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Bible Commentaries

Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament
James 2

 

 

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Introduction

Verse 1

James 2:1. My brethren. The connection appears to be: As the true service of God consists in active benevolence, exercised especially toward the poor and afflicted, St. James takes occasion to reprove his readers for a practice which was in direct contradiction to this, namely, showing partiality to the rich, and despising the poor.

have not, or hold not, the faith—the profession of Christianity, or the belief in Jesus as the true Messiah. Do not hold it in such a manner, as that respect of persons should constitute a part of it.

of our Lord Jesus Christ: of Him who, although rich, yet for our sakes became poor, in whom there is neither rich nor poor, and with whom there is no respect of persons.

the Lord of glory. The words ‘the Lord’ are in italics, and not in the original; all that is in the Greek are the words ‘of glory.’ Accordingly, different meanings have been attached to this phrase. Some construe it with ‘respect of person,’ and translate it ‘according to your estimate or opinion;’ thus Calvin: ‘Have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect of persons, on account of esteem;’ that is, placing a false and unchristian value on riches. Others attach it to Christ: ‘the faith of our Lord Jesus, the Christ, or the Messiah, of glory.’ Others consider it as governed by faith, but give different meanings: ‘the glorious faith of our Lord Jesus Christ;’ or ‘faith in the glory or exaltation of Christ;’ or ‘the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ in the glory,’ namely, in that glory which is reserved for the saints. Others suppose that glory is a personal appellation of Christ: ‘our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory,’ equivalent to the Shechinah of the Jewish Church. This is certainly the simplest reading; but there is no proof from the New Testament that such an epithet was applied to our Lord. Our version, by supplying the words ‘the Lord’ from the former clause, is the least objectionable: ‘the Lord of glory.’ The clause is inserted to show the vanity of earthly riches, as contrasted with the glory of Christ.

with respect of persons: a caution against showing undue preference to any on account of external circumstances. The word in the Greek is in the plural, as St. James had several instances of such respect of persons in view. We must, however, beware of perverting this maxim. We must show due respect where respect is due: as St. Paul says, ‘Render to all their due, honour to whom honour is due’ (Romans 13:7). There is a respect due to a man in office on account of his official character. Servants must honour their masters, and subjects their rulers; but we are not called to honour a man merely on account of his wealth. And in spiritual matters all are equal. In the house of God, the rich and the poor meet on the same footing of equality. The same exhortations are addressed to both; and the vices of the rich must be rebuked with the same sharpness as the vices of the poor.


Verses 1-13

James 2:1-13. In this passage, St. James proceeds to caution his readers against showing respect of persons, especially in their religious assemblies; for by doing so they would violate their Christian principles, and become evil-minded judges. God has chosen His people from among the poor; whereas the persecutors of believers and the blasphemers of Christ are from among the rich. The law of God requires them to love their neighbour as themselves; but by exhibiting this respect of persons they violate this law. They must so speak and act as they who are to be judged by the law of the Gospel, remembering that if they show no mercy to the poor, no mercy will be shown to them by God.


Verse 2

James 2:2. For if there come. St. James does not here mention a mere hypothetical case, but what must frequently have occurred.

unto your assembly. The word employed in the Greek is ‘synagogue,’ Some understand it of the Jewish synagogue, from which believers had not yet separated themselves; but against this opinion is the pronoun ‘your,’ nor would Christians in a synagogue not their own be permitted to give any preference of place to those who entered. Others think that the reference is to the judicial assemblies which the Christians, in imitation of the Jews, held in their places of meeting, and that the caution is against showing partiality in the administration of justice; but this is an arbitrary opinion for which there is no reason. The reference is undoubtedly to the Christian places of assembly, for worship. To denote these places of assembly, the word ‘synagogue’ was employed, because it was more familiar to St. James and the Jewish Christians than the corresponding Greek term. We read in the Acts that there were numerous synagogues in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9), and among them there would be the synagogue of the Christians; and the same would be the case in all the large cities where the Jews of the dispersion congregated.

a man with a gold ring: literally, gold-ringed, wearing many rings. Formerly persons of distinction wore only one signet ring; but at the time when this Epistle was written, as we learn from Roman writers, it was the custom for the wealthy to wear many rings. Such rings could only be worn by free citizens, and were consequently a symbol of rank or riches.

in goodly apparel. The gorgeous dresses of the Orientals may be here alluded to. In that age of luxury the rich prided themselves on the extravagance of their dress.

and there come in also a poor man in vile or shabby raiment. The description is in St. James’ graphic style. Into their place for religious assembly two men entered, the one gorgeously arrayed with jewelled fingers and a great display of riches; the other a poor man in shabby apparel, soiled with his daily manual occupations.


