The next seven verses are some of the most fought-over verses in the Bible. These verses led Luther to his famous “right strawy epistle.” It led him to put James further back in the German New Testament. Calvin wrestled these verses into shape.
We fight over these verses because they appear to be teaching what post-Reformation Christians don’t teach. Here are the verses from James 2:
20 You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. 25 In
the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous
for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off
in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.
Let’s begin with what James is saying: the messianists showed partiality. They favored the rich and despised the poor. James says that’s inconsistent with “faith” in our Lord Jesus Christ. James’ view of faith is that it is connected to works. Works don’t save (at least James doesn’t say it like that) but faith without works doesn’t save either.
Now he’s put to the test and he comes out swinging with a question that assumes an answer and the answer will prove his point: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” (2:20). James 2:20-26 is an attempt to show that key figures of faith (Abraham and Rahab) demonstrate a work-y faith. The messianists that concern him are workless faith people.
“Useless” here needs to be connected to 2:14-17 where the terms used revealed faith that did not save.
I doubt we need to press James’ language beyond his intent, which is to prove that faith without works is not saving faith.