What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
– James 2:14-17
James wasted no time getting to the heart of the issue in this passage. He began with a question: “What does it profit – what good is it – if someone claims to have faith but doesn't back up that claim with actions?” To put it bluntly, a faith without any accompanying fruit is a false faith. Earlier, on a Galilean hillside, our Lord had said the very same thing in different way: “By their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).
Observe carefully what James was actually saying – and note what he did not say as well. James was not referring to a man who has faith, but to someone who “says he has faith.” James was addressing a false claim to faith, not the nature of genuine faith. The mere claim that one is a believer does not make him such. Many people today say they are people of faith, but they have never placed their faith in Christ alone and experienced what Jesus called “the new birth.” In fact, Jesus framed it rather bluntly: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Much of the unnecessary confusion in the faith-works debate stems from the translation of James' second question in James 2:14. Both the King James Version and the New King James Version ask, “Can faith save him?” The Greek text has an article in front of the word faith, indicating that this faith is the same faith just mentioned in the first question of verse 14 – that is, a false faith. Properly translated, the question reads, “Can such a faith, can that kind of a faith, save him?” James was certainly not saying that faith cannot save a person, but that a faith characterized only by intellectual assent but exhibits no fruit is, in the file analysis, a false faith.
Every Sunday multiplied thousands of people say they have faith. But James asked, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can [that kind of] faith save him?” The answer is no.
Having described a false faith, James proceeded to illustrate it. He painted the picture of someone in need of food and clothing, the basic necessities of life. This person is not a professional con artist or a streetwise person with a slothful lifestyle, but someone with a legitimate and immediate need. A person who claims to have faith goes to him, puts his hands on his shoulder, pats him on the back, and says, “Have a good day. Be careful out there and try to stay warm. I hope you find something to eat. Bless you.”
Then came the rhetorical question: What good does that response do for the hungry and cold man?” James was shining the spotlight on those of us who seem to prefer words over works, who know how to talk a good faith game yet have no impact on the world around us because our faith does not produce fruit.
A glib “Good luck” to a person who is hungry does not relieve his immediate need. Thus, James continued, “Faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. That is, faith without any fruit doesn't do you or anyone else any good. It is a false faith.
The only way to know if faith is genuine is by its fruit. Now, before any of us get too self-righteous, we should remember that God didn't put us on the judgment committee. In fact, Jesus warned, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1). However, in that same sermon Jesus later said, “By their fruits you will know (recognize) them” (v. 20). We are never to stand in judgment of others, but we are expected to have the spiritual sensitivity necessary to be fruit inspectors.
One more note about faith and works. Among the legacy of the Reformers is their often-repeated affirmation, “It is faith alone that saves, but faith that saves is never alone.” In James' words, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Remember, James was not talking about faith and works but about a faith that works.
O.S. Hawkins’ book The James Code is available right now with any gift to support Mission Feeding. Taken from The James Code: 52 Scripture Principles for Putting Your Faith Into Action by O.S. Hawkins. Copyright ©2015 by O.S. Hawkins. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com.