When you read James 2:18-25, it is not uncommon to misunderstand that what James was saying was that you should work for your salvation. However, that was not what he was saying at all. James 2:18-25 does not contradict what Paul said—that salvation is by faith in Christ alone and that it is not because of our good works but because it is the gift of God (For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9).
Let’s use an analogy to understand what James was explaining. Let’s say you’re not a believer of Jesus, and someone is trying to preach to you and bring you to Christ. The first person trying to preach to you is someone who professes that he is a Christian, yet you can see that he is abusive towards his wife, he is not compassionate towards his children, he is rude towards those in need, and does not care if he disobeys God or not. That person thinks that grace is always available for him, so it is okay to sin. On the other hand, the other person who is trying to bring you to Christ is kind and gentle, a good husband and a good father. He is not perfect, yet he always honors God in everything he does. In other words, you can see God’s work in that person’s life based on the life that person lives. Which of those two people would make you believe that he is a follower of Christ? The first or the second? That is basically the point of what James was saying. James was not trying to address how you can attain salvation; he was talking about what should follow if one is really saved. We are talking about the byproduct of being saved. Genuine saving faith produces good works; in other words, it is an automatic result after one gets saved. Another word for this is “fruit.” If one is truly abiding in Christ, then that person should bear fruit (Matthew 7:15-20).
When it comes to the good work we do, we do it voluntarily, not as something we need to drag ourselves to do. We do good works because our hearts are already transformed by the Holy Spirit because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Besides, no matter what good work you do, if your heart still has the original issue, your work has done no good. Good works are the byproduct of our faith and our relationship with God. Since being genuinely saved means having a transformed heart, our desires are changed by the Holy Spirit. From not caring whether we offend God or not, it changes to a desire to honor God, which is where good works come in. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean perfection. When you make a mistake, it does not mean that you are of the world and not genuinely saved, as no one becomes perfect overnight. That is why the Bible tells us to stay strong with our repentance. We are all works in progress.
Take your life for an example. Yes, you are doing good work right now that your past self (before Jesus came into your life) would never imagine yourself doing. Then again, this is a byproduct of genuine faith in Christ, not an empty intellectual confession.