What is the theme of the book of James? Is it that genuine (living) faith produces good works or the other way around--that a believer’s good works keep his/her faith alive? Does James 2 address genuine faith or active faith?
Although many Bible teachers acknowledge that James was written to believers (note reoccurring references to them as “brethren”), those respected teachers illogically go on to say that the purpose of the book was for readers to discern (by their works) whether or not they were “true” believers. This contradicts. If James was writing to believers, he assumed they were believers, and he was not telling them to question that. Rather than addressing their eternal destiny faith, James was writing about their Christian living faith.
For example, he stated that a believer's [walk by] faith is dead if not accompanied by works. James was referring to having a dead faith (as a believer) not to being dead in sins (unbeliever). Indeed, Ephesians had not yet been written, so James did not cross reference Ephesians 2:1 and neither should we! The dead faith of James 2:17 is illustrated by saying that a body without the spirit is dead. Does that mean it has never been alive? No, it means it has been alive but has died. The subject is not dead unbelievers but dead faith (of believers.)
James exhorted believers to keep their faith alive through the various practices he gave throughout the book. The readers needed this encouragement to stay faithful in Christian living because they were scattered and suffering, not because he suspected they might not be "true" believers. As a Christian, I need that exhortation as well.
Thus the five uses of words related to "salvation" (sozo) in James refer not to having eternal destiny salvation (eternal life) but to the present aspect of salvation—my everyday Christian life, ie. sanctification. What do my good works as a Christian “save” me from? From sinful living (1:21), from uselessness (2:14), from God's chastisement (4:12), from sickness (5:15), and from death due to wandering from the truth (5:20). Yes, it is possible for believers to wander from the truth, but this does not mean they were never believers. It means they were believers whose faith had died due to inactivity.
Faith without works is dead, because good works keep a believer’s faith alive. In my Christian living, if I stop producing righteousness, my faith (trust) in God will die. But as I practice the various things written in James, I will enjoy active, living faith that is profitable (2:14-17), not only to myself but also to those who are helped by my good works.
For more on James 2 click here.