James 2:14–26 may be one of the most misunderstood paragraphs in the entire Bible. I don’t think James was questioning or doubting his readers’ salvation. Instead, he raised a very simple but important question, “What good does it do to tell a person you have faith if you don’t have works?”
James wrote to people experiencing trials such as separation from loved ones or the loss of their homes and physical possessions. Times of adversity often provide key opportunities to demonstrate one’s faith. We may indeed be believers, but if we don’t live like it, then what good does it do to tell others?
His example drives home the point, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warm and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (vv. 15–16). In other words, what good does that do?
Similarly, what good does it do to tell a person you have faith if you don’t have works? Once more, I do not believe James is questioning or doubting their salvation. He simply raised one of the most common sense questions he could ask.
Sometimes we comment on a person’s physical appearance by saying, “He looks like death.” We don’t mean that person is literally dead, but that they are not exhibiting the usual characteristics of life.
Likewise, one can be a genuine Christian whose faith is not alive in good works, but his testimony will have a damaging effect upon unbelievers.
Yes, we are justified by faith alone as the example of Abraham (vv. 21–23) shows. Salvation is not obtained on the basis of Christ plus works but on the basis of Christ alone. At the same time, though, it is our works that justify us before men and give evidence of our faith. It is a faith that is alive in good works that has an impact upon others.