What follows are some thoughts, and notes on James 2:15-16.
*James was well aware of the inadequacy of this profession of faith, but like a practical man he proposes a practical test to prove his point.*
In these verses James gives us a concrete example of the abstract principle we learned of in verse 14. This is an example of what faith without works looks like. It is almost as if we have a little parable here. But do not be fooled, this was a parable taken from real life. It is a hypothetical situation; however the fact that James again chooses an example of mistreatment of the poor in the Christian community should make it clear that the illustration represents a pattern of behavior that was all too common for James’ readers.
James’ realistic illustration begins with a brother or sister in need. It is clear that this person is not just someone off the street. This person is a fellow believer; part of the family of God; and part of the Christian community that James was writing to. This example is quite similar to the example of the poor man visiting the local church (2:1-13). James tells us that this person, whether it is a man or woman, is without clothes or food. Clearly this is no mild case of need. This is a desperate situation! The word that James uses for “without clothing” is literally naked. This does not mean that they would be completely naked but it does say a lot about their situation. This is the same word that John used in John 21:7. 1 Samuel 19:24 also uses this term in the same way. This does not mean absolutely without any clothing. A person was called naked whose outer garments were thrown aside, leaving nothing but the tunic and girdle (belt). Peter was also “naked” in the same way at the time he cast himself into the sea to meet the Lord (John 21:7). All they had were the under garments that they used to work in. And to add to their distress they did not have food. James’ words here also convey the dire situation that these people were in. Basically what James is saying is that these people do not have the food that they need for daily nourishment. Really the idea is that if they do not get food soon they will die!
This is really hard for us to imagine. We don’t have starving people in our church. We do not have situations like this one, but we do have people in our churches that are in need. Within the fellowship of believers there are those with needs. They may have monetary needs, or they may have other needs. Maybe the people around us don’t need food, but do they need our encouragement? Do they need to be rebuked for sin? Do they need someone to lead them? These are the needs that every church faces. Unfortunately it is often these needy members of the church that are overlooked because of their constant neediness. This situation is not limited to a particular community. What is to be done about this situation is the all important issue. John deals specifically with this in 1 John 3:17-18. The question that Scripture demands we answer is: do our actions reflect the love of God? It is not always easy to care for the needs of your neighbor, but this is God’s standard for his family. If we are not caring for each other then we need to ask what John asks, “Can the love of God be in [us]?”
We have seen what the need was, and now we see what the response was. “Go in peace. Be warmed and be filled.” These are goods words, are they not? This answer seems full of faith – God will provide for you. It is very religious, and it is even theologically sound. What it lacks is the going into the closet and into the pantry and getting out their own clothing and food to share with their unfortunate brother or sister. Without deeds, kind words are of little good to someone in need. Really, these kind words are just a religious cover for not doing anything. Without works their words really are a mockery. And to be honest, their words were not even really all that kind. The way it is worded in the Greek is quite interesting. You could take their responses and translate it to mean “Go in peace. Fill yourselves, and Warm yourselves.” To put it into today’s language: “Have a nice day. Go work for your own food, and work for your own clothes.”
Can you imagine saying this to one of your brothers or sisters? If you are like me then the answer is no. But sadly this is the response to many who are in true need of help. We can be a very cold society sometimes. Are emotions can very easily be moved by movies, or TV, or music; but when those around us are in need we fail to act. This is a dangerous attitude to have. Think about the logic behind what James is saying. The people say good things but treat their own family like dirt. This proved that they are really not a part of the family. And it proves that the faith they claimed to have is not real faith. This is the very point of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-41, 45. His point is not that you have to do good works to be saved. His point is that you will love those who are a part of your spiritual family, and if you do not then you may not be a true member of that family. These are sobering thoughts. How many times have we fought with our brothers and sisters over petty issues? How many times have we loved ourselves above our own family? These are hard things to think about, but if the consistent pattern of your life is to mistreat those in need around you then you may not be a part of the family God. If your life does not match you words (or your actions do not match your profession of faith) then you may be fooling yourselves.
James ends this example the same exact way that he began verse 14. If you are fooling yourself, then what is the use? Words without deeds are nothing. And faith without works is no better. The seeming concern for the poor person is just a façade to cover up a complete disregard for the person in need. Faith without works is fake faith covering up a true need for salvation.
There is a striking parallel between the needs of the poor for food and clothing and the need of a believer to acquire wisdom from God. The same word that is used for the poor person here is used in 1:4 to describe a person lacking wisdom. The man in 1:4 could say whatever he wanted in his prayers, but if he did not have the faith to back up his words then the words meant nothing. The poor need more than just words, and so does the man who wants to receive wisdom from God. We can say a lot of very good things, and truly fool ourselves into thinking that we are saved. But James makes it very clear that saying without doing does not accomplish anything. What you do proves what you believe.