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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

James 2

Verses 1-26

James 2:1

The sermon was chiefly occupied with proving that God is no respecter of persons; a mark of indubitable condescension in the clergyman, the rank in society which he could claim for himself duly considered. But, unfortunately, the church was so constructed, that its area contained three platforms of position, actually of differing level; the loftiest, in the chancel, on the right hand of the pulpit, occupied by the gentry; the middle, opposite the pulpit, occupied by the tulip-beds of their servants; and the third, on the left of the pulpit, occupied by the common parishioners. Unfortunately too, by the perpetuation of some old custom, whose significance was not worn out, all on the left of the pulpit were expected, as often as they stood up to sing which was three times to turn their backs to the pulpit, and so face away from the chancel where the gentry stood.

George Macdonald, David Elginbrod (chap. XII.).

References. II. 1. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 2. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture James, p. 406. II. 1-13. R. W. Dale, The Epistle of James, p. 54.

James 2:2

'I found my way to the church,' [in Pont Sainte Maxence], says Stevenson in his Inland Voyage, 'for there is always something to see about a church, whether living worshippers or dead men's tombs; you find there the deadliest earnest, and the hollowest deceit.'

James 2:3

Whoever passes up Broadway finds his attention arrested by three fine structures Trinity Church, that of the Messiah, and Grace Church.... In the old world, the history of such edifices, though not without its shadow, had many bright lines. Mysterious orders, of which we know only that they were consecrated to brotherly love and the development of mind, produced the genius which animated the architecture; but the casting of the bells and suspending them in the tower was an act in which all orders of the community took part; for when those cathedrals were consecrated, it was for the use of all. Rich and poor knelt together upon their marble pavements, and the imperial altar welcomed the obscurest artisan. This grace our churches want the grace which belongs to all religions, but is peculiarly and solemnly enforced upon the followers of Jesus. The poor to whom He came to preach can have no share in the grace of Grace Church. In St. Peter's, if only as an empty form, the soiled feet of travel-worn disciples are washed; but such feet can never intrude on the fane of the holy Trinity here in republican America, and the Messiah may be supposed still to give as excuse for delay, 'The poor ye have always with you'. We must confess this circumstance is to us quite destructive of reverence and value for these buildings. We are told that, at the late consecration, the claims of the poor were eloquently urged; and that an effort is to be made, by giving a side chapel, to atone for the luxury which shuts them out from the reflection of sunshine through those brilliant windows. It is certainly better that they should be offered the crumbs from the rich man's table than nothing at all, but it is surely not the way that Jesus would have taught to provide for the poor.

Margaret Fuller.

If anywhere democracy seems natural, it should be in the eyes of God; and yet, if Americans show anywhere social demarcations, it is in the province of religion. This is true, not only of different churches where the expense of membership is so unequal that in large cities rich and poor are farther apart on Sundays than on week-days, but it is true of the sects themselves.

Hugo Münsterberg, The Americans, p. 500.

James 2:5

Is the last and most admirable invention of the human race only an improved muck-rake? Is this the ground on which Orientals and Occidentals meet? Did God direct us so to get our living, digging where we never planted and He would, perchance, reward us with lumps of gold?

Thoreau, Life Without Principle.

Compare also, for a comment on this verse, the twenty-ninth chapter of The Vicar of Wakefield. The very discipline of poverty makes the heart and spirit and body strong for love. It is the poor who know the intensity of human affection the poor and patient who have to labour and toil for that prize to the uttermost farthing which ransoms the simplest delight.

John Oliver Hobbes, in The Vineyard (ch. VI.).

'We shall never do anything without the poor,' wrote Vinet to a friend, when the Free Church of the Vaud Canton was being formed. 'Nothing is great, nothing is strong, save what begins with the poor.'

James 2:6

All the darker and sterner aspect of the age which we have been viewing, its social revolt, its moral and religious awakening, the misery of the peasant, the protest of the Lollard, are painted with a terrible fidelity in the poem of William Langland.... His world is the world of the poor: he dwells on the poor man's life, on his hunger and toil, his rough revelry and his despair, with the intensity of a man who has no outlook beyond it. The narrowness, the misery, the monotony of the life he paints reflect themselves in his verse.

