What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead (James 2:14-26).
James explores the nature of saving faith. There is a “faith” that cannot save. Such faith has kind words but no deeds, no aid for the naked and hungry. It is “dead” because it rests in ideas, not in a life dependent upon and reflective of Jesus (vv. 14–17). Orthodox theology “apart from works is useless” (v. 20). Demons prove this, since they hold to orthodox ideas about God yet live in terror since they don’t trust him (v. 19).
Abraham’s faith did work “when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar,” and his “faith was completed by his works” (vv. 20–22). When James says Abraham was “justified by works” (v. 21) he means that his claim to believe was vindicated or validated, not that he earned his salvation. He knows that “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (v. 23). But again, faith proves itself real by works. We are not saved by our works, but faithful works flow from saving faith.
Rahab, a Gentile and a prostitute, contrasts with Abraham in every way except that her deeds also proved her faith. She claimed that she feared God and she called him Lord, and she proved it when she risked her life to hide Israel’s spies (vv. 25–26).
James does not suggest, then, that faith plus works equals justification. He agrees with Paul that faith alone justifies. But he knows there is a so-called “faith” that is dangerous because it deludes but does not justify. He contrasts that with the faith that does justify—a living faith that by its very nature reflects the One on whom our faith rests, delighting to love others in concrete ways.
Adapted from the Gospel Transformation Bible.