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III. PARTIALITY AND VITAL FAITH CH. 2
"In the epistle of James, the Holy Spirit has given the church a commentary on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and Sermon on the Plain, a commentary that is rich in applications for daily life." [Note: Stulac, p. 34. Cf. Davids, pp. 47-50.]
The similarities appear both in subject matter and in structure. Note the parallels between Matthew 7:1-27 and James 2:1-26 below. [Note: Stulac, p. 92.]
|Matthew 7||James 2|
|Matthew 7:1-2||Prohibition against judging||James 2:1||Prohibition against judgmental favoritism|
|Matthew 7:3-5||Illustration of remov-ing one’s own faults so that one can help remove others’ faults||James 2:2-4||Illustration of removing one’s own partiality so that one can judge or instruct others|
|Matthew 7:6||Warning not to despise what is sacred in favor of dogs or pigs that will harm you||James 2:5-7||Warning not to despise brothers who are rich in faith in favor of others who harm you|
|Matthew 7:7-11||Encouragement to ask and to believe|
|Matthew 7:12||Summary of the law as doing to others what you would want for yourself||James 2:8-11||Summary of the law as loving others as yourself|
|Matthew 7:13-14||Summary admonition to follow the narrow way that leads to life||James 2:12-13||Summary admonition to follow the law that gives freedom|
|Matthew 7:15-23||Warning against false prophets, with the true test presented: deeds||James 2:14-19||Warning against dead faith, with the true test presented: deeds|
|Matthew 7:24-27||Parable to illustrate putting Christ’s words into practice||James 2:20-26||Examples to illustrate putting faith into practice|
1. The negative command 2:1
James came right to the point; we know exactly what his concern was. Personal favoritism is hardly a glorious characteristic, and it is inconsistent for a Christian who worships the glorious Lord Jesus Christ to practice it (cf. Matthew 22:16 Acts 10:34). All earthly distinctions disappear in the presence of our glorious Lord. It was especially appropriate for James to address his readers as "my brethren" here since he proceeded to encourage them to practice brotherly kindness. Such behavior would be glorious, in harmony with their "glorious Lord Jesus Christ."
". . . a Christian is (or should be) the last person to be impressed by the sham glory of social status." [Note: Adamson, p. 104.]
It may be helpful to distinguish partiality or favoritism (Gr. prosopolepsia; Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 3:25; cf. Acts 10:34) from some of its synonyms. One definition of prosopolepsia is as follows.
It is "the fault of one who when called on to requite or to give judgment has respect to the outward circumstances of men and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high-born, or powerful, to another who is destitute of such gifts." [Note: A Greek-English . . ., s.v. "prosopolepsia," p. 551.]
Partiality implies an inclination to favor a person or thing because of strong fondness or attachment. We say that an orchestra conductor, for example, has a partiality for the works of a particular composer. Treating people with partiality may spring from predilection, or from prejudice, or from bias. Predilection implies a preconceived liking formed as a result of one’s background, temperament, etc., that inclines one to a particular preference. We might say a certain person has a predilection for murder mysteries. Prejudice implies a preconceived and unreasonable judgment or opinion, usually an unfavorable one, marked by suspicion, fear, intolerance, or hatred. We might say racial prejudice incited a certain lynch mob. Bias implies a mental leaning in favor of or against someone or something without passing judgment on the correctness or incorrectness of the preference. One might say someone has a bias toward the color blue. James was dealing primarily with partiality.
A. The Problem of Favoritism 2:1-13
James’ previous reference to hypocritical religiosity (James 1:26-27) seems to have led him to deal with one form of this problem that existed among Christian Jews of his day. It is still with us today. It is the problem of inconsistent love for other people that manifests itself in how we treat them. James wrote this chapter to exhort his readers to deal with this very basic inconsistency in their lives and so progress toward spiritual maturity.
"The connection of this warning against social discrimination with the previous ch. 1 seems fairly obvious. Truckling to the rich and apathy or worse toward the poor are two sides of the same base coin rejected by the touchstone of James 1:27 and of James 2:8." [Note: Adamson, p. 102.]
"He [the believer] must show courtesy to all, compassion for all, and consistency to all. Equity, love, and fidelity are the vital ingredients." [Note: Blue, p. 824.]
"Assembly" is literally "synagogue." In the early history of the church Jewish believers met in Jewish synagogues until their unbelieving Jewish brethren forced them out. This reference suggests that James probably wrote this epistle early in the history of the church.
There is some debate among the commentators about whether a public worship service or a congregational meeting for the purpose of hearing a judicial case is in view. [Note: Adamson, p. 105, argued for the first option and Martin, pp. 59, 61, for the second.] The term "synagogue" meant a public worship service in early Christian literature, but the following verses may suggest a judicial setting. This issue does not affect the meaning of the passage significantly.
