Why does James say in James 2:26 that “faith without works is dead”?
James was one of the “pillars” in God’s program with Israel, and as such his epistle is written to the believing remnant of Israel to whom he ministered, as James 1:1 makes clear. He sets forth fundamental doctrine to the remnant regarding the privilege they have to function just as James 1:18 says, as “a kind of firstfruits of (God’s) creatures.” This was indeed a special privilege for the believing remnant. It was something that had not only been prophesied about, but was also something in which Abraham had participated. As James teaches in chapter 2, Abraham had justified himself in the eyes of men by his works as “the Friend of God.” And this is exactly what God’s creatures will be when He fulfills His program with Israel and establishes His kingdom on this earth. And now these members of the remnant of Israel had the opportunity to do the same, which is what James exhorts them to do throughout his epistle, but especially in chapter 2.
James is dealing with two separate and distinct justifications in chapter 2: i.e. justification by faith and justification by works. Though they are separate and distinct, it is God’s design in His program with Israel that both justifications be possessed by an Israelite, with the justification by works following and complimenting the justification by faith. Abraham had both justifications, and so having both he not only had justification by faith unto eternal life in God’s sight, he also had justification by works in the sight of men vindicating him as “the Friend of God” he professed himself to be. With Abraham God established the fact that in His program with Israel these two kinds of justification would be the big issues in His dealings with them as the seed of Abraham.
Therefore as the natural “seed” of Abraham the people of Israel would first need to be justified by faith as their father Abraham was, and in so being they would be the “children of Abraham” with imputed righteousness and heirs of eternal life. However following this, the child of Abraham needed to be justified by his works as “the Friend of God,” (just like his father Abraham was), in order like Abraham to be counted worthy of the kingdom with all of its honors and the like.
The members of the remnant of Israel that James is writing to already had been justified by faith like Abraham, as James makes apparent in writing to them. But that’s not the only kind of justification they ought to be content with as the children of Abraham. When it comes to the judgment at the establishment of the kingdom that determines the kind of entrance they will have into the kingdom, if they do not have justification by works as “the Friend of God” like their father Abraham, then they will not be counted worthy of the kingdom and its honors. Their friendship with the world will testify against their worthiness to be counted among the King’s worthies. And this is what James warns them about, admonishes them on, and exhorts them unto, throughout his epistle to them.
The two justifications are separate and distinct, but the justification by works as “the Friend of God” does compliment and “perfect” the initial “faith,” completing the full package of justifications that is to be the mark of a child of Abraham as he functions as “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.”
Because God has designed for the remnant to have both kinds of justifications, James concludes his teaching on it with the statement in 2:26 regarding faith without works being dead. Just as the natural thing is for the body to be joined together with the spirit, and when it is not the body is “dead,” (i.e. separated from its natural compliment); so also is it the same with their faith, i.e. their justification by faith. God has designed for them to emulate their father Abraham and to do the works of Abraham. He has designed, therefore, for their justification by faith in His sight to have justification by works as the friend of God in men’s sight as its natural compliment. But if they don’t have justification by works as the friend of God, their faith is “dead, being alone,” being separated from its designed compliment. And their entrance into the kingdom will not be with abundance and reward.
– K.R. Blades