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Dead Faith Compared with Living Faith.
Caution against partiality:
v. 1. My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with respect of persons.
v. 2. 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,
v. 3. 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;
v. 4. are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
v. 5. 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?
v. 6. But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment-seats?
v. 7. Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
v. 8. If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well;
v. 9. but if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the Law as transgressors.
It is a peculiar fact that history repeats itself, that the same conditions seem to be found in the Christian congregations after just about so long a time of Gospel preaching. The apostle does not hesitate to attack the evil with all the power at his command: My brethren, not in respect of persons hold the faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord of Glory. The Christian faith must not be abused, nor dare shame and disgrace be brought upon the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and the King of Glory. The reference is probably to the fact that the second person of the Godhead was present in the cloud of glory which accompanied the children of Israel on their journey through the wilderness and afterward appeared at the dedication of the Temple of Solomon. Such a condition of affairs, however, such servile regard of people, altogether out of agreement with the spirit shown by Jesus Christ in His treatment of men, had crept into the churches. Men were not regarded on the basis of their Christianity, their moral excellence, their personal piety, their usefulness to the congregation, but on the basis of the wealth which they had accumulated.
This is brought out with great emphasis and effectiveness by the apostle: For if there enters into your common assembly a man bedecked with gold rings, in a splendid garment, but there entered also a poor man in a sordid garment, and you (would) attend to the wearer of the splendid garment and say to him, Sit thou here in the best place, and to the poor man you would say, Keep standing here, or sit down at my footstool, do you not therefore discriminate among yourselves and become judges according to evil considerations? The text pictures a meeting, an assembly of worship, as it was held in those days. In steps a man whose wealth and influence is apparent at first glance. He is bedecked with gold rings, he wears the fine white garment which was assumed by rich Jews. Hardly has he entered the door, when the members crowd forward to meet him. With obsequious deference they place the best seat in the room at his disposal, their faces, at the same time, displaying the admiration for wealth and power which fills their hearts. But immediately after there steps in a poor man, clad in a simple garment, perhaps even soiled with the labor of his hands. There is no deferential ushering as he apologetically tries to find a place where he may stay. Instead, he is curtly told that he may stand in the room reserved in the rear; or, if that does not suit him, he may sit down on the floor. Note: History repeats itself also in this, that these very conditions obtain in many so-called Christian houses of warship to this day. But the apostle gives his opinion of such behavior in sharp words, telling his readers that they are thereby making a false distinction, a wrong and foolish discrimination, that they are dividing the congregation of the Lord into parties without the consent of the Lord, in a manner which in no way accords with His own acceptance of publicans and sinners. Incidentally, men calling themselves Christians and yet acting in such a manner become judges according to evil surmisings, according to false considerations. To judge a man by his outward appearance only and to condemn him on account of his poverty is to defame him both in thought and deed, an act very decidedly at variance with the Eighth Commandment.
In solemn warning the apostle calls out: Listen, my beloved brethren: Did not God choose the poor according to this world, rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom which He has promised to them that love Him? This fact the readers should consider, of that they should never lose sight. It is the poor people in this world's goods, the weak, the foolish, that God has chosen, 1 Corinthians 1:27-28. The wise and mighty of this world are inclined to sneer at the Gospel of the poor Galilean fishermen and of the Nazarene that died on the cross. Therefore the Lord has chosen the poor, not because their hearts by nature are any better than those of the wealthy and mighty, but because they at least have not the handicap which riches are apt to prove to contend with. And it is the Lord's choosing which has made the poor rich in faith, which has assured them of the inheritance of the saints in light, the glorious reward of mercy in heaven above, which God has promised to those that love Him. Reproachfully the apostle therefore writes: You, however, insult the poor, both dishonoring and despising them.
In this connection the apostle reminds the Jewish Christians of another fact: Do not the rich oppress you, and themselves drag you before their tribunals? Do they not blaspheme the excellent name which was laid upon you by your call? He speaks of the rich people as a class, characterizing them by the behavior which is commonly found where they have the power. They make use of violence, they oppress those that are not in their own class, they try to lord it over them at all times; they foster lawsuits, believing that their money will buy them the decision which justice would never render. And altogether too many of them will not believe that they are in need of the Savior and His redemption, they blaspheme the name of Him that called the Christians by faith, and added them to the communion of saints. The conduct of the believers, therefore, in acting with a false deference to all the wealthy people, is all the more reprehensible.
The apostle, then, offers this conclusion: If, indeed, you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, you do well; but if you have respect of persons, you commit a sin, and are convicted by the Law as transgressors. There is a royal law, a rule of the Kingdom, which should be heeded also by Christians as expressing the will of God, namely, the precept that they should love their neighbors as themselves, making no distinction between rich and poor, between fashionable and unimportant. Such conduct is well-pleasing to God. But if the Christians make such false distinctions as outlined by the apostle above, preferring the rich and influential merely on account of their money and not on account of their Christian life and moral worth, then they are transgressing the will of God and stand convicted by Him and by His Law, which will then apply once more. It is a willful, conscious sin of which they will be guilty, and there will be no excuse for them. It is a warning which will bear repetition in our days.
The will of God to be kept in all parts:
v. 10. For whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend-in one point, he is guilty of all.
v. 11. 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.
v. 12. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
v. 13. For he shall have judgment without mercy that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
The solidarity, the unity of the will of God is here brought out. For in connection with the fact that a carnal preference of persons is a transgression of the holy will of God, the apostle argues: For whoever keeps the whole Law, offends, however, in a single thing, has become guilty of all. A person might argue that an offense of the kind as explained by the apostle really did not amount to much, that the fault, if it might be designated so, would surely be overlooked by God. But as a matter of fact, he that transgresses, stumbles, becomes guilty in any single point pertaining to the Law of God, no matter how insignificant it might seem by comparison, is considered a transgressor of all. To profane one commandment means to have broken all.
This is now illustrated: For He that said, Thou shalt not commit adultery, also said, Thou shalt not kill; if, then, thou dost not commit adultery, but committest murder, thou becomes a transgressor of the Law. The will of the Lord is one and cannot be divided any more than His essence and qualities can be divided. Both adultery and murder are prohibited by God, and the adulterer cannot offer as an excuse that he has murdered no one, nor can the murderer escape by pleading that he has not become guilty of adultery. In either case the Law has been transgressed; in either case the guilty one is punished according to the same rule, which says that the soul which sinneth shall die.
The advice of the apostle therefore is: So speak and so act as those that want to be judged through the law of freedom. The Christians, as Christians, are not under the Law, but under grace. Their life of sanctification is governed by the law of freedom, that is, they govern their words and actions by their love toward God, by their relation to their heavenly Father as His dear children. Because they are free and have become the servants of righteousness, they find their delight in speaking and acting as it pleases their heavenly Father and Christ. It is in this way, according to this standard, that the Christians want to be judged.
Those that do not want to heed this fact will be compelled to heed the warning: For the judgment is merciless to him that did not practice mercy; but mercy will boast in the face of judgment. If a person does not practice mercy and charity in this life, also in his behavior toward his neighbor of low degree, then the judgment will likewise deny him mercy; he will be treated according to the full measure of justice and be condemned. If, however, a Christian has shown himself merciful at all times, full of charity to all men under all circumstances, then he need not fear the Last Judgment, but may exult at the thought of it, since God, out of His boundless mercy, will then dispense mercy. See Matthew 5:7.
Proof of faith demanded in brotherly love:
v. 14. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? Can faith save him?
v. 15. If a brother or a sister be naked and destitute of daily food,
v. 16. 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?
v. 17. Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
v. 18. 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.
v. 19. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble.
v. 20. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
This passage is not opposed to Romans 3:21-28, but offers the opposite side of the question, the key to the entire discussion being given in v. 17. The apostle first of all asks a challenging question: What is the advantage, my brethren, if one says he has faith, but has no works? Can that faith save him? The apostle here characterizes a person that has mere knowledge of the head, of the mind, concerning the facts of salvation, but is without the faith of the heart which is bound to be active in love. Real faith, saving faith, without some evidence of its presence in the heart, is unthinkable. Such faith has nothing in common with saving faith; such faith is a delusion and vanity.
In order to bring out his point, the apostle illustrates: If a brother or sister is ill clad and destitute of daily food, one of you, however, should say to them, Go your way in peace, be warmed and fed, but you would not give them the necessaries of the body, what good would it be to them? Here is a concrete case, which is met with all too often, also in our days of vaunted charity. A brother or a sister may be found in actual want, actually destitute of the needs of the body, insufficiently clad, undernourished or not nourished at all, and yet some people are satisfied with a pious wish that God would take care of their needs. If such a wish is made by one that is able to help, and there is actual need, then there is only one conclusion possible, namely, that such a person knows nothing of the real faith of the heart as it is bound to be active in love, in good works for the help of one's neighbor. In a case of this kind the pious wish is an example of the rankest hypocrisy; for nothing but selfishness is able to neglect dire necessity as it is brought to the attention in circumstances of that kind.
The conclusion will therefore stand: Even so also faith, if it has not works, is dead, being by itself. Works are a necessary concomitant, an inevitable fruit of real faith. Spurious, hypocritical faith, then, being without works, is no faith; or if one wishes to assume that there was faith at one time, it is certain that such faith has died and is no longer able to bring forth real fruit in the shape of good works. A faith by itself, without good works, is simply unthinkable.
