“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)
There was a farmer who had three sons: Ron, Don and Little John. All had their names on the church roll but none ever attended church or had time for God. Then one day Don was bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor was called and he did all he could to help Don, but the outlook for his recovery was very dim indeed. So the pastor was called and appraised of the situation. The pastor arrived, and began to pray as follows: "O wise and righteous Father, we thank Thee that in Thine wisdom thou didst send this rattlesnake to bite Don. He hasn’t been inside the church in years and has shown little interest in You. We trust that this experience will be a valuable lesson to him and will lead to his genuine repentance. And now, O Father, wilt thou send another rattlesnake to bite Ron, and another to bite Little John, and another really big one to bite the old man. For years we have done everything we know to get them to get serious with Thee. Thank you God for rattlesnakes.
Just as in the story of the rattlesnakes, James recognizes that there is often a break down for many between what they profess to have and the fruit they bare.
I. THE ILLUSTRATION
A. Consider This Person’s Profession (v.14a).
The key to this whole passage is that this is a person who says that he has faith. This is present tense so it translates, “he keeps on professing to have faith in Christ.” His constant testimony when asked is, “I’m a Christian because I made a profession of faith.”
B. Consider This Person’s Practice (vv.14b-16).
His actions are different than his words. He does not have works. Again the verb is present tense so this person has a lifestyle of not showing any fruit of a Christian. This is someone who keeps on professing faith in Christ but never shows any continuing evidence of having come to Christ.
His practice is that he refuses to treat others with the grace that he says God has shown him. James pictures a physically destitute person coming to this man the same way we sinners have to come before God spiritually. We are all hungry and naked in heart before God! “There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13). Here is a man who professes to know God but his actions reflect none of the grace or mercy of God. Christians cannot claim to know God when they do not treat others as God treats His children. “ …whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:17-18).
II. THE INQUIRY
Now James asks a penetrating question: “can faith save this kind of a man?”
A. An Apparent Contradiction.
Scripture is plain that we are saved by faith in Christ not by our own works. God makes that plain in James 1:17-18. Consider the words of Paul to Titus:
“But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
While faith in Christ is the only way to salvation, James makes an astounding claim. He says that works accompany salvation (James 1:24). Is that a contradiction with what God says about faith and grace?
B. An Answer to the Confusion
First, Consider the people James is addressing. They had been saved out of the works religion of Judaism. Now they had been encouraged to quit trusting in their works and let God do a work in them. Many Baptists need to hear the same Gospel! They need to let go of their church membership and truly give their lives to Christ and His grace for the first time.
Unfortunately, it seems these people had overreacted to works salvation by saying it doesn’t matter what you do once you are saved. They had come to say, “Just say you trust in Jesus and that is all that matters.”
So how do you solve this confusion? Sometimes we get the wrong answer because we ask the wrong question. Don’t ask, “can faith save this kind of a man?” Instead we should be asking, “can the kind of faith this man has save anyone?” We are not saved by works but salvation always produces God’s kind of works. That is why Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
III. THE ILLUMINATION
Verse 17 illuminates this tension between faith and work brilliantly.
A. Some People Have a Stillborn Faith - professed by words.
They are calling something faith that is not faith at all (vv.14,17,20,24,26). A person who claims to have put their faith in Christ but has no evidence of that faith has a dead faith. Their faith is dead of itself. It is stillborn. I remember walking through a cemetery on the Bayou Pierre in Mississippi. There are graves there dating back to 1789. Many mark the graves of children that were born dead. That was a common thing then. It is a common thing today for our church rolls to be cluttered with the names of stillborn members. They made a profession but that was about the end of it.
Still born faith:
* Trust in one’s heritage (Matthew 3:7-8).
* Trusts in religious acts (Matthew 7:21-23).
* Trust in momentary confessions (Matthew 13:18-23).
B. Believers Have Saving Faith - proven by the presence of life.
The final proof of saving faith is fruit in the life of the professor of that faith. Life always produces fruit! In the parable of the soil in Matthew 13, Jesus made it plain that seed that has life always bears fruit. However meager or delayed, Christians will always bear fruit. If there is never any fruit then there was never any life! My wife and I planted two Lion’s paw plants by our patio when we moved. It looked like both were dead. Spring came and one finally began to sprout some tiny green leaves. They weren’t much but there was life. The other plant never sprouted any new leaves. It was dead.
This is the point of James. While we may have different amounts of fruit all believers will show evidence of life.
We cannot spend a lifetime of refusing to show the grace of God to others and then claim that we have ever experienced the grace of God.
What is saving faith?
* It is trusting in Jesus Christ alone to be your Lord and Savior.
* It is a change of life that results in evidence that you have really met the God of grace personally.
Is yours a stillborn faith fashioned from your own works or have you experienced a saving faith in Jesus Christ alone?