These early Jewish Christians were far too much controlled by the
ordinary thoughts of the world, and as a consequence of being spotted
by the world, they despised the poor. They should have been controlled
by the faith of the Lord Jesus, and not by the standards and customs of
the world. Though he was the Lord of Glory yet He ever stooped to the
poor and the fatherless. Poverty and need may be incompatible with
human glory, but they are quite compatible with Divine glory.
As a consequence when some rich Jew pompously entered their
"assembly" or "synagogue"-this latter is the right word-attired in all
his finery, he was met with servile attention, as much by the
Christians as by the non-Christians apparently. When a poor man entered
he was unceremoniously put in an obscure place. Quite natural of course
according to the way of the world; but quite foreign this to the faith
of Christ. They might constitute themselves judges of men in this way,
but they only thereby proved themselves to be "judges of evil thoughts"
or "judges having evil reasonings."
In verses 5 to 7 James recalls to his brethren what the situation
really was. The rich Jews were in the main the proud opposers of Christ
and His people, blasphemers of His worthy name. God's choice had in the
main fallen on the poor; and with this agree the words of the Apostle
to the Gentiles, in 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31. These chosen poor ones-true
Christians-were rich in faith and heirs of the coming kingdom. When
servile attention was paid to the proud blasphemers and persecutors,
because they were rich, and contempt was meted out to the followers of
Christ because they were poor it only proved the blindness and folly of
those who so acted. They viewed both rich and poor with the world's
superficial gaze, and not with the penetrating eye if faith.
Notice that the Kingdom is said to be "promised to them that love
Him." Most of those to whom James wrote would have stoutly contended
that the kingdom was promised to the Jew nationally, and that in an
exclusive way. This was now seen to be a mistake. It is promised to
lovers of God, and that whether Jew or Gentile, as we find in Paul's
Notice also the expression, "that worthy name by the which ye are called." The rich Jew blasphemed it but God pronounces it a
worthy Name. By it they were called-this seems to indicate that, when James wrote, the name
travelled from Antioch where first it was coined (Acts 11: 26) to
Jerusalem. The poor were the objects of persecution not so much because
they were poor, as because they were identified with Christ, and He was
the object of the world's hatred.
This having respect of persons is not only contrary to the faith of
Christ, but even to the law itself which bids us love our neighbours as
ourselves. This is called in verse 8 the "royal" or "kingly" law. It
sums up in one word that which must be observed by every king who would
reign righteously and govern according to God. To have respect of
persons is to break that law and stand convicted as a transgressor.
If we stand before God on the ground of law-keeping and are convicted in one point of law-breaking, what is the effect?
Nothing could be more sweeping than the statement made in verse 10,
and at first sight some of us might be inclined to question the
rightness of it. We have to remember however that the law is treated as
a whole, one and indivisible. An errand boy, carrying a basket of
bottles, may slip and break one bottle in his fall, and his employer
cannot with any justice accuse him of breaking all of them, for every
bottle is separate and distinct from each of the others. If however the
lad were carrying the basket suspended from his shoulder by a chain,
and in falling he also broke one link of the chain, his master could
rightly tell him that he had broken the chain. If in addition he
indulged in rough horseplay with other boys, and hurling a stone
misdirected it through a large shop window, it is rightly spoken of as
a broken window.
It is thus with the law. The chain may have many links yet it is one
chain. The window may comprise many square feet of glass yet it is one
pane. The law has many commandments yet it is one law. One commandment
may be carefully observed as verse 11 says, indeed many commandments
may be kept, yet if one commandment is broken the law is transgressed.
If that be so then must we all plead guilty, and we might begin to
enquire if then after all we are to stand before God and be judged by
Him on the basis of the law of Moses? To this question James replies in
verse 12. We stand before God and shall be judged on the basis of the
"law of liberty"-an expression which means the revelation of God's will
which has reached us in Christ, as we saw when considering verse 25 of
the previous chapter. We shall have to answer as being in the much
fuller light which Christianity brings. Being in the light of the
supreme manifestation of God's mercy in Christ we are responsible to
show mercy ourselves. This thought brings us back to the matter with
which the paragraph started. Their treatment of "the poor man in vile
raiment" had not been according to the mercy displayed in the Gospel.
They set themselves up as "judges of evil thoughts," but, lo! they
would find themselves under judgment.
A serious position indeed! Are we in a similar position? We shall
have to answer to God as in the light of Gospel mercy and as under the
law of liberty, even as they.
Notice that the last phrase of verse 13 is not, "Mercy rejoiceth against
justice," but, "against
judgment." Divine mercy goes hand in hand with righteousness, and thereby it triumphs against the judgment that otherwise had been our due.
The change of subject that we find in verse 14 may strike us as
rather abrupt but it really flows quite naturally from the profound
insight which James had by the Spirit into the foolish workings of the
human heart. He began the chapter by saying, "My brethren have not . .
