Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.II.
(1) My brethren.—The second chapter opens with some stern rebukes for those unworthy Christians who had “men’s persons in admiration,” and, doubtless, that “because of advantage” to themselves. (Comp. Jude 1:16.) The lesson is distinctly addressed to believers, and its severity appears to be caused by the Apostle’s unhappy consciousness of its need. What were endurable in a heathen, or an alien, or even a Jew, ceased to be so in a professed follower of the lowly Jesus. And this seems to be a further reason for the indignant expostulation and condemnation of James 2:14. Thus the whole chapter may really be considered as dealing with Faith; and it flows naturally from the foregoing thoughts upon Religion—or, as we interpreted their subject-matter, Religious Service.
Have (or, hold) not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with (or, in) respect of persons.—“Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” wrote St. Paul to the proud and wealthy men of Corinth (2Corinthians 8:9), “that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich;” and, with more cogent an appeal, to the Philippians (James 2:4-7), “In lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves: look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God”—i.e., Very God, and not appearance merely—nevertheless “thought not His equality with God a thing to be always grasped at,” as it were some booty or prize, “but emptied Himself” of His glory, “and took upon Him the shape of a slave.” Were these central, nay initial, facts of the faith believed then; or are they now? If they were in truth, how could there be such folly and shame as “acceptance of persons” according to the dictates of fashionable society and the world? “Honour,” indeed, “to whom honour” is due (Romans 13:7). The Christian religion allows not that contempt for even earthly dignities—affected by some of her followers, but springing more from envy and unruliness than aught besides. True reverence and submission are in no way condemned by this scripture: but their excess and gross extreme, the preference for vulgar wealth, the adulation of success, the worship, in short, of some new golden calf.
For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;(2) For if there come unto your assembly (literally, synagogue).—This is the only place in the New Testament where the Jewish word is used for a Christian congregation.
A man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel.—Better, a man golden-ringed, in bright apparel. Roman satirists had much to say upon the fops and dandies of their time, with “all their fingers laden with rings”; some, if we may trust the sneer of Martial, having six on each; and others with heavy gold or light, according to the oppressiveness of the season; no doubt, the fashions set in Rome extended to Jerusalem. “Goodly apparel” is, rather, gorgeous—splendid in colour or ornament; the same two words are translated “gay clothing” in the following verse.
And there come in also a poor man in vile raiment.—Squalid, even dirty, as from work and wear—the exact opposite of the idle over-dressed exquisite.
And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:(3) And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing (or, bright apparel).—Look on him, that is, because of his fine appearance, with undue respect and consideration.
And say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place (or, as margin, well); and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool.—The sidesman or elder in charge of the church finds a stall for the person of substantial presence, while anything does for the poor one; but—most considerate offer—he can stand; or, if he prefer it, sit under the great man’s footstool, lower down, that is, on the floor beneath. We know Christ’s words for those who loved of old “the chief seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6), nor can there be doubt as to their full application now. What is to be urged in excuse for the special pews in churches and chapels, hired and appropriated, furnished luxuriously, and secured by bolt and lock? If in the high places sit the men and women in goodly raiment still, while the poorly clad are crowded into side benches and corners, or beneficently told to stand and wait till room be found somewhere beneath the daintier feet,—how can there be escape from condemnation on the charge which follows?—namely this—
Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?(4) Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?—Or, as the sense, fully expressed, would be: “My brethren, if you acted thus, did you not doubt in yourselves, and become by such false and unfaithful discrimination judges of and in your own evil thoughts? Did you not lose the idea of brotherhood, and become contentious as to supremacy of self and place—serving yourselves while prepared for the service of Christ? The Lord Jesus thought not His equality with God a thing ever to be grasped at, if work for man could be done by self-humiliation. Therefore, although being ‘equal to the Father, as touching His Godhead,’ He became ‘inferior . . . as touching His Manhood.’ And none may turn unmoved from that picture of sublime condescension to the petty strifes of quality and position which profane the Christian sanctuary. Most sadly true is it that in making distinctions such as these between rich and poor, we ‘become of the number of those who doubt respecting their faith;’ for, while it abolishes such altogether in the presence of God, we set them up of our own arrogance and pride. ‘We draw nigh unto Him with our mouth, and honour Him with our lips, but our heart is far from Him; and our worship therefore vain.’” (Comp. Isaiah 29:13; Ezekiel 33:31; Matthew 15:8-9.)
Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?(5) Hearken, my beloved brethren.—With complete change of manner the Apostle writes now as if he were speaking, in brief quivering sentences, appealing to the hearts which his stronger words may not compel.
Hath not God chosen . . .?—There is, then, an election on the part of God. It were folly to deny it. But this passage, like so many others, gives the reason for that choice. “The poor of this world” are His chosen; not merely for their poverty, although it may have been the air, so to speak, in which the virtues which endeared them to Him have flourished most. And these are rich for present and for future. They know Him “now by faith,” and “after this life have the fruition of His glorious Godhead.” “Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). The way thereto for them is nearer and less cumbered than for the rich, if only they fulfil the Scripture (comp. Matthew 6:3), and be poor “in spirit:” then, indeed, are they “heirs of the kingdom which He hath promised to them that love Him.” The world must always measure by its own standard, and consider poverty a curse, just as it looks on pain and trouble as evil. But the teaching of God, declared most eloquently in the life of His blessed Son, is the direct opposite to this. In a worship which demands of its votaries costly gifts and offerings—and every religion tends downwards to such desires—the rich man has a golden pavement to his future bliss. No wonder, therefore, that again and again the voice of the Spirit of God has pointed out the narrow way, and the eternal excellency of truth, and faith, and love, the riches easiest of acquisition by the poor.
But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?(6) But ye have despised the poor.—Better, ye dishonoured the poor man—i.e., when, as already mentioned (James 2:2-3), you exalted the rich unto the “good place” of your synagogue. Thus whom God had called and chosen, you refused. “It is unworthy,” observes Calvin on this passage, “to cast down those whom God lifts up, and to treat them shamefully whom He vouchsafes to honour. But God honoureth the poor; therefore whoever he is that rejects them perverts the ordinance of God.”
Do not rich men oppress you?—Or, lord it over you as a class; not assuredly that this can be said of each wealthy individual. It is the rich man, of the earth earthy, trusting in his riches (comp. Matthew 10:24), who makes them a power for evil and not for good. Here is presented the other side of the argument, used on behalf of the poor, viz., observe first how God regards them (James 2:5), and next, judge their adversaries by their own behaviour.
Draw you before the judgment seats?—Better, Do they not drag you into courts of justice? “Hale” you, as the old English word has it. Summum jus summa injuria—extreme of right is extreme of wrong—a legal maxim oft exemplified. The purse-proud litigious man is the hardest to deal with, and the one who specially will grind the faces of the poor. No body of laws could on the whole be more equitable than the Roman, but their administration in the provinces was frequently in venal hands; and besides, the large fees demanded by the juris-consulti—“the learned in the law”—quite barred the way of the poorer suitors, such as, for the most part, were the Christians to whom this Letter was written.
Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?(7) Do not they blaspheme . . .—To “blaspheme” is to hurt with the tongue, and includes all manner of evil speech; but a more exclusive use of the word is with regard to things divine, and particularly the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost (Matthew 12:31). A moment’s reflection will show, unhappily, that this is alluded to in the text.
That worthy name by the which ye are called?—Better, that good, that glorious Name which was invoiced (or, called) over you—viz., at baptism. “Into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19) had all been baptised who were thus addressed; but most probably the Second Person of the Trinity is referred to here. And it was the scorn and contempt visited upon His Name, which changed the mere abuse and ribaldry into a perilous likeness to the deadliest sin. Most commentators thus restrict the Name here to that of Christ. If their view be correct, the blasphemy would probably be linked with that epithet of “Christian”—then so dishonourable—coined, we are told, first in Antioch (Acts 11:26). But there were far more insulting terms found for the poor and struggling believer—“Nazarene,” “Atheist,” and even worse.
If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:(8) If ye fulfil the royal law.—Better paraphrased thus, If, however, ye are fulfilling the Law, as ye imagine and profess ye are doing, the royal law, according to the Scripture, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye are doing well; but . . . . Mark the touch of irony in the defence which St. James puts into the mouths of his hearers. It were certainly a sweet proof of neighbourly affection, that exemplified in James 2:3. The “royal,” or “kingly law,” is, of course, God’s, in its highest utterance; and may be taken as an illustration of what a law really consists: viz., a command from a superior, a duty from an inferior, and a sanction or vindication of its authority. There is much confusion of thought, both scientific and theological, with regard to this; were it not so we should hear less of the “laws of nature,” and divers other imaginary codes which the greatest legist of modern times has called “fustian.” The sovereign law of love, thus expressed by the Apostle, is one so plain that the simplest mind may be made its interpreter; and the violation of it is at once clear to the offender.
