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Bible Commentaries
James 2

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-4


James 2:1 to James 5:6

Inconsistency of Faith with Partiality (2:1-13)

Distinctions Based on Wealth (2:1-4)

That true religion, or what James now calls "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ," may be defined in terms of its ethical implications is further illustrated by a hypothetical case of partiality practiced in the church. The example concerns two men — one rich, the other poor — who attend the "assembly" (literally, "synagogue," either gathering, congregation, or house of worship) of the Christian community. One man wears gold rings and fine clothing, the other is shabby. The assembled congregation is assumed to be impressed by the magnificence of the one and to treat him with great deference, while perversely ignoring the other or treating him with disrespect. One gains the impression that an actual practice in the church is being described! This seems to follow particularly from the wording in verse 4, where the Greek may mean, "Do you not customarily make distinctions among yourselves?"

The description of Jesus Christ as "the Lord of glory" represents a pinnacle of the Christian teaching regarding his person. As the Christian’s Lord, Jesus is here identified with the "glory" or manifested presence of God among his people (1 Samuel 4:22; Isaiah 6:3; John 1:14).

Verses 5-13

Argument Against Such Practice (2:5-13)

The first point in a detailed argument against partiality is that God, if he discriminates at all, does so in favor of the "poor in the world" rather than against them! Verse 5 sounds like a curious blending of the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 5:3; Luke 12:32) with that of Paul (1 Corinthians 1:26). (For the end of the verse see the comment on 1:12.)

In verses 6 and 7 it seems that the examples of both rich and poor are strangers, unknown to the local Christian congregation. James now advances the argument, therefore, that the rich as a class have an unsavory reputation in view of their treatment of Christians (vss. 6-7). And this is true on two counts: (1) they oppress Christians, dragging them into court (see Acts 4:1-3; Acts 13:50), and (2) they blaspheme the name of Christ. The rhetorical questions are intended to lead to the conclusion that the burden of proof is on the rich stranger to show why he should expect respect at the hands of Christians!

James accepts, as did the whole Church (Matthew 22:39; Romans 13:9-10), the high teaching of Leviticus 19:18, to the effect that love is the fundamental attitude to be cultivated toward other persons. He terms this law a "royal" one (vs. 8), no doubt meaning that it is addressed not to slaves but rather to free men judged to be sovereign in governing their own lives (James 1:25; James 2:12; 1 Peter 2:9).

The final argument against partiality is derived from a conception of the Law as a unit; so that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it" (vs. 10). This is a principle accepted also by Jesus and Paul (Matthew 5:19; Galatians 3:10), as apparently by their Jewish contemporaries. The application of the principle to the Law’s specific commands was easy enough to understand (vs. 11). The difficulty lay in observing that an attitude such as partiality was also to be comprehended under the Law’s jurisdiction; so that anyone exhibiting this attitude committed sin and was "convicted" as a transgressor (vs. 9). In suggesting that attitudes and motives come under the Law’s jurisdiction, James adopts much the position of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:28; Matthew 5:39). Both apply the principle to love of neighbor. The law which James would thus place before the Christian conscience is "the law of liberty" (that is, "the word of truth," or the gospel — 1:18). This Christian law may be said to limit its concern to items in which man is free to exercise his conscience and judgment. It derives no doubt from Jesus’ limitation of the Law to the motive of love toward God and neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40). The argument relating to partiality is finished as it was begun, with a reference to God’s attitude (vs. 13). God’s example, of mercy which "triumphs over judgment," is in this, as in all matters, man’s true guide.

Verses 14-17

Futility of Faith without Works (2:14-17)

"Faith but . . . not works" (vs. 14), or "faith by itself" (vs. 17), is the subject of James’ interest in this section and the next. Such faith is "dead" or futile and therefore cannot be true Christian faith. Christian faith is a working faith, one that follows through and gets results. The single illustration at this point is that of the poor brother or sister in need of food or clothing. To say to such a one, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled" (vs. 16), is sheer mockery. It accomplishes nothing. Such faith is obviously dead; it is equally obviously not Christian. For everything Christian is on the side of life and produces life and issues in the crown of life.

Verses 14-26

Relation of Faith to Works (2:14-26)

The latter part of chapter 2 has been held by some to have teen written in opposition to Paul’s teaching on justification by grace through faith alone (Romans 4; Galatians 3). Luther went so far as to call this "a right strawy epistle." Admittedly, both writers employ the example of Abraham, apparently to prove opposite points (vs. 21; Romans 4:2-25). But on closer examination, it is clear that they are employing the same terms with different meanings. "Faith" with Paul is saving faith, intimate attachment to Christ issuing naturally in fruitage such as he wishes (Romans 4:19-22; Galatians 3:14 with 5:22-23); with James "faith" is "faith by itself" (vs. 17), that is, shallow belief in a proposition, such as "demons" may have (vs. 19). Similarly, when Paul speaks of "works" in this connection, he means "works of the law," legal righteousness performed to secure salvation (Galatians 3:2); but James by "works" means the natural product of true faith — what Paul calls "the fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22). In consequence, there can be no real conflict between Paul and James at this point, though one may have written to correct a misunderstanding caused by the writing of the other.

Verses 18-26

Faith with and without Works (2:18-26)

The hypothetical opponent who wishes to separate faith and works, suggesting that a man may have the one without the other may be a Jew, if we may interpret James’ words as, "You (a Christian) have faith and I (a Jew) have works," meaning thereby that the two faiths may well agree to disagree at this point. In any case, the reply is to the effect that though his opponent may accept such a division as valid, the Christian cannot. Anything worthy of the name of "faith," to the Christian’s mind, can never exist "apart from . . . works." Take by way of example the proposition that "God is one" (vs. 19). Here is something that might conceivably be called a "faith apart from . . . works"; for it certainly is nonproductive. But of what worth is it? "Even the demons" have such faith! By having it, they invalidate it.

No, says James, faith and works go together and are not to be separated. Indeed, "I by my works will show you my faith" (vs. 18). To demonstrate this, James takes first the case of Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac. Here clearly "faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works." Such faith demonstrated itself in its activity, so much so that one may say that "a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (vs. 24). The same conclusion appears justified in the case of Rahab the harlot, who assisted the spies at the capture of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21). Hers surely was a working faith (see also Hebrews 11:31).

In conclusion, James calls upon the well-known Hebrew-Christian teaching that body and spirit cannot be divided one from the other (vs. 26) ; both are needed to form the unity of man’s being. So, he declares, faith and works must go together; without the one, the other is dead.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on James 2". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/james-2.html.
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