FAITH WITHOUT WORKS BEING DEAD
In verses 15-16 James gives an illustration. "If a brother or sister is without clothing and lacks daily food, and any one of you says to them..." This is the man who says that he has faith. He tells the brothers and sisters in lack, "Go in peace! May the Lord bless you. May you be clothed warmly and fed bountifully." If you asked such a one why he tells others to go in peace and why he wishes others to be warm and fed, he would tell you that it is because he has faith. He would say that he believes that these ones will be clothed warmly and fed bountifully when they go home. He would say that he believes they can go home in peace. James is talking about the kind of faith that believes in empty stomachs being automatically filled and in naked bodies being automatically clothed.
"Yet you do not give them the necessities of the body, what is the profit?" The purpose of James’ illustration is not to expound on justification. Rather, it is to exhort the brothers and sisters to take practical measures. Our love to the brothers and sisters should not be in word only, but in conduct as well. If you see someone lacking clothing and food, you should give him clothing and food. You have to take care of him. This is why James says this. James is against anyone’s saying, "Go in peace, for I have believed for you already." James is saying that now is not the time for you to believe; now is the time for you to open up your wallet. For you now, faith is not the issue; the issue is the letting go of your money. If you hold on tenaciously to your wallet and tell others to go in peace, saying that you have faith, what good does this kind of faith do? If you encounter a poor brother or sister and would not give all that you have to help him and care for him, but would only say that you believe for him and that he can go in peace—if that is the kind of faith you exercised when you believed in the Lord Jesus, would such a faith save you? If that is the kind of faith you exercise toward the brothers and sisters and if that is the same kind of faith you have toward your justification, then I question if that kind of faith will justify you. James indicates that if that is the kind of faith you have toward the brothers and sisters, then perhaps that is the kind of faith you have toward the Lord Jesus, too. If the faith that you have toward the brothers and sisters is the same as the faith that you have toward salvation and justification, I question whether that faith can save you. If there is no basis to your believing in warm clothing and bountiful feeding, then there is no basis to your faith in salvation and justification. But if you see a brother in poverty and give him money, clothing, or food, and then believe, then there is basis for your faith.
When God saw you naked, hungry, and poor, did He say, "Be warm and filled. May you never go to hell. May you go to heaven"? If God’s faith were like yours, no one would be saved on earth. But what did God do? When God saw us poor, hungry, naked, and dead in sin, He came to accomplish the work of redemption so that we could be saved. Thank the Lord. First, He set forth His work before us; then we received it. Is your faith toward the brothers and sisters a vain faith? If God were vain toward you, everything would be vanity indeed. And if you are vain toward God, your faith is also empty indeed. We know that we are justified and saved and that we have eternal life. Why is this? It is because God is not sitting in the clouds saying, "May everyone in the whole world be saved, and may everyone not go to the lake of fire." Rather, God came down personally from heaven to accomplish His righteousness and to deal with sin on the cross. Because God has done a concrete work, we can have faith today. That is why our faith is trustworthy.
Verse 17 says, "So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead in itself." James does not say that a man is not saved by believing. He does not mean that a man is not justified or does not have eternal life by believing. He means that when you hear such words from this kind of person, you know that his faith is dead. If you were to ask Paul to come here today and comment on this, even he would say that this kind of faith is dead. If one only says that he has faith, but has no outward expression of it, that faith must be dead. For no matter how great one’s faith is, others still need clothing and food. They cannot cover their nakedness with the light of heaven. Nor can they eat air to satisfy their hunger. Hence, a faith without works is empty and dead.
(Gospel of God, The (2 volume set), Chapter 10, by Watchman Nee)