FAITH DISPLAYED James 2“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).Biblical faith is alive and active.
Favoritism does not fit with love of neighbors (2:1–13). By its very nature faith must express itself in works: a faith without works is dead and useless (vv. 14–26).
Understanding the Text
“Don’t show favoritism” James 2:1. The original says, “Stop showing favoritism!” James was dealing with a problem that already existed in believers’ fellowships. It’s fascinating that James spoke of “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” “Glory” in biblical times indicated a person’s “weight” or “importance.” In comparison with the overwhelming glory of Jesus, any differences in importance society assigns to one human being over another are insignificant indeed. Placing importance on people because of their wealth or social position, rather than to love each individual equally, is out of harmony with the nature of our faith. We have to be as careful of showing favoritism today as in the first century. We sin if we elect the “successful” to church office, without consideration of spiritual qualities. We sin if we ignore the poor man who comes into our church, and fawn over the well-to-do. The church of Christ is a family of brothers. We are to live together as a family, freed of the discrimination and pride of position that corrupts society. “A gold ring and fine clothes” James 2:2–4. Clothes make the man, the saying goes. It’s true that clothing does symbolize social status in nearly every society. But symbols of status shouldn’t determine the way you and I evaluate others. That’s what James was so upset about. The Christian community saw people with fine clothing as more important than the poor. In making this distinction, they became “judges with evil thoughts.” How are we to evaluate others? First of all as persons for whom Christ died, and thus important. No one is to be shunted aside or asked to “sit on the floor by my feet.” But other Christians are also vital members of the body of Christ, for each is gifted by the Spirit of God to minister to the rest. The poor may not add to our church budget. But the less able financially contribute just as much, and sometimes more, to our spiritual vitality. “Chosen those who are poor . . . to be rich in faith” James 2:5. We’ve seen it over and over again throughout church history. The poor, with no hope but in God, seem far more rich in faith than the wealthy. You don’t have to be poor to love God and look eagerly for Jesus to return. But there are times when it helps. There’s another thought here that is important. God has “chosen” the poor. He has looked at the neediest among the human family, and poured out His grace on them. What the poor lack now will be more than made up when we inherit the kingdom of God. “Is it not the rich who are exploiting you?” James 2:6–7 In biblical times one major reason for the desperate condition of the poor was their exploitation by the rich. Those with social power could easily take advantage of the powerless—and they did. How wrong it is for the church to find itself lining up against the powerless by showing favoritism to the wealthy. What God’s people should do is to remind the wealthy of their obligation to the poor, not side with the rich. “If you show favoritism, you sin” James 2:8–9. The Law that Jewish Christians rightly venerated commanded, “Love your neighbor.” In no place was “neighbor” defined either as your friends, or as the rich among you. Neighbors are simply people: any and every person you may come in contact with. To show favoritism violated the ancient Law, for it redefined “neighbor” and ruled out the poor. Actually Old Testament Law carefully guarded against showing partiality to either the rich or poor. James didn’t mention bias against the rich, simply because the people he wrote to would never discriminate against them! The sins we don’t commit do not require correction. It’s the sins we do commit that are the problem. “Is guilty of breaking all of it” James 2:10–11. I suppose that showing favoritism to the wealthy in our chruches seems like a “little” sin. After all, it’s hardly in a class with adultery or robbery or murder. But this wasn’t James’ view. To him, sin is sin. Breaking the Law is breaking the Law. Imagine a woman who has made a special cake for her women’s group, and warned the family, “Don’t touch.” Do you suppose, if she came home and found one tiny piece cut from the cake, that she wouldn’t be upset? Of course she would be! The cake would no longer be whole. We tend to divide up the Law into small pieces, and label one slice “adultery” and another slice “theft” and another slice “favoritism.” We tend to see “favoritism” as a much smaller slice than most of the others. But James, like the woman who baked the party cake, saw the Law as a whole. When just one tiny slice has been cut out, the party cake was ruined. And when even one commandment of God has been violated, Law has been broken. Never comfort yourself by saying, “Well, I’ve only committed a few little sins.” Any sin violates the Law, and condemns us as lawbreakers. How important then that we seek to be holy in all that we do. “Judged by the law that gives freedom” James 1:12–13. The “law that gives freedom” is the Christian law of love, which sums up in a single principle the rationale behind the rules and regulations of the Old Covenant. This law gives us freedom, because it helps us focus on the true meaning of all we do. We are not boxed in by rules, but released to live dynamic lives of love. How serious then that early Christians were already violating that law, and showing favoritism to the rich. Rather than display the mercy they received when Christ welcomed them as they were, they withheld mercy from the poor in order to play up to the rich! The judgment of Christians, here as elsewhere, carries no threat of hell. But the threat is real. In the day you and I stand before Christ to receive our rewards, if we have failed to display mercy, the record will be scoured clean, and we will have nothing to show for our years here on earth. “The demons believe that—and shudder” James 2:14–19. We all know that there is faith, and then there is faith. One kind of faith says “I believe,” and means, “I suppose it is true.” The other kind of faith says, “I believe,” and means, “I commit myself heart and soul to God.” The devils believe in the first sense. Christians believe in the second. It’s easy for folks to get confused about which faith is meant when someone says “I believe.” What James said was that there is a way to tell the difference. Faith that says, “I suppose” has no transforming power. This kind of faith produces no works. Faith that says, “I commit myself, heart and soul,” is transforming faith. This kind of faith will always produce good works in the life of the man or woman who believes. What kind of faith do you and I have in Christ? A look at our lives ought to tell. “A person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” James 2:20–26. The word “justified” is a legal term that can mean declared innocent, or proven innocent. We are justified by faith, in that on the basis of our faith God declares us innocent. But we are also justified by works, in that it is on the basis of our works that we are proven innocent. The proof of the pudding, the old saying goes, is in the eating. The proof of justification is in the good works that a true faith in Jesus Christ produces in our lives. That’s why James concluded, “Faith without deeds is dead.” If your faith in Christ has made no difference in your way of life, then you have a dead and not a living faith in our Lord.
That Kind of Faith(James 2:14–26)
Luther called James an “epistle of straw,” and was upset by what he viewed as its works/righteousness teaching. Really though, this critical segment of James does not teach works/righteousness, but asks a vitally important question. And that question is—what kind of faith do you have? Abraham had a very real faith. We know that Scripture says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (v. 23). In one sense of that legal term “justified,” Abraham was justified at that moment, declared innocent in the sight of God. But Abraham was not proven righteous until he subsequently obeyed God’s command and came to Mount Moriah, ready and willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. In that act he was justified in another vital legal sense: his innocence was displayed! What James tells us is that the kind of faith that makes us righteous before God will also make us righteous before men. A true faith in God will transform us within, and the new person we have become will act out a relationship with God. Even as Rahab showed that she had a true and saving faith in God by hiding the spies that had entered Jericho. Even as you have shown that you have a true and saving faith in God by many of the choices you have made since you became a Christian. What a joy it is to know that our faith is real. What a joy it is to have a faith that works.
Consider some of the ways your faith has expressed itself in your deeds.
“You can say you are a Christian, but that doesn’t make you one. The true Christian will give evidence of faith by a transformed life. The kind of faith that will take you to heaven is the kind of faith that will produce godliness in your life here and now.”—Charles H. Robinson