Faith Proved by How We Treat Others: James 2

James 2  •  21 min. read  •  grade level: 9
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Another area in which faith is tested and its reality manifested is in the treatment of others. James proceeds to address this very practical subject.
The Jews loved to make social and religious distinctions among themselves, based on how rich and influential a person was or wasn't. Some of this came from a distorted view of certain Old Testament Scriptures having to do with the government of God in connection with His people. In that economy, if a person's ways pleased God, that person could expect to have Jehovah's blessing bestowed on him in a material way (Deut. 28:1-141And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: 2And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God. 3Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed shalt thou be in the field. 4Blessed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. 5Blessed shall be thy basket and thy store. 6Blessed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and blessed shalt thou be when thou goest out. 7The Lord shall cause thine enemies that rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face: they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways. 8The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy storehouses, and in all that thou settest thine hand unto; and he shall bless thee in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. 9The Lord shall establish thee an holy people unto himself, as he hath sworn unto thee, if thou shalt keep the commandments of the Lord thy God, and walk in his ways. 10And all people of the earth shall see that thou art called by the name of the Lord; and they shall be afraid of thee. 11And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord sware unto thy fathers to give thee. 12The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, the heaven to give the rain unto thy land in his season, and to bless all the work of thine hand: and thou shalt lend unto many nations, and thou shalt not borrow. 13And the Lord shall make thee the head, and not the tail; and thou shalt be above only, and thou shalt not be beneath; if that thou hearken unto the commandments of the Lord thy God, which I command thee this day, to observe and to do them: 14And thou shalt not go aside from any of the words which I command thee this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them. (Deuteronomy 28:1‑14); Prov. 3:9-109Honor the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase: 10So shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst out with new wine. (Proverbs 3:9‑10), etc.). This led them to reason that if a man was rich materially, he must be a good man and one in whom God approves. Likewise, if a man was poor and his life was full of trouble and woes, he must be rebellious toward God (Deut. 28:15-6815But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day; that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee: 16Cursed shalt thou be in the city, and cursed shalt thou be in the field. 17Cursed shall be thy basket and thy store. 18Cursed shall be the fruit of thy body, and the fruit of thy land, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep. 19Cursed shalt thou be when thou comest in, and cursed shalt thou be when thou goest out. 20The Lord shall send upon thee cursing, vexation, and rebuke, in all that thou settest thine hand unto for to do, until thou be destroyed, and until thou perish quickly; because of the wickedness of thy doings, whereby thou hast forsaken me. 21The Lord shall make the pestilence cleave unto thee, until he have consumed thee from off the land, whither thou goest to possess it. 22The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. 23And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. 24The Lord shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed. 25The Lord shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies: thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them: and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth. 26And thy carcase shall be meat unto all fowls of the air, and unto the beasts of the earth, and no man shall fray them away. 27The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed. 28The Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart: 29And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind gropeth in darkness, and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways: and thou shalt be only oppressed and spoiled evermore, and no man shall save thee. 30Thou shalt betroth a wife, and another man shall lie with her: thou shalt build an house, and thou shalt not dwell therein: thou shalt plant a vineyard, and shalt not gather the grapes thereof. 31Thine ox shall be slain before thine eyes, and thou shalt not eat thereof: thine ass shall be violently taken away from before thy face, and shall not be restored to thee: thy sheep shall be given unto thine enemies, and thou shalt have none to rescue them. 32Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with longing for them all the day long: and there shall be no might in thine hand. 33The fruit of thy land, and all thy labors, shall a nation which thou knowest not eat up; and thou shalt be only oppressed and crushed alway: 34So that thou shalt be mad for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. 35The Lord shall smite thee in the knees, and in the legs, with a sore botch that cannot be healed, from the sole of thy foot unto the top of thy head. 36The Lord shall bring thee, and thy king which thou shalt set over thee, unto a nation which neither thou nor thy fathers have known; and there shalt thou serve other gods, wood and stone. 37And thou shalt become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all nations whither the Lord shall lead thee. 38Thou shalt carry much seed out into the field, and shalt gather but little in; for the locust shall consume it. 39Thou shalt plant vineyards, and dress them, but shalt neither drink of the wine, nor gather the grapes; for the worms shall eat them. 40Thou shalt have olive trees throughout all thy coasts, but thou shalt not anoint thyself with the oil; for thine olive shall cast his fruit. 41Thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity. 42All thy trees and fruit of thy land shall the locust consume. 43The stranger that is within thee shall get up above thee very high; and thou shalt come down very low. 44He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him: he shall be the head, and thou shalt be the tail. 45Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded thee: 46And they shall be upon thee for a sign and for a wonder, and upon thy seed for ever. 47Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; 48Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he have destroyed thee. 49The Lord shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand; 50A nation of fierce countenance, which shall not regard the person of the old, nor show favor to the young: 51And he shall eat the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruit of thy land, until thou be destroyed: which also shall not leave thee either corn, wine, or oil, or the increase of thy kine, or flocks of thy sheep, until he have destroyed thee. 52And he shall besiege thee in all thy gates, until thy high and fenced walls come down, wherein thou trustedst, throughout all thy land: and he shall besiege thee in all thy gates throughout all thy land, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. 53And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the Lord thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee: 54So that the man that is tender among you, and very delicate, his eye shall be evil toward his brother, and toward the wife of his bosom, and toward the remnant of his children which he shall leave: 55So that he will not give to any of them of the flesh of his children whom he shall eat: because he hath nothing left him in the siege, and in the straitness, wherewith thine enemies shall distress thee in all thy gates. 56The tender and delicate woman among you, which would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness, her eye shall be evil toward the husband of her bosom, and toward her son, and toward her daughter, 57And toward her young one that cometh out from between her feet, and toward her children which she shall bear: for she shall eat them for want of all things secretly in the siege and straitness, wherewith thine enemy shall distress thee in thy gates. 58If thou wilt not observe to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful name, THE LORD THY GOD; 59Then the Lord will make thy plagues wonderful, and the plagues of thy seed, even great plagues, and of long continuance, and sore sicknesses, and of long continuance. 60Moreover he will bring upon thee all the diseases of Egypt, which thou wast afraid of; and they shall cleave unto thee. 61Also every sickness, and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed. 62And ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the Lord thy God. 63And it shall come to pass, that as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you; so the Lord will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. 64And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. 65And among these nations shalt thou find no ease, neither shall the sole of thy foot have rest: but the Lord shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: 66And thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: 67In the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of thine heart wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. 68And the Lord shall bring thee into Egypt again with ships, by the way whereof I spake unto thee, Thou shalt see it no more again: and there ye shall be sold unto your enemies for bondmen and bondwomen, and no man shall buy you. (Deuteronomy 28:15‑68)). Thus, from this premise the Jews tended to judge and categorize their brethren, and treat them accordingly. Since people naturally want to be well thought of and treated with respect, there was constant pressure in Jewish society to boast of a false wealth and spirituality—which was not necessarily true. This tended to produce hypocritical living, of which the Pharisees were a prime example (Luke 12:11In the mean time, when there were gathered together an innumerable multitude of people, insomuch that they trode one upon another, he began to say unto his disciples first of all, Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. (Luke 12:1)).
The problem that James was dealing with here was that these Jewish converts were endorsing that kind of behaviour while professing to be Christians. While the respect of persons may have been tolerated in that old economy, it certainly has no place in Christianity. Remnants of Jewish thinking and way of life under the old economy evidently lingered with these professing believers; it was another one of the "graveclothes" that they needed to put off.
The Sin of Partiality
Vs. 1—A “respect of persons” (partiality) is having an undue respect or disrespect of certain persons for ulterior reasons. James begins by stating that Christians are not to have this sort of thing toward people in society, nor should it be found in the Christian circle, because it is totally inconsistent with those who profess to know “our Lord Jesus Christ” as their Saviour.
This attitude and practice was not among the Jewish believers in the earliest days of Christian testimony, when they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:44-4544And all that believed were together, and had all things common; 45And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. (Acts 2:44‑45) says, "And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." And again Acts 4:34-3534Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, 35And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4:34‑35) says, "Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need." However, it wasn't long before some of them began to accuse the others of having a respect of persons to the exclusion of others. Acts 6:11And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. (Acts 6:1) says, "When the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians (Hellenist Jews) against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in t he daily ministration." This spirit is something we have to watch against today in Christianity, it creates hard feelings and tears down the practical unity that should exist among the saints.
