The Epistle of James
An Expository Study
Pure religion is genuine, active Christianity. It is the practical expression of the life implanted within the soul by the divine spirit. Through philanthropy and other activities it sacrifices itself and whatever it may possess. It lives and serves for the benefit of others. Furthermore, this same pure religion, while being very active, keeps itself sanctified, completely apart from the pollution that is in this world.
James says, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”
The author of this epistle had a very keen appreciation of the oneness of the Body of Christ. He not only recognized, but apparently enjoyed the intimate and indissolvable relationship that each believer bears to all others believers. The Apostle Paul has stated this so clearly, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19).
This chapter divides itself into two parts: the first deals with the believer’s attitude toward the Word of God, and the value of “faith” and “works.”
A true expression of the wonderful life that the believer has received is sincere, transparent and unclouded by either partiality or prejudice. To illustrate this point James makes reference to visitors who had come to the assembly at Jerusalem.
The word assembly in verse two is literally “synagogue.” This helps to date the epistle; the Church was still in a transitionary period. There had not yet been a complete severance of the Christians from Judaism; that eventually did develop. The world in those early years looked upon Christianity as a Jewish sect.
It would be quite wrong for us to assume that these visitors to the assembly were all Christians. According to the context here, they would appear to be the very opposite. Irrespective of what their status might be, the attitude toward them should have been without respect of persons. In writing to Timothy, Paul forcefully charged, “That thou observe these things without preferring one before another, do nothing by partiality” (1 Timothy 5:21).
In his illustration the rich man pictured by James must have been in reality a man of the world. The evidence of his affluence is seen in the manner of his dress, and the poise with which he moved indicated that he claimed certain privileges.
The poor man not only had no material wealth, but only for a moment he stepped out of obscurity. Humanity being what it is, it is natural to differentiate against the poor and treat with favour the rich. Our attitude in public might quite easily betray our spiritual condition. The Apostle Paul wrote to Corinth, “He that is spiritual judgeth (discerneth) all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15), but a little later he had to charge the whole assembly, saying, “Are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Corinthians 3:3).
One is here reminded of the words of the Lord Jesus, “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23). Materialism is a definite obstruction in the pathway of salvation and faith.
Both men, rich and poor alike, should have been made equally welcome; both probably needed God’s salvation. If both eventually were saved they would enjoy an equal relationship to all the people of God. In Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).
While we have seen that James only mentions his illustrous half—brother twice, nevertheless, he made three or four allusions to Him throughout the epistle. There is a very significant allusion in chapter 2:7: “Do not they (men of the world) blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called.” In the allusion there is a delicate reference to the noble name, Christ.
Jacob, when about to die, asked for the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, that he might bless them. To Joseph, Jacob said, “As Rueben and Simeon, they shall be mine” (Genesis 48:5). With his hands on the heads of the two boys, he said, “Let my name be named on them” (Genesis 48:16). They were now Jacob’s in a very real sense. In like manner, the name of Christ has been called upon the Christian.
Men of the world might bring slander upon the honourable name that is called upon each believer, but it is his duty to extol that wonderful name. The fact that the believer is called Christian indicates that he belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the opening of the epistle (1:1), James acknowledges the supreme lordship of the One with whom he had been raised, the One whose lordship he had denied. Now thoroughly converted, he asserts that he is a voluntary bondslave of that same Lord Jesus Christ.
In his second reference to his divine brother (2:1), James speaks of Him as the “Lord Jesus Christ of glory.” He assures us that his faith, his confidence, was firmly anchored in that blessed One, James implied that the spiritual relationship to Christ was more important than any human relationship which he might bear.
Faith and Works
In his exposition of the Word of God, James uses the appellation “law.” He thereby intimates his complete submission to the authority of the Word of God, and his belief in the divine oneness of the Old Testament Scriptures. We noticed in chapter 1:25 that he speaks of the “Perfect Law of Liberty.” What strange paradoxical language — “liberty” and “law.” Are these not contradictory terms? In this context they are not. Christian liberty both then and now is controlled liberty. The freedom that we have in Christ is not a licence to act in self-will (1 Corinthians 10:23); it is perfect liberty to fulfill the will of God in our daily lives.
