"Faith Without Works is Dead" is a verse that is thrown around by Reformed folks all the time. This is one of the most misunderstood verses in the bible. Many false Lordship teachers teach this as meaning "if you don't have visible good works, then you were never saved at all" this couldn't be farther than the truth. This verse & surrounding passages is talking to believers about their relation to non believers. The Lord's brother is saying that we should show our faith to others by doing good works.
I'm a man who loves illustrations and analogies, so bear with me for a second.
Now, faith is an internal thing, much like a thought is. You can't physically pull a thought out and show it to someone. You express a thought to others by speaking it or acting on it. That's how you show a thought. Just because you don't express a thought to others doesn't mean that you don't have that thought. Likewise, you show your faith to others by acting it out in good works for The Lord. But just because you don't do good works, doesn't mean you don't have faith, it just means that you aren't showing your faith to others.
An analogy that I find most useful in explaining this verse actually came from someone I was trying to explain this verse to. I was explaining this passage to my dear friend Erin, and all of a sudden she said: " Ooh! It's like a doctor who doesn't help people! They have their medical degree and are a doctor, nothing can take that away from them, they will always be a doctor, but they don't practice medicine or help people. Sure they are a doctor, but what good are they to anyone else if they don't put that to use?"
Needless to say, I didn't have to say anything else! Ha! I ran this analogy by a family friend of ours who is a well-respected family doctor in town, an elder at my church, and my old Sunday school teacher, and he was amazed and said that was exactly right!
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying or advocating that we shouldn't do works. In Romans 6, the apostle Paul tells us, "shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? BY NO MEANS!"
I'm simply saying that works has nothing to do with salvation. Ephesians 2:8-9 and John 3:16 clearly state that we are saved by God's grace through our faith alone in Christ alone, not by works. The moment we believe in Christ, we are saved. We are justified, or made righteous in God's eyes because of Christ. Romans 3:28 & Galatians 2:16 clearly say that we are justified by faith, apart from works. Romans 11:6 says "If it by grace, it is no longer of works, and if it is of works it is no longer of grace."
We SHOULD do good works to please The Lord and to show our faith so that we may share the gospel with unbelievers. But those works have nothing to do with whether we go to heaven or not, we go to heaven based on Our Faith alone in Christ alone by the Grace of God.
Here is an excerpt from one of Dr Dave Anderson's books. It explains this passage in James 2 very well. I've met Dr Anderson on numerous occasions when he led men's retreats for my church.
***"Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead." (James 2:17).
"My faith, concludes James, without any works, is dead. This does not say my faith was never alive. It is dead. Paul talked about the root. James talks about the fruit. Paul looks at the tree and talks about the root where it began. James looks at the tree and talks about the fruit. He does not say it is a fake tree, but that the tree, which was once very much alive and productive, now has no fruit. It has lost its life. It needs rejuvenating, revitalizing"
"James says there is so much more to life than heaven and hell. To James, our life is like a house we are building. Capturing our Lord’s parable from the Sermon on the Mount, he says if we build on the firm foundation of hearing and doing, i.e. faith plus works, our house (meaning our life), will endure, and be preserved in the storm. It will be saved both literally and figuratively. The life lived in accordance with God’s Word will be a healthier and happier life on earth, and its value and worth will be saved and preserved for eternity at the JSC [Judgment Seat of Christ]. But the Christian who builds his life, his house, on just hearing God’s Word without aligning his life with it is a fool, says Christ. He builds his house on sand with no concrete. The first big storm will send it crumbling. He will be miserable in this life, and his life will have no profit to show at the JSC.
"That is why we stress God’s Word. According to James 1:21, it has the potential to save our lives, both on earth and in heaven. God’s Word touches every area of our lives. When we hear and do as it instructs, we are like wise men who build their lives on a solid foundation. We will find success min this life and significance in the next. Every area of our lives that we submit to the wisdom of His Word can have eternal value and worth— family, business, recreation, friendships, health, worship, parenting, you name it. God is interested in preserving far more than our spirits for eternity. Our spirits are preserved by faith alone. He also wants to preserve every area of our life on earth, so it can weather the storms and yield fruit for eternity. This requires more than faith. It requires hearing and doing. That dynamic combination of faith and works has the potential of giving us a healthy, happy life today, the value of which is being preserved in the world to come. With a life built on God’s Word, no storm can blow our house down."
*Anderson, David R. (2013-07-08). Triumph Through Trials: The Epistle of James