. faith." They might wish to rebut his assertion by saying, "Oh, yes!
we have. We have the faith of the Lord Jesus as much as you." Is there
any certain test which will enable us to check these contrary
assertions and discover where the truth lies?
There certainly is. It lies in the fact that true faith is a living
thing which manifests its life in works. Thereby it may be
distinguished from that dead kind of faith which consists only in the
acceptance of facts, without the heart being brought under the power of
them. We may profess that we accept the teaching of Christ, but unless
that which we believe controls our actions we cannot be said to really
have the faith of Christ. Hence the latter part of this second chapter
is of immense importance.
It must be carefully noted that the works, upon which James so strenuously insists in these verses are
the works of faith. Having
noted this we shall do well to turn at once to Romans 3 and 4, and also
to Galatians 3, where the Apostle Paul so convincingly demonstrates
that our justification is by faith and is not of works. These works
however which Paul so completely eliminates are
the works of the law.
A great many people have supposed that there is a clash and a
contradiction between the two Apostles on this matter, but it is not
so. The distinction we have just pointed out largely helps to remove
the difficultythat is felt. Both speak of works, but there is an
immense difference between the works of the law and the works of faith.
The works of the law, of which Paul speaks, are works done in
obedience to the demand of the law of Moses, by which, it is hoped, a
righteousness may be wrought that will pass in the presence of God.
"This do, and thou shalt live," said the law, and the works are done in
the hope of thereby obtaining the life-life upon earth-that is
proffered. No one of us ever did obtain this abiding earthly life by
law-keeping, since as James has just told us we became wholly guilty
directly we had transgressed in one point. Hence we all lie by nature
under the death sentence, and the works of the law are dead works,
though done in the effort to obtainable.
The works of faith, of which James speaks are those which spring out
of a living faith as its direct expression and result. They are as much
a proof of faith's vitality as flowers and fruit prove the vitality and
also the nature of a tree. If no such works are forthcoming then our
faith is proclaimed as dead, being alone.
Is there any contradiction between these two sets of statements? By
no means. They are indeed entirely complementary the one to the other,
and our view of the matter is not complete without both. Works done
for justification are rigorously excluded. Works flowing
faith that justifies are strenuously insisted on, and that not only by
James but by Paul also; for in writing to Titus he says, "These things
I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in
God might be careful to maintain good works." (Titus 3: 8). The works
that are to be maintained are those done by
"they which have believed"; that is, they are the works of faith.
The above considerations do not entirely remove the difficulty for
there remain certain verbal contradictions, such as, "We conclude that
a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Rom. 3: 28),
and in our passage, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified,
and not by faith only." Again we read, "If Abraham were justified by
works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God" (Rom. 4: 2), and
in our passage, 'Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he
had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" Some puzzled reader may wish
to ask us if we can extricate ourselves from the contradictory
conclusions that in the distant past Abraham both
was not justified by works; and further that in the present a man is justified
by faith without works, and also
by works and not by faith alone?
We should reply that there is really no difficulty from which to
extricate ourselves. We have but to remark that in James the whole
point is that which is valid
before man, as verse 18 of our
chapter shows. A man has the right to demand that we display our faith
in our works, thus justifying ourselves and our faith before him. In
Romans the whole point is that which is valid
before God. The very words, "before God," occur in Romans 4: 2, as we have seen. Our faith is quite apparent to
His all-seeing eye.
not have to wait for the display of the works that are the fruit of
faith, in order to be assured that the faith really exists.
In the world of men however works are a necessity, for in no other
way can we be assured that faith exists of a living sort. The
illustrations of verses 14 to 16 are quite conclusive. We may profess
faith in God's care for His people in temporal things, but except our
faith in that care leads us to a readiness to be the channel through
which it may flow, our faith is of no profit to the needy brother or
sister; nor indeed to ourselves. Our faith as to that particular point
is dead and consequently inoperative, as verse 17 tells us, and we must
not be surprised if it is challenged by others.
A man may come up to you and say, "Well, you say that you believe
but you produce no visible evidence of your faith, kindly therefore
produce your faith itself for my inspection." What could you do?
Obviously, nothing! You might go on reiterating, "I have faith. I have
faith." But of what use would that be? Your confusion would be
increased if he should further say, "At all events I have been doing
such-and-such a thing, and such-and-such, which clearly evidence that I
personally do believe, though I am not in the habit of talking about my
So far the Apostle has urged these very practical considerations
upon us in connection with matters of every day life in the world, but
they stand equally true in connection with matters of doctrine, matters
connected with the whole faith of the Gospel. In verse 19 the very
fundamental point of faith in the existence of the one true God is
raised. "Oh, yes," we each exclaim, "I believe in Him!" That is good;
but such faith if real is bound to affect us. We shall at least
tremble, for even demons, who know right well that He exists and hate
Him, go as far as that. The multitudes, who in a languid way accept the
idea of His existence and yet are utterly unmoved by it, have a faith
which is dead.
