“You see that a person is justified (saved) by what he does and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24) At first glance, this sounds like a works-salvation verse. Further, it seems to indicate that the Bible is not in agreement over how salvation comes about. But this isn’t so.
Too often we individualize deeds and faith. We separate them into two separate camps. This is why the verses in James seem to be contradictory to the Bible. In context, the meaning of this verse become more clear. In earlier verses James makes the point that a man cannot claim to have faith and not have deeds. For if faith is “not accompanied by action” his faith “is dead” (vs. 17). We must realize that deeds confirm our saving faith in Jesus Christ. They do not complete it, but they confirm and prove that we have a relationship with Our LORD. James gives examples of this in the following verses. He says, “Was not…Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” He then makes the point that works and faith go hand and hand, and that works complete our faith. “[Abraham’s] faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” This must be why God said, after Abraham showed a willing attitude, “Now I know that you fear God…”* By performing a faith-based action, Abraham, in a sense, completed his faith that was in his heart.
There is something necessary in us needing to transform what is spiritual into something more physical and tangible. I believe this is why actions are a necessary part of faith. As humans, we are both spiritual and physical beings. Faith is surely a spiritual thing that is possessed in the soul and the heart. What James tells us is that we need to transform this faith from being solely a spiritual thing and into a physical thing. He tells us that this is accomplished by our actions that are done in faith and that our physical actions confirm the faith that is spiritually within us. And so the gap between the physical and the spiritual is bridged and we see faith in more tangible ways on a day to day basis. This is crucial as our actions and not our spirit will be judged and observed by others. And if they see faith in our actions they will see Christ. But, without actions they will see nothing.
Another thing worthy of mentioning, is that James does not specify what kind of works are confirming works. Although we may desire a list of things to do, this is not the point of faith-based works. I think that he purposely does not tell us things to do because there really isn’t anything we can do that will complete our faith. Rather, it is necessary for faith to be in place already in order to do actions that confirm our faith. Thus, there is not list of things one can do to become saved and finish what Jesus started; but rather, it is a heart issue of whether or not we are doing these actions because we have faith. For although faith without deeds is dead, deeds too without faith are dead.
*- Fear does not mean fear in the sense of being afraid, but rather having a deep respect and a deep passion for having an intimate relationship. See Proverbs 2:1-8.