II. The Failure of Favoritism and Useless Faith (James 2:1-26)
II. The Failure of Favoritism and Useless Faith (2:1-26)
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.
2:2-4 James uses an example based on class difference. If a GQ-looking rich guy in fine clothes receives preferential treatment in your church because of his status and wealth, while a poor person is disregarded because he has nothing to offer (2:2-3), you have made distinctions . . . with evil thoughts (2:4). Regardless of the motivation for the favoritism—whether race, class, education, gender, or culture—we cannot blame society or our upbringing for this tendency that James calls “evil.” Understand: we’re not talking about discriminating between right and wrong based on God’s Word. We’re talking about discriminating where God shows no partiality—looking at the outside to determine a person’s worth.
2:5-7 James reminds them that God chose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom (2:5). Meanwhile, rich unbelievers are often the ones who persecute Christians and blaspheme God (2:6-7). This doesn’t mean all poor people are saved and all rich people are condemned. Rather, it’s a simple acknowledgment that those who are destitute often recognize their need for a Savior. Likewise, those living proudly in wealth and comfort frequently miss their need for God.
2:8-9 If you love your neighbor as yourself, you are doing well. James learned faithfully from his Master. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus said the law has two sides to it: love God and love neighbor (Matt 22:34-40). You can’t claim to love God while you hate your brother (1 John 4:20). But if you show favoritism, you don’t merely do something socially unacceptable—you commit sin (2:9).
2:10-11 How serious is the sin of favoritism? James sets it alongside adultery and murder. The reason the church still suffers from sins of discrimination like racism is because we’re not willing to acknowledge how serious and wretched it is. If you’re condemned as a murderer, it does no good telling the judge that you’re innocent of adultery (2:11). If you’re hanging from a chain off the edge of a cliff, it doesn’t matter which of the links breaks because they’re all connected. The end result will be the same. If you practice discrimination against those made in the image of God, you’re guilty no matter how many rules you follow (2:10).
2:12-13 Therefore, speak and act with the knowledge that you will stand before the judgment seat of Christ one day (2:12). Everyone who enters our churches should experience them as environments of mercy and hope. If you don’t show mercy, don’t expect mercy. If you don’t offer hope, don’t expect hope. Confess any partiality in your life and look for opportunities to show mercy, for mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13).
2:14 Indulging the sin of discrimination is but one example of living in contradiction to the faith you profess. James wants his readers to know that it’s possible for a believer to have a useless faith—one that’s devoid of good works. He asks, What good is it to claim to have faith but no works? Can such faith save? Some people think that James is contradicting Paul, who said, “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28). But James and Paul aren’t speaking about the same thing. Paul is talking about how a sinner becomes a saint. James is talking about how a saint brings heaven to earth. You cannot merit salvation; it is received by grace through faith in Christ alone (see Eph 2:8-9). Our sanctification, however, requires that our faith express itself in works.
In Greek, the word for “save” can have different meanings based on the context. It can refer to being delivered or rescued from challenges or dangers in life (see, e.g., Matt 14:30; Acts 27:20). Here James is discussing a faith that can “save” or “deliver” from the power of sin’s consequences in history (cf. 1:21). In order to grow in your faith and live with power, you have to connect your faith to works.
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.