"What!" someone may remark, "Is such a thing as
trembling counted as a work?" It certainly is. And this leads us to remark that James speaks simply of works, and not of
The point is not that every true believer must do a number of kindly
and charitable actions-though it is of course good and right for him so
to do-but that his works are bound to be such as shall display his
faith in action if men are to see that his faith is real. This is an
important point: let us all make sure that we seize it.
As an illustration, let us suppose that you go to visit a sick
friend. You enquire for his health when he at once assures you that he
is perfectly certain to get well. As he does not seem particularly
cheerful about it, you ask what has given him this assurance-upon what
his faith rests? In reply he tells you he has some wonderful medicine,
as to which he has readhundreds of flattering testimonials; and he
points you to a large bottle of medicine standing on the mantelpiece.
You notice that the bottle is quite full, so you ask him how long he
has been taking the stuff, when he surprises you by saying that he has
not taken any! Would you not say, "My friend, you cannot
really believe that this medicine will cure you without fail, otherwise you would have begun to take it?"
You would be even more surprised however if in response to this he
calmly remarked, "Oh, but my faith in it is very real, as may be seen
by the fact that I have just sent £5 to help our local charities."
"What has that to do with it?" you would exclaim. "Your gift seems to
show that you have a kindly heart, and that you believe in local
charities, but it proves nothing as to your belief in the medicine.
Start taking the medicine: that will demonstrate that you believe in
Here is a rich man who, when requested, will draw out his
cheque-book and sign away large sums for charitable services. There is
a poor woman who is astonishingly kind and helpful to her equally
humble neighbours. What do their works show? Their faith in Christ? Not
with any certainty. True it
may be that their kindly spirit is the result of their having been converted, but on the other hand it
spring from a desire for notoriety or for the approbation of their
fellows. But suppose they both begin to display great interest in the
Word of God, together with a hearty obedience to its directions, and a
real affection for all the people of God. Now we can safely draw the
deduction that they really do believe in Christ, for that is the only
root from which springs such fruit as this.
Two cases are cited in verses 21 to 25-Abraham and Rahab. Contrasts
they are in almost every respect. The one, the father of the Jews, an
honoured servant of God. The other, a Gentile, a poor woman of
dishonourable calling. Yet they both illustrate this matter. Both had
faith, and both had works-the works exactly appropriate to the
particular faith they possessed, and which consequently showed it to
Abraham's case is particularly instructive since Paul also cites him
in Romans 4 to establish his side of this great question; referring to
that which happened under cover of the quiet and starry night, when God
made His great promise and Abraham accepted it in simple faith. James
refers to the same chapter (Gen. 15) in our 23rd verse; but he cites it
as being fulfilled years after when he "offered Isaac his son upon the
altar," as recorded in Genesis 22. The offering of Isaac was the work
by which Abraham showed forth the faith that had long been in his heart.
Many a critic is inclined to object to the offering of Isaac and to
denounce it as unworthy of being called a "good work." That is because
they are entirely blind to the point we have just been endeavouring to
make. When Abraham believed God on that starry night, he believed that
He was going to raise up a living child from dead parents. How could he
have so believed except he had believed that God was able to raise the
dead to life? And what did his offering of Isaac show? It showed that
he really did believe in God, just in that way. He offered him
"accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead"
(Heb. 11: 19). His work showed forth his faith in the most precise and
With Rahab it was just the same. She received the spies from Joshua
and sent them out another way. Again our critic is far from pleased. He
denounces her action. It was unpatriotic! It was treason! She told
lies! Well, poor thing! she was but a depraved member of an accursed
race, groping her way towards the light. Her actions can easily be
criticised, yet they had this supreme merit-they clearly demonstrated
that she had lost faith in the filthy gods of her native land and had
begun to believe in the might and mercy of the God of Israel. Now this
was exactly the point, for the faith she professed to the spies was, "I
know that the Lord hath given you the land . . . for the LORD your God,
He is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath" (Joshua 2: 9-11). Did
she believe this? She did, for her works showed it. She risked her own
neck to identify herself with the people who had JEHOVAH as their God.
Is not all this very wholesome and important truth? It is indeed. It
is reported that Luther was betrayed into speaking of James with
contempt, and referring to his Epistle as "the Epistle of straw." If
so, the great Reformer was mistaken, and did not grasp the real force
of these passages. If we have grasped their force we shall certainly
confess it to be more like "an Epistle of iron." There is a
sledge-hammer directness about James hardly equalled by any other New
The sum of the matter we have been considering is this-that, "as the
body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also."
We may talk of our faith in Christ, or of our faith in this, that and
the other detail of Christian truth; but unless our faith expresses
itself in appropriate works it is DEAD! That is a sledge-hammer hit!
Let us allow it to exert its full effect in our consciences.