Prejudice and the Law of Love

2:1 My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.

The apostle rebukes those who show partiality towards to rich, and encourages his readers to show love towards all, regardless of rank or status.

‘There is so much happening here! For one thing, here is an Apostle facing a very elementary problem, the problem of snobbery in the church of God. When certain people walk in, everyone makes a great fuss and tell others to get up and give their seats to these important people. ‘Now,’ James said, ‘You can’t do that. You are really saying that if Jesus had been in your church (dressed in the garb of a poor man) you would have told him to get up and give his seat to Lord So-and-So. Do you have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ? You can’t have faith in this poor Galilean carpenter and be a snob. It’s as simple as that.’

But in the course of making this very elementary point James does two other remarkable things. First, he calls Jesus ‘Lord. Bear in mind that James was the Lord’s brother. He was also, by all accounts, a very strict Jew, known among his own people as James the Just because of his respect for the Law and for the beliefs and customs of his fathers. Yet here he is, calling his brother ‘Jehovah’: ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. There is nothing anywhere in the New Testament more glorious than that: that James, of all people, who had shared the same home, the same table and probably the same bed as Jesus, who had seen him from the inside, who had lived with him, who was so committedIy monotheistic and Jewish, should call his own brother ‘Jehovah’!

The second and even more remarkable thing is James’ use of the word ‘glory’. Its use here embarrasses all translations and all commentators because what James says is, literally: ‘Don’t hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory, with partiality.’ The Authorised Version gives us a parenthesis ‘the Lord of glory’. but the word Lord is no part of the original text. The New International Version, too, has faltered and simply says, ‘our glorious Lord Jesus Christ’. By turning the noun into an adjective it has evacuated the word of all its force, because James is doing a remarkable thing here. He is calling Jesus the Glory, the Doxa, the Shekinah. Again, that was a great Old Testament concept. It was part of the church’s Messianic hope. God had said, ‘I will be the glory in the midst’. (Zec 2:5) The church had been told to pray ‘that his glory may dwell in our land’. (Ps 85:9, NIV) What does John say in Jn 1:14? ‘We beheld his glory as he dwelt among us!’ He speaks of the glory dwelling, reminding us of the glory that dwelt between the cherubim (see, for example. 1 Sam 4:4 2 Kings 19:15 Ps 80:1). We remember that when Solomon dedicated the temple, the glory of the Lord filled it, and this glory came to be called the Shekinah, from the Hebrew verb for to dwell. The Shekinah was the Glory. The Shekinah was God manifested; and James is calling Jesus the Glory. He is not simply glorious. Nor does he merely possess glory. He is the Glory of God. As a testimony to the deity of Christ this is full-.y equal to the opening statement of John’s Gospel.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)

Don’t show favouritism

Favouritism means judging according to outward appearances and worldly standards. See Jn 7:24.

God himself does not show favouritism, 1 Sam 16:7; Gal 2:6; 3:28.

Question: does this mean that we must treat everybody exactly the same?

2:2 For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, 2:3 do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? 2:4 If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?

It is absurd to flatter the rich and despise the poor

v2ff They say that ‘money talks’, but it carries no weight in eternal things.

It is, in fact, the rich who so often are the oppressors of the poor, Lk 16:14; Acts 19:23ff.

God, on the other hand, chooses and enriches the poor, Lk 1:52-53; 1 Cor 1:26.

2:5 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? 2:6 But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? 2:7 Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?

‘We would do well to measure all men by God’s standard-to measure them not by the amount of their income, but by the condition of their souls. When the Lord God looks down from heaven and sees the children of men, he takes no account of many things, which are esteemed by the world. He does not look at men’s money, or lands, or titles. He looks only at the state of their souls, and judges them accordingly. Oh, that you would strive to do likewise! Oh, that you would value grace above titles, or intellect, or gold! Often, far too often, the only question asked about a man is, “How much is he worth?” It would be good for us all to remember that every man is tragically poor until he is rich in faith, and rich toward God.’ (J.C. Ryle)

2:8 But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 2:9 But if you show prejudice, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as violators.

