We don’t want to get the idea that justification (our standing as righteous in the sight of God) is by works, or by faith plus works. But we do want to get the idea that while we are saved by faith alone it is not by faith that is alone. Genuine, saving faith carries in it the seeds of new life in Christ, and they will bear fruit.
For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:26, ESV)
Like all good preachers, James provides his audience with examples to drive home his point. His point is “faith apart from works is dead” (v. 20). He brings to bear two figures of Old Testament history to illustrate.
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” (James 2:21–25)
In these two figures, James wants us to see a functional faith, a faith that shows itself in practical ways.