“Can faith save him?” (James 2: 14) assumes an answer of ‘No’. How is this to be understood in the light of Eph. 2: 8?
Yes, James clearly expects a negative answer to his question “Can faith save him?” (James 2: 14). Paul in Eph. 2: 8 states with equal clarity “For ye are saved by grace, through faith”. On the one hand faith does not save and on the other it does! But this assumes that the salvation that James has in mind is identical to that of which Paul is speaking.
The great thrust of the epistle of James is that faith must be real. When that is so, faith will be accompanied by resulting and corresponding works: “So also faith, if it have not works, is dead by itself” (James 2: 17). Hence a recurring thought throughout the epistle is that of perfection, so that we read “Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith was perfected” (James 2: 22; see also 1:4, 17, 25; 3: 2).
Now while God alone can judge the reality, or otherwise, of the faith of a person without recourse to their works, man can only form a judgment based on those works. The setting of the epistle of James is the believer’s position in the world so that justification in James is not before God, but before men, and hence is not by faith but by works (see James 2: 21, 24, 25). Thus Rahab was “justified on the principle of works” (James 2: 25), that is, by what she did in receiving the messengers.
In connection with the question before us, the thought of salvation occurs three times in James. In the first occurrence James exhorts his readers “Wherefore, laying aside all filthiness and abounding of wickedness, accept with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1: 21). This tells us of the divine power vested in the Word of God. It is able to save. This is general. It is not restricted in any way. It is salvation, both for time and eternity.
The last occurrence gives us quite a different thought of salvation: “let him know that he that brings back a sinner from [the] error of his way shall save a soul from death and shall cover a multitude of sins” (James 5: 20). The salvation here is particular. It is not eternal salvation, but present salvation, for it is based, not on what Christ has done, but the action of a fellow saint. The covering of sins is what man can do. In the OT the sacrifices offered by men atoned for (covered) sins but could not take them away: “For blood of bulls and goats [is] incapable of taking away sins” (Heb. 10: 4). That awaited the “one sacrifice for sins” of the Lord Jesus who has “sat down in perpetuity at [the] right hand of God” (v12)—testimonial proof to the believer that all his sins are gone. The setting of salvation in James 5: 21 is in time and is by works. Peter also speaks in a similar manner in his epistle (see 1 Pet. 4: 8).
Now this is also the aspect of salvation in the second occurrence in James 2: 14 where the writer asks “What is [the] profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him?” As already stated, the expected answer is ‘No!’ The salvation here is directly linked to works and James immediately gives us an example to prove his point. A fellow Christian in physical need can only be saved from their present impoverished circumstances by works—what a fellow believer does in giving to them the needful things for the body (see James 2: 14–16). Likewise the salvation that Rahab experienced was “on the principle of works” (James 2: 25) for she did not perish with the rest of Jericho. It was salvation in time and here on earth. Yes, her faith in God would secure her for eternity, but that is not the point here.
Salvation by works is not peculiar to the epistle of James. Paul also deals with this aspect of salvation. He says to Timothy “Give heed to thyself and to the teaching; continue in them; for, doing this, thou shalt save both thyself and those that hear thee” (1 Tim. 4: 16, my emphasis). This again is not eternal salvation for Paul had no doubts about Timothy’s faith since he addressed him as “[my] true child in faith” (1 Tim. 1: 2). However, for this salvation, Timothy had to do something in order to save himself and others. This is simply salvation as to the position here on earth and in time—the same salvation that James speaks of in James 2: 14.
Summing up, the salvation of Eph. 2: 8 is for eternity; the salvation in James 2: 14 is for time. As another has said, any difficulty is really one of our own making. Many when they read the word save or the word salvation cannot think of any aspect of salvation other than being secure for eternity. It is certainly its most important aspect, but it is not the only one.