James 2:24, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only."
Many Catholics, Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah's Witness, and even sometimes Baptists take this verse out of context. They are good at adding works to the gospel. A lot of people are and sadly, that is all they are known for. Proper discernment of the Scripture will tell us that the people who take this verse out of context are wrong and that is the purpose of this note.
First off all, who was this epistle written to? James 2:1 says, "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons." The first verse of this chapter says, "My brethren..." Almost every time the word "brethren" is used it is referring to saved people who are brothers in Christ. This is not the only time the word is used. It is also used in verse 14 where it says, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" Notice the two words "my brethren". It is clear that this passage of Scripture is written to brethren who are already saved.
Second, the passage must be read entirely; not in part as most Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals, etc. do so ignorantly. By reading it in whole, you can interpret it correctly. Therefore, James 2:14-26 says, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
Verse 14 is often misinterpreted or misunderstood. Think about the word "profit". It is used elsewhere in the Scripture by Paul. Titus 3:8 says, "This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men." Notice the phrase Paul uses, "good and profitable unto men." It is important to note that works are profitable "unto men" when reading James 2. We must understand that to know the distinction between justification before God and justification before man. But, the word "profit" is not the only thing I want to look at. Perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in this verse alone is "can faith save him?" The question we need to ask now is "can faith save who?" Who is James referring to? By just this verse alone, we will be quick and ready to say that it is referring to the one who says he has faith. But, a good rule of thumb is that in order to understand a verse properly is that it can NEVER once contradict another verse of Scripture. Galatians 2:16 says, "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." Three times in Galatians 2:16 alone God says that we are justified by faith. So, can faith save a person who puts their trust in God alone? Yes, it certainly can. So what does the context of the word "him" in James 2:14 refer to? It is obvious that it is referring to a different person. In order to know, we must read on. Verse 15 says in the beginning, "If a brother or sister..." This who "him" is. Verses 15-17 say, "If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone." Notice in verse 16 the words again, "what doth it profit?" What good does it do to know that a person is naked and is hungry and then tell them "God bless you: I hope and pray someone can give you clothes and food." This is an example of faith without works. And James says in verse 17 that faith without works is dead, being alone and that is to say, it is useless to the person in need. So, what James is saying is that you can have all the faith you want, but it avails to nothing to any other person; it's only good for one person, that's you. But, works are good for six billion people in this world, they are profitable unto men. This is where we see James 2:18 come to play.
James 2:18 is another often misunderstood, taken-out-of-context verse. James 2:18 says, "Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works." Notice again, that this is someone telling you something. It could be true, they do have faith but you won't know until you see it in action. James says, "You say to me that you have faith, but I have works." Then he says, "Show me how great your faith is without your works, and I will show you how much greater my faith is with my works." Faith is useless to others because you can't see someone's faith. Works are useful because you can see how faithful they really are. You are not going to know how faithful a person really is until his faith is active with works.
James 2:19 is another verse that is often used by Catholics who teach that belief is not enough to saved. Historical belief is not enough, but dynamic belief really is. The devils believe there is a God, know that there is a God and that is why they tremble at the fact there is a God. Passive faith is "I believe Jesus died." Dynamic faith is, "I believe Jesus died for me." Real faith produces works. If you know Jesus died for you and it was such a great sacrifice He did just for you, you are going to want to thank Him for that and that's going to happen by works not because you want to go to Heaven, but because you are going to Heaven.
James 2:20 says faith without works is dead. Dead means useless. A dead person can't do anything for he is dead. But, faith with works shows that a person is spiritually alive and well thankful for what was done for him on the cross. The verse doesn't say faith without works will make you go to Hell, it says that it is dead, it is useless.
James 2:21-24 uses the example of Abraham. James and Paul used Abraham as an example in justification. Paul used him in Romans 4. Romans 4:1-3 says, "What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness." Genesis 15:6 is where Paul gets this from. It says that Abraham believed the Lord, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. James uses the example here to prove that Abraham was ALSO justified by works not by faith only. He uses the example of Abraham offering up Isaac. Abraham had been saved at Genesis 15:6. He did not have Isaac until Genesis 21. Isaac was not offered up as a sacrifice until Genesis 22. Obviously, there is at least ten years before this event occurred - thus, it stands to reason these are TWO SEPARATE EVENTS. Abraham was saved 14 years before he was circumcised. This further proves belief on the Lord is the only thing that it takes to be justified before GOD and God knows who truly has and who truly has not. But, I would like you to notice Romans 4:2, "For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God." Notice the words, "he hath whereof to glory; BUT NOT BEFORE GOD." James 2 says Abraham WAS justified by works, but again, this is NOT BEFORE GOD. Notice the word in James 2:22, "seest". It is clear from Scripture interpreting Scripture that Abraham's justification in Romans 4 is different from Abraham's justification in James 2. Romans 4 speaks of justification before GOD ALONE and that is ONLY by grounds of FAITH WITHOUT WORKS (Romans 4:5). James 2 speaks of justification before MAN ALONE and that is ONLY by grounds of FAITH PRODUCING WORKS (James 2:14-18). Abraham's justification before God and justification before men were different things, which is the same case with us (James 2:24).
James 2:25 uses the example of Rahab the Harlot. She was saved, but again, WE would not have known that without her works being evident. God knew she was saved before, but we wouldn't have without her works being able to be seen.
James 2:26 closes in on the analogy that as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. Some believers have a life just like the Dead Sea; they take in everything but produce NOTHING. It is evident that these "believers" may never be saved to begin with. But, again, that is what WE SAY, not what God says and God ALWAYS has the final word.
In conclusion, I'd like to say that passages must be read THOROUGHLY and in CONTEXT. James 2:24 alone would say that we are saved by works and faith but OTHER SCRIPTURES STATE OTHERWISE and so it is not possible that our interpretation of that is right. If we read fully what James had said, we would agree that he was speaking on the basis of man's justification before mankind, not the justification before God.