James chapter 2 is an important passage to balance with Paul's statements in Romans 3 and 4.
Paul clearly excludes works from having any saving value.
Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Romans 4:2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
Works clearly do not contribute to salvation. The word "apart from" is an exclusion word. It excludes works entirely from justification. Thus, Protestants rightly say we are justified by faith alone.
Yet on the surface, at first it appears that this contradicts James. In careful reading and exegesis, it does not. Scripture does not contradict Scripture.
2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Clearly, the evidence of faith is not just saying "I have faith" but demonstrating it by good works. In that sense, if I can't show you my faith by what I am doing then my faith is dead. The distinguishing mark of whether or not my faith is dead or alive will be whether or not I have works but works do not make my faith alive.
True faith always brings works with it.
Consider the analogy of a heart and a pulse. An active heart (in this analogy likened to faith) is what makes a person alive or dead. But an active pulse that someone can feel take and measure will be a sign I have an active heart. But the pulse does not make the heart alive rather the heart that is alive makes the pulse. So too the faith that is real, alive and saving will brings works. Ephesians 2:8-10 is instructive in this respect. Salvation is not of works but we are created to do good works.
Faith is perfected by good works--"and faith was completed by his works."
This is not to say that "faith + works = justification."
But rather what is it about faith--that trust in God where I through myself upon Jesus Christ--what confirms that act? When I do that, true faith inseparably and invariably pulls works with it. Faith then is active with works.
It is more like this:
faith = justification + works
Our justification is not self evident in the sense that we do not wear a stamp that says to the world 'I am justified.' But are works will be evidenced to all. If people can see my works they can look at my faith and say "yes, he is justified before God because I can see that works have flowed from his living faith (a living faith which brings justification).
Clearly dead faith does not save. How can I identify dead faith? Well, are there accompanying works? BUT only a living faith saves and works do not make faith alive--they only testify to whether or not the faith is dead or alive.