Verse 3

James 2:3. And ye have respect: literally, ye look upon, ye have regard to him that weareth the gay clothing. The two who came in are very differently treated; the rich man is conducted with all honour to a comfortable seat, whilst the poor man is left to shift for himself. In these verses there is in our English version a needless variation in the renderings of the same Greek word; the words apparel, raiment, and clothing are all in the original expressed by the same term.

and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; a place of consequence and comfort: literally, ‘Be well seated.’ As in the Jewish synagogues, so in the Christian, there would be a diversity of seats. Thus we read of the scribes and Pharisees who ‘loved the chief seats in the synagogues’ (Matthew 23:6).

and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool. The other man in vile raiment is told to stand where he is, or is allowed to sit where he can, provided he does not select a good seat. Observe the contrast between ‘here’ and ‘there;’ ‘here,’ the goodly seat—the place of honour; ‘there,’ the seat under the footstool—the place of dishonour. We are not informed whether those who came in were believers or unbelievers. Some suppose that both parties were Christian strangers, others that they were Gentiles or unbelieving Jews, and others that the poor were believers and the rich unbelievers. But it is best to leave it, as in the Epistle, undetermined; they are taken merely as samples of each class—the rich and the poor. It is well known that those who were not Christians might and did come into the Christian assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:23).


Verse 4

James 2:4. This verse has given rise to a great variety of interpretation, owing to the uncertainty of its correct translation. Are ye not partial in yourselves? This version is hardly correct. Some render the words: ‘Did you not judge among yourselves,’ by thus determining that the rich are to be preferred to the poor? Others: ‘Did you not discriminate or make a distinction’ among those who as Christians are equal? Others: ‘Were ye not contentious among yourselves?’ did ye not thus become litigants among yourselves? And others: ‘Did ye not doubt among yourselves’—become wavering and unsettled in your faith? The verb in the original is the same which in the former chapter is translated to doubt or to waver (James 1:6); and therefore, although it may also admit of the above significations, it is best to give a preference to that sense in which St. James has already used it. Hence, literally translated, ‘Did you not doubt in yourselves?’ Did you not, in showing this respect of persons, waver between God with whom there is no respect of persons and the world, and thus become double-minded? Did you not contradict your faith, according to which the external distinction between rich and poor is nothing? For to hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect to persons is a contradiction in terms. The Revised Version has, ‘Are ye not divided in your own mind?’

and are become judges of evil thoughts? Here also there is an equal variety of opinion. Some consider ‘the evil thoughts’ as the objects of their judgments, and render the clause: ‘Are you not judges of evil disputations’—of such disputations as a strife about precedence would give rise to. But it is best to take ‘the evil thoughts’ in a subjective sense, as residing in the judges themselves—evil-minded judges; showing themselves to be so by giving an undue preference to the rich. Just as a partial judge may be called a judge of partiality, or, in the same manner, as the unjust judge in the parable is in the Greek called the ‘judge of injustice’ (Luke 18:6; see also Luke 16:8). Compare James 1:25, ‘a forgetful hearer,’ literally ‘a hearer of forgetfulness.’ The word here rendered ‘thoughts’ also denotes reasonings, disputations; and hence some render the clause ‘judges who reason ill;’ who, instead of calmly acting on principles of equity, are led astray by partiality to the rich.


Verse 5

James 2:5. Hearken, my beloved brethren. With this verse St. James commences to show the sinfulness of such conduct; and, first, it is in contradiction to the conduct of God.

