What does scripture say?
‘Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6)
When the apostle Paul cites this verse in Roman 4:3 he uses it to make the claim that a person is justified by faith alone.
James in his epistle also cites this verse in James 2:23 yet he used it to suggest that ‘a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
It appears the Paul and James are at odds.
The answer, as is so often the case, comes down to context.
Getting bogged down in this issue will run the risk of undermining what James is trying to say – so let me make a few brief comments.
First, James wrote his letter very early on in the life of the church, like around 45-48AD which makes this one of the earliest letters of the New Testament.
More importantly, that dates this letter before the Jerusalem Council which we read about in Acts 15.
That council is significant because it is the first recorded time that Paul and James come together, and when together they argue for the inclusion of the Gentiles in gospel faith. There is no disagreement between them.
I suspect that the language (not the meaning) that James may have chosen to use in his letter, would have been different if he wrote the letter after the Jerusalem council. He would have phrased his argument differently.
Second, James was very involved with the Jerusalem church, he was reportedly their first bishop. That means that the majority of those he might have been preaching too were Jewish Christians. In James 2, he makes reference to the fact that Abraham was their ancestor (verse 21). James was writing primarily with Jewish Christians in mind.
Paul, in Romans, writes to both Jew and Gentile, yet his primary audience would have been the Gentile Christian – after all he was the apostle to the Gentiles.
Both men were trying to reach and guide people in the one faith of Christ, yet each address different understandings of that faith.
– to the Jews, who were concerned with being the covenantal people of God, James writes to help them realise that their ‘faith status’ meant nothing unless it was demonstrated in their deeds/works.
– and the Gentiles were being called by Paul into what appeared to be Jewish faith (and so also Jewish law) – he was concerned with calling people to salvation in Jesus without the obligation to do the works of the law.
Both men see faith in Jesus as necessary. James wants those who say they have that faith to live it. Paul wants those who are not sure they have faith to believe it.
For a more detailed and academic treatment of this issue see here. Note, that since this paper was written, I have changed my position on the late dating to an early dating of the letter of James (as stated above). Regardless, I think it is still a helpful article for an inquiring mind.