Favouritism transgresses the law of God, v9. See Lev 19:18. ‘God bids us love our neighbours, not certain selected persons. Now the word “neighbour” is understood across the human race. Anyone who sets himself to serve a few of his choosing, and leave the rest, is not obeying God’s law, but obeying the base interest of his own spirit.’ (Calvin)

2:10 For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 2:11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a violator of the law.

‘Assume that a ship is anchored at port with an anchor that has 613 links in its chain. If only one link breaks, the ship will set adrift, so that the 612 links that do hold count for nothing if just one is broken. The Mosaic Law is just the same. If you fail in just one of its 613 commands, you might as well have blown it all.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 432, altd)

Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it – ‘Not as though the violation of one precept were actually the violation of another; for many may steal, and yet not actually murder; many again may murder, and yet not actually commit adultery: but this place of the apostle must be understood of violating that autority which passeth through them all, and by which all the commandments have their sanction. For since the authority of the great God is one and the same in all these laws, he shall so far disrespect this authority as willfully to break one of them, evidently declares that he owns it not in any.’ (Ezekiel Hopkins)

To break part of the law, is to break the whole, ‘for it is to violate the principle of obedience, just as it matters not at what particular point a man breaks his way out of an enclosure, if he is forbidden to go out of it at all.’ (Farrar)

‘The pride which once he had in his wealth has been shattered and he has been led to rate riches at their true value. Above all, he has come to see the perishableness of all worldly glory, which is certain to wither away like the loveliest of flowers.’ (Ross)

2:12 Speak and act as those who will be judged by a law that gives freedom. 2:13 For judgment is merciless for the one who has shown no mercy. But mercy triumphs over judgment.

Always act out of mercy, not severity

Our dealings with others should reflect the way the Lord deals with us – on the basis of mercy, not justice.

Partiality transgresses God’s law of love, Lev 19:18.

‘God bids us love our neighbours, not certain selected persons.  Now the word “neighbour” is understood across the human race.  Anyone who sets himself to serve a few of his choosing, and leave the rest, is not obeying God’s law, but obeying the base interest of his own spirit.’ (Calvin)

If you are severe on your neighbour, God will be severe on you. See Mt 5:7; 18:35.

Faith and Works Together

2:14 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?

A living faith
IsResults in
Tested (James 1:2, 3)Patience (James 1:3)
Without doubt (James 1:6–8)Answered prayer (James 1:5)
Enduring temptation (James 1:12)Eternal life (James 1:12)
More than belief (James 2:19, 20)Faith perfected by works (James 1:22)
Believing God (James 2:23–25)Righteousness before God (James 2:23)
Reformation Study Bible (adapted)

As Moo says, this section develops a single theological argument.  Two key points emerge:-

  1. There is such a thing as a spurious faith, 14-16
  2. True faith will always be accompanied by good deeds, 17-26

According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, ‘the diatribal style is again heavily used in this section, as James employs a fictional dialogue with an imagined interlocutor (Jas 2:18-23). The dialogue is propelled by rhetorical questions (Jas 2:14, 19, 20, 21), an apostrophe (Jas 2:20), and even a pun: faith without works (Gk. erga) is empty (Gk. argē).’

Moo suggests that James probably has in mind some false teachers who were aware of Paul’s teaching on ‘justification by faith alone’, but were seriously misrepresenting it.

We should note the connection (slightly obscured in Eng. translation), between what James will now say about faith and what he has already mentioned in v1.  For in that verse, he refers to his readers as ‘believers’ (ten pistin, from pistis, faith).

Indeed, what James is now about to write is all of a piece with what he has already written.  ‘Faith without deeds’ is equivalent to ‘listening (to the word) without doing (it)’, James 1:22.  ‘Faith with deeds’ is equivalent to ‘religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless’, James 1:27.

