A common refrain throughout this week’s passage is the question, “What does it profit?” or, “Can it save him?” James’s line of questioning reveals his central question of, What good is this kind of faith that we’re describing? It’s a faith that notices a hungry or naked brother or sister and only offers them words without power and without action. A faith that is said to be in the heart but has no bearing, expression, or evidence in the life. What is the profit of such a “faith”?
True faith profits something. It yields meaningful communion with God (Heb. 11:6), salvation (Eph. 2:8), and good works that bless others (v. 10). Claiming to have faith is not proof that the claim is true. James bifurcates faith and works in 2:14 to show how foolish that separation is. Can someone have faith and have it not show up in their lives? Is that the kind of faith we’re told to hold? Can that kind of faith result in salvation? he seems to ask. The answer is a resounding “No.” Not because faith is insufficient, but because faith without works is no faith at all. It is “dead” and useless (James 2:17).
The jarring example of verse 19 shows what a lack of true faith can be. Even the demons believe and know that God is more powerful than them, that He is to be feared, that He is the Creator God. But they do not submit to that truth and live by it. Instead, they live in the servitude of the devil. They somehow mentally sideline it in order to continue the life that they have.
A mental assent to the existence of or even the character of God is not enough. True faith doesn’t stop at trembling with knowledge. True faith is not satisfied until surrender.
Unlike God, humans are limited to outward expressions of faith in order to see faith. It’s true that people can pretend to have faith by accruing badges of preaching, donating clothes, giving money, and even saying Christ-like things. But it is just as true that true faith cannot be hidden from humanity’s eyes—it naturally bears fruit in the life by outward expressions of love to God and to others (John 15:1–8). It is these outward expressions that lead people to glorify God (Matt. 5:16), leading them to know Him, accept His love, and walk with Him.