For many centuries expositors and commentators have found supposed differences between Paul and James, especially with regard to two passages: James 2:14-26 and its relation to Galatians 2:15-21. There are two main interpretive views to guide the expositor with regard to these passages and their consequent difficulties. One is represented by P. H. Davids’ article on James in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Alexander, T. D., & Rosner, B. S. 2001. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (electronic ed.). InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL) in which Davids suggests that James and Paul were defining not only “works,” but “faith” in different ways. James, Davids writes, uses “faith” sometimes to refer to “commitment to or confident trust in Jesus or God” and cites 1:7-8 as an example, and also uses it to refer to Christian belief in 2:1; however, Davids explains, in 2:14-26 “faith” means “intellectual belief in the Jewish creed, the Shema (‘God is one’). Such faith, devoid of works of charity, saves no one.” Similar variations of definition may be witnessed with regard to “works.” Davids says that James “[…] uses ‘works’ to refer to charity rather than to the ethnic markers of Judaism: circumcision and the observance of feast days and purity rules. Thus James is not debating with Paul, but with those who think that believing the right things about God and Christ is enough to save them.”
The other major interpretive view is demonstrated by Douglas Moo in I (Douglas J. Moo. The Letter of James, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL 1985) in which Moo addresses, in “Additional Note: ‘Works’ in Paul and James (2:14)” (Moo, 101-102), the idea of varying definitions. Moo’s conclusion is that the previously stated view is insufficient because “faith” and “works” is cannot be limited in such a manner since Paul’s use of “works” sometimes includes “anything that is done good or bad” as in Romans 9:10-11 (Moo, 101), or works that are at least outside the Mosaic ordinances such as Abraham’s works mentioned in Romans 4. Note, however, that in the Galatians passage under discussion, Paul always uses “works” in conjunction with “of the law.”
But one is still faced with a difficulty with regard to “works” in the James passage. Moo suggests that “we cannot confine James’ ‘works’ to acts of charity” (Moo, 102) and cites as proof the examples given in the James passage of Abraham and Rahab whose works “do not clearly involve acts of charity.” Moo specifically points out that Abraham’s actions involved “obedience to God per se, with no inkling of any charity shown to others.” (Moo, 102). Moo then suggests that both James and Paul use the word “works” the same fashion, to refer to “anything that is done that is in obedience to God and in the service of God” (Moo, 102) and so the difference between James and Paul is in “the sequence of works and conversion.” (Moo, 102, emphasis in original)
As is often the case, the truth may lie somewhere in between. All may agree that James and Paul at times use the words “faith” and “works” differently. Indeed, Paul often uses a given word in many different ways in his writings. It is also true that James is encouraging “faith then works” while Paul is rejecting “works then faith.”
Calvin helps one to navigate clearly between these two extremes in his commentary on James 2:21 when he states clearly:
The Sophists lay hold on the word justified, and then they cry out as being victorious, that justification is partly by works. But we ought to seek out a right interpretation according to the general drift of the whole passage. We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.
When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon. (John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, John Owen, trans. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, reprint, 1996, II:314)
Thus Calvin reminds us of a basic hermeneutical principle: interpret each passage in light of, not only the immediate context, but the entire book, and, in Paul’s case, the entire body of writing. This means that one must consider these 13 verses of James in light of the entire 108 verses of the epistle and not in isolation. One must also look at the concepts expressed by the words and not the individual words in isolation. In so doing one discovers that James was writing with a different purpose in mind than was Paul and both used words that would suit their purpose in the given context to help them achieve their respective purposes. James never intended to demonstrate the proper manner of salvation because he was writing to those already saved, while Paul was writing in Galatians to those confused about salvation and so used the same words in varying ways to suit his purpose. The conclusion that this expositor will accept is that one cannot justly make an antagonism between James and Paul because, though they used the same words, and even in similar ways, they clearly were writing for different purposes.