What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good2 is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14-26)
This passage needs a careful reading to ensure understanding. As children of the reformation, we believe that one is justified by faith alone. Many have tried to set up a contradiction in the scriptures here, because on the surface it seems that James is challenging Paul's "faith alone" assertions. However, this is not the case, and a careful reading reveals this.
James is in agreement that faith alone saves you, but the question remains: how do you know you have faith? James is saying that true faith is confirmed by good works. Without good works, one's faith is not a true faith. The analogy James uses is that of someone wishing another person well, but not giving that person the things he needs to BE well. The giving of the thing is the good work that, in this case, proves that the wishing of the person well is done by true faith. The wishing without the giving is a sign of a false faith. "So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."
Now, James immediately clarifies his point, because he anticipates the next logical assertion. The assertion is, "so, because I'm doing good works, therefore I have true faith." This is not true, and James needs to stop it in its tracks. Many countless people in the world then and today do good things for their neighbors without having a saving faith in Jesus Christ. The assertion, "well, I must have a true faith, because I'm doing good works," needed to be addressed at once. James writes, "but someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.'" This is his way of writing that false assertion, "I must have a saving faith, because I'm doing good works." James responds, "show me your faith APART from works, and I will show you my faith by my works." Right. All the good works do not matter if you don't have the saving faith. Well, the obvious question is, "If my good works do not show you my faith, then how do I show you my faith?" There's obviously something more needed. The easy answer is, "does the person confess Christ?" That's the easy answer. Someone can build all the hospitals in the world, but if they do not believe in Jesus Christ for their redemption, then they do not have a true faith. Crystal clear. BUT, we have a problem. Many confess faith in Jesus Christ AND have good works, but they do not REALLY have a saving faith in Christ. What about them? How can we TELL if they have a true faith? James says, "I will show you my faith by my works." So, the answer to that lies in the works themselves. There must be a nuance between works that look like they are good works and actual good works. Building hospitals and helping the homeless may be good works, but are they actual good works in God's eyes? Anyone can do those things, even without a saving faith in Jesus Christ, so there must be ACTUAL good works that reveal a TRUE saving faith in Jesus Christ. What are they?
James affirms this line of thought by writing, "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!" You see, the demons believed, but they did not have a saving faith in Christ. So, one who confesses faith in Christ may be like a demon: having belief but not a true, saving faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. So, now, James is going to reveal a couple of true good works as examples to us, so we will know what a true, good work actually is.
The first example is Abraham and Isaac. His offering of his son on the altar to God was a work, but James lets us know that Abraham's faith was active along with this work, and his faith was COMPLETED by his work with Isaac. James writes that this act shows true belief. He believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now, this verse in Genesis happens before the attempted sacrifice, so Abraham had the faith already, but this act completed and fulfilled his true faith.
The second example is that of Rahab the prostitute in Jericho, when she protected the Israelite messengers from her people. Her life was spared by the act, but this act is also to have had a true faith supporting it, and the act COMPLETED the saving faith. Now, let's look at what is similar between these acts.
Let's look at the Rahab event first. From Joshua 2, we learn
1) Rahab was a prostitute, a sinner. In God's eyes, we are all prostitutes.
2) Rahab takes God's church into her home.
3) The unbelieving world demands she betray the church and give it up.
4) Rahab lies to the world to protect the church.
5) Rahab fears (has a penitent faith in) the Lord, because she has heard the gospel through the details of the Red Sea event and destruction of unbelieving kingdoms, and her heart has been melted.
6) Rahab confesses God as the one, true God.
7) Rahab pleads for mercy for her family.
8) The church agrees to save her and her family alive.
9) Rahab helps the church escape persecution.
10) Rahab ties a scarlet cord to her window and gathers all of her family in that one dwelling. Everyone in that room (ark) is protected from the destruction of Jericho (flood).
11) Rahab keeps the truth in her heart.
Going over to Genesis 22, here is what we can learn from the sacrifice of Isaac:
1) God tested Abraham by commanding him to take his son and offer him up as a burnt offering.
2) Abraham did not hesitate to obey. What follows is a "dress rehearsal" for Christ's crucifixion.
3) Abraham did not withhold his son from God, but he knew that God would provide a lamb for the sacrifice.
4) The ram that God provides foreshadows his sending his son Jesus to be a pure sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
5) Because of Abraham's obedience, his spiritual posterity will be saved.
Let's see if we can find some overlap between these points. Where are the good works located? In the Jericho event, Rahab does two main things: she protects the church and the is obedient to the church's instructions. In the Moriah event, Abraham obeys God directly. So, the overlap would be obedience to God. But there is a crucial detail about the obedience that I think is important. The obedience involves a pre-creation, a foreshadowing of Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf for the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation. So, if we simplify this, then it must mean that any "good work" is going to involve presenting the gospel. Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac was an elaborate demonstration of what God would do for us on Calvary. Rahab's tying of the red cord to her window revealed her faith in Christ to come and saved her family from destruction. Any good work that we do today, be it helping the downtrodden, rescuing someone from danger, or building a treehouse for a kid: to make it a "good work" one has to attach the activity to Christ's gospel.
It may seem like a daunting task, but remember that Christ always did it. He taught in parables that compared the kingdom of God to everyday things and activities. He healed and helped others always as a demonstration of the physical side of the gospel, foreshadowing everlasting life. And he sacrificed himself on behalf of others, which we do in little ways for the ones we love. To show that one has true faith, one attaches the gospel message to his or her good work. Christ shared the gospel with us in everything he did. We share the gospel with others out of great love and respect for the one who died for us.