The Question: is faith without works of any profit?There are some saying that they have faith but do not have works.
The first thing that we need to do to understand this passage is define exactly what kind of faith James is talking about. Notice that James says that this hypothetical person claims to have faith. James never says that this person actually has faith. The person making such a claim to faith would most likely believe in such things as the existence of God, the Bible as the Word of God, and probably even that Jesus was the Messiah. But it is not the theological claims of this person are not in question; the issue is that this person has no works. His religion has no place in his heart, or house, or conduct; all he has is his profession, and his religion is only to make noise. In 1 John 2:4 we read something very interesting about a person like this. A person who claims to have faith in Christ but does not keep Christ’s commandments is a liar.
What we do reveals what we really believe. Let’s say that you are walking down the road and you come upon a large fence. On that fence you see a sign that reads: “Electric Fence, DO NOT TOUCH.” As you are looking at the fence on of your friends comes up behind you. Quickly you warn him not to touch the fence because it is an electric fence. But he begins to question you, “how do you know for sure?” he asks. You hold to your guns and tell him that you read the sign. Eventually he leaves, but you stay at the fence. When he is out of sight you, and no one is around you decide to reach out and touch the fence. Here is the point, you may have said that you believed the sign but by reaching out to touch the fence you have proved that you did not really believe the sign. What you did proved what you believed. This is James’ point. James is not out to prove that faith is of no profit. James is merely pointing out that faith without works is of no profit because it is not real faith.
In these verses James teaches us the practicality of true Christian faith. Christianity is not about getting a few notions into our heads. Christianity is about a change of the heart. It is true that we must begin with head knowledge but that knowledge must travel to the heart and from the heart travel to the hands. True faith must make a difference in our lives. Unfortunately this was not the case with the individual in this verse. He boasted to others, and was conceited in his heart about a faith that he did not posses.What is the profit in saying that you have faith but not works?
James challenges the readers of his letter to contemplate the value of this saying only kind of faith that does not have works. Instead of just making the statement that it is useless he asks “what is the use?” or literally “What is the profit of a faith that has no works?” Let’s answer James’ question. First off, what kind of works is James talking about? The works that James writes of in verse 14 parallel that mercy that he writes about in verse 13. Those who do not have works to go with their faith are like the ones who are guilty of discrimination against the poor in 2:1-13. This is illustrated even further in the next two verses when James gives us an example of someone who has words with no deeds. I want to make it very clear that the works that James is talking about are not an added extra on top of faith. Rather, these works are an essential expression of faith. In other words, James is not teaching that we need faith and works to be saved. James is teaching that if we have true saving faith then our lives will be changed as we submit to Christ as our Lord.
But back to the question, “what is the profit of a faith that has not works?” Is there any profit in saying that you have faith when you have none? The answer is no! In fact, this can be a very dangerous thing. A faithless profession in Christ may sometimes seem to be profitable – you will gain the good opinion of those who truly have faith, and it may make you fell better about yourself, you will even get to be a part of the community of believers – but ultimately any gain you will receive from this false profession of faith will be outweighed by the loss of your souls. Christ, in Matthew 16:26 asked a similar question. If you are here today without true faith then you are partially benefiting from the Christian community, but you cannot have the full benefits of a child of God. And this is James’ next point.
That kind of faith (saying only) cannot save you.
In case we missed the point, James adds, “[c]an that faith save him?’ This is really an interesting question, one that your English translation probably will not completely convey. You could, and probably should, translate this question “that particular faith is not able to save him, is it?” In James’ question he gives us the answer. No, that faith cannot save that man. This may seem strange to us because all through out Scripture we are taught that individuals are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). The apostle Paul, in particular, makes it clear that man cannot be saved by his own works instead he must be saved by faith in the Christ. In Romans 5:1 Paul writes: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It is through the work of Christ that we can be saved, and we receive that work by identifying ourselves with Christ through faith. So, the fact that James says that this man’s faith cannot bring about salvation further proves that James is not speaking of faith in general, but rather of the faith of the individual referenced earlier. Speaking on this passage John Calvin said:
This is the same as though he had said, that we do not attain salvation by a
frigid and bare knowledge of God… for salvation comes to us through
faith for this reason, because it joins us with God. And this comes not it any
other way than being united to the body of Christ, so that, living through His
Spirit we are also governed by Him. There is no such ting as this in the
dead image of faith. There is then no wonder that James denies that salvation
is connected with it.
What Calvin is saying is that there is no other way to be saved besides uniting yourself with Christ through faith. And when you unite yourself with the body of Christ you will receive his Spirit which will change the way you live. No one can be saved without becoming a new creature, and by the power of the Holy Spirit the new creation will produce such righteous works as repentance, submission, obedience, and love for God and fellow believers. The faith of the individual that James writes about is not real because it has not united him with Christ, and brought about a change in his life through the work of the Spirit. Salvation does not produce immediate perfection, but rather a new direction.
Unfortunately there is absolutely zero evidence of any new directions in this person’s life. We can learn a lot from this individual. This person had the appearance of initial salvation. He claimed to be a follower of Christ, and he was probably even baptized. But in the final judgment his conversion will prove to have been a work of man rather than of God. When I think of this man’s plight my mind immediately turns to Matthew 7:21-23. These men claimed to have faith in Christ, but they did not have the life to match their claim. Instead of a true faith, which negates human pride by throwing itself on the mercy of God, these men were dependent upon their own works for salvation. Look at what their basis for salvation was: “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons, and in your name perform many miracles?” Because they depended on their own works Christ judged them by their works. His judgment, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.” We may boast of our faith to others, and be conceited in our hearts of our claim to faith, but in actuality be destitute of any faith at all. This should lead us to a deep examination of our lives, and our faith.
As we can see from the context, and the greater teachings of Scripture James is not claiming faith to be deficient, but rather he points out that true faith will find its expression in Christ-like actions. James is opposing the idea that all claims to faith should be accepted. When we properly understand what James is teaching in this passage it is easy to see that he and Paul are not standing face-to-face confronting one another. James and Paul are really standing back-to-back fighting against two common enemies. Paul opposes the legalistic idea that in order to be saved we must add our own works to faith; James opposes the idea that all we need to do is say the right things and we will be spared from eternal damnation.