James 2

The Reality of Faith Proved in Works: the Care for the Poor
James 2
James 2. In ch.1 we saw that trials bring those of high degree down and those of low degree up to the same place, to have fellowship with Christ. At the end of ch.1 we saw that receiving the Word of God results in extremely practical results in the Christian’s walk. Now in ch.2 we find those subjects developed further, that faith is manifested by works, particularly in how we treat the poor. The great truth of James 2 is that faith without works is dead. When someone has genuine faith, there will always be the manifestation of that faith in their life, by actions that show the soul is trusting God and His Word.

The Sin of Partiality (2:1-13)

1 My brethren, do not have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of glory, with respect of persons: v.1 Respect of Persons. Consider Who He was, the Lord of Glory, and yet how humble of a place He took. He associated with the poor, the outcast Galileans, the fishermen. He was  called the carpenter’s son, the Nazarean. He had no form nor comeliness, and no outward beauty that the nature man should desire Him. He emptied Himself, and thought is not robbery to be equal with God. No ostentatious pride, no respect of persons with Him! Not possible to rightly have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect of persons. To show partiality to the rich, etc. is destructive to the very foundation of Christianity – the faith that our Lord Jesus Christ lived out as a pattern for us in this world. Fair treatment of the poor is woven through the Lord’s life and His preaching (Luke 14:12-14). Further, the cross is the great leveler of mankind. There is no difference, for all of have sinned, and again, the same Lord is rich unto all that call upon Him (Rom. 3:22; 10:12).
2 for if there come unto your synagogue a man with a gold ring in splendid apparel, and a poor man also come in in vile apparel, 3 and ye look upon him who wears the splendid apparel, and say, Do thou sit here well, and say to the poor, Do thou stand there, or sit here under my footstool: 4 have ye not made a difference among yourselves, and become judges having evil thoughts? vv.2-4 Partiality in Practice: Judges Having Evil Thoughts. James gives a very practical example of the kind of partiality that was being shown among the Jews who had professed Christ. They showed preference to those who came in with wealthy attire. The man who entered their “synagogues” with the gold ring and splendid apparel would be given an elevated seat, while the poor man who came in in dirty clothing (not because he was sloppily dressed but because that was all he could afford) would be given the lowest seat. This display of partiality in practice exposed a worldly mind; a mind that looked on the outward appearance and evaluated a person according to worldly standards. Rather than view the rich and the poor brother both in the light of scripture, in the light and love of God reflected in the face of Jesus Christ, and according to their standing “in Christ”, they were evaluating their brethren according to a shallow and merely superficial criteria. As such they were setting themselves up as “judges having evil thoughts”, or biased judgment with the world’s values rather than God’s values. Notice that these believers were in transition from Judaism, and therefore still attending synagogue but meeting separately in assembly (James 5:14), similar to the disciples in Acts 2 who “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house” (Acts 2:46).

Hear, my beloved brethren: Has not God chosen the poor as to the world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to them that love him? 6 But “ye” have despised the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you, and do not “they” drag you before the tribunals? 7 And do not “they” blaspheme the excellent name which has been called upon you?
vv.5-7 Two Arguments Showing Partiality is Wrong. James seeks to reason with his “beloved brethren”. He gives two arguments, the higher argument first. God’s values are not man’s values. God has chosen to save those who generally speaking are poor according to the world’s standards, but “rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom” (see 1 Cor. 1:26-29). These Jewish brethren by their actions had showed that their values were not God’s. He chose the poor, but they had despised the poor. The second reason that he gives is that from their own experience they had felt persecution from those who are rich. Who was it that was leading the persecution against Christians, and blaspheming the name of Christ – “the excellent name” called upon them? It was the religious and political elite in Israel, of whom Saul of Tarsus is an example. It is truly amazing how partiality is so deeply ingrained in our fallen human nature that we will show preference to the rich, the famous, the powerful, even though we know they have no care for our soul. It should be obvious that what James is teaching here does not set aside the fact that we are to show respect or honor for parents, authority in the local assembly, those who are older, and the civil authorities as ordained of God.
