James 2:20 – Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
There are three big ideas that I hope will frame your understanding of and love for James.
One, I do not see Paul and James as in conflict on faith at all. I believe that Paul is emphasizing God’s work in you, and James is also emphasizing God’s work in and through you. Importantly, as I was preaching verse-by-verse through Romans it became obvious that early in his letter, Paul focused on God’s work for you through work of Jesus Christ (justification). But as the book moves into its’ ensuing thought units, he does speak a great deal about the ministry of the Holy Spirit and God’s work in you (regeneration). He closes the final chapters talking about spiritual gifts, ministry service, and loving people in relationship as God’s work through you (sanctification and mission). Furthermore, when Paul speaks of works, he is thinking mainly of the kinds of religious human works done in the flesh without the Spirit of God, the same kind of worthless life he was fully devoted to before meeting Christ (Philippians 3:2-11).
Two, when James speaks of works, he is likely referring to the works of the Holy Spirit through the believer. This is completely opposed to human religious works apart from the Spirit of God. In this way, what James refers to as “works” may be what Paul refers to as the “fruit of the Spirit”.
Three, bringing this all together, Paul and James may be both building on the teaching of Jesus who said that a good tree bears good fruit in Matthew 3:10, 7:15-19, and 12:33. We become a good tree by the justifying work of Jesus Christ alone for us, with no inclusion of any human works. The true believers then bear good fruit by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in them (regeneration), and through them (sanctification and ministry for mission). Paul is concerned about reaching religious, self-righteous, works-oriented people who were like him before Jesus saved him. Some years later, James is concerned about people born into religious homes, reared in Christian schools, and so familiar with Christianity that they took Christ for granted and were not motivated to live for God, which brings into question whether or not they are truly saved and God lives in them.
My basic summary of biblical faith is this:
Faith is a Holy Spirit-empowered internal devotion to God (faith) that produces an external devotion to God (works or fruit).
Internal devotion to God is what God sees. God alone knows who has saving faith.
External devotion to God is what we see in someone’s actions. Paul stresses category 1 and James stresses category 2. Paul is addressing largely religious types who have a lot of 2 as they are Law keepers (keeping the Sabbath, tithing, avoiding sexual sin etc.) but he questions whether they understand and have 1.
Thank God that you don’t have to do or add anything to His saving work but that, because He saved us, we want to do good works for Him.