James 2

James 2:5

Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?

(a) My beloved; see entry for Rom. 1:7.

(b) The poor of this world. If the gospel is good news for anyone, it’s good news for the poor and downtrodden. It’s not that Jesus has anything against the rich and comfortable. It’s just that the rich have a hard time receiving what the Lord wants to give them. Not so the poor. With empty hands they are more than ready to take what Jesus provides.

(c) Heirs of the kingdom. In Christ we are heirs of the kingdom (Col. 1:12), heirs of the earth (Matt. 5:5, Rom.4:13), and heirs of all things (John 17:10, Heb. 1:2, Rev. 21:7).

See entry for Inheritance.

James 2:8

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,” you are doing well.

(a) The royal law is to love your neighbor as yourself (Jas. 2:8). This commandment, which comes straight out of the law of Moses (see Lev. 19:18), is the king of laws because loving others fulfils all the other laws (Rom. 13:8-9, Gal. 5:14). In context it means treat all people with dignity, even if they are poor (Jas. 2:1, 5). In other words, don’t show favoritism. It is equivalent to the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31).

Notice the if at the start of the sentence. We should have no doubt that James is preaching old covenant law to people who believed they were made righteous by the law. He is writing to Jews (the twelve tribes of Jas. 1:1) who believe in the one God (Jas. 2:19) and who may have heard the gospel (Jas. 1:21), but some of whom have not put their faith in Jesus (Jas. 2:14). They are still trusting in their law-keeping performance. “If you insist on living by law, you better not show partiality (see next verse) and you need to keep all of it” (Jas. 2:10).

Further reading: “What is the royal law?

(b) The Scripture. The love-your-neighbour command comes from Lev. 19:18.

James 2:10

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.

(a) The Law refers to the Law of Moses, the commandments, ordinances, punishments, and ceremonial observances given to the nation of Israel through Moses (Jos. 8:31, John 1:17). This law is sometimes referred to as the law of commandments (Eph. 2:15) or the law of the Jews (Acts 25:8). See entry for The Law.

(b) Yet stumbles in one point. The standard demanded by the law is flawless perfection.

Some have said that James and Paul preached different gospels, that while Paul preached justification apart from works (Rom. 4:2, Gal. 2:16), James said we are justified by our works (Jas. 2:24). In fact, the two great apostles preached the same gospel of grace that Jesus revealed. Like James, Paul said the law demanded total obedience (Gal. 3:10). And just as James preached the law of liberty (Jas. 1:25), Paul spoke of the law of the Spirit of life that sets us free (2 Cor. 3:17).

The similarities do not end there. Like Paul, James preached the good news of God’s saving grace (Eph. 2:8, Jas. 1:21, 4:6) – a grace that brings abundant life (Rom. 5:17, Jas. 1:17) and victory in all things (Rom. 8:37, Jas. 5:16). Both men challenged their readers to turn to God in faith (Acts 26:20; Jas 1:22, 4:7-8) and warned of the consequences of rejecting grace (Heb. 10:29, Jas. 1:11). James did not march to the beat of a different drummer. Although his audience differed from Paul’s, his message was the same

James 2:11

For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Break one part of the law and you will be judged guilty of breaking all of it. This demolishes the convenient idea that God accepts those who are mostly good. God demands perfection. Either you must be perfect 24/7 every day of your life, or you need a high priest who was perfectly obedient for you.

James 2:12

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.

The law of liberty; see entry for James 1:25.

James 2:13

For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

Mercy triumphs. Just as God’s grace is greater than our sin (Rom. 5:20), his mercy triumphs over judgment.

Mercy is one facet of God’s grace (Heb. 4:16). Just as God is rich in grace (Eph. 1:7, 2:7, Jas. 4:6), he is rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4, Jas. 5:11). He is the God of all grace (1 Pet. 5:10) and the Father of all mercies (2 Cor. 1:3).

Further reading: “What is the difference between mercy and grace?

James 2:14

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

(a) Faith but he has no works. Faith that is not revealed in works is dead or useless faith (Jas. 2:17, 20).

(b) Works. Believing in Jesus is the action that reveals our faith.

