"But someone may well say, 'You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.' You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,' and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." (James 2:18-26)
It is important to understand that James is not saying that we cannot be saved apart from the law, but rather that we are not saved by faith alone. Many have misunderstood this passage because they have confused works of the law with works of faith. Combining works with the Law will never save us because our works will never be complete enough to satisfy the Law, but combining works with out faith gives life to our faith and transforms our soul and brings us into harmony with the image of Christ. Works of faith enlivens us while works of Law secures our death.
James whole point is that faith, apart from works, is useless. It is interesting that he compares faith to the body and works to the spirit. I would have thought the comparison to be reversed, but the truth is that it is works that give life to our faith, not faith to our works; faith comes first then works, not works then faith. Faith without works is an empty claim and benefits us nothing. James reminds us that even the daemons have faith and are not benefited. The daemons believe in God and believe in His pending judgment over their lives. On one occasion when Jesus came to cast out the daemons, they said, "Have You come here to torment us before the time?" (Matthew 8:29) They believed in God and in His word, yet that faith did not save them. How can that which we hold in common with daemons actually serve to save us as well?
James contends that, that which cannot be demonstrated, is that which lacks power. If we say we have faith but have no works to demonstrate it, then our faith lacks power and can in no way save us. As evidence of his statement, he offers up the life of Abraham. Abraham was the friend of God and, one day, God made him this promise. "Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them... so shall your descendants be." (Genesis 15:5) Abraham believed God and it says that his faith was accounted to him as righteousness. Almost forty years later, after the birth of his son Issac, God came to him and said, "Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you." (Genesis 22:2) Abraham obeyed God, although God provided a substitute sacrifice for Issac. James speaking of this second event says, "and the scripture was fulfilled..." but what scripture? The scripture that forty years ago had equated Abraham's faith as righteousness. It took Abraham's works forty years to catch up with his faith and to complete his faith.
James says that the scriptures were "fulfilled." This Greek word means to "fill up, cram full, or to level a hollow spot". It is as if our faith creates a potential in our lives; a potential for change and for action, but it takes our works to fulfill, or to fill up, that potential. Many people die and take the lions share of their potential unfulfilled to the grave. Their life has so much promise, yet little of it is ever realized. The same is with the economy of God. When we are saved by faith we come into the Kingdom of God with great potential. Our faith secures for us the reality that "all things are possible with God," (Mark 10:27) yet, few of us actually get to experience the endless possibilities of God in our lives. We believe God yet we fail to reap many of the benefits of that faith. Our works of faith, done through love, turns that potential into realities; it transforms what might be into what is.
Here is James' challenge to us. When we look at the men and women of faith who make up that "great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us," (Hebrews 12:1) we must ask ourselves, "do we have what they confessed only or do we also have what they possessed?" Are we like Rahab, who not only confessed faith but acted on her faith as was saved because of it? Looking back to Abraham, the father of our faith, do we possess his faith in action or merely in words? Faith without words is dead and cannot save us. True faith, saving faith, requires works; works wrought in love; works that can save the soul.