". . . in its early days the Church was predominantly poor and humble; and therefore if a rich man was converted, and did come to the Christian fellowship, there must have been a very real temptation to make a fuss of him, and to treat him as a special trophy for Christ." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 76.]
2. The present improper practice 2:2-4
The situation James described in James 2:2-3 presents what some have called "the case of the nearsighted usher." Some interpreters believe this was a hypothetical situation that James constructed. [Note: E.g., Davids, p. 107.] Others believe it was a real situation that he knew about. [Note: E.g., Martin, pp. 60, 63.] There is no way of knowing now, and whether the situation was hypothetical or real is insignificant.
The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: "You have, haven’t you?" The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (James 1:8).
Second, the usher, who represents all the believers, manifested evil motives in judging where to seat the two visitors. His motive was what the church could obtain from them rather than what it could impart to them. The Christian and the church should seek primarily to serve others rather than getting others to serve them (cf. Mark 10:45).
"Prejudice is an evil that exhibits the character of the one who practices it." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 139.]
Since God has chosen the poor of this world to be the recipients of His blessings it is inconsistent for Christians to withhold blessings from them (cf. Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20). Really God has chosen more poor people than rich (Luke 1:52; 1 Corinthians 1:26). The "kingdom" is probably the messianic millennial kingdom in which Christians will participate with Christ whom they love. [Note: Ibid., p. 141.] This seems clear from the context. The heirs of this kingdom, those who will receive it, are believers (cf. James 1:12; Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:5; Mark 10:17-22; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5).
3. The inconsistency of favoritism 2:5-7
James’ three questions in these verses all expect positive answers, as is clear in the construction of the Greek text.
When a Christian dishonors the poor, he or she treats them exactly opposite to the way God treats them (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:22; 1 Peter 2:17). Instead of favoring Christians, James reminded his readers that the characteristic response of the rich to them had been to oppress them (cf. Mark 13:9; Acts 4:1-3; Acts 13:50; Acts 16:19; Acts 19:23-41). How inconsistent it is to despise one’s friends and honor one’s foes! The oppression in view could have been physical and or legal.
The rich not only typically oppose Christians, they also typically speak against Christ. This was true in James’ world as it is in ours. It is inconsistent to give special honor to those who despise the Lord whom believers love and serve. To blaspheme or slander (Gr. blasphemeo) means to mock deliberately or to speak contemptuously of God. Perhaps those who were blaspheming Christ’s name were unbelieving Jews (cf. Acts 13:45). [Note: Mayor, p. 88.]
James did not mean Christians should avoid honoring the rich but that we should love everyone and treat every individual as we would treat ourselves (Matthew 7:12; cf. Leviticus 19:18). The "royal" (Gr. basilikos) law is royal in that it is the law of the King who heads the kingdom (Gr. basilikon) that believers will inherit (James 2:5). [Note: Motyer, pp. 96-97.] It is also royal in that it is primary; it governs all other laws dealing with human relationships (Matthew 22:39; cf. Leviticus 19:18). Moreover it is "conduct of a high order that is worthy of a king." [Note: Hodges, The Epistle . . ., p. 53.] The phrase "royal law" reflects the Latin lex regia, which was known throughout the Roman Empire. [Note: Blue, p. 825.]
4. The Christian’s duty 2:8-9
In this verse James used the verb form of the same Greek word he used in James 2:1, namely, prosopolepteo. The type of preferential treatment James dealt with in this pericope (James 2:1-13) violates the royal law because it treats some as inferior and others as sources of special favor (cf. Acts 10:34). It also violates specific commands found in God’s Word that reveal God’s will in interpersonal dealings (Matthew 7:12; cf. Leviticus 19:15).
"The passage calls us to consistent love, not just polite ushering. People of low income are to be fully welcomed into the life of the church. The passage calls us to be blind to economic differences in how we offer our ministries. The poor person is as worthy of our discipling and pastoral care and love as the person who has the means to rescue our church from its budget crisis." [Note: Stulac, p. 93.]
"Anyone who shows favoritism breaks the supreme law of love for his neighbor, the law that comprehends all laws governing one’s relationships to one’s fellowmen." [Note: Burdick, p. 180.]
James anticipated that some of his readers might feel that preferential treatment was not very important. Consequently he pointed out that the practice of preferring certain individuals makes one a violator of God’s law. We become guilty of all in the sense that we have violated God’s law, not that we have violated every commandment in that law. One can never claim to behave righteously because he or she keeps only part of God’s laws.
"The Jew was very apt to regard the law as a series of detached injunctions. To keep one of these injunctions was to gain credit; to break one was to incur debt. Therefore, a man could add up the ones he kept and subtract the ones he broke, and, as it were emerge with a credit or a debit balance." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 81.]