What good is it…? – The question is rhetorical, of course.  To claim to have faith but have no deeds is no good at all, and cannot save.

It is professed, not real, v14; it is dead and barren, vv17,20; it never goes beyond mere credal assent, v19.

Deeds – Put briefly, the difference between Paul and James at this point is that ‘Paul denies that works can have any value in bringing us into relationship with God; James is insisting that, once that relationship is established, works are essential’ (Moo).  Put crudely, Paul puts his stress on the horse that must be pulling the cart, whereas James emphasis the cart that the horse must be pulling.

Faith without deeds is a mockery, v15, and a stumblingbock to the unbeliever, 1 Jn 3:14-26.

Can such faith save him? – James is probably thinking of ‘the final deliverance from sin, death and judgment in the last day’ (Moo; cf. v13, and also James 1:21; 4:12; 5:20).

As Davids points out, ‘the Old Testament also condemns piety without action, as do John the Baptist (Luke 3:7–14), Jesus (Matt. 7:15–27), and Paul (Rom. 1:5; 2:6–8; 6:17–18; Gal. 6:4–6). James follows the rest of scripture: faith without actions (discipleship) will never save.’

2:15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?

‘If you coolly dismiss with pious good wishes a shivering and starving fellow-Christian…and take no practical steps to help such, what is the use of any faith that you may have’ (Ross).  See 1 Jn 3:17f.

A brother or sister – There is no reason to suppose that James would exclude helping the non-believer who was in need, or the fellow-believer who lived a distance away.  But he makes his point by thinking of a situation regarding a fellow-believer who is close at hand, a member of the local Christian community.

Without clothes and daily food – Lacking the sorts of infrastructures that many of us today take for granted, many people in James’ day live on the edge of poverty.  Moreover, ‘in the 40s and 50s famine and starvation conditions hit Judea repeatedly’ (Davids)

Without clothes – has the force of ‘ill-clad’ (Ross), implying lack of protection against the cold.

“I wish you well” – ‘a standard farewell in the Jewish church’ (Davids).  Or, as we might say, “Good luck to you” (Moo).

Keep warm and well fed – The implication of the NIV here is misleading.  James is not imagining a situation in which a person is already warm and well fed and the well-wisher is hoping that he stays so.  Rather, the assumption is that the person is actually in need of warmth and food and that the (so-called) Christian is wishing either that he will help himself or that someone else will help him.

This expression may be understood either as a wish (“Keep yourself warm and well fed”) or as a prayer (“May you be kept warm and well fed”).  Either way, as Davids points out, this sentiment demonstrates that the Christian is aware of his brother or sister’s needs.

What good is it? – It is useless both to the person offering (cf. v14a), and to the person receiving, the good wishes.

James’ teaching is consistent with that of the rest of Scripture.  See Isa 58:7-9; Mt 25:31-46; 1 Jn 3:17f.

‘The warning is one that the church needs constantly to hear. Too often we have been content to offer mere words, when God may have been calling us to action. Words—sermons, prayers, confessions of faith, wise advice, encouragement—are indispensable to true Christianity. But they are shown to have real meaning, James reminds us, when people can see actions that correspond to those words.’ (Moo)

2:15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 2:16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?

Faith by itself – This expression unlocks James’ meaning.  Those in need are not helped by our kind words or benevolent attitudes, but by our practical actions.

Dead – utterly unprofitable.  Deeds are not optional extras; they are integral to real faith.  Just as the body without breath is lifeless, so is faith without deeds.  In fact, such ‘faith’ is not really faith at all: it is an empty shell, a lifeless body.

‘It is absolutely vital to understand that the main point of this argument, expressed three times (in vv. 17, 20 and 26), is not that works must be added to faith but that genuine faith includes works. That is its very nature.’ (Moo)

2:18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works.

Faith is shown by deeds like the features of the face in a mirror.’

