James 2

James 2  •  17 min. read  •  grade level: 8
THESE EARLY JEWISH Christians were far too much controlled by the ordinary thoughts of the world, and as a consequence of being spotted by the world, they despised the poor. They should have been controlled by the faith of the Lord Jesus, and not by the standards and customs of the world. Though he was the Lord of Glory yet He ever stooped to the poor and the fatherless. Poverty and need may be incompatible with human glory, but they are quite compatible with Divine glory.
As a consequence when some rich Jew pompously entered their “assembly” or “synagogue”—this latter is the right word—attired in all his finery, he was met with servile attention, as much by the Christians as by the non-Christians apparently. When a poor man entered he was unceremoniously put in an obscure place. Quite natural of course according to the way of the world; but quite foreign this to the faith of Christ. They might constitute themselves judges of men in this way, but they only thereby proved themselves to be “judges of evil thoughts” (ch. 2:4) or “judges having evil reasonings.”
In verses 5 to 7 James recalls to his brethren what the situation really was. The rich Jews were in the main the proud opposers of Christ and His people, blasphemers of His worthy name. God’s choice had in the main fallen on the poor; and with this agree the words of the Apostle to the Gentiles, in 1 Cor. 1:26-3126For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: 27But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; 28And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: 29That no flesh should glory in his presence. 30But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: 31That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:26‑31). These chosen poor ones—true Christians—were rich in faith and heirs of the coming kingdom. When servile attention was paid to the proud blasphemers and persecutors, because they were rich, and contempt was meted out to the followers of Christ because they were poor it only proved the blindness and folly of those who so acted. They viewed both rich and poor with the world’s superficial gaze, and not with the penetrating eye if faith.
Notice that the Kingdom is said to be “promised to them that love Him” (ch. 1:12). Most of those to whom James wrote would have stoutly contended that the kingdom was promised to the Jew nationally, and that in an exclusive way. This was now seen to be a mistake. It is promised to lovers of God, and that whether Jew or Gentile, as we find in Paul’s writings.
Notice also the expression, “that worthy name by the which ye are called” (ch. 2:7). The rich Jew blasphemed it but God pronounces it a worthy Name. By it they were called-this seems to indicate that, when James wrote, the name Christian had traveled from Antioch where first it was coined (Acts 11:2626And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. (Acts 11:26)) to Jerusalem. The poor were the objects of persecution not so much because they were poor, as because they were identified with Christ, and He was the object of the world’s hatred.
This having respect of persons is not only contrary to the faith of Christ, but even to the law itself which bids us love our neighbors as ourselves. This is called in verse 8 the “royal” or “kingly” law. It sums up in one word that which must be observed by every king who would reign righteously and govern according to God. To have respect of persons is to break that law and stand convicted as a transgressor.
If we stand before God on the ground of law-keeping and are convicted in one point of law-breaking, what is the effect?
Nothing could be more sweeping than the statement made in verse 10, and at first sight some of us might be inclined to question the rightness of it. We have to remember however that the law is treated as a whole, one and indivisible. An errand boy, carrying a basket of bottles, may slip and break one bottle in his fall, and his employer cannot with any justice accuse him of breaking all of them, for every bottle is separate and distinct from each of the others. If however the lad were carrying the basket suspended from his shoulder by a chain, and in falling he also broke one link of the chain, his master could rightly tell him that he had broken the chain. If in addition he indulged in rough horseplay with other boys, and hurling a stone misdirected it through a large shop window, it is rightly spoken of as a broken window.
It is thus with the law. The chain may have many links yet it is one chain. The window may comprise many square feet of glass yet it is one pane. The law has many commandments yet it is one law. One commandment may be carefully observed as verse 11 Says, indeed many commandments may be kept, yet if one commandment is broken the law is transgressed.
If that be so then must we all plead guilty, and we might begin to inquire if then after all we are to stand before God and be judged by Him on the basis of the law of Moses? To this question James replies in verse 12. We stand before God and shall be judged on the basis of the “law of liberty”—an expression which means the revelation of God’s will which has reached us in Christ, as we saw when considering verse 25 of the previous chapter. We shall have to answer as being in the much fuller light which Christianity brings. Being in the light of the supreme manifestation of God’s mercy in Christ we are responsible to show mercy ourselves. This thought brings us back to the matter with which the paragraph started. Their treatment of “the poor man in vile raiment” had not been according to the mercy displayed in the Gospel. They set themselves up as “judges of evil thoughts,” (ch. 2:4) but, lo! they would find themselves under judgment.
A serious position indeed! Are we in a similar position? We shall have to answer to God as in the light of Gospel mercy and as under the law of liberty, even as they.
Notice that the last phrase of verse 13 is not, “Mercy rejoiceth against justice,” but, “against judgment” (ch. 2:13). Divine mercy goes hand in hand with righteousness, and thereby it triumphs against the judgment that otherwise had been our due.
