2:14. What does it profit my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? – James begins to now introduce the issue of faith-works. The word ‘faith’ appears here in this passage some 11 times, while the word ‘works or working’ appears 13 times. While we must have faith the true outworking of that will be in our works.
What does it profit – What does a person gain? Why is it beneficial?
my brethren, – See comments on Chapter 1:2.
if someone says he has faith but does not have works? – The Amplified version of this verse is put forward as this;
What is the use (profit), my brethren, for anyone to profess to have faith if he has not [good] works [to show for it]?
The key word brought out in this passage is ‘profess.’ The people James is writing to claim they have faith. He is dealing with people who claim to already be forgiven and in a relationship with Christ. James (and the church) has a cause for concern when these people that claim and profess to have a relationship with God do not display their faith through good works.
A tree will only bear the fruit that it has been created to bear. Apple trees will not product lemons, and an unhealthy tree will not produce any fruit of quality, if at all.
Likewise Christ considered the human soul to be a tree of faith. A healthy tree of faith will bear fruit of good works. An unhealthy tree of faith will produce either superficial works, or none at all. The quality and appearance of fruit will either confirm or deny the reality of faith in a person. See Matt 7:15 – 20; John 15:1 – 8; and Romans 7:4.
Can faith save him? – James has connected the two ideas of faith and works together. One cannot be without the other. The question posed here can simply be put; “Can dead faith save him?” The King James Bible Commentary has this to say concerning this verse;
James does not state that the hypothetical person “has” faith, but merely a man say he hath faith. It distinguishes the one who “possesses” from the one who merely “professes.” Secondly, conclusions are based on the question, can faith save him? The AV unfortunately gives a wrong impression, for he is not asking about faith in general, but that type of faith which one has who makes claims without producing fruit. This is affirmed by the presence of the definite article in Greek meaning “the faith.” “Can faith save him?” would be a proper translation. Which faith? That which the man claims to have.
So, is it possible for that faith to exist without the support of works? The answer is no. Jesus himself said that works would be required for those that have a living faith. If faith is without works then it is dead faith. If a person professes that he is a new person in Christ, then he must live a new life dictated by doing works for Christ. James’ theme of being ‘swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath’ (1:19), being a do-er of the Word by looking after the poor of the world and bridling his tongue (1:21 – 27), and not showing favouritism (2:8) is all tied up in the aspect of the law of faith-works. To have true faith, one must show true works.
2:15. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food,
2:16. 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? –James, as the ever-resourceful teacher now brings his teaching into a point of a practical daily experience. James has given an example of ‘actionless Christianity.’ There is no joy in his serving and his faith is dead.
2:17. Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. – True saving faith is something that will motivate a life into action. If faith is only talked about then it is a weak faith, however, if faith is talked about and acted upon it will be a motivator toward thinking of others and serving them. Faith without action is useless and dead.
2:18. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. – The objector that James is writing about is trying to cut the law of faith-works into two. In essence he is arguing that one person may be good at having faith, while James himself is good at deeds and works. James’ point is that the two cannot be separated. A profession of faith is no good without the action of works. They are both crucial to salvation. James’ next verse shows the importance of the crucial combination in the picture of salvation.