Hath not God chosen the poor of this world; that is, either those whom the world esteems poor—the poor in the opinion of the world; or those who are poor in relation to this world—the poor in worldly wealth.

rich in faith. Rich in faith is not in apposition to the poor of this world, but the object or intention of God’s choosing them—that they might be rich in faith. Faith is not the quality, but the sphere or element, in which they were rich. These riches consisted in the spiritual blessings which faith procured, and especially in the sonship of believers—in the heirship of the heavenly kingdom. ‘The rich in faith,’ observes Calvin, ‘are not those who abound in the greatness of faith, but such as God has enriched with the various gifts of the Spirit which we receive by faith.’

and heirs of the kingdom, namely, not the spiritual kingdom of Christ on earth, but the heavenly kingdom.

which he hath promised to them that love him; the love of God being the essence of true piety. St. James did not require to prove the truth of this statement; the condition of the Jewish Christians of the dispersion, to whom he wrote, was proof sufficient that although there were a few rich among them, yet they were mostly chosen from among the poor. Compare with this the words of St. Paul: ‘God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty’ (1 Corinthians 1:27). And the same statement holds good in the present day. The rich are under far greater temptations than the poor; they are led to trust in uncertain riches, and to seek their good things in this world, to fix their happiness here, and to forget ‘the kingdom which God hath promised to them that love Him.’ ‘How hardly,’ says our Saviour, ‘shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:23).


Verse 6

James 2:6. But ye, in contrast to God’s estimate of the poor. God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, whereas ye, on the contrary, have despised the poor: not so much the poor generally, as the poor among Christians. Now follows a second consideration; that by showing respect to the rich, they give a preference to those who were the enemies both of themselves and of Christ.

Do not rich men: it is unnatural to suppose that Christian rich men are meant, but rich men as such, who in their worldliness and pride manifest a hatred to Christianity.

oppress you, and draw you before the judgment-seat? The rich unbelieving Jews were the bitterest enemies to their believing countrymen: they fined and imprisoned them, as apostates from Judaism. Thus we read that Saul made havoc of the Church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison (Acts 8:3). Those who suppose that by the rich here mentioned Christians are intended, think that the reference is not to persecution, but to litigation, similar to the abuses which occurred in the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 6:6).


Verse 7

James 2:7. Do not they blaspheme. The pronoun is emphatic: ‘Is it not they who blaspheme.’ The allusion may be to the attempts of the unbelieving Jews to compel believers to blaspheme the name of Christ. Thus it is said of Saul, that he punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme (Acts 26:11). But it is better to refer it to the blasphemous utterances of the Jews themselves. Thus Justin Martyr tells us, that the Jews were accustomed to blaspheme Christ in their synagogues. Those who suppose that the rich men here mentioned are Christians, think that it refers to the disgrace brought upon Christianity by their ungodly practices: that they blasphemed Christ in their lives. But such a meaning is less natural and appropriate.

that worthy, goodly, or noble name—not the name of ‘God,’ or that of ‘brethren,’ but the name of ‘Christ.’ It does not, however, follow from this that believers were at this early period called Christians. It is a goodly name, for Christ is the Lord of glory, the Founder of Christianity, the Messiah promised to their fathers.

by the which you are called? or rather, ‘which was invoked upon you,’ namely at your baptism, when baptized into the name of Christ. The allusion is to the name of God being put upon the children of Israel to distinguish them as His property. ‘They shall put my name upon the children of Israel’ (Numbers 6:27). So the name of Christ was put upon believers to signify that they belonged to Him.


Verse 8

James 2:8. If. The connection has been variously understood. Some suppose that St. James is anticipating an objection of his readers, that by showing respect of persons to the rich, they were obeying the royal law, in loving their neighbour as themselves; others think that he is guarding his own argument from misinterpretation.

ye fulfil the royal law; the law which is the king of all laws, which includes in itself all other commandments. Others understand the expression, ‘the law which like the royal road is plain, straight and level;’ others, ‘the law which proceeds from the great King,’ whether God or Christ; and others, ‘the law which applies to kings as well as to other men.’ But all these meanings are objectionable, because they do not discriminate this special precept. It is to be observed that love to our neighbour is not so much a single command as the principle of all true obedience; it is the chief of all laws; all other laws are its ministering servants. ‘All the law,’ says St. Paul, ‘is fulfilled in one word, even in this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Galatians 5:14).

according to the scripture; here not according to the Gospel—the words of Jesus; but according to the law of Moses (Leviticus 19:18).

