Roman Catholics shouldn't cite James 2:24, because it doesn't mean what they think it means. Last Saturday I conducted a debate with William Albrecht (Roman Catholic) on the topic of the meaning of James 2:24. (link to mp3) I hope you enjoy it, particularly the cross-examination section. With all due respect to Mr. Albrecht, I think you will share my lack of satisfaction with the answers he provided. I even had the opportunity to ask him an additional (related) question during the "audience question" portion of the debate, so hopefully you will find the entire recording useful!
The following are some of my notes for the debate, much of which you will hear me present during my affirmative presentation:
James 2:24 is often referenced by Roman Catholic apologists whenever the topic of Sola Fide or Justification by Faith Alone comes up. They keep on citing this verse, but it does not mean what they think it means. Thus, they shouldn’t cite it for at least the following reasons:
1. Context of Book
2. Immediate Context
3. Distinction between James and RC Justification
1) Context of Book
The book of James is primarily wisdom literature. It’s not exactly the same as Proverbs, but like Proverbs it has a focus on the same kind of practical wisdom: how to live a godly life. The opening passage (James 1:2-8) lays out the major themes of the book:
a) Trials when applied to faith produce patience.
b) If you lack wisdom ask in faith
c) Contrasted presented to a wavering, double-minded man
None of these themes bring up the kind of theological discussions we see in Romans or Galatians, where Paul provides the theological framework for Sola Fide.
2) Immediate Context
James 2:24 is part of a longer passage that stretches from verse 14 to verse 26. The opening line of the passage is this “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?”
James then compares such a statement to another statement: the statement to a hungry and naked person “be warmed and filled.” It sounds like a nice blessing, but it’s obviously insincere if it’s not accompanied by you actually helping them out, assuming you can.
James says that such an insincere profession of faith is “dead” because it is alone, like the dead blessing he just provided.
James then compares the profession of faith to the demonstration of faith. “Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works”
James then notes that it’s good to believe that God exists – but insists that even this level of true belief can be the wrong kind if it leads merely to trembling, like the devils, not to right action.
James then provides two examples of works demonstrating faith:
1) James argues that Abraham’s faith was justified by works, when he offered up Isaac.
2) James argues that Rahab’s faith was justified when she aided the spies.
James then concludes by again reiterating that faith without works is dead.
The part I’ve skipped over (vs. 24) falls right between those two illustrations. In that context, James’ point should be clear – man is not justified by a faith that doesn’t bear fruit in works but by one that does.
3) Conflict with RC Dogma on Justification
Although sometimes Roman Catholics say they believe in Justification by Faith and Works, their system doesn’t provide a good match for what James is saying, at all. Even if James were speaking theologically and not practically, the examples James provides do not provide examples either of RC initial justification or RC subsequent justification.
Keep in mind that in RC theology initial justification is by infusion of faith, hope, and charity in baptism. Subsequent justification is work-based in a sense, but it is by simply avoiding mortal sin.