A person's material possessions and social status are not a gauge to determine his or her spirituality and faithfulness in Christianity. This is because the basic principle of discipleship is that we give up all for Christ and the gospel's sake (Mark 10:21, 28-3021Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. (Mark 10:21)
28Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee. 29And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, 30But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life. (Mark 10:28‑30)
). If a person lets go of his earthly possessions for the cause of Christ, he might very well get into a financially depressed situation (2 Cor. 8:2-32How that in a great trial of affliction the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their liberality. 3For to their power, I bear record, yea, and beyond their power they were willing of themselves; (2 Corinthians 8:2‑3)). Also, under the persecution that Christians were facing in that day, a person's earthly possessions may get stripped away from him unfairly (Heb. 10:3434For ye had compassion of me in my bonds, and took joyfully the spoiling of your goods, knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance. (Hebrews 10:34)). Circumstances that could develop out of such things in a person's life are not a result of him being unfaithful or rebellious toward God, but because he has been faithful in the things of God. Hence, it is grossly unfair to judge someone in Christianity on the basis of his or her material possessions or the lack thereof. And, even if a fellow Christian was not walking as closely to the Lord as he could and should, it does not mean that we should treat him with distain; we are to draw near to him and shepherd him into a closer walk with the Lord.
Favouritism can manifest itself in many ways amongst the Lord's people. We can unintentionally classify Christians as to what we think their importance is in the body of Christ, and then treat them accordingly. The Apostle Paul taught that as each member of the human body is needed by the other members of the body, likewise we are to treat each member in the body of Christ with the same respect and honour. We need each other—even if a person is a seemingly insignificant member in Christ's body (1 Cor. 12:23-2423And those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. 24For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked: (1 Corinthians 12:23‑24)). Elsewhere, he said, "Let each esteem other better than themselves" (Phil. 2:33Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. (Philippians 2:3)). A question we can ask ourselves is, "Do we judge and categorize people according to their appearance, or by what we think their spirituality is, or by some other criterion—and then treat them according to our assessment?"
Two Visitors at a "Meeting"
Vss. 2-4—Addressing this subject of partiality, James brings up a typical scenario. Two men come into a "meeting" of Christians. ("Meeting" is Mr. W. Kelly's Translation. The word literally means, "a gathering of people," and does not specify whether it is a Jewish meeting or a Christian meeting. J. N. Darby translates the word as "synagogue," but he remarks in his exposition that James describes the meeting that way because his mind still very much ran on the lines of Jewish habits of thought – Collected Writings, vol. 28, p. 121). It appears that James did not have a full understanding of the truth of the Church—which came out later under Paul's ministry—and therefore, used the word "synagogue" for a gathering of Christians. It is unlikely that James was seeking to regulate the order in a literal Jewish synagogue under the old Mosaic economy; synagogues would have been under the control of unbelieving Jews who would never listen to him on account of his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That a worldly spirit of partiality would be found in a Jewish synagogue is not surprising, but to find it in a Christian gathering was appalling, and this led James to address this issue.
In his hypothetical scenario, one visitor is a rich man with “a gold ring, in goodly apparel” and the other is “a poor man in vile raiment.” (It is not a question of whether these men are saved or not.) Both visitors are welcomed, but there is a difference made in how they are treated. A seat of honour is given to the rich man, but the poor man is told to “stand” against the wall or "sit" on the floor. This was an obvious case of having a "respect of persons" (favouritism). This kind of thing apparently existed among the Jews in Judaism, but it is not to be among Christians. Such a practice was another one of these things carried over from their old days in the Jew's religion that needed to be expunged.
