Saying “I love you” to your spouse would ring hollow if you never showed your affection through actions. In the same way, when a person professes faith in Christ yet doesn’t evidence his profession by good works, that faith is rightly suspect.
Anyone can say they believe in Christ. But Scripture—and in particular, James’s epistle—is clear that true faith is always proven by good works.
The first thirteen verses of James 2 continue to expand on James’s contention that believers are by disposition doers of the Word, not mere hearers. In verse 14, after warning his readers that they were facing judgment for their unholy and unmerciful behavior (v. 13), James turns to the heart of the matter: their apparent misconception that faith is an inert ingredient in the salvation formula. His challenge could not be clearer:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
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. And 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 2:14–26, emphasis added)
No less than five times in that passage (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, and 26), James reiterates his thesis: Passive faith is not efficacious faith. It is a frontal attack on the empty profession of those whose hope is in a dormant faith.
In contrast to how his epistle is often mischaracterized, James cannot be teaching that salvation is earned by works. He has already described salvation as a “good thing bestowed” and a “perfect gift” given when “in the exercise of His will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we might be, as it were, the first fruits among His creatures” (James 1:17–18). Faith is part and parcel of that perfect gift. It is supernaturally bestowed by God, not independently conceived in the mind or will of the individual believer.
As we noted earlier in this series, faith is not a wistful longing, or a blind confidence, or even “inward conviction.” Faith is a gift of God, not something conjured up by human effort, so no one can boast—not even about his faith (cf. Ephesians 2:8–9).
In the phrase “if a man says he has faith, but he has no works” (James 2:14), the verbs are present tense. They describe someone who routinely claims to be a believer yet continuously lacks any external evidence of faith. The question “Can that faith save him?” employs the Greek negative particle mē, indicating that a negative reply is assumed. It might literally be rendered, “That faith cannot save him, can it?” James, like the apostle John, challenges the authenticity of a profession of faith that produces no fruit (cf. 1 John 2:4, 6, 9). The context indicates that the “works” he speaks of are not anyone’s bid to earn eternal life. These are acts of compassion (James 2:15).
Faith in this context is clearly saving faith (James 2:1). James is speaking of eternal salvation. He has referred to “the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” in 1:21. Here he has the same salvation in view. He is not disputing whether faith saves. Rather, he is opposing the notion that faith can be a passive, fruitless, intellectual exercise and still save. Where there are no works, we must assume no faith exists either. On this matter James merely echoes Jesus, who said,
You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. (Matthew 7:16–18)
No works, no faith. Real faith inevitably produces faith-works.
James follows with an illustration comparing faith without works to phony compassion, words without action: “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:15–16). The faith of a false professor is similarly useless: “Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (v. 17).
James concludes with a challenge to those whose profession is suspect: “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’” (v. 18). James’s point is clear: The only possible evidence of faith is works. How can anyone show faith without works? It cannot be done.
James continues his assault on passive faith with this shocking statement: “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). Orthodox doctrine by itself is no proof of saving faith. Demons affirm the oneness of God and tremble at its implications, but they are not redeemed. Matthew 8:29 tells of a group of demons who recognized Jesus as the Son of God. They even exhibited fear. Demons often acknowledge the existence and authority of Christ (Matthew 8:29–30; Mark 5:7), His deity (Luke 4:41), and even His resurrection (Acts 19:15), but their diabolical nature is not changed by what they know and believe. Their fearful affirmation of orthodox doctrine is not the same as saving faith.
James implies that demonic faith is greater than the fraudulent faith of a false professor, for demonic faith produces fear, whereas unsaved men have “no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:18). If the demons believe, tremble, and are not saved, what does that say about those who profess to believe and don’t even tremble?
James utters his strongest rebuke so far: “Are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:20). He labels the objector “foolish,” meaning “empty, defective.” The man is hollow, because he lacks a living faith; his claim that he believes is fraudulent; his faith is a sham.
Both “faith” and “works” in verse 20 carry definite articles in the Greek (“the faith without the works”). “Useless” is argē, meaning “barren, unproductive.” The sense seems to be that it is unproductive for salvation. The King James Version uses the word dead. Certainly that is the sense conveyed here (cf. vv. 17, 26). Dead orthodoxy has no power to save. It may in fact even be a hindrance to true and living faith. So James is not contrasting two methods of salvation (faith versus works). His contrast is between two kinds of faith: one that saves and one that doesn’t.
James is simply affirming the truth of 1 John 3:7–10:
Little children, let no one deceive you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.
Righteous behavior is an inevitable result of spiritual life. Faith that fails to produce such behavior is dead.
For brevity’s sake, we must forego looking closely at the examples of living faith from the lives of Abraham and Rahab (2:21–25). Nonetheless, here is an abridged statement of the point James is making: Abraham and Rahab, though they came from opposite ends of the social and religious spectrum, both had an attitude of willingness to sacrifice what mattered most to them because of their faith. That submission was proof their faith was real.
James vs. Paul?
The most serious problem these verses pose is the question of what verse 24 means: “You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” Some imagine that this contradicts Paul in Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” John Calvin explained this apparent difficulty:
It appears certain that [James] is speaking of the manifestation, not of the imputation of righteousness, as if he had said, Those who are justified by faith prove their justification by obedience and good works, not by a bare and imaginary semblance of faith. In one word, he is not discussing the mode of justification, but requiring that the justification of all believers shall be operative. And as Paul contends that men are justified without the aid of works, so James will not allow any to be regarded as Justified who are destitute of good works. . . . Let them twist the words of James as they may, they will never extract out of them more than two propositions: That an empty phantom of faith does not justify, and that the believer, not contented with such an imagination, manifests his justification by good works.  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 3:17:12 (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 2:115.
James is not at odds with Paul. “They are not antagonists facing each other with crossed swords; they stand back to back, confronting different foes of the gospel.”  Alexander Ross, “The Epistles of James and John,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 53.
Those who imagine a discrepancy between James and Paul rarely observe that it was Paul who wrote, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:15); and “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (v. 18). Thus Paul condemns the same error James is exposing here. Paul never advocated any concept of dormant faith.
Moreover, James and Paul both echo Jesus’ preaching. Paul’s emphasis resounds with the spirit of Matthew 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” James’s teaching has the ring of Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.” Paul represents the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount; James the end of it. Paul declares that we are saved by faith without the deeds of the law. James declares that we are saved by faith, which shows itself in works. Both James and Paul view good works as the proof of faith—not the path to salvation.
James could not be more explicit. He is confronting the concept of a passive, false “faith,” which is devoid of the fruits of salvation. He is not arguing for works in addition to or apart from faith. He is showing why and how true, living faith always works. He is fighting against dead orthodoxy and its tendency to abuse grace.
The error James assails closely parallels the teaching of no-lordship salvation. It is faith without works; justification without sanctification; salvation without new life.
Again, James echoes the Master Himself, who insisted on a theology of lordship that involved obedience, not lip-service. Jesus chided the disobedient ones who had attached themselves to Him in name only: “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). Verbal allegiance, He said, will get no one to heaven (Matthew 7:21).
That is in perfect harmony with James: “Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22); for “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (2:17).
(Adapted from The Gospel According to the Apostles.)