James 2 and what it says about justification by works and faith made a lot more sense to me when I read this (in Carson and Moo’s “Introduction to the New Testament“):
James’s teaching in chapter 2 may be harmonized with Paul in at least two different ways. The first, and more popular of the two, argues that James is using the verb “justify” in the sense of “vindicate before people” (the verb is used this way in, e.g., Luke 7:29). Paul and James, then, are talking about different things: Paul of the declaration of our righteousness, and James of the demonstration of our righteousness. Another possibility is to take “justify” in James to mean “vindicate at the last judgment,” a force the word often has in Judaism (see Matt. 12:37). On this view, both Paul and James are referring to the sinner’s righteousness before God, but Paul is focusing on the initial reception of that status and James on the way that status in vindicated before God in the judgment.
I’d heard lots of explanations of the passage before, yet I’d never thought that James could be using “justify” in a different way to when we talk about “justification by faith alone”. It’s hard to read those big theological words without importing all the usual theological meaning we normally attach to them. I think it’s interesting that in the ESV, Luke 7:29 contains “they declared God just”, but the footnote says it’s literally “they justified God”.
Also, the reason for why James talks about faith and works and justification in this way could be because Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone has gone out into the church, but has been misunderstood by some, and that misunderstood teaching is what James is writing against. It makes a bit more sense that James is responding to a misinterpretation of Paul’s teaching, but before he has a chance to clarify with Paul what his actual teaching is (at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15), than that James is writing with full knowledge of what Paul’s teaching is.