8 If indeed ye keep the royal law according to the scripture, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” [Lev. 19:18], ye do well. 9 But if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law and shall offend in one point, he has come under the guilt of breaking all. 11 For he who said, Thou shalt not commit adultery, said also, Thou shalt not kill. Now if thou dost not commit adultery, but killest, thou art become transgressor of the law. vv.8-11 The Royal Law. James then refers to what he calls “the royal law”, which was a commandment that Christ Himself referenced numerous times in His ministry (e.g. Matt. 22:39) as a summary of the whole law; “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). While the law demanded that a man love his neighbor as himself, it did not give man the power to fulfill that commandment. James does not say that the believer is under the law, which Paul expressly decries in Romans 6-7, but he simply shows that so the sin of partiality is is really breaking the law, and so was wrong even before Christ. The legal man tends to boast in keeping the commandments which were purely external, but James shows that you cannot separate one commandment from another, and thus the commandment to love one’s neighbor as himself was inseparably linked from the whole law! See Rom. 13:9. The way the law works is that it is all or nothing. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. The law, weak through the flesh, breaks here at the issue of love. Breaking one commandment makes you a “transgressor of the law”.
12 So speak ye, and so act, as those that are to be judged by the law of liberty; 13 for judgment will be without mercy to him that has shewn no mercy. Mercy glories over judgment. vv.12-13 The Law of Liberty. The Christian is called to live, not as one who is under a set of Commandments that governs our external behavior, but one that governs our heart. We’ve already learned from chapter one that the perfect law of Liberty has to do with when the word of God commands the believer to do something that his new nature already is predisposed to do. The commandment therefore is perfect liberty to that soul, because it is in his very nature to do that thing. It is a far higher law than a law of commandments, even as summed up in that Royal Law. We will be judged by a much higher standard than the law ever was. James is not putting the saints under law, he is simply showing that our standard in Christianity is far higher, and therefore partiality – which had no place in the old economy although it was common – has no place in the believer’s life or in the assembly. There is a judgment seat if Christ where our lives will be reviewed. We will not be judged merely by an external standard, but what is on the inside. There may also be a present governmental aspect to this judgment. If we don’t show mercy to others we cannot expect governmental forgiveness. God delights in mercy, more than judgment (see Mic. 7:18).

The Reality of Faith Proved By Works (2:14-26) 

Justification in James. We now enter a section of the epistle that has been difficult for many believers to understand. In Romans and Galatians the apostle Paul very carefully and strenuously asserts that justification is by grace, through faith alone; “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28; see also Rom. 4:5; 11:6; Gal. 3:11). But in James we are told that faith cannot save us, and that “a man is justified on the principle of works, and not on the principle of faith only” (James 2:24). Some see in this a contradiction, because they fail to understand how James speaks of justification.
Justification in Romans has to do with a judicial reckoning on God’s part, because of His own righteousness. A man believes God, and because of that faith, God reckons him righteous freely by grace, without any thought of working or law keeping, on the basis of the finished work of Christ. Paul focuses on how a sinner may be justified before God. Justification in James has to do with a moral or practical righteousness in the believer’s life, as consistent with proper Christian conduct, and as the outward proof of the possession of an inner life. He focuses on the believer’s responsibility to show his faith by good works. Thus, there is really no contradiction between Paul and James.1 Paul deals with the root, that which is “before God” (Rom. 4:2), and James deals with the fruit, that which we “show”. In fact, Paul himself at times speaks of faith working; e.g. “faith which worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6). The simple fact of it is, genuine faith will always be accompanied by outward proofs, just as a good tree will inevitably be accompanied by good fruits (Matt. 7:16-20).
The misunderstanding of this has given rise to two dangers. (1) On one hand, some take what James says to support a serious error in soteriology; i.e. that of denying justification by grace, through faith alone. This is the error of many in the Roman Catholic system, and other works-based perversions of Christianity. (2) On the other hand, some discount the doctrine James sets forward about justification in these verses. This mistake really leads the soul to miss out on the wonderful and important truths of James. The Spirit of God chose what James would write by inspiration, and – while not the highest truths of Christianity – James gives us an invaluable aspect of faith; i.e. that the reality of faith is proved by works (especially, by works of love). We don’t want to soften the message for us in James. God intends it for the conscience, with good reason.
An Epistle of Straw. Martin Luther, though he accepted the epistle of James as inspired scripture, viewed it as a lesser authority, and of much lesser value than other epistles. Referring to Paul’s building analogy in 1 Cor. 3:12, Luther called James “an epistle of straw”, a statement which has been taken out of context by his enemies, but still shows his view.2 Luther did not teach that James contains actually evil doctrine, but that James borrows from the law3 and focuses only on the practical effects of Christianity, rather than on the gospel in its purity. 
