The final verse of James chapter one left us with the following admonition: “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). In other words, a truly God-honoring spiritual belief can be identified (at least in part) by a willingness to assist others who are less fortunate as well as a refusal to conform to an anti-Biblical worldview.
James chapter two will build upon this theme by providing us with some examples of “pseudo Christianity” in making the point that a faith that fails to result in visible action is a faith that is dead. One commentator summarizes this relationship between “faith” and “works” in the following manner…
“Many people assume that by trying to live a good life, they have done all that is necessary to get to heaven. They rest their confidence on the good works they have performed to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. This is a futile hope. God’s law requires perfection. Since we are not perfect, we lack the necessary goodness to enter heaven. Thus goodness can never be achieved by living a good life. We can only receive it by trusting in the righteousness of Christ. His merit is perfect and is made available to us through faith.
To believe that we are justified by our good works apart from faith is to embrace the heresy of legalism. To believe that we are justified by a kind of faith that produces no works is to embrace the heresy of antinomianism. (1) The relationship of faith and good works is one that may be distinguished but never separated. Though our good works add no merit to our faith before God, and though the sole condition of our justification is our faith in Christ, if good works do not follow from our profession of faith, it is a clear indication that we do not possess justifying faith.” (2)
As mentioned previously, the Biblical book of James has been subject to a great deal of controversy over the years due to its perceived conflict with the Apostle Paul’s Scriptural teaching concerning this relationship of faith to good works (see Romans 3:28 and compare with James 2:24). We’ll consider this controversy (and discuss why no such conflict exists when we stop to examine each teaching within its proper context) as we move through James chapter two.
(1) Antinomianism: the idea that Christian liberty exempts one from the moral law. Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1996). Nelson’s quick reference topical Bible index (p. 49). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(2) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2231). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality” (James 2:1).
While much has changed in the twenty centuries since the Epistle of James was written, the type of mindset described within this passage is just as prevalent today as it must have been at the time of this writing. You see, the first nine verses of James chapter two open with a discussion of partiality, favoritism (HCSB), or prejudice (NET).
Although it is a virtual certainty that everyone has experienced (or at least observed) examples of such behavior, its critical to make some distinctions regarding the use of this term as seen here within the book of James. You see, its important to remember that there is a difference between showing favor and displaying favoritism. In a similar sense, it is one thing to be partial towards another person but something quite different to exhibit partiality.
For instance, a favored relationship between two or more individuals may grow out of a shared experience, a mutual sense of trust, the ability to communicate with understanding, character similarities, complimentary beliefs, or other, similar qualities that are completely unobjectionable. These are the kinds of characteristics that help serve to distinguish close, personal friends from those who are merely acquaintances. They also help enable us to establish things like clubs, groups, and other types of social organizations where those with mutual interests can gather together to enjoy each other’s company.
Because of this, its important to think carefully about the kind of attitude that James describes within this passage. To do so, a closer look at the Biblical concept of “partiality” may prove beneficial. You see, this word refers to “the fault of one who when called on to give judgment has respect of the outward circumstances of man and not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high born, or powerful, to another who does not have these qualities.” (1)
This tells us that the message of James 2:1 does not necessarily involve a person who simply holds a predilection or preference towards one person over another- it has more to do with what that preference is based upon. For instance, a decision to prefer one person over another on the basis of his or her ethnic group or racial composition is a decision that fails to recognize the inherent worth of other human beings. This type of attitude is incompatible with genuine Christianity– and James will go on to provide us with another such example next.
(1) G4382 prosopolepsia Thayer’s Greek Definitions
The opening verses of James chapter two provide us with an illustration that serves to demonstrate the fact that relationships should be different among Christians as opposed to those that often exist in the world today. To do so, James will offer the following hypothetical example as part of his illustration…
“For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes” (James 2:2).
Now before we continue with this illustration, let’s pause to make some observations regarding the example that is set before us within this verse.
First, remember that the very first verse of this chapter opened with an address to “My dear brothers and sisters…” (NLT). Since James addressed these “brothers and sisters” who were now assembling together within this illustration, we can reasonably assume that this example involves fellow Christians who were attending a first century version of a church service.
It was during this hypothetical church service that a visitor arrived with a reputation that clearly preceded him. This person was clearly a man of wealth as demonstrated not only by his attire but also through the multiple gold rings he possessed. One source explains the significance of these rings to this illustration…
“While Jews commonly wore rings (cf. Luke 15:22), few could afford gold ones. However, there are some reports that in the ancient world the most ostentatious people wore rings on every finger but the middle one to show off their economic status (some ancient sources indicate that there were even ring rental businesses).” (1)
The second person in our illustration also had a reputation that preceded him as well but in a very different manner. You see, this second person arrived for our hypothetical church service in clothing that was old and worn-out. Other Biblical versions of this passage refer to this second person’s clothing as dirty (NAS), shabby (MKJV), and threadbare (TLB).