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well. For then it would follow that if you did so, you would not have this respect of persons.


Verse 9

James 2:9. But if ye have respect of persons, ye commit sin, ye violate this royal law, and are convinced of, convicted by, the law. By the law here is not meant a single commandment, as the law against partiality or respect of persons, but the moral law, and which, as regards our duties to others, is summed up in this command to love our neighbour as ourselves.

as transgressors, because such a respect of persons is contrary and opposed to a disinterested and universal love to others.


Verse 10

James 2:10. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point—one particular, one commandment.

he is guilty of all: that is, although respect of persons may appear to be the violation only of a single precept, yet it is a transgression of the whole law. The truth of this statement of St. James is founded on the unity both of the Lawgiver and of the law. The same God who gave one commandment, gave all: the law is but the expression of His will: and, therefore, whosoever breaks one commandment opposes himself to the will of God. So also love is the essence of the law; and whosoever sins transgresses this royal law of love. ‘God,’ says Calvin, ‘will not be honoured with exceptions, nor will He allow us to cut off from His law what is less pleasing to us. St. James denies that our neighbours are loved by us, when only a portion of them is, through ambition, chosen and the rest neglected.’ The Jews have a similar sentiment: ‘If a man obeys all the precepts of Moses, but leaves out one, he is guilty of all and of each.’ This declaration of St. James was especially appropriate to the Jewish Christians, who were in danger of being led away by the errors of the Pharisees. The Jewish doctors affirmed that if men kept any one precept of the law, it was sufficient; and accordingly some selected the law of the Sabbath, others the law of sacrifice, and others the law of tithes; whilst the law of love was neglected.


Verse 11

James 2:11. For: the reason of the above assertion, arising from the unity of the Divine Author of the law.—He, namely God, that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill (Exodus 20:13-14). Various reasons have been assigned for the selection of these two precepts; but the most obvious is that these are the two first commandments of the second table of the law, containing our duties to our neighbour; the fifth being generally classed by Jewish writers as belonging to the first table.(1)

Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. There is a Divine unity in the law, as well as in the Lawgiver. We must obey all the laws of God, without exception or limitation; if we offend in one particular, the law is broken and we become transgressors. A man who is a liar, although he may observe all the other precepts of the moral law, is evidently living in open violation of the law of God.


Verse 12

James 2:12. So speak ye and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. The law of liberty is not here the moral law, nor the love of our neighbour as a single commandment, but the same as that mentioned in the former chapter: ‘Whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty’(James 1:25). See explanation of that passage. Believers are under the law of liberty, because they are freed from the condemning sentence of the moral law, and are delivered from the enslaving power of sin, a disposition having been implanted within them which renders them willing to obey the Divine commands. The spirit of bondage is superseded by the spirit of adoption. And by this law of liberty believers shall be judged; their good works will be rewarded, and their voluntary obedience to the moral law which springs from faith in Christ will be graciously accepted. They are no longer under the moral law, as a rule of rewards and punishments, but under grace—this law of liberty.


Verse 13

James 2:13. For, the reason assigned for so speaking and acting, he shall have judgment without mercy, literally, the judgment will be without mercy to him, who hath showed no mercy.’ We must show mercy to our fellow-men, if we expect mercy from God. Compare the words of our Lord: ‘If ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:15). On the other hand: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ (Matthew 5:7). The chief aim of the Gospel is to make men like God; to form the Divine image in the human soul; that they should be merciful, even as their Father in heaven is merciful.

and mercy rejoiceth against, boasteth over, judgment. Mercy and judgment are here personified; judgment threatens to condemn the sinner, but mercy interposes and overcomes judgment. The saying is genera], and not to be limited either to God or to man; mercy prevails against judgment. ‘Mercy,’ says St. Chrysostom, ‘is dear to God, and intercedes for the sinner, and breaks his chains, and dissipates the darkness, and quenches the fire 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. She has silver wings like the dove, and feathers of gold, and soars aloft, and is clothed with the 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 with her wings. God loves mercy more than sacrifice.’ Compare with this Shakespeare’s celebrated lines on the quality of mercy.