14 What is the profit, my brethren, if any one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? 15 Now if a brother or a sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one from amongst you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled; but give not to them the needful things for the body, what is the profit? 17 So also faith, if it have not works, is dead by itself. vv.14-17 The Profession of Faith Without Works: Dead. James labors to show that faith, if it is only the profession of it without works, is dead. This means that there is no reality in that kind of “faith”, just as there is no life in a dead person. The solemn question comes, “can faith save him?” What we must see is that James is not speaking of reality, but of the profession of faith. The key to understanding the whole passage is “if any one say”, and “show me” (v.18). The profession of faith will not save the soul.4 He gives an example in vv.16-17, of the emptiness of mere words. Who would be so heartless as to say the empty words “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” and not follow through with “the needful things for the body”? Do the mere words have the effect of warming or filling that poor brother or sister? Of course not. There is no profit in mere words, and therefore faith, or the profession of it, “if it have not works, is dead by itself”. We have a similar thought in 1 John 2:4-5.
18 But some one will say, “Thou” hast faith and “I” have works. Shew me thy faith without works, and “I” from my works will shew thee my faith. 19 “Thou” believest that God is one. Thou doest well. The demons even believe, and tremble. 20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? vv.18-20 The Reality of Faith: Provable by Works Only. Next James shows that the reality of faith can only be proved by works. He gives a hypothetical supposition. In reality faith and works cannot be separated. Faith alone cannot be seen. It is invisible. However, faith has outward manifestations in the form of works. Therefore, it is not possible to prove one’s faith without works. In v.19 we have another thing. Up to this point it is the profession of faith that James says is death without works. Now he shows that there is even a kind of belief in the facts about God that is still dead. Mere intellectual assent to the facts of Christianity, even the conviction that God is real, that Jesus died on the cross, etc. does not constitute saving faith (John 2:23-25). James gives the example of one who believes in the unity of the Godhead, but has not been begotten by the Word of truth, and therefore has no vital link with God. Such a person’s faith is no more real than that of the demons, who acknowledge the same things about God, have a sound doctrinal scheme, and are so certain that they tremble in fear of Him (e.g. Matt. 8:29); “Thou believest that God is one. Thou doest well. The demons even believe, and tremble.” How solemn this powerful illustration is, especially in a day and in a land of widespread profession of Christianity! How many there are who receive the good seed, but only into the stony places of the intellect, rather than into the tilled ground of a repentant heart! A person who has faith in the sense of a natural belief, but without a relationship with God through the implanted word, is a “vain man” because “faith without works is dead”. We must distinguish the empty “faith” that James speaks of from the Divine gift that is elsewhere presented (Eph. 2:8). Faith as a gift from God comes to man in the new birth, and it always has its fruits. True faith from God will naturally manifest itself by acting according to the desires of the new nature, and according to the relationship between the soul and God.56
Two Examples of Faith. In the last six verses of the chapter, James gives two examples from scripture to show that faith, which only the eye of God can see, will always be accompanied by works as the outward proof of that faith. Both are found in Hebrews 11. 
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? 22 Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith was perfected. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”, [Gen. 15:6] and he was called “Friend of God.” [2 Chron. 20:7] 24 Ye see that a man is justified on the principle of works, and not on the principle of faith only. vv.21-24 Faith Perfected By Works: The Example of Abraham. The first example is that of Abraham, which would be full of interest for the twelve tribes. The same verse that Paul quotes in Romans and Galatians to show that Abraham was justified by faith is quoted by James to show that Abraham was justified by works. The promise was of an innumerable seed that would spring from Abraham’s own body. He believed that promise, and “it was reckoned to him as righteousness”. In Rom. 4:1-4 Paul makes the point that Abraham did no works, but simply believed God’s word about the numerous seed, etc., and God reckoned him righteous in grace. James makes a different point, that years later God began to test Abraham, and called him to offer up his only Isaac, thereby testing the patriarch’s faith. The offering up of Isaac (many years later, James switches the order) was the outward manifestation that Abraham believed God; thus “the scripture was fulfilled”. The same faith only God saw in Gen. 15 was visibly displayed in Gen. 22. That extreme test of faith that God put upon Abraham, in commanding him to offer his only-begotten Isaac, the heir of the promises and the object of concentrated affection, demonstrated how deep Abraham’s trust really was in God. No wonder he was called “the Friend of God”, quoting 2 Chron. 20:7.7 Trust is the foundation of relationship. This is what James means by saying “a man is justified on the principle of works”. Abraham’s work “derived all its virtue from absolute trust in God” (W. Kelly, adapted). It isn’t that God looks for works (even works produced by faith) from man in exchange for justification in the judicial sense; that would run contrary to the entire gospel. What he means its that there is an outward justification or demonstration of righteousness that is made when faith works in a believer’s life; “Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and that by works faith was perfected.”8
25 But was not in like manner also Rahab the harlot justified on the principle of works, when she had received the messengers and put them forth by another way? v.25 The Example of Rahab. The second example is a total contrast to Abraham in terms of her background; “Rahab the harlot”. All the inhabitants of Jericho had heard the report of how Jehovah had dried up the Red Sea for Israel, and given them victories. The two men were “spies”, but also called “messengers” (Jos. 6:17; 6:25), as they are here. By faith Rahab alone, in contrast to her countrymen, believed that these men were messengers of the Lord’s people. She believed that the Lord would accomplish His purpose, and give Israel the land of Canaan (Jos. 2:9-11). But her faith was demonstrated at the earliest possible opportunity, when she received the messengers, hid them, and sent them another way. She turned against her own people and king, in order to aid the messengers of Jehovah. What people usually mean by “good works” and what God means are quite different. Philanthropic efforts are not necessarily the fruit of faith. Neither are the actions of human affection, like the mother’s care for her child. Abraham’s actions would have been murder, and Rahab’s actions would have been treason apart from faith. They are faith-works. The works that justify, in this outward, moral sense, are works that bear witness to faith, i.e. receiving the word of God as truth. 
