What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
A pastor friend of mine here in Brazil once told me of a man he visited several years back. As my friend encouraged him to take his spiritual growth seriously, the man looked at him and said “Pastor, I’m saved, I’m really not interested in a reward, so just leave me alone.”
My own experiences within the Evangelical community on two continents over the past decades leads me to believe that, while they might not express it quite as bluntly, that man’s statement accurately describes the theology of a large percentage of professing Christians.
And the word “professing” is key here, because what James writes in today’s verse casts serious doubt on the salvation of the person who thinks like this.
In these posts, as in my preaching and teaching in the local church, I try hard not to spend a lot of time explaining the original language. There is no faster way to see the eyes of a congregation glaze over than to utter the phrase “now in the Greek it says…”
Yet for this text an understanding of the linguistic structure is key to our comprehension of what James is saying. So here goes.
That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg.
James presents us here with a question: “can faith save him?” In the Greek there are two very specific ways questions with implied answers are asked. If the question reads one way, the answer is yes. If the question reads another way, the the answer is no. The question in today’s text is a clear example of the latter.
The point is abundantly clear: if you are counting on a childhood decision or an intellectual assent to carry you over the finish line – and said decision or assent has not been accompanied by outward evidence of transformation of life – you desperately need to rethink whether or not you are actually saved.
Or, to put it another way, the man in the illustration above – and millions of people who call themselves Christians – never understood the Gospel.
An important distinction.
The second linguistic point to be made is very, very important. The question “Can faith save him?” makes it clear that the “faith” being referred to is not genuine faith, but the particular brand of faith mentioned in the first clause, the kind of faith divorced from all outward evidences.
We can read the question thus: can that kind of faith save him? (For a more detailed linguistic treatment of this text, see this video)
We are going to accompany James as he unpacks this in future verses. For now, however, his question begs a personal evaluation: Is your faith accompanied by works? If not, can you really say you have saving faith?
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