Many who read the book of James conclude that he is teaching that it is a combination of faith plus works that brings about eternal salvation. Those who believe in the inspiration of Scripture realize that one part of the Bible cannot teach something that another part of the Bible contradicts. The Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 2:8-9 and many other passages, strongly teaches that we are saved by faith alone. James cannot be teaching an opposite theology. James is showing that any faith that does not produce works is useless in bringing about salvation. Many people profess to be followers of Christ and may even have prayed a prayer inviting Jesus into their heart. But if these words never produce any change in their life, is that saving faith? Many people believe that Jesus died for their sins and rose again, but if these facts do not produce any works in one’s life, is it saving faith? James is not teaching that it is faith plus works that brings salvation. James is teaching that any faith that does not produce works is useless in bringing about salvation.
Beginning in James 2:21, James uses two illustrations to prove His point. These two portraits could not be any more of a contrast in their appearance. The first example is that of the Patriarch, Abraham (2:21-24). James asks, “Was not Abraham justified by works?” This is a rhetorical question that has “yes” as the answer. Is James talking about the moment of Abraham’s salvation? No. The moment when Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness occurred 30 years earlier to the event that James is speaking of (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-9). James is speaking of the event when God told Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice and which proved that Abraham’s faith was more than mere intellectual ascent (Genesis 22:1-18). This great act of obedience in Abraham’s life teaches us that it was Abraham’s works which demonstrated the validity of his faith. Faith is not fully matured until it results in works. Abraham being justified through his belief in God was evidenced in his obedience of God. As a result, Abraham was given the title, “Friend of God” (Abraham also is credited with this title in 2 Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8). Jesus gave this same name to His disciples and now to us (John 15:15). Is James contradicting Paul in verse 24 when he states, “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone?” No! James is simply saying what he has just illustrated, that intellectual assent that does not result in a changed life is not saving faith at all.
In James 2:25-26, James uses a second illustration which is that of the prostitute named Rahab. Notice how Rahab is such a stark contrast to Abraham? Abraham was a Jew, Rahab was a Gentile. Abraham was a man, Rahab was a woman. Abraham was a patriarch, Rahab was a harlot. What act of obedience in Rahab’s life does James use as an example that true faith results in works? It was when she risked her own life, hiding the spies sent into Jericho by Joshua and helping them to escape (Joshua 2). Whether you’re a patriarch or a prostitute; whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile; whether you’re a man or a woman, true saving faith will be evidenced by works as your life changes. James summarizes his whole argument when he states that just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works has no life.