(Symeon the New Theologian, in ACCS)

The claim of the objector is that ‘faith’ and ‘deeds’ are two different gifts (Davids).  This might be an inference drawn from the teaching of Paul in 1 Cor 12:4-10.  But the logic fails, as Paul himself shows in 1 Cor 13:2.  ‘Faith’ and ‘deeds’ are not alternative options; they are inseparable.  ‘It is utterly impossible for one man to set up, so to speak, as a specialist in faith and another to set up as a specialist in works’ (Ross).

Note that James does not say: ‘Show my your faith without deeds, and I will show you my deeds without faith’.  He does not denigrate faith at all: he does insist, however, on a certain kind of faith – a real, living, active, faith.

Show me your faith without deeds – As Davids says, this is a demand which is impossible to meet: ‘Like a horse that cannot be seen, smelled, touched, or ridden, that eats invisible grass and leaves no mark on the ground, such faith is indemonstrable and suspect. Faith is seen in lifestyle.’

I will show you my faith by what I do – So James is not asking his readers to separate faith and deeds; he is urging them to exercise true faith – a faith that expresses itself in action.

2:19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.

This verse makes it clear that the kind of ‘faith’ that James is opposing is based on mere credal assent.

You believe that there is one God – All good Jews subscribed to the creed set forth in Deut 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”

‘The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.’ (A.W. Tozer)

‘An atheist is got one point beyond the devil.’ (Thomas Fuller)

Even the demons believe that – As Davids remarks, ‘demons frequently give fuller confessions of Christ than the apostles (Mark 1:24; 5:7; Acts 16:17; 19:15).’

‘This verse indicates quite plainly that the faith that James speaks about in these verses is very far from the full Christian faith that both he and Paul proclaimed. As important as correct doctrine is, no-one in the early church considered it sufficient for salvation. Genuine faith must go beyond the intellect to the will; it must affect our attitudes and actions as well as our “beliefs”.’ (Moo)

Note ‘the worthlessness of an idle orthodoxy’ (Farrar).  Saving faith, then, is not mere intellectual acceptance of a theological proposition. It goes much deeper, involving one’s whole inner being and expressing itself outwardly in a changed life.

Heiser (The Bible Unfiltered, p214f) invites us to take a closer a look at this verse.  He notes that James doesn’t say that ‘even the demons believe in God’ (implication: merely believing that there is a God will not get you to heaven).  James says, in effect, that ‘even the demons believe that God is one’ (an echo of Deut 6:4 – the Shema).  It is this specific believe about God that makes the demons shudder.

Heiser takes us back to the beginnings of the nation of Israel: ‘After the judgment at the Tower of Babel, God called Abraham (Gen 12:1–3). The two events happened back to back. When God called Abraham and established his “portion”—the nation of Israel—he set aside all other nations. Those disinherited nations were allotted to other divine beings, the sons of God, who are elsewhere called the “host of heaven” (Deut 4:19; 17:3), gods (Hebrew elohim), and demons (Hebrew shedim) in Deuteronomy (4:19–20; 17:3; 29:24–26; 32:17). We aren’t told just when or how, but these sons of God set over the other nations became corrupt and abused their authority (Ps 82) by seducing the Israelites to worship them instead of the true God (Deut 29:24–26; 32:17).’  These demon-gods, then, have been forever banished from the presence of the one true and living God, and they tremble at the thought.

2:20 But would you like evidence, you empty fellow, that faith without works is useless? 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? 2:22 You see that his faith was working together with his works and his faith was perfected by works. 2:23 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.

You foolish man – his foolishness is moral, rather than intellectual.

Such strong language was a normal part of rhetoric in those days, and was used by Paul (1 Cor. 15:36; Gal. 3:1) and our Lord himself (Matt. 23:17; Luke 24:25).

‘According to James, someone who thinks that it is possible to believe without acting accordingly is out of his mind.’ (Oecumenius, ACCS)

Useless – ‘barren’, ‘idle’.  Faith without works doesn’t work!

Do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? – Do you demand yet more proof?  Do you still not get it?

