Calvary Road Baptist Church


James 2.14-17

Our scripture reading is Matthew 7.16-27:

16     Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

17     Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.

18     A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.

19     Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

20     Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.

21     Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

22     Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?

23     And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.

24     Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:

25     And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

26     And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:

27     And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Over the years, I have attempted to call attention to the fact that a significant issue related to effective evangelism was almost entirely overlooked by pastors and evangelists throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. That issue, of course, is what I term false hopes. A false hope is the erroneous conclusion drawn by someone who has made a decision of some kind and has misinterpreted that decision for a real conversion experience. The Lord Jesus Christ strongly insisted that false hopes are an ongoing problem, therefore, should they not be dealt with in a serious way?

In our scripture reading moments ago, the Lord Jesus Christ called attention to the existence and danger of false hopes in three different ways: In Matthew 7.16-20, false hopes are identified by means of examining the fruit that is brought forth. False hope is illustrated by means of evil fruit, with real conversion identified as good fruit. In Matthew 7.21-22, no imagery is used, but our Lord referred to a time of future judgment when He will expose false hopes and the Savior they only thought they had trusted will reject those who wrongly thought they were prepared for entrance into the kingdom. The third treatment of false hopes is found in Matthew 7.24-27, and the comparison of houses (representing salvation) built either upon a solid foundation (Christ, the solid rock) or upon sand (the sand representing the unstable foundation of an individual whose salvation is not built upon the solid rock of Jesus Christ).

If we agree on nothing else, we can agree that the Lord Jesus Christ there asserted that false hopes exist, that there are people who think they are believers who are not, and that the consequences for those with false hopes will be catastrophic. In Matthew chapter thirteen, the Lord Jesus Christ taught and then explained the parable of the sower.[1] Though there are varying opinions about that parable, it is clear that the Lord Jesus Christ taught in that parable that what can seem to be a wonderful response to the seed of the Word is not necessarily a genuine conversion.[2] In other words, the Savior once again taught about false hopes. Ponder this serious issue of false hopes. How many of you know someone who was supposedly saved years ago, but insofar as you can tell, has never really served the Lord? How many of you have relatives who will swear up and down that they were saved years ago, but there is not the slightest indication that “old things are passed away and behold all things are become new?”[3]

How many of you know people who attend church every Sunday, carefully carrying a Bible when they attend, and perhaps even giving tithes and offerings, but there is no indication by the conduct of their lives from Monday through Saturday that they have ever been saved from their sins? How do you tell if a person is genuinely saved anyway? If someone really cries at the altar, is he saved? Maybe he is, but perhaps he is not. For that matter, what is an old fashion altar? If people really believe they are saved, does that mean they are? Maybe they are, but perhaps they are not. What if someone asked you how in the world he is supposed to tell if he really is a Christian? How would you respond?

Although this letter written by James has from the first verses addressed the important issue of discerning between genuine faith and faith that is not saving, the text that we will consider together today not only provides more insight into the danger of false hopes but also provides additional means for a congregation to evaluate their members’ spiritual condition. Keeping in mind the importance of faith in light of the fact that the just shall live by faith, meaning your faith needs to be genuine and real for you to really possess eternal life in Christ, turn with me to James 2.14-17. When you arrive at that passage, please stand for the reading of today’s text:

14     What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?

15     If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

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?

17     Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

In this portion of God’s Word, we will examine two realities about faith. For the purpose of clarity, allow me to refer to faith that does not save, bogus faith, as pious pretense.


“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?”

As mentioned before, let us note again that Pastor James is writing to men and women he considers being his brethren in the faith. If we will remember over the past month or so, I described these to whom James wrote as Jewish Christians who scattered because of intense persecution for their faith in Christ. Guild members, others in their synagogues, and even members of their own families set upon them.[4] Over a period of time, this persecution may have begun to wear them down, and they dragged their feet enduring the harsh conditions and times of discouragement they experienced when it came to enthusiastically and energetically living for Christ. James attempts to remedy the situation by helping these folks to understand whether they really trust the Savior in a soul saving way. After all, I am persuaded it is a crime to allow anyone think he is a Christian who in reality is not.

Near the middle of verse 14, James introduces his theory by means of a conditional sentence using the Greek word ean that suggests a hypothetical consideration: “Though a man say he hath faith.” Therefore, James is granting, for the sake of discussion, that a person has faith. James thereby begins the discussion by taking a for instance. It is a common situation we deal with frequently. Walk up to almost anyone in North America who displays religious conduct, ask him if he is a Christian, or if he has faith in Christ, and he will almost certainly say, “Yes.” The key word for us to take note of is that word “say.” The Greek word indicates that this hypothetical person introduced for the sake of discussion constantly asserts as truth that he has faith.[5]

James then asks his readers what the profit is in this kind of statement: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith. . . ?” What good does it do anybody for you or me to go around and say that we are Christians? You know what good it does? None at all. Talk is cheap. Yet this is precisely what happens when someone responds to an invitation to come forward, indicates by some means that he is a Christian, is baptized and becomes a church member, and then spends the rest of his life attending church without ever actually serving God. He will say he has faith.

What does James show is the thing of real significance? “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works?” In other words, what good does it do to tell people that you are a Christian and not act like one? Keep in mind that attending church is really not acting like a Christian. Many people attend church every Sunday who are no more Christian than the man in the moon is. What we see in this verse is an example of James asking questions for which there can be only one answer. He likes doing that. They are called rhetorical questions. That said, notice what James is pointing out by his question. There is no profit, no benefit for me, to have the kind of faith that produces nothing. This is very practical theology. If the faith that you claim to have does nothing of practical benefit for you in the here and now, what possible good can it be? If the proof of the talk is in the walk, then a person who says he has faith but does not show the genuineness of his faith succeeds in doing what the espoused enemies of Christianity have never been able to do . . . show it to be false and a lot of hot air.

However, notice something even more staggering. James says, “Can faith save him?” There is a little word in the Greek text just in front of the word for faith that does not appear in English, and it refers back to the first word faith. James means, “Can that kind of faith that produces no works possibly save him?” “Can the kind of faith that is all by itself, that has no accompanying evidence in the form of works, be the kind of faith that is able to save him?” Yet another question with an obvious answer. No, faith that produces no corresponding works cannot be the kind of faith that saves. Recognize that James is not teaching that you do good works to earn salvation. However, he is denouncing the easy profession of faith of a person not really saved who only says he has faith, and whose faith is without accompanying evidence.

Understand that James is combating the error of false hopes I brought to your attention, and he wants real Christian’s lives to be such that the fraudulent Christians cannot favorably compare themselves. He wants us to stay out of the trap of believing you can be saved and yet keep on sinning the same as you ever did. That kind of person was not saved in the first place. He may think he has faith in Christ, but the Word of God says different. The Apostle Paul wrote, in Ephesians 2.10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” John Calvin said, “You are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone.” He meant that saving faith is closely followed by a manner of life that shows you are truly saved.

Therefore, this fellow who says he is saved but has no corresponding works to show its genuineness has a head knowledge of the truth but that truth has never yet reached his heart to effect real change. This frequently happens in Christian homes. A child growing up in a Christian home knows all the facts. He believes that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for his sins. He never thought anything to the contrary. One day, perhaps at the urging of his parents or someone else, he makes some kind of a profession of faith. He is saved, right? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Worst case scenario? Like this man James speaks of, he only has head knowledge. To this point, the Holy Spirit of God has not quickened him. With such sad cases, that happen far more frequently than most will admit, consider what one might call an example of head knowledge Christian. I call it, as I said, pious pretense.


15     If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,

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?

17     Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.

Notice the condition of the brother or sister in Christ, in verse 15: “If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food. . . .” James sets before us for consideration an extremely poor Christian. Of course, naked does not mean the believer in need is stark naked. It means that he or she is ill clad and probably wearing little more than rags. Sometimes those without a proper outer garment would be described as naked. To go along with this poor appearance, we find the child of God without enough food for even one day. Therefore, we have this scene: A man or woman without proper clothes. Also, without food for even one day. To top it off, this is a fellow believer. What does this faith-without-works type of person do when met with such a circumstance?

