This scripture has puzzled generations of Bible commentators. It is easy to read over it and not see the apparent contradiction, but in the first half of the verse James gives a theoretical situation in which someone compares or contrasts their deeds with someone else’s faith; but in the second half of the verse James replies to this person as though they are the one with faith and he is the one with deeds.
Over the years, commentators have gone so far as to suggest that perhaps some part of this verse was lost, or that James was confused and accidentally used the wrong pronouns in the second half of the verse, but such explanations should never be accepted if a possible answer to the apparent problem can be found.
Some have wondered if the “someone” in the first half of verse 18 is James himself, as if he is quoting himself, but a clear understanding of this verse is possible without resorting to unwarranted changes to the text or unlikely readings of it. If we look at the Book of James as a whole, we find that the apostle uses statements by imaginary individuals who are in error four times – for example, James 2:16: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” In all these cases, the context clearly shows that the imaginary person is wrong in what they say.
James 2:18 is no different. In the previous verse, James tells us “… faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17), so we know what his position is on this matter. In verse 18 James then uses a hypothetical person to reply that surely that is not so – that one person might have faith and another have works; just as one person, to follow what Paul tells us, might have the gift of prophecy and another the gift of speaking in languages (1 Corinthians 12:10). This hypothetical person is separating faith and works as things that can stand alone.
It is to this error that James then replies by saying, in effect: “Prove it!” – “Show me what you call your ‘faith without deeds.’” This is using the pronoun “your” in the way we might say to someone “I don’t want your Communist ideology” – meaning the idea they are putting forward, not that Communism is actually that person’s idea. Then James continues by saying, again in effect: “Because I can show you my faith by my deeds.”
As we read the following verses in James 2 we see that this understanding makes perfect sense. A hypothetical speaker who argues for salvation by faith or works is corrected by clear statements that saving faith and works cannot be separated. James’ message is that we will not be saved by works or by faith without works – if we have true faith, it will be producing good deeds just as a healthy plant naturally produces fruit.
In verse 20 James states “You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” and he proceeds to give examples of good works from the lives of people of great faith. In verse 26 he concludes: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
We can have faith without resultant good works (James 2:19), but James shows us that such faith is useless and dead. If our faith is alive and functioning, it will be producing the good works that are the fruit of faith.