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Monday, May 20th, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
James 2

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Verses 1-9



James 2:1. Have not.—Better, “hold not.” Webster translates, “Without showing degrees of deference, maintain ye your faith.” The Lord of glory.—There are no words in the Greek answering to “the Lord,” but the insertion is necessary in order to complete the English sentence. Some would, however, give to the genitive, τῆς δόξης, only the qualifying power of an adjective, and render either “glorious faith,” or “faith of the glory revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ.” Plumptre explains thus: “In believing in Him who was emphatically a sharer in the eternal glory (John 17:5), who had now returned to that glory, men ought to feel the infinite littleness of all the accidents of wealth and rank that separate man from man.” Respect of persons.—Greek is a plural, “in respectings of persons”; showing preferences for one person rather than another.

James 2:2. Assembly.—Greek, συναγωγή. The only place in the New Testament where the Jewish word is used for a Christian congregation. In the Jewish synagogue the people sat according to their rank, and members of the same trade sat together. James regards this as unadvisable in Christian congregations. The word ἐκκλησία, translated “Church,” was preferred for Christian assemblies. It implied that those attending were called out from the rest of mankind, and united by new and spiritual bonds. Gold ring.—Better, “a man golden-ringed, in bright apparel.” Gorgeous apparel, splendid in colour and ornament. Gay, James 2:3. Vile.—Dirty, squalid, the sign of poverty, or of some mean form of occupation.

James 2:3. Have respect.—Give special consideration and attention to. Under my footstool.—That is, “on the floor at my feet.” “In practice the seats most coveted among the Jews were those near the end of the synagogue which looked towards Jerusalem, and at which stood the Ark, that contained the sacred scroll of the law.”

James 2:4. Partial.—Same word as “waver,” “doubt,” of chap. James 1:6. “Are ye not divided in your mind?” Part wishing to be loyal to Christ, and part wishing to gain the favour of the well-to-do man. “Have ye not doubted” whether in Christ rich and poor really are one? Judges of evil thoughts.—Better, “become judges having evil thoughts, which altogether bias your judgment.” “Evil-thinking judges.”

James 2:5. Rich.—That is, “to be rich.” The poor in this world, or so far as this world is concerned, are referred to. A true estimate of poverty and riches is suggested. Heirs of the kingdom.—Some of the better manuscripts read, “heirs of the promise.”

James 2:6. Despised.—Done dishonour to. Their acts expressed a cherished contempt. Oppress you.—Lord it over you καταδυναστεύουσιν act the potentate over you. Draw you.—Drag you. It is not that a particular rich member does this, but that he belongs to a class that does it.

James 2:7. They.—The rich class, largely composed of Sadducees. Ye are called.—Or, “which was called over you [at baptism]” (Matthew 28:19).

James 2:9. Commit sin.Alford, “It is sin that ye are working.” Convinced.—Convicted by.


Right and Wrong Respect of Persons.—It has well been said of St. James, that “he manifests a straightforward good sense which scatters at a stroke the precepts of hypocrisy, and the illusions of religious conceit. He assails the characteristic faults of the Jewish mind; the religious arrogance, presumption, and laxity; the asperity of mutual crimination, and the readiness to assume an intolerant jurisdiction over other men’s conduct and opinions.” How little practical influence a merely ritual religion, a religion of professions and sentiments, might be was shown in the assemblies of the Jewish Christians. Class distinctions were unduly recognised; the rich worshippers were flattered, and the poor neglected or insulted. In a Christian community there should be the equality of a common Divine life, for that life a rich man can have in no fuller and no healthier measures than a poor man can have. By the term “respect of persons” we understand, showing special favour to some, not on the basis of good judgment, or from a desire to do right, but on the ground of personal favour, or to gain some personal advantage. It is therefore again and again asserted that there is no “respect of persons with God”; it is again and again urged that “respect of persons” is a grievous sin in judges and magistrates. St. James points out that it is a most unworthy and most mischievous spirit, when it gets into Christian communities. But it is important that we should recognise a right “respect of persons” as well as a wrong. So long as there are varieties of station, varieties of relationship, and varieties of ability among human beings, there will be spheres for a proper respect of persons. The child ought to respect his parent; the servant ought to respect his lord; the workman ought to respect his master; the poor ought to respect the rich; the citizen ought to respect his governors. But then it is equally true, though less recognised, that the parent ought to respect the child, the lord the servant, the master the workman, the rich the poor, and the governor the citizen. It was just in this mutual respect that the social system of China failed. It is in this that the social system of Christianity claims universal acceptance. In China five relations are recognised, but in each case exclusive attention is given to the claims of the superior on the inferior; the inferior is not conceived as having any rights against the superior. The five relations are: sovereign and minister; father and son; husband and wife; elder and younger brothers; and friends. Christianity must not be thought of as a force interfering with social relationships, and affecting those signs of mutual respect which materially help to preserve the order of society. It does give a man such self-respect as will keep him from adulation or flattery of anybody, and from servility in his dealings with anybody. St. James, however, is not dealing with general social relations; he is writing to Judæo Christians concerning what is befitting for them in their specially Christian relationships. They are brought into fellowship on conditions which altogether override all social distinctions. Neither intellect, nor wealth, nor manners, nor clothes give a man special claim or place in a Christian community. Spiritual life alone gives a man a place, and spiritual gifts alone give a man a position. Within Christian communities persons are respected for their piety and ministry. The Duke of Wellington was right when, kneeling beside a poorly clad villager at the communion-rail, he quietly reproved the verger who wanted to remove the poor man, by saying, “Let him alone; we are all equal here.”

I. Respect of persons is wrong when it puts circumstances before character.—When it shows deference to a man for what he has rather than for what he is. It is the common and every-day estimate that we make of men. The workman judges a man by his ability to find him work. The business man values men by their purchasing power. The poor are unduly impressed by fine clothes. Women are constantly in danger of estimating others by their appearances. It is not possible, nor would it be right, to change altogether the relationships of the week on the Sunday. We should not expect men to be otherwise toward each other at Christian worship than they are towards each other in daily business. St. James proposes no such unreasonable thing. The proper respect due to one another is as necessary in the house of God as anywhere else. Servility is very different from respect. The assumption of St. James is that the man with the gold ring, dressed in fine clothing, is wanting to make an impression, to proclaim his superiority; and what St. James reproves is the failure to deal with such a man according to Christian principles. Christians ought never to be carried away by outward appearances, by circumstances of wealth, by chance of getting personal advantages from the well-to-do. And yet what striking illustrations of the evil St. James denounces can be found in the pew system of our modern churches, especially where the support of worship is directly dependent on the gifts of the people. The man who can pay is everywhere thought more of than the man who can pray. Up to quite recent times there were separate, and specially hard and uncomfortable, seats for the poor in many churches and chapels. They had to sit in a low place. St. James calls this sort of thing wrong, because:

(1) it reveals bad, self-seeking dispositions in those who show such servility—“they are partial, and judges of evil thoughts”;
(2) it shows that they formed no true estimate of character, for these showy rich men were just the very men likely to become their oppressors and persecutors; and

(3) the treatment of the poor, contrasted with this treatment of the rich, convicted them of sin against the foundation law of the second table—“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Such servility always shows low conditions of spiritual life; for when we go past our own circumstances to concern ourselves with our own characters, we are pretty sure to be keen to recognise cultured character in others, and to be indifferent to mere show of circumstance.

II. Respect of persons is right when it puts character above circumstances.—When it shows deference to a man for what he is rather than for what he has (see James 2:5). That may make us attentive and obliging to poor people as well as rich. Nay, it is quite possible that we may find more call to attention to the poor than to the rich. For it is the compensation of those in lowly estate that they have less to hinder the progress of soul culture, and so often reach heights of Christian attainment, and Christian power of service, that are altogether beyond the rich. But servility to the pious poor would be as mischievous as servility to the showy rich. Let respect be given wherever it is due. But do not be carried away by appearances. “The Lord looketh not on the outward appearance. The Lord looketh on the heart.” And so should we who are taught of Christ and bear the Christian name.


James 2:1. Worship of the Modern Golden Calf.—True reverence and submission are in no way condemned by this scripture; but their excess and gross extreme, the preference for vulgar wealth, the adulation of success, the worship, in short, of some new golden calf. Respecting persons is a sin of the rich, who despise the poor; of judges, who are influenced in their decision by the status of prisoners; and of the poor, who are constantly tempted to timeserving.

No Classes within Christian Churches.—Right relations of classes in society involve mutual respect. But Christianity recognises no classes. It brings men into the unity of a common new life. There are no classes in the children of one family. The redeemed are restored sons in the family of God. Christianity makes new relationships on the basis of the new family life. It keeps its “respect” for cultured and sanctified character, rather than for external conditions.