Much confusion has come from misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works. Since Paul said we are justified apart from works (Rom. 4:2, Gal. 2:16, Eph. 2:8-9), some have concluded that he and James preached different gospels. Nothing could be further from the truth (see entry for James 2:10). Both Paul and James used Abraham as their role model of faith (Jas. 2:23). Both understood that we are saved and made righteous by faith alone, and without regard to anything we have done.

So what are the works that reveal our faith? The Bible identifies many examples of faith works. In the New Testament alone, there are more than 200 imperative statements linked with faith. Some of these statements exhort us to: receive Jesus (John 1:11-12, 5:43), receive the message of Jesus (John 17:8, Acts 2:41, 8:14, 2 Cor. 11:4, Gal. 1:9, 1 Thess. 2:13, Jas. 1:21), obey or heed the message or good news of Jesus (John 17:6, Rom. 6:17, 10:16, 16:19) and turn to God in repentance (see entry for Acts 20:21). Other scriptures encourage us to accept the word (Mark 4:20), confess Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9, Php. 2:11, 2 Tim. 2:19), call on the name of the Lord (Act 2:21, 9:21, Rom. 10:13-14, 1 Cor. 1:2), eat the bread of life (John 6:50-51), be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20), submit to God’s righteousness (Rom. 10:3), and be born again (John 3:3, 7).

But the one imperative that appears far more than any other, is the instruction to believe. We are to believe in Jesus (see entry for John 3:16), believe the good news of Jesus (Mark 1:15, 16:16), and believe what the prophets said about Jesus (Luke 24:45). If faith is the noun – the state of being persuaded that God loves you – then believing is the verb or activity that flows from that persuasion. Indeed, believing in Jesus is the work of God (see entry for John 6:29). We do not believe to create faith. Rather, believing is the action that reveals our faith. “Having the same spirit of faith… we also believe” (2 Cor. 4:13).

The course of your life is not determined by what you do as much as what you believe. And abundant life is something you can experience because you believe (John 20:31). Just as Adam lost his life through unbelief, we receive and enjoy the divine life of Christ by believing.

(c) Can that faith save him? There are different kinds of faith and James mentions at least two kinds in this passage; see entry for James 2:18.

James 2:16

and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?

James is not saying we are saved by our charitable deeds, he’s making a comparison. Just as talk without deeds is empty talk, so too faith without deeds is empty faith.

James 2:17

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

(a) Faith, if it has no works; see entry for Jas. 2:14.

(b) Dead or useless (see verse 20).

James 2:18

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

(a) Works; see entry for James 2:14.

(b) Your faith, my faith. There are different kinds of faith but not every faith saves (Jas. 2:14).

James contrasts two kinds of faith. There is the faith shared by the Jews and demons that God is one (Jas. 2:19). This faith caused the Jews to keep the law and the demons to shudder, but such a self-directed faith saves no one. Then there is the God-directed kind of faith displayed by Abraham and Rahab (Jas. 2:23, 25). This is the kind of faith that leads one to believe in Jesus and be saved.

James 2:19

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.

(a) You believe. James is addressing the Jews (see Jas. 1:1). He is not speaking to Christians.

(b) God is one. Unlike other tribes, the Jews were monotheists (Deut. 6:4).

(c) You do well. Believing in one God above all is commendable, especially in an era of idol worship.

(d) The demons also believe in the one God.

(e) And shudder. A pantheon of false deities causes no alarm to the unclean spirits of the demonic realm, but the one true God is a demon’s worst nightmare (2 Pet. 2:4, Rev. 20:10).

James 2:20

But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

(a) You foolish fellow. The original word for foolish means empty and vain. A fruitless faith produces a fruitless and empty life no matter how hard you work. In contrast, those who are connected by faith to the living Vine live full lives and produce his fruit effortlessly (John 15:5).

(b) Faith without works is useless; see entry for James 2:14.

James 2:21

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?

(a) Was not Abraham our father justified. Abraham was counted righteous in Genesis 15 long before he offered up his son on the altar in Genesis 22. He was not reckoned righteous on account of his good deeds but because he believed God (see entry for James 2:23).

(b) Justified by works. Since the context is salvation (Jas. 2:14), some interpret this as saying we must prove our faith through a lifetime of good deeds. But that is not what James is saying. “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God” (Rom. 4:2). The works that James are referring to are the works of faith (see entry for James 2:14).

