True genuine faith is a faith that gets dirty. James shows this by his rhetorical questions in James 2:14. He begins by asking what use it is if someone says that he has faith but he shows no works? The key word “says” shows that this is someone who is claiming to be saved, not necessarily someone who actually is saved. This person claims to have saving faith but there is no evidence via works that show fruit of genuine faith. James asks, “What use is it?” This is a rhetorical question. The expected answer is clearly that this type of faith has no profit in producing salvation. Works do not bring about salvation but rather are the evidence that true faith really exists.
James then asks a second rhetorical question. Can that faith save him? “That faith” describes a claim of faith with no obvious works that follow showing its genuineness. Again, the expected answer to this question is “no.” Confusion has been created by the King James Version translation in leaving out the Greek article “that” and simply translating this verse, “Can faith save him?” This has led many to say that James is contradicting Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith. James is not teaching anything other than salvation by faith. There is no question that we are saved by faith. Paul makes this abundantly clear but he also teaches that works are a result of true faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). We are saved by grace…through faith…for works. James is not advocating two paths to salvation…faith plus works. “That faith” is not talking about saving faith. James is simply saying that faith that is simply a profession and does not result in works is not saving faith. The Apostle Paul would be in full agreement.
In verses 15 and 16, James gives an illustration. He speaks of a fellow Christian who has an evident economic need. This person is lacking clothing. This is a reference to one who is poorly clothed as opposed to being totally naked. This person is also lacking adequate food. This is not starvation but it is speaking of insufficient nourishment for healthy living. Another person claiming to have saving faith, and obviously with the ability to help, responds with supportive words but no action. He tells the one in need to “Go in peace.” This isn’t a sarcastic remark but rather a common Jewish farewell (Mark 15:34; Luke 7:50; 8:48; Acts 16:36). He also admonishes the needy to “be warmed and filled” which is similar to our trite, “just trust God” type of responses when we run into a person who has a real need or who is going through a difficult trial. In the end he does not give them what they need. James repeats his question from verse 14. What use is this kind of “workless” faith? There is no value in it (see First John 3:17-18). Words without works are not evidence of saving faith. Faith gets dirty.
According to James 2:17-18, true faith is not merely words. Faith that has no evidence of works is not alive. It is dead. It has no value. Faith and works cannot be separated. Our faith is evidenced by our works. Based on verse 19, true faith is not simply knowledge. Saving faith is more than intellectual assent to the truth. James reminds his readers that even the demons recognize true deity, yet they do not posses faith that saves (Matthew 8:29; Mark 1:24; 5:7; Luke 8:28) resulting in nothing in them but a fear of doom.