James 2


James 2:1

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.

(a) Brethren; see entry for Jas. 1:16.

(b) Hold your faith. Some read this verse as, “You have to hold on to your faith in Jesus,” as though everything depended on your faith. That is not what James is saying. A literal translation of his words reads: “Hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is not about your faith but his faith. We are justified and declared righteous because Jesus was faithful.

“You hold fast to my name and did not deny my faith,” said Jesus to the Pergamenes (Rev 2:13). In the new covenant, God takes the lead and we respond. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), and we believe in him because Christ first believed in us. He is our supplier of faith, hope, and love.

(c) Faith; see entry for Jas. 2:14.

(d) Lord Jesus Christ. The Jews called Jesus Rabbi, but Christians call him Lord and Christ.

When Jesus walked the earth he was known as Jesus of Nazareth (e.g., Matt. 26:71). But after he ascended to heaven he was given a new name above every name, and that name is Lord (Php. 2:9–11). The original word for Lord (kyrios) means the One who is supreme above all. “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13).

(e) Personal favoritism. Don’t let social distinctions stain your Christian walk. Since Christ died for all, treat everyone as precious and valued by God.

The church is an egalitarian institution. We make no distinctions on the basis of race, gender, or class (see Gal. 3:28). Yet in some assemblies, the rich and powerful were given preferential treatment while the poor were being treated shabbily. James condemns this type of discrimination.


James 2:2–3

For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool

(a) Assembly. The original word (sunagoge) is normally translated synagogue. James expected that his letter to the twelve tribes would be read in Jewish synagogues (see entry for Jas. 1:1).

When the apostle Paul entered a new city, he typically preached first in the Jewish synagogues (Acts 17:1–2). Similarly, the scattered Jews that carried the gospel message (and James’ letter) from Judea to their home countries, proclaimed the good news in their assemblies. To a large degree, the Christian church was birthed in Jewish synagogues.

(b) Gold ring. A gold-ringed man was a man of status and wealth, or someone pretending to be.

(c) Fine clothes. It is the way of the world to give special treatment to those who are well-dressed and have the appearance of success. But in the kingdom we regard no one from a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16). Everyone is precious in God’s eyes.

(d) The good place. The seat of honor. The front row.

(e) The poor man. In this world the poor and downtrodden get the scraps. They are exploited, oppressed, and they get the worst seats. For this reason the poor receive special attention from the Lord (see Jas. 2:5).


James 2:4

have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?

(a) Distinctions. Discrimination based on race, gender, or wealth has no place in the new covenant (Gal. 3:28).

(b) Judges. To judge people based on outward appearances (their looks, clothes, status, social media following, etc.) is to judge with evil or worldly standards. God does not look at people this way. He looks at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7).

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) Beloved brethren; see entry for Jas. 1:16.

(b) The poor. If the gospel is good news for anyone, it’s good news for the poor and downtrodden (Luke 4:18, 6:20).

Jesus has nothing against the rich and comfortable, but the rich often have trouble receiving from the Lord (Matt. 19:23). Not so the poor. With empty hands and hungry hearts they are more than ready to take what Jesus provides.

(c) Rich in faith. Those who have nothing are easily persuaded to receive what God offers. In contrast, those who are rich in this world are often reluctant to let go of that which they cannot keep (Matt. 19:23).

(d) Heirs of the kingdom. While the rich and powerful often dismissed Christ, the poor received him with joy (Luke 7:22). For this reason Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).

See entry for Inheritance.


James 2:6

But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?

(a) Dishonoured. You mistreat those who have been chosen by God (see previous verse).

(b) Oppress you. Yet you honor those who mistreat you. It makes no sense.

(c) Court. The rich and powerful use the law to oppress the weak and indebted.


James 2:7

Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?

(a) Blaspheme. To blaspheme is to slander or speak falsely. James is saying, “Why do you show preferential treatment to the rich when they mock and belittle the name of the Lord?”

(b) The fair name. The precious, beautiful, and most honorable name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

(c) Called. God calls all of us to come out of darkness and enter into his wonderful light (1 Cor. 1:24, 1 Pet. 2:9). Not everyone responds to his call, but those who do are known as “the called of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1:6).


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) If. The conditional if indicates that this is a law-like statement. James is quoting law to people who had been raised under the law to reinforce his point about not showing partiality (see next verse). He is not suggesting that we should turn to the law to curry favor with God. No one can improve their standing with God by attempting to keep the law (Rom. 3:20).

(b) The royal law is to love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment is the king of laws because loving others fulfills all the other laws (Rom. 13:8–9, Gal. 5:14). In context, it means treat people with dignity, even if they are poor, and don’t show favoritism (Jas. 2:1, 5). The royal law is analogous to the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you; Luke 6:31), but it should not be confused with the law of liberty (see entry for Jas. 1:25).

Further reading: “What is the royal law?

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

(d) You are doing well. How wonderful the world would be if we kept the law to love our neighbors. But this is an impossible law for fallen humanity. History proves again and again that we cannot love our neighbors. To keep the royal law we need the higher law of Christ: “Love one another as I have loved you” (see entry for John 13:34). Only the love of God can empower us to love others.


James 2:9

But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

(a) Partiality. If you judge people on external appearances and treat some people better than others (see Jas. 2:1–4).

(b) You are committing sin. You are violating those old covenant laws that forbid showing partiality (e.g., Lev. 19:15, Deu. 16:19).

Just as all are equal under grace, all were equal under the law. The same laws that governed one governed all. No one was above the law and no one could receive special treatment without violating the law.

(c) Transgressors. Lawbreakers.

To anyone raised under the law, these are strong unequivocal words. “Mistreat the poor and you are breaking the law.”


James 2:10

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

(a) The Law Since James is writing to the scattered Jews (Jas. 1:1), the “whole law” is the Law of Moses, namely 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).

In the new covenant, we are not under law but grace (Rom. 6:14). So when James preaches law one could get the impression that he was confused about the difference between the covenants. He was not. Like Jesus addressing the crowds, James was capable of preaching to two audiences at the same time. Those who shared his faith in Christ got grace, while the self-righteous and smug got the harsh and unforgiving law.

See entry for The Law.

(b) Yet stumbles in one point. The standard demanded by the law is flawless perfection. Those who live under it are obligated to keep all of it (Gal. 5:3). This presents an insurmountable problem, for we all stumble in many ways (Jas. 3:2). Imperfect humanity is incapable of delivering a perfect performance.

(c) Guilty of all. Like Jesus before him (John 7:19), James upheld the high standard of the law. He esteemed the law and the purpose for which it was given. The law was given to silence every mouth and hold the whole world accountable (Rom 3:19). James does not preach the law as a guide for you to live by. He preaches the law so that you will become conscious of your sin and see your need for a Savior.


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.

(a) Do not commit adultery is the seventh commandment (Ex. 20:14).

(b) Do not commit murder is the sixth commandment (Ex. 20:13). Later in this letter James will accuse some of breaking this commandment (Jas. 4:2, 5:6).

(c) Transgressor. Lawbreaker. Break one part of the law and you will be judged guilty of breaking all of it (see previous verse).

Some believe that God will accept them if they are mostly good. The law demolishes this deception. A holy God demands perfection. Either you must be perfectly obedient every hour of your life, or you need a high priest who was perfectly obedient on your behalf. Only the sinless Savior can present us to God without fault or blemish (Eph. 5:27, Heb. 4:15, 1 Pet. 1:22).


James 2:12

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

(a) Those who are to be judged. Live knowing that we will all be judged by our response to Jesus (2 Cor. 5:10).

(b) The law of liberty is the liberating rule of the Lord Jesus. The law of liberty can be contrasted with the Law of Moses which binds. See entry for Jas. 1:25.


James 2:13

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

(a) Merciless. Those who live by the merciless law shall receive no mercy, for the law condemns all and justifies no one. (Rom. 3:19–20, Gal. 2:16).

(b) The one who has shown no mercy is the one who lives by the cold and unforgiving standard of the law, and whose life remains untouched by the grace of God. They are unable to show mercy because they have not received mercy. They don’t want it. They would rather stand on their own merits than receive the mercy of a compassionate God.

(c) 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). See entry for Mercy.

(d) Mercy triumphs. Just as God’s grace is greater than our sin (Rom. 5:20), his mercy triumphs over the condemnation of the law. The bad news of the law is that you are a transgressor, for nobody is perfect. But the good news of grace is that God justifies the sinner (Rom. 3:24).


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. The original word (pistis) is a noun that means persuasion or conviction. Faith is being persuaded that God is who he says he is, has done what he said he’s done, and will do what he has promised to do. Abraham was fully persuaded or convinced that God would do what he had promised (see Rom. 4:21).

See entry for Faith.

(b) Works. Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is the action that reveals our faith. It may seem strange to think of believing as a work, but believing in Jesus is the work of God (see entry for John 6:29).

We are exhorted to be doers and not merely hearers of the word (Jas. 1:22). To be a doer of the word is to receive, with humility, the word of truth that can save our souls (Jas. 1:21). To receive is to accept, believe, trust, and rely on the promises of God regarding our salvation. If faith is a noun – the state of being persuaded that God saves you by grace alone – then believing is the verb or activity that flows from that persuasion. We do not believe in order 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).

