So often people attempt to run to James 2 to try to change grace or faith into something more than what they are. So here is my explanation so as to not have to repeat myself often.
First things to consider:
James is writing to believers (eternally saved people). James 1:2 – brethren; 1:3 they had faith; 1:8 believers can be doubleminded as he instructs them not to waver meaning that they technically could; 1:16 these believers could err but are told not to; 1:18 they are begotten of God; 1:21 – they are instructed to lay aside sin – it wasn’t automatic; 1:23 they are instructed to be doers and not hearers only – this is a key to understanding ch 2;
So we can conclude that James is writing to saved Jews and doing so for the purpose of instructing them in Christian living and growth.
With this in mind let’s move on to a verse by verse look at James 2. The accusation often made is that I am reading my own interpretation into a text or I am just straight up crazy to reject what so many have stated concerning this chapter over the years. However we need to see what is actually being said objectively and go with that.
“Jas 2:1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. Jas 2:2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; Jas 2:3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:Jas 2:4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
So James starts off the chapter by instructing these Jewish believers to not mix respect of persons with their faith. In other words, it isn’t becoming of faith. The two don’t mix. Respect of persons is this sense is displeasing to the Lord.
Jas 2:5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? Jas 2:6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?Jas 2:7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
James repeatedly uses illustrations and examples to get his points across. In this example he points to the fact that God has chosen the poor. Yet they reject them. But yet they are oppressed themselves by the rich who blaspheme God. The God that saved them and calls them to service.
Jas 2:8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:Jas 2:9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
Note here that James is not saying they are unsaved if they don’t fulfil the law but that they are in sin if they have respect of persons.
Jas 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. Jas 2:11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
The point here is that they cannot excuse away their respect of persons. It is a sin and one sin makes one guilty of violating the law.
Jas 2:12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. Jas 2:13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
Their instruction was to speak and do as saved people should. This judgment is not talking about eternal judgment. That is settled for believers but before God they could receive chastening as disobedient believers.
James then uses another illustration to get his point across.
Jas 2:14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?Jas 2:15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, Jas 2:16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Jas 2:17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
James begins to speak about the profitability of their faith. In essence, is it of benefit to those in need? So if one of these poor people come into their midst, can they receive a benefit from these believers? The example is of one that is totally needy requiring both food and clothing. Yet if these believers say go away and wish them well then what does it actually accomplish? Likewise if these believers will not do good works then what does their faith accomplish for anyone. In this sense it would be useless. The word dead there means useless. It is useless for what? In context it is useless for the benefit of others. This is key as many will try to extrapolate that this means it is useless to save them. Remember though that these people are already saved eternally. This is related to Christian obedience.
James continues the example and follows up with another.
Jas 2:18 Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Jas 2:19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. Jas 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Verse 18 is what James is getting at. This is the question concerning the type of testimony these believers are going to have specifically toward the needy but extending outward to others. Remember that believers and churches develop reputations. What is their reputation going to be? Is it going to be one of faith with no works or one of faith by works? Which one is more beneficial to the cause of Christ? Which one is a good foundation for proclamation of the gospel? Which one gives forth the correct view of God? James hammers this home to them by saying if you believe there is one God you have that in common with demons who at least tremble due to that fact. This is a strong rebuke to them because no doubt they thought they were handling things properly but here James gives the demons a passing grade in that specific regards and these believers receive the words of a failing grade. They are called vain. What a sad reputation. They need to grasp the fact that it wasn’t God’s will for them to simply have faith and stay there but that they need to also be obedient in the Christian walk using their faith for the good of others glorifying God who begat them in the process.
This is why we see James’ next example.
Jas 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Jas 2:22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? Jas 2:23 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. Jas 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Remember that this is still in context of believers and how they will or will not treat those in need. What will their testimony be? Will they make use of their faith? Abraham did. We know from Romans 4 and other places that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Here we see also that not only was that true but Abraham was also seen by others acting in faith toward God. He demonstrated his faith by offering up Isaac trusting God would provide. What a powerful testimony. That is truly a great example of practice what you preach so to speak. So verse 22 clarifies that his works helped bring his faith to maturity. Made perfect is the idea and this concept is found elsewhere in scripture. We as believers are to grow. We are to add to our faith as seen in 1 Peter 2 and 2 Peter 1:5-8. These things are not automatic as they require a choice to be diligent and effort to do them. We are to put off the old man and put on the new man practically. We are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. We are to study to show ourselves approved unto God etc.
So going back to Abraham in verse 23, we see that not only did Abraham believe but He had the testimony of being called the friend of God. Is this trying to suggest that Abraham truly was saved but that these disobedient believers James was writing to were not? No, not at all. They lacked the testimony of Abraham and likewise good works. Then we see that works has a part in our justification before men just as in Abraham’s example. Remember the temptation is to say that these believers were not really believers, but keeping in remembrance vs 1:18, we know this to not be true. (Jas 1:18 Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.) Then what of the next example?
Jas 2:25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? Jas 2:26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Rahab demonstrated faith in God through how she chose to act. She used her faith to do the right thing. The point here is that just as our body is useless without the spirit, so is our faith useless without works. Is it useless to save us eternally? Or is it rather useless for our testimony and the good of others? The bottom line is that will we as believers live as a testimony through good works or will be disobedient will a useless faith for any practical good? Why should we be justified before God but not justified before men? It ought not to be and just as with these believers, it is always a shame to the Lord when that happens. In looking through the rest of the book of James we realize that these believers not only have dead faith concerning the needy but they had tongue / speech problems and in-fighting as seen in chapter 4. They were doing all these things yet were saved people. They at one point were even called adulterers and adulteresses. (James 4:4) What a shame. But just as they were surely in need of rebuke and instruction by James, they had God’s word and could draw nigh to Him cleansing their hands. Remember that God has revealed His will concerning Christian living and stand willing to draw nigh to us if we will as believers repent and draw nigh to Him.
Let us not cherry pick verses out of James 2 to destroy the concept of grace by adding works as a requirement needed to receive eternal life. But rather let’s as believers be mindful to do good works in that it is beneficial to others and pleasing to our Lord who so graciously redeemed us. His grace displayed in our redemption should be motivation enough.