This is a very difficult passage to dissect. There are quite a few interpretations on the specifics of this passage, however the main idea that James conveys is certain. A shallow conviction, recognition of certain facts that pertain to God, without submission is “of no profit.” In fact such a shallow conviction is exactly what James was talking about in verse 17. This shallow conviction is the same thing as dead faith. As we will see it is one thing to believe certain things about God, but it is something entirely different to be saved by “the power of God unto salvation.” One will change your life to result in holiness, and the other is nothing less than demonic.Verse 18 is where the difficulty in this passage begins. The question is who is saying what? James only describes this individual as “someone” thus we are left to figure out who it is. The next question is does this someone agree with James or disagree with James? It really could go either way. This person could be saying something to the affect of: “This person has the gift of faith and I have the gift of works so it does not matter that the person with faith doesn’t have works.” There are a couple of problems with taking this position. First the pronouns do not seem to fit with this interpretation. Why would an opponent of James say “you have faith and I have works?” If it were someone opposing James’ position wouldn’t the pronouns be the opposite of what they are? The second problem with this interpretation is the context. If you will notice it is most likely that the quote of this someone includes all of verse 18. Why would an opponent of James demand that James show him his faith without works? The position that I am taking on this passage is that this someone who speaks up is a hypothetical person James uses to further his argument. This position has problems of its own, mainly the construction of the sentence. James begins the sentence with the word “but” (alla), and the question is why would James use such a strong adversative conjunction to transition into a thought that agrees with the previous thought? Despite this irregularity it seems best to me to view this someone as one who agrees with James (we will discuss this in further detail below). For now lets look at the person who claims to have faith alone. This person claims that your faith can stand alone before God, and that your life does not necessarily have to change at all. As long as you profess to believe in God you will be saved. This is the same person who had no compassion on his needy neighbor, and the also discriminated against the poor man in favor of the rich man. James has rightly accused this man’s faith of being dead when measured by its own claim, however he continues to hold that his profession will be enough.
The next individual is the “someone” that James introduces. More than likely this “someone” represents James himself, and his own position. James more than likely is speaking in this manner out of humility. He puts himself in the background by not claiming to be the perfect representative of faith, but by supposing another to be a good example instead. This “someone” represents an individual who agrees with what James has been teaching about faith. He is not saying that his works take the place of faith, but rather that they are the result of faith. We can take this position because of the context of the passage. Verse 17 teaches this view of faith and works, and so does the rest of verse 18. Clearly, from the context, James is not taking the position that works will gain him merit before God. Neither is James claiming faith to be deficient, but rather as he has already (and again will) pointed out that faith will find its expression in Christ-like actions. In fact, we will soon see that this “someone with work” also has faith.
This someone goes on. His demand is that those who claim to have faith alone demonstrate their faith in some way. They would have probably responded by saying that faith, not works, was their gift. Remember, they have already made the claim that they had faith without works (vs. 14), so now they must find some way to show their faith without works. In demanding that they make their faith visible without works James was demanding the impossible in order to prove that their faith did not exist. The question that James raises in the minds of his readers is: is there any way to demonstrate faith without works? The answer is no. Faith cannot be demonstrated apart from action. Faith is an attitude of the inner man, and it can only be seen when it influences the actions of the person who posses it. If I were to say that I posses an unbelievable ability to play the piano, then how would I prove that to you? I would have to demonstrate my ability by playing the piano for you. The same thing is true about faith. If I cannot make my faith visible then do I really have it? The design of James in all of this was to expose the foolish boasting of those who imagined that they had faith when their lives showed that they were unbelievers. Basically his point was that you cannot demonstrate your faith to me because you have nothing to demonstrate.
The “someone” with works is ready and willing to meet his own challenge. He is able to demonstrate his faith. Earlier we said that this person was someone who agreed with James, rather than someone who claimed to have works apart from faith. If indeed this is a continuation of the “someone’s” quote then this proves that he is a proponent of James; for in this verse he says that he has faith. This person can start with his works and point to them as a proof for something beyond his works. The good works are not the salvation of this someone. The good works are the good fruit that is produced by a living faith. This fruit is the very nature and purpose of faith. Look at what Scripture teaches about faith:
1 Corinthians 13:2b …and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
God’s word makes it very clear that our faith is not a work, but rather our faith results in good works. We did not have the ability to please God before we were called into his family, but now we are Christ’s workmanship re-created for his glory. In everything that this “someone” does, faith is the main ingredient. Just as a motor produces power because an electrical current flows into it, so a Christian produces good deeds because true faith empowers him. James’ opponents probably would have answered with a simple profession of faith, but as we will see that was not enough to convince James.