Question. From what I understand, it is believed by some that faith is an active process of works through which you are saved by grace. The reason for this belief is James 2:20-24:
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
...meaning (if I am correct) that in order to have true [or "perfect"] faith you must have works or deeds by striving to live a sin free life. That, in a sense, faith and works are symbiotic to each other.
But, in Romans 4:2-5 it says...
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness...
However [passages such as] Romans 3:28...Romans 11:6...Galatians 2:16; 3:5-6...Ephesians 2:8-9...Philippians 3:9...[would seem to say] faith and works are clearly separate from each other.
I know well enough that God does not contradict Himself. So logically that must mean "dead faith" must have a separate meaning. Do you have any thoughts on this?
It is my understanding that as much as he may try, there is nothing any man can do to be saved. The more a person attempts to adhere to the law the more he will be found guilty, as is the purpose of the law. It is to show us how helpless we are without Him and our faith in Him. Am I confused in my understanding?
Answer. I agree that the key to understanding Scriptural teaching is found in an important insight which you mentioned: I know well enough that God does not contradict Himself. Furthermore, since all of Scripture is "God-breathed" (theopneustos, 2 Ti. 3:16), we must not imagine that James and Paul, both of whom are inspired by the Spirit, are somehow teaching at odds with one another. If we pit Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians (written by Paul) against James, we are sure to wind up confused. Therefore, our understanding of the relationship between faith and works must take into account all that is taught.
Having said that, I must be quick to point out that this is an area that has occupied faithful theological minds for centuries—for there is a great treasury of riches associated with the subject. However, I do think that the relationship between faith and works is something that can sometimes be made more complicated than needed and that it is something that God intends believers to understand without needing a degree in theology.
As your question implies, the overwhelming number of passages in Scripture which deal with this topic come down on the side of emphasizing faith and denying a contribution of works. Why is this so? I believe Paul's statement in the fourth chapter of Romans helps us to understand why: "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt" (Romans 4:2-5). Thus, if works is allowed as an ingredient in the process leading to salvation then salvation is no longer uniquely of God's grace and a component of the worthiness or capability of the one being saved enters into the mix. This fatally taints what I believe the Scriptures teach: that the process of salvation is monergistic, solely the result of God's work on our behalf. (Thus, the Scriptures are chock full of passages which describe believers as "called," "chosen," and "elect.") Since the tendency of man is toward self-esteem, pride and a mistaken notion of independent ability, the Scriptures focus on hammering home the truth that all who believe are utterly and completely dependent on the sovereign actions of God on their behalf. We need this constant reminder else we tend to elevate our own contribution to the work of God.
The book of James is intensely pastoral in concern. James is concerned that believers understand what it means to truly walk as a Christian. This becomes especially evident in the closing verses of the first chapter where James warns against self-deception in relation to how a Christian should live:
Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless. Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (Jas. 1:21-27)
Thus, James' focus as he begins the second chapter is the practical application of Christian belief as it manifests in the life of the believer—what some have called, "shoe-leather Christianity." Thus, he is concerned to demonstrate, as reformers such as John Calvin put it: "faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone." This understands salvation as a birth whereby the Holy Spirit permanently takes up residence within the life of the believer. When the believer is "born again" (or "born from above") there is a new and holy spiritual Agent at work within that person. Thus, the birth is the beginning point of a process—the process of sanctification. The depth and speed of this process varies greatly from believer-to-believer.
James, then, is concerned that people understand that a mark of true belief is the inevitable change caused by the reality of the very Spirit of God having taken up residence within a true believer. This results in an outworking of the purposes of God within the life of the individual resulting in practical actions:
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (Jas. 2:14-17)
Although there are numerous interpretations of this passage, I'm one who takes it in its simplest sense. I believe James is talking about the attributes of saving faith—the same faith that Paul has in view in passages which underscore that salvation is by grace through faith alone. James is warning that a mere outward profession of faith which lacks any indication of the inward reality of the work of the Spirit may not be saving faith at all. Thus, James is in agreement with Paul's warning to the church at Corinth:
Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. (2 Cor. 13:5)
Notice that Paul connects being in the faith with the internal reality of Jesus Christ being resident, through His Holy Spirit, within the true believer.
As James continues in the second chapter, he brings up the example of Abraham as an illustration of the spiritual reality of being born again.
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (Jas. 2:20-24)
Several points are important to consider when meditating upon this passage:
When does James indicate Abraham was justified? When "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." James indicates that Abraham was justified by faith no later than Genesis 15:6. This is when God makes a formal covenant with Abraham based upon earlier promises in Genesis 12.
When did Abraham's "work" of offering up Isaac take place? In Genesis 22, some 7 chapters and many years later. (Steinmann dates Genesis 15 prior to 2081 and the birth of Isaac at 2066 B.C. If we assume Isaac was only a young teen at the time of his offering, then that would infer more than two decades between when Scripture records Abraham as having been justified and his offering of Isaac. )
What does James mean when he says that Abraham's faith was made perfect? The word for "perfect" in James is from the verb teleioo, which emphasizes maturity, completion, purpose or even genuineness. Thus, James is indicating that Abraham's offering of Isaac was a demonstration of the maturity and genuineness of his faith—a faith which was real many years before this "work."
When we consider these points, it seems evident that James is simply
saying that Abraham's real (saving faith) from years earlier came about
solely through faith, but the reality of his faith—its
genuineness—eventually led to an action which would have been impossible
otherwise: offering the life of his only son. This is completely
compatible with a similar teaching by the writer of Hebrews:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son. (Hebrews 11:17)
Notice that the work which James refers to as indicating the maturing or genuineness of Abraham's faith from years before is spoken of in Hebrews as being energized, if you will, "by faith." In other words, faith was the engine and the action was the result, the outer manifestation, of the saving faith which was already at work within the life of Abraham from years before.
Although salvation is not a work, the reality of the Holy Spirit taking up residence within the newly born believer has spiritual ramifications which eventually and ultimately lead to changes in ones behaviour—although this can take time, as the example of the Church at Corinth reveals. I believe James is not at odds with Paul, but simply warning his readers that a profession of being a Christian without the inward reality of the spiritual birth is "dead" because it would amount to a "stillborn believer." However, a stillborn believer is a Biblical contradiction in terms since that which God brings to life is living! Yet, like all newborns, the rate and evidence of growth may vary greatly between individuals.
So I would not refer to faith and works as being symbiotic. Rather, I would state that faith precedes works and is the cause of those works. Thus, the works which follow do not contribute to the earlier faith which is the basis and energizer of the works. As James maintains, where works are completely lacking—especially over a lengthy period—then it is only natural to wonder whether the birth actually took place? I take James to be saying that spiritual works follow naturally from spiritual faith and in cases where there are no works whatsoever—no manifest desire to please God and an ongoing lack of concern over sinful behaviour—then faith itself is suspect and may be dead.
In thinking about the relationship of faith and works, we want to take care not to confuse the instantaneous new birth, by faith, with the ongoing process of growth in spiritual maturity and related works which manifest with time.
 Andrew E. Steinmann, From Abraham to Paul (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing, 2011). p. 72