James 2:17 and the surrounding verses have been a point of contention among denominations and theologians for many years.
James 2:17 says, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Many have used this verse to defend the idea that salvation is by works in addition to faith. In fact, verse 24 of the same chapter reads, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Outside of their original context and without the rest of the Bible, these verses seem clear that works are essential to salvation. But, in context of the rest of scripture, these verses instead define the intertwined nature of faith and works.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith; and that is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Paul repeats himself three times in the confines of two verses that salvation is a gift that can not be earned or achieved.
To swing to the opposite extreme view, some believe that a person must only profess faith in Jesus Christ and continue in a regular pattern of life in order to experience salvation. This is precisely what James is fighting against in chapter 2 of his letter.
James 2:18 says “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.”
Faith and works cannnot be separated, but there is a clear order. When a person is saved, they place their faith in Christ wholeheartedly and believe that God has raised Him from the dead. If they were to die at that moment, without any time to do works, they would be saved. This can be supported by the thief on the cross next to Jesus who was told, “You will be with me in paradise” shortly after he believed.
But if this Christian continues to live, God will work in their heart and transform them as they walk in Christ.
Colossians 2:6 says, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” Christians are to be intentional in pursuing a deeper relationship with God throughout their lives. When they do, Christ will sanctify them and they will bear fruit. John 15:5 says, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in me and I in him, he bears much fruit.”
This fruit will show up in a Christian’s life as works. This is all a natural progression that tumbles one after another, like a row of dominoes. First, a person puts their faith in God, then pursues Him and experiences His transforming work. This is followed by fruit that manifests itself as works in a believer’s life. When a believer is not displaying works in their life, the only logical conclusion would be to question their faith. This does not give any credit to man for their salvation. Instead, it further glorifies God because even the desire and ability to do works that demonstrate faith is a gift from Him.