Interpreting James 2:21-24: Salvation by Works?
Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24 NIV)When you interpret James 2:21-24, you must be careful to interpret this verse in context with the book of James. In James 1:2-18, the author started off by writing about perseverance under trials and temptations; that is, not to be tempted by evil. The Apostle James was urging his readers not to give in to "all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you" (James 1:21).
In James 1:22, the Apostle James encouraged his readers who were experiencing trials and temptations: "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says." Thus, the apostle was telling the readers to display good deeds without succumbing to their trials and temptations.
In James 2:1-13, the apostle accused some of his readers of doing evil deeds by showing favoritism to the rich people and despising the poor: "Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:4) In verse 12, he told the readers: "Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom." In context to verses 9 to 11 which is about the Law of Moses, "the law that gives freedom" is obviously referring to the Law of Christ that sets the believers free from obeying the Law of Moses for salvation.
When the Apostle James wrote "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?" (James 3:14), he was clearly referring to those who OUTWARDLY claim to have true faith but instead "show favoritism" to the rich and gave in to trials and temptations. He was telling the readers that the ultimate test of true inward faith is shown by the outward display of good works: "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." (James 2:18)
Therefore, James 2:21-24 is NOT about salvation by faith plus good works, but about the external test of true faith in Jesus Christ alone by the outward display of good works. True believers are saved by faith alone, NOT by faith that is alone.