"Our obedience to God’s will cannot be on a selective basis; we cannot choose that part that is to our liking and disregard the rest. God’s will is not fragmentary; the entire law is the expression of His will for His people; it constitutes a grand unity. To break out one corner of a window pane is to become guilty of breaking the whole pane. He who crosses a forbidden boundary at one point or another is guilty of having crossed the boundary." [Note: Hiebert, James, p. 148.]
5. The importance of partiality 2:10-11
James illustrated this point with a hypothetical case involving two very severe violations of the law. All sins are not equally serious in that the consequences of some sins are greater than others, but all sins are equally serious in that any sin is a violation of God’s will.
The law of liberty (James 1:25) is the law of God that liberates us now. It is the same as the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2) in contrast to the Mosaic Law. As free as we are under the law of Christ, we need to remember that God will judge us (Romans 14:10-13; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10). We need to speak and act accordingly, namely, without prejudice toward others.
"Since he is speaking to believers, the judgment to which he refers must be the judgment of believers at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10)." [Note: Burdick, p. 180.]
6. The implication of our own judgment 2:12-13
God will not judge us with partiality. He will punish the unmerciful unmercifully. We need to understand this statement in the light of other revelations concerning how God will judge believers. We are in no danger of losing our salvation or even experiencing God’s wrath. However, we will suffer a loss of reward if we sin by practicing unmerciful favoritism (2 Corinthians 5:10; cf. Matthew 5:7; Matthew 6:15; Matthew 7:1; Matthew 18:23-25).
On the other hand, if we are merciful in dealing with our fellowmen God will be merciful in dealing with us when we stand before Him (cf. Matthew 25:34-40). Mercy triumphs over judgment just as love triumphs over partiality. We should accept one another with courtesy, compassion, and consistency. [Note: Blue, p. 825.]
In modern life, partiality sometimes arises because of differences in economic levels, race, religious preferences, political views, educational backgrounds, and personal opinions, to name a few causes. [Note: See Larry A. Mercer, "A Biblical and Cultural Study of the Problem of Racism," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:609 (January-March 1996):87-103.] For Christians it is sometimes harder to be impartial toward sinners who flaunt their sin than it is those who acknowledge that they have sinned. However because Christ died for all we should reach out to all as He did rather than being unfriendly and cliquish. This is true whether the sinners are homosexuals, AIDS patients, the murderers of unborn children, liars, adulterers, thieves, gossips, or gluttons, for example. This reaching out will be an accurate indicator of the extent to which Christ’s love controls us (cf. James 1:27).
This section of verses may raise a question in some minds concerning how James viewed the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law. Was he implying that we are responsible to keep the whole Mosaic Code? His own words at the Jerusalem Council show that this was not his view (cf. Acts 15:13-21). God gave the Mosaic Law both to regulate the life of the Israelites and to reveal the character and purposes of God to the Israelites and all other people. Its regulatory function ceased when Jesus died on the cross (Romans 10:4; Hebrews 7:12). Its revelatory value remains forever; it is part of Scripture that is still profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). The moral revelation James referred to here is as applicable now as it was before the Cross. God still expects people to live in its light. Whereas God has terminated the Mosaic Law as a codified body of law, some individual commands within this covenant continue in force under the new "law of liberty." These are the laws affecting all human conduct presently in contrast to those affecting only the life of the Israelites under the Mosaic Law. Christians live under a new set of rules, the law of liberty. Israelites lived under a different set of rules, the Law of Moses. The fact that the "golden rule" was part of the Mosaic Law as well as the law of Christ does not mean that we are still under the Mosaic Law. [Note: For further discussion of the Christian’s relationship to the Mosaic Law, see Charles C. Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra 124:495 (July-September 1967):239-47; and J. Dwight Pentecost, "The Purpose of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra 128:511 (July-September 1971):227-33.]
1. James’ assertion 2:14
The Arminian interpretation of this verse (view one above) is as follows. If a person claims to be a Christian but gives no evidence of true faith by the way he lives, he may never have been saved or he may no longer be saved. One Reformed view (view two above) is that if a person claims to be a Christian but gives no evidence of true faith by the way he lives, he was never saved. [Note: For a response to advocates of lordship salvation that hold this position, see Robert N. Wilkin, "Can Faith Without Works Save? James 2:14," Grace Evangelical Society News 9:5 (September-October 1994):2-3.] The third interpretation (view three above) is that if a person claims to be a Christian but gives no evidence of true faith by the way he lives there are two possibilities. He may not be saved, or he may be saved, but he is not living by faith, practicing his faith.
