2. Words and Works: Practical Piety James 2:1-26
It was my first time to visit the American Civil Liberties Union Website, but my search on racial profiling took me there. They cited the following statistics from the research and resulting reports of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Over the past six years in Minneapolis, blacks were:
*11 times more likely than whites to be arrested and thrown into jail, but not necessarily convicted, for drinking alcohol in public;
*19 times more likely for trespassing;
*27 times more likely for lurking;
*42 times more likely for not having a valid driver’s license.13
I would hope we would all agree that some law enforcement officials have been selective in their enforcement of the laws of our land, based upon racial biases. This is wrong, and it needs to be changed. But what troubles me even more is that many Christians don’t forsake their biases when they become saints, and don’t even leave their biases outside the church door. In the October 2, 2000, issue of Christianity Today, the cover page featured a study which argues that “evangelical beliefs actually frustrate racial reconciliation. . . .” I’m not sure I agree with the study, but I believe we must at least admit that there are discrimination issues in the church. Racial discrimination is but one piece of an even larger problem. I believe there is a great deal more “profiling” taking place in the church than we would like to believe. Such profiling has been taking place for a very long time. Consider this text in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, for example:
1 Now one Sabbath when Jesus went to dine at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely. 2 There right in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. 3 So Jesus asked the experts in religious law and the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So Jesus took hold of the man, healed him, and sent him away. 5 Then he said to them, “Which of you, if you have a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?” 6 But they could not reply to this.
7 Then Jesus, when he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, told them a parable. He said to them, 8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, because a person more distinguished than you may have been invited by your host. 9 So the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your place.’ Then, ashamed, you will begin to move to the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, go and take the least important place, so that when your host comes he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up here to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who share the meal with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. 13 But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:1-14).14
This passage in Luke is a great text, loaded with implications, but allow me to simply point out the profiling that is taking place here. Jesus was attending a dinner. It was a dinner intended, at least in part, to put Jesus on the spot. It was a dinner hosted by one of the leaders of the Pharisees, and it was on the Sabbath. A man suffering from dropsy had been stationed there as bait, to see if Jesus would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus did heal the man, and then rebuked them for their hypocrisy as evident in the dual standard that Jesus exposed.
The guests at this dinner very obviously jockeyed for position. You will remember that the place at which one sat at an eastern table indicated their status and standing among the rest who were seated. Jesus rebuked the guests for status-seeking and instructed them to sit at the lowest seat. In this way, you would never be asked to “move down” (since there was no lower place). If the host wanted to move you up, then your host would thereby honor you.
Having rebuked the guests at this dinner a second time (the first time was for their hypocrisy), Jesus turned to His host, for whom He also had a few well-chosen words. The host had been as guilty as his guests, because he had very carefully chosen those he placed on the guest list. Jesus observed that no one there was poor. Our Lord knew that the host was guilty of “profiling” in the selection of his guests. He chose those who were wealthy, knowing that they would feel obligated to reciprocate, and thus he would gain a return on his investment. If he had invited 30 guests to his table, he expected invitations from them all for him to be a guest at their table. It was a coldly calculated event.
Jesus told the host that if he was looking for a heavenly reward, he would have to change the way he chose his guests. He should rather invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.15 These were the people in need. They were also the people who had no earthly means to repay their host for his hospitality. In terms of worldly economics, a banquet for the poor would have to be written off as a loss. But in heaven’s economy, it was a great investment, because the host would be generously repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
My point here is simply that profiling is not new. It is an evil that James indicts in the second chapter of his epistle. In chapter 1, James speaks of how true religion will be evident in the midst of one’s personal adversity and affliction. In chapter 2, James presses on to show how true religion is evident in our response to adversity in the life of others.
Chapter 2 flows very smoothly out of James’ words in chapter 1, further amplifying on them. James has already introduced the subject of wealth and poverty in chapter 1 (verses 9-11); now he has much more to add. James has also urged his readers to be quick to hear (and obey), and yet slow to speak (1:19). He is about to call our attention to some worthless words, and to some works that should have been performed, but were not. These works would be in obedience to Gods’ Word, which instructs us concerning the nature of true religion, which is to “care for orphans and widows in their misfortune” (James 1:27). James now turns to those in need and to examples of evil response to such needs.
