From the perspective of systematic theology, how would you reconcile Romans 3:28 and James 2:24?

Last week I spent Monday like never before. At week 6 of your last semester of the MA program at PRTS, you are to take a comprehensive exam with your advisor over your major for your degree. A little behind of my schedule (which I do not like) I was set to to take the comprehensive exam last Monday and had 24 hours to complete it. I was given only three questions over both my major and minor of my Masters of Arts degree.

1. on Systematics – my major
2. on Apologetics – and area of interest of Systematics
3. on History Theology – my minor of my degree

Little did I know that it would take 16 hours. The next three days will be post from the questions that Dr. Beeke asked me, and the answer in which I gave. 

Dr. Beeke asked: From the perspective of systematic theology, how would you reconcile Romans 3:28 and James 2:24?” (Systematic Theology)

Romans 3:28 – For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
James 2:24 – You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

My Response: In order to reconcile Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 one must first understand and hold to at least two fundamental presumptions before working with the text. First, that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) and used for teaching, reproof, correction, and for the training of righteousness. This clarifies that all Scripture is the final authority for all of mankind. Secondly, God is not a God of chaos and contradiction, but is a God of plan and order (Genesis 1-2, Jeremiah 31:35-36, 1 Corinthians 14:40). This truth of systematic theology brings one to see that nowhere in Scripture can one doctrine contradict another; if it did, the system would merely be one that breaks itself down. There can be passages that are difficult to explain, and can even seem in our minds to be contradictory, but that does not mean that they are contradictory. One must seek the Scriptures to understand what the Holy Spirit was expressing; studying deeper than their common intellect, in order to interpret the Scriptures correctly.

What creates such recoil between these texts are the words of James, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Why is this the issue? To begin, because of Paul’s theology – including his theology of the Old Testament.

Examples of Pauline Theology:

1. Genesis 15 – Abraham only trusted God and makes no mention of works —> Romans 4:4-5
2. Habbakuk 2:4 – “Just shall live by Faith” —> Romans 1:17
3. Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5; 11:22, Luke 23:32-43 (thief at the cross) – Jesus looked at faith; not that of works —> Romans 5:1-11
4. Hebrews 9 & 10 – Christ’s righteousness through faith, not works —> Romans 3:21-21

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” For the one that sees justification resulting from grace and faith alone, the issue is to understand James’ theology when he states in James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” It is important to go back to the context of this verse in order to see exactly what it is that James is working out in his book, and why such a statement has been made. James asks the challenging question earlier, in 2:14, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” James is working through this process of thought to answer this question for his readers.

With this said, our issue is reconciling James’ view (as it seems) of justification by works with Paul’s view of justification by faith. At first glance, James appears to be saying that faith is not enough for justification; works must be added.  But because of our presumption that the Bible never once contradicts itself, we know that James cannot be saying that works alone, or works plus faith, equals salvation. Above James or Paul’s theology, we are to remember that we are dealing with the Holy Spirit’s theology; for He was the voice which moved the pen of both of our writers. This reason alone ought to call all believers – for both practical and systematic theology – to study what seem to be contradictions or hard passages, so that they know and can understand doctrine more clearly and therefore constantly grow in their faith.

In order to properly and accurately interpret passages, it is important to look at who the writer is talking to (who their “audience” is).  This is important when dealing with any writing – from books to newspapers – but is especially necessary with Scripture. If James and Paul are speaking to different audiences, then they may be using different language, or different statements in theology, in order to address their audience in the best way for whatever it may be that they are saying to them.  Understanding issues like this will greatly aid in reconciling these two passages and theologies. In the simplest form, the difference between Paul and James’ audience and focus would look like this:

Paul writing Romans —> Becoming a Believer —> unregenerate —> do not have faith
James writing James —> Growing as a believer —> regenerate —> have faith

We can see clearly that the major difference between the books of James and Romans is that both writers (Paul and James) are addressing two totally different crowds. 

