James emphasizes works as paramount for a Christ-follower (James 2:14-26) because he is establishing the correct definition for faith. Any talk of faith divorced from corresponding deeds is not faith, but rather a false imitator of the real deal. Put another way, faith is only alive and well when paired with active works. “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works?” (James 2:14) To claim possession of faith yet being unwilling to exercise it through works of service (e.g. for the needy), is a complete contradiction of terms.
The book of James illustrates this principle with various examples, most notably with the life of Abraham, the progenitor of many nations. All Christians owe Abraham a debt of gratitude for his willingness to actively obey the Lord and become the father of the faith. The Scriptures say, “was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected…” (James 2:21, 22)
Abraham sought to obey God though he knew not the outcome of such obedience, to the point of sacrificing his own son, even though Isaac was his most prized possession. His sacrificial example serves to highlight how an active, participatory role with God’s commands, exemplifies correct faith. If Abraham were to offer mere mental assent to the concept of sacrificing his son, yet not actually build the altar, his “agreement” without action would be meaningless. Such behavior is akin to hearing the commands of God, expecting blessings from Him, then turning around and refusing to obey them. What is the point of hearing God’s words if we are not going to do them?
By design, faith is a verb, not simply a noun. God is searching for willing vessels who will obey and execute his commands, even if it has a high personal price tag. Abraham’s example of faith demonstrates the more perfect way to live by faith. The result? “‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:23) In verse 24 it goes on to say “man is justified by works,” and this seems to please God, if Abraham’s rewards (father of nations, friend of God) are any indication.