He says, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.” Is this an example of what you would call Christian love? Does the professing Christian who responds in this way really know the love of Christ in his heart? Is he a fulfiller of the royal law mentioned in verse 8, that commands “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself”? James asks, “Notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body: what doth it profit?” What good does it do to say, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled,” and to stop at that? This observation made, do not get so hung up on particulars that you run out and give wine money to every drunk you see. Look at the principle here. Remember the New York City policeman who bought nice boots for the barefooted homeless man? Oh, how he was praised for his act of kindness. Then a television camera crew went back to the homeless man and found him once more shoeless, intending to sell the expensive shoes and unwilling to wear them. Good intentions without the requisite wisdom accomplishes little more than feeling good about yourself. The situation James describes is quite different, a person who is a child of God in extreme circumstances not of his own choosing, something not always the case in our society with people who are homeless. I would encourage informed and wise generosity that does not unintentionally and foolishly subsidize ongoing patterns of sinful choices.

Focusing on the person in a position to give to a needy believer, James has provided an example of a profession of faith that is not backed up by a corresponding change in the so-called Christian’s life. This Christian in a position to be a blessing is behaving the same way the rich man in James 2.2 would have acted, and he was lost. Do Christians act the same way as the lost of this world? Are the works of those with faith similar to the works of the lost? They are not supposed to be the same. Turn to First John 3.14: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.” Has this man James is referring to passed from death unto life? If his conduct is any indication of his spiritual condition, the answer can only be no. Let us hope this was a lapse in the man’s behavior as a Christian.

James is addressing a major problem that every gospel preaching church has to deal with. We have too long emphasized the profession of eternal life and forsaken the possession of eternal life as being the all-important thing. James is dealing with fruit in our life. The way to tell if a tree is alive or dead according to the Savior is not whether it has leaves on the branches, but whether it produces fruit. The fruit alone indicates the true spiritual nature. John the Baptist insisted upon fruits meet for repentance before he would baptize anyone.[6] He did not want sinners to do anything in a vain attempt to earn salvation; he just wanted to see proof that they really had saving faith, instead of mere lip service to the truth.

James concludes in verse 17: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” The sum and substance of the whole matter is right here, is it not? This supposed faith that is not accompanied by works, this pious pretense that is not accompanied by a changed life, is not really the saving faith of the Bible. You can believe all the facts of the Bible. Jesus is the virgin born Son of the living God, come to die an atonement for man’s sins, the Just for the unjust that He might bring us to God. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, victorious over sin, death, Hell, and the grave. Jesus ascended and is presently enthroned at the right hand of God on high, until the time of His second coming in power and great glory. Of course, these things are all true, and you believe them to be true. As well, you can say your prayers, attend the church services, give to missions, or do anything you want. However, if your life has not been changed by the grace and power of God as the result of a saving faith encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ, then partner you are not saved.

Lest you walk out of here in a panic, let me remind you that James was writing this to Christians. Friend, it is possible for Christians to behave as if they had dead faith, but we cannot live that way forever. The truth of this passage was designed to shake up a few people and to awaken the consciences of God’s people. Are you really a born again child of God? Prove it by your works. Do not tell anyone you are a Christian because you cried at an altar. By God’s grace, develop some current history to show people.

If you are not really saved, you need to be saved now, not tomorrow. If you have thought for years that you were saved and now you realize for sure what has been troubling you for some time, that you may not be truly born again, then I would suggest you and I talk about you giving up your false profession and coming to Christ. What should you think about your condition if you do not respond to James, if you do not begin to exhibit a faith that works, a faith that serves, and a faith that results in a changed life? If you are unresponsive to scriptural correction, perhaps you need to consider the possibility that you have entertained a false hope because of a decision made long ago that did not leave you genuinely converted to Christ.

It happens. Do not run away from it. Face the issue head on. Far better to abandon a false hope and end up a Christian after all than to stubbornly cling to a false hope and spend the ceaseless ages of eternity regretting it. After all, eternity is a long time to be wrong.

[1] Matthew 13.3-9, 18-23

[2] R. T. France, The Gospel Of Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), pages 516-522 and John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 1983), pages 49-50.

[3] 2 Corinthians 5.17

[4] Matthew 10.36

[5] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), pages 267-268.

[6] Matthew 3.8

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