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Bible Commentaries

Ironside's Notes on Selected Books

James 2

Verses 1-26

Chapter Two - A Manifested Faith

This chapter readily divides into two sections: first, (James 2:1-13), and second, (James 2:14-26). In both parts James stresses the importance of reality in one’s attitude toward God and His Word. Recognizing the fact that many of those, whom he addresses as belonging by nature to the twelve tribes of Israel, had trusted, in days gone by, in obedience to the law given at Sinai as a ground of acceptance with God, James probes the consciences of such, in what we might think of as a roundabout way, in order to show them the folly of ever professing to obtain a righteousness of their own through legal observances. In the second part of this chapter he exposes the error of supposing that a mere recognition of the truthfulness of the great outstanding facts of Christianity is a faith that saves. He who has received Christ in reality will manifest his faith by his works.

Let us note then how adroitly this inspired writer reveals the hidden evil of the natural heart.

“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; and ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment-seat? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well: but if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For He that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment” (James 2:1-13).

Nothing more clearly indicates the selfishness of the human heart than the way in which we are inclined today (to use a colloquial term) to the wealthy and cultured, while neglecting or ignoring the poor and ignorant. Against this tendency James speaks out vigorously. It is hateful when found in the world and by those who make no Christian or other religious profession at all. It is far more despicable when seen in the sphere where men and women come together presumably to worship God. In such gatherings there should be no place either for such vulgar favoritism of the rich or contempt for the indigent.

To profess faith in the One who, although the Lord of Glory, became on earth so poor that He had no place to lay His head, and yet to have respect of persons in this way, is most inconsistent. All are alike precious to Him, but the poor are in a very special sense the objects of His love and care.

The word rendered “assembly” in ver. 2 (James 2:2) is really “synagogue.” Those to whom James wrote were not, as we have noticed already, separated from the synagogues of the Jews, but still met with their brethren in these centers where Moses was read and where instruction was given in the Scriptures, as we are told in Acts 15:21, where this same James was the speaker.

As we read what is here written we can see with the mind’s eye the worshipers and adherents gathered in the synagogue. Suddenly there is a commotion as the opening door reveals the portly form of a distinguished and wealthy merchant, arrayed in costly garb and wearing a gold ring on his finger. Immediately there is a move in his direction by an attendant, or possibly one of the officials, who ostentatiously conducts the newcomer to a choice pew into which he is ushered with every evidence of respect and appreciation, as though he were actually doing the assembly a favor by attending the service. Again the door is opened and there appears a timid-looking man of the poorest laboring class, who looks diffidently about for a place where he will be hidden from observation and yet be able to hear the prayers and the reading of the Scriptures. At first no one makes a move to accommodate him; then finally someone offers him a foot- stool or a rear seat, which is accepted with becoming humility on the part of the poverty-stricken brother. Surely God would be displeased at such behavior! It would be a perfect revelation of the state of the hearts of those in attendance. Such partiality would show that the thoughts of those so behaving were evil in that they despised the poor and honored the well-to-do.

Yet all were alike precious to God, and He has chosen the poor of this world, made wealthy by faith, as heirs of His kingdom in which all who love Him shall have part. To despise these was to dishonor Him who recognized them as His own children.

How often had the rich and opulent led in opposition to the gospel and in oppressing those in less fortunate circumstances, even dragging them before the courts in order to defraud them of what was lawfully theirs. These who trusted in their wealth and gloried in their power and influence were often blasphemers of “that worthy name” by which believers in Christ are called.

Jesus declared the second great commandment is “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” James designates this the royal law. It sums up man’s responsibility to his neighbor. He who fulfils it will love all men and look with contempt on none. Therefore, to have respect to persons, preferring one above another, is to violate the letter and spirit of this sacred precept, and so to commit sin and be convicted of the law as a transgressor.

For such an one to pretend to be righteous before God was sheer folly. The law was violated already and so he had no title to expect blessing on the ground of legal obedience. It is not necessary to break every commandment of the law in order to stand condemned as a criminal in the sight of God. To offend in one point is to be guilty of all. The slightest infringement of the law indicates the self-will and insubjection of the heart. Suspend a man over a precipice by a chain of ten links; how many of these need to snap to plunge him into the abyss below? The breaking of the weakest link shatters the chain, and the man falls to his doom.

The same law which forbade adultery, prohibited murder. One need not be guilty of both to be under judgment. To violate either command marked one out as a transgressor of the law. How hopeless then the efforts of anyone to be justified on the ground of his own obedience!

