some background
for the group. Explain that the quote of Deuteronomy 6:4 inferred
in James 2:19 is the opening of the Shema, the basic statement of
faith for Judaism.
Review the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as found in Genesis
22:1-19. James 2:23 mentions Abraham’s righteousness with
a quote from much earlier in his life—it is found in Genesis
15:6. The concept of Abraham as a friend of God will be significant
again later when James discusses our friendship with God as opposed
to friendship with the world. The scriptural reference is from 2
Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8. Luke Timothy Johnson notes in the
New Interpreter’s Bible commentary on James that friendship
in first century is not simply that of being “buddies”
like today, but rather a very close sharing of material and spiritual
things (198). Abraham’s friendship with God implies not just
“getting along” but that Abraham is of the same mind
as God, living in God’s way, and sharing God’s resources.
Paul also uses the example of Abraham to argue that it is faith,
not works that justifies us. See Romans 4:2-5 and Galatians 3:6.
James includes a reference to Rahab, who saved the Israelite spies
in Joshua 2:1-21. She also is mentioned as one of Jesus’ ancestors
in Matthew 1:5. Both Rahab and Abraham are used throughout the Jewish
tradition as examples of superior hospitality (Johnson 199)—in
contrast to James example of the believer who tells the naked brother
or sister to keep warm in James 2:15.
Break into groups of 3-6 for discussion. Read the James 2:14-26
aloud. If you have several groups, have one group use the Tamez
commentary below, another use the commentary on Paul and James,
while another uses the commentary on James' use of Old Testament
texts. Each group will have the same discussion. After about half
an hour, spend about 15 minutes in the large group comparing your
- Describe the relationship between faith and works for James.
- What is the relationship of faith and works for me personally?
- What does our worship service say about faith and works?
The following Commentary is from chapter 4 “The Angle of Praxis”
in Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without
Works is Dead, translated by John Eagleson, Study Guide by
Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002). Order
this book for your study.
“After the description of discrimination [in James 2:1-13],
James continues in chapter 2 with his concern for integrity, situating
faith and works together in complementary unity. From a theological
point of view, this is the most polemical part of the letter, for
he seems to be contradicting Paul’s view of justification
by faith alone. In 2:24 James says: “You see now that it is
by doing something good, and not only by believing, that a man is
justified.” This together with the example of Abraham that
he uses, leads us to believe that James knew well the expression
“justification by faith.” Some hold that it had become
a slogan and that what Paul had meant was being distorted15. For
some, justification by faith meant having faith without a commitment
to others, without works. James then, is trying to correct this
idea by introducing works as an important element in justification.
We do not know exactly what James understand by faith, but he does
make very clear what he understands by works. Throughout his letter
he refers to the good works continually spoken of in the Gospels
as the liberating deeds of Jesus; they are deeds that effect justice.
They are the social works that the prophets demand and that are
spoken of in the Sinai tradition. Paul, on the other hand, assails
that law or system that is followed blindly and enslaves. For Paul
the Christian must be guided by grace and faith. At no time does
he place the works of justice in opposition to justification. Rather
he says they are fruits of the spirit that are born of faith16.
There is nevertheless a clear difference in the two approaches;
this difference can perhaps be explained by the two different contexts.
For James, faith cooperated with works, and through works faith
achieves perfection (2:22). Works justify therefore together with
faith (2:24). In Paul the justified is the person who does justice
because he or she is guided by faith and not by the law, system,
or tradition that enslaves. The problem arises when we ignore the
context of the passages. The intention of James, in the first instance,
is not to speak about justification. He mentions this only in passing,
probably because of misunderstandings of the Pauline phrase “justification
by faith.” From our angle of praxis we see that James wanted
to emphasize the unity between faith and works as part of the necessary
consistency in believing, hearing, saying, and doing. So he begins
his reflection with a concrete example linking faith with the practice
of justice [James 2:14-17]” (Tamez 52-54).
Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without
Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. With Study Guide
by Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).