A Study in James 2
The Works of Grace
But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. James 1:25
The debate between the relative roles of faith (or grace) and works has been actively pursued in the Christian church since its founding. The early church, composed largely of Jews instilled with the work ethic of the law, found the liberty of the gospel a challenging concept. Paul’s epistle to the Romans deals largely with this problem, emphasizing the preeminence of faith over works. In his epistle, James covers the same ground, emphasizing the preeminence of works over faith.
Later, in the Reformation, this question again comes to the fore. The sacrament of penitence in the Roman Catholic Church, with the attendant practice of indulgences emphasized the priority of works. Martin Luther, in contrast, stressed the doctrine of justification by faith. So strong was he in his opposition to salvation through works that he suggested that the epistle of James should not be considered a part of the Bible.
Rightly understood, however, there is no real conflict between the two concepts. Faith and works are like the two legs of a man, both are needed to make true progress along the narrow way. Grace, and its acceptance through faith, is totally unmerited and cannot be earned through any merit of our own they are the gift of God (Eph. 2:8).
In the first chapter of his epistle, James treats the value of trials and temptations, showing that these are God’s tools for the developing of character. In this discussion he describes the gospel as the “perfect law of liberty” in contrast with the strict “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” of the Mosaic law.
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?
It is only too common among humankind to respect men of success. Not only is it their wealth, but with prosperity often goes a certain amount of refinement and social graces which commend the possessor to those around. The poor often do not have these advantages and there is a tendency to look down upon them. This is the danger of which James warns. “Look at the inner man, not the outer,” is his message.
God and Man—Verses 5-7
Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
In contrast to man, God has usually chosen the more ignoble of this world. There are reasons for God’s selections. First, there is usually an attitude of humility and need in the poor that is replaced by an aura of self-sufficiency in the more affluent. Second, materialism is frequently its own reward, and often becomes an all-consuming obsession. Additionally the final outcome of the improvement of the person of low estate shows the glory of the power of God, whereas one who is naturally noble might claim a share in the glory of his life. Benjamin Barton has expressed it well poetically:
If I had been more worthy,
And my stumblings had been few,
When men gave God the glory,
They’d have praised my virtue, too.
If I’d never lost a battle,
Or had never missed the mark,
As they talked about his goodness,
Mine, also, they’d remark.
But my being so deficient,
In thought and word and deed,
Means he’ll get all the glory—
He deserves it all indeed.
When they see this weak mortal
Raised to such immortal heights,
What praise will rise to him
Who in such nothingness delights.
James then proceeds to call the attention of his reader to the injustices that only too often accompany those of high position. Being materialistic, they are frequently open to bribery. Even in the best of scenarios, those in authority are prone to be unsympathetic to the plights of the poor, not having experienced its hardships personally. Since, especialy in Israel, those who sat in positions of judgment were supposedly pronouncing the judgments of God, such inequity from the judgment seat reflected on the character of God, and these judges James accuses of blasphemy. Perhaps it is for this reason that James opens the next chapter with these words: “Be not many of you masters” (3:1).
The Law of Moses—Verses 8-12
If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
Ancient Israel had a law against discrimination. Jesus deemed it as the second greatest of all the laws given to Moses, only inferior to the one preceding it that stated Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart. This law commanded, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. No qualification was put on the term neighbor—rich or poor, male or female, white or black—all were to be treated equally. When queried by a lawyer as to the meaning of this term “neighbor” Jesus gave a story which we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan in which he illustrates that even a despised Samaritan should be considered as a neighbor.
Partiality on the part of the church to whom James was writing, therefore, was to be considered as a violation of this law, and thus a sin. Under the demands of Judaic law all the attention that could be paid to all other features of the law—the minutiae of cleansings and purifications, of prayer and almsgivings—could not wipe out the violation of this precept of love for one’e neighbor.
