"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 2:18-26
This passage seems to contradict what Paul says in Romans and Galatians, where justification is through faith alone and not through works. How do we reconcile James and Paul?
There are two main interpretive views. The first view says this passage is talking about salvation. If we believe in Jesus but don't have any good works or not enough good works, our faith isn't really faith. We have to have a certain number and quality of works to prove our faith in Jesus was genuine. This is the majority view.
The second view says this passage is talking about sanctification. If we aren't actively producing good works as a Christian, our faith in Jesus is essentially useless at that point in time. It's not producing anything of value in phase two of the Christian life. This will mean loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Messiah, but it does not mean we are unsaved and going to the lake of fire. This is the minority view.
I subscribe to the minority view because: (1) throughout James's letter, he describes his audience as saved; (2) Paul is adamant that phase one justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone; (3) James was the first book of the New Testament written, and he is using the term justification/vindication in a different way than Paul later does in his letters; (4) James is talking about vindication for rewards before others at the judgment seat of Messiah; and (5) James's goal is for his audience to be well-balanced Christians who both believe correct doctrine and who put that doctrine into practice in practical loving ways.
"Faith apart from works is dead" (v. 26) means "faith apart form works is useless" (v. 20). In phase two of the Christian life, the sanctification phase, we are useless Christians if we focus on having the right beliefs at the expense of helping our brothers and sisters with their practical daily needs.
Our eternal security does not depend on our performance of good works. But what rewards we receive at the judgment seat of Messiah and whether we qualify as "friends of God" (v. 23) do depend on the performance of good works, done by the power of the Holy Sprit and to the glory of God. So let's make sure we are putting our faith into practice on a habitual, daily basis.
- Jeff Coleman