In the first century world, those with limited incomes usually possessed a single set of clothes that were constantly worn out of necessity. So just as visitor number one’s attire said something about his economic status, the same held true for the clothing worn by visitor number two- it said that this second man was poor.
Now its important to consider these observations carefully for the hypothetical illustration that is put before us within this passage is about to become very personal.
Although James chapter two opens with a hypothetical illustration, our author is about to inject his readers directly into this story…
“If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:3-4 NIV).
We should take note that this passage begins with the words, “If you…” This means that this example is no longer just a remote theoretical exercise for you the reader have just been inserted into this illustration. In effect, James has just transported you into this account and given you the responsibility of seating each of these individuals for the church service.
So where will you seat each of these men? Well, here’s the question you must answer…
“do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and to the poor person, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit on the floor?'” (NET).
That choice would involve a decision to show favor and respect to one person on the basis of his wealth and/or fashionable appearance and disregard for another person on the basis of his apparent economic disadvantage. This kind of choice -the decision to show favor to the wealthy and disrespect to the poor- reveals something that is highly inappropriate…
“…doesn’t this discrimination show that you are guided by the wrong motives?” (NLT).
This should not be seen as a criticism of the courtesy and respect that was shown to the wealthy person but it certainly serves as an indictment of the unfair treatment that was given to one person simply because of his apparent wealth and another person simply because of his apparent poverty.
The Scriptures speak very clearly against this kind of attitude in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, Leviticus 19:15 tells us, “Always judge your neighbors fairly, neither favoring the poor nor showing deference to the rich” (NLT). Jesus also taught on this concept when He said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24 NKJV).
We can often learn much about others simply by observing their response to those who appear to belong to a lower social or economic level- and James chapter two serves as a cautionary warning against the tendency to judge others solely on our perception of their appearance.
“If you show more respect to the well-dressed man and say to him, ‘Have this best seat here,’ but say to the poor man, ‘Stand over there, or sit here on the floor by my feet,’ then you are guilty of creating distinctions among yourselves and of making judgments based on evil motives” (James 2:3-4 GNB).
It is often easy to fall into the trap of displaying favor towards someone else strictly on the basis of his or her external appearance. In fact, the great Old Testament prophet Samuel made that very same mistake on one occasion.
You see, the opening verses of 1 Samuel chapter sixteen tell us that God sent the prophet Samuel on a mission to select the new king of Israel. This passage of Scripture tells us that God dispatched Samuel with the following instructions: “…take a vial of olive oil and go to Bethlehem and find a man named Jesse, for I have selected one of his sons to be the new king” (1 Samuel 16:1 TLB).
So Samuel made his way to Bethlehem where he eventually met up with Jesse and his sons. After inviting Jesse and his family to take part in a sacrificial offering, Samuel took notice of Jesse’s oldest son Eliab. The Scriptures then go on to tell us that “Samuel saw Eliab and thought, ‘Surely this is the man who the Lord has chosen'” (1 Samuel 16:6 ERV).
Although Samuel may have been convinced that God had selected Jesse’s oldest son to serve as Israel’s new leader, God had an important message for Samuel and the readers of this account: “…the Lord told him, ‘Samuel, don’t think Eliab is the one just because he’s tall and handsome. He isn’t the one I’ve chosen. People judge others by what they look like, but I judge people by what is in their hearts'” (1 Samuel 16:7 CEV).
The following verses then go on to tell us that each of Jesse’s seven oldest sons were rejected until David -the youngest- was finally called in from watching the sheep in the fields and anointed as the next King of Israel.
So the message for us is that it is possible to fall into a serious error by choosing to favor some and excluding others simply on the basis of their appearance. Remember that a person of external wealth and beauty may still be an ugly human being no matter how attractive he or she may appear to be.
“Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” (James 2:5-7).
In this passage, James will go on to address the kind of attitude that reflexively favors the rich over the poor with a series of rhetorical questions that should enable his readers to conclude for themselves that such acts are wrong.
The first question is this: “…has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…” (ESV). Notice that it is not that God has chosen everyone who is economically disadvantaged or that He has only chosen the poor; instead, James’ contention is that a decision to disfavor the poor is a decision to repudiate a group that God has chosen to be rich in faith.
One explanation for this sovereign choice can be found within the Apostle Paul’s message to the church at Corinth…
“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Jesus also made this observation concerning those who are materially wealthy: “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).
This tells us that the real issue often comes down to one of trust, for it is generally easier for those with few financial resources to place their faith in Christ. Since material wealth often serves to provide a false sense of security, an affluent person may feel little inclination to seek or accept Jesus’ sacrificial offering on his or her behalf.
