The book of James has, from the beginning, been shrouded in controversy. It was argued that it should not be included in the canon of scripture. Much of the controversy revolved around the second half of chapter two. On the surface there seems to be a contradiction between James’ view of salvation (James 2:24) and Paul’s understanding of salvation (Romans 4:4-5). This seeming contradiction led Martin Luther to refer to James as “an epistle of straw.”
Both James and Paul point to Abraham’s belief of the Lord’s promise resulting in his being counted as righteous (Genesis 15:6). Yet Paul concluded in Romans 4:1-5 that Abraham’s justification was a gift by faith alone. Paul is clear that no works were involved. James however, clearly states that Abraham’s faith was “completed by his works” (James 2:22 ESV) and a person is “justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV). These statements can’t both be right, or can they?
To better understand what the writers of scripture are saying it’s important to understand the purpose of their writings. They each had a set of false teachers in mind. Paul was addressing the issue of legalism where people sought to add to faith by meritorious works. This is most clearly evident in the epistle of Galatians. James on the other hand, was addressing Jewish aristocrats who practiced an easy believism that understood faith as a mere intellectual adherence to orthodoxy void of any practical obedience, or orthopraxis. They were like a Christian version of the Pharisees.
With this in mind, let’s review James 2:14-26. Reflecting back to his statement regarding the fulfillment of the royal law in vs. 8, James sets up a hypothetical situation in vs. 14-17 to make his point. Notice in vs. 14 he is referring to someone who “says” he has faith, but does not have works to go along with that professed faith. This is significant for James’ argument because his premise is that profession void of action is not saving faith, hence the rhetorical question, “can that faith save him?” (ESV)
Building from his previous argument regarding the oppression of the poor, James puts forth his case. He describes a poor Christian who is a brother in Christ to the audience and presumably to the one who says he has faith in vs. 14. This needy Christian is utterly destitute without even the basic necessities. For James it would be absurd, even impossible, for someone with real faith to send this poor brother or sister away without helping them. John echoes this sentiment in 1 John 3:16-18. For James and John, faith that remains by itself and does not exhibit compassion on the poor brother or sister, is a dead faith. In this point Paul would agree. In one of his clearest statements on salvation by faith (Eph 2:8-9) he likewise ties real faith to works (Eph 2:10).
In vs. 18 James anticipates the reader’s response to his hypothetical situation, “One person has faith; another has deeds.” In other words, faith and deeds are mutually exclusive. James responds by noting the impossibility of exhibiting real faith apart from works; genuine faith will be discernible by the works it produces. This is crucial to understanding the message of this passage. For James true faith is distinguished by its fruit. Contrary to the belief of the aristocrats, mere intellectual acceptance of who Jesus is was not saving faith. After all, even the demons believed the facts about Jesus (vs. 19).
Here is where the passage gets difficult and the seeming contradiction with Paul comes into view. James sets out to prove that faith without corresponding works is trivial and of no value. As mentioned above he illustrates this point by looking to Abraham’s faith. He states that Abraham was justified by works when he “offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (James 2:21 ESV). Of course he is referring to Genesis 22 when Abraham obediently set out to sacrifice Isaac at the Lord’s command. For James, according to vs. 22-23 the faith Abraham professed in Genesis 15:6 was brought to completion in Genesis 22.
This point is crucial to a proper understanding of the text. The clear evidence that the profession in Genesis 15:6 was the exercise of genuine faith was the obedience displayed in Genesis 22. As Christians, we like to talk about God knowing our hearts and our willingness to do something for him. This is typical of our rationalization of The Rich Young Ruler passage in Luke 18:18-30. However, this is not the pattern of scripture. God is not satisfied to secretly peer into our hearts to see if we are willing. He puts us to the test. Why was Abraham willing to sacrifice Isaac? It was because he had real faith. The same is true for Daniel and the lion’s den, the three boys and the furnace, David with Goliath, etc. Throughout scripture, faith is justified or proved by deeds.
James continues this point with the story of Rahab. Her genuine faith was made manifest in that she protected the messengers (vs. 25). In all of these cases, saving faith is a living faith that produces good works. For James, as well as Paul, true faith is accompanied by a life of doing the works that Jesus has prepared for us (Eph 2:10). For both of them there is no room at the cross for an intellectually based easy believism that is void of death to self, cross bearing, and obedience.
 Stott, John. The Story of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), 117.
 Frank E. Gæbelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 183.