“Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?” ~ James 2:20
Explanation of the Text: There is much confusion about what James’ message is here, as most people suggest that James is contrasting faith and works as two different ways for salvation. However, this is not the case. What James is really contrasting are two different types of faith, one that is a living faith that leads to salvation, and one that is not a living faith the does not lead to salvation (1 John 3:7-10).
As way of introducing a section providing proof of a living faith and the necessity for it, James continues the dialogue with the inoculator, challenging him in a forthright question: ‘You foolish person, do you want proof?’ The combination of the wording and the harshness of James question seems to suggest that the patience of James is being tested by the inoculator and also an unwillingness on this person’s part to learn. In this verse, James asks if this person wants proof that faith without works is useless. However, the word ‘useless’ is probably not the best word to use in order to draw out the true rebuke that James has made in this question. The best rendering would be ‘idle’ because this was the intention of the original Greek text. It’s not simply that the faith is useless, but that it is idle. The reason for an idle faith can only be “rooted in the character of the person.”
Examination & Application of the Text: It can be concluded that James is not simply suggesting to his adversary that his faith is inactive, but instead, that it is the adversary himself who is inactive. It can be concluded that one who is unproductive, lazy, or slothful, the faith that they claim to have will also be such and cannot really be presumed to be faith at all.
As we saw in James chapter 1, a person’s behavior is not rooted in someone else or something. It is rooted in us. We are sinful people. That is the same thing here. If a person has faith without any works, there is no fruit to judge, which suggests no faith at all. If a person truly believed what they said, it would be evidenced in their life, because our actions are the result of what is in our heart. However, it is possible that a person has all kinds of ‘good works’ in their life, and yet have no faith at all. These works are meaningless in the eyes of the Lord then, because they have not been done in His name so that He may be glorified. Therefore, faith without works is dead and works without faith are dead. There must be a connection between what you do and why you do it. There is this great circular process that should be culminating in a believer’s life:
As you see God work through you and in you, as the result of obedience to your faith in Him, it should strengthen your faith in Him. This means that you come to a point of recognizing more and more His sovereign control and work. As your faith is strengthened in Him, it creates a desire, or a fervent passion to want to serve Him all the more so that He may be glorified. The cycle should never stop as we continue to grow in our Christlikeness. Each time we go through this process, whether it is easy or sometimes difficult, we grow more into the men and women He wants us to be. How wonderful it is to be see God work through this process as we serve Him more.
So you must ask, what am I doing for the Lord today? How am I allowing Him to work through me so that He may be glorified and that I become molded more into His image? Serving the one, true, living Lord is not a chore or a task, it is a relationship of servant and master, obeying Him because we love Him.
 John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 1880.
 D. Edmond Hiebert, James, (Winona Lake: BMH Books, 2009), 169.
 Kurt A. Richardson, James, vol. 36, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), 136.