John Wesley's Explanatory Notes
Verse 1. My brethren - The equality of Christians, intimated by this name, is the ground of the admonition. Hold not the faith of our common Lord, the Lord of glory - Of which glory all who believe in him partake. With respect of persons - That is, honour none merely for being rich; despise none merely for being poor.
Verse 2. With gold rings - Which were not then so common as now.
Verse 3. Ye look upon him - With respect.
Verse 4. Ye distinguish not - To which the most respect is due, to the poor or to the rich. But are become evil-reasoning judges - You reason ill, and so judge wrong: for fine apparel is no proof of worth in him that wears it.
Verse 5. Hearken - As if he had said, Stay, consider, ye that judge thus. Does not the presumption lie rather in favour of the poor man? Hath not God chosen the poor - That is, are not they whom God hath chosen, generally speaking, poor in this world? who yet are rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom -Consequently, the most honourable of men: and those whom God so highly honours, ought not ye to honour likewise?
Verse 6. Do not the rich often oppress you - By open violence; often drag you - Under colour of law.
Verse 7. Do not they blaspheme that worthy name - Of God and of Christ. The apostle speaks chiefly of rich heathens: but are Christians, so called, a whit behind them?
Verse 8. If ye fulfil the royal law - The supreme law of the great King which is love; and that to every man, poor as well as rich, ye do well. Leviticus 19:18.
Verse 9. Being convicted - By that very law. Exodus 23:3.
on the Whole Bible
Whosoever keepeth the whole law, except in one point, he is guilty of all - Is as liable to condemnation as if he had offended in every point.
Verse 11. For it is the same authority which establishes every commandment.
Verse 12. So speak and act - In all things. As they that shall be judged - Without respect of persons. By the law of liberty - The gospel; the law of universal love, which alone is perfect freedom. For their transgressions of this, both in word and deed, the wicked shall be condemned; and according to their works, done in obedience to this, the righteous will be rewarded.
Verse 13. Judgment without mercy shall be to him - In that day. Who hath showed no mercy - To his poor brethren. But the mercy of God to believers, answering to that which they have shown, will then glory over judgment.
Verse 14. From James 1:22, the apostle has been enforcing Christian practice. He now applies to those who neglect this, under the pretence of faith. St. Paul had taught that "a man is justified by faith without the works of the law." This some began already to wrest to their own destruction. Wherefore St. James, purposely repeating ( James 2:21,23,25) the same phrases, testimonies, and examples, which St. Paul had used, Romans 4:3, Hebrews 11:17,31, refutes not the doctrine of St. Paul, but the error of those who abused it. There is, therefore, no contradiction between the apostles: they both delivered the truth of God, but in a different manner, as having to do with different kinds of men. On another occasion St. James himself pleaded the cause of faith, Acts 15:13-21; and St. Paul himself strenuously pleads for works, particularly in his latter epistles. This verse is a summary of what follows. What profiteth it? is enlarged on, James 2:15-17; though a man say, James 2:18,19 can that faith save him? James 2:20. It is not, though he have faith; but, though he say he have faith. Here, therefore, true, living faith is meant: but in other parts of the argument the apostle speaks of a dead, imaginary faith. He does not, therefore, teach that true faith can, but that it cannot, subsist without works: nor does he oppose faith to works; but that empty name of faith, to real faith working by love. Can that faith "which is without works" save him? No more than it can profit his neighbour.
Verse 17. So likewise that faith which hath not works is a mere dead, empty notion; of no more profit to him that hath it, than the bidding the naked be clothed is to him.
Verse 18. But one - Who judges better. Will say - To such a vain talker. Show me, if thou canst, thy faith without thy works.
Verse 19. Thou believest there is one God - I allow this: but this proves only that thou hast the same faith with the devils. Nay, they not only believe, but tremble - At the dreadful expectation of eternal torments. So far is that faith from either justifying or saving them that have it.
Verse 20. But art than willing to know - Indeed thou art not: thou wouldest fain be ignorant of it. O empty man - Empty of all goodness. That the faith which is without works is dead -And so is not properly faith, as a dead carcase is not a man.
Verse 21. Was not Abraham justified by works - St. Paul says he was justified by faith, Romans 4:2, &c.: yet St. James does not contradict him; for he does not speak of the same justification. St. Paul speaks of that which Abraham received many years before Isaac was born, Genesis 15:6. St. James, of that which he did not receive till he had offered up Isaac on the altar. He was justified, therefore, in St. Paul's sense, (that is, accounted righteous,) by faith, antecedent to his works. He was justified in St. James's sense, (that is, made righteous,) by works, consequent to his faith. So that St. James's justification by works is the fruit of St Paul's justification by faith.
Verse 22. Thou seest that faith - For by faith Abraham offered him, Hebrews 11:17. Wrought together with his works - Therefore faith has one energy and operation; works, another: and the energy and operation of faith are before works, and together with them. Works do not give life to faith, but faith begets works, and then is perfected by them. And by works was faith made perfect -Here St. James fixes the sense wherein he uses the word justified; so that no shadow of contradiction remains between his assertion and St. Paul's. Abraham returned from that sacrifice perfected in faith, and far higher in the favour of God. Faith hath not its being from works, (for it is before them,) but its perfection. That vigour of faith which begets works is then excited and increased thereby, as the natural heat of the body begets motion, whereby itself is then excited and increased. See 1 John 3:22.
Verse 23. And the scripture - Which was afterwards written. Was hereby eminently fulfilled, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed to him for righteousness - This was twice fulfilled, -when Abraham first believed, and when he offered up Isaac. St. Paul speaks of the former fulfilling; St. James, of the latter. And he was called the Friend of God - Both by his posterity, 2 Chronicles 20:7; and by God himself, Isaiah 41:8 so pleasing to God were the works be wrought in faith. Genesis 15:6
Verse 24. Ye see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only - St. Paul, on the other band, declares, "A man is justified by faith," and not by works, Romans 3:28. And yet there is no contradiction between the apostles: because, 1. They do not speak of the same faith: St. Paul speaking of living faith; St. James here, of dead faith. 2. They do not speak of the same works: St. Paul speaking of works antecedent to faith; St. James, of works subsequent to it.
Verse 25. After Abraham, the father of the Jews, the apostle cites Rahab, a woman, and a sinner of the gentiles; to show, that in every nation and sex true faith produces works, and is perfected by them; that is, by the grace of God working in the believer, while he is showing his faith by his works.