Why Partiality Has No Place in a Christian’s Interactions With Others
Vss. 5-13—James proceeds to give three reasons why having a "respect of persons" (partiality) has no place in Christian life:
1) It Denies What Grace Has Accomplished in Salvation (vss. 5-7). Such behaviour betrays an ignorance of the basic truth of the gospel. It makes one wonder whether those who advocate partiality are really saved. James calls attention to the fact that God doesn’t play favourites in saving men; He saves the rich and the poor alike. He has “chosen the poor of this world rich in faith” to be “heirs of the kingdom.” As believers, we all have an equal place before God. Why then would we have respect of persons among men when God clearly doesn’t? If He has "chosen" a poor man and has blessed him richly, we shouldn't treat that poor man in any other way but with honour. If we do otherwise, we dishonour a man whom God has honoured. Essentially, it is despising God's choice! Moreover, we misrepresent God who is not a respecter of persons among men (Matt. 22:1616And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians, saying, Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. (Matthew 22:16); Acts 10:3434Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: (Acts 10:34); Rom. 2:1111For there is no respect of persons with God. (Romans 2:11); Eph. 6:99And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him. (Ephesians 6:9); Col. 3:2525But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons. (Colossians 3:25); 1 Peter 1:1717And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: (1 Peter 1:17)).
In speaking of this subject, we need to understand that James is not speaking of the respect due to elders who are to be treated with double honour (1 Tim. 5:1717Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17)), nor is he speaking of those who are in a public office in government, who are also to be treated with honour (Rom. 13:77Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor. (Romans 13:7)). The “respect to persons” that James is referring to here is an evil thing where favouritism used toward certain persons over others for ulterior reasons. This was one of the first sins in the Church, and it caused dissension, and thus disrupted the unity of the Spirit (Acts 6:1-21And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. 2Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. (Acts 6:1‑2)). Those who know the grace of God and have tasted it personally will manifest that same spirit toward others that God has had toward them. It hardly needs to be said that we shouldn’t treat people according to their social and financial status.
In verses 6-7, James reminds us of the general character of the rich apart from grace working in their souls. They often “oppress” believers and bring unjust lawsuits against them. Worse than that, they “blaspheme that worthy name” by which Christians are called. If they humiliate Christians publicly and blaspheme the Lord, why would we think that we should honour them over other people? Could it be that we are looking for favours from them?
2) It Violates the Royal Law (vss. 8-11). James goes on to give a second reason why partiality has no place in the life of a believer—it is beneath the standards of the law. Even the Mosaic law taught higher principles of living than what they had fallen into. “The royal law,” of which James speaks, is the second table of the law of Moses, containing the latter six commandments. These commandments pertain to man’s responsibilities toward his fellow man, and could be summed up as, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matt. 22:3939And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Matthew 22:39)). Note: James does not say that the Christian is under the law, but appeals to it to show that the moral import of it insisted on the Israelite loving his neighbour as himself. Having a “respect to persons” is beneath the standards of the law and thus violates the law. All who did so were “convicted of the law as transgressors.” Therefore, such behaviour—even under the old economy—was condemned by God.
James also shows that the law is indivisible; it must be taken as a whole (vss. 10-11). If a person keeps the whole law, "yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." Those under the law could not pick and choose which of the commandments they wished to keep, and disregard the others; the law stands and falls together.
3) It is Contrary to the Law of Liberty (vss. 12-13). James proceeds to give a third reason why partiality has no place in Christianity—it is contrary to "the law of liberty." The much higher principles of Christian living, as indicated in this law, call for the believer to treat all men with grace and equality. This is something that should come naturally to a Christian because he has a new life that delights in doing such things. Since it is God's will that we show kindness and respect to all whom we interact with, and that we have a new nature that desires to do those very things, it shouldn't be a burden for us to treat people impartially. In fact, it's pure liberty for a believer to express himself in this way, for such is the law of liberty.
This being the case, James says, "So speak ye, and so do [act]." His point here is that if we say that we are believers on the Lord Jesus Christ, we should prove it in our actions, and thus live without being partial toward certain persons. Moreover, James shows that by making a profession of being a Christian, we put ourselves in a position of higher responsibility, and will therefore, be "judged by the law of liberty." That is, it tests and exposes us for what we really are. Normal Christianity is such that the law of liberty would lead Christians to show mercy and grace toward others, but, if a person has no inclination to such things, that same law manifests that perhaps he doesn't have that new life and nature at all. Thus, the law of liberty judges our profession to be false, and thus our salvation is called into question.
Vs. 13—Moreover, if we do know the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour, but refuse to act according to “the law of liberty,” we will bring upon ourselves the governmental chastisements of God. James warns us that "judgment will be without mercy to him that has shown no mercy." He adds, "Mercy glories over judgment." This means that God delights in mercy, rather than judgment (Mic. 7:1818Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. (Micah 7:18)). Therefore, we should too. If we show mercy to others, we will avert judgment upon ourselves.
