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What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2:14)
Faith (πίστις pistis) is mentioned twice here, and it is fronted (moved forward) in the first instance in the Greek, which was a way to emphasize a word, showing here that it is the main idea. The English translation says, “if someone says he has faith.” The wording in Greek is, “if faith says someone he has.” That is, ἐὰν if πίστιν faith λέγῃ says τις someone ἔχειν he has. Faith (πίστις pistis) is having strong confidence in Jesus Christ, reliance on him, and trust in him. Faith is 1. what can be believed, a state of certainty with regard to belief (Ac 17:31); 2. trust, believe to a complete trust (Mk 11:22; Ac 24:24; Eph 4:29); 3. trustworthiness, the state of complete dependability (Ro 3:3); 4. Christian faith, belief in the Gospel (Ro 1:8; Eph 2:8; Gal 1:23; Jude 3); 5. doctrine, the content of what is to be believed (Gal 1:23; Jude 3); 6. promise, pledge to be faithful (1Ti 5:12)
James has brought us back to the subject touched on in James 1:22–27, the importance of being aware, genuinely knowing the duties of a Christian, and the awareness that a Christian cannot be saved by a mere belief alone, or merely by having the correct doctrinal views. When we look back on 1:3, 6; 2:1, 5, we realize that faith means complete trust in Christ. Many Christians boldly scream from the rooftop that they have faith, and yet they do not. James uses the phrase what use is it, my brothers, to ask a rhetorical question to highlight or emphasize his point. James asks if someone says he has faith (πίστις pistis), but he has no works, can that faith (πίστις pistis) save him? Again, here faith is absolute trust into, complete assurance of and utter confidence in Jesus Christ based on the knowledge the person has acquired and accepted as accurate from the Word of God. Faith is not blindly hoping for something or someone but rather knowing and trusting with complete certainty. Instead, faith is based on knowledge of something that is known. It is putting faith into Jesus Christ. The Christian faith is not blind at all since it is in an all-powerful and holy God. Instead, Christianity is built upon the knowledge of God, the Creator of the universe, and all of humanity itself.
The significant issue here is in the fact that one is merely claiming to have faith. They are giving nothing more than a verbal affirmation of a belief that consists only of the framework of their mind but has not yet affected the nature of their will and produced proper actions. James makes it clear that faith is not just some head knowledge alone, but true faith is manifested in the fact that it produces appropriate actions consistent with what one claims to profess. James, here, asks the question for his audience to ponder and think about to conclude as he states, can such faith save him?
Faith does not just begin and end at a mere profession of Christ. Good works in one’s life then must evidence it. These works are not done as a way to earn salvation. Instead, good works result from one’s heartfelt gratitude that has caused change by the power of Christ that made one a new creation in Christ. Good works are to be done out of the overflow of the heart that has been redeemed by the power of God through Christ. As he will explain in the following verses, the answer to James’ question is that faith without works is not true saving faith.
We should also mention here that James is not contradicting what Paul says, namely, that “we consider a person to be justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28) James being moved along by the same Holy Spirit as Paul would agree with what Paul wrote, but James is seeking to expose abuse or corruption of it. James undoubtedly had in mind those who would abuse the words of Paul, “to be justified by faith apart from the works.” This is now known as justification by faith alone. Some would and have since argued that good works are not necessary for salvation, given that the Christian has the correct orthodox belief. This is a perversion of Paul’s words that a Christian who has the right views does not need to demonstrate that faith by doing good works. Thus, the claim is that the Christian would be righteous in the eyes of God and would be saved. Thus, James was rebuking such a claim as Paul would have as well. There is no ‘profit’ at all unless faith is accompanied by good works. So, James is debunking such claims by showing that any so-called faith that does not move the Christian to do good works is really not genuine faith. Such claims are really being made by a person who is not, in reality, a Christian. If the person making the above claims has a supposed “faith,” which has not changed his new person, his “Christian” life, his actions, what good would such a faith be? Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 7:21.
Can that faith save him? James is implying in this question that faith cannot save him. He uses a question, which emphasizes faith again, and makes a statement concerning the question. James’ meaning is clear: that faith, referred to specifically in the previous clause, which does not produce good works, or which does not result in Christian living, will save no one, for it is not genuine faith.