Favoritism Forbidden (2:1-13)
1 My brothers … don’t show favoritism. That is, do not take into account differences in men’s position and wealth. Do not look on a person’s outer appearance. In our minds, we are not to divide people into rich and poor, high caste and low caste, high rank and low rank. The light of the glory of Christ makes the glory of this world fade into nothing. Therefore, let us not look at a person’s worldly position or circumstances. Rather, we should look only at how much the light of Christ shines in his life. Instead of looking at man’s outward appearance, let us look rather at his inward spiritual qualities.
2-4 James here illustrates his teaching on favoritism by giving the example of a rich man and a poor man coming into a Christian meeting.
But it’s not only in public meetings that we must show no favoritism. We must also treat all those who come to our homes equally. At all times and in all places we must show the same love and respect to all—from the highest government official to the lowest laborer, from the highest caste to the lowest, from the richest to the poorest. If we do not do this, we make ourselves a judge between men (verse 9). God does not show favoritism; therefore, we must not show favoritism either (Romans 2:11; Ephesians 6:9).
5 In James’ time, most believers were poor, and many were slaves. Because of their poverty and affliction in this world, these believers looked on the Gospel of Christ as a word of great hope, a promise of liberation from their suffering.
It is the same in our time. The rich usually do not come to Christ (Mark 10:2325). In every generation God has chosen mainly the poor, the lower classes, the ordinary people to be the ones to inherit the kingdom—the KINGDOM OF GOD. In the world they are poor; but in heaven they will be rich. But in this life they will be “rich” also—that is, rich in faith. They will be rich in faith because they have put their trust in God and not in earthly riches.
6-7 Most rich people don’t like to hear the Gospel, because the Gospel tells them to spend their money for the poor (Mark 10:21-22). Most rich people love their possessions rather than God (Matthew 6:24). Men with authority don’t like to hear the Gospel either, because the Gospel says that all authority belongs to Christ (Matthew 28:18). For this reason, most rich and powerful men oppose Christ and His followers. They slander the noble name of Christ, and they exploit His followers and drag them into court.
And yet these believers, to whom James is writing, were disregarding the poor and showing great honor to the rich and powerful people who were persecuting them!
8-9 The second greatest commandment says: Love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31). This means that we must love all people equally—whether rich or poor. But if we show favoritism, we are breaking the law—that is, the second commandment. And in breaking the law, we become lawbreakers (verse 9).
James here calls the second commandment the royal law, because it is the commandment of the King of kings. On earth the law of a king is the highest law. The two great commandments of Christ are like that; no other law is higher than these (Mark 12:29-31).
10 In any country there are many laws. If a person breaks just one of these laws, he is considered a criminal. It is the same with God’s LAW. Included in the Old Testament law are many rules and regulations. Even if a person obeys every rule but one, it does him no good. If just one rule is broken, the person is considered a lawbreaker; he is guilty of breaking the whole law (see Gal-atians 3:10). Therefore, James tells us, we must not show favoritism; or else we too shall become lawbreakers, guilty of breaking the whole law.
11 Usingtwoofthetencommandmentsas examples (Exodus 20:13-14), James again shows that if one does not obey the law completely, he will be considered a lawbreaker. But here James’ main point is that it is impossible for anyone to obey the law completely; it is impossible for a person to obey perfectly every rule all the time. This is why in God’s sight no one can be justified by the law (see Galatians 2:15-16 and comment).
12 We Christians must walk according to the law that gives freedom, because we will be judged by God according to that law. What is the law that gives freedom? It is Christ’s law. The two greatest commandments and the ten commandments are included in Christ’s law. But why is it called the “law that gives freedom”? The reason is because we don’t follow this law by compulsion, like slaves; we follow it freely by our own desire, like children. Christ gives us a new desire, a new mind, a new life. He also gives us the power to obey His law. But that is not all; if we break His law in any respect, He will forgive us. We are no longer in bondage to sin. We are now free to follow Christ and to obey Him (see John 8:31-32,36). This is why James calls Christ’s law the law that gives freedom.
13 James said in verse 12 that we must speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom—that is, Christ’s law. The Jewish law of the Old Testament showed no mercy (Deuteronomy 17:2-7). But Christ’s law is a merciful law. If we show mercy to others, God will show mercy to us. But if we do not show mercy to others, we shall obtain no mercy (Matthew 5:7: 6:12,14-15). If we do not show mercy to others, we shall be judged according to the Old Testament law. However, if we show mercy, we shall be judged according to Christ’s merciful law. So James tells us to be sure to speak and act mercifully, so that we will be judged by the merciful law.
Mercy is greater than JUDGMENT. If judgment was greater than mercy, none of us would escape condemnation. If judgment were greater than mercy, God would never have sent Christ to save the world. But God has placed mercy above judgment. Therefore, we must do the same in our dealings with others. We must show love and mercy to all people—high and low, rich and poor—without favoritism. To the extent we show mercy to others, to that same extent God will show mercy to us.
Faith and Deeds (2:14-26)
14 It is easy to say, “I believe”; but only saying it means nothing. We must ask ourselves: “Is my faith real or not?” Because we are saved only through true faith, not through false faith.7
How can we tell if our faith is true or not? We can tell by our deeds. Our deeds—that is, our deeds of love, our deeds of obedience—are the proof of our faith. If there are no deeds accompanying our faith, then such a “faith” will not save us (see Matthew 7:21 and comment). Such a faith is not true faith; it is dead faith (verse 17).