The change of subject that we find in verse 14 may strike us as rather abrupt but it really flows quite naturally from the profound insight which James had by the Spirit into the foolish workings of the human heart. He began the chapter by saying, “My brethren have not... faith” (ch. 2:1). They might wish to rebut his assertion by saying, “Oh, yes! we have. We have the faith of the Lord Jesus as much as you.” Is there any certain test which will enable us to check these contrary assertions and discover where the truth lies?
There certainly is. It lies in the fact that true faith is a living thing which manifests its life in works. Thereby it may be distinguished from that dead kind of faith which consists only in the acceptance of facts, without the heart being brought under the power of them. We may profess that we accept the teaching of Christ, but unless that which we believe controls our actions we cannot be said to really have the faith of Christ. Hence the latter part of this second chapter is of immense importance.
It must be carefully noted that the works, upon which James so strenuously insists in these verses are the works of faith. Having noted this we shall do well to turn at once to Rom. 3 and 4, and also to Gal. 3, where the Apostle Paul so convincingly demonstrates that our justification is by faith and is not of works. These works however which Paul so completely eliminates are the works of the law.
A great many people have supposed that there is a clash and a contradiction between the two Apostles on this matter, but it is not so. The distinction we have just pointed out largely helps to remove the difficulty that is felt. Both speak of works, but there is an immense difference between the works of the law and the works of faith.
The works of the law, of which Paul speaks, are works done in obedience to the demand of the law of Moses, by which, it is hoped, a righteousness may be wrought that will pass in the presence of God. “This do, and thou shalt live,” (Luke 10:2828And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. (Luke 10:28)) said the law, and the works are done in the hope of thereby obtaining the life— life upon earth—that is proffered. No one of us ever did obtain this abiding earthly life by law-keeping, since as James has just told us we became wholly guilty directly we had transgressed in one point. Hence we all lie by nature under the death sentence, and the works of the law are dead works, though done in the effort to obtain life.
The works of faith, of which James speaks are those which spring out of a living faith as its direct expression and result. They are as much a proof of faith’s vitality as flowers and fruit prove the vitality and also the nature of a tree. If no such works are forthcoming then our faith is proclaimed as dead, being alone.
Is there any contradiction between these two sets of statements? By no means. They are indeed entirely complementary the one to the other, and our view of the matter is not complete without both. Works done for justification are rigorously excluded. Works flowing from the faith that justifies are strenuously insisted on, and that not only by James but by Paul also; for in writing to Titus he says, “These things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:88This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. (Titus 3:8)). The works that are to be maintained are those done by “they which have believed” (Titus 3:88This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. (Titus 3:8)); that is, they are the works of faith.
The above considerations do not entirely remove the difficulty for there remain certain verbal contradictions, such as, “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:2828Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. (Romans 3:28)), and in our passage, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (ch. 2:24). Again we read, “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God” (Rom. 4:22For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. (Romans 4:2)), and in our passage, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (ch. 2:21). Some puzzled reader may wish to ask us if we can extricate ourselves from the contradictory conclusions that in the distant past Abraham both was and was not justified by works; and further that in the present a man is justified by faith without works, and also by works and not by faith alone?
We should reply that there is really no difficulty from which to extricate ourselves. We have but to remark that in James the whole point is that which is valid before man, as verse 18 of our chapter shows. A man has the right to demand that we display our faith in our works, thus justifying ourselves and our faith before him. In Romans the whole point is that which is valid before God. The very words, “before God,” occur in Rom. 4:22For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. (Romans 4:2), as we have seen. Our faith is quite apparent to His all-seeing eye. He does not have to wait for the display of the works that are the fruit of faith, in order to be assured that the faith really exists.
In the world of men however works are a necessity, for in no other way can we be assured that faith exists of a living sort. The illustrations of verses 14 to 16 are quite conclusive. We may profess faith in God’s care for His people in temporal things, but except our faith in that care leads us to a readiness to be the channel through which it may flow, our faith is of no profit to the needy brother or sister; nor indeed to ourselves. Our faith as to that particular point is dead and consequently inoperative, as verse 17 tells us, and we must not be surprised if it is challenged by others.
A man may come up to you and say, “Well, you say that you believe but you produce no visible evidence of your faith, kindly therefore produce your faith itself for my inspection.” What could you do? Obviously, nothing! You might go on reiterating, “I have faith. I have faith.” But of what use would that be? Your confusion would be increased if he should further say, “At all events I have been doing such-and-such a thing, and such-and-such, which clearly evidence that I personally do believe, though I am not in the habit of talking about my faith.”
So far the Apostle has urged these very practical considerations upon us in connection with matters of every day life in the world, but they stand equally true in connection with matters of doctrine, matters connected with the whole faith of the Gospel. In verse 19 the very fundamental point of faith in the existence of the one true God is raised. “Oh, yes,” we each exclaim, “I believe in Him!” (1 Peter 1:2121Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God. (1 Peter 1:21)). That is good; but such faith if real is bound to affect us. We shall at least tremble, for even demons, who know right well that He exists and hate Him, go as far as that. The multitudes, who in a languid way accept the idea of His existence and yet are utterly unmoved by it, have a faith which is dead.
