"A man was sailing in a boat one day when a storm came up and damaged his boat so badly that it sank leaving him floundering in the sea. He managed to catch hold of a piece of timber that was floating nearby and hung on for many hours hoping, and praying, for rescue. After many hours a helicopter appeared overhead and a man was slowly winched down. As he drew alongside the man in the water he called to him to leave go of the piece of wood so that he could attach a harness round him and take him up into the waiting helicopter.
In that moment the man in the water was faced with three decisions. He could continue to trust in the piece of wood that had kept him afloat for so long. He could try and swim for shore - although he had no idea where that shore was. Or he could trust a man he did not know but was hovering above with outstretched arms, asking him to leave go and let him carry him up into the helicopter above.
That is a picture of our lives and the choices we face when we look for rescue and salvation.
Here is the explanation of the parable.
The piece of wood is anything we build our lives on and which gives us a sense of security.
The man is any of us who thinks that we can make our own way into heaven under our own strength.
The rescuer is Jesus who holds out his arms and says come to him. He is the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to the Father - and enters the Kingdom - except by or through him.
So the question is. Who will you trust?
The parable raises all kinds of questions for me about the nature of faith - something else I have been thinking of for a long time, having listened to various people like Dallas Willard, Roman Catholic writers and others. Faith for me is often seen as too passive a thing as if faith 'alone' will save us. But faith is never 'alone' in any kind of sense. For example 'faith' itself is a work. It means doing something. As with the man above 'faith' meant leaving go of something, and holding on to something or someone else. When we "put our trust in Jesus" that infers some kind of action even if it means saying a form of words or kneeling in prayer or making a commitment. Those are not pure intellect - not mere thoughts. To say you have faith in Jesus and then never reading your Bible, never praying, never attending church and never bearing witness to others makes no sense because all these things involve faith.
And yet often we hear of faith as something entirely passive or merely mental! At the very least it involves interaction with God - which is itself an action - and living out our relationship with him. As above there is something everyone has to do and keep on doing! Once the man leaves go of the wood, decides not to trust himself, he has to trust the man who opens his arms to him, and then allow him to put the harness on, and then refrain from undoing the harness and keeping still as he is winched aboard the helicopter. All these things imply not only faith and trust but doing something, or refraining from doing something which could be called 'action'.
So we must not fear when James talks about works with regards to faith because he is not setting the one against the other but using works, in the context of his letter, to explain what faith looks like, and what faith does.