James 2:2. The Weakness of the Early Church.—We must not judge the early Christian Church too harshly. The appearance of a stranger in costly apparel, with a gold ring, however common a mark simply of wealth in later times, would in those days cause a far greater and more painful surprise in an obscure and probably timorous assemblage of Christians than at this distant period we are willing to believe. The time of persecution had already commenced, and upon his testimony how many issues might depend! Anxious to propitiate the favour of the great man, we can easily imagine that every consistent courtesy would be offered to him. The prominently jewelled ring, itself an insignium of the equestrian and senatorial order, would instantly announce the rank of the visitor. Many of these rings are preserved in the national and Continental collections; they are solid, tapering, and of massive gold, with a large jewel, often an onyx or jasper cameo on the face. Some of these specimens weigh nearly an ounce. The gems are often engraved with magical devices, as charms of talismanic power, or valedictory inscriptions for the wearer. Others, like Hannibal’s famous ring, contain a secret recess, in his instance filled with poison. Such ornaments were both cumbersome and costly, so much so that a Roman writer ridicules an enervated fop by stating that,—

“Charged with light summer rings, his fingers sweat,
Unable to sustain a gem of weight.”

James 2:4. The Sin of Partiality.—In the common intercourse of life it cannot but be that men have preferences for one person over another. This, indeed, is the basis of the selections on which human relationships rest. We come into life unions because of our partialities. The sin of partiality is determined by

(1) the occasion,
(2) the way in which it finds expression. Class partialities are wrong. Sect partialities are wrong. Partialities are always wrong when they lead us to do injustice, by giving to one what is due to another, or by withholding from any what is his due. Within the Christian Church, where all should stand in the equality of brotherhood in Christ, partiality must always be a source of bickerings, jealousies, and heart-burnings.

The World’s Standard.—The, world must always measure by its own standard, and consider poverty a curse, just as it looks on pain and trouble as evil. The peril of organised Christianity is unduly estimating those who can pay.

James 2:5. Poverty and Piety.—“There are no gains without pains, and no pains without gains.” Our Lord taught that, relative to the religious life, the rich were placed at some very grave disadvantages. It is but the truth involved in this teaching, that those who are poor in this world are at advantage in relation to the religious life. It must, however, be kept in mind that the cares of the poor, their painful efforts to obtain a livelihood, and the lack of cultured intelligence, provide serious hindrances to piety. There is not much to choose between poor and rich in respect of occupation and worldly care, but the kind of occupations of the rich are more inimical to the religious life and spirit than those of the poor. They tend to nourish self-reliance and self-satisfaction, and so draw men’s minds and hearts away from God. True religion—the religion of Christ—proposes to culture into perfection man’s whole nature, but it finds one side of man’s nature specially neglected, and it puts its strongest force into it. The passive graces (characteristic of woman) flourish in the soil of dependence; and that is the habitual attitude of the poor. True, the strain of poverty often makes men bitter and hard; but where there is the religious sense, the poor have always been found noble examples of piety, spirituality, and service. “Blessed are the poor,” when poverty of circumstance is joined with “poverty of spirit,” that keeps the soul open and receptive.

Powerful Men from the Ranks of the Poor.—Moses was the son of a poor Levite; Gideon was a thresher; David was a shepherd-boy; Amos was a herdsman; the Apostles were “ignorant and unlearned.” The reformer Zwingle emerged from a shepherd’s hut among the Alps. Melancthon, the great theologian of the Reformation, was a workman in an armourer’s shop. Martin Luther was the child of a poor miner. Carey, who originated the plan of translating the Bible into the language of the millions of Hindostan, was a shoemaker in Northampton. Dr. Morrison, who translated the Bible into the Chinese language, was a last-maker in Newcastle. Dr. Milne was a herd-boy in Aberdeenshire. Dr. Adam Clarke was the child of Irish cottars. John Foster was a weaver. Andrew Fuller was a farm-servant. William Jay of Bath was a stonemason.

James 2:6-7. Good and Bad among the Rich.—The denunciations of the rich by our Lord and by His disciples may be seriously misunderstood and misused. They are when they are employed to support class enmities, and to excite prejudices against the rich, and to hinder them from accepting the religious life. The conditions of society in the time of our Lord need to be fully understood and wisely estimated. Then the rich were self-satisfied Pharisees or cynical Sadducees, and one of the grave disabilities of the age arose from the arrogance, masterfulness, and injustice of the rich. But even then there were good and bad among the rich. There was a Barnabas as well as a Dives, a Joseph of Arimathæa as well as a Herod. Let severe reproaches come upon those who are rich and bad. Let the Divine acceptance and human respect come to all those who are rich and good.

I. The bad among the rich are not those who have riches or acquire riches, but those who trust in riches.—There are many persons who are born into the possession of wealth. From no point of view can this be regarded as any reproach to them. It simply makes the set of human conditions which are to provide the discipline of their lives. Character has to be won under these conditions, call them conditions of privilege, or of disability, as we may please. There are many who acquire wealth by their genius, perseverance, or by fortunate circumstances. They need not be envied; character has been made or spoiled in the getting of the riches; and now the great question is—How do they stand related to the riches they have acquired? Our Lord repeated His saying so as to make His reference quite clear—“How hardly shall they that trust in riches enter the kingdom!” It is the trusting in, not the having, that always has made, and still makes, the bad rich man.

II. The bad among the rich are not those who are rich, but those who will be, are determined to be, rich.—When a man forces his way to get riches

(1) he can have no spirit of humility and submission before God;
(2) he is very likely to do shameful wrong to his fellow-men; and
(3) he is sure to “fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts.” There is such a thing as being “rich” toward God.

James 2:8. The Law of Human Relations.—Very remarkable is the insight which our Divine Lord showed in dealing with the revealed law of God. He went behind all formal commands to the essential principle. Love God, and you will do everything right, because love will be the constraint of obedience. There really is no need of a second law. One is only stated in accommodation to human weakness. Loving our neighbour as ourselves is involved in loving God with all our heart. We must love whosoever God loves. We cannot help loving those who stand in the same relation to God as we do. Observe, however, that the claim of the Divine relation is not precisely the same as the human relation. We are not to love God as ourselves. We are not to love our neighbour with all our mind and soul. God stands absolutely first and alone. Our relation to Him is unique, and all-inclusive. A whole devotion of the whole self to God is consistent with all due service of others. But what we give to God may be shared with none. His sacrifice is a whole burnt-offering. There is a careful limitation in the command, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is not “as you love God.” It is “as you love yourself.” But “yourself” comes after God, and can stand in no rivalry with Him. We must love ourselves consistently with supreme love to God. We must love our neighbour consistently with supreme love to God. There is a certain subtlety in St. James’s reference to this law. He hints that our love to self sets us continually upon efforts to serve self; and if we love our neighbour as we love ourselves, that love will continually set us upon efforts to serve them. True love is always, and everywhere, the inspiration of service. Show how this “royal law” seeks to get applications in the family, business, social, and church spheres. We can never meet aright our obligations to our neighbour until we can be said to love him so as to take a personal interest in his well-being.

James 2:8-10. The Royal Law.—After rebuking partiality, St. James goes on to lay down the rule of the believer’s duty to his fellow-men. In the few words of this most comprehensive law, we have the essence of the second table of the Decalogue. The Christian’s duty is to cherish towards every man a true kindliness. “As thyself;” as much in degree would be impossible; but as really, as constantly, as persistently in spite of ill-deserving. We do not exactly love ourselves, but we care for ourselves, we sympathise with ourselves; and without the smallest sentimentalism, in the homeliest reality, we might do the like toward our fellowmen. And to do this is, in the full Scriptural meaning, to love our neighbour as ourself. The law which bids us do so seems all our duty to our brethren in humanity; for once the genuine principle of unselfish kindliness is implanted in us by God’s Spirit, that principle will prompt every right deed, and permit no wrong deed. Prejudice rather than selfishness is the main obstacle within ourselves to the due keeping of the royal law—at least in the case of really worthy people. There are not many who are at all worthy to be called Christian people who find it in the least difficult to feel kindly towards any mortal creature when they really come to know him tolerably well. St. James goes on to point out a too common way in which this law is broken. “If ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin.” This was the besetting sin of the people he had in his mind, and was writing to. It is transgression, plainly enough, whether the person unduly respected be one-self or another. Meeting the possible objection that “respect of persons, though not quite right, is no great matter,” St. James says, that anything wrong is a great matter; doing wrong, you break God’s law; and if you break God’s law on one point, it will not avail you to plead that you keep it on twenty; you are a law-breaker, a transgressor, and you must rank as such and take the consequences. Far from being a paradox, it is almost a truism. Every man punished for a breach of human law is held a lawbreaker, a criminal, just for the one crime he has done. The law is a whole; you break it by breaking any one of its innumerable provisions. Dwell upon the vital and central matter of that kindly principle within us which will be the spring of all duty to our fellow-men. Nothing worth is that kindliness which dwells in a mere soft heart and a super-sensitive nervous system. Nothing worth is that so-called Christian love which ends in tears, and reaches not to stout, daylight work. Nothing worth is that philanthropy which results from mere physical feeling. Sound, equable, lasting kindliness, not to be discouraged or soured, not to be wearied out, is that which is implanted by God’s blessed Spirit, and which takes note of men not merely as the objects whose sufferings remind of our own, but as beings on whom a common Father has conferred a common immortality, and towards whom a common Saviour has felt a common love. Ordinary people will never attain what is in the least like loving our neighbour as ourselves, unless by the abounding grace of God’s blessed Spirit. It is possible by God’s grace to cultivate and keep a frame so sweet and kindly, as that you shall be sources of blessing and help to those around you, as you go on your pilgrimage way. There are excellent gifts, but there is a most excellent. There are mighty graces, but there is a mightiest. A kind heart, a sweet temper, is the very best thing the Holy Ghost can give to mortal man or woman. It is the thing that is likest God. It is “the mind which was also in Christ Jesus”—the very same.—A. K. H. B.