“What!” someone may remark, “Is such a thing as trembling counted as a work?” It certainly is. And this leads us to remark that James speaks simply of works, and not of good works. The point is not that every true believer must do a number of kindly and charitable actions-though it is of course good and right for him so to do—but that his works are bound to be such as shall display his faith in action if men are to see that his faith is real. This is an important point: let us all make sure that we seize it.
As an illustration, let us suppose that you go to visit a sick friend. You inquire for his health when he at once assures you that he is perfectly certain to get well. As he does not seem particularly cheerful about it, you ask what has given him this assurance-upon what his faith rests? In reply he tells you he has some wonderful medicine, as to which he has read hundreds of flattering testimonials; and he points you to a large bottle of medicine standing on the mantelpiece. You notice that the bottle is quite full, so you ask him how long he has been taking the stuff, when he surprises you by saying that he has not taken any! Would you not say, “My friend, you cannot really believe that this medicine will cure you without fail, otherwise you would have begun to take it?”
You would be even more surprised however if in response to this he calmly remarked, “Oh, but my faith in it is very real, as may be seen by the fact that I have just sent £5 to help our local charities.” “What has that to do with it?” you would exclaim. “Your gift seems to show that you have a kindly heart, and that you believe in local charities, but it proves nothing as to your belief in the medicine. Start taking the medicine: that will demonstrate that you believe in it!”
Here is a rich man who, when requested, will draw out his check-book and sign away large sums for charitable services. There is a poor woman who is astonishingly kind and helpful to her equally humble neighbors. What do their works show? Their faith in Christ? Not with any certainty. True it may be that their kindly spirit is the result of their having been converted, but on the other hand it may only spring from a desire for notoriety or for the approbation of their fellows. But suppose they both begin to display great interest in the Word of God, together with a hearty obedience to its directions, and a real affection for all the people of God. Now we can safely draw the deduction that they really do believe in Christ, for that is the only root from which springs such fruit as this.
Two cases are cited in verses 21 to 25—Abraham and Rahab. Contrasts they are in almost every respect. The one, the father of the Jews, an honored servant of God. The other, a Gentile, a poor woman of dishonorable calling. Yet they both illustrate this matter. Both had faith, and both had works—the works exactly appropriate to the particular faith they possessed, and which consequently showed it to others.
Abraham’s case is particularly instructive since Paul also cites him in Rom. 4 to establish his side of this great question; referring to that which happened under cover of the quiet and starry night, when God made His great promise and Abraham accepted it in simple faith. James refers to the same chapter (Gen. 15) in our 23rd verse; but he cites it as being fulfilled years after when he “offered Isaac his son upon the altar,” (ch. 2:21) as recorded in Gen. 22 The offering of Isaac was the work by which Abraham showed forth the faith that had long been in his heart.
Many a critic is inclined to object to the offering of Isaac and to denounce it as unworthy of being called a “good work.” That is because they are entirely blind to the point we have just been endeavoring to make. When Abraham believed God on that starry night, he believed that He was going to raise in a living child from dead parents. How could he have so believed except he had believed that God was able to raise the dead to life? And what did his offering of Isaac show? It showed that he really did believe in God, just in that way. He offered him “accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead” (Heb. 11:1919Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure. (Hebrews 11:19)). His work showed forth his faith in the most precise and exact way.
With Rahab it was just the same. She received the spies from Joshua and sent them out another way. Again our critic is far from pleased. He denounces her action. It was unpatriotic! It was treason! She told lies! Well, poor thing! she was but a depraved member of an accursed race, groping her way towards the light. Her actions can easily be criticized, yet they had this supreme merit—they clearly demonstrated that she had lost faith in the filthy gods of her native land and had begun to believe in the might and mercy of the God of Israel. Now this was exactly the point, for the faith she professed to the spies was, “I know that the Lord hath given you the land... for the LORD your God, He is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath” (Josh. 2:9-119And she said unto the men, I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. 10For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red sea for you, when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did unto the two kings of the Amorites, that were on the other side Jordan, Sihon and Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. 11And as soon as we had heard these things, our hearts did melt, neither did there remain any more courage in any man, because of you: for the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath. (Joshua 2:9‑11)). Did she believe this? She did, for her works showed it. She risked her own neck to identify herself with the people who had JEHOVAH as their God.
Is not all this very wholesome and important truth? It is indeed. It is reported that Luther was betrayed into speaking of James with contempt, and referring to his Epistle as “the Epistle of straw.” If so, the great Reformer was mistaken, and did not grasp the real force of these passages. If we have grasped their force we shall certainly confess it to be more like “an Epistle of iron.” There is a sledge-hammer directness about James hardly equaled by any other New Testament writer.
The sum of the matter we have been considering is this—that, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (ch. 2:26). We may talk of our faith in Christ, or of our faith in this, that and the other detail of Christian truth; but unless our faith expresses itself in appropriate works it is DEAD! That is a sledge-hammer hit! Let us allow it to exert its full effect in our consciences.