James just dealt with the Christian who professed to love others but by practicing personal favoritism demonstrated that he did not. Now he raised the larger issue of the believer who gives no evidence of his faith in the way he lives. He began by questioning the vitality of that faith. The form of this question in the Greek expects a negative response. If we translate it, "Can that kind of faith save him," or, "Can such faith save him," we may mislead the reader. The same construction exists in James 1:2-4; James 2:17-18; James 2:20; James 2:22; James 2:26; and 1 Corinthians 13:4 where the addition of "kind of" or "such" gives a more obviously improper translation. The presence of the definite article "the" with the abstract noun "faith" emphasizes the noun. James was saying that faith without works cannot save a person. Works are a condition for some kind of salvation.
This statement seems to contradict Paul’s affirmation that works are not a condition for salvation (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 11:6; et al.). However, Paul and James were talking about different aspects of salvation. This is clear from James’ earlier assertion that his Christian readers (James 1:18) would be able to save their "souls" (better "lives") if they obeyed God’s Word (James 1:21). Jesus also gave similar warnings that if His disciples did not continue to follow Him they could lose their "souls" (i.e., lives; cf. Matthew 16:24-26; Mark 3:4; Mark 8:34-37; Luke 9:23-25). He used the same Greek word that James did to describe the life (i.e., psyche). The translation "life" for "soul" may mislead us, however, into concluding that only the physical life is in view whenever we read this word (psyche). Rather it is the total person that psyche describes, not just our physical life or our eternal life (cf. 1 Peter 1:9). Any aspect of our life may be in view, and the context will help us determine what it is.
"We are not saved by deeds; we are saved for deeds; these are the twin truths of the Christian life. And Paul’s whole emphasis is on the first truth, and James’s whole emphasis is on the second truth." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 87.]
In James 2:14 James returned to his thought in James 1:21-22 about saving one’s life from death. His point here was that faith is no substitute for obedience. Orthodox faith without good works cannot protect the Christian from sin’s deadly consequences in this life (i.e., a deadening of fellowship with God at least, and at most physical death; cf. James 5:20; 1 John 5:16). That faith cannot save him from God’s discipline of him as a believer. Good works in addition to faith are necessary for that kind of deliverance (salvation). Many commentators believe that James was referring to eschatological salvation (i.e., salvation from eternal damnation). This interpretation obviously involves bringing works in as some type of condition for that aspect of salvation, which contradicts the clear revelation that salvation from hell is by grace alone.
"It would be difficult to find a concept which is richer and more varied in meaning than the biblical concept of salvation. The breadth of salvation is so sweeping and its intended aim so magnificent that in many contexts the words used defy precise definition. Yet these difficulties have not thwarted numerous interpreters from assuming, often without any contextual justification, that the words used invariably mean ’deliverance from hell’ or ’go to heaven when you die.’ It may come as a surprise to many that this usage of ’salvation’ (Gk. soteria) would have been the least likely meaning to come to the mind of a reader of the Bible in the first century. Indeed, in 812 usages of the various Hebrew words translated ’to save’ or ’salvation’ in the Old Testament, only 58 (7.1 percent) refer to eternal salvation." [Note: Dillow, p. 112. Cf. pp. 187-94. See also Alfred Plummer, The General Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, p. 137; Martin Dibelius, James, p. 178; and W. Nicol, "Faith and Works in the Letter of James," Neotestamentica 9 (1975):7-24. For a short, popular discussion, see Robert N. Wilkin, "Repentance and Salvation, Part 2: The Doctrine of Repentance in the Old Testament," Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 2 (Spring 1989):14.]
B. The Importance of Vital Faith 2:14-26
Some have seen this section as dealing with a new subject, the relationship of faith and works, whereas the previous one dealt with partiality (James 2:1-13). It seems to me and to others, however, that this section relates to the preceding one in the same way James 1:19-27 relates to James 1:2-18. It deals with a larger, more basic issue that connects with and underlies the practical problem just discussed.
"In this section St. James proceeds to enlarge on the meaning and nature of that faith in Jesus Christ which was spoken of in James 2:1 as inconsistent with prosopolempsia [respect of persons]." [Note: Mayor, p. 95.]
In his discussion of favoritism James argued for genuineness and warned of superficial self-deception. The larger issue is the whole matter of faith in God. James wrote this section to challenge his readers to examine the vitality of their faith in God. Were they really putting their faith into practice, applying their beliefs to their behavior? Their preferential treatment of some people raised this question in James’ mind.
"Not only is the mature Christian patient in testing (James 1), but he also practices the truth. This is the theme of James 2. Immature people talk about their beliefs, but the mature person lives his faith. Hearing God’s Word (James 1:22-25) and talking about God’s Word can never substitute for doing God’s Word." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 63.]
