Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
Jas 2:1-26. The Sin of Respect of Persons: Dead, Unworking Faith Saves No Man.
James illustrates "the perfect law of liberty" (Jas 1:25) in one particular instance of a sin against it, concluding with a reference again to that law (Jas 2:12, 13).
1. brethren—The equality of all Christians as "brethren," forms the groundwork of the admonition.
the faith of … Christ—that is, the Christian faith. James grounds Christian practice on Christian faith.
the Lord of glory—So 1Co 2:8. As all believers, alike rich and poor, derive all their glory from their union with Him, "the Lord of glory," not from external advantages of worldly fortune, the sin in question is peculiarly inconsistent with His "faith." Bengel, making no ellipsis of "the Lord," explains "glory" as in apposition with Christ who is THE GLORY (Lu 2:32); the true Shekinah glory of the temple (Ro 9:4). English Version is simpler. The glory of Christ resting on the poor believer should make him be regarded as highly by "brethren" as his richer brother; nay, more so, if the poor believer has more of Christ's spirit than the rich brother.
with respect of persons—literally, "in respectings of persons"; "in" the practice of partial preferences of persons in various ways and on various occasions.
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, 3. "If there chance to have come" [Alford].
assembly—literally, "synagogue"; this, the latest honorable use, and the only Christian use of the term in the New Testament, occurs in James's Epistle, the apostle who maintained to the latest possible moment the bonds between the Jewish synagogue and the Christian Church. Soon the continued resistance of the truth by the Jews led Christians to leave the term to them exclusively (Re 3:9). The "synagogue" implies a mere assembly or congregation not necessarily united by any common tie. "Church," a people bound together by mutual ties and laws, though often it may happen that the members are not assembled [Trench and Vitringa]. Partly from James' Hebrew tendencies, partly from the Jewish Christian churches retaining most of the Jewish forms, this term "synagogue" is used here instead of the Christian term "Church" (ecclesia, derived from a root, "called out," implying the union of its members in spiritual bonds, independent of space, and called out into separation from the world); an undesigned coincidence and mark of truth. The people in the Jewish synagogue sat according to their rank, those of the same trade together. The introduction of this custom into Jewish Christian places of worship is here reprobated by James. Christian churches were built like the synagogues, the holy table in the east end of the former, as the ark was in the latter; the desk and pulpit were the chief articles of furniture in both alike. This shows the error of comparing the Church to the temple, and the ministry to the priesthood; the temple is represented by the whole body of worshippers; the church building was formed on the model of the synagogue. See Vitringa [Synagogue and Temple].
goodly apparel … gay clothing—As the Greek, is the same in both, translate both alike, "gay," or "splendid clothing."
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. have respect to him, &c.—though ye know not who he is, when perhaps he may be a heathen. It was the office of the deacons to direct to a seat the members of the congregation [Clement of Rome, Apostolical Constitutions, 2.57, 58].
unto him—not in the best manuscripts. Thus "thou" becomes more demonstratively emphatic.
there—at a distance from where the good seats are.
here—near the speaker.
under my footstool—not literally so; but on the ground, down by my footstool. The poor man must either stand, or if he sits, sit in a degrading position. The speaker has a footstool as well as a good seat.
Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
4. Are ye not … partial—literally, "Have ye not made distinctions" or "differences" (so as to prefer one to another)? So in Jude 22.
in yourselves—in your minds, that is, according to your carnal inclination [Grotius].
are become judges of evil thoughts—The Greek words for "judges" and for "partial," are akin in sound and meaning. A similar translation ought therefore to be given to both. Thus, either for "judges," &c. translate, "distinguishers of (that is, according to your) evil thoughts"; or, do ye not partially judge between men, and are become evilly-thinking judges (Mr 7:21)? The "evil thoughts" are in the judges themselves; as in Lu 18:6, the Greek, "judge of injustice," is translated, "unjust judge." Alford and Wahl translate, "Did ye not doubt" (respecting your faith, which is inconsistent with the distinctions made by you between rich and poor)? For the Greek constantly means "doubt" in all the New Testament. So in Jas 1:6, "wavering." Mt 21:21; Ac 10:20; Ro 4:20, "staggered not." The same play on the same kindred words occurs in the Greek of Ro 14:10, 23, "judge … doubteth." The same blame of being a judge, when one ought to be an obeyer, of the law is found in Jas 4:11.
