What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him?…
With a view to the exposition and application of this text, we shall endeavour to exhibit —
I. THE ERRORS WHICH IT OPPOSES. The covenant of mercy, although framed before the fall, was revealed after it. The Bible is not so old as sin. Error came first, and truth followed it. A daring rebel rose in a portion of the sovereign's dominions, and a force was sent to discover and destroy him; the position, magnitude, and character of the insurrection, determine the dispositions of the royal army which has been commissioned to put it down. Thus, error that sprung up on earth has determined the form of the truth that invades it from heaven. Emerging from the strife victorious, salvation appeared in the form which it got in those fires. The truth which the Bible contains was, in its essence, prior to all error and sin, for error is originally a deviation from eternal truth; but the Bible, which brings the truth to us, has been shaped upon falsehood its foe. The same rule holds good when you descend to the specific features of revelation. Even the sayings of Jesus often took their shape from the cavils of devils or wicked men. The operation and effect of this principle may be seen in the teaching of the two apostles, James and Paul, regarding faith. Had the errors of those days been of another cast, the truth on that subject would have descended to us in a different form. More particularly the two main features of faith, as represented in the Scriptures — the two feet on which it stands secure — have been moulded in two deep pits which Satan had prepared for the destruction of men. The two errors regarding faith were contrary to each other, and yet both alike were contrary to truth. Both put asunder the two whom God has joined, and the severance is death to the severed; as well might you expect the right and left sides of a human being to live and act after they are separated by a sword. The works of the legalist are dead for want of faith; the faith of the antinomian dead for want of works. These two deep pits, so situated, give form and position to the two main pillars of the truth. As the errors are opposite, the same enunciation of truth is not fitted to subvert both. The truths that will meet and match these lies are in an important sense the opposite of each other. The errors, though opposite, are both errors, and the truths, though in a subordinate sense opposite, are both truths. Two separate witnesses have been chosen and called to give evidence against these two errors, and enunciate the corresponding counteracting truths. Paul deals with one of the adversaries, and James with the other. Paul insisting on faith only, and James on works also, stand not face to face fighting against each other, but back to back fighting opposite foes: they are both on the same side, although for the time they look and strike in opposite directions. Paul divides the whole world into two: those who seek to be justified before God through faith in Christ; and those who trust in other appliances. He then tells off as on the right side those who cling to faith, and sets aside all the rest as errorists. Observe, now, it is the division whom Paul has pronounced right, and that division only, with whom James deals. He addresses not those who denied Paul's doctrine of faith, but those who accepted and professed it. Paul's test decided the soundness of the profession: James throws in among the sound another solvent which precipitates a quantity of dark and fetid grounds. His question is: Assuming that you all acknowledge faith, is your faith living or dead?
II. THE DOCTRINES WHICH IT TEACHES. Here we must, in the first place, endeavour to ascertain the meaning of the remarkable figure which is employed in the text. A handle is borrowed from nature, that by its help we may more firmly grasp this spiritual and unseen thing. In the structure of the analogy body corresponds to faith, and spirit to works. The question here lies not between faith and obedience, but between a true and spurious faith; works are put forward, not as a substitute for faith, but as a test of its genuineness. It is an application to this particular case of the Lord's own rule, By their fruits ye shall known them.
1. Ver. 1: James as well as Paul starts with faith in Jesus as the first and chief; but he proceeds to explain what fruits it ought to bear. He proposes certain lovely virtues, such as humility, self-sacrifice, and brotherly love, not as substitutes, but as companions for faith.
2. Ver. 14: Here he does not say that faith is profitless; but that it is profitless for a man to "say" he has faith, while his conduct shows that his profession is false.
3. Ver. 20: It is here neither expressed nor implied that works will justify the doer, while faith will not justify the believer; he only reiterates the former assertion that barren faith is dead, and dead faith is worthless.
4. Ver. 24: A faith that stands alone does not justify, for it is a dead faith.
III. PRACTICAL LESSONS. Both in its doctrinal and its practical aspect the text is obviously and emphatically one sided: it does not give all the doctrines and all the precepts which bear a relation to the subject. It is not a treatise on theology, but a vigorous stroke for actual holiness. It is the sudden, self-forgetting rush of a good soldier of Jesus Christ, not directly against the opposing ranks of the enemy to drive them in, but against the diverging columns of his own friends, to direct their line of march into the path of safety. The main lesson is, An orthodox profession will not save an unconverted, unsanctified man. A correct opinion will not waft to heaven a carnal mind. When a breeze blows on a bed of growing willows, all heads bend gracefully; not one resists. But it costs the willows nothing to yield; and when the wind changes, you may see them all pointing the other way. Behold the picture of smooth, hollow, unreal faith! We learn regarding a certain ancient Church, from the testimony of the "true Witness," that they had a name that they lived while they were dead; and the same species of Christianity abounds in the present day. The outward frame of faith, although correct and complete, is a body dead, if it have not love within, and break not forth in righteousness. In nature, the higher animal organisations are, as a general rule, more noisome in death than the lower. The more perfect the body is while living, the more vile it becomes when it is dead. Faith — the system of revealed truth taken from the Bible, and lying accepted in a human understanding — is a glorious body; but this body dead is in God's sight most loathsome. There is no sight on this world so displeasing to the Holy One as the profession of trust in Christ without a panting and straining after conformity to His image.
Parallel VersesKJV: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?