Faith and Favoritism
1 My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious16 Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy17 clothes, 3 do you pay attention to the one finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit under my feet”? 4 If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? 8 But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators. 10 For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but you commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. 12 Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. 13 For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
James begins by setting down a principle in verse 1, which might be paraphrased in this way:
“Favoritism is not compatible with the Christian faith.”
This principle is rooted in the character of God, who does not show partiality, and who commands His people not to do so, either:
17 For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God and awesome warrior who is unbiased and takes no bribe, 18 who acts justly toward orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing (Deuteronomy 10:17-18).
6 He [Jehoshaphat] told the judges, “Be careful what you do, for you are not judging for men, but for the LORD, who will be with you when you make judicial decisions. 7 Respect the LORD and make careful decisions, for the LORD our God disapproves of injustice, partiality, and bribery” (2 Chronicles 19:6-7; see also Job 34:19; Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; Galatians 2:6; Ephesians 6:9).
God is always just, and His judgments are always without partiality. God’s Word declares that each and every person without exception is a sinner, deserving of eternal judgment (Romans 3:9-19, 23). Men are not saved on the basis of race (contrary to Jewish thought), nor on the basis of wealth or position, nor on the basis of their good works. Men are saved on the basis of God’s sovereign choice, which has nothing to do with man’s merit. Men are saved on the basis of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, in the sinner’s place. That is grace, and grace is unmerited. Since God shows no partiality, He insists that we be like Him in this regard. Favoritism, then, is incompatible with faith in Jesus Christ.
James now provides an illustration of the principle he has just stated. He sets the scene in church.18 Two men enter the church at the same time. One of the two is wealthy. He is wearing a gold ring and “fine clothing.” Literally, he is wearing “shining” or “bright”19 clothing. The rich man is dressed in a way that is intended to display his wealth. He wants others, including the usher, to know that he is a man of wealth? Why? Because he desires to be treated with partiality.20
The other man (who arrives at the same time as the rich man) is poor. His clothes give him away. The difference is that the rich man is purposely wearing clothing that signals his wealth to others. The poor man has nothing else to wear. His clothing sends a signal that he does not really desire. The poor man’s clothing is not just old, and it is not just ragged. Literally, the poor man’s clothing is filthy. This same word “filthy” is used only one other time in the New Testament, in Revelation 22:11, where it describes those who are morally filthy, and who will not enter into the kingdom of God. In the early 1970’s, when the “Jesus” people began to attend churches with their bare feet and less than clean clothes, there was some real consternation because these folks literally did dirty up the church.
The usher (“you”) immediately responds. He does not disappoint the rich man. The brightly attired guest is given a warm welcome and ushered to one of the finest seats; the poor man is barely tolerated and told to stand off out of the way, or to sit at the usher’s feet. (Notice that this man is not only given the poorest seating, but he is not allowed to sit on anything that he might soil with his filthy garments.) In responding to wealth and poverty in this way, the usher (or, in reality, the church) is guilty of sin. James will press this point home with several powerful arguments in verses 5-13.
First, in showing preferential treatment to the rich, one acts contrary to Christ (verses 5-6a).
5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor!
When our Lord came to the earth at His incarnation, He came to heal the sick and to save the lost; He came to those who were needy. He came to lift up the humble and needy and to put down the arrogant:
50 “From generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
51 He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy. . .” (Luke 1:50-54).
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and the regaining of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1-2).
29 Then Levi gave a great banquet in his house for Jesus, and there was a large crowd of tax collectors and others sitting at the table with them. 30 But the Pharisees and their experts in the law complained to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 Jesus answered them, “Those who are well don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:29-32).
26 Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were members of the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, 29 so that no one can boast in his presence. 30 He is the reason you have a relationship with Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
It is no wonder, then, that we would read these words from the lips of our Lord:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.
21 “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil on account of the Son of Man! 23 Rejoice in that day, and jump for joy, because your reward is great in heaven. For their ancestors did the same things to the prophets” (Luke 6:20b-23).
God has chosen to save us and to bring us to glory, but when we discriminate against the poor, we choose to humiliate those whom God has chosen to bless. To discriminate against the poor and to favor the rich is to act in a way that is contrary to our Lord and to the way in which we were saved. To discriminate against the poor is to act contrary to the gospel, which is a matter of grace, not merit.
