The epistle of James was a first-century edifying letter to the Jewish Christians scattered abroad.
Those who claim that the epistle of James is about works would have to naturally conclude that the Bible contradicts itself, as salvation by grace through faith alone is mentioned in the Bible in many verses (Rom 5 6-8; Rom 9 14-16; Eph 1 7; Ex 33 19; Col 1 13-14; 2 Thess 2 16, and many other verses).
No real believer would claim that the Bible contradicts itself, as true believers know that the Bible is the word of God. Just because some people misunderstand what’s written in the epistle of James doesn’t make the Bible self-contradicting.
Before starting my interpretation of the epistle of James, I must mention that no person can claim to know the exact interpretation of Scripture as it’s told in 2 Peter 1 19-20:
We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
Keeping this in mind, I’m going to describe how I understand the epistle of James.
The epistle of James has the same assertion like the writings of Paul, because both apostles stress the necessity of saving faith. Without saving faith you cannot be born again. This saving faith can also be called “living faith”.
Paul talks about the saving faith by mainly addressing the first part of it – the importance of the belief in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. James, on the other hand, talks about faith by mainly focusing on the second part of it – the fruits that it begets.
Indeed faith without works is dead, like James asserts, because if no change comes as a result of it, it’s not the saving faith of born-again believers. James compares such dead faith to looking at your reflection in a glass and then going your way and immediately forgetting about the reflection.
So this comparison, in my opinion, describes those people who know in their minds that one is saved through faith but it remains only head knowledge – this knowledge never becomes the living faith.
James warns his brethren not to be deceived about these two kinds of faiths. James warns them that their carnal behavior, like the discrimination between the rich and poor, is in opposition to the faith in Jesus (James 2 1-4).
James goes on to explain in James 2 8-13, according to how I see it, that if they don’t have the saving faith, they will be judged by the law, and that the law is without mercy. Thus, he encourages them to behave in a way that they be judged by the law of liberty and not the old law.
So basically James encourages his brethren not to deceive themselves about what kind of faith they have lest they find themselves not having saving faith and thus end up being judged by the merciless law that was introduced in order to convict one of sin as seen in Romans 7.
James proceeds to give examples of how one can recognize saving faith through the kind of works that a person does and the kind of behavior that one displays. For example, he mentions Abraham’s offering of his own son upon the altar (Genesis 22) according to God’s request, which was counted for Abraham as righteousness. Why was it counted for him as righteousness? Because Abraham fully trusted in God’s promise that Abraham’s seed will be continued through that son (Genesis 21), and so through his fearless and faithful action of lifting his hand to sacrifice his son he showed his total faith in God’s promise – a living faith.
So the kind of works that James lists here are not the works to prove that you deserve to be saved, but the kind of works that proceed as a result of you being already saved. It’s one thing to help someone in the hope of being considered deserving to be saved, and another – to help someone because after you were saved it’s in your nature to act this way. So the evidence of the possession of the saving faith are the works that proceed from it.
After listing saving faith examples, James explains how to know the difference whether one lives like a man of the world or whether one lives in the spirit of Christ (James 3 14-17). He explains that being friends with the world is at enmity with God and he encourages his brethren to submit to God and resist evil.
Lastly, James encourages his brothers in faith to endure and stand firm for Jesus. He tells that when believers straighten their ways and return to the right path, through prayer his or her transgressions will be forgiven.
James finishes the epistle by noting that a person who brings a believer who has departed from the truth back to the true faith will save him from death and will hide a multitude of his sins, which is parallel to Romans 8 13 which also says that sin leads to death (physical death).
The epistle of James was written in order to address the faults of Jewish Christians that were scattered abroad. In the letter James explains the difference between the dead faith and the saving faith in order to make them aware of a big difference between them.
James explains that when one truly has the living faith, good works follow, and that the two, faith and works, cannot be divorced from each other in this regard.
This in no way contradicts Paul since Paul himself says that faith works by love (Galatians 5 6). The only difference between Paul and James about this subject is their approach to it: Paul focused on the importance of having faith in the Gospel, whilst James focused on the works that follow when one has that living faith.