But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.(9) But if ye have respect to persons . . .—Translate, But if ye respect persons, ye work sin, and are convicted by the Law (i.e., at the bar of conscience) as transgressors. The first principle has been broken, and not a mere detail. De minimis non curat lex: the laws of men cannot concern themselves with trifles; but the most secret soul may be proven and revealed by some little act of love, or the contrary: and such is the way of the Lord “that searcheth the hearts” (Romans 8:27).
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.(10) For whosoever shall keep . . .—Better, have kept the whole Law, but shall have offended in one, has become guilty of all. As a chain is snapped by failure of the weakest link, so the whole Law, in its harmony and completeness as beheld by God, is broken by one offence of one man; and the penalty falls, of its own natural weight and incidence, on the culprit.
For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.(11) For he that said . . .—All men have favourite vices and indulgences; and most
“Compound for sins they have a mind to
By damning those they’re not inclined to;”
forgetful that the same Lawgiver has laid His restrictions upon every sort and kind. Not that we can believe all sins are the same in their deadening effect upon the soul, or, further, in their punishment. The point which St. James urges is that sin, as sin, involves the curse of the law; and that “respect of persons,” with its unloving and unlovely results, must bring its deceived possessor into condemnation before God. Just as our Lord referred the Sixth and Seventh Commandments (Matthew 5:21-32) to the first issues of the angry or lustful heart, and by no means confined them as did the Rabbinical teachers to the very act, so now in like manner the Apostle takes his stand upon the guiltiness of any breach whatever of the Law. Love is its complete fulfilment, we are well informed (Romans 13:10), but in that startling briefness lies comprehended all the decalogue, with its utmost ramifications; and men of the world would find a rule of the most minute and rigid ceremony easier to be followed than this simple all-embracing one. “The fulfilling of the Law” is very different from the substitution of a single plain command for a difficult code; this would seem to be the mistake of many, noisily asserting their freedom from the older obligations, who do not so evidently live under the mild bondage of the new.
A curious question may be raised upon the inverted order of the Sixth and Seventh Commandments in this passage, as well as in Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9. (Not so however, observe, in the sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:21-27.) Professor Plumptre says they are thus placed because “standing first in the second table, the Fifth being classed by most Jewish writers as belonging to the first,” and “there was, probably, a traditional order of the Tenth, varying from that at present found in the Hebrew Pentateuch.” The Greek version, known as the Septuagint, supports this theory, placing “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in James 2:13 of Exodus 20, and “Thou shalt not kill” in James 2:15.
So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.(12) So speak ye, and so do.—The writer has shown how unsuspected sins lead quickly to a violation of the Law, and in concluding this part of his Epistle he returns to the warning against an unguarded tongue, with which he commenced in chap 1:26.
The law of liberty.—The term is only found here and in James 1:25, and seems one of which James the Wise was peculiarly fond. What, however, did he precisely mean? Neither the ceremonial, nor the moral, most certainly; but the spiritual law of One greater than Moses. The idea, however, is in most of the New Testament writings, and particularly St. Paul’s. (Comp. John 8:32; Romans 8:21; 1Corinthians 10:29; 2Corinthians 3:17; Galatians 2:4; Galatians 5:1; Galatians 5:13; and 1Peter 2:16.)
For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.(13) For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy.—Better, For unmerciful judgment shall be to him that wrought not mercy. Here again are the clearest echoes of our Saviour’s words (Matthew 6:1-2, et seq.), and a reference, we can hardly doubt, to His well-known parable (Matthew 18:21-35); and we must remember, further, that “the unforgiving temper, apart from all outward wrong, constitutes the sin of the unmerciful servant;” opportunity only being lacking for its full effect. The pitiless are usually cowards, and may well be moved by fear, if they will not by love: “I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
Mercy rejoiceth against judgment.—There can hardly be a fitter comment on this text than that which must be present in every reader’s mind—the speech of Portia in The Merchant of Venice,
“The quality of mercy is not strained;” &c.
—(Acts 4 scene 1.)