Green, Short History of the English People, pp. 248, 249.

James 2:7

I dare not call myself a Christian. I have hardly met the man in all my life who deserved that name.

Max Müller.

It has been suggested that every man should be called a Christian who fulfils two conditions. The first is, that he believes the universe as a whole to be something rational and righteous something which has ever our approval and admiration. The second is, that he finds himself in so much sympathy with the life and character of Jesus, that he desires to consecrate his religious feelings and convictions by associating them with the name of Jesus. Of all the attempts to define the outer limits within which the word Christian may be applied, this is perhaps the most successful.

J. M. E. McTaggart, Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, p. 246.

Reference. II. 7. J. Halsey, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 260.

James 2:8

To the plain man the most important feature of justice is that it consists in his practical recognition of the truth that another man's equal good is equally important with his own.

Dr. Sophie Bryant, Studies in Character, p. 32.

The correlative to loving our neighbours as ourselves is hating ourselves as we hate our neighbours.

O. W. Holmes, The Professor at the Breakfast Table (XI.).

James 2:8

To hope or to fear for another is the sole thing which can give to humanity the fulfilled consciousness of its own being.

Eugénie de Guerin.

References. II. 8. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 101. II. 8, 9. R. J. Campbell, City Temple Sermons, p. 92. II. 10. H. R. Heywood, Sermons and Addresses, p. 50. R. J. Campbell, City Temple Sermons, p. 245. Brooke Herford, Courage and Cheer, p. 16. II. 12. H. Bonner, Sermons and, Lectures, p. 52. J. Keble, Sermons for the Sundays After Trinity, p. 331.

Mercy and Judgment

James 2:13

They are both true; they are both great facts in human history and experience. Long ago a man said: 'My song shall be of mercy and judgment'. Surely he was a great anthem maker who could bring them both into tune. He did it, and he was right.

I. Do not suppose that we can escape this matter of judgment by some metaphysical argument: man! the matter is in thee, in thy soul, in thy blood; why shirk it, why flinch from the fact? How many there are who want to escape the Church and all that the Church means by getting up some little bubbling frothy argument about abstractions and a species of pseudo-metaphysics. If they would but look right into the very centre of their own hearts they may see murder. That is one aspect of judgment self-torment. We have many fine speeches about the possibility of God pardoning the sinner. Do not talk about that; first talk about the sinner pardoning himself. That is the difficulty even after Divine pardon. God has pardoned us through the cross of His dear Son, He has looked at us through the crimson medium of Calvary, and He has said mayhap, My son, thy sins which are many are all forgiven thee. Yes, but, Thou Almighty One, I cannot forgive myself; I am glad with a kind of grim gladness that I have been forgiven away in the eternities, but I cannot forgive myself; I did the wrong deed, and Thou must qualify me, so to say, to forgive myself; I would accept heaven's kind pardon, but I cannot forgive my own soul. How is that to be met? I want to feed some little child because I neglected my own, but I seem to make no progress in feeding the child, the very food seems to be lost upon it: can I not have just one full round hour with my own child that I might try to make up to it what I neglected to give? That would be a kind of pardon; I thank Thee for Thy great pardon, now come to me and give me that kind of grace which will enable me to do on my side what Thou hast done on Thine.

People want to know if there is a hell. Certainly. Where is it? In you; that is where it is; in me, preacher of the Word; like all other preachers, his very soul is steeped in holy Scripture, and yet hot hell is in the man. Woe betide the soul that puzzles itself with such frivolities as, Is heaven a state or is heaven a place? No earnest mind can ask such questions; they are outside the fiery bounds of mere frivolity and curiosity.

