I have spent enough time both in and out of the flock to know which Bible verses give believers fits, and James 2:14-26 probably tops the list:
14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 16 And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? 17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. 18 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. 19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. 24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. 25 Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? 26 For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. James 2:14-26 (KJV)
I must confess, I'm not entirely sure I've heard a truly satisfactory reconciliation of this passage in James and Paul, specifically, "Therefore we conclude that man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." Romans 3:28. I think the reason is because there is an attempted reconciliation where none is necessary.
Explanations usually begin with an acknowledgment of an apparent contradiction then employ circularity to explain why the two are not contradictory (e.g. the Bible cannot contradict itself, therefore there is no contradiction). Other explanations suggest James really means something other than what he is saying. These are equally problematic.
Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that all such explanations are necessarily aimed at an opposing logical fallacy, the straw man that the two are contradictory.
Paul clearly maintains that one is justified by faith, regardless of works. James clearly maintains that one is justified by faith and works. The assertion that these positions contradict each other is only valid if justification is a one-time event, and only a one-time event. If justification is both an event and a process, there is no contradiction.
Was Abraham justified by faith apart from works? Yes. Was Abraham also justified by his subsequent works? Yes.
To say that "faith without works is dead" means "faith alone is insufficient for justification" is simply a misunderstanding of the faith/works relationship. In James 2:22 he writes, "and by works was faith made perfect." What came first? Faith, by which Abraham was initially made righteous. Then, works which worked to perfect that faith. Thus, Abraham was made righteous by his faith and continued to be made righteous by the perfection of his faith through works.
In Part 2, I will discuss the nature of works and whether any ol' good works will do.