Second, to show partiality toward the rich flies in the face of our experience and common sense (verses 6b-7).
Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?
Remember that James is writing to Jewish Christians who are dispersed among the nations. They have begun to experience persecution. Some of their poverty was the direct result of their generosity (see Acts 2:44-46; 4:32-37), and some was the result of persecution because of following Christ (see Hebrews 10:32-34). The rich were quick to drag them into court. They could afford the legal costs and could also influence the outcome of the trial. As a rule, the rich were not a friend to the Jewish saints; they were their enemy. Why, then, would anyone show favoritism to their opponents? Rather than “biting the hand that fed them,” they were “feeding the hand of those who were biting them.” And if this personal insult and injury were not enough, the rich were also those who were blaspheming the very name of our Lord (compare Psalm 73:1-14, especially verses 8-9). Favoring the rich is contrary to all good reason.
Third, to show partiality toward the rich was to break God’s law (verses 8-11):
8 But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators. 10 For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but you commit murder, you have become a violator of the law. 12 Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. 13 For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
The royal law commanded God’s people to “love their neighbors as themselves” (note the emphasis on “as”). Their neighbors included the wealthy and the poor (see Luke 10:29-37). The “as” means that we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves.21 We must love our neighbors with the same level of concern and care that we have for ourselves. But in addition to meaning that we must love our neighbors and ourselves equally, James insists that we must love each of our neighbors equally, not treating one neighbor better than another. The royal law calls for equality. Showing partiality violates the principle of “equal treatment under the law.”
To show partiality to the rich and to discriminate against the poor is to break God’s law. And to break God’s law in this one matter is to become a violator of the whole law. These Jews to whom James wrote were no doubt scrupulous in keeping other parts of the law, but James says that this is of no value if the law is broken in the matter of dealing equally with our neighbors. Thus, we may not be guilty of breaking the law by committing adultery, but if we murder, then we are lawbreakers anyway. To break the law at one point is to break the whole law. Those who show partiality to others are law-breakers.
Fourth, to show partiality in our judgments is to ignore the certainty of consequences when we stand before Christ as our Judge (verses 12-13).
12 Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. 13 For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
Those who show partiality make judgments about others based upon mere appearances (the bright and shining clothing of the rich man as opposed to the filthy clothing of the poor man). Those who discriminate become judges with impure motives (verse 4). Those who judge are also those who will be judged. There is a day of judgment coming for all men. There is a judgment for unbelievers (John 5:22-29; Acts 17:30-31; Hebrews 9:27), just as there is a different day of judgment for the saints (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). If men have not shown mercy to those in need, then they should not expect God to be merciful to them in their day of judgment:
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
1 “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. 2 For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive” (Matthew 7:1-2; see also 18:21-25).
I have a friend named Zeke who is now retired, but who once was a high level executive for a large company. Zeke had never before involved himself with things like protesting against abortion clinics, but for some reason he felt led to do so on one occasion. It was on that occasion that Zeke was arrested, along with the others who were with him outside an abortion clinic. The judge would not allow Zeke to speak of his faith in Christ or to cite Scripture. He found Zeke guilty of breaking the law. After the judge pronounced sentence, Zeke said to the judge, “Your honor, someday you will stand in judgment before The Great Judge, and you will give an account for what you have done today.” These are sobering words, not unlike those of James.
Worthless (Workless) Words
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go22 in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”23 Show me your faith without works and I will show faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear. 20 But would you like evidence, you empty person, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And similarly, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
In James 1, James defined “true religion” in terms of one’s response to their own adversity. Now, in chapter 2, James is defining “true religion” in terms of one’s response to adversity in the life of a neighbor. In verses 1-13, James has described willful and blatant discrimination, which occurs even within the church. Now, in verses 14-26, James speaks of a much more subtle form of the sin of partiality. Our Lord simply called it hypocrisy (see Matthew 23). Hypocrisy is saying one thing, but doing another (see Matthew 23:1-3, 14, etc.). This is precisely what James speaks of in verses 14-26 of chapter 2.
The principle is stated in verse 14 and might be paraphrased this way: “Faith that is professed, but not practiced, is of no practical value to us or to others. It does not serve, and it does not save.24 Unused faith is useless faith.”
James gives us an example of what he means in verses 15-16. Notice that James has set the rich man aside and has returned to the poor fellow, who is in need. We come upon a brother or a sister who is in great need. He does not have proper clothing, and he is hungry. Instead of providing this individual with the things he needs, we speak words which appear to be compassionate and caring, but which are not accompanied by any truly helpful actions. We send the needy person away, wishing them well. We even mention their very needs: “Keep warm and eat well.” It’s almost like sending them out with the words, “Don’t forget your lunch, and wear a warm sweater.” That’s what a mother would say to her child. But she would also hand them their lunch and their sweater. In this case, the one living “from hand to mouth” finds that we bless with our mouth but have nothing in our hand. This is especially cruel and deeply hypocritical. In some ways it is even more wicked than the blatant discrimination of verses 2 and 3. The wickedness of verses 15-17 is couched in caring terms. I don’t know whether or not the lack of action and the hypocrisy was willful. From the vantage point of the one in need, it matters little. When these empty words have been spoken, he still lacks both food and clothing. The words do not warm his body nor do they fill his stomach. These pious-sounding words are worthless.
In verse 17, James escalates this matter to a much more serious and troubling level. We would probably like to think of the sin of verses 15 and 16 as a kind of misdemeanor offense, one that might merit a mere “slap on the wrist.” Not so with James. He upgrades the offense to a felony. He says that worthless words are a most serious matter, and with this Jesus agrees:
33 “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is known by its fruit. 34 Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil? For the mouth speaks from what fills the heart. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you that on the day of judgment, people will give an account for every worthless word they speak. 37 For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:33-37).
What we say with our mouths is a sampling of what is in our hearts. If our words are empty, so is our faith, James says. Are we inclined to minimize vain words and empty promises? James will not allow us to do so. He tells us that a false promise is akin to a false profession of faith. If our profession is merely empty words, without any corresponding works, our profession can hardly carry any weight.
As mentioned earlier, I am well aware of the fact that some think that the word “save” (verse 14; also 1:21) does not refer to one’s eternal salvation, but to the saving of one’s life. The Greek word certainly does cover a broad spectrum of meanings, including spiritual salvation. Whether or not this argument can be successfully made, no one I know of within evangelical circles would claim that James is arguing that faith plus works is required for salvation. All would agree that a man is saved by faith alone, apart from works (Romans 3:28; 4:6). Paul and James do not disagree on this, and I don’t believe that Christians should spend a lot of time arguing this matter when we all agree that it is faith alone that saves, not faith plus works. The real issue is this: is our faith genuine? A mere profession of faith does not guarantee possession of faith.
Verse 18 conveys the words of an objector, who points out the folly of thinking that mere profession of faith is sufficient evidence of the possession of a saving faith. I believe the argument goes something like this. The hypocrite insists that he is saved, based solely on his profession of belief. This is like me insisting that I am the President of the United States simply because I say so. The objector comes along and says, “That’s easy for you to say, but mere words are not compelling proof of anything, especially faith.”
I understand what the objector says in the light of what our Lord said in Mark 2:
3 Some people came bringing to him a paralytic, carried by four of them. 4 When they were not able to bring him in because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus. Then, after tearing it out, they lowered the stretcher the paralytic was lying on. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the experts in the law were sitting there, turning these things over in their minds: 7 “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 Now immediately, when Jesus realized in his spirit that they were contemplating such thoughts, he said to them, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up, take your stretcher, and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I tell you, stand up, take your stretcher, and go home.” 12 And immediately the man stood up, took his stretcher, and went out in front of them all. They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:3-12)
There was such a great crowd gathered to see and hear Jesus that the friends of the paralyzed man could not even get into the house where Jesus was speaking. They managed to lower their friend through the roof to where Jesus was. When Jesus saw their faith, He told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven. It didn’t take a Harvard graduate to know what these words implied: Only God can forgive sins; therefore Jesus was claiming to be God. Jesus was God, and as such, He knew the thoughts of His opponents. They were thinking to themselves, “He is not God; His words are empty words.” Jesus puts the challenge to Himself by saying to His critics, “Is it easier for me to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your mattress and walk’”? It was hardly possible to verify the words, “Your sins are forgiven,” but one could readily validate the authority of Jesus when He spoke the words, “Arise, take up your mattress and walk.” And so Jesus told this man to get up and walk, and he did. By curing this man’s malady, Jesus proved that He had the power to heal. This certainly gave some credence to our Lord’s claim to have the authority to forgive sins. Jesus’ words were not empty words. His works accompanied his words. This is what set Jesus apart from the Pharisees. No wonder Matthew can tell us,
28 When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, 29 because he taught them like one who had authority, not like their experts in the law (Matthew 7:28-29).
I believe the objector is employing the same kind of logic. He says, “Sure, you claim to have faith, but you have no accompanying deeds to verify that you really possess true faith. I, on the other hand, have works. Is it not right to assume that my profession of faith carries much more weight if works accompany it?” The objector then drives home his point with a powerful example. “You profess to believe that there is one God. That’s good. That’s orthodox. But it doesn’t prove you have saving faith. Why even the demons believe what you believe, and you would have to admit that they certainly do not possess genuine faith.” Faith and works are something like love and marriage (at least, something like love and marriage used to be). In the words of the songwriter of a bygone day, “You can’t have one without the other.”
In verses 20-24, James moves on to Abraham, the “father of the faith” to the Jews, to prove that a profession concerning one’s faith is justified in the sight of men when it is validated by works:
20 But would you like evidence, you empty person, that faith without works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Now Abraham believed God and it was counted to him for righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
The first question we must ask ourselves here is, “Who is the ‘empty person’ whom James rebukes in verse 20?” Is this the objector of verses 18 and 19, or it is the one to whom the objector is speaking, the one who thinks a mere profession of faith is enough? The thrust of verses 20-26, along with the entire context, would seem to force us to conclude that James is once again rebuking the one who seeks to justify the hypocrisy of professing faith without practicing it.
I really like the way James has attacked this problem. He first gives a forceful illustration of how our words can be useless and of no practical value without accompanying works. He then extends this from a general principle to one that specifically applies to one’s profession of faith and their salvation. He then critiques the error by means of an “objector,” who first finds the argument lacking in logic, and next turns to a more theological objection (“the demons believe, too, but are not saved”). Finally, James himself re-enters with his objections. These are directly rooted in the Old Testament Scriptures. He first turns to Abraham, the father of the faith to the Jews, and then to Rahab, a Gentile woman of faith. James thereby makes a “clean sweep” of this error.
Jacob was the black sheep of the family to the Jews, as he is to almost any reader of the Old Testament. But Abraham was revered as the father of the faith (see Matthew 4:8-9; John 8: 38-39; Romans 4:16). In verse 20, James takes up where the objector left off. Is it necessary to further prove that faith without works is dead? Then James will turn to Abraham, the “father of the faith.” Abraham was justified by faith before God when he believed God’s promise of a son:
1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” 2 Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” 4 Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” 5 And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:1-6, NASB).
In Romans 4, Paul makes a great deal of Genesis 15:6 to show that Abraham was saved by faith, and not by works:
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh, has discovered regarding this matter? 2 For if Abraham was declared righteous by the works of the law, he has something to boast about (but not before God). 3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness. 6 So even David himself speaks regarding the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the one against whom the Lord will never count sin.”
9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:1-12 emphasis mine).
Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith when he believed God’s promise that he would have a child, in spite of all appearances to the contrary. Abraham believed God and was called a believer before he did any works. Paul uses Genesis 15:6 to prove that salvation has always been by faith, apart from works. In our text, James writes that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar (verse 21; see also Hebrews 11:17-19). Are James and Paul at odds with each other? Far from it! The justification that James speaks of here is not the “justification” of salvation by faith, but rather the justification or validation of his profession of faith before men. Men do not know the hearts of other men, as God does, and so the only evidence – the only justification – of true faith is a manifestation of the fruit of that professed faith.
This is completely consistent with the teaching of our Lord:
15 “Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are voracious wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruit. Grapes are not gathered from thorns or figs from thistles, are they? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree is not able to bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree to bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 So then, you will recognize them by their fruit.” 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’ 24 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. 26 Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, and it collapsed; it was utterly destroyed!” (Matthew 7:15-27, emphasis mine).
Finally, James turns to Rahab, the harlot, to show how this Gentile was justified before men by her works. Rahab was a Gentile and a harlot who lived in the city of Jericho. The nation Israel was coming to possess the Promised Land, and the people of Jericho knew it. The Israelites were the enemy, and anyone who aided or protected them would be considered a traitor. Rahab knew that God was with His people, and that the Israelites would defeat the people of Jericho. When the two spies came to her house, the king of Jericho heard of it and sent word for Rahab to turn the men over to him. She told the king that the men had already left, but that they could be caught if they were quickly pursued. She hid the two spies under piles of flax on her roof. She told them she knew about the exodus and the way God had given Israel victory over all her enemies. She confessed, “For the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on earth below!” (Joshua 2:11). She then made these men pledge that they would spare her and her family when they attacked Jericho if she would spare their lives. Her profession of faith was justified (validated) when she followed through with her promise by letting the men down the wall of the city with a rope, sending the soldiers of Jericho after the men by the wrong route. Her profession was proven to be genuine by her practice.25
James sums up his argument in verse 26: “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” Words without works are worthless; a mere profession of faith is useless without that faith being put into practice.
In the first half of chapter 2, James is very explicit in his renunciation of favoritism in the church. Showing partiality is clearly forbidden in the Old Testament and the New. This is because God does not show partiality, and neither should those who trust in Him.
This world operates like American Airlines. Generally, those who don’t have much money ride coach; those with more money ride business class; and those who can afford it ride first class. That’s the way things work in this world, and we understand why. But this should never be the case in the church. The church should operate like the newly-established Legend Airlines. This airline has only one fare, and it is claimed to be the equivalent of first class. Everyone in the church should be treated equally. We are forbidden to practice partiality. Rather than to avoid the poor and the needy, we are to seek to serve them by meeting their needs. We do not shun the rich, either, but we must not show partiality to the rich. Incidentally, we are not to show partiality to the poor, either (see Exodus 23:3; Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17).
The two sections of James 2 are surely related. Both sections have examples that relate to our treatment of the poor. In verses 1-13, discrimination is blatant. In verses 14-26, the sin of discrimination is more subtle and more hypocritical. But James sees both kinds of action as sinful. In both cases, it is our words that betray our sin. In verses 2-4, the “usher’s” words to the poor man are cold and cruel. In verses 15-16, the words of the one speaking are seemingly caring, but are really hypocritical.
The evils that James condemned centuries ago are still taking place in the church today. They may or may not look like the examples James has given, but they are very similar in kind to what is condemned in our text. Allow me to suggest some areas of church and Christian life to which we need to give careful consideration.
In both of James’ examples, the clear desire of the one showing partiality was for the poor to go away, to keep out of our sight and stay out of our way. The intent is to avoid getting our hands dirty and having to give of our resources to meet the needs of the poor. In this case, the rich wish to remain where they are, so to speak, and want the poor to go away.
It doesn’t work quite the same in America. For one thing, the rich and the poor don’t live in the same areas. In our city, the poor live in the urban ghettos and the more affluent live in the suburbs. Time after time churches that were once located downtown have chosen to move to the suburbs, “where many of their members have moved.” It is usually not a conscious act of shunning the poor, but the effect is the same as telling the poor to go away, except that we leave them behind. We go, and they stay – in the ghettos. I think we should agonize much more than we do about moving away from the poor. As a rule, the poor cannot come to us, but we can go to them.
The church growth movement is based upon the principle of homogeneous grouping. The church seeks to appeal to a particular piece of the “church market,” and I have to tell you that it is the rare exception that any church seeks to attract and minister to the poor. The church should be a diverse group of people, racially, socially, and economically. A church full of look-alikes does not impress the world; it is impressed when a very divergent group can be seen living together in love and unity. We should not show partiality in terms of those we seek to minister to in our churches.
We also tend to show partiality in both our evangelism and our discipleship programs. We tend to avoid those who show no promise, no great potential, and to actively recruit those who are the “shakers and movers” in our society. And when some well-known athlete or personality makes a profession of faith, we can’t get to these people fast enough. Jesus did not pick the “cream of the crop” when He chose His disciples. Indeed, He did not pick the cream of the crop when He chose to save us. His great love, grace, and power is evident when He takes seemingly insignificant people and uses them significantly. Beware of showing favoritism in evangelism (“We need to reach these college students, because they are the leaders of the next generation.”) and discipleship.
We show much partiality in our development and fund-raising efforts. The temptation is to apply to those foundations with lots of money, or to individuals who are wealthy. In this way, we get more “bang for our buck,” or so we think. I am not saying that fund-raising should exclude the rich; I am saying that the vast majority of fund-raising efforts I know of exclude the poor. And yet Jesus said that the poor widow who gave her last two mites gave more than all the others, all the rich (Mark 12:41-44). Jesus Himself seems to have been supported by the contributions of average people with limited means (Luke 8:1-3). Of course, Jesus did borrow the grave of a rich man for a few days (Matthew 27:57-61).
Have you ever noticed that the boards of churches and Christian organizations are very disproportionate, in terms of race, employment (white or blue collar), and economics? We are inclined to think that it is the wealthy who will do the best job of leading ministries. Is this not showing partiality?
There is a fair bit of partiality shown in churches, based upon one’s job title, and upon one’s spiritual gifting. Certain spiritual gifts are prized more than others. Leadership and boards may very well be disproportionate in terms of the spiritual gifting represented by its leaders. (Those who are good talkers are more often leaders than those who are more quiet and reflective.) The “pastor” or pastoral staff may be looked upon with a kind of favoritism that is inappropriate. I say this based upon our Lord’s own words:
25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
6 “They [the experts in the law and the Pharisees] love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ 8 But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. 9 And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:6-12).
We often thoughtlessly practice partiality in church activities, socials, retreats, and ski trips. We plan an activity and invite everyone to come. But the cost will very likely prove prohibitive for some of our members. They quietly stay home, not because they didn’t want to go, but because they did not have the means to go. This shames the poor and violates the teaching of our Lord and of James. In our church, we have purposed to have no activities that exclude some on the basis of cost. This means that we must subsidize some of the trips and retreats, and this we gladly do.
The church is not to be like American Airlines, with first-and-second-class seating. It is to be like Legend Airlines, that gives first class seating to all its passengers. We are to treat one another equally and without partiality because we are all equal in Christ. We do not all have the same income, live in the same kind of houses, or drive the same kind of cars. But we were all equally lost in our sins and saved solely by the grace of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. We are all equally unable to do anything pleasing to God in the power of the flesh, and thus are all equally dependent upon God. Favoritism is wrong because it is contrary to the nature of our God and of the gospel by which we were saved.
An interesting thought came to mind as I was preparing this message. James is very strong on equality among believers, and he takes a firm stand against partiality, when it comes to the rich and the poor. But I fear that James was not as strong in his stand against partiality when race was the issue. I remind you of this text in Galatians:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he had clearly done wrong. 12 Until certain people came from James, he had been eating with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he stopped doing this and separated himself because he was afraid of those who were pro-circumcision. 13 And the rest of the Jews also joined with him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray with them by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not behaving consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “If you, although you are a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you try to force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14 emphasis mine).
The Jerusalem Jewish leaders, including the apostles, had a difficult time reconciling themselves to the fact that our Lord had come to save Gentiles as well as Jews. And when this happened, there was no first and second-class status. Both Jews and Gentiles were made one with Christ and one in Christ:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh—who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed in the body by hands—12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who turned both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, in his flesh, 15 when he nullified the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and non-citizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22).
Coming to terms with full equality between Jews and Gentiles was a difficult transition for the apostles and the Jewish church, as we can see in the Book of Acts. When Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preached the gospel to those gathered, his fellow-apostles and other leaders called him on the carpet (Acts 10-11). And even when it became apparent that God was saving Gentiles as well as Jews, the Jewish believers were not quick to act on this truth:
12 The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He informed us how he had seen an angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and summon Simon, who is called Peter, 14 who will speak a message to you by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them just as he did on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they ceased their objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted the repentance that leads to life even to the Gentiles.” 19 Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews (Acts 11:12-19, emphasis mine).
I take it that James, the author of our text, was one of those who was slow to adjust to the new equality of Gentile believers. It was Peter and the others who came to Antioch “from James” who influenced the Jewish saints there to stop eating with the Gentiles, and to eat separately. This was clearly racial discrimination, and Paul strongly rebuked Peter and Barnabas, along with others, for doing so. My point is not to diminish the force of James’ instruction in our text, but to remind ourselves how easily we may be blindsided by the sin of partiality. In principle, we may be strongly opposed to partiality, and we may see the evils of favoritism in some areas, while we are completely blind to its evils in other areas. I think this is true of many of us in relation to racial discrimination, and so James is not alone. Let us learn from James, both from his strengths, and from his weaknesses. His words are the inspired Word of God; his works, like ours, fall short of God’s standard.
As I studied this passage and some of the scholarly works as well, I was reminded of a warning Paul repeated in his teaching:
14 Remind people of these things and solemnly charge them before God not to wrangle over words. This is of no benefit; it just brings ruin on those who listen. 15 Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately (2 Timothy 2:14-15).
Some Christian scholars I read have spent a great deal of time arguing over the meaning of the word “save,” disputing with other saints who hold to a different view. None of these men hold to a heretical view, and yet they spend their time arguing with each other. And the worst of it is that in the process, we come away missing the point of the text, which is that we must not practice partiality. As we leave this text, let’s focus on the message, and not on disputes over words.
Finally, let me say to you that it is not enough to merely give mental assent to the truth of the gospel. There are many who would admit that they are sinners, and who would tell us that they believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins. But some people who give assent to the gospel give no evidence of any change in their conduct. Let me simply remind you that James tells us that any faith that does not bear some kind of fruit gives those of us who look on little basis for confidence about your profession. Don’t misunderstand me here! One is saved by faith alone, apart from works. But a living faith should bear some fruit. I do not wish to close this lesson without asking you, as kindly as I can, “Is your faith a living faith, or a dead faith?” Jesus Christ came to save sinners, by grace, through faith in His shed blood on the cross of Calvary. I pray that you have entrusted your eternal destiny to Him by accepting His free gift of salvation. And I pray that those who observe our lives will not have to wonder about the sincerity of our profession.
14 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
15 This suggests to me that while the man with dropsy was carefully placed outside, where Jesus would have to encounter the man on his way into the leader of the Pharisees’ house, this man was not an invited guest, even though he probably needed this meal more than any of the guests.
16 Translators have a difficult time figuring out what to do with the term “of glory” here. I wonder if James is not making a contrast between the “glory” of our Lord and the meager “glory” of men, particularly the rich, with shining clothes. Does anybody think they should be treated preferentially? Do we feel obliged to be impressed with the glory of men? Let us remember who really has glory, and how paltry any human glory is when compared to His glory.
17 Used elsewhere only in Revelation 22:11 of the morally filthy.
18 The original term is literally “synagogue,” and there are those who would debate over what this means. I think it is safe to think of this as “church,” which is something we can relate to.
19 The same term is employed in Luke 23:11 to refer to the “elegant” robe which they had mockingly placed upon our Lord at His trial. It was, however, a robe that signified royalty. The term is also used in Acts 10:30 to describe the attire of the angel who, clothed in shining garments, appeared to Cornelius. I wonder if one of the reasons that James chose this description (shining, or bright) was to contrast the rich man’s “glory” with that of our Lord, our “glorious Lord” (verse 1). How shoddy is any man’s glory when compared to that of our Lord.
20 For me, this sheds light on Peter’s instructions to women in 1 Peter 3:3 and Paul’s instructions to women in 1 Timothy 2:9. The attire which Peter and Paul forbid women to wear is that which sets them apart as wealthy. It drew attention to those so attired, and it gave them an improper prominence, in relation to their husbands, and in relation to God.
21 This is a minimum standard. In Philippians 2, Paul says that we are to set the interests of others before our own.
22 “Go” is an imperative. While this sounds like a blessing (as is intended by the speaker), it is really a polite way of saying, “Go away!”
23 By closing the quotes here, the NET Bible indicates the decision that the objector’s words end here. I am inclined to see the objector speaking through verse 19.
24 I am well aware of the great debate over the meaning of the word “save” here, but I am not going to be sidetracked by it. I will explain my reasons later in this message.
25 Some will agonize over the fact that Rahab’s act of faith was to tell a lie, as well as to let the spies down by a rope. I would say two things about her lie. First, lying and deception was accepted as a fact of life in time of war. Second, this woman was a pagan, who had just come to faith. She did not understand God’s ways. Whether or not her actions are approved by all, they were prompted by a genuine faith. Her actions proved that she had come to trust in God. That is James’ point.
Related Topics: Sanctification