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—James brings to trial the self-constituted "judges" (Jas 2:4).
poor of this world—The best manuscripts read, "those poor in respect to the world." In contrast to "the rich in this world" (1Ti 6:17). Not of course all the poor; but the poor, as a class, furnish more believers than the rich as a class. The rich, if a believer, renounces riches as his portion; the poor, if an unbeliever, neglects that which is the peculiar advantage of poverty (Mt 5:3; 1Co 1:26, 27, 28).
rich in faith—Their riches consist in faith. Lu 12:21, "rich toward God." 1Ti 6:18, "rich in good works" (Re 2:9; compare 2Co 8:9). Christ's poverty is the source of the believer's riches.
kingdom … promised—(Lu 12:32; 1Co 2:9; 2Ti 4:8).
But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
6. The world's judgment of the poor contrasted with God's.
ye—Christians, from whom better things might have been expected; there is no marvel that men of the world do so.
despised—literally, "dishonored." To dishonor the poor is to dishonor those whom God honors, and so to invert the order of God [Calvin].
rich—as a class.
oppress—literally, "abuse their power against" you.
draw you—Translate, "is it not they (those very persons whom ye partially prefer, Jas 2:1-4) that drag you (namely, with violence)" [Alford].
before … judgment seats—instituting persecutions for religion, as well as oppressive lawsuits, against you.
Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
7. "Is it not they that blaspheme?" &c. as in Jas 2:6 [Alford]. Rich heathen must here chiefly be meant; for none others would directly blaspheme the name of Christ. Only indirectly rich Christians can be meant, who, by their inconsistency, caused His name to be blasphemed; so Eze 36:21, 22; Ro 2:24. Besides, there were few rich Jewish Christians at Jerusalem (Ro 15:26). They who dishonor God's name by wilful and habitual sin, "take (or bear) the Lord's name in vain" (compare Pr 30:9, with Ex 20:7).
that worthy name—which is "good before the Lord's saints" (Ps 52:9; 54:6); which ye pray may be "hallowed" (Mt 6:9), and "by which ye are called," literally, "which was invoked" or, "called upon by you" (compare Ge 48:16; Isa 4:1, Margin; Ac 15:17), so that at your baptism "into the name" (so the Greek, Mt 28:19) of Christ, ye became Christ's people (1Co 3:23).
If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
8. The Greek may be translated, "If, however, ye fulfil," &c., that is, as Alford, after Estius, explains, "Still I do not say, hate the rich (for their oppressions) and drive them from your assemblies; if you choose to observe the royal law … well and good; but respect of persons is a breach of that law." I think the translation is, "If in very deed (or 'indeed on the one hand') ye fulfil the royal law … ye do well, but if (on the other hand) ye respect persons, ye practice sin." The Jewish Christians boasted of, and rested in, the "law" (Ac 15:1; 21:18-24; Ro 2:17; Ga 2:12). To this the "indeed" alludes. "(Ye rest in the law): If indeed (then) ye fulfil it, ye do well; but if," &c.
royal—the law that is king of all laws, being the sum and essence of the ten commandments. The great King, God, is love; His law is the royal law of love, and that law, like Himself, reigns supreme. He "is no respecter of persons"; therefore to respect persons is at variance with Him and His royal law, which is at once a law of love and of liberty (Jas 2:12). The law is the "whole"; "the (particular) Scripture" (Le 19:18) quoted is a part. To break a part is to break the whole (Jas 2:10).
ye do well—being "blessed in your deed" ("doing," Margin) as a doer, not a forgetful hearer of the law (Jas 1:25).
But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
9. Respect of persons violates the command to love all alike "as thyself."
ye commit sin—literally, "ye work sin," Mt 7:23, to which the reference here is probably, as in Jas 1:22. Your works are sin, whatever boast of the law ye make in words (see on Jas 2:8).
convinced—Old English for "convicted."
as transgressors—not merely of this or that particular command, but of the whole absolutely.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
10. The best manuscripts read, "Whosoever shall have kept the whole law, and yet shall have offended (literally, 'stumbled'; not so strong as 'fall,' Ro 11:11) in one (point; here, the respecting of persons), is (hereby) become guilty of all." The law is one seamless garment which is rent if you but rend a part; or a musical harmony which is spoiled if there be one discordant note [Tirinus]; or a golden chain whose completeness is broken if you break one link [Gataker]. You thus break the whole law, though not the whole of the law, because you offend against love, which is the fulfilling of the law. If any part of a man be leprous, the whole man is judged to be a leper. God requires perfect, not partial, obedience. We are not to choose out parts of the law to keep, which suit our whim, while we neglect others.
