June 30, 2017 in Blog
“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” (Jas 2:14–17).
Did you ever fail to act when you saw a fellow Christian in need?
You saw a need.
But you didn’t give them money.
You didn’t take them food.
You didn’t mow their yard.
You didn’t do what you should have done?
I’ve failed to act. I bet you have too.
Is that a good way to live? Of course not!
The passage I just quoted, James 2:14-17, is often used to prove that good works are necessary for a person to have what they call final salvation before God.
But what James is actually doing is calling for born-again people to apply what we believe.
James 2:14-17 is a terrific passage. But in order to get the most of it, we need to understand it correctly.
James Was Addressing Believers, Not Unbelievers
The idea that James was addressing both believers and unbelievers is inconsistent with what James wrote.
Fourteen times in the letter he calls the readers “brethren,” “my brethren,” or even “my beloved brethren” (e.g., Jas 1:1, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14; 3:1). Unbelievers were not brothers of James. Only born-again people were rightly called “my brethren.”
He says in 1:16-18 that the readers have been born of God. He says in 2:1 that the readers have the faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Believers need to do more than say what they believe. They need to do what they say.
James Is Not Trying to Undermine False Assurance
Since James was addressing people in God’s forever family, he wasn’t trying to undermine false assurance as many interpreters claim.
Besides, false assurance is not based on believing Jesus’ promise of everlasting life apart from looking at our works. That’s true assurance. False assurance comes from looking to your feelings, looking at your commitment, obedience, and works (e.g., Matt 7:21-23).
Now let’s see what Jas 2:14-17 really says. We will start with verse 14.
Faith without Works Doesn’t Profit the Disobedient Believer
What does it profit? That is the key to understanding this passage.
What good is it? is another translation.
What use is it? is the way still other English translations render it.
Read verses 14 to 17 and see if you see this question repeated. Do you see it? What verse is it in?
Yes. The same question appears at the end of verse 16. We will talk about that more in a moment.
But the point is clear: James is asking us to consider what it profits us if we fail to put our faith to work.
Clearly the one who says he has faith yet does not have works is potentially any believer. If we are honest, all of us have sometimes been guilty of having faith without works.
Some suggest that James is thinking of a false professor here. After all, James uses the word says. But that doesn’t fit. He is talking to believers. And, there is a perfectly good reason why he refers to his speech.
Note verse 12: “So (1) say and so (2) do as those who will be judged.” Don’t just (1) say, but also (2) do!
(1) Don’t just talk about what you believe.
(2) APPLY what you believe.
Compare verse 16: “one of you says,” but does not do “the things which are needed.”
This whole section started in 1:21-22, where James calls the believing readers to be doers and not merely hearers only. What one says indicates what he believes. But what he does is necessary to please God and help believers in need.
All of us can be guilty of having a non-profit religion.
“Can faith save him?” The Greek expects a negative answer. We might better translate it, “Faith can’t save him, can it?”
What use is it? Answer: it is useless. Faith without works is useless to save the believer from God’s hand of discipline.
James uses the word save (sōzō) five times. All five refer to deliverance of believers from difficulties, judgment, and death in this life. See 1:21; 4:12; 5:15; 5:20.
The principle here is this: Whenever any believer fails to put his faith to work when faced with a need, he will be disciplined by God for his failure to do what was right.
We cannot escape from God’s loving hand of discipline if we turn our back on others in need.
Putting our faith to works delivers us from God’s judgment in this life. Not applying what you believe is just plain stupid because God cares what we do and don’t do.
As a side note, James is not talking about giving money to beggars whom we do not know. Whether you give to the beggar or not is not the issue in this passage. This passage is whether you give to brothers and sisters in your own church, or, by extension, to fellow Christians we know even if they are in a different church.
James is talking about “one of you,” that is, one of the people from one’s own assembly. James 2:14-17 in linked to Jas 2:1-13 and the need for believers to treat the rich and the poor in their churches equally well.
James is talking about faith, not saving faith in particular. Compare James 2:1.
The point is a simple one: we must apply the Bible in order to benefit from what it teaches.
Faith without Works Doesn’t Profit Other Believers in Need
Notice the very last words in verse 16: What does it profit?
This is the same question we faced at the start of this passage, the first words in verse 14 (ti to ophelos).
Now the issue shifts from what does it profit ME, to what does it profit those in need whom I fail to help?
James, a preacher, gives us a good example where we should put our faith to work. He gives an example of a believer who does what verse 14 talks about: a person who has faith, but yet does not put it to work.
Note we are talking about “a brother or sister.” This is a fellow Christian in our own church.
They are “naked and destitute of daily food.” That is, they don’t have enough clothes to keep them warm or enough food to keep them alive.
He said comforting words, but did not give them anything!
Now admittedly we may rarely if ever face such a big need in our church. But we many times are met by needs of other believers in our church. There is the single mom who lost her job. There is the single-income family where Dad lost his job. There is the friend at church who has a $10,000 debt due to a child’s medical care. There is the Mom with a temporary disability. And so on.
The point is, the brother or sister in need loses too if we say something nice to them but do nothing. What does it profit THEM if you don’t put your faith to work? Answer: it doesn’t. They are still cold and hungry.
We need to realize that when we close our hearts to a brother or sister in our church, their need doesn’t vanish. We leave them in the same bad shape they were in before we became aware of the need.
Giving money, food, or time to someone in need is a spiritual bargain. What a way to invest for eternity.
James is just giving one type of application of what he is saying. This applies to applying all types of Scripture: husbands loving their wives, wives submitting to their husbands, fathers not provoking their children, children obeying their parents in the Lord, doing our work heartily as to the Lord, etc.
Faith without Works Is Dead
Verse 17. Faith without works is dead. See also verses 20 and 26.
Notice that James does not use the expression dead faith.
A car without gasoline is dead.
That doesn’t mean that a car without gas isn’t a car.
It means that a car without gas is useless, unproductive. It is not profitable. Put gas in it and it good to go.
So, too, the unproductive believer needs to get to work and his faith will be productive.
Dead means unprofitable, unproductive, useless. Remember the question that starts verse 14 and ends verse 16: “What does it profit?”? Twice James indicates he is talking about profit and loss, not heaven and hell. Verse 17 immediately follows the question, “What does it profit?” Clearly v 17 is talking about profitable versus unprofitable.
What is faith without works? It is faith! But it isn’t USEFUL, PRODUCTIVE, PROFITABLE!
Dead here means UNPROFITABLE, NOT NON EXISTENT.
Remember: verse 17 is summarizing the point of verses 14-16, that faith without works doesn’t profit!
James Doesn’t Evangelize His Readers—
He Calls Them to Be Productive
James isn’t saying what we must do to be saved eternally from hell. He is talking about deliverance here and now from the judgment of God.
James does speak of the new birth in 1:17-18. He indicates it is the gift of God. But he doesn’t specifically address the issue of justification.
The brother of Jesus knew well, as his readers did, the promise of life which Jesus preached. James and his readers knew that to have eternal life we simply believe in Jesus Christ as the One who guarantees us eternal life simply by believing in Him (John 6:47). No strings attached.
James is saying that we reap what we sow. If we sow blessings, we reap blessings. If we ignore the suffering of believers around us and fail to bless, then we will reap suffering. If we say but do not do, we will be judged for our unfaithfulness. While we are eternally secure because of our faith in Christ, we will reap what we sow in this life and at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Put what you believe to work. Only by applying God’s Word can we be profitable both to ourselves and to those around us.
So when someone asks, “If I believed that, why wouldn’t I go out and live like the devil?” I hope you have a good answer. You might say, because that would be dumb. Because those who live like the devil have a devil of a time. Because God judges His children.
And if someone asks you about James 2:14-17, you can explain to them that the issue is bound in the twice repeated question, “What does it profit” (2:14, 16). Faith without works will not save the believer from God’s temporal judgment. Faith without works is unprofitable. It is dead in the sense of lifeless, unprofitable, useless, no good.
We can tell the person that there are consequences if we say but do not do that which love demands. The consequences are not hell. Rather, they are God’s discipline here and now, discipline can ultimately result in physical death.
Car failure is a bad thing. Spiritual failure is worse.
When believers fail to do the loving thing, we miss out on the blessings, the profit, that comes when we act lovingly. If we act lovingly, we enjoy life more. The Lord Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Do we believe that?
Don’t just talk about what you believe. Put what you believe into practice.
- Do what you say and you’ll reap what you sow.
- Sow blessings, reap blessings.
- Don’t do what you say and you’ll reap that too.
- Sow indifference to suffering and you’ll reap suffering.
by Bob Wilkin