What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him. … So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:14, 17 ESV).
This is the point at which many think that James and Paul are at odds, because Paul says that we are not saved by works but by grace through faith. It is one of the reasons that Martin Luther considered James to be an “epistle of straw.”
But James and Paul can be reconciled, if not altogether easily. Their reconciliation is not easy not in the sense that their respective positions on faith and works are inherently opposed, but in the sense that reconciling them requires close attention and thought.
One means of reconciling them is to consider the error they were addressing. Paul addressed the problem of people believing that they were made right with God by their works, to which he responded that we are, instead, saved by faith alone. James addressed the problem of people believing that they need not do anything as alleged believers in Christ, to which he responded that instead, saving faith motivates actions.
This view of faith and works has prompted the slogan “we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone.” This is not trite sloganeering, but a true reflection of the spiritual reality.
Our works cannot save us. But once we are saved through faith by grace, that grace-filled and grace-empowered faith will produce works. According to James, a “faith” that has no works cannot save — that is, a faith that does not produce works did not truly save — and is dead.
The specific example James gives is that of how the alleged believer responds to someone who needs clothing and food. A faith that provides nothing for the one in physical need, but only says — even in super-spiritual, Bible-quoting, sanctimonious language — “be warmed and be filled” is not true faith, and the one who says it is not saved.
What good, after all, is a faith that has no works?