‘Although the apostle Paul preached that we are justified by faith without works, those who understand by this that it does not matter whether they live evil lives or do wicked and terrible things, as long as they believe in Christ, because salvation is through faith, have made a great mistake. James here expounds how Paul’s words ought to be understood. This is why he uses the example of Abraham, whom Paul also used as an example of faith, to show that the patriarch also performed good works in the light of his faith. It is therefore wrong to interpret Paul in such a way as to suggest that it did not matter whether Abraham put his faith into practice or not. What Paul meant was that no one obtains the gift of justification on the basis of merit derived from works performed beforehand, because the gift of justification comes only from faith.’ (Bede, ACCS)

James and Paul

Because of James’ assertion here that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only, some (including Martin Luther) have felt that James contradicts the great Pauline teaching of justification by faith. For does not Paul teach that we are saved by faith alone, apart from deeds (cf. Rom 3:28; Eph 2:8)?

A careful reading of James and Paul reveals that the contradiction is only apparent. Paul, no less than James, realized that a genuine, living faith will issue in works of love and obedience. (Gal 5:6)

It is important to recognise the diversity that is to be found within Scripture.  We can gladly accept that Paul is not James, and that James is not Paul.  James would never have written Rom 4, for example, and Paul would never have penned James chapter 2.  So the question is not whether their teaching is identical, but whether is is compatible.  And a little thought will show that it is perfectly compatible.

The difference between Paul and James lies in the fact that Paul attacks the problem of legalism, while James opposes libertines who felt that the quality of a Christians conduct is irrelevant. For Paul, the question is how a genuine faith lays hold of the finished work of Jesus Christ the contrast is between faith and works. For James, the question is how one demonstrates that ones faith is genuine – the contrast between a living and a dead faith.

‘It is sometimes thought that Jas 2:21-25 contradicts Paul by teaching that God accepts men on the double ground of faith and works. A study of these verses in their context, however, shows that this is not James’ meaning. It must be remembered that Paul is the only New Testament writer to use “justify” regularly for God’s act of accepting man. When James speaks of “being justified,” he is using the word in the more general sense of being vindicated, or proved right, in regard to claims made on one’s behalf. (There is a rather similar use of it in Mt 11:19) To be justified in this sense means, not to be accepted by God as righteous, but to be shown to be a genuine believer; a man is justified in James’ sense when his life gives evidence that he has the kind of living, working faith which secures acceptance with God. James himself quotes Gen 15:6 for the same purpose as Paul does – to show that it was faith which secured Abraham’s acceptance as righteous. (Jas 2:23) But now, he says, this Scripture statement was “fulfilled” (confirmed and proved true by later events) some thirty years after, when Abraham was “justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac.” (Jas 2:21) Abraham’s act on that occasion proved the reality of his faith, and so of his acceptance with God. James’ point throughout the whole section (Jas 2:14-26) is that a bare profession of faith, unaccompanied by the good works which true faith would produce, provides no sufficient grouns for inferring that a man is saved – a point with which Paul would heartily agree.’ (Packer, God’s Words, 145f)

‘At a first reading Jas 2:14-26 reads like a direct attack on Paulinism. “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas 2:24) seems a flat contradiction of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. But what James is attacking is a so-called faith which has no ethical results and one thing is quite clear-anyone who charges Paul with preaching such a faith cannot possibly have read his letters. They are full of ethical demands, as, for instance, a chapter like Rom 12 illustrates.’ (DSB)

And Harper’s Bible Commentary similarly comments: ‘Some readers find James to be at odds with the Paul of Galatians. But Paul would surely agree that what matters is “faith being worked out by love” (Gal. 5:6). Their focuses, to be sure, are quite different. James is not debating the theological grounds for salvation. He advocates a “true religion,” which he understands as effective action for others in the world.’

