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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments
James 2

 

 

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Verses 1-4

James 2:1-4. My brethren — The equality of Christians intimated by this name is the ground of the admonition; have — That is, hold; not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory — Of which glory all who believe in him partake; with respect of persons — So as to give undue preference to any on account of their external circumstances; honour none merely for being rich, despise none merely for being poor. Remember that the relation in which the meanest of your fellow-Christians stands to Him who is the Son of God, ought to recommend them to your regard and esteem. For if there come unto your assembly — Convened either for religious worship, or for deciding civil differences; a man with a gold ring — Or, having his fingers adorned with gold rings, as χρυσοδακτυλιος may be rendered. For, as the learned Albert hath observed, those who valued themselves upon the richness and luxury of their dress, were accustomed to deck their fingers with a considerable number of costly and valuable rings, frequently wearing several upon one finger. And a poor man in vile ( ρυπαρα, in sordid, or dirty) raiment, and ye have respect — Ye show an undue regard to the former, and put a visible slight on the latter, without considering what may be the real character of the one or the other. Are ye not partial in yourselves — Or, as ου διεκριθητε εν εαυτοις may be rendered, ye distinguish not in yourselves, according to the different characters of these two men, to which of them the most respect is due, to the poor or to the rich; but only regard their outward appearance, and are become judges of evil thoughts — Or evil-reasoning judges, as the original words may be translated. You reason ill, and so judge wrong; for fine apparel is no proof of worth in him that wears it.


Verses 5-7

James 2:5-7. Hearken — As if he had said, Stay, consider, ye that judge thus. Does not the presumption lie rather in favour of the poor man? Hath not God chosen the poor — That is, are not they whom God hath chosen, generally speaking, poor in this world, who yet are rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom — Consequently the most honourable of men? And those whom God so highly honours, ought not ye to honour likewise? But ye — Christians, that know better; have despised ητιμασατε, have dishonoured, or disgraced; the poor — By such conduct. Do not rich men, &c. — As if he had said, You have little reason to show so much respect to them, if you consider what their carriage toward you has been; those whom you court with so much respect and assiduity, oppress καταδυναστευουσιν, tyrannise over you, and draw — Or drag; you before the judgment-seats — Are not most of the rich men your persecutors, rather than your friends? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name — Of God and of Christ; by which ye are called — And which deserves to be had in the highest esteem and veneration by all intelligent beings? The apostle speaks chiefly of rich heathen: but are Christians, so called, a whit behind them in persecuting the disciples of Jesus?


Verses 8-11

James 2:8-11. If ye fulfil the royal law — The supreme law of the great King, which is love; and that to every man, poor as well as rich; ye do well — The phrase, νομος βασιλικος, royal law, here admits of three interpretations. 1st, As the Greeks called a thing royal which was excellent in its kind, it may mean an excellent law. 2d, As the same Greeks, having few or no kings among them, called the laws of the kings of Persia, βασιλικοι νομοι, royal laws, the expression here may signify, the law made by Christ our King. 3d, This law, enjoining us to love our neighbour, may be called the royal law, because it inspires us with a greatness of mind, fit for kings, whose greatest glory consists in benevolence and clemency. The law or precept here spoken of was enjoined by Moses, but Christ carried it to such perfection, as it was to be practised among his followers, and laid such stress upon it, that he called it a new commandment, John 13:34; and his commandment, John 15:12. But if ye have respect to persons — In this partial manner, ye commit, εργαζεσθε, ye work, sin — That is, ye do a sinful action; and are convinced — Or rather convicted, by the law, which I have just now mentioned: for that law enjoins you to love your neighbours as yourselves, and consequently to do them justice. For whosoever shall keep the whole law — In every other instance; and yet offend in one point — Knowingly; he is guilty of all — He is liable to condemnation from the lawgiver, as if he had offended in every point. The Jewish doctors affirmed, that by observing any one precept of the law with care, men secured to themselves the favour of God, notwithstanding they neglected all the rest. Wherefore they recommended it to their disciples to make choice of a particular precept, in the keeping of which they were to exercise themselves. Whitby says, they commonly chose either the law of the sabbath, or the law of sacrifice, or the law of tithes, because they esteemed these the great commandments in the law. This corrupt Jewish doctrine St. James here expressly condemns; for he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill — The apostle’s meaning is, that all the commandments being equally enjoined by God, the man who despises the authority of God so far as to break any one of them habitually, would, in the like circumstances of temptation and opportunity, certainly break any other of them; consequently, in the eye of God, he is guilty of breaking the whole law: that is, he hath no real principle of piety or virtue in him.


Verse 12-13

James 2:12-13. So speak ye, and so do — In all things; as they that shall be judged — Without respect of persons; by the law of liberty — The gospel, (see on James 1:25,) the law of universal love, which alone is perfect freedom. For their transgression of this, both in word and deed, the wicked shall be condemned. And according to their works, done in obedience to this, the righteous will be rewarded. For he shall have judgment without mercy — In that day; who hath showed no mercy — To his poor brethren; and, or rather but, mercy — The mercy of God to believers, answering to that which they have shown, will then rejoice, or glory, over judgment.


Verses 14-17

James 2:14-17. What doth it profit — From James 1:22, the apostle has been enforcing Christian practice; he now applies to those who neglected this under the pretence of faith. St. Paul had taught, that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law. This some began already to wrest to their own destruction. Wherefore St. James, purposely repeating (James 2:21-25) the same phrases, testimonies, and examples, which St. Paul had used, (Romans 4:3; Hebrews 11:17-31,) refutes, not the doctrine of St. Paul, but the error of those who abused it. There is, therefore, no contradiction between the apostles: they both delivered the truth of God, but in a different manner, as having to do with different kinds of men. On another occasion St. James himself pleaded the cause of faith, Acts 15:13-21. And St. Paul himself strenuously pleads for works, particularly in his latter epistles. This verse is a summary of what follows. What doth it profit — Of what advantage is it to him, though, or if, a man say he hath faith — It is not if he have faith, but if he say he hath it. Here, therefore, true, living faith is meant. But in other parts of the argument the apostle speaks of a dead imaginary faith. He does not therefore teach that true faith can, but that it cannot subsist without works. Nor does he oppose faith to works, but an empty name or profession of faith to real faith working by love. Can that faith, which is without works, save him? Surely not. It can no more save him than it can profit his neighbour. For if a brother or sister be naked, &c. — Destitute of food and clothing; and one of you — Who calls himself a Christian, say to them, We sincerely pity your case, and feel the tender emotions of that love which our relation to each other requires; depart therefore, in peace — Whithersoever ye are going; be ye warmed and filled — Be clothed and fed by some humane person: but notwithstanding all these kind speeches, ye give them not — Either food or raiment, or any money to purchase the things necessary for the body; what doth it profit? — What is the advantage of being addressed with such hypocritical professions of love? Will such speeches feed and clothe the poor and destitute? Will they not rather seem a cruel mockery than a real kindness? Even so faith — A belief of the gospel, and of the great truths contained in it, how zealously soever it may be professed, and how orthodox soever those articles are to which an assent is given; if it have not works — If it do not produce love to God and all mankind, and obedience to his will, yea, the various fruits of righteousness; if it do not work by love, it is but a dead, empty notion, of no more profit to him that has it than bidding the naked be clothed is to him. It can neither convey spiritual life to the soul here, (which all true faith does,) nor entitle any one to eternal life hereafter.


Verses 18-20

James 2:18-20. Yea, a man — Who judges better; may say — To such a vain talker, in order to bring matters to a short issue; thou hast faith — Thou sayest; and I make it appear by my life and conversation that I have works — Which naturally spring from that principle. Show me thy faith without thy works — If thou canst. Or, εκ των εργων σου, by thy works, as the most and the best copies read it, and as it is read in the margin. And I will show thee my faith by my works — Let us, without contending about different explications of faith, make it manifest to each other that our profession is solid, by its substantial effects upon our tempers and lives. As if he had said, The only way in which thou canst show thy faith is by thy works; but as thou hast no works to produce, thou never canst show thy faith in this way. Thou believest that there is one God — I allow that thou dost: but this only proves that thou hast the same faith which the devils have. Nay, they not only believe, but tremble at the dreadful expectation of eternal torments. So far is that faith from either justifying or saving them. But wilt thou — Art thou willing; to know — Indeed thou art not, thou wouldest fain be ignorant of it: O vain κενε, empty, man — Devoid of all true religion; that faith without works — A persuasion of the truths of the gospel, if it produces no real fruits of holiness; is dead — As to any valuable purpose that can be expected from it. Indeed it cannot justly be said to be faith, as a dead carcass is not a man. By a dead faith, then, St. James means a faith which, because it has no influence on a man’s actions, is as incapable to justify him, as a dead carcass is to perform the offices of a living man.


Verse 21

James 2:21. Was not, &c. — As if he had said, Take an instance of this in the most celebrated of all the patriarchs, our father Abraham. Was not he justified by works — Did not his works manifest the truth and liveliness of his faith; when — In consequence of the full persuasion he had of a divine command to do it; he offered Isaac his son upon the altar? — Intending, in obedience to what he apprehended to be the will of God, actually to have slain him, and to have trusted in God to accomplish the promise of a numerous seed to descend from him, by raising him from the dead: see notes on Hebrews 11:17-19. St. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith, (Romans 4:2, &c.,) yet St. James does not contradict him. For he does not speak of the same justification. St. Paul speaks of that which Abraham received many years before Isaac was born, Genesis 15:6; St. James of that which he did not receive till he had offered up Isaac on the altar. He was justified, therefore, in St. Paul’s sense; that is, accounted righteous by faith, antecedent to his works. He was justified in St. James’s sense, that is, made righteous by works, subsequent to his faith: so that St. James’s justification by works is the fruit of St. Paul’s justification by faith.


Verse 22

James 2:22. Seest thou — Or thou seest then, in this instance; how faith wrought together with his works — And animated him to great zeal and self-denial in them. Therefore faith has one energy and operation, works another. And the energy and operation of faith are before works, and together with them. Works do not give life to faith, but faith begets works, and then is completed by them. And by works was faith made perfect — “The command to offer Isaac for a burnt-offering, (Genesis 22:2,) appearing directly contrary to the promise, (Genesis 21:12,) In Isaac shall thy seed be called, Abraham’s faith was thereby put to the severest trial. Yet it was not staggered by the seeming contrariety of the divine revelation: Abraham reasoned with himself, (Hebrews 11:19,) that God was able to raise Isaac even from the dead; and firmly believing that he would actually do so, he therefore set himself to obey the divine command without the least gain-saying. James therefore had good reason to say that Abraham’s faith co-operated with his works in procuring him the promises confirmed with an oath, because it was his faith in God which enabled him to perform the difficult works, requisite to the offering of Isaac as a burnt- offering. He had equally good reason to say, by works his faith was perfected, or rendered complete; because, if, when tried, he had refused to obey, his would not have been a complete faith. In this passage, therefore, 1st, James hath declared that faith and works are inseparably connected, as cause and effect, and that good works must flow from faith as their principle.” 2d, He here fixes the sense wherein he uses the word justified; so that no shadow of contradiction remains between his assertion and St. Paul’s. Abraham returned from that sacrifice perfected in faith, and far higher in the favour of God. Faith hath not its existence from works; for it is before them; but its perfection. That vigour of faith which begets works is then excited and increased thereby: as the natural heat of the body begets motion, whereby itself is then excited and increased: see 1 John 3:22.


Verse 23-24

James 2:23-24. And the scripture — Which was afterward written, was hereby eminently fulfilled. Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness. This was twice fulfilled, when Abraham first believed, and when he offered up Isaac. St. Paul speaks of the former fulfilling, and St. James of the latter. And he was called the friend of God — Both by his posterity, (2 Chronicles 20:7,) and by God himself, Isaiah 41:8. So pleasing to God were the works he wrought in faith! “The passage of Scripture which St. James here says was fulfilled, contains two assertions: 1st, That Abraham believed God; 2d, That his believing God was counted to him for righteousness. By the offering of Isaac that scripture was confirmed or proved to be true in both its parts. For, 1st, By offering Isaac, in the firm expectation that God would raise him from the dead, and fulfil in him the promise of the numerous seed, Abraham showed that he believed God in the firmest manner. 2d, By offering Isaac, Abraham had the promise, that God would count his faith to him for righteousness, renewed and confirmed in a solemn manner with an oath.” — Macknight. Ye see then — By this instance of the great father of the faithful, (for the characters of the children are to be estimated in the same manner as those of the father,) that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only — It is by no means sufficient, in order to our salvation, that the great principles of religion be credited, if they have not their practical influence on the heart and life.


Verse 25-26

James 2:25-26. Likewise also, &c. — After Abraham, the father of the Jews, the apostle cites Rahab, a woman and a sinner of the Gentiles, to show that in every nation and sex true faith produces works, and is perfected by them; that is, by the grace of God working in the believer, while he is showing his faith by his works: see note on Hebrews 11:31. “Rahab’s faith consisted in her attending to, and reasoning justly on, what she had heard concerning the dividing of the waters of the Red sea for a passage to the Israelites, and concerning the destruction of Sihon and Og. For from these things she concluded that the God of the Israelites was the true God, and sole Governor of the universe; and, firmly believing this, she renounced her former false gods, and concealed the Israelitish spies at the hazard of her life. In this she showed a disposition of the same kind with that which Abraham showed, when he left his country and kindred at God’s command. And as Abraham, for that great act of faith and obedience, was rewarded with the promise of Canaan, so Rahab, as the reward of her faith and works, was not destroyed with the unbelieving inhabitants of Jericho.” For as the body without the spirit is dead — Has no sense or feeling, no vital heat, action, or energy, but is a mere carcass, how fair and entire soever it may appear, and will at length fall into putrefaction and dissolution; so such a faith as is without works is dead also — Now appears as a carcass in the sight of God, is useless, yea, loathsome and offensive. Two things, then, of great importance must be attended to on this subject. 1st, That the best outward works without faith are dead; they want their root and vital principle; for it is only by faith that any thing which we do is really good, as being done with an eye to the glory of God, and in obedience to him. 2d, That the most plausible profession of faith without works is dead, as the root is dead when it does not vegetate, when it produces no fruit. Faith is the root, good works are the fruits, and we must see to it that we have both. We must not think that either of them, without the other, will justify and save us. This is the grace of God wherein we stand, and we must take care that we stand in it.

 


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Bibliography Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on James 2:4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/rbc/james-2.html. 1857.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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