2:1 One of the ways we become stained by the world (1:27) is by practicing the sin of discrimination. James has some choice words for his readers about showing partiality: Do not show favoritism. Doctrine wasn’t this group’s problem: they had faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. But that wasn’t affecting how they related to others. To illegitimately discriminate against people (we are to discriminate against evil) is to make a value judgment based on unbiblical criteria (such as race, class, or culture) and act inappropriately toward them.
2:15-17 James offers a scenario. A brother comes to you without clothes and lacks daily food (2:15). So, what should you do? You may offer profound theological insight and assure him that God will supply his needs (Phil 4:9). Then you might pray with him and wish him well: Go in peace, stay warm, and be well fed. But what good have you done if you don’t give . . . what the body needs? (2:16). James isn’t deriding the spiritual; he’s simply insisting that it’s not enough. If a brother is hungry, he doesn’t need a sermon. He needs a ham sandwich! Put your faith in action by helping those in need.
Faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead (2:17). It’s possible to have a useless faith that’s not accomplishing anything in life. If you say you trust God, it should affect your feet. Once you become a Christian by faith alone, your faith has to get married to works. Then, what you believe about eternity will become real in your history.
2:18-20 James provides the argument of a hypothetical skeptic. This person disagrees with James and says the validity of his faith is not connected to his works: you have faith, and I have works (2:18). This objector seeks to validate his premise by arguing that demons believe and tremble at their knowledge of God’s reality yet have no supporting works to support their belief. According to James, such a person is senseless and missing the point entirely because saving faith without works is useless—that is, it has no spiritual value in history (2:20). It will only leave you feeling defeated.
If you want to understand the strength of your faith, look at what you do. In the Hall of Faith of Hebrews 11, the author repeatedly describes what various Old Testament figures accomplished “by faith.” Belief was demonstrated by what they did.
2:21-24 Abraham is a perfect example of a biblical hero whose faith was married to his works. He was justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar (2:21). This activity didn’t save the patriarch; after all, Abraham had already believed God and had his faith credited “as righteousness” in Genesis 15:6. It’s in Genesis 22 that God called him to sacrifice his son. When Abraham obeyed, God confirmed his intent to bless him on earth and make a great nation of him (Gen 22:15-18). By works, his faith was made complete or matured (2:22). Faith must be demonstrated, not just discussed, to be beneficial in history. A person is justified by faith alone apart from works for heaven, but he is justified by works for usefulness on earth (2:24).
2:25 Rahab is another example. She was justified by works that others could see—she helped Israel’s spies, evidencing the trust she’d already placed in God. This justification by works brought her deliverance and victory in history (see Josh 2:8-19; 6:22-23).
2:26 Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. The faith of a believer can atrophy, and we can become orthodox corpses unless our faith is put to work. Many of us have spiritual life, yet we’re spiritually sick. We attend church to hear what the Great Physician has to say and leave feeling good about his prescription. We remain spiritually unhealthy, though, because we don’t swallow the medicine. Once we hear God’s Word, we must act on it to be transformed by it.