But let the words of the Greek, John the Golden Mouthed, be added, for their exceeding beauty also. “Mercy is dear to God, and intercedes for the sinner, and breaks his chains, and dissipates the darkness, and quenches the fire of hell, and destroys the worm, and rescues from the gnashing of teeth. To her the gates of Heaven are opened. She is the queen of virtues, and makes men like to God, for it is written, ‘Be ye merciful as your Father also is merciful’ (Luke 6:36). She has silver wings like the dove, and feathers of gold, and soars aloft, and is clothed with divine glory, and stands by the throne of God; when we are in danger of being condemned she rises up and pleads for us, and covers us with her defence, and enfolds us in her wings. God loves mercy more than sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?(14-26) FAITH AND WORKS.—We now enter on the most debatable ground of the Epistle; a battle-field strewn with the bones and weapons of countless adversaries. It is an easy thing to shoot “arrows, even bitter words”; and without doubt, for what seemed to be the vindication of the right, many a hard blow has been dealt on either side—so many, indeed, that quiet Christian folk have no desire to hear of more. The plain assertions of holy Scripture on this matter are enough for them; and they experience of themselves no difficulty in their interpretation.
The old story of the Knights who smote each other to the death upon the question of the gold and silver shield, each looking at it only from his own point of view, may well apply to combatants who cried so lustily for “Paul” or “James.” But, now the dust of conflict has somewhat blown aside, it would be hard to prove that the Apostles themselves were ever at variance, or needed such doughty champions at all.
Truth is, they regarded the same object with a different motive, and aimed at a dissimilar result: just as in medicine, very opposite treatments are required by various sicknesses, and in the several stages of disease. The besetting error of the Jewish Christians to whom St. James appealed was that which we have traced (see Introduction, p. 353) to a foreign source; and, as it wandered but slowly from the furthest East, it had not yet reached the churches of Europe, at least sufficiently to constitute a danger in the mind of St. Paul. No better tonic for the enervating effect of this perverted doctrine of Faith could be found than a consideration of the nobler life of Abraham; and what example could be upheld more likely to win back the hearts of his proud descendants? And, if to point his lesson, the Apostle urged a great and stainless name, even that of the Friend of God, so with it would he join the lowly and, perhaps, aforetime dishonoured one of Rahab, that he might, as it were, plead well with all men of every degree or kind.
Dean Alford, quoting with entire approbation the opinion of the German commentator De Wette, found it “impossible to say” that the ideas of Faith, Works, and Justification in the two Apostles were the same. The summary of his remarks is fairly this:—According to St. James, Faith was moral conviction, trust, and truth; and yet such a theoretical belief only that it might be held by devils. Works are not those of the Law, but an active life of practical morality and well-doing; Justification is used in a proper or moral sense, but not the higher or “forensic,” as we now call it. On the other hand, St. Paul’s idea of Faith presupposes self-abasement, and “consists in trust on the grace of God, revealed in the atoning death of Christ”; Works with him referred chiefly to a dependence on legal observances; Justification assumed a far wider significance, especially in his view “of the inadequacy of a good conscience to give peace and blessedness to men” (1Corinthians 4:4), such being only to be found by faith in God, who justifies of His free grace, and looks on the accepted penitent as if he were righteous. But even this divergence, small as it is compared with that discerned by some divines, is really overstrained; for in the present Epistle the Church of every age is warned “against the delusive notion that it is enough for men to have religious emotions, to talk religious language, to have religious knowledge, and to profess religious belief, without the habitual practice of religious duties and the daily devotion of a religious life”: while the letters of St. Paul do not, in this way, combat hypocrisy so much as heterodoxy. There is always the double danger, dwelt upon by Augustine somewhat after this manner:—One man will say, “I believe in God, and it will be counted to me for righteousness, therefore I will live as I like.” St. James answers him by showing that “Abraham was justified by Works” (James 2:21). Another says, “I will lead a good life, and keep the commandments; how can it matter precisely what I believe!” St. Paul replies that “Abraham was justified by faith” (Romans 4). But, if the Apostle of the Gentiles be inquired of further, he will say that, although works go not before faith, they certainly come after. (Witness his discourse on Charity, 1 Corinthians 13) And, therefore, concludes Bishop Wordsworth, “the faith described by St. Paul is not any sort of faith by which we believe in God; but it is that healthful evangelical faith whose works spring from love.”
Thus the divine lesson stands forth, clearly written; and he who runs may read. Faith must be embodied in acts: “faith, without acts of faith, is but a dream.” “The two cannot be separated, for they are given in one by God to man, and from him go back in one to God. As by faith we behold the greatness of God, and of His eternal grace, His ineffable holiness, majesty, glory, goodness, love; so we shall know and feel the nothingness of all in ourselves—whether faith or works—save as they are the gift of God. As we probe ourselves, we learn the depth of our own evil; but, as we confess our own evil and God’s good, He will take away from us the evil, and crown us with His goodness: as we own ourselves to be, of ourselves, unprofitable servants, He, owning us in His works, will say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord’” (Matthew 25:21).
