"You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone."
Many people think being justified by faith is an New Testament concept that Jesus introduced. As James teaches the early church in Jerusalem the connection between faith and works, he uses the example of Abraham, which the Christian Jews would be familiar with. He quotes the verse from Genesis 15:6 when it says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness." This sounds remarkably similar to Paul when he says, "we are credited with righteousness when we come to believe in Jesus. For if our righteousness could bring us to God, then Christ died for nothing." Galatians 2:20-21
When we are credited anything or given a gift, we can't claim that we earned it. But then James makes an argument that is often difficult and controversial for us. He says, "you see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone." One of the reasons reformer Martin Luther had such a hard time with the book of James (he called it the "straw gospel") was because of verses like this. He was concerned that people might take a verse like this and say, "See we are justified by works not faith."
First, the rest of the bible teaches we are saved by grace through works lest any person should boast. See Ephesians 2:8. This was the rallying cry of the Reformation led by Martin Luther and others opposed to the Roman Catholic teaching on the role of works. So how do we interpret James' remarks? Is the bible contradictory? Are we supposed to hold these two things, "faith and works" in tension? I believe James is teaching as he has done already in this book, that faith is always followed by works, if it is genuine faith. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, and then he offered his only son Issac, as a sign of his faith. And wow did it take a lot of faith to do that. But, in the end, faith is still a gift given us to God. We don't earn faith by acting as if we already have it. Faith is trusting in God's promises. In this case Abraham trusted that if he offered up his son, God would provide and God did. That is why Abraham is called the "father of Faith".
Even though Abraham didn't specifically have faith in Jesus (because he hadn't come yet!), he trusted in God's promise of what He knew and God credited to him as righteousness. So if you consider yourself as one who has been given the gift of faith to trust in Jesus, how is God calling you to exercise faith? Where is God calling you to step out in your life, knowing that the only way you can do it, is to trust that God will provide. Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God!" Why? Because faith is trusting in God, and at the heart of any relationship is trust. As we trust God even with the hardest decisions for our lives we show what we do with this gift we have been given.