A. Partiality and discrimination in the family of God.
1. (1) The principle established.
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.
a. The glorious faith we have, the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, should never be associated with partiality (discrimination). The Lord of glory Himself shows no partiality (Deuteronomy 10:17, Acts 10:34), so neither should those who put their trust in Him.
b. We do well to remember that James wrote to a very "partial" age, filled with prejudice and hatred based on class, ethnicity, nationality, and religious background. In the ancient world people were routinely and permanently categorized because they were Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever.
i. A significant aspect of the work of Jesus was to break down these walls that divided humanity, and to bring forth one new race of mankind in Him (Ephesians 2:14-15).
c. The unity and openness of the early church was an astonishment to the ancient world. But this unity didn't come automatically. As this command from James shows, the apostles had to teach the early church to never hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . with partiality.
2. (2-4) An example of the kind of partiality that has no place among Christians.
For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, "You sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "You stand there," or, "Sit here at my footstool," have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
a. If there should come into your assembly: In the ancient Greek, the word assembly is literally synagogue, the name of the meeting place for Jews. The fact that James calls a Christian meeting place a synagogue shows that he wrote before Gentiles were widely received into the church. At the time James wrote, most all Christians came from a Jewish heritage. This is the only place in the New Testament where an assembly of Christians is clearly called a synagogue.
i. "Till the final rift between Judaism and Christianity both Christian and non-Christian Jews used, at least often, the same word for their sacred meeting-place." (Adamson)
b. A man with gold rings: This showed the man was rich. "In Roman society the wealthy wore rings on their left hand in great profusion. A sign of wealth, rings were worn with great ostentation.
There were even shops in Rome where rings could be rented for special occasions." (Hiebert)
c. Have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? To favor the rich man over the poor man in the way James describes shows a deep carnality among Christians.
i. It shows that we care more for the outward appearance than we do upon the heart. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God looks at the heart, and so should we.
ii. It shows that we misunderstand who is important and blessed in the sight of God. When we assume that the rich man is more important to God, or more blessed by God, we put too much value in material riches.
iii. It shows a selfish streak in us. Usually we favor the rich man over the poor man because we believe we can get more from the rich man. He can do favors for us that the poor man can't.
3. (5-7) Man's partiality rarely agrees with God's heart.
Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of 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. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?
a. Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom: Though it is easy for man to be partial to the rich, God isn't partial to them. In fact, since riches are an obstacle to the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24), there is a sense in which the poor of this world are specially blessed by God.
i. They are chosen . . . to be rich in faith because the poor of this world simply have more opportunities to trust God. Therefore they may be far more rich in faith than the rich man.
ii. They are chosen . . . heirs of the kingdom, because Jesus said that being rich made it harder to enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:24).
b. Has not God chosen: In the sense that the poor more readily respond to God in faith, having fewer obstacles to the kingdom, we can see how God has chosen the poor. "Church history demonstrates that comparatively more poor people than rich have responded to the gospel." (Hiebert)
i. When we choose people by what we can see on the surface, we miss the mind of God. Remember that Judas appeared to be much better leadership material than Peter.
ii. Of course, God has not only chosen the poor. But we may say that He has chosen the poor first, in the sense Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:26: For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. Calvin also writes regarding God's choice of the poor: "Not indeed alone, but he wished to begin with them, that he might beat down the pride of the rich."
c. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? James reminds his readers that the rich often sin against them, often because the love of money is the root of kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). For this reason alone, the rich are not worthy of the partiality often shown to them.
4. (8-9) Partiality is condemned by the Scriptures.
If you really 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, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
a. If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture: James anticipates that some of his readers might defend their partiality to the rich as simply loving him as their neighbor in obedience to the law.
b. If you show partiality, you commit sin: The problem isn't that you are nice to the rich. The problem is that you show partiality to the rich, and are not nice to the poor man! So you can't excuse your partiality by saying, "I'm just fulfilling the command to love my neighbor as myself."
c. The royal law: Our God is a great King, and His law is a royal law. Our King Jesus put special emphasis on this command (Matthew 22:36-40) from the Old Testament (Leviticus 19:18). James is reminding us that the poor man is just as much our neighbor as the rich man is.
5. (10-13) The serious matter of obeying all of God's commands.
For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
a. Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all: James here guards us against a selective obedience, the sort that will pick and choose which commands of God should be obeyed and which could be safely disregarded.
i. We can't say, "I like God's command against murder, so I'll keep that one. But I don't like His command against adultery, so I will disregard it." God cares about the whole law.
ii. The whole law must be kept if one will be justified by the law. One ancient Rabbi taught: "If a man perform all the commandments, save one, he is guilty of all and each; to break one precept is to defy God who commanded the whole." (Adamson)
b. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty: We are under the law of liberty. It has liberty, yet it is still a law that must be obeyed and that we will be judged by at the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10).
c. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy: As those who will be judged by the law of liberty, we should always show mercy to others by refraining from partiality. The mercy we show will be extended to us again on the day of judgment, and that mercy triumphs over judgment.
i. James is relating another principle of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. (Matthew 7:2)
B. The demonstration of a living faith in loving action.
1. (14) The principle established: true faith will be accompainied by action.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
a. Someone says he has faith but does not have works: James thinks it impossible that someone can genuinely have saving faith with no works. But someone can say he has faith, but fail to show forth good works. So, the question is valid: can that kind of faith save him?
b. James wrote to Christians from a Jewish background who discovered the glory of salvation by faith. They knew the exhilaration of freedom from works-righteousness. But they then went to the other extreme of thinking that works didn't matter at all.
c. James does not contradict Paul, who insisted that we are saved not of works (Ephesians 2:9). James merely clarifies for us the kind of faith that saves. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works; but saving faith will have works that accompany it. As the saying goes: faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone - it has good works with it.
i. Paul also understood the necessity of works in proving the character of our faith. He wrote: For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10). He also wrote: This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. (Titus 3:8)
ii. The great reformer and champion of salvation by grace through faith alone, John Calvin, understood James' point: "But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon." (Calvin)
2. (15-17) An example of dead faith.
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Depart in peace, be warmed and filled," but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
a. If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food: To fail in the most simple good work towards a brother or sister in need demonstrates that one does not have a living faith, and we can only be saved by a living faith in Jesus.
b. Be warmed and filled: To say this means you know that the person in front of you needs clothing and food. You know their need well, but offer nothing to help them except a few religious words.
c. What does it profit? Real faith, and the works that accompany it, are not made up of only "spiritual" things, but also of a concern for the most basic needs - such as the need for comfort, covering, and food. When needs arise, we should sometimes pray less, and simply do more to help the person in need. We can sometimes pray as a substitute for action.
d. Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead: This is the first time James speaks of a dead faith. Faith alone saves us, but it must be a living faith. We can tell if faith is alive by seeing if it is accompanied by works, and if it does not have works, it is dead.
i. A living faith is simply real faith. If we really believe something, we will follow through and act upon it. If we really put our trust and faith on Jesus, we will care for the naked and destitute as He told us to.
3. (18-19) A living faith cannot be separated from works.
But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble!
a. You have faith, and I have works: Some might try to say that some have the "gift" of works and others have the "gift" of faith. "It's fine for you to have your gift of works and that you care for the needy. But that isn't my gift."But James will have none of this kind of thinking. Real faith will be demonstrated by works.
b. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works: The appeal of James is clear and logical. We can't "see" someone's faith, but we can see their works. You can't see faith without works, but you can demonstrate the reality of faith by works.
c. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble! The fallacy of faith without works is demonstrated by the demons, who have a "dead" faith in God. The demons believe in the sense that they acknowledge that God exists. But this "faith" does nothing for the demons, because it isn't real faith, proved by the fact that it doesn't have works with it.
4. (20-24) Abraham as an example of living faith.
But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.
a. Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Abraham was justified by faith long before he offered Isaac (Genesis 15:6). But his obedience in offering Isaac demonstrated that he really did trust God.
b. Faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect: Faith and works cooperated perfectly together in Abraham. If he never had believed God, he could have never done the good work of obedience when asked to offer Isaac. As well, his faith was shown to be true - was completed, was made perfect - by his obedient works.
c. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only: The faith only that will not justify a man is a faith that is without works, a dead faith. But true faith, living faith, shown to be true by good works, will alone justify.
i. "But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon." (Calvin)
d. Works must accompany a genuine faith, because genuine faith is always connected with regeneration - being born again, becoming a new creation in Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). If there is no evidence of a new life, there was no genuine, saving faith.
i. As Charles Spurgeon is reported to have said: "The grace that does not change my life will not save my soul."
5. (25-26) Rahab as an example of living faith.
Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
a. Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works: Rahab demonstrated her trust in the God of Israel by hiding the spies and seeking salvation from their God (Joshua 2:8-13). Her faith was shown to be living faith because it did something. Her belief in the God of Israel would not have saved her if she had not done something with that faith.
b. Significantly, James uses two examples of a living faith: Abraham (the father of the Jews) and Rahab (a Gentile). James perhaps is subtly rebuking the partiality that may have developed on the part of Jewish Christians against the Gentile believers starting to come into the church.
i. The lesson from Abraham is clear: if we believe in God, we will do what He tells us to do. The lesson from Rahab is also clear: if we believe in God, we will help His people, even at our own expense.
ii. "He designedly put together two persons so different in their character, in order more clearly to shew, that no one, whatever may have been his or her condition, nation, or class in society, has ever been counted righteous without good works." (Calvin, cited in Hiebert)
c. For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also: As much as you can have a body with no life (a corpse), so you can have a faith with no life - and faith without works is a dead faith, unable to save.
i. "Therefore, if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead. Notice that James does not deny that it is faith. He simply indicates that it is not the right kind of faith. It is not living faith, nor can it save." (Burdick)
ii. "Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God; he is justified by works, that is, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits." (Calvin)