When approaching the nature of faith and works, as noted by the Apostle Paul and the Apostle James, we must consider the purpose of their respective writings.
The Apostle James, on the one hand, is not writing to give a precise, theological definition of saving faith. Nor is he writing to lay down the “foundation” of exactly how the believer comes to possess salvation. Rather, James’ purpose is to define the ramifications that saving faith should have on the believer’s life. In other words, “Genuine faith, he insists, always and inevitably produces evidence of its existence in a life of righteous living.” (Moo, The Letter of James).
On the other hand, Paul is specifically focused on the means that enabled the believer to come to possess salvation. As such, he puts to death any argument that the believer can come to inherit salvation through the works of the flesh. As evidence of this, he points to the Patriarch Abraham as a model of saving faith. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6). Faith in the living God was the basis of Abraham’s salvation (we can also point out that even faith is a gift of God and comes as a result of His foreknowledge and predestination [see Rom. 8:29]). Likewise, all those who have come to God throughout history have done so on the basis of faith—not works.
Thus, Paul and James’ individual purpose and style must be taken into consideration when seeking to compare the two. Paul did not set out to write for the same purpose that James did, and vice versa. These writers set out to address specific needs that the Church had and continues to have to this present day. Furthermore, when each writer speaks of justification, they are looking at justification from different angles. Paul speaks of the once-and-for-all justification that comes to the believer as a result of faith in God. Whereas James points out that our justification is evidenced through the righteous deeds performed subsequent to the initial justifying act.
Abraham was saved through faith in God, and his faith was evidenced through the work of being willing to offer up Isaac. Such an act of obedience demonstrated that justifying faith was already present in Abraham before the command to offer up Isaac was given. Thus, Abraham could not have been saved by this act, but it did offer up valid evidence that God’s justifying work through Abraham’s faith was the driving force in the act of obedience itself.
In this way, James complements Paul’s writing in that he clears up any confusion or misinterpretation that may arise on account of Paul’s words. A professing faith will be a faith put on display through righteous works. Thus, our works are not the foundation of saving faith; rather, our works demonstrate that saving faith is present in our lives. James saw the very real potential for believers to view their faith as merely a once-and-for-all decision that had no ultimate bearing on the conduct of their lives. Such a view would be unacceptable given God’s explicit demands for holy living (see, for example, 1 Peter 1:14-16). Simply put, a believer that is saved will be one who produces a believer’s works, which, in turn, are the works of God.