There have been three primary interpretations of this passage of Scripture. The first view is that it refers to a person who was a believer but has lost his salvation. He used to have saving faith but does not have it any longer. This is the view of most Arminians. The second view is that it refers to an unbeliever who professes to be a Christian but has never really exercised saving faith in Christ. His faith is only intellectual assent to gospel truth, not saving faith. [Note: E.g., Burdick; Tasker; Motyer; Fanning, pp. 424-27; and John F. MacArthur, Faith Works, pp. 139-55.] One advocate of this interpretation wrote, "His [James’] contrast is between two kinds of faith: one that saves and one that doesn’t." [Note: Ibid., p. 152.] The third view is that it refers to a believer who is not living by faith. He is not behaving consistently with what he believes. [Note: E.g., Hodges; Wiersbe; Dillow; and R. T. Kendall, Once Saved, Always Saved.] The first two views say this passage describes unbelievers whereas the third view says it describes believers. By examining the passage we should be able to decide which view is correct.
2. James’ illustration 2:15-16
As he did before (James 2:2-4), James provided a concrete situation to illustrate his point (James 2:15-16). He envisioned a situation that may very well have taken place in his church in Jerusalem where there were many poor saints (Romans 15:25-31; 1 Corinthians 16:3). All the people in the illustration seem to be genuine Christians in view of the terms James used to describe them (cf. "brethren" in James 1:2; James 2:1; James 2:14; James 3:1). The situation he described highlights the absurdity of claiming vital faith (i.e., that one is putting his faith into practice) but at the same time not working (i.e., not obeying the Word of God; cf. 1 John 3:17-18). A benediction cannot save a starving man from death; only bread can do that.
One Greek scholar paraphrased James 2:14-17 as follows.
"What good does it do, my Christian brothers, if someone among you says he has faith and yet does not act on that faith? Faith certainly cannot preserve his life, can it? It would be the same thing as if one of you spoke to some Christian brother or sister who was destitute of the necessities of life and you said, ’Go home peacefully and get warmed and filled.’ But if you did not give them the very things they needed for bodily life, what good would it do? Would their lives be saved by your confident words? In the same way when faith stands all by itself, because you fail to act on it, your inactive faith is as dead as your useless words to your destitute Christian brother. It has no life-preserving power at all!" [Note: Zane C. Hodges, Dead Faith: What Is It? p. 15.]
3. James’ restatement of his point 2:17
James was not saying that a person who responds to another Christian’s need, as in James 2:15-16, shows that he has failed to exercise saving faith and is devoid of eternal life. He was saying that faith, if work (i.e., obedience to the Word of God) does not accompany it, is dead (i.e., inactive).
"We can make statements in all sincerity of mind and emotion: ’I feel sorry for the poor; I don’t condone racism.’ But James will say, ’What good is that if you aren’t doing something to help the poor or to heal the distrust and injustice between races?’ Some Christians attempt a stance of personal belief without personal action, saying, for example, ’I personally disagree with abortion, but I won’t try to change others’ minds.’ James persists in asking us: What are you doing to protect the victims-both the victimized baby and the victimized mother?" [Note: Stulac, p. 120.]
"Dead" does not mean non-existent but inactive, no longer vital, dormant, useless (cf. James 2:14). This is a very important point.
"It has not usually been considered too deeply why James chose the term ’dead’ to describe a faith that is not working. But the moment we relate this to the controlling theme of ’saving the life,’ everything becomes plain. The issue that concerns James is an issue of life or death. (He is not discussing salvation from hell!) The truth which he has in mind is that of Proverbs: ’Righteousness tendeth to life . . . he that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death.’ [Proverbs 11:19; cf. Proverbs 10:27; Proverbs 12:28; Proverbs 13:14; Proverbs 19:16] Can a dead faith save the Christian from death? The question answers itself. The choice of the adjective ’dead’ is perfectly suited to James’ argument." [Note: Hodges, The Gospel . . ., p. 27.]
4. An objection 2:18
James next introduced an objection to his thesis that faith is dead (inoperative) without works. He put it in the mouth of a hypothetical objector. This literary device of objection and response was a common one that Paul also used (e.g., Romans 9:19-20; 1 Corinthians 15:35-36). It is the diatribe. [Note: See Hiebert, James, p. 131; and Sidebottom, p. 1.] The form of the diatribe helps us identify that what follows is the statement of the objector and what follows that is James’ response to the objector.
The NIV, by its use of quotation marks, has the objector saying only the first part of this verse, "You have faith; I have deeds," and James responding in the last part of the verse. The NASB has the objector saying the whole verse. Which is correct? There were no punctuation marks in the Greek text so we have to determine on the basis of what makes the most sense. The objector seems to be making a point by way of argument rather than making a simple statement. This fact seems clear from the context in which James responds with a rebuttal (James 2:19-23). Consequently I prefer the NASB punctuation of this verse.
