I do not know that I will give you the answer you want or expect. I am certainly a dispensationalist and I see definite differences between the Gentile epistles of Paul and the book of James. However, I do not go as far as some and I come short of teaching that James teaches a totally different way of salvation than Paul. James does teach that genuine faith will be accompanied by works and that the kind of faith that saves is the kind of faith that produces works. Yet, there are statements in the epistles of Paul that say almost the same thing. Consider the following verses: Romans 2:1, 6-10; 6:16-17, 21-22; 8:1 [compare 1 John 1:7]; 8:12-14; 13:2; 14:22-23; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 11:29; 15:1-2 [compare
Hebrews 3:6, 14]; 16:22 [compare Hebrews 9:28]; 2 Corinthians 6:17-18; Galatians 5:4, 19-21; Colossians 1:21-23; 1 Timothy 3:6; 5:11-12; 2 Timothy 2:12; Titus 3:10-11.
Some of these verses can be easily explained. Others take some serious study--just like we have to study James 2. But they do not teach that we lose our salvation or earn it by works. I am not convinced that James 2 teaches works salvation either. For instance, consider James 2:1. It states, "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons." Obviously, James spoke to believers who had the faith of their Lord Jesus Christ. James may emphasize the works of the believer, but this is not the same as teaching works salvation.
Why, then, is James so different from the epistles of Paul--and, yes, it is different. There are several qualities that have made this epistle a hard one to understand for many.
- James is written to Jewish believers. As a rule, Paul's Gentiles epistles are written to Gentiles. James is written "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:2).
- James is probably the earliest of the New Testament epistles to be written. It is written early in the transition from the gospel of the kingdom to the gospel of the grace of God. James is coming from the standpoint of a Jewish gospel. The book may have been written before Acts 15. That would significantly change its outlook.
- James was written in anticipation of a soon return of the Lord. James 5 seems to have special application to the tribulation period. Though I do not feel that James is an exclusively tribulation book, it does have some powerful applications to this time period. But that would make sense if the book was written so early that it looked as there would be no Gentile age. The early Jewish believers expected a quick transition from the apostolic age to the tribulation and the coming of Christ. James refers to the wickedness of the rich (James 5:1-6)--something especially true when buying and selling requires the mark of the beast. James 5:8 states, "Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh." Apply this verse to the tribulation. He proclaims that "the judge standeth before the door" (James 5:9). this pictures a judge who is preparing to make things right immediately. Jesus is the judge who will come (Acts 17:31). Jesus standing sounds more like the vision Stephen had of Him before his death (Acts 7:55) than like the descriptions of Paul where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1). The warning against taking oaths (James 5:12) could help them avoid the mark of the beast. The reference to Elijah and the lack of rain for three and a half years (James 5:17) certainly points to the witnesses of the tribulation (Revelation 11:3-6).
As you can see, there are interesting parallels. However, James is speaking to believers in Jesus Christ after the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. The extent of grace may not have yet been fully revealed, but that does not mean salvation is by works. In fact, James 2:23 points to the common proof text Paul used for salvation through faith--"And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God." James does not deny the imputation of righteousness through faith. He simply states that true faith will be followed by works. The works do not save. They only validify the reality of the salvation in an outward way.
One other thing. James was obviously responding in some way to the teaching that salvation was by faith alone. He is dealing with those who say that they have faith and therefore do not need works (see James 2:17-18). The teaching that salvation was by faith was already known. Yet James felt that they also (in addition to justification by faith) needed to be justified by works. How could both apply? The word justify specifically means to declare just. When Christ saves us, we are declare just before the Father on the basis of the shed blood of Christ. That is justification by faith. When someone trusts in the Lord as Saviour and their life changes as a result, their own works declare that they have been made just by Jesus Christ. That is justification by works.