The explanation given in ISBE (1st ed.) is as follows: This passage in James is one of a few ‘where pistis, “faith,” appears in the sense of “creed,” the truth, or body of truth, which is trusted, or which justifies trust. The most important of such places is the paragraph Jas 2:14-26, where an apparent contradiction to some great Pauline dicta perplexes many readers. The riddle is solved by observing that the writer uses “faith” in the sense of creed, orthodox “belief.” This is clear from Jas 2:19, where the “faith.” in question is illustrated: “Thou believest that God is one.” This is the credal confession of the orthodox Jew (the shema’; see Deut 6:4), taken as a passport to salvation. Briefly, James presses the futility of creed without life, Paul the necessity of reliance in order to receive “life and peace.”‘

To summarise: the teaching of James and Paul is in perfect harmony:-

(a) They each have a different purpose, and therefore a different emphasis. As Ross says, Paul (eg in Galatians) is opposing legalism; James is opposing antinomianism. They are not duelling against each other, but standing back to back, facing different foes.

(b) Their use of the word ‘faith’ is different. James, as we have seen, is speaking of a spurious faith which is no more than mere assent; Paul uses the term in its full sense of obedient trust.

(c) In Paul’s teaching, true faith always issues in good works, Eph 2:10; Gal 5:6.

Which emphasis do we stand in greatest need of today – James’ or Paul’s?

Two examples are given – Abraham, Gen 22, and Rahab, Josh 2. What were the ‘good deeds’ that demonstrated the faith of these two?

These two illustrations – Abraham and Rahab – are wonderfully apt.  The contrast could not be greater: the one male, a (proto)Jew, and of high social standing; the other female, a Gentile, and of low social standing (a prostitute, no less).  Not only that, but they are both celebrated precisely for their faith (see Gen 15:6; Rom 4:1-4; Heb 11)!  Moreover, in Jewish tradition, they were both celebrated for their hospitality (clearly a leading concern of James in this section).

It is clear from these two examples that, for James, ‘action’ is more than (although certainly not less than, see v16) providing practical help for those with physical needs.  See also what he has already urged in Jas 1:26, where the example given of ‘true religion’ is sanctified speech.

We probably ought to allow this verse to punch at its full weight by translating it: ‘Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by his works…?’  We can then allow James himself to clarify, in the very next verse, that he fully acknowledges that Abraham was a man of faith.  He probably has Gen15:6 in his mind all along (and actually quotes it in v23).

Our ancestor Abraham – Exhibit number one.  There is a hint here that James was writing for a Jewish readership (cf. Jas 1:1).  The expression can, however, be validly extended to apply to all believers, given Paul’s teaching about the church as the new Israel (Rom. 4:2f; Gal. 2:7, 29), and Abraham as the father of all the faithful.

Considered righteous – Or ‘justified’.  According to Davids, James is using dikaioō to mean that Abraham was ‘declared righteous’ (cf. Gen 22:12).  This is in contrast to Paul, who uses the same language in a different way (‘to make righteous’).  Moo, similarly, says that whereas Paul uses dikaioō to refer to God’s initial declaration of the justification of a sinner, James is thinking of the final declaration of a person’s righteousness.  This would be consistent with our Lord’s teaching in, say, Mt 12:37.

‘Note that James appeals to Gen. 22, while Paul appeals to Gen. 15. In the sight of God Abraham is justified in Gen. 15, long before he offers Isaac on the altar. God knew Abraham’s faith to be genuine. Abraham is justified to us, to human eyes, in Gen. 22 when he shows his faith through his obedience. Jesus used the same verb in Luke 7:35 when he declared “wisdom is justified by all her children” (i.e., shown to be genuine wisdom by its results). Here, to “justify” does not mean to be reconciled to God but to demonstrate the truth of a prior claim. Just as true wisdom is demonstrated by its fruit, Abraham’s claim to faith is justified by his outward obedience. Yet his works were not the meritorious cause of his salvation; they added no merit to the perfect and sufficient merit of Christ.’ (Reformation Study Bible)

When he offered his son could well be translated ‘having offered his son’, and so, according to Moo, not undermining the suggestion that James is thinking about final judgment (see note above).  The problem with this is that James has just said that Abraham ‘was considered righteous’ (past tense).