(c) When he offered up Isaac his son. Abraham was not made righteous because he offered his son; he was already righteous. But the offering of Isaac revealed the faith that righteous Abraham already had.

In the end, Isaac was offered but not sacrificed. God stopped Abraham from completing the deed. But Abraham’s act was prophetic because it pointed ahead to God’s only Son who was sent to the cross to be a sacrifice offered for the whole world (1 John 2:2). The work that saves is believing in the Son who was sent (John 6:29).

James 2:22

You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;

(a) Faith is knowing and trusting the Father’s love (1 John 4:16). It is resting in the confident assurance that God is good and he longs to be good to you.

When Abram first heard the call of God in Genesis 12, he responded in faith. At various times in his life, he heard God’s voice and most of the time he trusted the Lord. But not always. Sometimes Abraham’s much-vaunted faith did not manifest in faithful obedience (e.g., Egypt, Hagar). But by the end of his rich and full life, Abraham’s faith was perfected or made complete.

(b) Faith was working with his works. From the moment Abram left the land of his fathers, his faith was influencing his obedience, and his obedience was strengthening his faith. Each time Abraham said yes to the Lord, his understanding of God’s goodness and grace grew.

James 2:23

and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God.

(a) Abraham believed God. Like Paul in Romans 4:3, James quotes Genesis 15:6 to establish that Abraham was justified and made right with God on account of his faith. “He believed God.”

James is writing to the Jews (Jas. 1:1). The Jews thought they were special because they were Abraham’s descendants. But Jesus said if they really were children of Abraham, then they would act like Abraham (John 8:39-40). What did Abraham do that the Jews refused to do? He believed God and he trusted in the Son that was offered. “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).

(b) Reckoned to him as righteousness. Before the cross, no one could be made righteous but they could be reckoned righteous or credited with righteousness on account of their faith in God. In the old days, righteousness was credited to those who believed; now righteousness is created in the believer. Back then, righteousness was imputed; now it is imparted.

(c) The friend of God. Abraham saw Jesus from a distance and rejoiced (Heb. 11:13); the Jews saw Jesus up close and rejected him. By rejecting the Son, they scorned the God who sent him making themselves enemies of God when they could have been friends.

James 2:24

You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

(a) A man is justified by works. We are made righteous through the “work” of believing in Jesus. We are not justified through dead works of law-keeping or moral behavior.

Some say that James is talking about justification before men rather than God. “Through a life time of good deeds, we reveal our Christian faith.” But the context is salvation. James is discussing the faith that saves (Jas. 2:14). And he is talking to Jews who believed God (Jas. 1:1, 2:19). But although the religious Jews had faith, it was not a saving faith since it had not led them to believe in the Savior.

No one is justified through their good deeds (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 2:16). “We are saved by grace through faith and not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:8). But the faith that saves is the work of believing in Jesus. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). The only work that counts is opening the door of your heart and saying, “Lord, I am yours.”

(b) Not by faith alone. A faith in the one true God (such as the Jews had, see verse 19) that does not lead to the action of believing in the One he sent (such as the Jews who scorned Jesus) is a dead and useless faith that leaves you empty and fruitless.

Because Paul said we are justified by faith alone apart from our works (Rom. 4:2, Gal. 2:16), some have concluded that James preached a different gospel from Paul. Nothing could be further from the truth (see entry for James 2:10).

Further reading: “What are the works of faith?

James 2:25

In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

(a) In the same way that Abraham believed God, so did Rahab. They shared a saving faith.

Rahab the Canaanite harlot offers a nice contrast to Abraham. One was a great patriarch, while the other was a woman of the night, but both were saved on account of their faith in God. Their deeds, good or bad, did not come into it. Yet their faith was revealed in their deeds.

(b) Justified by works. Abraham walked out a door, while Rahab opened her door, and their actions testify that both of them had opened the doors of their hearts to the Lord.

James 2:26

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

The Jews had a limited kind of faith in God that led them to trust in their own righteousness while scorning the Son he sent. Such a faith is a dead and useless faith (Jas. 2:17, 20). Genuine life-saving faith is revealed by doing the only work that counts – believing in Jesus (John 6:29).

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