I’ve been given to understand that when James says that a faith without works is a dead faith, he’s referring to someone who’s not saved. That’s what “dead faith” seems to mean in that context. But in Romans 4:5, Paul seems to be saying that if a person does no works, his faith in Him who justifies the ungodly is counted as righteousness. In other words, he’s saved. Please help me reconcile what’s being said in James 2:20-26 and in Romans because both invoke Abraham as an example.
James 2:20-26 refers to the works we do in gratitude for having received the free gift of salvation which are inspired by the Holy Spirit and done in His strength. They serve as evidence of our faith (James 2:17).
In Romans 4:4-5 Paul said, “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.” He was comparing the righteousness a person earns by his own work, which is of no value to the Lord, with the righteousness that is imputed to us by faith alone, which is of great value.
Abraham is a good example of both. He didn’t work to earn his righteousness, he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6) . But afterward, when God asked him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-2), his response was evidence of his faith.
God said that through Isaac He would fulfill His promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation (Genesis 17:19), and that promise had not come true yet. Even so Hebrews 11:17-19 says Abraham was willing to offer Isaac because he believed God could raise Isaac from the dead if that’s what it took to keep His promise. That’s faith in action!
Later on we learn that God never intended for Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac. He was asking Abraham to act out a model. It was a preview of the time when God would offer His only Son as a sacrifice for sin. The difference is that God wold really do it.