Mr. W. MacDonald asks some searching questions in connection with this topic: "Let us test ourselves then on this important subject of partiality. Do we show more kindness to those of our own race more than those of other races? Are we more kindly disposed toward the young than the old? Are we more outgoing toward to good looking people than those who are plain and homely? Are we more anxious to befriend prominent people than those who are comparatively unknown? Do we avoid people with physical infirmities and seek the companionship of the strong and healthy? Do we favour the rich over the poor? Do we give the 'cold shoulder' to foreigners who speak our language with a foreign accent? As we answers these questions, let us remember that the way we treat the least loveable believer is the way we treat the Saviour?" (Matt. 25:4040And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:40))
The Reality of Faith Will Be Proved by Works
Vss. 14-26—This leads James to speak of the need for putting a man's profession to the test. Quite evidently there was a mixed multitude of Jewish brethren to whom he was writing, who were mere professing Christians. They had made a profession of being believers on the Lord Jesus Christ, but there was little or no evidence of it in their lives. It is no wonder why they would have no compunction in acting on fleshly and worldly lines of courting the favours of the rich and disdaining the poor.
In the latter part of the chapter, James asks a series of questions that would test the reality of a person's faith. Three times in verses 14-18, he says, "Though a man say...." and "One of you say...." and "Yea, a man may say...." The point here is that a person may make a profession of having faith, and "say" that he is a believer, but the reality of his statement must be proved by "works." This is indicated by the expressions, "show me" and "seest" in verses 18, 22, and 24. We cannot see a person's faith, just like we can't see the wind, but we can see the evidence of the wind in the effects that it makes in blowing things around. Likewise, real faith will evidence itself in observable results.
Vss. 14-17—James asks, "What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? In the most simple way, he insists on "works" being shown in a believer's life to give evidence of the reality of his faith. Faith and works ought to go together. Hence, he calls upon believers to show their faith in their everyday lives. The hypothetical scenario he uses to emphasize his point is the subject already in discussion—the treatment of others. If "a brother or sister" is in need of clothing and food, and we offer no practical help but merely give some empty words of encouragement, we are not displaying the characteristics of one who has faith. James asks, "Can [that] faith save him?" (vs. 14). That is, "Can that kind of faith save a person?" The answer is, "No!" Such faith is proved to be worthless; it is just an empty profession. The normal practice of Christianity is not only to have courtesy toward all, but to also have compassion on all. However, in the case of the person that James speaks of, it is clear that that person's faith, when tested, proves to be "dead" (vs. 17).
Vss. 18-20—James then contrasts these two kinds of faith for us. He says, "Show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works." True faith is a living thing that manifests itself in works. This kind of faith distinguishes itself from the dead kind of faith that consists only in the acceptance of certain facts about God, without the heart being brought under the power of those facts. He says, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well." However, real faith is more than just an intellectual assent to facts about God. To prove this, he says, "The devils [demons] also believe" those facts, but it hasn't changed anything for them; they "believe," but they also "tremble." James, therefore, comes back to his earlier conclusion and says, "Faith without works is dead."
This brings us to a searching but very practical question: "If the authorities in these lands were to turn against the practice of Christianity and they began to imprison Christians, would there be enough evidence in our lives to convict us of our faith?" The Lord taught that it's quite possible to hide our "candle" (our personal testimony) "in a secret place," and consequently, no one would see it (Luke 11:3333No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come in may see the light. (Luke 11:33)). The Lord said that we should be putting our candle "on a candlestick" so that all can see it. He said, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:1616Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)).
Justification by Faith and Justification by Works
James speaks of a person being "justified by works" and that "faith without works is dead" (vss. 20-21). Paul, on the other hand, speaks of a man being "justified by faith" (Rom. 5:11Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: (Romans 5:1)). These are not contradictions, but rather two different aspects of justification. Justification in the epistle to the Romans (chaps. 3-5) is vastly different from the justification taught in James 2. The following are some of the main differences:
In Romans, it is the faith of a sinner seeking salvation, but in James, it is the faith of a believer bearing witness to the salvation he possesses.