15-16 Here James says that false faith is like love that is expressed in words but not in action. We can easily say to our poor brother or sister that we love them, but if we do nothing to help them, our love is false, worthless (1 John 3:17-18). This kind of “love” benefits no one. In the same way, unless our faith is manifested by deeds, it is worthless.
17 This is one of the most important verses in the New Testament, because it keeps us from misinterpreting some of Paul’s teaching. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul wrote that man is saved not by works but through faith. Many people misunderstand Paul, and begin to think that they no longer have to do any good works. They suppose that because man is saved through faith, good works are no longer necessary. They forget that Paul taught in other verses that good works are indeed necessary. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:10 that we were created in Christ Jesus to do good works. He also wrote: The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6).
James here seeks to correct the mistaken idea that Christians don’t have to do good works. Yes, it is true that we are saved through faith, not through works. No one can obtain salvation by doing works—no matter how many or how good the works are. This is true. But we must ask: What is faith? True faith is faith that is expressed by works. Works must always accompany faith; works are included in true faith. There is no such thing as true faith without works; true faith always gives rise to good works.
What good works? The works of obedience. The work that God wants us to do is to obey Jesus’ commands (John 14:15). And Jesus’ main command is: Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:12).
Therefore, true faith always manifests itself by love (Galatians 5:6). If a man shows as much love for his neighbor as he does for himself, then we can be sure his faith is genuine.
First (before deeds) comes faith. Then, when we have believed, we become new people. True faith then causes a change in our behavior. God fills our life with His love through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). We receive new power to love our neighbor and to obey all of Christ’s other commands. And this new love and new obedience is the proof that our faith is indeed true.
Therefore, in summary, the New Testament teaches that we cannot obtain salvation by our own work and effort; rather, we obtain salvation through true faith. But true faith is always demonstrated by our love and obedience; ifthere is no love and obedience, then there is no faith. Deeds—that is, love and obedience8 —are the proof of our faith. Without love and obedience our faith will not save us; it is dead.
One of the two criminals who was crucified with Jesus believed just before he died (Luke 23:39-43). After believing, he had no chance to do any good works. From this, we know that he was saved through faith, and not through any works. But for those who do not die immediately after believing, their faith must be manifested by works of love and obedience as long as they live.
18 James here describes an imaginary conversation between two people. The first person says that only faith is necessary, not works. The second person says that both faith and works together are necessary. The second person (James) says to the first: “You have faith, you say? Show me your faith. You can’t show it, because your faith is without works. But I will show you my faith by what I do. My works are the proof of my faith.”
19 Here the imaginary conversation continues. The second person (James) says to the first person, “You believe that there is one God, do you? You think that by saying, ‘I believe there is one God,’ you can show you have true faith. But you’re wrong; that doesn’t show anything. Even DEMONS say that. Demons also believe there is a God; but their faith is false, because their works are evil.”
20-21 As the imaginary conversation continues, the second person (James) reminds the first person about Abraham. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac on the altar (see Genesis 22:113; Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham had true faith in God; therefore, he obeyed God. Why was Abraham consideredRIGHTEOUS (verse 21)? Because he believed? Or because he obeyed? The answer is both. Abraham was considered righteous both because he believed and also because he obeyed.
22 Abraham’s faith and actions (obedience) were working together. Without obedience, faith is dead (verse 17). Without faith, obedience is worthless; it can never please God. Because without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).
Abraham’s faith came first. But only by obedience was his faith made complete or perfect. Faith without obedience is like a fruit tree without fruit; it is useless. A tree is “made complete” by its fruit. In the same way, our faith is made complete by our works, by our obedience. Men will recognize us by our fruit, by our obedience (Matthew 7:20).
23 James here quotes from Genesis 15:6. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as RIGHTEOUSNESS (see Romans 4:1-3). Again we must understand from this that man is considered righteous by faith. But that faith must be true faith—that is, faith that is expessed in love and obedience.
Here it is necessary to add to what was said earlier. Just as we cannot be saved by a faith without works, so we cannot be saved by works without faith. No man’s works—even his most noble religious works—can be perfect. Every person makes mistakes and sins from time to time. Therefore, on the basis ofour works we can never be considered righteous in God’s sight; and if we are not considered righteous by God, we will not be saved. It is only by putting our faith in the perfect work and righteousness of Jesus Christ that we ourselves can be considered righteous (see Romans 3:2224 and comment). We can never make ourselves righteous or obtain salvation by our own labor and effort. Only by receiving Christ’s righteousness through faith can we be considered righteous in God’s sight.
24 Paul has said in Galatians 2:15-16 and Ephesians 2:8-9 that man is justified (declared righteous) and saved through faith. This is true, and James agrees with it completely. James’ only point is that this faith must be true faith—that is, a faith manifested by love and obedience. Therefore, James says here that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. James’ meaning is that we will be justified only by a “working faith”—a faith that is manifested by works.
25 Here James gives a second illustration from the Old Testament, that of Rahab the prostitute (see Joshua 2:1-16; Hebrews 11:31). Rahab gave help to the spies sent by Joshua. How do we know that her faith was real? We know because of what she did. Rahab helped the Jewish spies to escape; that was the proofofher faith. And, as a result, Rahab herself escaped death; when Joshua and his army destroyed Jericho, he ordered that Rahab be spared (Joshua 6:24-25).
26 Again James repeats his main point: faith without deeds is dead (see verse 17 and comment). Faith without deeds is like a body without a spirit; such a body is spiritually dead. It is no better than a corpse.