James 2:2-4. A Brahmin’s Reproof.—The other instance in which I had the pleasure to meet this most interesting man (Rammohun Roy) was at breakfast in my own house. On that occasion I invited men of various religious opinions to meet him, and there were about thirty persons present. The conversation was very lively and well sustained. The Brahmin exhibited wonderful shrewdness. “Ah,” he said, “you say that you are all one in Christ, all brethren, and equal in Him. Well, you go to the cathedral at Calcutta; there you see a grand chair of crimson velvet and gold—that is for the Governor-General of India; then there are other chairs of crimson and gold—they are for the members of council; and then there are seats lined with crimson—they are for the merchants, etc.; then there are the bare benches for the common people and the poor; yet you say we are all one in Christ; but if the poor man whose seat is there, on that bare bench, if he go and sit down on the crimson velvet chair of the Governor-General, they will break his head! yet you are all one in Christ!” Some one was about to expound this matter to the Brahmin, and explain the impropriety of any one taking the seat of the representative of majesty. But the thing was too good for our Quaker friend, James Cropper, quietly to let it go. He so thoroughly sympathised with the Brahmin’s view of the matter, that he could not refrain from interposing. “Nay, nay,” he cried, “thou must not seek to put aside the force of our friend’s remark.” So the Brahmin and our friend James had the matter entirely to themselves.—Dr. Raffles.

James 2:5. Gain in Poverty—Trees struck by Lightning.—When some giant tree is struck by the lightning’s flash and scorched to death, its shattered trunk and torn boughs have not been destroyed by the action of fire from without. The tree, it is true, has been subjected to the direct action of the most intense heat—a heat proportioned to the terrible brilliancy of the electric illumination, which we call lightning. But the action of this heat is rendered fatal by the condition of the tree itself. The dismemberment of its body and branches, which extends to every part, results from the sudden conversion into steam of all the moisture it contains in sap and wood. The instant expansion that thus takes place by the power of the generated steam rends the tree to pieces, just as under very similar circumstances it would burst even a vessel of wrought iron. Thus the giant of the forest falls a victim to its rich and flourishing condition. The greener and fairer the tree, the more its vein-like tissues swell with those nourishing juices that build up a life which has the promise of hundreds of years, the more inevitable and crushing its ruin. It is not otherwise with human greatness and prosperity. While misfortune’s stroke finds less upon which to feed in the case of the poor and lowly, whose very poverty is in this respect a protection, its effects are far more deadly on those with whom all is flourishing. Lazarus in his want is far less exposed to the shocks of trial than Dives in his wealth. The humble fishermen of Galilee could, humanly speaking, better face the loss of their all than could the rich and amiable young man, who indeed desired an interest in Christ, but felt that his fortunes were too splendid to be sacrificed even for heaven—“for he had great possessions.” It is one of the chief and peculiar glories of the philosophy of the gospel that it teaches us not only the dignity but also the gain of poverty, thus extracting its double sting. “Hath nut God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him?” Deeper and more real than we are sometimes apt to suppose is the meaning of the Master’s words when, speaking of a state of which He had actual experience, He said, “Blessed be ye poor.”—James Neil, M.A.

Verses 10-13


James 2:10.—Omit word “point”; insert “precept” or “commandment.” Because the law is only the various application of one essential principle.

James 2:13.—Render, “For the judgment shall be merciless to him that wrought not mercy.” Rejoiceth against.—Or, “triumphs over.” Shakespeare has, “When mercy seasons justice”; “The quality of mercy is not strained,” etc.


The Law of Liberty.—That is the name for the law under which the Christian is placed; the law by which the Christian regulates all his life, conduct, and relations. One of the old divines puts it in the following quaint way: “I hear it said that a Christian may do what he likes. And so he may. Only a Christian is a man with a fresh set of likes.” The law of liberty can only be given to those who can be entrusted with it. It is a familiar point of apostolic teaching, that the formal law of Judaism proved ineffectual to the production of righteousness. St. James presents this truth in one form here. That old law so held together that the breaking of one part of it involved the penalty of the whole. The breaker was a transgressor, and as such must be dealt with. For the moment St. James takes the strictly Jewish standpoint. He wanted to deal with men who prided themselves on keeping the greater and more evident laws—as the young rich ruler did—but thought that very little importance attached to breaking it in its smaller provisions, or in matters that did not very manifestly disturb social order. They would wholly shrink back from “killing” or “adultery,” but they were quite indifferent to “despising the poor,” which, indeed, was hardly associated with that searching law, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” But that really is the very essence of the second table of the Mosaic law, and therefore in breaking that law they broke it all. But St. James would have them understand that, as Christians, they were under a new law, one that was at once more searching and more inspiring, one that concerned itself about both the great and the little in Christian life and conduct. If they responded to the call of that law in merciful consideration of one another and kindly treatment of one another, they need be under no fear of judgment. Under the “law of liberty,” “mercy rejoices over judgment.”

I. The “law of liberty” frees from the bondage of the older law.—Because men were not able to go alone, not able to guide their moral or social life of themselves, therefore a formal law was given, stating precisely what they should do, and what they should not. It was a book of rules for their guidance in all relationships. But when a man wants to do the good and the right, he can put his book of rules on the shelf. That book is just as valuable as ever it was, only it does not now concern him, he does not need it; the new life in him can find all good and befitting expressions. The Christian has no evil word to say of the old law. “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.” Only he does not need it; because the very essence of it—love to God and his neighbour—is in him.

II. The “law of liberty” allows him to be a “law unto himself.”—When can a man be a law unto himself? When he is a man. It is the very mission of Christianity to make men; to nourish that self-restraint which ensures that no bodily passion and no external temptation shall prove overwhelming. A child cannot be a law unto himself. A youth can, only with important limitations. A man ought to be able to rule himself. A man in Christ Jesus ought, and can. He is free; but free unto holiness, free to do right. Christ was a “law unto Himself.”

III. The “law of liberty” permits a man to bind himself to Christ.—The free man need not be without attachments, without examples, without guidance, without a master. He is free in this sense—that he allows no one, and nothing, to put bonds on him. But he is free to put bonds on himself; and when he does so, he never thinks of them as bonds, he never calls them bonds. He is free to bind himself to Christ, but His service is perfect freedom. It were not freedom if the man were not free to choose his friend or his master.

IV. The “law of liberty” enables a man to use the old law when he pleases.—If he is free to put it away on the shelf, he is free also to take it down. In the free endeavour to adjust his life and relations, he may often find in the old law good counsel and guidance. He discovers its practical and experimental value, but has no such sense of its constraint as properly came upon the Jew. St. James intimates that if men order their conduct, as Christians, according to the “law of liberty,” they will never be servile to the rich and never despise the poor. Mercy will be sure to tone all their judgments.