26 For as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. v.26 Conclusion. James concludes with another illustration “as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead”. A dead body is not only useless, as a mere outward form, it is worse than useless; it is revolting to natural sensibilities. So with the profession of faith where there is no reality.
  1. Both agree that, where faith is divinely given and souls are begotten by the word of truth, good works are the fruit and the outward witness of faith. There is nothing in fact to reconcile, because there is no real variance. The one insists that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law; the other, that he who claims to have faith is bound to show it by his works. In the one, the question is how a sinner can be justified by grace; in the other, what God looks for from him who professes faith. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
  2. In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that it is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it. – Luther, Preface to the New Testament, 1522
  3. But this James does nothing more than drive to the law and its works; and he mixes the two up in such disorderly fashion that it seems to me he must have been some good, pious man, who took some sayings of the apostles’ disciples and threw them thus on paper; or perhaps they were written down by someone else from his preaching. He calls the law a “law of liberty,” though St. Paul calls it a law of slavery, of wrath, of death and of sin (Galatians 3:23; Romans 7:11). … In a word, he wants to guard against those who relied on faith without works, and is unequal to the task [in spirit, thought, and words, and rends the Scriptures and thereby resists Paul and all Scripture], and would accomplish by insisting on the Law what the apostles accomplish by inciting men to love. Therefore, I cannot put him among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from putting him where he pleases and estimating him as he pleases; for there are many good sayings in him. – Luther, Preface to the Epistles of James and Jude, 1522
  4. The profession of having faith without this life — the existence of which is proved by works — can profit no one. This is plain enough. I say the profession of having faith, because the epistle says it: “If a man say he has faith.” This is the key to this part of the epistle. He says it: where is the proof of it? Works are the proof; and it is in this way that the apostle uses them. A man says he has faith. It is not a thing that we can see. I say therefore with reason, “Show it me.” This is the evidence of faith which is required for man — it is only by its fruits that we make it evident to men; for the faith itself cannot be seen. But if I produce these fruits, then assuredly I have the root, without which there could not be the fruits. Thus faith does not show itself to others, nor can I recognise it, without works; but works, the fruit of faith, prove the existence of faith. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.
  5. If it were divinely given (Eph. 2:8: Phil. 1:29), it would manifest its mighty and gracious effects. – Kelly, W. The Epistle of James.
  6. That which follows shows that he is speaking of the profession of a doctrine, true perhaps in itself — of certain truths being confessed; for it is a real faith looked at — certainty of knowledge and conviction — which devils have of the unity of the Godhead. They do not doubt it; but there is no link at all between their heart and God by means of a new nature — far indeed from it. But the apostle confirms this, by the case of men in whom the opposition to the divine nature is not so apparent. Faith, the recognition of the truth with respect to Christ, is dead without works; that is, such a faith as produces none is dead. We see (v. 16) that the faith of which the apostle speaks is a profession devoid of reality; verse 19 shows that it may be an unfeigned certainty that the thing is true: but the life begotten by the word, so that a relationship is formed between the soul and God, is entirely wanting. Because this takes place through the word, it is faith; being begotten of God we have a new life. This life acts, that is to say, faith acts, according to the relationship with God, by works which flow naturally from it, and which bear testimony to the faith that produced them. – Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.
  7. We see Jehovah treating Abraham as a friend in Gen. 18:17.
  8. James, remark, never says that works justify us before God; for God can see the faith without its works. He knows that life is there. It is in exercise with regard to Him, towards Him, by trust in His word, in Himself, by receiving His testimony in spite of everything within and without. This God sees and knows. But when our fellow-creatures are in question, when it must be said “show me,” then faith, life, shows itself in works. Darby, J.N. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.