What does it profit, my brothers, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith save him?…
I. THE APOSTLE'S ARGUMENT. The apostle was thoroughly well aware how easy it is for the mind of man to slide into a notional possession of faith, which in itself possesses no power, and is altogether unprofitable. Persons of sanguine temperament have often wrought themselves up into a notion that they possessed faith, and they have seemed to exercise that faith towards Christ as its legitimate object; but it has been rather the sentiment of faith than faith itself, with its vitality and energy. It is possible that this delusion may be practised for a considerable time and to a great extent. And what would be amongst its immediate effects? Unsteadiness, inconsistency, want of spiritual progress, and, at length, decline from all profession. The person who is under the sentiment rather than the power of a real faith may be like the branch of a tree, cut off and planted without a root; it may be fresh and green to all appearance for a time, but there is no life in it, it is a dead branch, it is a powerless thing, it will never blossom, it will yield no fruit.
II. THE ILLUSTRATION. The mind of man may be acted on by the distresses of others: there may be a kind and a degree of commiseration felt for human wretchedness; nay, there are those who will weep with emotion over a tale of fiction, and almost by the power of human sympathy realise it as if it were true, and seem ready to give up the heart at once to the deepest impression that can be made. We delight in the manifestation of human sympathy — we begin to anticipate that it will become very profitable in its results; but still there may be the power of selfishness within, that shall at length obliterate the impressions that have been made on the sensitive nature: the emotion passes, and the step has not been taken, it may be, to alleviate that distress which is known to exist. And there is a disposition in the mind of man — a complex disposition — first to cherish images and pictures of distress that excite the emotion, and then to escape from the emotion when it has been excited. The apostle, then, puts this case, and says — "What does all this profit?" There is the naked object — he is unclothed; there is the hungry — he is unfed. Where is all this emotion, all this expressed sympathy? It has passed away like a vapour. Human sympathy, like faith, if it is to work anything, must bring out its direct results, or it is altogether an unprofitable thing.
III. THE CONCLUSION of the apostle's argument. "Even so," saith he, "faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone" — or, as the margin says, "being by itself." The conclusion is inevitable. The true faith which justifies does invest the possessor of it with a power of working works acceptable to God. If there be no works acceptable to God — if there be, for instance, no power of holiness manifested in the ordinary details of the Christian professor's life — it profits nothing, it leaves the sinner as it found him; it is but a cremation of his own mind, it is not that faith which brings the soul by the Spirit into union with Christ, and gives it both power and activity. "Even so, faith, if it hath not works, is a dead thing." And we ask, therefore, of the Christian professor, when he tells us he has faith, the production of his works — not simply and on the whole ground of the evidence of his faith, but in order that the works may give consistency to his profession, and proof that he has possessed the death and the life of the Lord Jesus Christ by direct investiture from God Himself.
(G. Fisk, LL. B.)
Parallel VersesKJV: What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?