Summary: What is the difference in a stillborn faith and saving faith?
“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.