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. He is One who gave the whole law; therefore, they who violate His will in one point, violate it all [Bengel]. The law and its Author alike have a complete unity.
adultery … kill—selected as being the most glaring cases of violation of duty towards one's neighbor.
So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
12. Summing up of the previous reasonings.
speak—referring back to Jas 1:19, 26; the fuller discussion of the topic is given Jas 3:5-12.
judged by the law of liberty—(Jas 1:25); that is, the Gospel law of love, which is not a law of external constraint, but of internal, free, instinctive inclination. The law of liberty, through God's mercy, frees us from the curse of the law, that henceforth we should be free to love and obey willingly. If we will not in turn practice the law of love to our neighbor, that law of grace condemns us still more heavily than the old law, which spake nothing but wrath to him who offended in the least particular (Jas 2:13). Compare Mt 18:32-35; Joh 12:48; Re 6:16, "Wrath of the (merciful) Lamb."
For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
13. The converse of, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (Mt 5:7). Translate, "The judgment (which is coming on all of us) shall be without mercy to him who hath showed no mercy." It shall be such toward every one as every one shall have been [Bengel]. "Mercy" here corresponds to "love," Jas 2:8.
mercy rejoiceth against judgment—Mercy, so far from fearing judgment in the case of its followers, actually glorifieth against it, knowing that it cannot condemn them. Not that their mercy is the ground of their acquittal, but the mercy of God in Christ towards them, producing mercy on their part towards their fellow men, makes them to triumph over judgment, which all in themselves otherwise deserve.
What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
14. James here, passing from the particular case of "mercy" or "love" violated by "respect of persons," notwithstanding profession of the "faith of our Lord Jesus" (Jas 2:1), combats the Jewish tendency (transplanted into their Christianity) to substitute a lifeless, inoperative acquaintance with the letter of the law, for change of heart to practical holiness, as if justification could be thereby attained (Ro 2:3, 13, 23). It seems hardly likely but that James had seen Paul's Epistles, considering that he uses the same phrases and examples (compare Jas 2:21, 23, 25, with Ro 4:3; Heb 11:17, 31; and Jas 2:14, 24, with Ro 3:28; Ga 2:16). Whether James individually designed it or not, the Holy Spirit by him combats not Paul, but those who abuse Paul's doctrine. The teaching of both alike is inspired, and is therefore to be received without wresting of words; but each has a different class to deal with; Paul, self-justiciaries; James, Antinomian advocates of a mere notional faith. Paul urged as strongly as James the need of works as evidences of faith, especially in the later Epistles, when many were abusing the doctrine of faith (Tit 2:14; 3:8). "Believing and doing are blood relatives" [Rutherford].
What doth it profit—literally, "What is the profit?"
though a man say—James' expression is not, "If a man have faith," but "if a man say he hath faith"; referring to a mere profession of faith, such as was usually made at baptism. Simon Magus so "believed and was baptized," and yet had "neither part nor lot in this matter," for his "heart," as his words and works evinced, was not right in the sight of God. Alford wrongly denies that "say" is emphatic. The illustration, Jas 2:16, proves it is: "If one of you say" to a naked brother, "Be ye warmed, notwithstanding ye give not those things needful." The inoperative profession of sympathy answering to the inoperative profession of faith.
can faith save him—rather, "can such a faith (literally, 'the faith') save him?"—the faith you pretend to: the empty name of boasted faith, contrasted with true fruit-producing faith. So that which self-deceivers claim is called "wisdom," though not true wisdom, Jas 3:15. The "him" also in the Greek is emphatic; the particular man who professes faith without having the works which evidence its vitality.
If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
15. The Greek is, "But if," &c.: the "But" taking up the argument against such a one as "said he had faith, and yet had not works," which are its fruits.
a brother, &c.—a fellow Christian, to whom we are specially bound to give help, independent of our general obligation to help all our fellow creatures.
be—The Greek implies, "be found, on your access to them."