Another unusual term used by James in this connection is “The Royal Law” (2:8). This regal term may suggest, first of all, the source of this “Law,” the Word of God, and, secondly, final object. It was written by the King eternal, immortal, incorruptible, invisible, the only wise God” (1 Timothy 1:17), for those who by the redemptive work of Christ have been made “unto our God kings and priests” (Revelation 5:10). May we also regard the Word of God as did James: regal, authoritative and important. May in our hearts there ever be a prompt obedience to its many precepts.
At the beginning of his statement regarding partiality and prejudice, James demonstrates how inappropriate such an attitude is in our relationship to the Lord Jesus, the anchorage of our faith. It is absolutely incongruous with the perfections of His divine character: “My brethren, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” (James 2:1, RSV). Now at the end of his statement, he says, “If ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.”
This reference to the law by James does not surprise us; to him the law was the inerrant Word of God. It merited a proper, prompt and humble response on the part of all Christians; anything otherwise is sin. What an excellent illustration this provides of submission to the entire Word of God: “He that keepeth the whole law, and yet offends in one point, he is guilty of all.” Such carelessness will result in appropriate chastisement. As the breaking of one link in a chain may render the chain useless, even so the violation of but one precept of the Word of God may minimize the power of God in our lives. Such disregard for the will of God may result in severe consequences. With man one sin may appear a small aggravation in contrast to several, but whether one or many, all are an offence to God. Only sincere and frank confession before God can assure the believer of divine forgiveness and restoration to fellowship with the Lord (1 John 1:9).
The moral law, according to James, was a perfect standard of behaviour. While it never was a means of salvation nor the power of sanctification, it does provide a rule of conduct. Nine of the ten commandments of the decalogue are repeated in the epistles of the New Testament and are applied by the Holy Spirit to believers.
The remainder of this chapter discusses the true character of faith, the faith that saves (2:14).
Unfortunately, many follow the thinking of Luther. The great Reformer saw only a contrast between “faith” and “works.” It did not occur to him that works in the Epistle of James could be the complement of faith in the Epistle to the Romans. Luther thought only of a conflict between Paul and James. This could not possibly be. Paul was not even a Christian at the time James wrote his epistle. There is no conflict among the men who were inspired to write for us the Holy Scriptures.
Some following Luther argue that Paul wrote of justification by faith before God; whereas, James wrote of justification by works before men. A thoughtful examination of the works of the two Old Testament characters used by James as illustrations will reveal how incorrect such a deduction is.
Take Abraham for instance. Was the offering up of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22) before God or man? How could he possibly be justified before men? There were no men present. Abraham had said to the young men, “Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder and worship.”
Abraham renamed Mount Moriah to agree with the whole circumstance of his act of worship, “Jehovah Jireh,” the Lord will see and provide. Only God saw the worshipful act of his friend Abraham, and only the Lord made a response. Men had absolutely no part in this divine test upon the patriarch.
“Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she received the messengers, and sent them out another way?” Poor Rahab was not justified before men by her effort, she was condemned before men. She risked her life to help the spies, and told lies to shelter them and herself. As far as the red cord that hung in her window was concerned, it could not have been seen by the inhabitants of Jericho; it faced the opposite direction in order to be seen by the invading army. She knew that she and her family were safe; her faith was anchored in the promises of the two messengers from Joshua.
“Faith” and “works” suggest faith in action, or as it is sometimes called, “operative faith.” Faith that is latent and dormant is useless, it accomplishes nothing. True operative faith reaches out to its object, it thus becomes active: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.”
There is a mere intellectual faith. We read, “The devils believe and tremble” but, of course, they do not trust. Real faith is a movement of trust going out to, and laying hold of, the object of its confidence. This is well illustrated by the case of Moses as he led Israel in the wilderness of Sin to the bed rock. In compliance with the word of God, in faith Moses smote the rock, and the Lord fulfilled His promise and gave the water (Exodus 17).