This post will summarize James 2:14-26 and provide basic application. Readers interested in a detailed defense of these statements are encouraged to consult “An Exegesis of James 2:14-26.”
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
James argues that faith alone is not sufficient to save. “Salvation,” however, does not refer to salvation from Hell, but rather deliverance from danger, God’s wrath, etc. For James, it doesn’t matter how much faith you have. If your faith doesn’t lead you to do anything, it is useless (cf. 1:21-22).
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (2:18-19)
Though most people take 2:18-19 as an objector, these verses should be understood a witness who supports James’ position. The first “but” should be rendered “In fact” (cf. John 16:2). The witness’ words do not end after “I have deeds,” as the NIV has it, but include both verses. His point is that one must have deeds to demonstrate faith. Believing the right things is useless if not put into action, because even demons believe the right things.
You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, “and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (2:20-24)
To further his point, James looks at Abraham as an example that demonstrates that works are necessary for faith to accomplish anything. Abraham was justified when he believed God, but that justification was fulfilled when he demonstrated his faith by offering Isaac as a sacrifice. James’ use of “justification” here is not the same as Paul’s, who used it in a legal sense. James uses it to mean “vindication.” Abraham could be called God’s friend because of his deeds and not just his faith. His faith, in that sense, was vindicated.
In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. (2:25-26)
James concludes with a second OT example. Rahab not only believed the spies’ promise that Jericho would be destroyed; she also helped them escape. Her actions resulted in her life being spared. In this sense, her works saved her.
Properly understood, we may say that James believed in a works-based salvation, as should all Christians. He is not, though, talking about salvation from Hell, but rather salvation from the dangers we face in life. Christians are not to stand by and wait for God to solve all of their problems. They are to act according to the faith that they have and leave the results to Him.