A deeply learned and interesting excursus on Faith, in its active and passive meanings, and on its Hebrew, Greek, and Latin synonyms, may be read in Bishop Lightfoot’s Notes on the Galatians, pp. 152-162. Admitting that “so long as our range of view is confined to the apostolic writings, it seems scarcely possible to resist the impression that St. James is attacking the teaching, if not of St. Paul himself, at least of those who exaggerated and perverted it,” our profoundest theologian assures us that the passage in Genesis (Genesis 15:6) was a common thesis in the Rabbinical schools, the meaning of faith being variously explained by the disputants, and diverse lessons drawn from it. The supremacy of faith, as the means of salvation, might be maintained by Gentile Apostle and Pharisaic Rabbi: but faith with the former was a very different thing from faith with the latter. With one its prominent idea was a spiritual life, with the other an orthodox creed; with the one the guiding principle was the individual conscience, with the other an external rule of ordinances; with the one faith was allied to liberty, with the other to bondage. “Thus,” he says in conclusion, “it becomes a question whether St. James’s protest against reliance on faith alone has any reference, direct or indirect, to St. Paul’s language and teaching; whether, in fact, it is not aimed against an entirely different type of religious feeling, against the Pharisaic spirit which rested satisfied with a barren orthodoxy, fruitless in works of charity.”
(14) What doth it (or, is the) profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works?—Some allusion here is made most probably to the Shema, the Jewish creed, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). It was the daily protest of the devout Israelite in the midst of idolaters, and the words of his morning and evening of life, as well as of the ordinary day. A similar utterance of faith is held to be the test of the true believer in Islam, when the two inquiring angels put their awful questions to the departed soul. But the idea is much more ancient, for a similar confession was required of the just before Osiris, the Lord of the Egyptian Heaven.
Can faith save him?—The stern inquiry comes like a prophecy of woe upon the wretched man—saved, as he fancied, by covenant with God, and holding a bare assent and not a loving faith in Him.
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,(15) But (the word should be added, for it continues an argument) if a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food—i.e., the food for each day, not that which suffices for one, or for a present distress; the case is rather of worst and direst want, so that the heart untouched by the spectacle of such misery must be hard indeed.
And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?(16) And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled.—Is it unlikely, knowing as we do the style of the rugged Apostle, that he was drawing other than from the life? Perhaps it was a scene in his own experience during that very famine foretold by Agabus (Acts 11:28-30).
There would, however, seem to be a worse interpretation of the words, beginning so softly with the Eastern benediction: namely, “Ye are warming and filling yourselves.” It is the rebuke of cool prosperity to importunate adversity: “Why such impatience? God is one, and our Father: He will provide.” No amount of faith could clothe the shivering limbs and still the hunger pangs; what greater mockery than to be taunted with texts and godly precepts, the usual outcome of a spurious and cheap benevolence.
Notwithstanding ye give them not.—The “one of you” in the beginning of the verse, then, was representative of the whole body addressed by St. James; and now by his use of the plural “ye,” we see that no individual was singled out for condemnation: the offence was wider and worse.
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.(17) Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.—Better, like the margin, is dead in its own self. If to be childless among women were a curse in Israel, so to be barren among God’s graces is the condemnation of faith in Christendom. And St. Paul, in substantial harmony with this assertion of his brother Apostle, declares (Romans 2:13) “Not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law shall be justified.” There had been no lack of charity under the earlier Jewish teaching; in fact, “righteousness” in many passages of Holy Writ, and in the paraphrases for the unlearned, called the Targums, was explained to be “almsgiving.” But the whole system of Rabbinism seems gradually to have destroyed the spiritual life of its scholars; and amongst them now was fast spreading the doctrine of a sterile faith. In the revival of Monotheism under the sword of the prophet of Mecca, the faith of Abraham once more shone in the creed of his descendants; though, alas! the sons of Ishmael, and not Isaac the chosen: and the Muhammedans tell us still that if fasting and prayer bring the believer to the gates of Paradise, alms will let him in.
Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.(18) Yea, a man may say . . .—The bearing of this verse is commonly misunderstood; its words are those of scorn, uttered probably by some enemy of the faith—Jewish or Pagan—and are another instance, like that of the unruly tongue, by which those outside the pale of Christianity may and will judge us within. James 2:18-22 are all the speech of this practical opponent of first century solifidianism. The English version, “Show me thy faith without thy works” is correct, though according to some editors (see marginal variation) it should be by or from.