“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (James 2:8-9).
The New Testament Gospel of Matthew records the following exchange between Jesus and an expert in the Mosaic Law…
“Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matthew 22:35-40).
This helps to explain why “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is identified as a “royal” (or “sovereign”) law here in James chapter two. It is royal in the sense that it proceeds from the Highest Authority and is preeminent in relation to all other laws. Various commentators have provided us with a number of useful observations concerning this royal decree…
- “(It is called) the royal law because it was given by the King and because it is the king of laws.” (1)
- “The royal law means ‘law that is truly royal in its quality’ …An individual ‘loves’ himself irrespective of financial or social status. We should love others in the same manner.” (2)
- “The law of love… is called ‘royal’ because it is the supreme law that is the source of all other laws governing human relationships.” (3)
- “The idea is that this law is supreme or binding… This sovereign law (quoted from Leviticus 19:18), when combined with the command to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5), summarizes all the Law and the Prophets…” (4)
So the favoritism spoken of in James chapter two violates this foundational rule of Scripture. It is also inconsistent with the way in which we would like others to interact with us (see Luke 6:31). Since love always seeks another person’s highest good, it is inappropriate to favor some for what they possess or what they may be able to do for us while disregarding others due to their lack of material possessions or their perceived inability to offer us anything.
As Jesus Himself once said by way of illustration, “…I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40 GW).
(1) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell, James 2:8 Ryrie Study Notes © 1986, 1995 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp.
(2) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2589). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
(3) Zondervan New International Version Study Bible, (pg. 1921). Hendrickson Publishers
(4) MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Jas 2:8). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
“For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10-11).
It’s often been said that the Old Testament Law can be compared to the links in a bicycle chain. Every link in a bicycle chain may be perfect but if one suddenly breaks or goes missing, the entire chain becomes useless.
This illustration represents an important consideration for those who wish to establish a “works-based” relationship with God. For instance, a person who keeps the Law in every area but one is guilty of violating the entire Law- or as James 2:9 puts it, “…whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (ESV).
We can also express this idea by way of another illustration. Let’s say that a person is driving his or her automobile above the legal speed limit. If that driver is pulled over by the authorities, it will do little good for that person to protest that he or she has always been a good citizen, has never stolen anything, or regularly volunteers to help those who are less fortunate.
You see, no amount of obedience or charitable effort in other areas of life can make up for the fact that the person in our illustration has broken the law by speeding. The same can be said for those who seek to enter a works-based relationship with God. The person who elects to do so is placed under the obligation of keeping the entire Law- and a person who is guilty of breaking the Law in one area has effectively broken them all.
This is not to say that each transgression is equally serious or that there are no degrees of sin. Just as human law recognizes greater or lesser degrees of punishment based on the severity of a crime, there are greater or lesser consequences associated with different violations of God’s Law. (1) The point is that any transgression (no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential) still represents an offense against God.
As one commentator observes by way of a sporting analogy, “A basketball, whether it misses the hoop by an inch or a yard, still fails to score. Likewise, he who shows partiality becomes a transgressor just as readily as if he had murdered or committed adultery.” (2)
(2) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2589). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
“So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13).
In commenting on this section, one source observes, “There must have been a decidedly worldly element in the Judean Church, to call forth such words as these.” (1) You see, these verses carry a greater impact than a casual glance may seem to indicate. For instance, notice the command that James sets forth within this passage: “So speak and so do…” This does not represent a mere suggestion or good piece of advice; this is an imperative.
This portion of Scripture serves to remind us that our professed beliefs must be supported by the things we say and do. Its been said that actions speak louder than words, and the choices we make generally serve to demonstrate what we truly believe.
To illustrate the importance of this idea, lets take the example of someone who claims to follow the God of the Scriptures but demonstrates something very different by way of his or her actions. Titus 1:16 addresses this kind of dichotomy when it says, “Such people claim to know God, but their actions prove that they really don’t” (CEV). As James himself also remarked,“…be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
The motivation for acting in accordance with what we profess to believe is given next: “You must make it your habit to speak and act like people who are going to be judged by the law of liberty” (ISV). One source expands on this idea with the following observation: “Christians ought to conduct themselves as if judgment may come at any moment. The constraining stimulus should not be a harsh, merciless court, but the law of liberty, which assures us we are free from the bondage of sin.” (2)
Virtually everyone can look back on one or more occasions when God responded with far more mercy than our actions really deserved (see Ezra 9:13). Since God has been merciful towards us, we therefore bear the responsibility of following His good example by extending mercy towards others as well. Those who refuse to do so can find their alternative in James 2:13: “…judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful” (NIV).
