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James 2:16

ESV and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
NIV If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
NASB and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,' yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
CSB and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed," but you don't give them what the body needs, what good is it?
NLT and you say, 'Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well' — but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?
KJV 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?

What does James 2:16 mean?

James is building an illustration to flesh out the answer to his question in verse 14. His question was whether or not a so-called-"faith" which produces no good works was a saving faith. Critically, we should note that James is not asking whether or not doing good works is a requirement for salvation. He is speaking only of faith, but from the standpoint of what faith results in, in the life of the one who claims it.

In verse 15, James proposed an analogy: seeing a fellow Christian lacking food and clothing.

Here in verse 16, he continues the thought. Suppose another Christian offers that needy brother or sister warm words but nothing else. They express an emotion, or a belief, or a "faith," in the well-being of that person, but do nothing in the real world about it.

The words James quotes were probably a normal, everyday phrase used in polite conversation, similar to "have a nice day," in the modern world. Looked at another way, James might be describing an insensitive brush off. Telling someone with no access to food or clothing that you "wish them" to be warmed and filled and to go away with peace is the opposite of helpful. It is deeply hurtful. It's even worse to say it to a family member, a brother or sister in Christ.

This brings up the point James is making about the relationship between the "faith" a person claims, and the "faith" a person actually has. If someone says they want to see a hungry person fed, but does nothing to feed them, do they actually want to see them fed? The hard truth is, no, deep down, they don't. Because if they really wanted to see it, they'd act on those beliefs.

James pointedly asks: what good is that kind of works-less sentiment? It is clearly no good. In the next verse, James will expand this into a larger point that faith—a mere claim to belief, as he is using the word—without works is dead. At the same time, James is echoing his recent command to care for the needs of the poor, rather than favoring the rich.

The point James makes is clear: what we do is a clear indication of what we actually believe. The person who says they want to see a poor man helped, but who does not help them, doesn't really want to help. In the same way, a person who claims to have saving faith in Christ, but who does not act accordingly, does not actually have saving faith.
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