The word faith in James 2:14-26 is the same Greek word (pistis) used throughout most of the New Testament to mean saving faith. This faith does beyond mere intellectual assent or trust for temporary needs to a relationship with Jesus as the Savior and Lord of our lives. It is clarified in verse 14 by the word “claims”. This person is clearly a professor of salvation but does not possess the fruit that will naturally grow from such a relationship.
The word for works “ergon” is translated as deeds in the NIV translation. These are clearly acts of charity and obedience and are summed up in Mark 12:29-31. First there is the proclamation that God is one. Then, based on that belief, is the command to love God and our neighbor as ourself. One without the other- belief without action- would not be the complete gospel.
Verse 24 gives us the statement that a “person is justifies by what he does and not by faith alone”. John Wesley wrote that faith is not “ a bare assent to the truth of the Bible.. but it is, over and above this, a sure trust in the mercy of God”. Some theologians have (correctly) tried to avoid legalism and thus emphasize the starting place for the Christian walk without giving its corollary, namely, obedience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes”. One without the other leads to either legalism or antinomianism (faith without works). This is the message James is trying to convey.
James says we are justified by works and not by faith alone. Could there be a possibility that one could be justified by works after the initial salvation experiemce? Abraham had faith long before the offering of Isaac. The gospels and Pauline epistles clearly teach that faith alone is the requirement for salvation. True faith, however, will result in our obedience and can save our very lives, as in the case of Rahab.
Ephesians 2:8-9 states that we are saved by faith alone, not by works. The initial faith is a gift from God. We can do nothing to please God in our sinful state. Romans 14:23 says “For whatsoever is not of faith is sin”. Once we have been given the gift of faith, good works will follow naturally. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). D. James Kennedy wrote, “When you truly believe something to be true, you will inevitably act according to it.”. In Romans 4:1-5, Paul writes that Abraham “believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness”. However, Abraham was justified by his works by his obedience to God’s command that he sacrifice Isaac. This justification was not efficacious for salvation (“not before God”) but as a practical demonstration of his faith in God. Abraham’s faith “was made perfect” and he was justified by his obedience. It was the outward evidence of the inward faith. Martin Luther wrote that good works “ are the necessary result of our salvation and the evidence that we truly have faith”.
Paul wrote to those seeking salvation through observation of laws and rituals while James wrote to abusers of this grace who needed to seek justification before God by holy living. The messages are symbiotic and not in conflict.