The objector claims that good works are the necessary sign of saving faith. He says, "You cannot prove you have faith unless you have works, but because I have works you can see that I have faith." [Note: Cf. Adamson, p. 124.] This is the argument that many evangelicals have used: the necessary evidence that a person has been saved (justified) is his good works (sanctification). If he is not doing good works, he is unsaved. Works always evidence faith, they say. But if this view is true, why did Jesus teach his disciples that some who are "in Me" bear no fruit (John 15:2; John 15:6)?
The idea that evidence of sanctification must be present before the sinner can have full assurance of his justification is one that certain Reformed preachers after the time of John Calvin popularized. This idea is neither scriptural nor did John Calvin hold it. Theodore Beza in Geneva and William Perkins in England were leading figures in the Calvinists’ departure from John Calvin’s own teaching concerning faith and assurance. [Note: See R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649; idem., Once Saved . . ., pp. 207-17; and M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance.]
The basis of our assurance that we are saved is primarily the promise of God in Scripture (John 1:12; John 3:16; John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:47; John 10:27-29; John 20:31; et al.). It is not the presence of good works (fruit) in our lives. Jesus taught that some branches of the vine do not bear fruit (Matthew 13:22; Mark 4:7; Luke 8:14; John 15:2; John 15:6). Nevertheless they still share in the life of the vine. It seems clear that every true believer experiences a radical transformation in his life when he trusts Jesus Christ as his Savior (Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 5:8; Colossians 1:13; et al.). However the Scriptures do not say that every true believer’s lifestyle will inevitably experience external transformation. That depends on the believer’s response to God’s will. Carnal Christians (1 Corinthians 3:1-4) are those who choose to indulge the flesh rather than submitting to the Spirit’s control. Fruit is the outward evidence of inner life. Just as some fruit trees bear little or no fruit, it is possible for some genuine Christians to bear little or no external evidence of their eternal life. The Holy Spirit effects inner transformation in every believer. Normally He will produce outer transformation as well unless the believer quenches and grieves Him as He seeks to manifest the life of Christ through us to others.
James refuted the argument of the objector stated in James 2:18. Genuine faith does not always result in good works. The demons believe that what God has revealed about Himself is true. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) was and is the pious Jew’s daily confession of his faith. Nevertheless the demons continue practicing evil works. They understand what their behavior will bring upon them, but rather than turning from their evil ways they only shudder as they anticipate their inevitable judgment. I think James selected the demons as an illustration because they are the most extreme and clear example of beings whose belief is correct but whose behavior is not. He did not select them because they are lost, which they are. Throughout this book James was speaking to genuine Christians (cf. James 2:14-15; James 2:21; James 2:23; James 2:25, et al.). Just like the demons Christians can persist in rebelling against God’s will even though they know they will stand before the judgment seat of Christ someday (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Some people have concluded that James’ reason for using the demons as an illustration was to show that intellectual assent to the truth is not enough. To experience regeneration a person must not only accept the gospel message as true but also rely on the Savior to save him. Whereas it is true that intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel is not adequate for regeneration, that does not appear to be the point James was making in this illustration. His point seems to be that good works do not always result from correct belief (cf. James 1:26-27; James 4:17). They did in Abraham’s case (James 2:21-22), but not in the case of the demons. Further evidence that this is the correct conclusion is that what James said the demons believe is not the gospel message. James was not talking about what is necessary to become a Christian.
". . . this verse which is often quoted to show that some creatures can believe but not be saved is irrelevant to the issue of salvation, for it says only that demons are monotheists." [Note: Charles C. Ryrie, So Great Salvation, p. 122.]
Some scholars believe that the objector is speaking in James 2:19 as well as in James 2:18. [Note: E.g., Mayor, p. 101; and Zane C. Hodges, "Light on James Two from Textual Criticism," Bibliotheca Sacra 120:480 (October-December 1963):343-47.] Some of them base this conclusion on the fact that the Greek word choris (translated "without") is ek (translated "by") in some ancient Greek manuscripts. Most Greek scholars believe choris is the proper word and that James is speaking in James 2:19. [Note: See Martin, p. 89.] I agree with them on this point.
5. James’ rebuttal 2:19-23
James thought his objector’s argument was foolish. He still asserted that without good works a person’s faith in God is useless, not non-existent but useless (Gr. argos, ineffectual, lit. without work; cf. Matthew 20:3; Matthew 20:6).
A Christian who has stopped living by faith day by day is similar to a person who has a non-functioning organ in his body. As the organ is dead, so the faith of such a Christian is dead, useless. Furthermore, his dead faith will contribute to his physical death, as a dead organ will shorten physical life.
James then proceeded to explain what he meant by "useless" in James 2:21-23. Note how often James said that he was writing about the uselessness of faith unaccompanied by works, not the absence of faith unaccompanied by works (James 1:26; James 2:14; James 2:16; James 2:20).