James 2:10. Offending in One Point.—A law is the expression of the meaning of the law-making power. The constitution of the United States is the declaration of the method by which the law-making power—the people of the United States—intends to govern. A law will be right and beneficent in the proportion of the moral elevation of the power promulgating the law. A bad king, other things being equal, will promulgate bad laws. A community debased in moral tone will establish for itself correspondingly deteriorated laws. On the other hand, a supremely good governing power will express itself by law supremely good. God is the governor of the universe, and God is the supremely good; therefore the law which He has promulgated must be the expression of a nature infinitely good, and so must itself be infinitely good. This infinitely good law of God is stated for us,—in man’s moral constitution; in the Ten Commandments; in the condensed universal formula for right living by the Lord Jesus, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy soul and strength and mind, and thy neighbour as thyself”; still further, this law of God is taken out of a merely cold and mechanical and dead statement, and set before us and illustrated in the living person Jesus Christ. Our scripture declares that though a man keep the whole of this law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. Why? Because, first, of the essential unity of the Divine Lord. The law of God is not made up of parts dissimilar in authority. You are under no less obligation to love your neighbour as yourself than to love God with your whole being. The sanctions sustaining either part of the law are just the same. The law of God is the expression of the one nature of God. Each particular of the law is equally holy with every other, and equally good with every other, and equally authoritative with every other. “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.” The law of God is a complete circle. It makes little difference whether you break into the circle at what you call the top or bottom or on either side; if it be fractured anywhere, it is broken. Here is some most precious statue, perfect save that it is broken as to its least finger. Is the statue whole? Is the unity of its beauty unimpaired? Is it not henceforth for ever a broken thing? In some true sense do not features and feet and limbs and hands share in the damaged unity? Is it not really true that that broken finger, offending though only in that one point against the law of wholeness, is yet guilty of breaking the entire law of wholeness? That perfect statue is the law of God. God’s law possesses in itself the majestic unity of perfection. It is the expression of the one perfect nature of Jehovah. Each least particular of it is essential to the unity and completeness of the whole. And if you break it in one particular, you for ever damage that law’s oneness, and do, in a most true sense, break it all, and so are guilty of it all. Profoundly true are these words of Milton: “If the law allow sin, it enters into a kind of covenant with sin; and if it do, there is not a greater sinner in the world than the law itself.” Because, second, that disposition which would break one point would, other things being equal, break any other point. “He who would, for sound religious reasons, keep one precept, would, from the same conscientious motive, abstain from breaking all the rest; and, on the other hand, he who would not for any religious reasons abstain from breaking one, has nothing within himself which would restrain him from breaking all the rest.” Because, third, the sin in one point inevitably spreads into sin in other points. As a fire that breaks out in one place, but soon consumes the whole dwelling.—Anon.

God’s Law is a Whole.—As a chain is snapped by failure of the weakest link, so the whole law, in its harmony and completeness as beheld by God, is broken by one offence of one man; and the penalty falls, of its own natural weight and incidence, on the culprit.

I. The requirement.—Keep the whole law.

II. The failure.—Stumble at one point.

III. The Divine reading of the failure.—It is virtually breaking all the laws, for it is breaking the thing—the law. The man who fails stands before God, not for a particular offence, but for breaking the law. This, however, must not be so presented as to lead men to assume that God recognises no degrees of criminality. What has to be impressed is the large moral significance of apparently insignificant moral offences.—Anon.

A Law of Liberty.—That is, a law which secures a man freedom for righteousness; and consequently comes down severely on a man when that freedom is abused.

James 2:12. The Dual-sphere of Relations.—“So speak ye, and so do.” A man finds expression for what is in him by speech and by action. He is known by his fruits in conduct; but it is also true that he is known by his fruits in conversation. A man comes into association with others and influences others by the substance and tone of his talk and by the example of his actions. But the importance of a man’s conduct-sphere is often exaggerated. It is when it is said that “three-fourths of life is conduct.” It is when the speech-sphere is not adequately and harmoniously estimated along with the conduct-sphere.

I. A man’s speech judged by the law of liberty.—The law of liberty is that law of liberty which orders a man’s life when he wants to do right. A man becomes free of law, and a law unto himself, when the love of righteousness is fully established in him. But this law of liberty becomes, in the use of the man himself concerning himself, the sternest and most searching law. It ensures such speech, such conversation, as becometh the gospel of Christ.

II. A man’s conduct judged by the law of liberty.—Apply the explanation of the law of liberty, given above, to the sphere of man’s actions and relations. When a man is right-minded, and attempts to rule his own conduct, there is a guarantee of righteousness. This truth is set forth in his characteristic way by the apostle John, when he says of the man ruled by the law of liberty, the love of righteousness, “He cannot sin, because he is born of God.” But the application of Christian principles to the sphere of conduct is much more constantly dealt with than their application in the sphere of conversation. And many an earnest Christian spoils the witness of his life because he does not pay due regard to the witness of his lips. It is not without special significance that the word “conversation” is used in the New Testament. It means the whole turning about of our relations, but it evidently includes the element of speech.

James 2:13. The Relativity of Mercy and Judgment.—The psalmist puts mercy and judgment together in a way that is somewhat surprising: “Also unto Thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy, for Thou renderest to every man according to his work.” It is as if he had said of God, “His mercy is judgment”; “His judgment is mercy.” It would be no real mercy if God did not judge and punish His creatures. It would be no judgment of the Divine Father of men if mercy were not at the very heart of it. St. James here suggests that—

1. Usually mercy and judgment go together, hand in hand.
2. Occasions may occur which require judgment to go first, and mercy keep in the background. The special case referred to is that of the man who has showed no mercy to his fellow-man; a case illustrated by our Lord’s parable of the unforgiving servant. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
3. Occasions may arise in which mercy stands forth to do her work, and judgment must lag behind. We can think of cases in which the mercifulness and charity of a man may put an arresting hand on judgment and “hide a multitude of sins.—R. T.

Mercy rejoiceth against Judgment.—Mercy is dear to God, and intercedes for the sinner, and breaks his chains, and dissipates the darkness, and quenches the fires of hell, and destroys the worm, and rescues from the gnashing of teeth. To her the gates of heaven are opened. She is the queen of virtues, and makes men like to God, for it is written, “Be ye merciful, as your Father also is merciful” (Luke 6:36). She has silver wings like the dove, and feathers of gold, and soars aloft, and is clothed with Divine glory, and stands by the throne of God; when we are in danger of being condemned, she rises up and pleads for us, and covers us with her defence, and enfolds us in her wings. God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Matthew 9:13).—John Chrysostom.


James 2:10. Offending in One, Guilty in All.—The Rev. Mr. Leupolt, of India, found some difficulty in getting the idea contained in the above verse impressed upon the minds of the natives. Argument was resorted to, but without avail. “Never,” says he, “could I make the common people understand me without a parable.” In this parable he described a scene on the Ganges. “The day was dismal; the wind roared, the thunder pealed, the lightning was vivid, the waves of the Ganges rapid; the infuriated elements threatened destruction to every vessel on its waters; no boat could outlive the storm for any length of time. But see I—what is that? It is a boat in distress, filled with people, rapidly hurried along by the waves. Between the peals of thunder the shrieks of the people are heard. They fear the rocks on the shore, to which the current is driving them. What can be done for them? Could they but be drawn into the creek, they would be safe. Those on the shore look anxiously around, and discover a chain near them. A man instantly fastens a stone to a rope, binds the other end to the chain, and flings the stone into the boat. The rope is caught. The people eagerly lay hold on the chain, while those on shore begin to draw them, amid the raging elements, towards the creek. They already rejoice at the prospect of deliverance; but when they are within a few yards of the land one link of the chain breaks. I do not say ten links, but one link, in the middle of the chain. What shall these distressed people do now? Shall they still cling to the unbroken links? ‘No, no!’ says one of my hearers, ‘overboard with the chain, or it will sink them sooner.’ ‘What, then, shall they do?’ ‘Cast themselves upon the mercy of God,’ exclaimed another. ‘True,’ I replied; ‘if one commandment be broken, it is as though all of them were broken. We cannot be saved by them; we must trust in the mercy of God, and lay hold on the almighty hand of Christ, which is stretched out to save us.’ I have frequently used this parable, and always found it to answer.”

Verses 14-20


James 2:14. Say.—Or, “make profession.” The man may really have the faith, but it cannot be an effective faith if it finds no expression in actions. “Faith, without acts of faith, is but a dream,” Works.—Simply “actions.” Not meritorious works. Can faith.—Not faith generally, but his particular faith—the faith which proves itself to be mere sentiment.

James 2:16. Be ye warmed and filled.—The verb is either imperative, “Get yourself warmed and filled,” or indicative, “Ye are warming and filling yourselves.” Plumptre prefers the indicative form. “What greater mockery than to be taunted with texts and godly precepts, the usual outcome of a spurious and cheap benevolence!”

James 2:18.—This is the language not of an objector, but of one whose views James approves. Without.—That is, “apart from,” “distinct from.” The suggestion is that the two things cannot either wisely, or rightly, be separated.

James 2:19. Tremble.—Shudder.

James 2:20. Vain man.—Empty-headed; a term of contempt: see Matthew 5:22.


