There is nothing difficult to understand in some passages in James. The problem with James is that (1) he sometimes chafes against our theology and (2) he sometimes chafes even more against our theology. In other words, he says this his way and we’d sometimes prefer him to say things our way. One thing is clear: James is clear and he sounds like Jesus more often than not.
Notice these words from James 2:14-17:
14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15 Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If
one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,”
but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
James’ opening question, related as it is to the problem of kow-towing to the rich and despising the poor, is much like other expressions and verses in James — think of 1:22-27 or even of 4:13-5:6. It is integrally related to what follows in 2:20-26.
“What good is it?” and “Can that faith save him?” are two sides of the same question with one rhetorical intent: James wants the messianists to think it through and turn from their inconsistency and walk the way of Jesus. A faith without works is no good and it cannot save a person.
One may not be saved by works but one cannot be saved without works. This isn’t works righteousness; it is the inevitable manifestation and accompaniment of genuine faith in Jesus, the Glorious One.