‘The phrase “what he did” in the NIV should be ‘from his works or deeds’. Notice that it is ‘works’ (plural) and not ‘work’. James is not thinking of the one deed of Abraham. In Jewish eyes the offering of Isaac was the end of a long string of obedience beginning in Gn. 12:1. Their question was, Why did God command the offering of Isaac and then not make Abraham actually do it? Their answer was that since Abraham had been obedient so many times before, including, according to their stories, being great in his care for the poor, God righteously rewarded his works in Gn. 22 by sparing Isaac. The release of Isaac comes, not after a single deed, but after a lifetime of obedience.’ (NBC)

You see – this is in the singular; James is still addressing the objector of v18.

His faith and his actions were working together – ‘James now makes it clear that he is not talking about works as the sole source of Abraham’s justification, as v.21 taken out of its context might lead one to believe…Abraham’s faith was validated by his deeds’ (EBC).  As Moo says: ‘If verse 21 has given the impression that James is interested only in Abraham’s works, this verse shows that James has presumed Abraham’s faith all along.’

In the case of Abraham, ‘where did the faith come from?’ (asks Davids).  ‘The answer lies in the Jewish traditions about Abraham. These asserted that Abraham, who lived in an idolatrous culture, had contemplated nature, and this had led him to the one God. He had rejected idolatry, burned the local house of gods, and committed himself to the one God (the story is narrated in the apocryphal book of Jubilees 11–12). Thus Abraham was the originator of the creed “there is one God” (James 2:19).’

His faith was made complete by what he did – that is to say, it was brought to maturity, to its full expression.  ‘Abraham’s faith was a ‘working’ faith, an active faith, a faith that was not so much the source as the constant partner of his works’ (Moo).

‘How can you tell if a person is justified by faith if this transaction takes place between the sinner and God privately? Abraham’s example answers that important question: the justified person has a changed life and obeys God’s will. His faith is demonstrated by his works.’ (Wiersbe)

The scripture – Gen 15:6.  It is notable that James cites the classic text that celebrates Abraham’s faith.  His point, then, is that Abraham’s faith, which was all-important, was the very kind of faith of which James is speaking – a faith which shows itself alive by its deeds.  So, once again, James is not saying that it is deeds rather than faith which saves (as a superficial reading of the next verse might suggest), but rather that we are justified by a fith that shows itself to be a living faith by its deeds.

Was fulfilled – not in the sense of having been a prophecy, but rather in the sense that this scripture ‘found its ultimate significance and meaning in Abraham’s life of obedience…James does not deny that Abraham was given a righteous standing with God on the basis of his faith, long before he offered Isaac in obedience to God. But he wants to emphasize that Abraham’s faith was a vital, active faith and that God’s verdict was reconfirmed on the basis of that activity.’ (Moo)

‘But does not the apostle James say that Abraham was justified by works? The answer is easy. Works declare us to be righteous before men, but they do not make us righteous before God. Works are evidences of our justification, not causes.’ (Watson)

He was called God’s friend – See Isa 41:8; 2 Chron 20:7.

‘The fact that God refers to Abraham as a friend also shows that he had more than an intellectual faith; he had an active faithfulness expressed in obedience.’  This is consistent with the teaching of Jesus, Jn 15:14.

2:24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

We might make this verse (and the problems it presents) even sharper by rendering: ‘You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.’  Although formally this is a direct contradiction of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, there is no material contradiction.  For one thing, James and Paul are using the words (especially the word ‘faith’) in rather different ways: James is using it in its more limited sense of ‘assent to a creed’ (cf. v19), whereas Paul uses it in a more comprehensive sense, and so can speak of ‘the obedience of faith’, Rom 1:5, and of ‘faith working through love’, Gal 5:6.  When Paul excludes ‘works’ in, say Rom 4:2-8, he is teaching that works play no part in God’s granting to us a status of ‘not guilty’.