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. The habit of receiving passively sentimental impressions from sights of woe without carrying them out into active habits only hardens the heart.
one of you—James brings home the case to his hearers individually.
Depart in peace—as if all their wants were satisfied by the mere words addressed to them. The same words in the mouth of Christ, whose faith they said they had, were accompanied by efficient deeds of love.
be … warmed—with clothing, instead of being as heretofore "naked" (Jas 2:15; Job 31:20).
filled—instead of being "destitute of food" (Mt 15:37).
what doth it profit—concluding with the same question as at the beginning, Jas 2:14. Just retribution: kind professions unaccompanied with corresponding acts, as they are of no "profit" to the needy object of them, so are of no profit to the professor himself. So faith consisting in mere profession is unacceptable to God, the object of faith, and profitless to the possessor.
Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
17. faith … being alone—Alford joins "is dead in itself." So Bengel, "If the works which living faith produces have no existence, it is a proof that faith itself (literally, 'in respect to itself') has no existence; that is, that what one boasts of as faith, is dead." "Faith" is said to be "dead in itself," because when it has works it is alive, and it is discerned to be so, not in respect to its works, but in respect to itself. English Version, if retained, must not be understood to mean that faith can exist "alone" (that is, severed from works), but thus: Even so presumed faith, if it have not works, is dead, being by itself "alone," that is, severed from works of charity; just as the body would be "dead" if alone, that is, severed from the spirit (Jas 2:26). So Estius.
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. "But some one will say": so the Greek. This verse continues the argument from Jas 2:14, 16. One may say he has faith though he have not works. Suppose one were to say to a naked brother, "Be warmed," without giving him needful clothing. "But someone (entertaining views of the need of faith having works joined to it) will say (in opposition to the 'say' of the professor)."
show me thy faith without thy works—if thou canst; but thou canst not SHOW, that is, manifest or evidence thy alleged (Jas 2:14, "say") faith without works. "Show" does not mean here to prove to me, but exhibit to me. Faith is unseen save by God. To show faith to man, works in some form or other are needed: we are justified judicially by God (Ro 8:33); meritoriously, by Christ (Isa 53:11); mediately, by faith (Ro 5:1); evidentially, by works. The question here is not as to the ground on which believers are justified, but about the demonstration of their faith: so in the case of Abraham. In Ge 22:1 it is written, God did tempt Abraham, that is, put to the test of demonstration the reality of his faith, not for the satisfaction of God, who already knew it well, but to demonstrate it before men. The offering of Isaac at that time, quoted here, Jas 2:21, formed no part of the ground of his justification, for he was justified previously on his simply believing in the promise of spiritual heirs, that is, believers, numerous as the stars. He was then justified: that justification was showed or manifested by his offering Isaac forty years after. That work of faith demonstrated, but did not contribute to his justification. The tree shows its life by its fruits, but it was alive before either fruits or even leaves appeared.
Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
19. Thou—emphatic. Thou self-deceiving claimant to faith without works.
that there is one God—rather, "that God is one": God's existence, however, is also asserted. The fundamental article of the creed of Jews and Christians alike, and the point of faith on which especially the former boasted themselves, as distinguishing them from the Gentiles, and hence adduced by James here.
thou doest well—so far good. But unless thy faith goes farther than an assent to this truth, "the evil spirits (literally, 'demons': 'devil' is the term restricted to Satan, their head) believe" so far in common with thee, "and (so far from being saved by such a faith) shudder (so the Greek)," Mt 8:29; Lu 4:34; 2Pe 2:4; Jude 6; Re 20:10. Their faith only adds to their torment at the thought of having to meet Him who is to consign them to their just doom: so thine (Heb 10:26, 27, it is not the faith of love, but of fear, that hath torment, 1Jo 4:18).
But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
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.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
21. Abraham … justified by works—evidentially, and before men (see on Jas 2:18). In Jas 2:23, James, like Paul, recognizes the Scripture truth, that it was his faith that was counted to Abraham for righteousness in his justification before God.
when he had offered—rather, "when he offered" [Alford], that is, brought as an offering at the altar; not implying that he actually offered him.
Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
22. Or, "thou seest."
how—rather, "that." In the two clauses which follow, emphasize "faith" in the former, and "works" in the latter, to see the sense [Bengel].
faith wrought with his works—for it was by faith he offered his son. Literally, "was working (at the time) with his works."
by works was faith made perfect—not was vivified, but attained its fully consummated development, and is shown to be real. So "my strength is made perfect in weakness," that is, exerts itself most perfectly, shows how great it is [Cameron]: so 1Jo 4:17; Heb 2:10; 5:9. The germ really, from the first, contains in it the full-grown tree, but its perfection is not attained till it is matured fully. So Jas 1:4, "Let patience have her perfect work," that is, have its full effect by showing the most perfect degree of endurance, "that ye may be perfect," that is, fully developed in the exhibition of the Christian character. Alford explains, "Received its realization, was entirely exemplified and filled up." So Paul, Php 2:12, "Work out your own salvation": the salvation was already in germ theirs in their free justification through faith. It needed to be worked out still to fully developed perfection in their life.
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. scripture was fulfilled—Ge 15:6, quoted by Paul, as realized in Abraham's justification by faith; but by James, as realized subsequently in Abraham's work of offering Isaac, which, he says, justified him. Plainly, then, James must mean by works the same thing as Paul means by faith, only that he speaks of faith at its manifested development, whereas Paul speaks of it in its germ. Abraham's offering of Isaac was not a mere act of obedience, but an act of faith. Isaac was the subject of the promises of God, that in him Abraham's seed should be called. The same God calls on Abraham to slay the subject of His own promise, when as yet there was no seed in whom those predictions could be realized. Hence James' saying that Abraham was justified by such a work, is equivalent to saying, as Paul does, that he was justified by faith itself; for it was in fact faith expressed in action, as in other cases saving faith is expressed in words. So Paul states as the mean of salvation faith expressed. The "Scripture" would not be "fulfilled," as James says it was, but contradicted by any interpretation which makes man's works justify him before God: for that Scripture makes no mention of works at all, but says that Abraham's belief was counted to him for righteousness. God, in the first instance, "justifies the ungodly" through faith; subsequently the believer is justified before the world as righteous through faith manifested in words and works (compare Mt 25:35-37, "the righteous," Mt 25:40). The best authorities read, "But Abraham believed," &c.
and he was called the Friend of God—He was not so called in his lifetime, though he was so even then from the time of his justification; but he was called so, being recognized as such by all on the ground of his works of faith. "He was the friend (in an active sense), the lover of God, in reference to his works; and (in a passive sense) loved by God in reference to his justification by works. Both senses are united in Joh 15:14, 15" [Bengel].
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
24. justified and, not by faith only—that is, by "faith without (separated from: severed from) works," its proper fruits (see on Jas 2:20). Faith to justify must, from the first, include obedience in germ (to be developed subsequently), though the former alone is the ground of justification. The scion must be grafted on the stock that it may live; it must bring forth fruit to prove that it does live.
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
25. It is clear from the nature of Rahab's act, that it is not quoted to prove justification by works as such. She believed assuredly what her other countrymen disbelieved, and this in the face of every improbability that an unwarlike few would conquer well-armed numbers. In this belief she hid the spies at the risk of her life. Hence Heb 11:31 names this as an example of faith, rather than of obedience. "By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not." If an instance of obedience were wanting. Paul and James would hardly have quoted a woman of previously bad character, rather than the many moral and pious patriarchs. But as an example of free grace justifying men through an operative, as opposed to a mere verbal faith, none could be more suitable than a saved "harlot." As Abraham was an instance of an illustrious man and the father of the Jews, so Rahab is quoted as a woman, and one of abandoned character, and a Gentile, showing that justifying faith has been manifested in those of every class. The nature of the works alleged is such as to prove that James uses them only as evidences of faith, as contrasted with a mere verbal profession: not works of charity and piety, but works the value of which consisted solely in their being proofs of faith: they were faith expressed in act, synonymous with faith itself.
had received … had sent—rather, "received … thrust them forth" (in haste and fear) [Alford].
another way—from that whereby they entered her house, namely, through the window of her house on the wall, and thence to the mountain.
For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
26. Faith is a spiritual thing: works are material. Hence we might expect faith to answer to the spirit, works to the body. But James reverses this. He therefore does not mean that faith in all cases answers to the body; but the FORM of faith without the working reality answers to the body without the animating spirit. It does not follow that living faith derives its life from works, as the body derives its life from the animating spirit.