What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
There was a problem in the early Christian church of showing respect of persons. To have respect of persons is to show favoritism to some and discriminate against others on the basis of earthly, natural considerations. The early church was doing this by favoring the rich that came into their assembly and despising the poor.
James points out that this is contrary to the very nature of God’s royal law that the saints claimed to uphold. The law requires that we love our neighbor. This love is a love that manifests itself in acts of mercy and kindness to those in need. And it is a love that does not show respect of persons.
In that context James proceeds to show that the works of love and mercy required by the law are the product of a true and living faith in Jesus Christ. A faith that does not produce works of mercy is not living but dead. And a dead faith is of no profit to us. The implication is that we must possess a living faith, a living faith that joins us to Jesus Christ and that shows itself to be so by producing works of mercy. That faith alone will profit us.
James describes a man who says that he has faith.
What is true, saving faith?
Faith is knowledge. It is knowledge of the Scriptures, which are God’s revelation to us about Himself, our sin, and the way of salvation in Jesus Christ. And faith is certain knowledge whereby we hold for truth all that God has revealed in His Word. To know the Scriptures but reject them as truth is not faith but unbelief. But there is more. True, saving faith is more than just intellectual knowledge and acceptance of the teachings of Scripture. It is a spiritual knowledge. It is knowledge that springs from a heart that is born again by grace. It is, therefore, a knowledge that embraces the truths of God in Scripture, and thus embraces the living God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.
In that connection, faith is also trust and confidence. Knowing God in Jesus Christ as Savior, the believer also trusts God. In this trust he relies upon God and the works of God in Jesus Christ for all his salvation and needs.
Now, James speaks of a man who says that he has faith. James is describing a man of the church, who confesses that he knows his sin and knows the God of Scripture as the God of his salvation in Jesus Christ. He also confesses that all his trust and confidence is in Jesus Christ alone. He is saved by grace and not by works. This is a confession made not just once by making confession of his faith in the assembly of the church, but repeatedly.
James goes on to describe this man who says he has faith by pointing out that he does not have works. For all his talk about his faith, his life is noticeably absent of works of mercy for those in need.
James illustrates this by calling our attention to a brother or a sister who is “naked, and destitute of daily food.” “Naked” need not to be taken absolutely, but of one who has not enough to wear. It describes one with inadequate clothing. “Destitute of daily food” means not enough to eat. The professed believer, on the one hand, wishes this destitute brother and sister well. “Go in peace,” he says. This was a common Jewish farewell, expressing that one find and have peace of heart and soul as he leaves. “Be warmed and filled,” he adds. This is close to our expression, “Take care of yourself; look out for yourself.” But for all his warm words this confessed believer does not give the poor brother or sister that which is needful for the body. He provides neither clothing nor food—only well wishes.
James’ evaluation of such a person in the church is that he has not works.
What is striking is that James is not talking about a vile man in the community, whose life is filled with evil, but of a man in the church, whose life appears to be full of good works. He attends church regularly and keeps the Sabbath. He leads his family in daily worship in the home. He is much involved in the life and fellowship of the church. He is a defender of the faith against false teaching. He avoids worldly amusements.
Yet James says that by neglecting to give help to the poor, he is a person that does not have works.
This is in keeping with what James has already taught us in this chapter. The standard of works is the royal law of God, the heart of which is that we love God and the neighbor as ourselves. Since love is the heart of the law, everything that the law requires of us must be a work of love. Our church attendance, our family worship, our life in the church, our defending the faith must all arise out of a true love of God and our neighbor. Should that love be lacking, all our works fall short. They may be good in the sight of man, but they are not good in the sight of God. In the eyes of God, who alone knows the heart, such works are sinful. And this love that God requires as the great commandment of His law is a love that shows itself in works of mercy to those in need, and works of mercy without respect of persons. This ultimately is the test whether you have the love required by God’s royal law.
And so it is that those who do not show mercy to the needy have not works. For they do not have love—all their “works” are devoid of love.
Do you have this love?
A person who has faith but does not have works has a dead faith that profits nothing.
Remember the illustration of the man who expresses the greatest concern for the brother in need but does nothing to alleviate his need. James asks, “What does it profit?” That is, what do well wishes without providing food and clothing profit the naked brother, destitute of food? The answer is obvious, “It profits him nothing!” A naked brother, destitute of food is profited nothing by mere well wishes.
“Even so [in the same manner] faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”
James is making a comparison. He is comparing the expression of well wishes to the poor without helping them to a faith that has not works. And James indicates that they are both dead and thus profit nothing.
Well wishes to the poor without help are dead. They are lifeless in that they are empty, hollow, and insincere. And because they are dead, they produce nothing worthwhile. They profit the poor nothing.
Even so a faith that has not works is dead. Such faith is dead in that it is lifeless, empty, hollow, and fake. And therefore, such a faith does not produce anything that profits the one who has and confesses it.
James indicates more clearly the profitless character of a dead faith.
What does it profit though a man say he has faith, and has not works? can faith save him? This is obviously a rhetorical question. It is an emphatic way of saying that a dead faith that does not produce good works cannot save, and therefore is of no profit to the man who has it. Such a faith does not bring one the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, peace with God, or eternal life with God. Those who have faith without works will perish eternally in their sins.
What a profitless faith!
The clear implication is that the only faith that can save us and is therefore of any profit to us is a living faith that produces works.
What explains this?
Some claim that such a living faith saves us because the good works it produces save us. But this is the ageold error of works-righteousness that the Scriptures throughout condemn.
Rather, a faith that produces good works saves us because it is a living faith that unites us to Jesus Christ.
All our salvation is in Jesus Christ. By His perfect sacrifice on the cross Jesus earned full and free salvation for all that the Father had given Him. In turn, God has bestowed all the blessings of this salvation upon Jesus Christ at His exaltation. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” writes the apostle Paul in, “who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”
We receive and enjoy this salvation by faith alone. Faith is our spiritual union to Jesus Christ. By faith we know Him as our Lord and Savior. By faith we cling to Him and rely upon Him for all our salvation. And so it is that by faith we are joined to Christ, even as a branch is joined to the tree that gives it life.
And the inevitable fruit of such a true and living faith is works. What transformation takes place in those that are joined to Christ by faith! The salvation they receive from the Fount of all blessings fills their hearts with love for their God and for their neighbor. This love leads them to frequent the house of God to worship and praise Him, to worship the Lord in their homes, to be involved in the life and fellowship of the church, to defend the faith against false teachings, and to avoid worldly amusements. And it also leads them to show mercy to the brother or sister in the church who is naked and hungry. It leads them to do more than extend warm wishes. It leads them to provide food and clothing as they are able, without respect of persons.
This then is the saving profit of a faith that produces works. It is the kind of faith that joins one to Christ, the Fount of all blessing and salvation.
The conclusion of all this is simple.
Let us not be content with a dead faith whose works are devoid of love for the Lord and for the neighbor. Such a faith is fraudulent, fake, and of no profit.
Let us rather cultivate in our own lives and in the lives of our children and fellow saints a true faith that joins us to Jesus Christ and produces works of love and mercy.
We can possess and grow in such a faith by faithful use of the Word and sacraments, by prayer and seeking the fellowship of the saints.
In that faith we will profit.
We will profit in all the blessings of salvation.
We will also profit those around us.