This verse at first seems to contradict other verses that say God declared Abraham righteous when Abraham believed God’s promise (Genesis 15:1-6; Romans 4:1-5). The solution to the problem lies in the meaning of "justified." This word always means to declare someone righteous in the sight of the law, not to make someone righteous in his or her conduct (cf. Exodus 23:7; Deuteronomy 25:1; 1 Kings 8:32). The failure to define justification biblically is what has led some Reformed interpreters to conclude that everyone who is truly justified will inevitably behave righteously.
The NIV translation "considered righteous" is a bit misleading (cf. James 2:25). Abraham was declared righteous more than once. Most interpreters understand the first scriptural statement of his justification as describing his "new birth," to use the New Testament term (Genesis 15:6). This is when God declared Abraham righteous. About 20 years later James says Abraham was justified again. Scripture consistently teaches that believers whom God declares righteous never lose their righteous standing before God (Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1; et al.). They do not need to be saved again. Abraham’s subsequent justification evidently refers to a second declaration of his righteousness. James said this second time Abraham’s works declared him righteous. They gave testimony (bore witness) to his faith. [Note: See Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, p. 441; and Robertson, 6:37.] Works do not always evidence faith (James 2:19), but sometimes they do. They do whenever a person who has become a believer by faith continues to live by faith. Abraham is a good example of a believer whose good works (obedience to God) bore witness to his righteousness. He continued to live by faith just as he had been declared righteous by faith.
Abraham’s faith was "perfected" by his works in the sense that his works made his faith stronger. This is another way of expressing the same idea that James stated in James 1:2-4. Maturity comes as we persevere in the will of God when we encounter trials. When God spared Isaac’s life, Abraham’s faith doubtless became much stronger than it had been.
"The faith which justifies . . . can have an active and vital role in the life of the obedient believer. As with Abraham, it can be the dynamic for superb acts of obedience. In the process, faith itself can be ’perfected.’ The Greek word suggests development and motivation. Faith is thus nourished and strengthened by works." [Note: Hodges, The Gospel . . ., pp. 29-30.]
The singular "you" in this verse in the Greek text indicates that James was still addressing his objector.
Genesis 15:6 was "fulfilled" when Abraham offered Isaac in the sense that Abraham’s faith became abundantly clear on that occasion. What God had said about Abraham became obviously true when the patriarch trusted and obeyed God when tested.
"In the sacrifice of Isaac was shown the full meaning of the word (Genesis 15:6) spoken . . . years before in commendation of Abraham’s belief in the promise of a child." [Note: Mayor, p. 104.]
James seems to have included the fact that God called Abraham His friend for the following reason. He wanted to show that continued obedient faith, not just initial saving faith, is what makes a person God’s intimate friend (cf. James 4:4; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; John 14:21; John 15:14).
"When a man is justified by faith he finds an unqualified acceptance before God . . . (Romans 4:6). But only God can see this spiritual transaction. When, however, a man is justified by works he achieves an intimacy with God that is manifest to men. He can then be called ’the friend of God,’ even as Jesus said, ’You are my friends if you do whatever I command you’ (John 15:14)." [Note: Hodges, The Gospel . . ., p. 31. See also Fanning, p. 429.]
Why did James bring Abraham into his argument? Abraham is a clear example that it is possible to be declared righteous by God but not to be declared righteous by one’s works. It was as Abraham continued to live by faith (continued to trust and obey God) that, about 20 years after his justification by faith in God, his works declared that he was righteous. By continuing to trust and obey God, as Abraham did, James’ Christian readers could also validate their justification by faith in God by their good works and become true friends of God.
The use of the plural "you" in this verse in the Greek text shows that James had completed his response to the objector. He was now addressing his readers directly again (cf. James 2:14-17).
Works declare us righteous (Gr. present passive indicative of dikaioo) in the sense that our works testify to onlookers that we have exercised saving faith. They are the external fruit that bears witness to the eternal life within. "You see . . . by [his] works." However, James previously said that not every believer will bear visible fruit (James 2:17; cf. John 15:2). Such a believer’s faith is not productive but "dead." Nevertheless he has faith. Some unbelievers appear to bear the fruit of saving faith, but God will one day expose their "wheat" as "tares" (Matthew 13:30).
". . . Paul and James are best understood as addressing quite dissimilar situations . . . Whereas Paul’s audience is in danger of relying on ’works’ for salvation, James’ readers are excusing themselves from good works, thereby showing only a faith that is dead . . ." [Note: Martin, p. 95.]
One writer argued for the view that the vindication in view here is universal and is stated in a salvific context. [Note: C. Ryan Jenkins, "Faith and Works in Paul and James," Bibliotheca Sacra 159:633 (January-March 2002):62-78.] My view is that the vindication is only before others and is not in a salvific context.