Verse 14

James 2:14. The connection appears to be as follows:—James has been showing that true religious worship does not consist in the performance of certain ceremonies, but in active beneficence extended toward the poor and afflicted, and that opposed to this is a respect of persons showing partiality to the rich. He now proceeds further to maintain the more general proposition that a profession of religion, apart from religious practice, is of no value. James carefully separates appearance and reality from each other—the shadow from the substance. As formerly he showed that the hearing of the word without the doing was worthless, and that religious worship was of no avail without active beneficence; so now he asserts that a mere theoretical assent to the truths of the Gospel was also unprofitable and vain.

What shall it profit?—literally, ‘What is the use?’ Faith without works will not profit at the judgment; it will not be conducive to the saving of the soul.

my brethren, though a man say. Some critics lay stress on the word ‘say,’ as if the assertion of a faith without works was a mere affirmation or profession, and not a reality. But James admits the existence of a speculative faith; the man is supposed to have faith of a certain kind, though not saving faith.

he hath faith. It is of importance for the understanding of this passage to ascertain what is here meant by faith. James evidently takes the word in its general acceptation; with him it denotes any assent to religious truth, whether it be operative or inoperative. And what he asserts is that if the faith be inoperative, if it be a lifeless principle, unproductive of good works, a mere intellectual assent to Divine truth without its exerting any influence over our heart and conduct, it cannot save us. James undoubtedly considers faith to be a necessary prerequisite to salvation, but only that faith which is productive and accompanied with works.

and have not works. By works, as is evident from the context, James means those works which are the fruits and effects of faith—evangelical works which arise from faith; hence, then, not mere ceremonial works, nor even moral or legal works done previous to and apart from faith.

can faith save him? The article in the Greek must here receive its full force—literally, ‘Can the faith save him?’ that is, the particular faith which such a man possesses—‘this faith.’ Faith certainly does save; nothing can be more evidently the doctrine of Scripture than that our salvation is attached to faith; but not the faith to which James here alludes: Can this faith save him?—this dead, barren faith; this mere speculative belief in the doctrines of the Gospel.


Verses 14-26

James 2:14-26. In this passage James continues to enforce practical religion. He tells his readers that faith destitute of works is of no avail to the saving of the soul, and is as useless as a charity which expends itself in kind words, but is destitute of beneficent actions. As the charity is dead, so also is the faith. Faith can only be manifested by works. A mere theoretical belief in God is of no advantage, and differs little from the belief of evil spirits. Such a faith, unproductive of works, cannot justify. Abraham was justified by an active faith when he offered up Isaac; by works did his faith receive its full realization; thus proving that a man is justified by an active and not by an unproductive faith. So also Rahab was similarly justified when she harboured the spies. Faith destitute of works resembles a body from which the living spirit has departed.


Verse 15

James 2:15. To prove the uselessness of a barren faith, the apostle illustrates the subject by showing the uselessness of a barren charity, which every one will at once admit; and this illustration is the more appropriate, as love is the indispensable attendant on a living faith—the instrument by which it works (Galatians 5:6).

If a brother or sister—a Christian brother or sister—a fellow-believer—bringing forward more strongly our duty to assist them, and our culpability if we refuse such assistance.

be naked and destitute of daily food—be reduced to a state of extreme destitution. By daily food is meant the food necessary for each day.


Verse 16

James 2:16. And one of you say to them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled: warmed in reference to their being naked, and filled in reference to their being destitute of daily food. Expressions of kind wishes toward the destitute; mere words, but no actions. The words are such as, if sincere, would have been followed by corresponding actions. ‘Depart in peace,’ are the words which our Saviour employed when He dismissed those whom He had cured (Luke 7:50).

notwithstanding ye gave them not those things which are needful to the body, namely, food and raiment.

what doth it profit? What good do your kind words do either to them or to yourselves? Undoubtedly charity, if it have not works, is dead.


