An Empty Faith
To anyone who has ever walked down the streets of a busy metropolis, the situation is probably a familiar one. A poverty-stricken individual approaches you. Before he even speaks, you know what he wants: “a little help,” “just some kindness,” or “only a few pennies.”
What is your reaction? Do you empty your pockets? Do you offer to buy him lunch instead? Or do you ignore him and continue walking? Quite often, we choose Option C and neglect the opportunity to show the love of Christ to a stranger. And while we may be able to rationalize our inaction based upon a myriad of “reasons,” how much different would our response be if the beggar on the street was not a stranger at all?
Pretend, for a moment, that the person asking for help was another believer – a member of your own church. Would you still walk away? Probably not. Hopefully not. But what if you did?
Now, put the shoe on the other foot. What if you were the beggar in the scenario, and the person from whom you were seeking help was a leader in your church? There you are, starving and clothed in rags, and a fellow believer – a friend – simply passes by with a greeting: “I’ll pray for you. God bless!” What would you think of that person? How would you view the testimony of your friend?
It seems like an incomprehensible situation, but it’s lifted directly from the pages of Scripture. In the second chapter of James, the half-brother of Jesus writes: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled!’ – notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body – what doth it profit (vs. 15-16)?”
James’ question is not merely a hypothetical situation, however; it is actually a poignant illustration of the point that he is trying to make: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he have faith, and hath not works (James 2:14)?”
James 2:14 has long been the source of consternation among students of the New Testament. On the surface, it would seem that James is contradicting the doctrine of justification by faith. A cursory reading may suggest good works are somehow necessary for salvation, and that faith alone is not enough. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, James is indicating that a faith devoid of godly works is a useless faith, and certainly not of God. In other words, if a man’s works do not show some indication – whether small or great – of a continual transformation into the image of Christ, then the question will inevitably be asked: “Was it ever saving faith to begin with?”
To prove his point, James offers up the illustration of the destitute believer and his heartless brother. In the illustration, the needs of the starving brother are clearly refused. The most shocking part of the story, however, is not the inaction of the fortunate believer; it is his acknowledgment of the destitute brother’s situation. His command to “depart in peace” was both outwardly pious and terribly religious. In essence, the fortunate believer is saying, “Go with God! Trust him to fill all your needs!” While this sounds good, it accomplishes nothing. When the fortunate brother leaves, the destitute brother is still naked and starving. Rather than offering pious idioms, the fortunate brother should have been the answer to the destitute brother’s prayer.
The point that James is trying to convey is that the “faith” of the fortunate brother is useless (unprofitable), and as empty as the poor man’s belly. Just as this “faith” failed to fill the needs of the destitute brother’s body, so it had already failed to meet the needs of the fortunate brother’s soul. This kind of faith – a faith without works (Christ-like behavior) – offers no proof of the spiritual change in a “believer’s” heart, because the heart in question was never actually changed.
Like his response to the situation of a brother in need, the faith of the fortunate brother is merely an acknowledgement. An acknowledgment, however, is merely passive; faith, as it is described in Scripture, is always active. While we are saved by faith alone, it takes a specific kind of faith to convert the soul. The “faith” that functions solely as an acknowledgment of a condition or a creed (James 2:19) is not enough. This kind of faith is incapable of rendering any sort of spiritual change. In a mature believer, true faith is evidenced by active godliness and Christ-like behavior. There is no action – no good deed – that can reconcile a man to God; we are justified and saved by faith alone. It is a man’s actions, however, that give evidence of his salvation.
So, when James asks, “Can faith save him?” in verse 14, what he is really asking is this: “Can this kind of faith – a faith without works – be saving faith?” And the answer to that question is a resounding “No.” True faith – saving faith – will give proof of itself through the transformation of a person’s behavior. Sometimes, it is a subtle transformation (as in the life of a child); other times, it is drastic and impossible to miss. Either way, saving faith will always give evidence of its own existence. Like every aspect of the believer’s life, the purpose of saving faith should be the glory of God, and nothing brings Him more glory than when the life of a sinner is radically changed into a reflection of the Savior.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts