We better quote the text from James 2:20-24 again:
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.
Abraham is the archetypal man of faith. His faith was not a workless faith. His faith worked. The perfect example of this is that Abraham, out of obedience to God (because he had believed God), put his one and only son on the altar for sacrifice.
Whatever you think of this incident now doesn’t matter so much. For James, it proves that Abraham — the man of faith — was a man of works. In fact, James puts his point in perfectly synergistically language: “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” Faith without works is useless; faith with works is saving faith. Working faith justifies. That’s the point.
Abraham’s faith shows that faith-works is the kind of faith that justifies.
James’ conclusion bugs the daylights out of many Protestants but it makes sense in his context: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” Here “faith alone” means workless faith that does not respond to others in need. And that means “what he does” means the kind of “faith that is accompanied by works.”
James is not Pelagian, but neither does he permit himself to get into the corners that many Protestants do when they say it is “faith only” (and by that mean that works has nothing whatsoever to do with faith). James refuses to let faith and works be absolutized. Genuine faith has works.