Verse 17

James 2:17. Now follows the application of this illustration. As this love, which merely expends itself in kind words and wishes, is of no value; so neither is the faith of him who professes to believe the Gospel, yet walks not up to his profession. Even so; as charity without works is dead, so faith, if it hath not works, if it be merely a theoretical assent to the truths of revelation, is dead. From this it is evident that by works is not meant merely something which is added to faith, but something which proceeds from it; as life is seen by its actions, so is faith by its works. The works then are those of a living faith, those to which faith gives birth. ‘If,’ observes Neander, ‘James calls the faith which is without works a dead faith, it could not surely be his view that works, which are but the outward manifestation, made faith to be living; but he must have presupposed that true faith has the principle of life within itself, from which works must proceed, and which manifests itself in works.’

being alone. The words in the Greek are not tautological, as they appear in our version, but emphatic. More correctly rendered they are ‘by itself’—denoting that a simple assent is useless, or rather ‘in itself,’ i.e is wholly and completely dead—has no living root which might spring up—‘twice dead, plucked up by the roots,’ as Jude expresses it (Jude 1:12). As has been observed, ‘A tree in winter may not have signs of life, but is not dead in itself; it will put forth shoots and leaves in spring. But faith has no winter; if it has not works, it has no life in it, and ought not to be called faith, for dead faith is no faith’ (Wordsworth). It is, however, to be remembered that James does not deny the existence of a theoretical faith; he distinguishes between faith and faith, between theoretical and practical faith; and to the former, the theoretical faith, he denies that justification can be ascribed.


Verse 18

James 2:18. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith and I have works. There is a considerable diversity of opinion in the interpretation of these words. They appear to be the language of an objector, being the usual form by which an objection is introduced (Romans 9:19; 1 Corinthians 15:35); but when examined, they express the sentiments of James, and not those of an opponent; if an objection, we would have expected the opposite: ‘Thou hast works and I have faith.’ Some, considering the words as those of an objector, give the following interpretation: ‘One, defending thee, may say: Thou, who hast not works, hast faith, and I, who declare that faith without works is dead, have works; there is no reason to lay more stress upon the one than upon the other.’ But such a meaning is complicated and awkward; it reverses the language of the apostle. Others suppose that the objector is a Pharisaical Jew who, opposing James, maintains justification to be entirely by works without faith; but such a meaning is not borne out by the context. It is best to suppose that the words are not those of an objector, but of a person who agrees with the apostle, and who is here introduced to impart liveliness to the discussion. Nay, one may interpose, Thou hast faith and I have works. Others connect the words with James 2:14, and consider the intervening words as parenthetic, but we do not see how this removes the difficulty.

shew me thy faith without thy works, prove to me the reality of your faith. A faith without works is incapable of being proved. To show faith without works is simply an impossibility. If it exist at all in such a state, it exists in a passive or latent form in a man’s mind, and cannot be shown to others. Faith is not entirely denied to the man, but living faith is; if faith does not prove itself by works it is dead, and of no value as regards salvation.

and I will show thee my faith by my works. This is the key to the meaning of James. Justification is denied to a dead faith, and affirmed only of a living faith—a faith which manifests itself in works. This is the test by which we are to try the reality of our faith; and this is the test by which we shall be judged at the final judgment. We shall not then be examined as to the pureness of our creed or the extent of our knowledge, but whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and ministered to the afflicted; whether we have practised that religious worship which consists in visiting the fatherless and the widows in their affliction, and in preserving ourselves unspotted from the world.


Verse 19

James 2:19. Thou believest that there is one God. Here the existence of a theoretical faith is admitted: Thou assentest to the statement that there is one God, or, as it is otherwise read, ‘that God is one.’ This particular article of faith is chosen from a Jewish point of view, because the Jews put a high value on it, as that which distinguished them from the rest of the world. And it is still the boast of the Jews that their national vocation is to be witnesses to the unity of the Godhead. Hence then: Thou hast more knowledge and a more correct faith than the Gentiles, who have gods many and lords many.

thou doest well: so far good. There is a certain touch of irony in the language; but the irony does not lie in the words, ‘Thou doest well,’ but in the whole statement—that a theoretical faith in the unity of God, though in itself good, yet does not essentially differ from the belief of devils.

the devils. By the devils here are not meant the devils in the possessed who trembled before Christ (Matthew 8:29); nor the heathen divinities considered as demons(1 Corinthians 10:20), but evil spirits generally.—also believe—assent to this doctrine

and tremble: the word in the Greek is stronger, ‘and shudder.’ The force of this addition may be: ‘The faith of the nominal Christian is no better than the faith which devils possess; nay, it is not even so good, for the devils not only believe, but they also tremble;’ or it may be: ‘The devils’ belief in God, because unproductive of works and obedience, not only cannot save them, but is the cause of their trembling before the Divine tribunal’ (Brückner).