By using the two examples of the commandments against adultery and against killing, James takes out minds back to the words of the Master in the sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7) where Jesus uses these same two commands to show their deeper meaning, of regulating thoughts as well as actions. If lust could be adultery, then hatred could be murder. James implies an even further extension—even discrimination and partiality could be murder, since they involved the slaying of another’s reputation.
The Law of Liberty—Verses 12and 13
So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty. For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
But it is not the law of Moses, but the law of grace, the law of the gospel, where James finds the harsher judgment. “You shall be judged as you have judged others,” is his message. It is the same message which Jesus gave: Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again (Matt. 7:1, 2). It is the same message Paul preached: “Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things” (Rom. 2:1). It is the same danger of which the Christian is warned in the model prayer given to him: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).
Grace received without grace distributed is like a lake receiving water but disbursing none—like the barren depths of the Dead Sea. This dispensing of forgiveness to others becomes a responsibility, for those who have received God’s grace lest they receive it in vain (2 Cor. 6:1). It is a “work of grace.”
Faith and Works—Verses 14-20
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Here is the heart of James’ discussion. Faith and grace are both gifts from God, but they are not gifts that provoke idleness, but activity. They should energize the Christian. To receive God’s forgiveness and the attendant standing with him through justification without showing the same character towards others shows a lack of appreciation for the gift received.
Jesus told a story (Matt. 18:23-35) of a debtor forgiven a large debt who demanded payment from a pauper who owed him a small amount. The moral is given in unforgettable terms: “Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? (vs. Forgiveness to those who have wronged us is not an easy task. the disciples found it sufficienty difficult that when commanded to forgive one who offended them up to seven times in a single day, responded with the request: Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).
James uses a specific illustration to demonstrate the kind of works he is advocating. Again he reverts to their attitude toward the poor in their midst. It is not sufficent, he counsels, to comiserate with the poor, but to seek to give him the necessary clothes and food to uplift him from his condition of poverty.
If not dead, such an unproductive faith is at the best very weak. If we find ourselves emulating such a faith, let us pray the prayer of those disciples, Lord, increase our faith.
Belief, the doctrinal sub-structure of a Christian, is vital, but by itself insufficient. Belief as an intellectual assent to certain facts is not unique to good people. Even devils believe. They react to their belief with a certain trembling in anticipation of their judgment.
Do not believe in this fashion, James warns, but let your belief in retributive judgment be a spur to encourage the works of faith and of grace. Do not just receive grace. Give grace. Do not just be forgiven, but also forgiving.
Abraham and Rahab—Verses 12-15
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
James evokes two illustrations of his principle from the Old Testament—Abraham and Rahab. Both are individuals whom the Apostle Paul selects for his gallery of faith-heroes in Hebrews 11. Throughout New Testament writings Abraham is constantly referred to as the one who was “justified by faith.”
The point which James makes, however, is that it was not their faith alone which justified them, but the fact that they demonstrated the reality of that faith in action. If Abraham merely believed that God could raise his son from the dead it might indeed show a measure of faith. But to act on that faith and show his willingness to sacrifice his beloved son in death was the true measure of his faith—and that was an action, a work. Likewise it required faith to believe that the invading forces of Israel would be blessed by God in their conquest of Canaan, but her justification came as a result of acting upon that faith and taking the risk to house and deliver the spies who sought refuge with her.
Works, the Spirit of Faith—Verse 26
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
For his summary, James invokes the picture of human life. Life is composed of two elements— body and breath forming a living soul: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). So, James reasons, spiritual life is composed of two elements: faith and works.
It is faith which supplies the body, the organism. It is works which keep that organism functioning. Without the action of breathing the natural man would die. Without the active functioning of works the spiritual man will die.
Proper spiritual works are not motivated by a desire to earn salvation or merit favor. Grace remains unmerited. But the gift of grace requires a thankful response on the part of the recipient. He responds with good works, motivated by thankfulness and gratitude for the grace received. Let us, therefore, be not hearers of the word only, but doers also.