The central issue for evangelical faith is always the presence or absence of life. Recall that in the previous chapter, God Himself is the one who brought us to life of His own will (1:18), and He is the one who sustains and nurtures us in that life. The issue is not rule-keeping, but life. It is not moralism, but life. It is not doing good works while earning your salvation, it is doing good works while alive.
“My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? . . .” (Jas. 2:1- 26).
Summary of the Text
James tells us that we must not be class snobs in our faith (v. 1). Suppose a rich man comes swanking in, and a poor man also does (v. 2). Suppose further you give the prospective big tither a seat of honor and put the poor guy in the corner on the floor (v. 3). Isn’t this partiality (v. 4)? Hasn’t God shown more honor to the poor than that (v. 5)? But the Christians James is addressing have despised the poor (v. 6), even though it is the rich who tend to hassle believers. Rich folks are the ones who blaspheme the name by which we are called, right (v. 7)? The rule we should follow is the royal law of Scripture—love your neighbor as yourself (v. 8), which is to do well. But if you play favorites, you are committing sin, and are convicted as transgressors (v. 9).
The law of God is a plate glass window, and it doesn’t much matter where you put the hole (v. 10). All the different commandments come from the same God, and so to break His Word is to break His Word (v. 11). So speak and act as those who will be judged by the law of liberty (v. 12). If you don’t show mercy, you will have judgment and no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment (v. 13).
Where is the profit if a man says that he has faith, but he has no works? Can a naked profession of faith save him (v. 14)? Suppose someone is lacking clothes or food (v. 15). Suppose someone else pats him on the head patronizingly, and says that he should go off and get a job (v. 16). What good is it? A faith that does not move around (as is seen in works) is solitary, stationary, and therefore dead (v. 17). A man may reasonably say to the professor of naked faith that he cannot see that invisible faith which is apart from works, and that whenever he sees genuine works, he sees the faith behind it (v. 18). You believe there is one God in the sky? Good for you and the devil both (v. 19). Does the vain man really need to have it explained to him that faith without works is dead (v. 20)? Wasn’t Abraham justified at the altar of Isaac (v. 21)? His faith took him there (v. 22). That was the point where Scripture was fulfilled (v. 23). A man is justified by works over against naked faith, dead faith (v. 24). We can say the same thing about Rahab the harlot (v. 25). As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also (v. 26).
James is speaking throughout of a response to the Word. We are to receive the engrafted Word with meekness, that Word being what can save our souls (1:21). We are to be doers of this Word, not hearers only (1:22-23). He then uses, as a synonym with the Word, the phrase “the perfect law of liberty” (1:25). This continues in chapter 2—when he refers to the royal law of Scripture (2:8) and again to the “law of liberty” (2:12). Rightly understood, since he is talking about the engendering of life, we are talking about the gospel.
God loves to mess up our pious hair-dos for us. Not only was Rahab justified by works, but it appears to us that she was justified by the work of telling some people a lie (v. 25). She was justified by works when she sent the messengers out by another way than she said she did. Whatever shall we do with that? Well, we should start by remembering that Scripture is the mirror we should use to examine ourselves, and it should be a mirror that is not covered over with the post-it notes of our pious traditions. We should know more about the Hebrew midwives and Gideon in the wine-vat than we do.
The Friend of God
Abraham is called the friend of God by Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 20:7), and by Isaiah (Is. 41:8). Scripture tells us in Gen. 15:6 that Abraham believed God and it was imputed to him as righteousness, and James quotes this verse. The incident that James references in v. 21, the sacrifice of Isaac, occurred 15-20 years later. Abraham was living by faith that entire intervening time, but the reality of his faith was fulfilled in a climatic way at the sacrifice of Isaac. Fulfilled means many things, but it does not mean “come into existence.” And notice how faith is growing up, taking shape, becoming mature, being made perfect (v. 22).
As classical Protestants, we exult in the doctrine of sola fide, justification through faith alone. So what do we do with the fact that the only place in the Bible where the phrase “faith alone” occurs is in order to condemn it (2:24)? Well, fortunately, we also believe in sola Scriptura, which means we are allowed to read the verses before and after this. James is condemning dead faith. Dead faith is not alone—being dead, it isn’t at all.
Remember the gospel brings life. The gospel quickens. The gospel is received by the instrumentality of faith alone, and because faith alone (in the Protestant sense) is the gift of God, we must recall that there is only one kind of faith that God gives—living faith. Living faith grows up into living, breathing works, and all of glorifies the exhaustive grace of God.