Verse 20

James 2:20. But wilt thou know, or rather, ‘Art thou willing to know,’ to recognise this truth? implying that such knowledge was not palatable to him.

O vain man; that is, O empty man, puffed up with pride, trusting to thy outward privileges, but without seriousness and spiritual life.

that faith without works is dead. Some manuscripts read ‘is idle,’ that is, inoperative or useless; a reading which makes no alteration in the sense. Faith without works is properly not faith at all, but reprobate faithlessness.


Verse 21

James 2:21. James now adduces two examples—those of Abraham and Rahab—to prove the truth of his assertion that faith can only save if it is productive of good works. And, first, the example of Abraham.

Was not Abraham. The same example is adduced by Paul (Romans 4:1-5); but there is no reason to suppose that the one writer borrowed from the other. The example of Abraham would readily occur to every Jew, on account of the importance of that patriarch in their national history.

our father: the same appellation is given by Paul; but here it is given because both James and his readers, the Jewish Christians, were descended from Abraham.

was justified. Some suppose that by ‘justified’ is meant proved to be justified, and that the allusion is to the manifestation of our justification before men, which can only be by works. Thus Calvin remarks: ‘Paul means by the word “justified” the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men. In this sense we fully allow that a man is justified by works, as when one says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable estate, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known.’ But this has too much the appearance of a subterfuge to avoid a difficulty; it puts a forced interpretation upon the text. We take the word in its ordinary meaning, ‘declared righteous in the sight of God,’ equivalent to ‘saved in a previous verse: ‘Can faith save him?’

by works. Paul also appeals to the case of Abraham, but with a desire to prove that he was justified by faith without works. These writers view the matter in different lights. Paul asserts that Abraham was justified by the unseen principle of faith; he simply believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness, James affirms that the faith by which Abraham was justified was a faith which manifested itself by works, and was seen in a remarkable manner by the great act of his obedience—the sacrifice of Isaac; his faith obtained its perfection by works. See excursus at the end of this exposition. The plural works, whereas only one work is mentioned, is explained from the fact that the class is named to which the offering up of Isaac belongs.

when he had offered Isaac his son on the altar. This great act of obedience (Genesis 22:2) was certainly a work of faith, arising from Abraham’s practical belief in God. ‘By faith,’ writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac, and he that had received the promises, offered up his only-begotten son, of whom it is said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure’ (Hebrews 11:17-19). It was therefore a most notable proof that Abraham had a living faith, and was therefore in a justified state.


Verse 22

James 2:22. Seest thou how, or, more correctly, ‘thou seest that,’ faith wrought, cooperated, with his works. This cannot mean that works cooperated with his faith in the matter of his justification before God, as if God did not know that he had living faith until it showed itself by works. But the evident meaning is that the offering of Isaac proved that the faith of Abraham was not a dead, but a living and active faith, and thus was a verification of Abraham’s justification. It was faith that enabled him to perform this work.

and by works was faith made perfect, fully realized, completed; not proved or verified, but perfected. Faith is only perfected when it is embodied or realized in good works. As love is perfected by the practice of works of benevolence, so faith is perfected by the practice of those works which are appropriate to it. By works faith attains its legitimate development or completion. ‘Faith creates works; works perfect faith’ (Stier).


