James 2:20
But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(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.

2:14-26 Those are wrong who put a mere notional belief of the gospel for the whole of evangelical religion, as many now do. No doubt, true faith alone, whereby men have part in Christ's righteousness, atonement, and grace, saves their souls; but it produces holy fruits, and is shown to be real by its effect on their works; while mere assent to any form of doctrine, or mere historical belief of any facts, wholly differs from this saving faith. A bare profession may gain the good opinion of pious people; and it may procure, in some cases, worldly good things; but what profit will it be, for any to gain the whole world, and to lose their souls? Can this faith save him? All things should be accounted profitable or unprofitable to us, as they tend to forward or hinder the salvation of our souls. This place of Scripture plainly shows that an opinion, or assent to the gospel, without works, is not faith. There is no way to show we really believe in Christ, but by being diligent in good works, from gospel motives, and for gospel purposes. Men may boast to others, and be conceited of that which they really have not. There is not only to be assent in faith, but consent; not only an assent to the truth of the word, but a consent to take Christ. True believing is not an act of the understanding only, but a work of the whole heart. That a justifying faith cannot be without works, is shown from two examples, Abraham and Rahab. Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Faith, producing such works, advanced him to peculiar favours. We see then, ver. 24, how that by works a man is justified, not by a bare opinion or profession, or believing without obeying; but by having such faith as produces good works. And to have to deny his own reason, affections, and interests, is an action fit to try a believer. Observe here, the wonderful power of faith in changing sinners. Rahab's conduct proved her faith to be living, or having power; it showed that she believed with her heart, not merely by an assent of the understanding. Let us then take heed, for the best works, without faith, are dead; they want root and principle. By faith any thing we do is really good; as done in obedience to God, and aiming at his acceptance: the root is as though it were dead, when there is no fruit. Faith is the root, good works are the fruits; and we must see to it that we have both. This is the grace of God wherein we stand, and we should stand to it. There is no middle state. Every one must either live God's friend, or God's enemy. Living to God, as it is the consequence of faith, which justifies and will save, obliges us to do nothing against him, but every thing for him and to him.But wilt thou know - Will you have a full demonstration of it; will you have the clearest proof in the case. The apostle evidently felt that the instances to which he was about to refer, those of Abraham and Rahab, were decisive.

O vain man - The reference by this language is to a man who held an opinion that could not be defended. The word "vain" here used (κενε kene) means properly "empty," as opposed to "full" - as empty hands, having nothing in them; then fruitless, or without utility or success; then false, fallacious. The meaning here, properly, would be "empty," in the sense of being void of understanding; and this would be a mild and gentle way of saying of one that he was foolish, or that he maintained an argument that was without sense. James means, doubtless, to represent it as a perfectly plain matter, a matter about which no man of sense could have any reasonable doubt. If we must call a man foolish, as is sometimes necessary, let us use as mild and inoffensive a term as possible - a term which, while it will convey our meaning, will not unnecessarily wound and irritate.

That faith without works is dead - That the faith which does not produce good works is useless in the matter of salvation. He does not mean to say that it would produce no effect, for in the case of the demons it did produce trembling and alarm; but that it would be valueless in the matter of salvation. The faith of Abraham and of Rahab was entirely different from this.

20. wilt thou know—"Vain" men are not willing to know, since they have no wish to "do" the will of God. James beseeches such a one to lay aside his perverse unwillingness to know what is palpable to all who are willing to do.

vain—who deceivest thyself with a delusive hope, resting on an unreal faith.

without works—The Greek, implies separate from the works [Alford] which ought to flow from it if it were real.

is dead—Some of the best manuscripts read, "is idle," that is, unavailing to effect what you hope, namely, to save you.

But wilt thou know? Either this question is in order to teaching, as John 13:12 Romans 13:3; and then the sense is: If thou hast a mind to know, I shall instruct thee: or, it is a teaching by way of question, as more emphatical and pressing; and then it is as if he had said, Know, O vain man.

O vain man; an allusion to an empty vessel, which sounds more than one that is full. The carnal professor to whom he speaks is vain, because empty of true faith and good works, though full of noise and boasting.