The sense is obvious; and whether the speaker be Christian or no, he lays claim to faith in God, the Father of all, as the efficient cause of his good deeds.
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.(19) Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well.—Better thus, Thou believest that God is One; thou doest well. He is the formal object of faith derived from knowledge, whether by sense, intuition, or demonstration; you are theologically correct, and may even declare your internal faith by external confession—well, indeed.
The devils also believe, and tremble.—They shudder in the belief which only assures them of their utter misery; literally, their hair stands on end with terror of the God they own. Assent, opinion, knowledge—all are thus shared by demons of the pit; call not your joint possession by the holier name of Faith. “I believe in God,” “I believe in one God”—such is the voice of the Christian; and this is said in the full sense “only by those who love God, and who are not only Christians in name, but in deed and in life.”
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?(20) But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?—“Vain,” i.e., empty and useless. Some copies have a word which means idle, fruitless, workless, in place of that translated “dead”; but the sense is the same either way. “If,” says Bishop Beveridge, “I see fruit growing upon a tree, I know what tree it is upon which such fruit grows. And so, if I saw how a man lives, I know how he believes. If his faith be good, his works cannot but be good too; and if his works be bad, his faith cannot but be bad too: for, wheresoever there is a justifying faith, there are also good works; and wheresoever there are no good works, there is no justifying faith.” Works are the natural fruit of faith; and without them it is evident the tree is dead, perhaps at the very roots, ready to be cut down and cast into the fire.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?(21) Was not Abraham our father justified by works . . .?—St. James now addresses his two examples from familiar history in force of his plea for active faith. The first is the marvellous devotion and trust of Abraham (Genesis 22) when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar; that boy himself the type of God’s dear Son, who bore, like His meek ancestor, the sacrificial wood up the long weary road of death. Happily, the story is as well known to Christian readers as to the Jewish of old time, and may safely be left here without further comment.
Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?(22) Seest thou how . . .?—Better taken simply, and not as a question, Thou seest how, &c.
And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.(23) The scripture was fulfilled.—Namely, that earlier declaration of God (Genesis 15:6) when the childless Abraham, with only a Syrian slave for his heir, trusted in the divine promise that his own seed should be as the number of the stars of heaven.
Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.—He proved his faith by obedience, when he freely gave back to the Giver his son, the heir of all the promise.
The Friend of God.—Amatus a Deo—beloved of Him, not the friend to God, nor lover of Him, as some have hastily imagined. It is not an exact quotation from the Hebrew Bible, though the substance thereof may be found in Isaiah 41:8. The term was traditional throughout the East, and is used by the Arabs as descriptive of the patriarch to this day.
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.(24) Ye see then how that by works . . .—Observe that St. James says a man is not justified “by faith only,” putting the adverb in the last and most emphatic position. He never denies Justification by Faith; but that fancied one of idle, speculative, theoretic faith, with no corresponding acts of love.
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?(25) Likewise also . . .—The second example, brought forward in strange and complete contrast to Abraham, “the father of many nations,” is that of Rahab, the harlot, who received and sheltered in her house at Jericho the two spies sent out from the camp of Israel (Joshua 2). The evil name of the poor woman’s unhappy trade cannot truthfully be softened down to “innkeeper,” nor even “idolater.”
Sent them out.—Literally, hastened, or thrust them forth, showing her haste and fear.
It may not be out of place to notice that Clement, Bishop of Rome, one of the Apostolic Fathers, in his first letter to the Corinthians, sees in the scarlet thread which Rahab bound in her window a type of our Redeemer’s blood. And it is most remarkable, as showing the mercy of God, that this outcast of society was not only saved alive and brought into the fold of Israel, but became a direct ancestress of her Saviour, by marriage with Salmon, the great-great-grandfather of David (Matthew 1:5).
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.(26) As the body without the spirit . . .—A closing simile of much force, As the body without the spirit, so faith without works. But the term “without” is hardly strong enough to represent the Greek “apart from.” Of our own human wisdom we had been rather inclined to say that works were likest to the body, and faith to the breath or animation thereof. “The Apostle’s view,” says Alford, “seems to be this, Faith is the body, the sum and substance of the Christian life; works (= obedience) the moving and quickening of that body, just as the spirit is the moving and quickening principle of the natural body. So that ‘as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.’ ”