James does not leave us guessing when it comes to works of faith. He says we need to submit and draw near to God (Jas. 4:7–8). We need to humble ourselves and receive his grace (Jas. 4:6, 10). We need to hold onto the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ (Jas. 2:1). As we abide in Christ we receive the grace that empowers us to reign in life (Rom. 5:15).

Sadly, many think that James is preaching good works or charitable works as a substitute or complement to faith. As a result, they try to balance the grace of God with their own works. “I am saved by grace, but I have to prove my salvation through good works.” There is no balancing grace with works (Rom. 11:6). It’s one or the other, not both. Any works done to earn or maintain right standing with God are dead works.

(c) Can that faith save him? We all have faith of one kind or another, but not all faith is saving faith. Faith that is unaccompanied by the “work” of believing in Jesus is dead and useless (Jas. 2:17, 20).

Faith is only as good as the object in which it trusts. The religious have faith in themselves and their deeds. In contrast, Christians have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work.


James 2:15–16

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 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?

(a) Daily food. To put this in some historical context, James was writing during a time of famine. The Jews of Judea were starving, and their scattered brothers and sisters had an opportunity to help (see entry for Jas. 1:27).

(b) What use is that? Just as talk without deeds is empty and vain, so, too, faith without deeds is useless. Faith that is unaccompanied by the work of believing in Jesus is dead and cannot save you. (The context is salvation (see Jas. 2:14). Although God’s grace empowers us to do good works (1 Cor. 15:10), we are not saved by our charitable deeds but by faith in Christ.)


James 2:17

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

(a) Faith; see entry for Jas. 2:14.

(b) Works. John Calvin famously said that faith alone justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is never alone. In other words, faith in Christ will lead to good works and those works prove that one has faith in Christ. While it is true that right living follows right believing (Matt. 5:16, Eph. 2:10), James is not discussing charity or works of service in general. He is talking about salvation (Jas. 2:14), justification (Jas. 2:21, 24–25), and being made right with God (Jas 2:23). In this context, the only work that matters is believing in Jesus (John 6:29).

(c) Dead. We are all creatures of faith, but unless our faith is in the Savior, ours is a dead or useless faith (Jas. 2:20, 26). Faith in Christ leads to eternal life (John 3:16), but faith in anything else leads to death.


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) Your faith, my faith. There are different kinds of faith but only one kind is a saving faith (Jas. 2:14).

(b) Without the works… my works. There are different kinds of work, but only one kind is the work of God (John 6:29).

Religious people like to make a great show of their works. “I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I have” (Luke 18:12). Their resumés and list of accomplishments may be impressive. Yet their works count for nothing if they have failed to do the one thing that counts. See entry for James 2:14.


James 2:19

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

(a) God is one. The Jews were monotheists (Deut. 6:4).

(b) You do well. At a time when nations worshipped many gods and idols, believing in one God above all was commendable. The Jews took pride in their distinctive beliefs and were ready to die for them.

(c) The demons believe in one God but they’re still demons. Believing in the one God won’t save you if your faith is in yourself instead of his Son.

(d) And shudder. Demons are terrified of God and his wrath (Matt. 8:29, Mark 5:7).


James 2:20

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

(a) You foolish fellow. It is the height of folly to think you are saved if you reject the Savior sent by God.

James is not speaking about Christians who hold to the faith of Christ (Jas. 2:1), but those who are relying on their own righteousness. He is addressing God-fearing Jews who are trusting in their ability to keep the law (Jas. 2:10–12, 19). They are foolish because they have heard the word of truth but have not received it into their hearts (Jas. 1:21). They are hearers but not doers of the word (Jas. 1:22). They have an earthly form of wisdom which is demonic in origin (Jas. 3:15), but have not received the wisdom from above that God gives to all who ask (Jas. 1:5).

(b) Works. Believing in Jesus; see entry for James 2:14.

(c) Useless. Faith that is unaccompanied by the work or action of believing in Jesus achieves nothing of lasting significance. It certainly does not save you.


James 2:21

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

(a) Abraham our father. The Jews considered Abraham their great patriarch and father (Matt. 3:9, John 8:39). Since James was writing to a Jewish audience (see entry for Jas. 1:1), Abraham was the ideal example for showing how faith works.

(b) Justified by works. Abraham was justified or counted righteous because he believed God (Jas. 2:23). He was not justified because he maintained a perfect track record of good works (Abraham sinned from time to time), but the things he did revealed his faith in God the Savior.

