James’ focus on works is frequently cited as a contradiction to other messages in the Bible. On the one hand, it appears James is saying that salvation is achieved by works; on the other, writers such as Paul emphasize that salvation comes by faith alone, not works of the law (Galatians 2).
Look carefully and you’ll see that Paul and James are talking about different issues. Paul is in the middle of a debate with Jewish Christians over whether Gentiles must live like Jews to enter the family of faith. He says that no one is made right with God by performing the works of the law. Instead, all people are made right by faith, thanks to God’s grace. For James the situation is entirely different. The works he is talking about refer to God’s people helping the poor, not whether non-Jews must live like Jews. He’s concerned about a shallow, insincere, and hypocritical faith.
Paul describes the root of salvation; a person is saved by God’s grace received through faith. James is explaining the fruit of salvation; saving faith is a faith that works.
14 Brothers and sisters, it doesn’t make any sense to say you have faith and act in a way that denies that faith. Mere talk never gets you very far, and a commitment to Jesus only in words will not save you. 15 It would be like seeing a brother or sister without any clothes out in the cold and begging for food, and 16 saying, “Shalom, friend, you should get inside where it’s warm and eat something,” but doing nothing about his needs—leaving him cold and alone on the street. What good would your words alone do? 17 The same is true with faith. Without actions, faith is useless. By itself, it’s as good as dead. 18 I know what you’re thinking: “OK, you have faith. And I have actions. Now let’s see your faith without works, and I’ll show you a faith that works.”
Don’t you realize that faith without works is useless, like a glove without a hand or a hat without a head?
19 Do you think that just believing there’s one God is going to get you anywhere? The demons believe that, too, and it terrifies them! 20 The fact is, faith has to show itself through works performed in faith. If you don’t recognize that, then you’re an empty soul.