Paul writing the book of Romans —> to teach the unbelieving Jew Christianity
James writing the book of James —> to Jewish Christian 

It is also important to see what the writers are making sure their audiences do not fall into. Often it is easy for people that are involved with religion to swing to one side or the other. Paul and James are dealing with exactly this – neither of them want to see their audience swing one way more than the other.  In this case, it looks like this:

Paul writing to the unbelievers —> impossible to impress God with works
James writing to believers —> impossible to be a believer of God without good works

Paul and James are addressing two completely different areas of the Christian life, as seen in the following:
Paul —> Justification —> unbelievers —> by no works —> by faith alone —> equals regeneration
James —> Sanctification —> believers —> works —> from faith —> proves regeneration

Some people, like Kevin Boling of Knowing the Truth Radio and Joel Beeke of Heritage Reformed Congregations, would speak of the difference in this way: “Paul is looking at the Root of Salvation; James is looking at the Fruit of Salvation.” Where either of them got this, or if both of them separately made it up doesn’t matter; the point is that in these passages we are dealing with two writers, two topics, two audiences, two addresses, and two different purposes for writing what they did.

In Romans, Paul looks at the root of justification, teaching that all of man’s righteousness is grounded in Jesus Christ’s works – that is, His life and His death on the cross. Paul is making the point that a person cannot, nor will ever be able to, perform any action that will merit him in salvation; there is nothing besides that which Jesus Christ has already done. James, on the other hand, is explaining exactly what it is that the believer does after justification, and the effects of justification on a person as to how they live out their belief.

Which bring us to the last issue to decipher. Why then would James use terminology like “justified by works”?  I believe that the word “justify” means to declare one righteous, to make someone innocent, or to make them stand right (right before God). Paul is using this term in a way so that he can make it clear to his audience that their righteousness is based on the work of Jesus Christ. James is using the term in a manner that shows his audience that their faith is proved by their works. This is important to understand when looking at the Christian doctrine of justification as it sets forth three distinctions, and therefore allows that this doctrine need not be misinterpreted between individuals.

1A. Paul —> talking to people to become Christians
1B. James —> talking to people that have already become Christians

2A. Paul —> root of salvation
2B. James —> fruit of salvation

3A. Paul —> want to see those comes to the gospel
3B. James —> want to see those live for the gospel


            [1] Cf. The Reformation Study Bible, The Authority of Scripture, ed. R. C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries, Orlando, 2005. P. 1765.















7 Comments on “From the perspective of systematic theology, how would you reconcile Romans 3:28 and James 2:24?”

  1. Chucky says:

    Do you know how you went yet – do you know if your examiner liked the answer?

  2. I got an A overall, as far as in this answer, I’d assume so – he didn’t take one point off of this answer? Why did you want to? ha!

  3. […] How would you reconcile Romans 3:28 and James 3:24? Michael Dewalt shares his attempt at Gospel Centered Musings […]

  4. Observation:

    When you wrote:

    “We can see clearly that the major difference between the books of James and Romans is that both writers are addressing two different crowds.

    Paul writing the book of Romans —> to teach the unbelieving Jew Christianity
    James writing the book of James —> to Jewish Christian ”

    Your explanation of the differences in purpose between James and Romans and the different intention of the word Justify are helpful, but it might be worth some further thought if you mean that the whole book of Romans was intended to be addressed unbelieving Jews. From memory I recall Paul stating in Rom 1.8 that “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all, that your faith is spoken of throughout the whole world. ” Whoever the “you” are in this verse they cannot be unbelievers.


  5. I am speaking of the one area of Romans in which I am dealing, I see your point. Thanks!

  6. Chucky says:

    Nice work! 🙂

  7. Andrea says:

    Michael, that was an excellent answer. I can see why your professor was pleased with it. I always thought that James was trying to make the point that if you have true faith it will show through your works, ie actions. So many times we pray for God’s assistance, but then our actions will show that we don’t have true faith, as evidenced by our worry or stress. Enjoy your blog – it has a lot of great info!!

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