v. 14. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? Can faith save him?
v. 15. If a brother or a sister be naked and destitute of daily food,
v. 16. 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?
v. 17. Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
v. 18. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith and I have works; show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.
v. 19. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.
v. 20. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
This passage is not opposed to Rom_3:21-28, but offers the opposite side of the question, the key to the entire discussion being given in v. 17. The apostle first of all asks a challenging question: What is the advantage, my brethren, if one says he has faith, but has no works? Can that faith save him? The apostle here characterizes a person that has mere knowledge of the head, of the mind, concerning the facts of salvation, but is without the faith of the heart which is bound to be active in love. Real faith, saving faith, without some evidence of its presence in the heart, is unthinkable. Such faith has nothing in common with saving faith; such faith is a delusion and vanity.
In order to bring out his point, the apostle illustrates: If a brother or sister is ill clad and destitute of daily food, one of you, however, should say to them, Go your way in peace, be warmed and fed, but you would not give them the necessaries of the body, what good would it be to them? Here is a concrete case, which is met with all too often, also in our days of vaunted charity. A brother or a sister may be found in actual want, actually destitute of the needs of the body, insufficiently clad, undernourished or not nourished at all, and yet some people are satisfied with a pious wish that God would take care of their needs. If such a wish is made by one that is able to help, and there is actual need, then there is only one conclusion possible, namely, that such a person knows nothing of the real faith of the heart as it is bound to be active in love, in good works for the help of one's neighbor. In a case of this kind the pious wish is an example of the rankest hypocrisy; for nothing but selfishness is able to neglect dire necessity as it is brought to the attention in circumstances of that kind.
The conclusion will therefore stand: Even so also faith, if it has not works, is dead, being by itself. Works are a necessary concomitant, an inevitable fruit of real faith. Spurious, hypocritical faith, then, being without works, is no faith; or if one wishes to assume that there was faith at one time, it is certain that such faith has died and is no longer able to bring forth real fruit in the shape of good works. A faith by itself, without good works, is simply unthinkable.
The apostle now anticipates an objection on the part of some of the readers: But someone will say, Thou hast faith;—I also have works;—show me thy faith without works, and I will show thee my faith out of my works. This is a very vivid presentation, in the form of a dialog. Someone might raise the objection: Do you claim to have faith? thus apparently making the matter doubtful. But the writer would be ready with his rejoinder: I certainly do, and what is more, I have works to show for it. He might very well challenge the objector to give evidence of his faith without works, and then he, the author, would soon furnish convincing proof of the existence of real faith in his heart, namely, the good works which are the fruit of faith.
In an almost sarcastic vein the argument continues, as brought against the person with a fruitless faith: Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well: the devils also believe—and shudder. But dost thou want to know, O vain man, that faith without works is useless? That is about the extent and the content of the faith of which the objector can boast; he has the knowledge of mind and head which tells him that there is only one true God, that God is one in essence. That knowledge is good enough as far as it goes. But saving faith it most assuredly is not; for even the devils know this much about God, that the Lord is one Lord; in fact, they have a very complete and accurate knowledge of the essence and qualities of God, Luk_8:26 ff. They tremble and shudder in the presence of God, knowing full well that they are helpless before His almighty power. Any person, now, that flatters himself in a fatuous manner as to his possessing true faith, and has not gotten beyond the standpoint held by the devils, is depending upon a mere head knowledge without works such as are bound to flow out of saving faith, and therefore surely has a vain and empty hope to sustain him. Note: Wherever circumstances are shaping themselves as they lay in the congregations to whom this letter is addressed, it is only by means of plain speaking as here done by the apostle that the evil may be combated with any hope of success.