Sentimentality is not Religion.—In every age the difficulty has had to be dealt with, of confusing profession with piety, and sentiment with religion, and talk with service. The difficulty especially associates with Christianity, which is essentially a spiritual religion; has no sphere if it does not get a soul-sphere; but when it has gained the soul-sphere, persists in gaining the body-sphere also. In the early Church there were the deceived and the self-deceived—those who took up with religion from interested motives, and those who had very unworthy notions of what religion is and requires. Some were carried into the Christian profession on passing waves of emotion, and when the excitement died down they were surprised to find in what responsibilities they were involved. Some were intellectually convinced of Christ’s claims, but did not come into the moral influence of personal relations of love and trust. Intellectual belief is not bound to bear fruit of godly living; personal faith is. The trust which binds to Christ binds to the service of Christ. The faith which saves, and the works which serve, are linked indissolubly together. These are the truths St. James presents in this paragraph, in his practical, pointed, and illustrative style. Two words will give the contrast which St. James so forcibly presents. Saying, showing. Saying that we have faith. Showing that we have faith. Both are right. Profession may be the duty of the hour as truly as charity. But there is this marked difference between the two. Showing can stand alone, but saying cannot. A man who shows his faith by his works need not make profession, for the works will make all the profession that is needed. But the man who shows his faith only by his profession will find the profession is altogether a worthless thing to himself and to others, unless it is followed up by answering works of charity and service. Of the Pharisee class our Lord said, “They say and do not”; and in those words may be found the keenest and most severe reproach.

I. Saying that we have faith, or resting in profession and sentiment.—This is a special peril at times, under particular sectarian conditions, and to peculiar natural dispositions. Such times are times of revival; such conditions are demands of special beliefs; such dispositions are prevailingly emotional. There are insincere and time-serving forms of making religious profession; but we need only take sincere forms with which men are self-deluded. St. James wants us clearly to see that merely saying we have faith cannot save. It has no necessary saving influence in the life; it has no moral power. This has been embodied in the familiar saying, “Hell is paved with good intentions”; which were ineffective things, and could not save the man from going to hell. Therefore it is constantly pressed on attention that the faith which saves is not intellectual belief, of which we can make a profession, but heart-trust, which brings us into personal relations with Christ, and compels service to Him in the service of his. As professors we are always in danger of living a sentimental rather than a practical Christian life. The danger seems expressed in our common modes of speech. We say we make a profession of religion. Would it not be better, less exposed to misunderstanding and mistake, if we were to say we have begun, and are trying to live, a Christian life? We may easily become satisfied with making a profession; we can never be satisfied if our effort is to live a godly, righteous, and sober life. The danger of sentimentality starts with us in the very beginning of our religious history. The great force of influence brought to bear on us then tends to nourish feeling. Very little effort is made to urge on us the doing of duty, and the acceptance of a life of charities and sacrifices. And a serious estimate of many advanced Christian lives brings to light the mastery of this evil. To many the searching Spirit of Christ may have to say, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” The fact is that people prefer that which cultivates the sentimental, increases mere knowledge, or pleases with the delicacies of high feeling; they are often offended when, with plainness and point, the claims of the Spirit of Christ are shown bearing upon temper, and home, and indulgences, and business, and charity. But profession of faith, if it stand alone, if that is all a man has, does not save, and cannot. Our Lord stamped the helplessness of mere saying in His severe reproach, “Many shall say unto Me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by Thy name? and by Thy name cast out devils? and by Thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:22).

II. Showing that we have faith.—Or expressing faith in service. St. James gives a definite case in illustration. A distressed Christian brother, needing actual food and clothing, comes to the man who says he has faith, and expects his saying so to suffice. The man lives in the region of excellent sentiment and pious talk. And he gives plenty of these things to his distressed brother; but no clothes and no food. Now what good could that do either to the professor or to the distressed brother? It did not nourish the professor’s faith only to talk; and it did not help the poor man in his need to listen to talk. It would have shown the man’s faith—and showing is speaking loudly and effectively—if he had given some clothes and some food. Ministry, charity, the life of service—this is the true profession, the proper showing forth of godliness. Think of Dorcas, and the crowd that gathered about her house, mourning for her, and showing the garments she had made for them. That crowd wept for her because of what she had done. Think of those holy women who ministered of their substance to Christ, and were honoured by Him for what they had done. Nay, think above all of Christ Himself, over whose whole life shines the glory of something done to relieve, and comfort, and raise, and save His fellow-men. “He went about doing good,” showing how much more “blessed it is to give than to receive”; and “leaving us an example, that we should follow His steps”—this example, not talking about his faith, and satisfying Himself with talk, but showing His faith by works of loving charity and devoted service. There may be:

(1) faith without works;
(2) works without faith;
(3) faith seen in works; and
(4) works culturing faith. Isolated faith is a helpless (dead) thing. There are three possible stages of faith:
(1) faith spoken with the lips;
(2) faith seen in the life;
(3) faith felt in the deeds which carry the persuasion of it to others.


James 2:14. Faith as Trust, and Works as Charity.—According to St. James, faith was moral conviction, trust, and truth, and yet such a theoretical belief only that it might be held by devils. Works are not those of the law, but an active life of practical morality and well-doing. Justification is used in a proper or moral sense, but not the higher, or “forensic,” as we now call it.—After De Wette and Alford.

Religion is Devotion and Duty.—The Church of every age is warned against the delusive notion that it is enough for men to have religious emotions, to talk religious language, to have religious knowledge, and to profess religious belief, without the habitual practice of religious duties, and the daily devotion of a religious life.—Ellicott’s Commentary.

St. James no Antagonist of St. Paul.—Lightfoot says, “It becomes a question whether St. James’s protest against relying on faith alone has any reference, direct or indirect, to St. Paul’s language and teaching; whether, in fact, it is not aimed against an entirely different type of religious feeling, against the Pharisaic spirit which rested satisfied with a barren orthodoxy, fruitless in works of charity.”

True Faith.—True faith rests not in great and good desires, but acts and executes accordingly. It will be long enough ere the gale of good wishes carry us to heaven.—Bishop Hall.

James 2:15-16. Feeling without Action.—We pity the wretchedness and shun the wretched; we utter sentiments just, honourable, refined, lofty; but somehow, when a truth presents itself in the shape of a duty, we are unable to perform it. And so such characters become by degrees like the artificial pleasure-grounds of bad taste, in which the waterfall does not fall, and the grotto offers only the refreshment of an imaginary shade, and the green hill does not strike the skies, and the tree does not grow. Their lives are a sugared crust of sweetness, trembling over black depths of hollowness; more truly still, “whited sepulchres,” fair without to look upon, “within full of all uncleanness.”—F. W. Robertson.

The Lesson of Commonplace Charity.—St. James’s illustration is decidedly commonplace, but it has its power, suggestiveness, and pointed application in that very fact. Men could have found excuses, and shifted off from themselves the application of St. James’s truth, if he had found some unusual or peculiar case. The skill of a Christian teacher is often shown in the fresh adaptations of commonplace truths or illustrations. The commonplace appeals to the universal conscience. How very usual is the case of a fellow-creature needing clothes and food. How often is the good word that costs nothing, and does nothing, made to stand in place of the good deed which costs something, and does much. 1. The good word may be good, but not timely.

2. The good word is but mockery when it stands by itself. Many a poor beggar who wants a crust has been mocked with a sermon.
3. The good word is acceptable and useful when it goes along with, or follows after, the kindly deed. The lesson of commonplace charity is, that it is always better to help the distressed with our hands than with our lips. The lips may do good service when they back up what the hands do. Do not say to the cold and naked, “Be ye warmed”: warm them, and save your talking to them until they are warmed. All our good works should be instinct with the same principle. Do first, and let good speech be the fair companion of good deeds.

James 2:17. Faith and Works.—Suppose I say, “A tree cannot be struck without thunder”; that is true, for there is never destructive lightning without thunder. But again, if I say, “The tree was struck by lightning without thunder,” that is true too, if I mean that the lightning alone struck it without the thunder striking it. Yet read the two assertions together, and they seem contradictory. So, in the same way, St. Paul says, “Faith justifies without works”—that is, faith alone is that which justifies us, not works. But St. James says, “Not a faith which is without works.” There will be works with faith, as there is thunder with lightning; but just as it is not the thunder but the lightning, the lightning without the thunder, that strikes the tree, so it is not the works which justify. Put it in one sentence—Faith alone justifies, but not the faith which is alone. Lightning alone strikes, but not the lightning which is alone without thunder; for that is only summer lightning, and harmless.—F. W. Robertson.

Faith as a Cipher.—Faith is like a cipher in arithmetic, which, no matter how often it is repeated, represents nothing “being alone,” but when added to the units it gives them value. So faith and works.—Bayot.

Faith and its Fruits.—Faith must be known by its fruits. When a mighty cliff is to be shattered by gunpowder, a small chamber is prepared in the interior, and filled with the powder, then a wire connected with an electric battery is carried in. At the appointed signal the spectators watch the cliff, and if they see no movement they know the messenger that flashed along the wire has not been received. If it had been, the cliff would have heaved, and fallen into the sea.

The WordDeadas applied toThings.”—It has been shown by Professor Drummond that things are properly said to be dead when they fail to “respond to their environment.” Then we have to find what is the particular environment of faith: then we can test faith, and see if it is living, and if it is living by an all-round and complete response to its environment.

James 2:17-18. Faith a Sentiment and Faith a Power.—St. James has really but one topic. It may be expressed in this way—Godliness is practical. It is the spirit that tones, and gives good character to, all human life and relations. This is true of all godliness; it is pre-eminently true of the Christian godliness. The old Jew repeated his profession of faith—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord”—day by day, until it became a meaningless routine, and he could keep on saying it, and even pride himself in keeping on, while well-nigh everything in his life and conduct and relations was inconsistent with the due fear of God, and with a fitting sense of the brotherhood of man; subversive of the first principles of religion and justice and charity. The condition was well represented by the Pharisees of our Lord’s day, who came under His severest denunciations, because they prided themselves upon their faith, but kept it clear of all influence upon their works. They said, but did not: were always ready to show their faith, to talk about it, to boast about it; but they dared not, and did not wish to, show their works; and they needed to have themselves shown up to themselves by the searching and revealing words of Christ. Judaism did not contemplate any such divorce of faith and works. Indeed, the Mosaic system provided against any such possibility by its elaborate system of works—duties, ceremonies, relations, obligations—in and through which the faith of the Jew might find expression. Jewish ritual was valuable with faith, but worthless and mischievous without it. The faith that did nothing was nothing. St. James writes to Jews who had come to accept Jesus as Messiah and Saviour—to Jews whose new formula of faith was, “I believe in one God, and in Jesus Christ whom He hath sent”: and a very good creed to believe that was. But the peril attached to it was that which attached to the old Jewish creed, and indeed to all creeds. It was of no value by itself, and yet men were always tempted to satisfy themselves with it alone. A man’s faith is a living thing, and all living things want to do something; they want to work; and they are known by their works. We do not call a thing alive that does nothing; and faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself. St. James does but announce a universal fact and principle, one that is as true to-day as yesterday. A faith that could do nothing—poor, weak, worthless thing—never saved anybody yet. Doing nothing, it could not do that. A faith that can do nothing neither God nor man can take any notice of. It is a bubble, and bursts with a touch. St. Paul scorns the vain thing as much as St. James; and our Divine Lord and Master scorns it even more than they. He sees men repeating their “Shema” (their “apostles’ creed”) day by day, and He says, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The matter vitally concerns us, and it may be shown that—

1. These are two distinct things—faith and works.
2. They can be separated, so that man may have one and not the other.
3. When separated, faith becomes a sentiment, and works become a snare.
4. When united, faith becomes a power of life in works, and works become a nourishment of the power in faith.

I. These are two distinct things—faith and works.—Faith is a mood of the mind. Works are activities of the body. Works are things done; faith is the soul that should be in the doing. Faith puts the man into the sphere of the unseen. Works keep the man in the sphere of the seen. Faith is sometimes spoken of as the intellectual apprehension of certain propositions; then we call it belief, but it may not mean our apprehension, it may only mean our acceptance of something on the basis of an authority that we recognise, and to which we submit. No “works” are necessary to “belief”; and no moral redemption was ever wrought by the mere belief of anything. “Saving faith” is more than “belief.” Faith is personal trust in a person, who is felt to be worthy of the trust. It is heart-reliance. To that trust the belief that is an intellectual apprehension may, and does, powerfully help; but it is the trust that saves, not the belief. It has been pointed out, by Godet and others, that the faith of St. James is really not the same thing as the justifying faith of St. Paul. And if this is clearly apprehended, all thought of contradiction between the teachings of St. James and St. Paul is made impossible. Godet says: “The faith of which St. James affirms that it does not justify is quite of a different kind from that of which St. Paul affirms that it suffices for justification. They differ with respect to their object and their nature. When St. Paul teaches justification by faith, he means faith in the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ; or at least—when he is dealing with Old Testament personages—faith in the gracious promises of Jehovah, of which this redemption was the fulfilment” (we should have preferred to say, faith in Jesus Christ Himself, in whom is the redemptive power); “whereas the faith which St. James declares to be insufficient for salvation means simply—he says so himself, chap. James 2:19—that belief in the one only God which distinguished the Jews from the heathen.” The fact is, that St. James had in mind the theory of salvation by faith in the unity of God which Pharisaic Jews so tenaciously held. Justin Martyr says to Tryphon, the Jew, “As for you Jews, you affirm that even when you are sinners, yet if you know God, He will not impute to you your sins.” And in a Judaistic document of the second century it is said, “A monotheistic soul has this privilege above that of an idolater—that even when it has lived in sin it cannot perish.” It is clear that St. James means by faith “belief”; and belief in one particular thing—belief with which men satisfied themselves, to the neglect of all other sacred obligations. Is that sort of faith of any more service now than it was then? St. James is right. Such “faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself.” “Works” are distinct from “faith”; but here again St. James and St. Paul mean two different things by the term. St. Paul writes concerning works that precede faith, and represent a man’s own endeavour to secure a ground on which to claim salvation. “Works,” in that sense, are clearly antagonistic to faith; and the apostle properly urges that all such works must be put away before a saving faith can even become a possibility. But St. James has not “works” in any such sense before his mind at all. He was thinking only of the works which should come after faith—should be the sign of faith, the proof of faith, and the proper culture of faith. St. James is precisely in the same range as St. Paul when the apostle urges that “they which have believed God should be careful to maintain good works.” Works instead of faith will save no man. Works expressing faith, and showing it to be real, living, will save any man, because the faith in the works is the required Divine condition of salvation on man’s side.

II. These two things—faith and works—can be separated, so that a man may have the one and not the other.—We all know and esteem highly the men and women who abound in good works, fill their lives with active charities, and serve their generation with self-sacrificing services and generosities, and yet make no profession or pretence of religion. And do we not also know many who have only faith, a helpless, workless faith—who can fight for their particular setting or little piece of truth, and feel sure of the special favour of God because their belief is right, but never “lift up hands that hang down, never strengthen feeble knees,” never comfort sorrowing hearts, but can only press their beliefs, as the absolute grounds of salvation, even upon the dying? A man who has nothing but his faith, and prides himself in that, separates himself from humanity, and from Jesus Christ, the brother of humanity, and may be classed among the unloveliest of the unlovely, going about judging his fellows by his own poor mental standard. But the fact that the two things, which are knit and welded together in the purpose of God, can be separated by the wilfulness and the false teachings of men, so that one of us may have the faith, and another of us may have the works, is full of the most serious import to us all. Because neither of these, by itself, can save us. Faith cannot save, if alone. Works cannot save, if alone. That sort of faith saves which can be called a works-faith, a faith that is living enough, real enough, to do something, something good and something kind. How is it with us? Have we faith? Is it delightfully orthodox, so that we are quite proud of it? We do well. “The devils also believe,” and do something more than believe—they “tremble.” St. James rises into scornfulness. “If a man say he hath faith, but have not works, can that faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and in lack of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; and yet he give them not the things needful to the body; what doth it profit?” Have we only works? I do not mean any manufacturing of self-righteousness by strict obedience to law—that is a Pauline idea, and does not come to St. James’s mind here. Are we full of the “milk of human kindness”; ever ready to serve; inventive in charities; a father to the poor; the helper of the widows; a Dorcas in generous thoughtfulness? If it all be without faith, if it have no inspiration in our love to the Lord Jesus, which love carries to Him our trust, what doth it profit? Can works save? He is deluded who thinks so. They will be appraised at their worth. They are, and they will be, rewarded according to the Divine estimate of their merit; but they never saved a man from his sins yet. They bear no relation to saving a man from his sins. That comes through a Divine Saviour; and that comes to a man by the faith which links him to the Saviour, and brings to him all the saving power that is in Him. Works do not save. Faith saves, when it is such faith as is real enough, vigorous enough, to do something, to express itself in works. Dead faith cannot save; living faith can; it is the living link with the living Saviour.

III. When separated, faith becomes a sentiment, and works become a snare.—If faith is checked from following out its natural impulses, it turns back upon itself, and having no air and no exercise gets thin, and ready to vanish away; or else it exaggerates to itself its own importance, and walks about its “little garden walled around” with an uplifted head that may be Pharisaic, but certainly is not Christly. Sentimentality is morally mischievous. It exhausts the religious capacity. It takes the place of service. Cherishing excellent but fruitless sentiments, many a man has gone on into the awful awakening of the after life unsaved. For sentiment never saved a soul from sin yet, and it is certain that it never will. And if a man stops with his proprieties and charities, and satisfies himself with his good works, he puts himself into temptation and a snare. He silences the inward voice—with which comes the Divine voice—convicting of sin that needs a Saviour. He lets good works stop his ears, and so not a sound of the Saviour’s gracious call to the weary and heavy laden can come in to him. Snared and held, it is nothing to him that “Jesus of Nazareth passes by.” Is that snare round you? Is your soul facing the great laws of God, and complacently saying, “All these have I kept from my youth up. What lack I yet?” Listen: those kind things you do are all very well in their way, but there is a stain on your soul. What are you going to do with that? You want Him—you want to believe in Him—who alone can cleanse the stain away.