A person is justified by what he does – Davids says that James is thinking of works of love and charity.  Paul, when using such an expression, would be thinking of ‘works of the law’ such as sabbath observance, dietary regulations, and circumcision.  Paul expected all believers to do works of love and charity (Eph. 2:10; Gal. 6:9–10), and would not regard those who failed to do so as truly ‘saved’ (Gal. 5:19–21; 1 Cor. 6:9–10; Rom. 1:28–32).

According to Davids, ‘justified’ is an unfortunate translation, for it suggests to the reader a Pauline meaning (i.e. the acquittal of sinners on the grounds of their trust in Christ).  James is using the term in its earlier and more standard meaning.

Not by faith alone – for James, this means, ‘not by mere verbal confession, or assenting to a creed’.  Such ‘faith’ is a dead faith, and would have been condemned by Paul just as readily as James condemns it.  As the Reformers put it: we are justified by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.

James’ point is that a person is not saved merely by being orthodox.  God will declare a person ‘in the right’ only that person’s right belief leads to obedient action.  As Davids says, ‘with such a point Paul would not disagree.’

‘That little word ‘only’ that James adds to ‘faith’ makes all the difference: it shows that James has no intention of excluding faith from the process of justification.’ (Moo)

Calvin: ‘[James] is not discussing in what manner we are justified but demanding of believers a righteousness fruitful in good works.  And as Paul contends that we are justified apart from the help of good works, so James does not allow those who lack good works to be reckoned righteous.’ (Institutes, III. xviii.12).

Summing up the practical application of Paul’s and James’ teaching on faith and works, Moo says: ‘Whenever people rely on their religious activities for salvation, Paul’s powerful plea for a radical commitment of the whole person to Christ must be vigorously proclaimed. But when ‘faith’ has been turned into nothing more than a verbal commitment to certain doctrines, James’ understanding of faith as an active, vigorous obedience must be forcefully reasserted.’

J.I. Packer explains: ‘When James says that faith without works is dead (i.e., a corpse), he is using the word faith in the limited sense of notitia plus assensus, which is how those he addresses were using it. When he says that one is justified by what one does, not by faith alone, he means by “justified” “proved genuine; vindicated from the suspicion of being a hypocrite and a fraud.” James is making the point that barren orthodoxy saves no one (James 2:14–26). Paul would have agreed, and James’s whole letter shows him agreeing with Paul that faith must change one’s life. Paul denounces the idea of salvation by dead works; James rejects salvation by dead faith.’ (Concise Theology)

2:25 And similarly, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another way?

‘Abraham was the respected patriarch. Rahab represents the opposite extreme, both because she was a prostitute and because she was a comparatively minor figure in Old Testament history. Yet even Rahab had to carry out her faith in the true God by actions of obedience. It would not have been enough for Rahab to have said to the spies, “I hope you don’t get caught;” that would have been comparable to the pious but useless wishes in 2:16. On the basis of her actions to help the spies, the identical verb is applied to her in 2:25 as to Abraham in 2:21, translated “justified” (NASB) or “considered righteous” (NIV). Thus Rahab’s example demonstrates the universality of the principle.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

‘This prostitute had heard about God’s deeds and believed in them in her heart. But that was not enough to save her. It may well be that many other people in Jericho believed the same things. Rahab, however, acted on what she believed by protecting the Hebrew spies. Because her faith translated into action, she was delivered. In Jewish eyes she was considered the mother of all who turned to Judaism from paganism, the first example of a convert.’ (NBC)

Harper’s Bible Commentary notes the ‘deeper resonances’ of the choices of Abraham and Rahab as examples: ‘In Jewish lore, they stand as models for hospitality. James began this discussion with a call to just such “acts of mercy” (Jas 2:13) as feeding, clothing, and sheltering the needy (Jas 2:16). These fit his definition of religion as “visiting orphans and widows in their affliction” (Jas 1:27). Only this kind of faith keeps one “unstained from the world.”’

2:26 For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.