Sometimes certain sufferings can only be expressed in terms of duration. They are poor terms, in themselves they are empty little words, but if we pile them sufficiently together they enable the soul to express its most agonistic and self-tormenting emotion. Therefore we say, 'The worm that dieth not'. I know it! 'The fire that is not quenched.' I feel it! Do not take me out to some valley near Jerusalem, and say it was a figure; take me into my own soul, where there are deeper valleys than there ever were in Jerusalem; I feel the gnawing of the worm undying, and I feel the torment that cannot be stilled but by the total Trinity Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

II. 'Mercy rejoiceth against judgment.' There are some persons who do not like to hear about judgment. They will never make any progress, and they are people not to be trusted; they are as Ephraim, a cake unturned; there is no reality of wisdom in such people; 'Mercy rejoiceth against judgment'. Mercy says, I must follow all the sin and all the misery, and I must teach all these people to say, Where sin abounded grace did much more abound. I have a great message, quoth mercy, and I must be out and tell it to the sons of distress and the daughters of weeping misery. What is the message of mercy? Does it abolish the law? No, mercy says, I came not to destroy the law, but to fulfil it. Mercy faces judgment, mercy recognises judgment; mercy never says, Never mind the law, do not think about the law. That is not the voice of Gospel mercy. We are taken by mercy itself to Sinai, with all its rocks and rocky lines, and then taken away until we come into green slopes, even the slopes of Mount Zion. We must pass through both experiences, some in this degree, some in that. Sin is not the same thing to every soul.

III. Judgment is a matter within human limits which can be measured and satisfied. If it is a legal judgment, a man can bend his back and accept his punishment, and then stand up and challenge society to remind him of his expiated guilt. But there is another judgment that is not of the nature of social crime, but that spiritual judgment of the heart itself which is conducted in the sight of the living righteous God. Mercy is not mere sentiment; it is not a gush, it is a salvation. What does it save us from? That is a minor question, though a great one. What does it save us into? That is another interrogation, wide as heaven, lasting as duration. Have we sufficiently thought of the negative aspect of the gift of Christ? What is that negative aspect? It touches me to the quick; it is purely negative, but most suggestive and helpful as an initial idea. What is it? 'That we might not perish.' We can begin with that idea, it is initial, it will do to start with; it is only negative, but of great value. 'He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish.' That is a minus quantity, though it is important, Is there not a positive quantity? There is, and it follows immediately upon the very words that have been quoted 'but have everlasting life'.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. IV. p. 243.

James 2:13

Rejoice against it in the face of it, that must mean. It is a fine figure, mercy looking full in the face of judgment, and not bating a particle of its joy.

Dr. John Ker's Letters, p. 84.

References. II. 14-23. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture James, p. 416. II. 14-26. R. W. Dale, The Epistle of James, p. 67.

James 2:15-16

I seem to remember a poor old grateful kind of a creature, blinking, and looking up with his no eyes in the sun Is it possible that I could have steeled my purse against him?

Perhaps I had no small change.

Reader, do not be frightened at the hard words, imposition, imposture give and ask no questions.

Charles Lamb, on The Decay of Beggars.

References. II. 15-17. Expositor (5th Series), vol. ix. p. 224; ibid. (6th Series), vol. v. p. 297.

James 2:16

The fundamental error of France lies in her psychology. Fiance has always believed that to say a thing is the same as to do it, as though speech were action.


James 2:17

Nothing in mediaeval history is to me more strange and appalling than their general acceptance of these truths as mathematical certainties, as things laid alongside of their actual life, without ever touching or quickening their spiritual consciousness. I have seen something of this in a less repulsive form among the poor of our own day, belief and conscience running as in two parallel lines which never meet; also, amongst people of the last generation, a belief in revelation, and a respect for it, which is not vivifying, and yet is belief, if not faith.

Dora Greenwell, Two Friends, p. 84.

References. II. 17. J. Johns, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 324. II. 18. T. Arnold, The Interpretation of Scripture, p. 269. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 547. II. 18-26. T. Mann, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 219.

Types of Unavailing Faith

James 2:19

I. The faith of devils is grounded in compulsion rather than in free moral choice. They believe in spite of themselves. Belief is thrust upon them, and for that very reason cannot influence character, or work towards moral ends. No faith can guide the life and mould the destiny unless it first enlist the will on its side. The scene in which the Pharisees and Sadducees came tempting our Lord, and desiring Him to show them a sign from heaven, still repeats itself, with slight changes. When we join ourselves to the company of the Sadducees, and seek irrefutable signs from heaven, murmuring that the methods by which Jesus presents God and immortality to us fall short of absolute proof, is it not clear that we are demanding a necessary and inevitable faith a faith from which all those moral qualities which go with the personal choice is excluded? In other words, that we desire a faith which is one and the same in its basis with the faith of devils, and have therefore no true idea of its proper function in the spiritual life? Such a faith, if enforced upon men in the present stage of their spiritual development, would not answer the purpose for which God has made this principle the key to our training and salvation. Room for the moral element must always be found in the faith, which saves into a pure and blessed life. The chief virtue of faith in God's sight is that it enlists the will into its activities. The wish to believe is the high feature in our faith which distinguishes it from the bastard faith of devils.

II. Another note of futility in this faith of the devils is that it does not include the affections. This, of course, is implied in the statement that true faith must be free, for the highest love is spontaneous and unconstrained. If the faith is to effectually shape the life and character, it must command our human sympathies as well as secure the assent of the reason, and the processes are intertwined. When we go on to say this futile faith, so dramatically described by St. James, lacks every element of trust, it is but another form of declaring that love has no place in its exercise. Independence towering into arrogant impiety is the dominant trait of the diabolic character, as it is briefly hinted in the Scriptures.

III. The outward test of the insufficiency of a devil's faith is that it lacks those holy and gracious works by which the saving efficacy of all belief is verified. The practical life is a self-recording mechanism by which we may read the quality of the forces which are working within us. The faith that does not melt the character and cast it into worthier moulds, has no place in the redemptive economies of our Lord and Saviour.

IV. St. James reminds us that this intellectual veneer of faith cannot disguise the malady of a condemned spirit. 'The devils believe and tremble.' Unless our belief has those elements in it which bring the whole life into conformity with the Divine, we must continue strangers to the deep, satisfying peace which is the heritage of saints.

James 2:19

There is an opinion which may be said simply to identify religion with orthodoxy, with the holding for true what is true. No doubt right doctrine is a very important matter, but does that make it religion? Put it to the religious consciousness, and the answer is, No. It is the belief 'with the heart' that is wanted; and where that is not, religion is not. Else even the very devils would be religious; for they, as we are told, go further even than is required of them, and add to orthodoxy the fear of God.

F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, p. 300.

The devils, we are told, believe and tremble. But it is hard to convince people that nothing short of this can be true Christian faith. So because they are sometimes terrified by the thought of God, they fancy they believe, though their hearts are far away from Him.

Guesses at Truth (2nd Series).

Superstition is the only religion of which base souls are capable.


Rousseau, with his offensive vanity and literary pride, had a curious respect for Christ With a good bit of the devil in him, he believed and trembled. But I believe that he believed that sentence in his vague and cloudy panegyric on Christ to be true: 'If the son of Sophroniscus was a hero, the son of Mary was a God'. The 'faith of devils' lies latent in many a mind for an emergency. As one prayed when his ship was sinking, 'O God, if there be a God, have mercy on my soul, if I have a soul'.

Dr. John Duncan, Colloquia Peripatetica, p. 140.

References. II. 19. Archbishop Magee, Sermons at St. Saviour's, Bath, p. 218. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. p. 26; ibid (6th Series), vol. i. p. 143.

James 2:20

An opinion, I should say, gains vividness rather from constant application to conduct than from habitual opposition.

Sir Leslie Stephen, on Toleration.

References. II. 20. J. H. Jellet, The Elder San, p. 227. II. 21-23. Bishop Bethell, Sermons, vol. i. p. 100.

James 2:22

Gordon was no 'saint' in the usual meaning which the world attaches to the name. He was utterly removed from the class of religious Church Militant who, as passing residents in some French or Italian city, are prone to hurl their hymns on the Sabbath morning at the heads of the native heretics; neither had he the smallest fellowship with another large class of persons who would divide religion into two parts the muscular and the Methodist, one half John Bull and the other John Knox. Absolutely without parallel in our modern life, Gordon stands out the foremost man of action of our time and nation, whose ruling principle was faith and good works. No gloomy faith, no exalted sense of self-confidence, no mocking of the belief of others, no separation of his sense of God from the everyday work to which his hand has to be put; but a faith which was a living, moving, genial reality with him, present always and everywhere, shining out in every act of his life.

Sir Wm. Butler, Life of General Gordon, p. 80.

God's Friends

James 2:23

When and by whom was he so called? There are two passages in the Old Testament in which an analogous designation is applied to the patriarch, but probably the name was one in current use amongst the people, and expressed in a summary fashion the impression that had been made by the history of Abraham's life. As many of us are aware, this name, 'the Friend,' has displaced the proper name, Abraham, on the lips of all Mohammedan people to this day; and the city of Hebron, where his corpse lies, is commonly known simply as 'the Friend'. I wish to bring out two or three of the salient elements and characteristics of friendship as exercised on the human level, and to use these as a standard and test of our religion and relation to God.

I. Friends trust and love one another. Mutual confidence is the mortar which binds the stones in society together, into a building. (1) Unless I trust God I cannot be a friend of God's. (2) Let us remember where the sweet reciprocation and interchange of love begins. 'We love Him because He first loved us.' It was an old fancy that, wherever a tree was struck by lightning, all its tremulous foliage turned in the direction from which the bolt had come. When the merciful flash of God's great love strikes a heart, then all its tendrils turn to the source of the life-giving light, and we love back again, in sweet reverberation to the primal and original love.

II. Friends have frank, familial* intercourse with one another. (1) If we are friends and lovers of God, we shall delight in intercourse with Him. (2) If we are friends of God we shall have no secrets from Him.

(3) Tell God all, if you mean to be a friend of His.

(4) If we are God's lovers, He will have no secrets from us.

III. Friends delight to meet each other's wishes. (1) If we are God's lovers and friends, we shall find nothing sweeter than bowing to His will and executing His commandments. (2) And God, the heavenly Friend, will do what we wish.

IV. Friends give gifts to each other. (1) If we are God's lovers, God will give us Himself, in so far as we can receive Him; and all other gifts in so far as they are good and needful. (2) If we are God's friends and lovers we shall give Him, in glad surrender, our whole selves.

V. Friends stand up for each other. (1) If we are God's friends and lovers He will take up our cause. (2) If we are God's friends and lovers we have to take up His cause.

A. Maclaren, Triumphant Certainties, p. 172.

References. II. 23. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxiii. No. 1962. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture James, p. 421. II. 24. Bishop Bethell, Sermons, vol. i. p. 79. II. 25. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xviii. No. 1061. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 98.

James 2:26

I would treat of faith as it is actually found in the soul; and I say it is as little an isolated grace, as a man is a picture. It has a depth, a breadth, and a thickness; it has an inward life which is something over and above itself; it has a heart and blood and pulses and nerves, though not upon the surface. All these indeed are not spoken of, when we make mention of faith; nor are they painted on the canvas; but they are implied in the word, because they exist in the thing.... St. James, after warning his brethren against 'holding the faith' of Christ 'in respect of persons,' that is, in an unloving spirit, as the context shows, proceeds to say that it is 'perfected by works,' and that 'without works' it is 'dead,' as a body without the soul. That is, as the presence of the soul changes the nature of the dust of the earth, and makes it flesh and blood, giving it a life which otherwise it could not have, so love is the modelling and harmonising principle on which justifying faith depends, and in which it exists and acts.

Newman, Lectures on Justification, pp. 265, 266.

References. II. 26. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 335. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (2nd Series), p. 161. III. 1-6. R. W. Dale, The Epistle of James, p. 84. III. 1-13. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture James, p. 431.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on James 2". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. 1910.