James 2:14-17

James 2:14‑17  •  5 min. read  •  grade level: 9
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THUS the spirit of grace has been upheld, and a law of liberty which accompanies it, in contrast with a judicial spirit which avails itself of the law of bondage and ought to be as alien from an object of mercy as it displeases God. How solemn the warning of merciless judgment to him that showed no mercy! How sweet the assurance that mercy glories over judgment! Life, liberty, and grace go together for blessing.
Thence the transition is simple and intelligible to the snare of setting up a bare creed. Israelites were above all exposed to this danger; so that the dealing with such a case is peculiarly appropriate to this Epistle. In judgment they had been used to a brotherhood after the flesh, as the seed of Abraham. When professors of Christ, they were liable to regard their new brotherhood as founded on no more than their common recognition of the Lord of glory. But it is as plain in fact as it is in scripture that such a recognition of Him might be no more than intellectual, having no root of divine life because it sprang from no work of conscience through the Holy Spirit's application of the truth in revealing Christ. For we are not brought to know God save through our wants and guilt, not as students of science, but as poor sinners in need of His mercy in Christ. A mental profession of faith was of no more value than the schools of differing thought, under different names as leaders to which Greek vanity was ever prone. It was even more fatal and in itself “natural,” as their contentious zeal was “carnal,” for so the apostle made the distinction.
“What [is] the profit, my brethren, if one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or a sister be naked and destitute of daily food, and one from among you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but ye give them not the things needful for the body, what [is] the profit? So also faith, if it have not works, is dead in (or by) itself” (vers. 14-17).
When the apostle Paul declared the gospel, he insisted on faith in Jesus Christ as justifying, apart from works of law; because it is God's righteous ness, not man's, unto all, and upon all that believe, Jew and Greek being lost sinners. It is a question of being justified freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Now, for our Epistle, it is the quite different question of a practical life in accord with Christian profession. Indeed Paul insists on this moral reality in Rom. 2 as strenuously as James does here. It is a worthless faith which does not produce fruit of righteousness that is by Jesus Christ unto God's glory and praise. The scripture before us does not answer the question how a sinner is to be cleansed before God, but what conduct befits those that have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To this end of necessary consistency are the questions. What is the profit for a man to profess faith and have no works as its witness? Can faith save him? This is illustrated by the heartlessness of dismissing a naked and hungry brother or sister with the words, Be warmed and filled, without any corresponding gift to help them. Does Christ own a faith that does not work through love? Here again we may observe how the apostle Paul's words in Gal. 5:66For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love. (Galatians 5:6) energetically express the practical aim of James. The tongue may be active, the heart cold, the walk selfish as before; but are these the ways of a nature begotten to the Father of lights by truth's word? Are such unreal talkers a kind of first-fruits of His own creatures?
There is no need, however, to give the Greek article with Wakefield the force of “this,” nor with Bede and the Revisers the emphasis of “that,” nor yet the more legitimate possessive sense of “his.” Faith is entitled, even apart from previous mention, to the article in Greek as an ideal object, the thing faith, or as we in English say “faith,” as much as if it expressed the different sense of “the faith” required in many scriptures. The context can alone decide in which shade it is employed. Hence also we may observe that in ver. 17 scarce any person thinks of translating the same words, ἡ πίστις, save as faith; and rightly so, for it is still used in the same general sense. This is not at all invalidated by the anarthrous form in ver. 14, where the insertion of the article would be improper. For in such cases the accusative is complementary to the transitive verb, and expresses the character of the action that resulted, unless it be intended to denote that which through some reason becomes a specific object before the mind; both of which cases may be seen again in ver. 18.
The principle is stated concisely in ver. 17: “faith, if it have no works, is dead in itself.” If it were divinely given (Eph. 2:88For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: (Ephesians 2:8), Phil. 1:2929For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake; (Philippians 1:29)), it would manifest its mighty and gracious effects. For Christ is its object, and His love above all thought of man, but influential beyond anything in us or around us to raise the soul accordingly. He is not only an example that powerfully acts on all He loves and loving Him, but a motive and a source, to form the affections and the walk of His own here below. It is easy for those who are no better than James describes in their human faith to decry its energy where the Holy Spirit has wrought livingly. In fact they know nothing of its divine reality. Their faith is dead in itself; and any works so wrought are no less intrinsically dead.