6. James’ final argument 2:24-26
James could have ended his argument about the "revered patriarch" Abraham, but he chose to add the illustration of Rahab, the "redeemed prostitute." [Note: Blue, p. 826.]
"Rahab . . . is superbly suited to tie the strands of his thoughts together. This passage had begun, as we have seen, with an allusion to his theme of ’saving the life’ (James 2:14; James 1:21). Not surprisingly, therefore, Rahab is selected as a striking example of a person whose physical life was ’saved’ precisely because she had works." [Note: Hodges, The Gospel . . ., p. 32.]
Apparently Rahab trusted in God before the spies ever arrived at her door (cf. Joshua 2:9-13). Rather than being originally part of the Israelite nation she was a proselyte to Judaism. Thus with these two examples James showed the necessity of works for believers regardless of one’s background and origins. Abraham and Rahab were poles apart.
"The contrast is neat: Abraham, a major Bible figure; Rahab, a minor participant. Abraham the father of the faithful; Rahab a foreigner. Abraham the respected; Rahab the disreputable. Abraham a man; Rahab a woman. As so often, the contrast is intended to alert us to the fact that a fully comprehensive statement is being made-as it were, covering the situation all the way from Abraham to Rahab and back again. The primary works of faith, then, are the works of Abraham and Rahab and they apply to all without exception.
"What was the work of Abraham? He held nothing back from God. God said, ’I want your son’ and Abraham ’rose early in the morning’ (Genesis 22:3) in prompt obedience. What was the work of Rahab? She reached out and took into her own care those who were needy and helpless, regardless of the cost to herself." [Note: Motyer, pp. 115-16.]
Faith without works is as dead as a body without a human spirit. It is of no practical value. This is James’ final illustration and affirmation on the subject. Our faith becomes only dead orthodoxy when we stop obeying God. Vital faith then becomes dead faith. Both a dead body and dead faith were alive at one time.
"Does James then contradict Paul’s doctrine of full grace, or John’s insistence on faith as the single condition for eternal life? Far from it. But neither does he offer support to the widespread notion that a ’dead faith’ cannot exist in the life of a Christian. Ironically, that is exactly what he is warning against. Thus the misconstruction of his words has not only bred unnecessary confusion about the terms for eternal life, but it has also deprived the church of a much needed and salutary warning.
"The dangers of a dying faith are real. But they do not include hell, and nothing James writes suggests this. Nevertheless, sin remains a deadly nemesis to Christian experience which can end our physical lives themselves. To that, the wisdom of the Old Testament adds its witness to the warnings of James. And if a man is to be saved from such a consequence, he must have works." [Note: Hodges, The Gospel . . ., p. 33.]
"Never once does James question whether the rich-or poor-have been saved. Neither does he admonish them in such a way that should cause them to question whether they have been saved. He never says, for example, ’The trouble with you people is that you are not saved.’ He does not come forward with a plan of salvation; he does not warn them of a false assurance; he does not go over the basis of saving faith." [Note: Kendall, Once Saved . . ., p. 208. Cf. Chitwood, Salvation of . . ., pp. 45-54.]
The key to understanding this passage is a correct understanding of what dead faith is. James used "dead" (James 2:17; James 2:26) as a synonym for "useless" (James 2:14; James 2:16; James 2:20). He was not saying the person with dead faith has no faith, that he is unsaved. He meant that the person with dead faith has saving faith, but he is not living by faith now. His faith has no vital effect on the way he presently lives. He is not trusting and obeying God day by day.
"The faith which is mentioned in this section [James 2:14-26] can be presupposed in every Christian . . . [James’] intention is not dogmatically oriented, but practically oriented: he wishes to admonish the Christians to practice their faith, i.e. their Christianity, by works." [Note: Dibelius, p. 178. The italics are his.]
To summarize, I believe what James wrote in James 2:14-26 means this. Good works are not necessary to keep us from going to hell. However they are necessary to keep us from falling under God’s disciplinary punishment that may even result in premature physical death. It is possible for a Christian not to use his or her faith, to stop "walking by faith." In such a case his or her faith is of no practical use here and now. Therefore we who are Christians should be careful to continue to keep trusting and obeying God day by day. It is possible for a Christian to exercise "saving faith" and then to stop "walking by faith." That is what James is warning us to avoid. He is dealing with sanctification primarily, not justification, here and throughout this epistle. This is Christian life teaching, not teaching on how to become a Christian.
"James’ emphasis on faith alone shows that he affirms the necessity of faith; what he is opposing is a faith that denies the obligation to obey Christ as Lord." [Note: Stulac, p. 116. See also Robert N. Wilkin, "Another View of Faith and Works in James 2," Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society 15:29 (Autumn 2002):3-21.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on James 2". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20