The apostle now anticipates an objection on the part of some of the readers: But someone will say, Thou hast faith; I also have works; show me thy faith without works, and I will show thee my faith out of my works. This is a very vivid presentation, in the form of a dialog. Someone might raise the objection: Do you claim to have faith? thus apparently making the matter doubtful. But the writer would be ready with his rejoinder: I certainly do, and what is more, I have works to show for it. He might very well challenge the objector to give evidence of his faith without works, and then he, the author, would soon furnish convincing proof of the existence of real faith in his heart, namely, the good works which are the fruit of faith.
In an almost sarcastic vein the argument continues, as brought against the person with a fruitless faith: Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well: the devils also believe and shudder. But dost thou want to know, O vain man, that faith without works is useless? That is about the extent and the content of the faith of which the objector can boast; he has the knowledge of mind and head which tells him that there is only one true God, that God is one in essence. That knowledge is good enough as far as it goes. But saving faith it most assuredly is not; for even the devils know this much about God, that the Lord is one Lord; in fact, they have a very complete and accurate knowledge of the essence and qualities of God, Luke 8:26 ff. They tremble and shudder in the presence of God, knowing full well that they are helpless before His almighty power. Any person, now, that flatters himself in a fatuous manner as to his possessing true faith, and has not gotten beyond the standpoint held by the devils, is depending upon a mere head knowledge without works such as are bound to flow out of saving faith, and therefore surely has a vain and empty hope to sustain him. Note: Wherever circumstances are shaping themselves as they lay in the congregations to whom this letter is addressed, it is only by means of plain speaking as here done by the apostle that the evil may be combated with any hope of success.
The example of Abraham and Rahab:
v. 21. Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he had offered Isaac, his son, upon the altar?
v. 22. Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
v. 23. 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.
v. 24. Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
v. 25. Likewise also, was not Rahab, the harlot, justified by works when she had received the messengers and had sent them out another way?
v. 26. Far as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
In bringing examples from the Old Testament to illustrate his argument, the apostle first refers to an incident in the life of Abraham: Was not Abraham, our father, justified by works when he sacrificed his son Isaac upon the altar? Genesis 22:9. Abraham had received the command from God to take his only son, Isaac, to make a three days' journey with him to a certain mountain, and there to offer him up as a sacrifice upon an altar to be built by him. The fact that Abraham carried out the commandment of God without remonstrance was a proof of his faith, Hebrews 11:17; in other words, his work in sacrificing his son was evidence that justifying, saving faith was living in his heart. It follows, then: Thou seest that his faith was manifested as being one with his works, and that out of works faith was completed. Abraham's faith was active in his works, in all the matters connected with this sacrifice, the two being thus joined in their efficacy, and his faith receiving its final, definite proof by his works. That is, any one seeing Abraham perform this work as he was commanded to do by the Lord could not doubt for as much as a minute that true faith lived in his heart.
That this is the argument of the writer is shown in the next verse: And there was fulfilled the scripture which says, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to Him for righteousness, and he was called a friend of God. The order to be observed in estimating faith is this: Abraham performed the very difficult task which was assigned to him; this work he could perform only by faith; by virtue of this saving faith the righteousness of the Messiah was imputed to him, or, his faith was accounted to him for righteousness, Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3. Moreover, on the strength of this evidence of faith the Old Testament ascribed to Abraham the honoring title of the friend of God, 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8. From this standpoint, also, the conclusion is correct: You see that out of works a man is justified, and not out of faith alone. Good works are not necessary to earn salvation, but they are necessary for evidence as to the existence of faith in the heart of a man; for where they are to be found, there one may conclude that true faith lives in the heart, and so the works indirectly justify a person.
The example of Rahab is also adduced: So likewise Rahab, the harlot: was she not justified out of works when she received the messengers and sent them out by a different way? The act of Rahab in hiding the spies that came to her house was an act of faith, Hebrews 11:31. It was this faith that prompted her to hide the messengers and to aid them in escaping from the city. This good work proved the existence of saving faith in her heart, and she was thus justified on the basis of the deed which manifested the condition of her heart. Thus the apostle, from the standpoint which he here desires to impress upon his readers, is right in concluding: For just as the body without breath is dead, so faith without works is dead. A corpse may have the appearance of a live human being in every way, all the members and organs being present and apparently able to function. But while the breath of life, the soul, is lacking, that body is dead and will remain dead. Thus also a person may boast that he possesses faith, and he may even be among those that hear the Word of God. But if the evidence of good works is lacking, such faith is spurious, hypocritical, valueless. Genuine faith is never without good works.
The apostle warns his readers against an unchristian partiality, asserting that the will of God demands charity toward all men alike; he shows that faith requires the correlate of brotherly love and adduces the example of Abraham and Rahab to indicate how faith gave evidence of its existence in good works.
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Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on James 2". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent