1My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.
2For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes,
3and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, "You sit here in a good place," and you say to the poor man, "You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,"
4have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
5Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
6But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?
7Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
8If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF," you are doing well.
9But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
11For He who said, "DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY," also said, "DO NOT COMMIT MURDER." Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
12So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.
13For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
God calls us to not judge others based upon status, wealth, influence, power, prestige, appearance, or any other manmade dividing factor or means of classification. God doesn’t make distinctions based upon the color of a person’s skin or whether or not they can afford name brand clothing or a top of the line car. He doesn’t bless the rich and ignore the poor. He doesn’t treat Asians more kindly than he does Africans or Americans. God is the same to all. The exhortation from James is that we, like God, do not demonstrate partiality by showing personal favoritism. Making distinctions shows that we have evil motives. It may be that we want to have more rich people in our church to boost the budget. It may be that we are protecting our appearance among an elitist group so that we avoid being seen with those of lower classes or vice versa. It is ironic how there is a natural bias toward being kinder to the wealthy, powerful, and those with status. The reality is that it is often times the rich of this world who take advantage of the weak and oppress them. It is the poor who are more likely to inherit the kingdom (1 Corinthians 1:26). There must be a selfish motive that is thinking of self and ignoring the purposes of God. Showing partiality is a transgression of the law of God. A person could keep the whole of the law of God, but if he misses one point (say by being judgmental and showing favoritism), he is guilty of all. Thus all men are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. No man can be perfect. When we witness, we merely need to show people that they are sinners because they are not perfect. If they protest, we can show them how specifically they have broken the law to help aid them in understanding their imperfection. There is no righteousness in not murdering but committing adultery or in not committing adultery but murdering. If a person is guilty in one point, he is guilty of all. Once a person realizes that he is a lawbreaker himself, he is more likely to show mercy to others. A person who has received mercy from Christ is then to give demonstrate that mercy to others. If he does not, he can expect to be judged with the same measure with which he judges others. Mercy is the means of overcoming the wages of sin, and it is better than judgment because it can lead a person to repentance (Romans 2:4). We must all remember that we are free men under the law of liberty in Christ, not under the Law that brings condemnation and judgment. As such, we are to treat others as if they are also under the perfect law of liberty because they are. Rather than making distinctions, finger-pointing, and trying to find any little flaw in another person, we ought to show mercy to all and be indiscriminate in how we treat our neighbors as ourselves. That is evidence that we have fulfilled the righteous requirement of the Law because of our faith in Christ. We are to live by the royal law which was instituted by Christ that we love one another even as He loved us (John 13:34-35). The summation of the intention of the Law is to teach us to love one another as ourselves and to love God with all of our being. Being reborn as believers through Christ allows us to do this. So partiality is in no way in line with love, and in no way is it conducive of Christian behavior.
14What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
15If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food,
16and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
17Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
That faith has works has been a theme so far in James’ epistle in that he consistently emphasized doing over hearing and issues of Christian behavior. James is not trying to say that we work to get saving faith. He is not even trying to say that faith is a work of man. The work of man is that we believe (John 6:29), though we believe because the Holy Spirit has drawn us. Salvation is a work of God and a gift of God, though man is responsible for receiving Christ. The only work of man is to respond to God’s call in faith. God does not overrule or negate human responsibility in the matter of choosing or rejecting the Spirit of God. James’ issue is not with the dynamics regarding the moment of salvation, however. His issue is with what happens after a person is saved. This has been the consistent emphasis of his epistle. Writing to professing believers who are Jews, James is emphasizing that they do they Word and not just hear it. Here he is saying in a similar way that true saving faith has works which bear evidence of that faith. His question is, “If someone doesn’t have works after professing Christ, are they really saved?” This is an interesting question. He gives an example of a person who is in need and asks a professing Christian for help. The Christian merely tells the man that he wishes him well (a technique that the world is excellent at employing) and hopes he gets what he needs, but he doesn’t do anything for him. James is saying that this is not right. If a person professes faith in Christ but never acts in line with the royal law of Christ, how can they truly have the righteousness of Christ? Now Christians do fail to do what they should at times. That doesn’t mean that they need to question their salvation immediately. However, the Holy Spirit should draw attention to the hardness of heart and convict them. If a person shows no repentance or no sensitivity to the things of God as a rule, then they had better test themselves to see if they are of the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5).
18But someone may well say, "You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works."
19You believe that God is one You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
20But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
Someone might say that they have faith because they have works to show evidence of their faith. Another person might say that they have faith apart from works. The challenge is, “Let’s see what kind of faith that really is. Let’s put it under the microscope and see how valuable a mere assertion of faith apart from works is.” Well, says James, even the demons believe in God and tremble in fear. They know that there is one God and only One to fear. So sarcastically, James complements the person who boasts in faith apart from works, saying that they do well for their belief. Yet what he is really saying is that they are doing no better than the demons. The demons believe in God and tremble. The person who professes faith but doesn’t live like one freed from sin (and likely is proud of the fact that grace covers sin), is worse off than the demons because they undervalue the serious nature of sin. Such a person is foolish, not being willing to recognize that saving faith leads to a change of values, desires, and affections. As 2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died.” The believer is controlled by love. If this is the case, then his behavior will have to have at least some indication of a change of heart.
21Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
Romans 4 makes it clear that Abraham was justified by faith in simply believing the Word of God. James’ point is that Abraham’s faith proved genuine in that its outworking was obedience in doing what God said.
22You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
23and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS," and he was called the friend of God.
The works of Abraham were a result of the faith that was alive and well in him. He had been declared righteous by God prior to offering up Isaac in obedience to God’s command. Faith is something that is ongoing in a believer’s life. Faith is perfected in obedience to God’s commands. James is trying to show us that there is an interweaving of the value of faith and works. Many people object to a gospel which says that Jesus died for sins so now we can do whatever we want. What they don’t understand is that true saving faith produces with it an ability and desire to obey the commands of God. This is why we are told to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord. Works are not necessary to grant saving faith. Works are merely the natural outgrowth of faith.
24You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Martin Luther disdained this book and particularly this verse because it seemed to indicate that man is saved not by grace alone through faith alone and in Christ alone but by works. But in context it is not saying that. All it is saying is that works of obedience are evidence of justification. In other words, if no works of obedience are present, there is reason to doubt a person’s justification in the first place. This is not just a mere haphazard of a guess that there is no justification, but there is Scriptural reason to encourage somebody to really examine themselves to see if they are of the faith. This does not mean that we as humans have the ability to decide whether a person is saved or not. We have evidence to question and doubt, but not to decide conclusively and thereby judge and condemn. Only God knows the true state of a person’s heart. We are justified by faith alone through the work of Christ. Salvation is a gift of God implying grace apart from works. However, salvation is unto good works. It is not through good works but for good works. There is a great difference. As Ephesians 2:8-10 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” The clear Biblical teaching is that we are not saved by works. There ought to be no confusion about that. Man’s effort does not get him saved. What we do see from this Ephesians passage is that saving faith is for the purpose of walking in the good works for which God has called us and of which God has prepared for us. Why are we created as new creations in Christ? We are created for good works which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. The issue is not whether or not faith is based upon works. The truth that James is so emphatic about is that works follow saving faith. James denounces cheap grace which uses Jesus to escape hell but has no fear of God and manifests no evidence of a change of heart. True faith is manifested by good works.
25In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?
26For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.
Rahab was justified by faith in God. She feared God and chose to serve Him rather than the gods of Jericho. Her faith was manifested in her obedience to conceal the spies and do good works for the people of God. Thus, in the same way as Abraham, her works were through faith and because of faith. She was not saved by her works but her works demonstrated evidence of her salvation and faith in God. Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead. In other words, a person who claims to have faith but doesn’t have works is like a corpse. We would do well to picture what a loved one looks like while preserved in a casket before burial. This is a person who professes Christ and has no works. He looks like he might be alive but just sleeping. Yet there is no one there. He is just matter that will decay. The real person is gone. In the same way, a person who doesn’t live out the commands of Christ is really not there on the inside. This is a message for our generation of Christianity. Where are the works? May we test ourselves to see if we are indeed of the faith. Did we repent? Have we been reborn? Is Jesus our Lord? Have we put our lives totally under His control and Lordship? If not, we have reason to doubt our salvation.