Modern Bible Commentary on James 2

My brothers, don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory with partiality (James 2:1, WEB).

This statement is clear. Believers in Jesus are not to show favoritism. Every human being is created in the image of God and infinitely valuable. No matter whether you are rich or poor, no matter your ethnic background or cultural upbringing, Jesus died for us all.

It’s sad to think that society still struggles with favoritism today, but it should not be a surprise considering humankind is inherently sinful. This is why the world desperately needs to hear the good news that God saves sinners.

For if a man with a gold ring, in fine clothing, comes into your synagogue, and a poor man in filthy clothing also comes in, and you pay special attention to him who wears the fine clothing and say, “Sit here in a good place;” and you tell the poor man, “Stand there,” or “Sit by my footstool” haven’t you shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Isn’t it upsetting that we struggle with the same issue today like they did 2,000 years ago? Humanity is tempted to judge someone based on what they look like and how much money they have rather than their inward heart. People are lured into thinking that those who have more wealth or finer clothes are more important than the poor man who has nothing.

Jesus clearly taught that discrimination is evil. When we give preferential treatment to others because of their material possessions, we have broken the greatest commandment: To love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are to love all people, even those who persecute us. This is the unconditional grace and mercy we are to reflect as Christians in a dark world. Therefore, be imitators of our Lord Jesus Christ and refrain from showing favoritism.

Listen, my beloved brothers. Didn’t God choose those who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the Kingdom which he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you, and personally drag you before the courts? Don’t they blaspheme the honorable name by which you are called? 

The apostle James explains how God has chosen the poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom of God. In Matthew 19:24, the disciples are discouraged to find out that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why is this the case?

I believe money entices people into trusting their material possessions for security rather than in God alone. This temptation makes it difficult for rich people to love and obey God. Money is an idol that many people today worship. While it can bring comfort, prestige, and pleasure to one’s life, it is never a substitute for the eternal security found in the living God.

Furthermore, people who acquire wealth over time have a tendency to take advantage of lower socioeconomic statuses. As James poses the question to his reader here: “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?” Not all rich people are like this, but it is a common misfortune for the wealthy to take advantage of the poor, even during biblical times.

Finally, James says that the wealthy are the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom they belong to, the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, I personally think we should not make a sweeping accusation that all wealthy people are like this. Abraham from the Bible was a very rich man who served the living God. Solomon was once the most influential and wealthiest man during his day, and yet he had a personal relationship with God almighty. However, it is generally true that rich people have a tendency to reject the Lord because of their pride and arrogance.

However, if you fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

This is an interesting assessment. James is declaring that it is impossible to keep the royal Law of loving your neighbor as yourself when you show favoritism. This sin makes one guilty or convicted by the Law as lawbreakers. And as Jesus said on the day of judgment to those who were rejected from heaven: “Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness. For I never knew you.” Quite frankly, the sin of favoritism leads to damnation. This is a sobering message for us to hear.

12 So speak and so do, as men who are to be judged by a law of freedom. 13 For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

After James lays down the Law and reveals the sinful nature of man, he starts to change his tone. He tells his audience that if we show judgement without mercy, then the same measure will be brought against us. In other words, when we judge, we must be willing to extend mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

The Lord exclaims in 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” This is mercy. This is the type of grace we should be focused on when judging others. As believers, let’s imitate God’s kindness. For love covers a multitude of sin (1 Pet. 4:8).

14 What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? 15 And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you tells them, “Go in peace. Be warmed and filled;” yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. 

James is asking a rhetorical question here. Basically, if someone says they have faith but doesn’t show it in action, that faith is futile. Faith is accompanied by works. I wrote an extensive article entitled Faith and Works: Two Sides of The Same Coin, if you are interested in digging deeper into this mystery.

When you love God and the Holy Spirit gives you faith, you will desire to help your brother or sister in need. You will demonstrate a pure and undefiled religion, which is to visit the widows and orphans in distress, and to be unspotted from the world.

However, if your faith does not produce works, is that faith genuine? James says that it’s not. I find this to be a very interesting topic, especially in postmodern Christianity. People cling to “faith” and then say they can live without being morally “bound” by the Law. Listen my friends, if you love God, the Law doesn’t bound you. You ought to desire to follow the Law of God. Jesus said: “If you love me, obey my commands.”

In today’s Christian society, if you tell someone they should obey, they will red flag you as a legalist. They will tell you that they are saved by grace, not of works. Well yes, that’s true. Our faith in Christ is what saves us, not our works. But you see, your faith is demonstrated through action.

The Bible makes it clear not to be “hearers” of the word only, but be “doers” of the Word. Because if you are only hearers, you are deceiving yourselves. I really believe the church has to fix this issue and redirect people to a faith that focuses on obedience in God’s righteous decrees. Otherwise, false converts will infiltrate the church.

18 Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.19 You believe that God is one. You do well. The demons also believe, and shudder.

Once again, James reiterates that faith needs to be tested. You should prove your faith by your works. Why? Because the apostle says even the demons believe there is one God. In fact, they believe in the Son of God and even shudder. There are professing Christians who don’t even tremble at the holiness of God. This verse should be a sober reminder for all of us to examine, introspect, and be honest with ourselves–to see whether or not we are of the faith.

20 But do you want to know, vain man, that faith apart from works is dead? 21 Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith worked with his works, and by works faith was perfected. 23 So the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see then that by works, a man is justified, and not only by faith.

The modern church today espouses the notion of “faith alone,” which is a concept popularized by the Protestant Reformation. And yet here, in James 2:24, Scripture directly contradicts this teaching–You see a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

First, I understand why people want to focus on faith rather than works. Scripture teaches we are saved by grace through faith. The Bible makes it clear that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No one is righteous. All of us need the righteousness of Christ. Our justification is in what Jesus did on the cross for our sins. He who knew no sin became sin for us so that we might receive the righteousness of Christ.

At the same time, it’s equally important for one to realize that faith and actions work together. We demonstrate our faith by how we act. Jesus said you will know My disciples by their fruit (Matt. 7:15). The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:23).

If these attributes are not evident in a Christian’s life, they should at least be cautioned to introspect their heart. It’s a kind gesture to question someone’s salvation if you see warning signs. That way, they can make the necessary adjustments to be saved rather than being constantly deceived and falsely comforted in their sins.

25 In the same way, wasn’t Rahab the prostitute also justified by works, in that she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead.

Finally, James ends with the story of Rahab. She demonstrated her faith by protecting the Israelites in Jericho, even risking her own life for God’s people. Her action was consequential to her faith. Because she believed in God, the spirit convicted her to stand up for God’s kingdom.

To conclude James argument concerning the synergism between faith and works, he gives another illustration. He says that as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead. This is very strong language. It reveals how a faith that is devoid of works is useless. There is no power in it. It’s not even living. But when we have genuine faith, it’s alive and powerful.

There is no contradiction here. James is not saying works save believers. He is also not saying “faith alone” saves. Instead, faith that is accompanied by works is a good indication one has trusted in God for salvation. And remember, our salvation is found in the incarnate word of God, the image of the invisible God, the Son of the Almighty Father, Jesus of Nazareth.

Commentary written by Chad A. Damitz (M.Div)

Translation by World English Bible (WEB)—public domain.

I am so thankful for the World English Bible Translation. This is their mission statement: “The Holy Bible is God’s Word. It belongs to God. He gave it to us freely, and we who have worked on this translation freely give it to you by dedicating it to the Public Domain.”

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