IV. When united, faith becomes a power of life in works, and works become a nourishment of the power in faith.—Works have their value in the motives that inspire them. Many do kind things simply because they have kind dispositions. Many do kind things because they are overpressed by the sense of duty. And many do kind things because they feel the inspiration of noble examples; but none of these can ever lift our good works into the highest plane. They must have a higher motive than any of these: the “constraining love of Christ,” on whom the faith is savingly fixed. Saving faith is life and inspiration for all good works. All is done well, when done for Jesus’ sake. And the life of holy service and charity nourishes the faith. By use; for it is wanted for every good deed; but even more, because whoever spends himself in ministry, as the Lord Jesus did, sets himself upon constant renewals of spiritual strength, even as the Lord Jesus did. You cannot unite St. Paul’s “works” with “faith”; you must put “works,” as grounds of claim, altogether away. But you can unite St. James’s “works” with “faith,” and you must do so; for it is only the faith that can do something, and does do something, that saves the soul from death.

James 2:19. “The Lord our God is one Lord.”—A similar utterance of faith is held to be the test of the true believer in Islam, when the two inquiring angels put their awful questions to the departed soul. But the idea is much more ancient, for a similar confession was required of the just before Osiris, the lord of the Egyptian heaven.

The Faith of Devils.—St. James’s expression, “the devils [dæmons] also believe and tremble [shudder],” at once recalls to mind our Lord’s treatment of the devil-possessed sufferers, and the spirits of evil that possessed them. One case is especially to the point, and illustrative of this sentence. “There was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit: and he cried out, saying, Let us alone; what have we to do with Thee, Thou Jesus of Nazareth? art Thou come to destroy us? I know Thee who Thou art, the Holy One of God.” There is the faith in Christ of devils; and there is the shuddering fear which faith brings to them. St. James is not intending to argue that devils can believe. Given adequate grounds for any statement, and rational intelligences are bound to believe it, and prove themselves wholly unworthy of the trust of rational intelligence if they do not. Devils must believe, just as angels and men must. What St. James urges is that the faith of devils in Christ is a practical faith. There is almost a touch of humour in his reference to them. Their faith does not abide alone; it does not spend itself in profession; it impels them to do something. True, what they do is not much good to themselves or anybody else, but still it is doing. They shudder. St. James seems reproachfully to suggest, that very much of so-called Christian faith spends itself in sentiment; does nothing; does not even shudder.


James 2:15-16. Practical Prayer and Benevolence.—In the vicinity of B—— lived a poor but industrious man, depending for support upon his daily labour. His wife fell sick, and not being able to hire a nurse, he was obliged to confine himself to the sickbed and the family. His means of support being thus cut off, he soon found himself in need. Having a wealthy neighbour near, he determined to go and ask for two bushels of wheat, with a promise to pay as soon as his wife became so much better that he could leave her and return to his work. Accordingly he took his bag, went to his neighbour’s, and arrived while the family were at morning prayers. As he sat on the doorstone, he heard the man pray very earnestly that God would clothe the naked, feed the hungry, relieve the distressed, and comfort all that mourn. The prayer concluded, the poor man stepped in and made known his business, promising to pay with the avails of his first labours. The farmer was very sorry he could not accommodate him, for he had promised to lend a large sum of money, and had depended upon his wheat to make it out; but he presumed neighbour —— would let him have it. With a tearful eye and a sad heart the poor man turned away. As soon as he left the house, the farmer’s little son stepped up and said, “Father, did you not pray that God would clothe the naked, feed the hungry, relieve the distressed, and comfort mourners?” “Yes: why?” “Because if I had your wheat I would answer that prayer.” It is needless to add that the Christian father called back his suffering neighbour, and gave him as much as he needed.

Give to him that needeth.—We read of King Oswald, that as he sat at table, when a fair silver dish, full of regal delicacies, was set before him, and he ready to fall to, hearing from his almoner that there were great store of poor at his gates, piteously crying out for some relief, did not fill them with words, as, “God help them!” “God relieve them!” “God comfort them!” but commanded his steward presently to take the dish off the table and distribute the meat, then beat the dish all in pieces and cast it among them.—Holdsworth.

James 2:17. True Faith acts.—True faith rests not in great and good desires, but acts and executes accordingly. It will be long enough ere the gale of good wishes carry us to heaven.—Bishop Hall.

Works evidence Faith.—Works are the evidence of faith. There is both light and heat in the candle; but put out the candle, and both are gone, one remains not without the other. As the pure fair orb which borrows radiance from the sun sheds heavenly light upon a world that lies in darkness, so do the Christian’s virtues shine. But as that beauteous planet, if ever it come between the world and its true source of light, darkens instead of brightens, throws on the earth below a shadow, not a beam, so what we most admire in man proves but a fatal snare, if it obscure the glory of the cross, the need of free salvation.—A. L. O. E.

Oars pulled together.—Two gentlemen were one day crossing the river in a ferry-boat. A dispute about faith and works arose,—one saying that good works were of small importance, and that faith was everything; the other asserting the contrary. Not being able to convince each other, the ferry-man, an enlightened Christian, asked permission to give his opinion. Consent being granted, he said, “I hold in my hands two oars. That in my right hand I call “faith”; the other, in my left, “works.” Now, gentlemen, please to observe, I pull the oar of faith, and pull that alone. See I the boat goes round and round, and the boat makes no progress. I do the same with the oar of works, and with a precisely similar result, no advance. Mark! I pull both together, we go on apace, and in a very few minutes we shall be at our landing-place. So, in my humble opinion,” he added, “faith without works, or works without faith, will not suffice. Let there be both, and the haven of eternal rest is sure to be reached.” As the flower is before the fruit, so is faith before good works. Faith is the parent of works, and the children will bear a resemblance to the parent. It is not enough that the inward works of a clock are well constructed, and also the dial-plate and hands; the one must act on the other, the works must regulate the movement of the hands.—Archbishop Whately.

Verses 21-24


James 2:22. Made perfect.—Or, “a complete, and therefore acceptable, thing.”

James 2:23. Imputed.—“Was accounted as equivalent to righteousness.” His willingness to do, joined with the effort to do, was reckoned as if the thing was actually done.


The Imputation of Righteousness.—St. James’s point in this paragraph seems to be this—Abraham did not gain the righteousness of an actual obedience of God’s will. He did not actually carry through the Divine command, and sacrifice his son on the altar. But he did fully purpose obedience; he did make every effort to carry his obedient purpose through. He was stopped, not by any change in his purpose, but by a new revelation of the Divine will; and it was therefore perfectly right that the intention and effort should be recognised as the righteousness which would have accrued to him if the sacrifice had been carried through. What St. James suggests is this—Would it have been reckoned as righteousness if Abraham had only thought about obeying, only talked about obeying, only resolved to obey, and had made no effort? It was that “rising up early in the morning, saddling his ass, cleaving the wood, carrying the fire and knife, journeying to Moriah, laying the wood in order, binding Isaac, laying him on the altar, and raising the knife to slay his son”—proving the reality of his faith, which was counted to him for righteousness. And here is a truth full of encouragement for us. Constantly we find that we cannot accomplish what we plan. Again and again we have to mourn that “our purposes are broken off.” Abraham was not permitted to do what he would. David was not permitted to carry through that which was in his heart. But incomplete works, which are incomplete through orderings of Divine Providence, not through our moral weakness, suffice to show God the reality, the activity, of our faith, and can be the basis on which righteousness is imputed to us. To prove faith obedience is necessary, but the obedience may be providentially stopped. The active effort to obey suffices; the precise result is unimportant. In Abraham there was faith in God’s command; but it was only known and shown by the works of obedience which he so resolutely endeavoured to perform.


James 2:22. Perfect, or All-round, Faith.—A thing is perfect when all its capacities are healthily developed, and are finding healthy exercise. Physical training aims to secure a perfect body, by nourishing into harmonious efficiency every organ, every sense, every power. Faith may be thought of as having its capacities, spheres, relations, possibilities, of service.

1. It has the sphere of the mental and moral life of the individual, and needs to get its full influence there.
2. It has its sphere of the relationship with God, and it needs to make full response to all the claims of God.
3. It has its sphere in its earth surroundings, with their various relationships and calls for influence; and it must be exercised into a wise efficiency of service in all that sphere. Perfect faith is all-round, efficient faith, fully responding in the faith spheres of self, God, and others.

