I'm not a James scholar. I'm a sinner, a wicked, feckless, depraved, evil person. I do not have wisdom from God. There's my prolegomena to this discussion.
I'm wondering why no one really reads the infamous justification passage in James in consequence, or possibly with the consequences of the passage directly behind it? In 2:1-13, specifically verses eight through thirteen, James gives us one of the most brilliant expositions of the nature of God's Law. First, and this is what the modern quasi-Pelagians love to fixate on, the Law of God is in effect for the Christian community. It is the royal law of liberty whose summative and binding principle is the flawless love of ones neighbor (2:8). Those who do not keep this principle in the Christian community are evildoers (2:9). But the very next statement is of particular interest for us here: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (2:10). Did you hear that? Stumbling at just one point does not mean for James (and in this case God) stumbling at just one point.....the nature of the law and its concrete demand is that one mere, trifling stumble means the whole of it is broken. The whole of it. Or in the words of James,' For he who said "Do not commit adultery" also said," Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.' Hear that? It is a strong either/or. It is God's All or Nothing. Insomuch as you stumble at any point of the Liberating Law which is certainly in effect and binding on all Christians, you have become a worthless lawbreaker in the eyes of God. He will not praise you because on Tuesday you had emotion A which prompted you to perform charity B to homeless person C. Why not? Because the day before you slandered, and the day before that you failed to obey your parents in every matter, and the day before that you failed to make the most of every opportunity afforded to you by the gracious God. These other points of stumbling have rendered your service of charity on Tuesday entirely worthless before God (guilty of breaking all of it).
Taking these words seriously, read through the passage on justification. Do you honestly believe that James is now suddenly reversing all of his thoughts, contradicting everything he just said? Do you now believe God has changed his mind and said," Hmf, I know I just said that I would judge the Christian's actions and speech based on my Law, and I know that I expressly declared that if he stumbles at any point of my commandments I will hold him as being a complete lawbreaker.....but man, that one deed he did really completes his faith. It really pleases me. I'm going to call this fella righteous by what he has done (cf. Jas 2:24)." No!
If our actions receive judgment from God's law, they are always lawless. We do not have any righteous deeds to complete our faith because all of them are worthless on account of our other stumblings. We have broken the whole law on account of a few trifles. James affirms this by saying in the following passage: "We all stumble in many ways." I take this to mean that for James, we..the Christians, are concrete law-breakers, TOTAL lawbreakers, and that none of our deeds nor our faith (2:19), which is really a satanic faith since it produces no act of law-fulfillment, can justify us. We cannot be justified by our deeds nor our faith. And the horrific thing is that we must be justified by our deeds and by our faith. WE MUST.
I think that what James is doing here (with 2:1-13 ever before us) is presenting the true condition of the Christian: As one who simultaneously MUST complete the whole of God's law (faith, speech and action) WITHOUT a single spot of sin, and CANNOT render the faith, speech and action that would ONLY EVER justify him.
Righteous deeds are the life force that sustain faith (2:26). They give life to faith like the spirit of man gives life to his body. And yet if the law of God be true (and it certainly is cf. Rom.2:20), if it be the litmus test of our justice as Christians before God (and it is cf. Rom. 2:13), and if it judges ALL of our righteous deeds as worthless on account of the other points of the law in which we have stumbled (which we have in many ways cf. Jas.3:2) then the situation of the Christian before God, today, is that HE HAS NO DEEDS WHICH GIVE LIFE TO HIS FAITH. And he will never have deeds that perform this work of justifying faith so long as he continues to stumble.
The perfect dialectic of James can be stated thus: It is by faith and deeds alone that man must be justified. Man cannot be justified by faith and deeds because God's holy and binding law shows that he has neither.
If this does not open up a vast and beautiful doorway to the work of Christ on the cross, His resurrection and the procession of his Spirit for ALL talk of justification (both Jamesian and Pauline), I know not what would.
The only consequence of reading James' talk on justification is that the truly saved man is a "believer in our glorious Lord Jesus Messiah" (2:1). He is saved because the righteous deeds of Christ are HIS. He is justified by what he does because what he has done and what he does is what Christ has done and does (1 Cor.1:29-31). Christ says to this man," This is my body given for you...this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." And the man takes and eats, and in the face of this righteousness can only ever say Amen, Maranatha!
The consequence of taking James seriously can be put in the form of a conversation.
Joe: "How are you saved by God?"
Darcy: "By faith and good deeds working together. But mainly by doing good deeds."
Joe: "Really? You have to do good works to be saved?"
Darcy: "Absolutely. And they have to be truly good. They have to be backed by a complete fulfillment of everything which is commanded to be good, without stumbling on any point."
Joe: "How then can anyone be saved?"
Darcy: "With man this is always impossible. But not with God. He sent His Son onto this earth, who poured out His life as a fragrant offering to God on our behalf. And through this righteous act, faith was discharged to us from the hand of the Father, and this righteous act became ours. I am saved by faith and good deeds because Christ's faith and Christ's deeds are truly and forever MINE."