Objection. Doth not the apostle sin against Christ’s command, Matthew 5:22?

Answer.

1. He speaks not of any particular man, but to all in general, of such a sort, viz. who boasted of their faith, and yet did not evidence it by their works.

2. It is not spoken in rash anger, or by way of contempt, but by way of correction and just reproof; see the like spoken by Christ himself, Matthew 23:17,19 Lu 24:25 and by Paul, Galatians 3:1 1 Corinthians 15:36.

That faith without works is dead; a defective speech, faith without works, for that that which is without works, or, faith, if it be without works. He doth not say, faith is dead without works, lest it should be thought that works were the cause of the life of faith; but faith without works is dead, as Jam 2:17,26; implying, that works are the effects and signs of the life of faith. But wilt thou know, O vain man,.... These are the words of the apostle reassuming the argument, that faith without works is dead, useless, and unprofitable; and the man that boasts of his faith, and has no works to show it, he calls a "vain man", an empty one, sounding brass, and a tinkling cymbal; empty vessels make the greatest sound; such are proud boasters, vainly puffed up by their fleshly mind; but are empty of the true knowledge of God, and of the faith of Christ, and of the grace of the Spirit: the Syriac version renders it, "O weak", or "feeble man", as he must needs be, whose faith is dead, and boasts of such a lifeless thing; and the Ethiopic version renders it, "O foolish man", for such an one betrays his ignorance in spiritual things, whatever conceit he has of his knowledge and understanding: the character seems levelled against the Gnostics, who were swelled with a vain opinion of their knowledge, to whom the apostle addresses himself thus. The phrase, "vain man", is a proper interpretation of the word "Raca", or Reka, used in Matthew 5:22; see Gill on Matthew 5:22, which though not to be said to a man in an angry way, yet may be applied to men of such a character as here described; who were empty of solid good, and yet boasted of their knowledge. "Wilt thou know?" dost thou require proofs,

that faith, without works, is dead? as in James 2:17 and that true faith has always works accompanying it, and is shown and known by it? then take the following instances.

{11} But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?

(11) The third reason from the example of Abraham, who no doubt had a true faith: but he in offering his son, showed himself to have that faith which was not without works, and therefore he received a true testimony when it was laid, that faith was imputed to him for righteousness.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Jam 2:20 introduces the following proof from Scripture, that faith without works is dead, and accordingly cannot have δικαιοῦσθαι as its consequence. The question θέλεις δὲ γνῶναι, expresses the confident assurance of victory over the opponent; the address ὦ ἄνθρωπε κενέ, deep indignation at him. Κενός does not here indicate intellectual defect (Baumgarten = stupid, incapable of thinking; Pott = short-sighted), but the want of true intrinsic worth, in opposition to the imaginary wealth which the opponent fancies he possesses in his dead faith. The word is only here used in the N. T. of persons. The , placed first, which is frequently used in reproof,—see Matthew 17:17; Luke 24:25; Romans 9:20 (Winer, p. 165 [E. T. 228]),—intensifies the censure. The thought is essentially the same whether νεκρά or ἀργή is read.

ἀργός] equivalent to idle, vain, that which profits and effects nothing,[141] is also used of a capital sum which lies idle, and therefore bears no interest, thus is a dead capital. Not because ἀργή “deserves the preference with a view to the sense” (Wiesinger), but only because it is difficult to consider it as a gloss, is it to be considered—against the authorities which testify for νεκρά (see critical note)—as the original reading.

As χωρὶς τῶν ἔργων stands here instead of ἐὰν μὴ ἔργα ἔχῃ (Jam 2:17), the article is not to be supplied before χωρίς (against Beza, Baumgarten, and others).