Justification in Romans is before God, and therefore, faith is emphasized. Justification in James is before men, and therefore, works are emphasized.
Paul speaks of what is vital before God, whereas James speaks of what is testimonial before men.
The moment a person believes on the Lord Jesus, he is justified before God—as Paul states in Romans, but that person is not justified before men until he manifests some evidence of it in works. Hence, Paul is speaking of things Godward, and James is speaking of things manward.
James is not speaking of "works" to get saved, but works that result from being saved. Such works are not the cause of salvation, but the effect of salvation possessed. Nor is James saying that we are saved by faith plus works; to hold such a view denies the finished work of Christ (John 19:3030When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. (John 19:30)). Works have no part in our eternal salvation—not even a little (Rom. 4:4-54Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 5But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. (Romans 4:4‑5); Titus 3:55Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; (Titus 3:5)). But works do show to others that we are saved. Since men cannot see our faith, they need to be shown some evidence of it before accepting our testimony as bonafide. They have every right to demand some evidence of us that would prove our faith in God. Hence, our works are "good and profitable unto men" in a testimonial sense (Titus 3:88This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. (Titus 3:8)). Works, in this way, justify a believer before his fellow man—they demonstrate before men that we are truly righteous before God.
Abraham and Rahab
Vss. 21-26—James' point in his argument is that faith and works must go together—they are inseparable. If a person truly has faith, then there will be evidence of it in his life. He brings forth two persons from the Old Testament that illustrate the kind of works that result from real faith. One is "Abraham," the father of the Jews, and the other is "Rahab," a disgraced Gentile. Both proved the reality of their faith by their works and were blessed of God.
Abraham was "justified by faith" in Genesis 15 when he believed God (Rom. 4:2-32For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. 3For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Romans 4:2‑3)), but he also was "justified by works" in Genesis 22 when he attempted to offer his son on the altar (Heb. 11:1717By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, (Hebrews 11:17)). His faith was "counted unto him for righteousness" (Rom. 4:2-32For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. 3For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. (Romans 4:2‑3)), but his works identified him as "the Friend of God" (James 2:2323And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. (James 2:23); 2 Chron. 20:77Art not thou our God, who didst drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and gavest it to the seed of Abraham thy friend for ever? (2 Chronicles 20:7)). Likewise, Rahab acted in "faith" (Heb. 11:3131By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace. (Hebrews 11:31)), but she also produced "works" in that she "received the messengers, and had sent them out another way" (James 2:2525Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? (James 2:25)). This teaches us that faith and works must go together. If we take faith out of the picture, Abraham could be accused of being a (attempted) murderer and Rahab would be viewed as a traitor.
It is noteworthy that James is careful not to give a list of outward things that would qualify as "works," which a person could do in a perfunctory way. He doesn't list things like: giving to charities, helping the sick, attending Bible meetings, etc. A mere professing believer could do those things and still be far from God. Instead, James points to works of a moral character which emanate from within the soul that has faith. Two outstanding works that marked the reality of Abraham's and Rahab's faith were:
Abraham manifested obedience to God (vss. 20-24).
Rahab manifested love for the people of God (vss. 25-26).
These are perhaps the two greatest "works" of faith that a person can do that would show that he or she is truly saved. Faith, hope, and love are things that should "accompany salvation" (Heb. 6:9-129But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak. 10For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have showed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. 11And we desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: 12That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:9‑12)). Abraham's obedience was such that he was willing to let go of the dearest object in his life—his son whom he had waited a long time to have. Rahab's love for the people of God was such that she was willing to risk her life to help them. She proved the reality of her faith by being willing to break her former connections with her people and identify herself with God's people. She turned her back on the world, of which she had once been part and parcel, and threw her lot in with the Lord's people.
Applying the principles of James' argument to how we treat people who come into our gatherings, we can learn something from Abraham and Rahab. From Abraham we learn that we must put what is due to God before any persons that we might naturally prefer—even if it is our own son. From Rahab we learn that we are to receive people cordially and help them with genuine love and care.
Vs. 26—James concludes his remarks on faith being evidenced in works by repeating what he said earlier in verses 17 and 20—"Faith without works is dead." Just as "the body without the spirit is dead"—so also must these two things go together.