The question of “faith vs. works” has often baffled—and even enraged—biblical interpreters. Different Christian groups (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, etc.) proclaim different views, sometimes fighting with each other over the correct interpretation. All of them contrast their own position with the “old” Jewish way of thinking. So where does all this conflict and confusion come from?
An apparent contradiction lies at the root of the controversy. Saul/Paul of Tarsus writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith (πίστις; pistis) apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28, ESV; cf. Rom 5:1; Gal 2:16, 3:11, 3:24). But then Jacob/James of Jerusalem says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith (πίστις; pistis) alone” (2:24, ESV). Some Christian theologians take one side or the other in this “debate,” while others try to show that the apparent contradiction is not really a contradiction.
Yet for all the argument and discussion, one of the most important factors is often neglected completely. Both Jacob/James and Saul/Paul were actually first-century Jews who lived in a hybrid Hebrew-Greek environment. Like others in this situation, they struggled to express and discuss Hebrew ideas in the Greek language. Just before Jacob/James states that becoming “just” involves “works” rather than merely “faith alone,” he exclaims, “You foolish fellow, can’t you see that ‘faith’ apart from works is useless?!” (2:20). This outburst reflects the fact – difficult to convey in Greek – that the Hebrew word for “faith” (אמונה; emunah) means a lifestyle of steadfast reliability.
Saul/Paul was no less frustrated with his audience when it came to understanding the Jewish idea of “faith” – he even calls the Galatians “mindless” (Gal 3:1) with regard to this topic. In context, he was arguing that the way to be considered “just” is to live a lifestyle of steadfast reliability in the way of truth, and that this doesn’t depend on whether one is Jewish and follows the Torah of Moses, or is a Gentile and therefore not obliged to keep all the same commandments.
Both authors found themselves limited by the language they had to use. Each chose a different angle or tack in employing Greek words to express Hebrew/Jewish ideas. This created the impression of a major contradiction, one that would even cause religious schisms! Thankfully, today we have many tools for understanding the original Jewish-Greek context and decoding the deep meanings of such ancient letters.