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For the better understanding of these words, let us consider. 1. What the apostle doth not; 2. What he doth condemn. 3. What is here not condemned, namely,
1. The paying of civil respect to all persons, according to their character, and a different respect to persons, according to their different qualities: honour is to be given to whom honour is due, and the rich are entitled to respect; and that they receive it from us, is no ways displeasing unto God.
2. Much less does our apostle here speak against honouring magistrates, or paying respect to our ecclesiastical or civil rulers and governors in their courts or judicature: civility, yea, Christianity, calls for outward respect and reverence to them that are above us, especially if in authority over us.
But positively, that which is here condemned, 1. In general, is partiality in our respect to persons in religious matters, for in the things of God all are equal: the rich and the poor stand upon the same terms of advantage; external relations and differences bear no weight at the gospel-beam; therefore, to disesteem any of the poor members of Christ, as such, is to disesteem and undervalue Christ himself. Holiness in not less lovely to him because clothed with rags, nor unholiness less loathsome because it goes in a gay coat with a gold ring. Wickedness is abominable to Christ, and ought to be so to us, though it sits upon a throne, and holiness shines in his eye, (and may it in ours also,) though it lies upon a dunghill.
2. That which seems here to be condemned in particular, is the accepting of persons in judgment, upon the account of outward advantages, proceeding not according to the merits of the cause, in their ecclesiastical and civil judicatures, but according to external respects. Our apostle would by no means have them pay a deference to a rich man in judgment because of his riches, or gay attire; nor to pass over the poor saints in their assemblies, for want of the gold ring, and goodly apparel, seeing their faith clothed them with a greater and a more valuable glory, which renders them more honourable than any riches or gay clothing could do.
And mark the apostle's vehement expostulation, which carries with it the force of a severe reprehension; Are you not partial, and become judges of evil thoughts? As if he had said, "Are ye not condemned in yourselves, and convinced in your own consciences that you do evil? Are ye not become judges of evil thoughts; that is, do you not pass judgment from your evil thoughts, in thinking the rich worthy of respect in judgment for his gorgeous attire, and outward greatness, and the poor fit to be despised for his outward meanness? Is not this an evil, a very evil thought in you, to think him the best man that weareth the best clothes, and him a vile person that is in vile apparel?
From the whole learn, 1. That men are very prone to honour worldly greatness in general, yea, to give too great a preference to it, even in matters of judgment. Man is very often swayed in judgment by the power, pomp, and splendour of men; we are apt to think that they that are worth most are most worthy: thus men, good men, may mis-judge of men; but thus to accept the persons of men, either in spiritual or civil judgment, is a provoking sin.
To prevent the growing evil condemned in the foregoing verse, of undervaluing those that are rich in grace, because poor in estate, the apostle in this verse declares how God himself gives countenance to the contrary practice; he confers a threefold dignity upon them; they are chosen by him, they are rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven now as if the apostle said, "Are they fit to be despised by you, that are thus highly dignified and enriched by God?" And to stir up their attention to what he speaks, he ushers in his interrogation with this, Hearken, my beloved brethren, hath not God chosen the poor of this world? &c.
Learn hence, that such as are poor in this world, and disesteemed of men, may yet be chosen of God, rich in grace, and heirs of glory. This he does, to demonstrate the sovereignty and freeness of his grace, and the glory of his wisdom. The first choice that Christ made of persons to be his followers were poor men; and ever since, generally speaking, they are the poor that receive the gospel: God has more rent, and better paid him, from a smokey cottage than from many stately palaces, where men wallow in wealth, and forget God.
Our apostle here charges them downright with that sin which he had been before condemning, namely, an undue respect of persons, despising the poor whom God himself had chosen and honoured: But ye have despised the poor. Despising the poor is a sin not only against the word, but against the works of God; it is against his word and express command, backed with a severe threatening, enter not into the vineyard of the poor; that is, oppress them not, for his avenger is mighty, and God will plead his cause for him. It is also against his works and his end in creation: for God never made any creature for contempt; he then that despiseth the poor reproacheth his Maker, that is, condemneth the wisdom of God; which is as much seen in making poor, as in making rich; in making valleys, as in making hills.
Observe farther, the apostle shews them what little reason and cause they had as to vilify the poor, so to idolize and adore the rich; do not rich men oppress you by tyranny, and draw you before the judgment seat, like the vilest malefactors? Do not they blaspheme the name of Christ? that worthy name from which you are called Christians, and spit in the very face of your holy religion?
Learn, 1. That wicked rich men are oft-times oppressors, sometimes persecutors; they have frequently both will and power, both disposition and occasion to do both.
2. That oppressors and persecutors are generally blasphemers; they blaspheme the name of Christ, that worthy name which whosoever nameth ought to depart from all iniquity, 2 Timothy 2:19.
Observe here, 1. The honourable title put upon the law of God a royal law: Royal in its author, Jesus Christ, Hebrews 12:25. Christ's voice shook Mount Sinai: Royal in its precepts, the duty it requires of us is noble and excellent, nothing but what is our interest as men, our honour and happiness as Christians, and what tends to the perfecting and ennobling of our natures: Royal in its rewards: true, our work can deserve no wages; however, our royal Master will not let us work for nothing. Satan, as a master, is bad, his work much worse; but his wages worst of all. Christ is a royal Master, obedience to his law is royal service: and how royal is his reward, in making us kings and priests unto God on earth, and crowned kings and princes with God in heaven!
Observe, 2. Our duty declared, with relation to this royal law, namely, to fulfil it: If ye fulfil the royal law, according to the Scriptures, that is, if ye pay a sincere respect to the whole duty of the law, if you come up in your obedience to that universal love of God and your neighbour which the law requires, ye do well; where by neighbour, we are to understand every one to whom we may be helpful; the command to love him as ourselves shews the manner, not the measure, of our love; the kind, not the degree; the parity and likeness, not the equality of proportion; we must mind the good of our neighbour as really and truly, though not so vehemently and earnestly, as our own.
Observe, 3. How the apostle convicts them for walking contrary to this law, in honouring the rich and despising the poor, and in judging according to men's outward quality and condition: If ye have respect to persons in this manner, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. How does the law convince? Not only by reproving, but by proving: it shews us a rule, and faith, "There ye have departed from it; here is a line, and there ye have transgressed it; either gone over it, or gone beside it."
Learn hence, that the rule of the word discovers wickedness fully to the conscience of the sinner who winks hard, and is loth to lie under the convictions of it.
Here the apostle doth suppose a case which ought to make every person very conscientious in his obedience to the whole law of God, namely, that in case a man were careful to observe all the laws of God, except one, his living in the breach of that one shall be so far from being connived at upon the account of his obedience to all the rest, that he shall be liable to the punishment which is due to the transgression of the whole law; to the same punishment for kind, I say, not for degree; because the more and greater sins men are guilty of, the greater and severer shall be their punishment, which consists in being for ever banished from the presence of God, and in being imprisoned with devils and damned spirits, which is called eternal death.
Learn hence, that whoever allows himself in any one sin, be it either of omission or commission, willingly, constantly, and with allowance from conscience, and doth not convert and turn from it unto God, he is certainly in a state of damnation, because he affronts the sovereignty, and condemns the authority of that God that made and enacted the whole law, and also stands in a prepared readiness and disposition to break any other, yea, all other laws, in the grossest manner, whensoever any forcible temptation may assault him. Add to this, that living in the breach of any one law, will make a person unmeet for the enjoyment of God, as well as living in the breach of all.
As if the apostle had said, "He that threatened adultery with death, threatened also murder with death; it is the same lawgiver that forbids both, and his authority is as truly contemned in transgressing one as both these laws. Disobedience to God, in any one law, is a virtual denying of his authority to prescribe any law to us, and lays a foundation for universal disobedience; for if Almighty God's sovereignty be disowned in any one instance, it may as well be so in all other; the same reason that leads to the observation or violation of one law, doth oblige us to keep or break all the rest, and that is the authority of the lawgiver. The whole law hath an equal obligation upon the conscience." From hence the apostle draws this inference, that persons should so speak and so do, so order their speeches and their actions, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
Note here, 1. That all we say and do, all our actions and expressions, do fall under the judgment and sentence of the law of God.
2. That the law of God, in the hand of Christ, is the law of liberty; we are freed from it as a covenant, freed from its condemnatory curse, freed from its rigorous exactions, bondage, and terrors. The law to a believer is a law of liberty, and to others a law of bondage and death.
3. That it will be a great help to us in our Christian course, to think often that all our words and actions must come into judgment; it is agreeable to the liberty of the gospel to believe and remember, that all we say and do must be judged by the law of liberty.
That is, he that whilst he lived shewed no mercy, but had opportunity and ability to shew it, shall have judgment without mercy; that is, shall be very severely handled by God in the great day, and the sentence that shall pass upon him will be insupportable: but mercy rejoiceth against judgment, or triumpheth over judgment; that is, mercy in some degree of exaltation; such a mercy as has covetousness, hard-heartedness, and penuriousness, with all its enemies, under its feet: such mercy qualifies, strengthens, and enables the person in whom it is found, to be confidently secure that he shall receive no prejudice or hurt, by that judgment God shall pass upon the world at the great day.
Learn, from hence, that merciful men, whose hearts and hands are much exercised in doing good, and shewing mercy, by means of the consciousness of these God-like dispositions in themsleves, are, or may be, full of a joyful and blessed security, that they shall stand in the great judgment of the world, and find favour and acceptance in the eyes of the judge; when all unmerciful, covetous, and hard-hearted persons, shall fall under the sentence, and be ground to powder by it; He shall have judgment without mercy, that sheweth no mercy; but mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
Our apostle here enters upon the second part of his discourse contained in this chapter, namely, to shew the vanity of a fruitless faith; that such a faith as is not the parent and principle of obedience, and productive of good works, is altogether ineffectual and unprofitable. Faith of no kind, when it is alone, is justifying; as there can be no good works without faith; so where true faith is, it will be fruitful in good works, otherwise faith is no more faith; no believing without obedience will avail us; therefore St. Paul and St. James both agree to render to faith the things that are faith's, and not to take away from works the things that are works.
What doth it profit a man to say he hath faith? &c. As if our apostle had said, "Let not any person think his faith sufficient to justify and save him without the works of charity and mercy." Alas! a mere worldly profession is a poor unprofitable thing! What will professing Christianity, and saying we believe, avail to salvation, if we obey not Christ, and live not according to the gospel? Will good works feed the hungry, or clothe the naked? Is it not like a mocking of them? Even so a notional knowledge, and a bare profession of faith, if it brings not forth the fruits of holiness and obedience towards God, of justice and rightousness, of love and mercy towards our neighbour, it is an effectual dead thing; like a dead corpse, without a quickening and enlivening soul; it is altogether dead as to our justification and salvation.
Learn hence, 1. That a fruitless faith is certainly a dead faith. It is dead, because it does not unite us to Christ; it is lifeless, because there is no liveliness in such a person's performances; for though faith be not always alike lively, yet if sincere, it is always living, and enables the Christian to live unto Christ, and to bear much fruit. He that abideth (that is, believeth) in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit John 15:1.
Observe, 2. The comparison which St. James here makes between faith and charity; from whence he draws this conclusion, If charity towards the poor, professed in words, but without works, be counterfeit, then faith in Christ, professed in like manner, without obedience, is also counterfeit and false: but charity towards the poor in words, and not in deeds, is a counterfeit charity; accordingly faith in Christ, without obedience to his commands, is a false faith; a dead faith, in regard to the effect; because it will never bring them, in whom it is, to life and salvation."
St. James brings in these words by way of dialogue, between a sincere believer that has true faith, and a falsehearted hypocrite that only pretends to it; thus, "Thou sayest thou hast true faith, though thou hast no works to evidence its truth; I say, I have true faith, because I have good works, which are the genuine effects and fruits of it. Come we now to the trial and let it appear who saith truth, thou or I; if thou that hast no works sayest true, prove thy faith to be true some other way. Works thou hast none, shew thy faith then be something else; but that is impossible, therefore thou vainly boastest of that which thou hast not; but, on the other side, says the sincere believer, I can make good what I say, proving the truth of my faith by the fruits of it is my works; this is a real demonstration that my faith is no vain ostentation as your's is." This way of arguing is very convincing; it grips the conscience of the hypocrite, and covers him with shame and confusion of face.
Learn hence, that good works are the evidences by which Christ will judge of our faith now, and according to which Christ will judge of us, and our faith at the great day. These two, faith and good works, ought to be as inseparable as light and the sun, as fire and heat. Obedience is the daughter of faith, and faith the parent and principle of obedience.
As if the apostle had said, "Be thou either Jew of Christian, thou believest that there is a God, and assentest to the articles of religion: herein thou doest well, but this is no more than what the devils do: for they also believe and tremble; and if thou hast no better faith, and no better fruits of thy faith than they, thou hast the same reason to tremble which they have."
Observe here, 1. That a bare and naked assent to the truths of the gospel, yea, to the fundamental truths and articles of religion, is not faith that will justify and save. The devils have it, yet have no hopes of salvation with it; they believe that there is a God, and a Christ that died for others, though not for them; so that an atheist that does not believe a God, is worse than a devil; for he believes that there is a God, whose being the Atheist denies.
Observe, 2. That horror is the fruit and effect of the devil's faith; the more they know of God, the more they dread him; the more they think of him, the more they tremble at him. O God! All knowledge of thee out of Christ is uncomfortable; thine attributes, which are in themselves dreadful and terrible, being beheld by us in thy Son, do yield comfort and sweetness to us; The devils believe, but tremble.
Our apostle here goes on to prove, that a person is justified by works, that is, by a working faith, from the example of Abraham; and the argument lies thus: "If Abraham of old was justified by a working faith then we cannot be justified without it at this day; but Abraham, the father of the faithful, and the friend of God, was justified by a working faith, therefore faith without works will justify no man. As Abraham was justified, so must we and all others be justified; because the means and method of justification were ever one and the same, and ever will be uniform and alike. But Abraham was justified by a working faith, his faith was full of like, efficacy, and power, in bringing forth obedience unto God; witness his ready compliance with that hard and difficult command, the offering up his son Isaac. Seest thou how faith wrought with his works? that is, how his faith did both direct and assist him in that work. By faith Abraham offered up Isaac, and by works was his faith made perfect Hebrews 11:17, that is, declared to be perfect; for Abraham was justified five and twenty years before he offered up his son, but his conquering the difficulties of that work, shewed the perfection of this faith: as the goodness of the fruit declares the excellency of the tree, so the furit of obedience evidenced the sincerity of Abraham's faith."
From hence then it may and must be concluded, that a barren and empty faith is a dead faith;
dead because it may be found in and with a person dead in trespasses and sins;
dead, because it receives not the quickening influences of the Spirit of God;
dead, because it wants operation, which is the effect of like;
dead, because unavailable to eternal life.
Observe farther, the honourable character and noble testimony here given of Abraham, for and upon the account of this faith and obedience; He was called the friend of God. All true believers are God's friends, as friends they are reconciled to him; as friends they enjoy communion with him, and communications from him; as friends there is a conformity of wills and affections between them, they like and love, they will and chuse the same things; as friends they desire and long for the complete fruition and enjoyment of each other.
Observe lastly, the inference which St. James draws from this instance of Abraham, Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith. By faith only, he means faith that is alone, solitary, and by itself, without works.
Quest. But does not St. James, by affirming, that By works a man is justified, and not by faith only, contradict St. Paul, who says, By the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in God's sight? Romans 3:20
Ans. Not at all,
1. Because they do not speak, ad idem, to the same thing; St. Paul speaks of justification before God, St. James of justification before men: St. Paul speaks of the justification of our person, St. James of the justification of our faith.
2. They do not speak iisdem to the same persons: St. Paul had to do with hypocritical professors, who abused St. Paul's doctrine of free grace, and took encouragement to sin, affirming, that if they believed, it was sufficient, no matter how they lived; therefore St. James urges the necessity of good works, as evidences of the sincerity of our faith.
The sum of the matter is this, what God has joined none must divide, and what God has divided none must join; he has separated faith and works in the business of justification, according to St Paul, and none must join them in it; and he has joined them in the lives of justified persons, as St. James spake, and there we must not separate them. St. Paul assures us, that works have not a co-efficiency in justification itself; but St. James assures us, that they may and ought to have a co-existency in them that are justified.
Here the apostle declares, that Rahab was justified by a working faith, as Abraham was before her, which appeared in her entertaining the spirits, lodging them in her house, and dismissing them with all possible privacy, which was a notable evidence of her faith in the God of Israel, her faith being accompanied with great self-denial, and exposing her to a mighty hazard. Indeed, Rahab's faith was mixed with great infirmity, she told a lie; but that is overlooked by God, and her faith only recorded, not her failing divulged. Rahab's lie, Sarah's laughter, Job's patience, are not mentioned: we discover corruption in the very exercise of our graces; but Oh! how good a master do we serve, that pardons our infirmities, and accepts our sincerity!
Learn hence, that the duties and services of believers, though blemished with many defects, do find acceptance with God, and shall not fail to be rewarded by him. Rahab's faith was seen in receiving the spies, her weakness and infirmity appeared in her lying; God pitied and pardoned the one, and accepted and rewarded the other.
In this verse the apostle sums up the whole matter, by comparing a dead faith to a dead corpse; as that is imperfect, wanting its best and noblest part: so faith without works wants that which dignifies and completes it.
Faith, without holiness to enliven it, is a dead body, without the spirit to quicken it.
Again, as a dead corpse is useless as well as imperfect; though it has eyes, it sees not; feet, it walks not; mouth, but speaks not; thus it is with a dead faith, being unaccompanied with a good life; no believing, without obedience, will avail us; for though there is no merit in our obedience that we should be saved for it, yet is there such a necessity of obedience, that we shall never be saved without it.
Again, as a dead corpse is noisome to us, so is a profession of faith without obedience loathsome to God: he says to all the workers of iniquity, Depart, from me, I know you not. I approve you not.
As the body without the spirit is dead, that is, as the body is known to be dead, if we perceive no vital actions flowing from the soul, so is faith dead, if we see it not demonstrated by effectual operation: as it is necessary to the being of a living body that it be united to the soul, so it is necessary to the being of a living Christian's faith, that it brings forth works of obedience in the Christian's life: For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on James 2". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent