James 2:24 seems to affirm the very definition of legalism: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” When read alongside Ephesians 2:8, 9, it becomes even more problematic: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works lest anyone should boast” (emphasis supplied). Looked at like that, these two verses can lead to some troubling conclusions. Do Paul and James believe in separate gospels? Is the Bible contradicting itself? For something as essential as salvation, this is not something to gloss over or ignore.
These two verses reveal the importance of understanding context instead of taking two or three sentences as standalone assertions. James’s concern here is not to add onto the requirement of faith but to explain it. As has been explored throughout this week, James is focused on giving practical details of what faith is and how it looks. Faith is not a simple mental assent. When a belief is truly held, it changes the believer. Not because they have to make it so, but because that’s what belief does.
Suppose there was a little boy in his bedroom playing with his toys. His father comes in and tells him, “Look out! There are snakes in your room!” If the little boy believes his father, what will he do? Depending on his view of snakes, he’ll either scramble to the highest point in the room for safety or get on all fours to find them. Either way, he will act on that belief. Is it because he mentally said to himself, My father said there are snakes. I believe him. To prove my belief, I will act on this belief? Not at all! Instead, his belief in what his father said will immediately lead to action simply because that’s what belief does.
Similarly, James’s point is that people saying that they have faith and not having it show up in their lives is an example of a dead or useless faith. They’re like a little boy who says, “I believe you, father,” but it becomes clear by their actions that they do not believe. It’s not faith at all. And lack of faith does have salvific ramifications.
Faith looks like Abraham: he believed God, which led to the natural expression of these beliefs in his actions. Actions, then, are not to be added. They’re simply to be unhindered as they happen from a natural result of belief and trust in Jesus.