How are we to reconcile these ideas and resolve an apparent contradiction? In Don Johnson's book "The Road to Heaven: A Traveler's Guide to Life's Narrow Way", the author proposes one way of reconciling these ideas, but it ends up being no reconciliation at all. By Mr. Johnson's understanding, James and Paul mean two different things when they use the word "works." He writes:
"At first glance James seems to contradict Paul. He does not. The key is to understand the difference between works as Paul defined them and works as James defined them. For the purpose of my argument I will refer to Paul's term as "works" and James' term as "work." We are not to do works, but we are to work."
He goes on to say that "works" (as Paul defined them) are tasks undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature, while "work" (in James) is undertaken to raise God's stature.
He comes to this conclusion simply because, in his view, it's the only way to reconcile the verses in question. I guess I'd have to accept that if there was no other way to understand the passage. But I think there's a much better way to understand the passage.
The word "works" in the New Testament is most often translated from the Greek word "ergon". It's important to note that in Ephesians 2 and James 2, the occurrences of the word "works" all come from the Greek "ergon", a noun that means labor or toil. So there's nothing right there in the text that would necessarily indicate that Paul meant something different than James. But, admittedly, context can reveal different meanings in common words. And also, it is clear that James 2 is a different context than Ephesians 2. Don Johnson is claiming that Paul defines "ergon" differently than James. So, I would think this would become clear looking at how Paul uses that word in other passages.
So, reading in Ephesians 2, you only have to read one more verse to get your first clue. In Ephesians 2:10 Paul says this:
"For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them."
In this verse, Paul uses "ergon" with the adjective "agathos" in front of it, which is translated "good works." Right away, it seems that Paul is concerned with making sure the reader understands what KIND of works he's talking about. Interesting. And then in Ephesians 5:11 he writes:
"And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them."
In this verse, Paul uses the adjective "akarpos" to tell us what kind of works he's talking about. And in this case, it's works that are "unfruitful". So here are two instances where Paul uses the word "ergon" but insists on using an adjective to tell us more about those works… to be more specific. But in Ephesians 2:8-9 when he writes, referring to our "by-grace" salvation, that this salvation is "not of works." No adjective there. Is it reasonable to think that if Paul was referring to a particular kind of works that he would have used some sort of adjective to clue us in? I think the answer is "Yes".
I think there are further problems with Mr. Johnson's resolution to the apparent contradiction. Notice in Romans 11:6 where Paul says:
"And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work."
Here Paul is contrasting "works" against "grace", and notice he has no adjective describing "works" either. More interesting than that, Mr. Johnson says that a certain kind of work is necessary for salvation, as opposed to a certain other kind of works. If this was the case, then you would think that Paul would take this opportunity to clue us in on it. But he doesn't distinguish between two kinds of works at all here… only between Grace and works. No qualifier, no adjective. I think that's a big problem for Johnson's view.
Also, look at 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 where Paul writes:
"Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."
"…Shall try every man's work of what sort it is"? Here the word is "ergon" as well, and yet clearly Paul is using it in a general sense… either works approved by God or works not approved by God.
Here's another example in 1 Thessalonians 5:13, where Paul writes:
"And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves."
Paul says we are to esteem very highly those who labor among us because of their WORKS or "for their work's sake". Well if Paul defines "works" as "tasks undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature", then just why is it that we are to esteem these people so highly?
And there's a bigger problem yet with Johnson's view: Johnson says that when Paul says salvation is apart from works, he means works that are "undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature" as opposed to glorifying God. Well, why would anyone suspect that we COULD be saved by works undertaken for the purpose of raising our own stature? Why would Paul need to tell us that? Seems like a no-brainer to me. It makes far more sense that Paul was talking about ANY and ALL works, including those that people might easily assume COULD get them into Heaven.
So, Johnson's resolution to this apparent contradiction between Paul and James seems to fall flat. I think there's a much better way to understand these passages, particularly James 2 (since Ephesians 2:8-9 seems clear enough). So next post I'll explore that.