Verse 23

James 2:23. And the scripture was fulfilled. The same expression which is employed with reference to prophetical declarations; hence ‘the Scripture received its accomplishment.’ This great act of obedience on the part of Abraham was a proof of the fulfilment of the scriptural declaration made concerning him.

which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness; the scriptural statement. This remarkable declaration is also twice quoted by Paul (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). The words are by both apostles quoted from the Septuagint. In the Hebrew the verb imputed is in the active, and not in the passive voice: ‘And he believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). This occurred long before Abraham offered up Isaac, indeed before the birth of Isaac. Abraham was at that early period in a justified state before God; the declaration was made concerning him; and by his offering of Isaac the scriptural declaration received its fulfilment and realization. It is therefore evident that this act of obedience was not the cause of Abraham’s justification; but, because it proved that Abraham was possessed of a living faith, it fulfilled the words of Scripture.

and he was called the Friend of God; not adduced as a statement of Scripture which received its fulfilment, but an additional assertion of the favour in which Abraham stood with God. It is not directly stated that Abraham, in consequence of his offering up Isaac, received this honourable appellation, but the blessing which that name denotes is evidently presupposed: Abraham was the Beloved of God. The name is twice ascribed to Abraham in the Old Testament, according to our English version. Jehoshaphat, in his prayer, says: ‘Thou gavest this land to the seed of Abraham thy friend’ (2 Chronicles 20:7). And in the prophecies of Isaiah we read: ‘Thou Israel art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend’ (Isaiah 41:8). The term, however, is found neither in the Hebrew nor in the Septuagint, but is employed by Philo. And this is still the favourite description of Abraham, both by the Jews and by the Mahometans. By the Mahometans his proper name is often supplanted by the appellation El-Khalil-Allah, ‘the Friend of God.’


Verse 24

James 2:24. Ye see then, from this example of Abraham, how that by works a man is justified. The emphasis is upon works: stress is put upon the fact that faith must be productive of works.

and not by faith only. These words do not admit of the translation, ‘and not only by faith:’ as if there were two kinds of justification, the one by faith and the other by works; or as if faith did part, and works were required to do the rest. The meaning is, ‘not by faith simply,’—by a faith without works, which cannot justify either in whole or in part. It must be carefully observed that James does not deny that a man is justified by faith; on the contrary, he presupposes this truth, as without faith there can be no works, in the sense in which he employs the term works; he only asserts that justifying faith must not be alone, but must be productive of works.


Verse 25

James 2:25. The second example which James adduces is that of Rahab.

likewise also was not Rahab. The same example, and the same incident in Rahab’s history, is also adduced by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, as an illustrious instance of faith. The example is not so obvious as that of Abraham; and we can assign no sufficient reason why it was selected by both writers.

the harlot: to be taken in its literal sense, and not to be considered as equivalent to innkeeper.

justified, namely before God.

by works when she received the messengers, and sent them out another way. This was certainly a work springing from her faith; it arose from her firm belief in the God of Israel. Indeed, Rahab herself gives this as the reason of her conduct: ‘I know that the Lord hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon as, and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you. The Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and in the earth beneath’ (Joshua 1:9; Joshua 1:11). Her receiving the messengers, and sending them out another way, was therefore a proof that her faith was real and living. ‘By faith,’ says the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ‘the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace’ (Hebrews 11:31). Her deliverance from death is to be ascribed to her faith, but it was to her faith as active. Thus did she manifest the reality of her faith. Her faith cooperated with her works, and by works was her faith made perfect—received its full realization; and in this sense she is said to be justified by works.


Verse 26

James 2:26. For as the body without the spirit is dead. The ‘spirit’ here may either be the intelligent spirit—the soul of man; or the breath of life—the living principle; as in the expression, ‘all flesh wherein is the breath of life’ (Genesis 6:17).

so faith without works is dead also. Here faith without works answers to the body without the spirit. At first sight it would seem that the comparison, in order to be correct, would require to be inverted; inasmuch as faith is a spiritual principle, whereas works are its external manifestations; so that we would require to read: ‘so works without faith are dead also.’ But what James insists on here is not the deadness of works without faith, but the converse, the deadness of faith without works. According to him, a faith without works is like a body from which the living principle has departed; works are the evidences of life, and if these be absent, the faith is dead. A mere system of doctrine, however correct, is a mere dead body, unless it be animated by a living working spirit. We must not, however, press the metaphor too far. Strictly speaking, the works do not correspond to the spirit, but are only the outward manifestations of an internal living principle—the proof that there is life. An unproductive faith is a body without the spirit; a productive faith is the living body.

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on James 2:4". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/james-2.html. 1879-90.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, June 25th, 2019
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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