But that law, so terrible to the sinner, is a law of liberty to the regenerated one, because it commands the very behavior in which the one born of God finds his joy and delight. Let the Christian then be careful that he does not act inconsistently with his profession, for “he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy.” Under the divine government men reap as they sow; and with what judgment they judge others, they are judged themselves, but “mercy rejoiceth against judgment.” It is not the desire of God to deal harshly with anyone. He is ever ready to forgive and bless where sin is recognized and confessed. As objects of such mercy ourselves we are called upon to show mercy and compassion to others, no matter how lowly their condition may be.

This leads naturally to insistence on the importance of a faith that is manifested by good works, and with this the rest of the chapter deals.

“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, 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? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without die spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:14-26).

It seems to be a tendency inherent in most of us to go to extremes in matters of doctrine. This is true in regard to the question of our salvation as well as in other things. Some insist that we are saved by character; that only as we do good works and consistently obey the law of God can we be justified. At the other extreme are those who rest solely upon an historical faith for their acceptance with the Lord, ignoring the need of that inner change which the Saviour described as a new birth, and which is evidenced by a life of practical righteousness.

The Holy Spirit used the Apostle Paul in a special way to show the fallacy of the first of these views. He insists that justification before God is never by the deeds of the law but by faith in Christ. James deals with the second error, and makes it plain that the faith that saves is a faith that works, and (that no one is justified before God who is not justified practically before men. What profit, he asks, if a man says he has faith and his behavior belies his profession? Is this the kind of faith that saves?

He supposes a case where one of Christ’s own is bereft of clothing and proper nourishment. Looking upon him in his distress one speaks comforting but useless words, saying, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled,” but gives him nothing either in the way of food or clothing to alleviate his needy condition. What profit is there in mere words unaccompanied by deeds of mercy?

In the same way he undertakes to show that faith that is divorced from works is dead, being alone. There is no work of grace in the heart where there are no acts of grace in the life. It was Robertson of Brighton who said, “No man is justified by faith, unless faith has made him just.” For faith supposes a living link between the soul and God.

James pictures two men; one says to the other, “Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works”-something which cannot be done-“and I will show thee my faith by my works”-the only way one can prove to another that his faith is genuine.

To believe the great facts of revelation is not enough: there must be personal commitment of the soul to Christ. Mere monotheism (belief in one God) is not saving faith. The demons believe that God is one, and shudder as they contemplate the day when they must face Him in the final judgment of the wicked dead and of fallen angels. Such belief has no saving value. Again he repeats the statement, “Faith without works is dead.” He then cites two Old Testament illustrations to confirm his thesis. First, take the case of Abraham, the father of the faithful. What does Scripture teach concerning him? It shows us that he was justified by works when, in obedience to the command of God, he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar.

But Paul tells us plainly in Romans 4:2, “If Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.” Is there not contra- diction here? Was not Luther right in declaring that this letter of James’ was not true, inspired Scripture but just “an epistle of straw”? Luther and many others failed to note those words, not before God. How was Abraham justified before God? James and Paul agree that it was when “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” But when he went to Mount Moriah and there by faith offered his son upon the altar (Hebrews 11:17-19), he was justified by works before men, as he made manifest the reality of his profession of confidence in God and His Word.

Thus, says James, the scripture (found in Genesis 15:6) came to fulfilment in the demonstration of that faith Abraham had so long ago. Remember some forty years elapsed between the patriarch’s justification by faith before God and his justification by works before men. We may see in this how true it is that a man is justified by works and not by faith only. In other words, as Paul also tells us, faith worketh by love; otherwise it is not real faith at all.

In Hebrews 11:31 we are told, “By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she received the spies with peace.” James says, “Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and sent them out another way?” Her faith in the God of Israel caused her to do all she could for the protection of His servants, and secured for her the place of a wife and mother in Israel, bringing her right into the ancestral line of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:5). It was faith alone that gave value to the works of either Abraham or Rahab. In one case we see a father about to sacrifice his son, in the other a woman betraying her country! Had there not been confidence in the living God both acts would have exposed their perpetrators to severe condemnation.

The conclusion is clear in James 2:26, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Death is the separation of the spirit, the real man, from the body, the temporary tabernacle, even as the preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 12:7, “Then shalt the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.” That lifeless clay is no more dead than a faith that is not manifested by works of righteousness and deeds of piety.

Were we to lose this second chapter of James we would lose much indeed. We need just such clear, practical instruction to save us from antinomianism and false confidence.

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Bibliographical Information
Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on James 2". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. 1914.