With this summary statement, James brings his illustration and three rhetorical questions to its climax. What good is it if one says they have faith but do not have works? No good at all—such faith is “dead.” Can that faith save the person? No—such faith is “dead” (nekra estin).
“Dead” faith is lifeless, inoperative and impotent. It has and can have no lasting value, effect or impact. In fact, it is not faith at all. For James, faith must be a living reality in one’s life, vigorous and energetic, issuing in works. Faith cannot be without works (ean mē echē erga) or “by itself” (kath heautēn). Genuine faith so orients the believer to God, that it determines the life of the believer in directions which correspond to the character and activity of God.
We have already seen that, for James, this character may be understood in terms of moral purity and generous compassion (1:26-27). A living faith is accompanied by works—the kind of works James has identified in his illustration: works of love towards others in the congregation, especially the poor; works of mercy in which their bodily needs are cared for.
Unless faith does issue in such works of love, its claim is empty.
For James, then, there is no such thing as a true and living faith which does not produce works. … Works are not an “added extra” any more than breath is an “added extra” to a living body. …
James does not argue for faith instead of works or works instead of faith or even works above faith, but for faith and works. Both are important and must equally be present or else the other alone is “worthless” (Davids, 122, 123).
Finally, we must note once more, that James views the Christian community as a proleptic social manifestation of the “great reversal” which will come to pass at the eschaton (see the post on James 1:9-11). Here and now, in the concrete life of the Christian community, a new social order is to emerge in which poor are dignified as valued and equal members of the community, and their bodily needs are met by those in the community with the means to do so.