Much confusion has come from misunderstanding the relationship between faith and works. Since Paul said we are justified apart from works (Gal. 2:16, Eph. 2:8–9), some have concluded that he and James preached different gospels. Nothing could be further from the truth. Both apostles preached the gospel of grace (Eph. 2:8, Jas. 4:6), and both men challenged people to turn to God in faith (Acts 26:20; Jas. 4:7–8).

Others say that James is talking about justification before men rather than God. “Through a lifetime of good deeds, we reveal our Christian faith to others.” But the context is salvation (Jas. 2:14) and being made right with God (Jas. 2:23). The way to reconcile Paul and James is to recognize that both preached justification by faith and saving faith is evidenced by the work of believing in Jesus. (see entry for Jas. 2:14).

(c) He offered up Isaac his son. The offering of his son was one of the ways that Abraham exercised his faith in God.

The faith that justifies is always a response to something God has said or done. God initiates and faith responds. God told him to go and he went (Gen. 12:1). God told him to count the stars and he counted (Gen 15:5). God told him to offer his son and he did (Gen. 22:2). If Abraham had turned a deaf ear to God and done none of these things, his faith would have been dead and useless.

Technically, Abraham was not justified before God because he offered up his son. (He was reckoned righteous long before this; see entry for Jas. 2:23). Why does James highlight Abraham’s offering of Isaac? Because this deed foreshadowed the offering of God’s own Son. The former event illuminates the latter.


James 2:22

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

(a) Faith; see entry for Jas. 2:14.

(b) Working with his works. Our faith and deeds are like two oxen pulling a cart. When they are aligned, we go forward. But if they pull in different directions, we become unstable (Jas. 1:8). Every time you say yes to the Lord, your understanding of God’s goodness and grace is enlarged, and your faith grows stronger.

(c) Perfected. The original word (teleioo) is a verb that means to complete or accomplish.

Abraham is known as the father of the faith (Rom. 4:11). When Abraham first heard the call of God, he responded in faith. At different times in his life, he heard God’s voice and most of the time he obeyed (Heb. 11:8–9). But not always. There were a few hiccups along the way (e.g., Egypt, Hagar). But by the end of his life, Abraham had learned to trust the Lord fully, and his faith was perfected or made complete.


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) The Scripture is Genesis 15:6. Like Paul in Romans 4:3, James quotes this scripture to establish that Abraham was justified and made right with God on account of his faith and not on the basis of anything he had done. The one deed James mentions – the offering of his son (Jas. 2:21) – came after he was counted righteous.

(b) Abraham believed God and his faith was evident in the way he lived.

Abraham believed God and looked forward to the Son he would send (John 8:56), but his descendants rejected God’s Son. For this Jesus rebuked them. “If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham” (John 8:39). James echoes Christ’s rebuke (Jas. 2:19–20).

(c) 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 (see entry for Rom. 4:3).

(d) The friend of God. Abraham was known as God’s friend (Is. 41:8), but some of his descendants set themselves up as God’s enemies (Jas. 4:4).


James 2:24

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

(a) Justified by works. In the previous verse, we read that Abraham was reckoned righteous because he believed God. Here we read that we are justified by works. There is no inconsistency. The work that makes us right with God is the work or action of believing in the One he sent (see entry for James 2:14). There are no other works that make us righteous (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 2:16, 3:11).

(b) Not by faith alone. Many people have faith and some people have faith in God. But a faith in God that does not lead to the corresponding action of believing in the One he sent is a dead and useless faith (Jas. 2:17, 20, 26).


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, Rahab believed God (Jos. 2:1–21).

The pairing of Abraham with Rahab highlights the indiscriminate love of God. One was a patriarch of the Jews, while the other was a Canaanite prostitute, yet both were justified on account of their faith in God. Their deeds, good or bad, did not come into it.

(b) Justified by works. Abraham walked out a door, while Rahab opened a door, and their actions revealed that both of them were trusting in the Lord.

(c) Received. Rahab’s behavior revealed her belief that the God of Israel was the true God of heaven and earth (Jos. 2:11).

Rahab risked her life in receiving the spies, and she did it to save those she loved (Jos. 2:12–13). Her actions foreshadowed the sacrificial love of the One who gave his life to save the world.


James 2:26

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

(a) The spirit gives life to our bodies. In the same way, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is how we give life to our faith. Faith comes to life when we believe the Word of Life. As we allow the word to take root in our hearts, we receive the life of Christ and are born again into new and everlasting life.

(b) Dead. You can hear the good news of Jesus Christ a hundred times, but unless you receive the life-giving message in your heart, your faith is dead (Jas. 2:17). This is why James exhorts us to humbly receive the word that can save our souls (Jas. 1:21). Faith in Christ leads to eternal life (John 6:47), and whoever believes in him will never die (John 11:26).


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