[141] It is inaccurate to take ἀργός as equivalent to ἄκαρπος (Frank: unproductive); as this indicates the condition, that, on the contrary, the conduct of the subject. They are united together not as identical, but only as related ideas, in 2 Peter 1:8.Jam 2:20. The words of this and the following verses, to the end of Jam 2:23, belong to the argument commenced by a supposed speaker—ἀλλʼ ἐρεῖ τις—; it is all represented as being conducted by one man addressing another, the second person singular being used; with the ὁρᾶτε of Jam 2:24 the writer of the Epistle again speaks in his own name, and, as it were, sums up the previous argument.—Θέλεις δὲ γνῶναι: “Dost thou desire to know,” i.e., by an incontrovertible fact; the writer then, like a skilful disputant, altogether demolishes the position of his adversary by presenting something which was on all hands regarded as axiomatic. As remarked above, the question of Abraham’s faith was a subject which was one of the commonplaces of theological discussion in the Rabbinical schools as well as among Hellenistic-Jews; this is represented as having been forgotten, or at all events, as not having been taken into account, so that the adversary, on being confronted with this fact, must confess that his argument is refuted by something that he himself accepts. It is this which gives the point to ὦ ἄνθρωπε κενέ. For κενέ the Peshiṭtâ has חלשא “feeble,” in its primary sense, but also “ignorant,” which admirably expresses what the writer evidently intends. Both Mayor and Knowling speak of κενός as being equivalent to Raca (Matthew 5:22), but the two words are derived from different roots, the former from a Grk. root meaning “to be empty,” the latter from a Hebr. one meaning “to spit” [see the writer’s article in the Expositor, July, 1905, pp. 28 ff.]; κενός has nothing to do with Raca.—ἀργή: the reading νεκρά is strongly attested; the Corbey MS. makes a pun by reading “vacua,” after having written “o homo vacue”. Ἀργή is not so strong as νεκρά; cf. Matthew 12:36, πᾶν ῥῆμα ἀργόν.20. wilt thou know, O vain man …] The term, as applied to men, is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but is used with something of the same significance in the LXX. of Jdg 9:4. The idea is primarily that of “emptiness,” and the Greek adjective is almost literally the equivalent of our empty-headed, as a term of contempt. It answers clearly to the Raca of Matthew 5:22.

that faith without works is dead] The MSS. vary between “dead” and the adjective rendered “idle” in Matthew 12:36; Matthew 20:3. The meaning is substantially the same. That which is without life is without the activity which is the one proof of life.Jam 2:20. Θέλεις, Art thou willing?) A question full of character (marked by courtesy); for vain men are in fact unwilling to know, and do not suffer themselves to observe.—κενὲ, vain man) uttering vain and empty words.—χωρὶς τῶν ἔργων νεκρά ἐστιν, without works is dead) This is both illustrated and proved in the following verse.—νεκρὰ,[27] dead) without life and strength to justify and save.

[27] νεκρὰ. Ἀργὴ is the reading of Cov. 4, Gen. and many Latin copies. Baumgarten asserts that this variation of reading ought not to have been numbered among those worthy of mention. I have mentioned it in the margin, which perhaps I should not have done, had not the Vulgate read otiosa. Yet I have added ε. Moreover in the smaller edition I have erased it.

Ἀργή is the reading of BC corrected, Vulg. (otiosa). But νεκρά, of A Memph. inferior MSS. of Vulg. Tisch. and Lachm. read ἀργή.—E.Verses 20-24. -

(3) Third point: Proof from the example of Abraham that a man is justified by works and not by faith only. In Genesis 15:6 we read of Abraham that "he believed in the Lord; and he accounted it to him for righteousness" (LXX., Ἐπίστευσεν Αβραμ τῷ Θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην, quoted by St. Paul in Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). But years after this we find that God "tested Abraham" (Genesis 22:1). To this trial St. James refers as that by which Abraham's faith was "perfected" (ἐτελειώθη), and by which the saying of earlier years found a more complete realization (cf. Ecclus. 44:20, 21, "Abraham... kept the Law of the Most High, and was in covenant with him... and when he was proved, he was found faithful. Therefore he assured him by an oath, that he would bless the nations in his seed," etc.). Verse 20. - Faith without works is dead. The Received Text, followed by the A.V., reads νεκρά, with א, A, C3, K, L, Syriac, Vulgate (Clementine). The Revisers, following B, C1, if, read ἀργή, "barren" (so Vulgate Amiat. by a correction, otiosa). Vain (κενέ)

Lit., empty, without spiritual life.

Dead (νεκρά)

But the best texts read ἀργή, idle; as of money which yields no interest, or of land lying fallow.

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