James 2:23. El Khalil, the Friend of God.—Khalil-Allah, the “friend of God,” is the fuller form of Abraham’s title. In many ways it has a peculiar significance. The ancestor of the chosen people is not, as in the legends of Greece and Rome, or even of Germany, a god, or a demi-god, or the son of a god; he is a mere man. The interval between the human and Divine is never confounded. Close as are the communications with Deity, yet the Divine essence is always veiled, the man is never absorbed into it. Abraham is “the friend,” but he is nothing more. He is nothing more, but he is nothing less. He is “the friend of God.” The title includes a double meaning. He is “beloved of God.” In him was exemplified the fundamental truth of all religion,—that God has not deserted the world; that His work is carried on by His chosen instruments; that good men are not only His creatures and His servants, but His friends. And not only was Abraham beloved by God, but God was “beloved by him”; not only was God the friend of Abraham, but Abraham was the “friend of God.” To expand this truth is to see what was the religion, the communion with the Supreme, which raised Abraham above his fellow-men.—Dean Stanley.

James 2:21-22; James 2:24. Faith and Works.—The truths revealed by the gospel are not merely verbal statements, but great facts concerning the spiritual world, which exist quite independently of the words by which they are related to us in the New Testament. And the same spiritual truths are presented to us in Holy Scripture from different points of view. This is especially the case with the relation between the faith and works of a Christian, as set forth by St. Paul and St. James. If we dwell merely on the words they use, we may think they contradict each other. If we seek for their whole scope and meaning, we shall find that they are only treating the same subject from different points of view. Probably the epistle of St. James was written before that to the Romans. St. Paul tells us that pardon of our past sins and reconciliation to God are not earned by any works done in order to merit them. “To him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt”; but the pardon of our past sins is the gift of God—it is simply an act of “grace,” or free mercy on the part of God towards sinful men. St. James tells us that Abraham, in the hour of trial, when he had offered up Isaac, was justified by his works also, or by the evidence which his works gave to angels and to men of the reality of his faith in God. St. James never says that Abraham was not justified by faith. He uses the word “works” in a sense wholly distinct from that of St. Paul. When St. James speaks of a man being “justified by works,” he means works which are the result of loving faith—works which are wrought by the Spirit of Christ in His faithful followers, works which evidence their faith and are ever tending to perfect it. St. Paul means by “works” the doing of certain outward things in order to purchase salvation. He speaks not of works wrought by the Holy Spirit, but of the “works of the flesh,” and directs us to seek that great inward change which is the gift of God.—Robert Barclay.

James 2:24. Justification by Works.—Of all questions the first and greatest is, “How shall a man be just before God?” Many differences of opinion. Text a deduction from a preceding argument. We should carefully examine the argument.

I. The apostle’s argument.

1. Whence did it arise? He was reproving an evil in the early Church—the showing partiality to the richer members, oppressing and holding in contempt the poorer (James 2:1). This gives a clue to the whole. Hold not the true faith in so erroneous and unworthy a manner.

2. Trace the steps of his argument. This partiality is contrary to the law and the gospel. He appeals to the whole Church. No person can be saved so holding the faith of Christ. How vain pretences to love would be if it were as inoperative as this faith! (James 2:15-16). He confirms these assertions by an appeal to the Scriptures themselves. Whatever degrees of faith people might pretend to, they can never be accepted by God unless their faith works by love.

II. The conclusion drawn from it.

1. The future judgment will proceed on grounds of perfect equity. God dispenses rewards and punishments not on arbitrary but strictly equitable grounds. God will judge men not by their faith, which He alone can see, but by their works, which all can see.

2. Faith is of no value unless attested by works. Faith at first sees Christ as Saviour from guilt and condemnation. It does not rest there; it lays hold on Him for sanctification, and for righteousness.

A common objection.St. Paul’s sentiments and declarations on this subject are directly opposed to those of St. James. St. Paul is proving that a man is not to seek salvation by any righteousness of his own, but simply by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; whereas St. James is proving that a man who professes to have faith in Christ must show forth his faith by his works. St. Paul endeavours to convince the self-justiciary; St. James the Antinomian. St. Paul—works are nothing without faith; St. James—faith is nothing without works.

A few words

1. Of caution.

(1) Do not separate faith and works. If your faith be strong enough to remove mountains, yet if it work not by love, it is but “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.”

(2) Do not confound the two. You must lay Christ as your foundation first, and afterward raise on Him the superstructure of good works. Faith will honour Christ as the only Saviour of mankind, and works will honour Him as Lord and Master.

2. Of encouragement. All difficulties in the subject vanish before a broken and contrite heart; not all verbal difficulties, perhaps, but all doubts on the main subject. No righteousness but that of Christ can ever avail for our acceptance before God; and holiness is no less necessary for our final enjoyment of His favours. He will not “despise the contrite heart.”—Charles Simeon, M.A.

Verses 25-26


James 2:24. By works.—That is, by the acts which indicate faith to be a reality, and alive.

James 2:26. Dead.—In the sense of being ineffective; mere helpless sentiment not moving, actuating principle.


Justification by Works.—The common misconception of Roman Catholic doctrine prevents our properly understanding the teaching of St. James. Justification by works is usually understood to mean justification by the strict and precise observance of prescribed religious duties. St. James has in mind acts of kindness, charity, and service, as the signs and expressions of faith in God. Rahab is no illustration of doing religious duties. She is the illustration of doing kindly service. She did a brave thing, and a wise thing, and a charitable thing, in hiding the spies, and getting them away safely, and she did this because she believed in God, and believed that these men were carrying out a mission from God. But should we have heard anything about Rahab’s faith, if that faith had done nothing—nothing but talk pious things? Her works proved her faith. She was accepted (justified) on the ground of her faith; but it was because that faith was real enough, vital enough, healthy enough, to do something. She was accepted for her works, because the soul of faith was in them.

I. Some works can never justify any man.—Works done in order to form a basis of merit—these cannot justify, because they never can be so worthy or so perfect as to claim Divine acceptance. They may take different forms: good conduct; strained feeling; pious deeds. The hopelessness of them for justifying a man lies in a man’s making his own terms of acceptance with God, and failing to get up to his own terms. If we are to claim justification, we must have an unquestionable ground of claim; and this man can never have, since he carries his moral imperfection into everything he does.

II. Some works will always justify a man.—Such works as Abraham’s and as Rahab’s—works which were the simple, natural, and proper expression of a right state of mind and heart, and had no thought of merit in them, or thought of claim. Abraham did not aim, in trying to offer his son, to build up a merit. Rahab did not, in ministering to Gold’s servants, try to build up a merit. God accepted both—accepted the state of mind and heart of both, accepted the soul of faith with its body of works, which together made a “living sacrifice.”


James 2:25. Rahab read by her Motives.—Did we fix attention on her manner of life, we should have to express severe condemnation. Did we fix attention on her actions in secreting the spies, and securing their safe departure, we could only give her very qualified praise, for it implied a failure in loyalty to her own country and people. But when we read her heart and her motive, the whole estimate of her life and conduct are changed. Faith in God may override loyalty to country. But she might have had her faith, and no one been the better for it, not even she herself, if it had not been a practical faith, and used its opportunity. She was justified in acting as she did, because she believed what she did. But her faith would only have been as the faith of many around her, a faith which was more fear than faith, if she had not acted. Read her in the light of her motives, and Rahab illustrates the truth that faith is justified by its works.

A Works-faith.—What may be called a “works-faith” is illustrated in Rahab. Divide thus:

1. The faith she had.
2. The interests her faith opposed.
3. The opportunity that came for testing her faith.
4. The triumph of her faith.
5. The proof that it was accepted.
6. The reward of faith which could work. Point out that disabilities and disadvantages of outward circumstances need not prevent faith, though they must make struggle for it.

James 2:26. A Truth that can be turned Two Ways.—“Faith without works is dead.” That is the truth on which St. James insists here. But the converse is equally true—works without faith are also dead. They are wholly ineffective for the justification of a man. Works are but routine, outward, material. Faith is but a sentiment, or a response of the human intellect to proofs. Neither works by themselves nor faith by itself can ever accomplish anything in relation to a man’s justification and salvation. Put the two things together. Let faith put the man into the works, let the works verify the fact that the man is in the faith, then you have the living, the real faith, which is the condition of salvation on the human side. A man’s body is a helpless thing save as quickened by the indwelling spirit. A man’s spirit is out of all possible relations until it can get into them through the agency of a body.

1. Body is nothing without spirit.
2. Spirit is nothing without body.
3. The two in relation make a living being.
4. Faith is nothing without works.
5. Works are nothing without faith.
6. The two in relation make the ground of man’s justification.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on James 2". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/phc/james-2.html. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.
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