Nevertheless, James also makes certain to remind us that “Mercy triumphs over judgment” and as Jesus said in Matthew 5:7, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
(1) Henry H. Halley Halley’s Bible Handbook , James 2:1-13 Favortism
(2) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2589). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
When it comes to an athletic competition, its rarely necessary for an outstanding athlete to talk about his or her proficiency in a given sport. Instead, all that person needs to do is demonstrate his or her athletic talent on the field, on the court, on the ice, or in the gym.
In a similar manner, a person who claims to possess faith in God will demonstrate the reality of such faith by his or her actions. Simply put, the things we do help demonstrate the existence of genuine Biblical faith.
Now before we continue, we should be clear on an important point: people are made right with God through faith alone (see Romans 3:20-26, Romans 5:1, and Ephesians 2:8-9). However, real Biblical faith is always accompanied by verifiable actions. This is the subject that James will address for the remainder of this chapter…
“What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:14-16).
So this passage provides us with a test that we can use to determine if we truly possess a Biblical, God-honoring faith. The parameters of this test are simple: a fellow Christian has been deprived of food and clothing- two obvious needs that anyone would be certain to notice.
If we were to re-cast this test in a modern-day setting, we might do so with this analogy: let’s say that a fire has destroyed the home and possessions of a fellow Christian and his family. Upon learning of this news, one person responds by saying, “I feel sorry for that family. Romans 8:28 says that all things work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose. I’m sure God will provide for them in some way.”
In this scenario, we might apply the message of James 2:16: “What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help?” (CEV). You see, a brother or sister in Christ should have the reasonable expectation that the members of the church or local Christian community will actually do something to help in such a desperate situation.
This has led one commentator to observe, “If your faith does not lead you to share with your destitute brother, there is something desperately wrong with it.” (1)
(1) Ray C. Stedman, James: The Activity of Faith http://www.raystedman.org/bible-overview/adventuring/james-the-activity-of-faith
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17 NIV).
As previously mentioned, this passage examines our responsibility toward others within the Christian community who may require our assistance. While it is impossible to address every need that may exist in a perpetually needy world, its important to recognize that we cannot escape our responsibility by hiding behind that reality. Remember that this passage does not concern “everyone” who may be in need; it simply says, “If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food…” (CEV).
It is also true that there may be times when it is appropriate to withhold assistance from a person who might benefit from experiencing the consequences of his or her actions (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15). Yet even that choice should find its origin in a desire to ultimately help that person and not derive from a shallow or disinterested attitude as James 2:15-17 implies.
Instead, this passage warns us against the kind of frivolous response that does little to address the needs of those who clearly need help. That kind of attitude reveals the presence of a dead faith that may carry implications that last beyond our physical lives. For instance, consider Jesus’ parable from Matthew 25:41-46…
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (NIV).
Therefore, a person who sees a fellow Christian in need and says, “somebody ought to do something about that situation” may wish to consider if he or she might be that “somebody.”
“Thus, faith by itself, unaccompanied by actions, is dead” (James 2:17 CJB).
At this point, we should pause to consider the relationship between James’ examination of genuine faith here in chapter two and the Apostle Paul’s discussion of faith in the Biblical book of Romans. For instance, consider Romans 4:4-5…
“Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
Romans 11:6 also tells us…
“(God’s) choice is based on his grace, not on what they have done. For if God’s choice were based on what people do, then his grace would not be real grace” (GNB).
Finally, Romans 3:28 says…
“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.”
However, James 2:24 will later go on to say this: “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” While these seemingly contradictory statements have generated a great degree of controversy, a closer look at the parameters that James sets before us here in chapter two may be useful in clearing up this apparent conflict.
First, notice that James began this section by saying, “What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14). Its important to note that the person mentioned in this passage says he has genuine faith but may not actually possess it.
The way to verify that claim is to examine those works that proceed from it, a point that James will go on to address in greater detail within the next few verses. On the other hand, Paul’s letter to the Romans was directed (at least in part) towards those who placed their faith in their ability to keep the Law and not in Christ.
This context is important in helping us gain a proper understanding of these two portions of Scripture. For Paul, the question is this: “Where is one’s faith placed?” James addresses a different question: “What kind of faith is necessary for salvation?” As one commentator observes…
“The NT does not teach justification by works, but it also does not teach justification by the profession of faith or the claim to faith; it teaches justification by the possession of true faith, and true faith always bears the fruit of love of God and neighbor. James has in mind a genuine, living faith that produces fruitful works, which is evidence that will vindicate (or prove) the validity of one’s authentic justifying faith…” (1)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2230). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18)
James 2:18 tells us that genuine, Biblical faith is something that should have a tangible impact in the lives of others. But why isn’t it enough for someone to simply believe that God exists? Well, here’s the answer…
“You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!” (James 2:19).
Although it may represent a disturbing truth, a person who simply believes that God exists is really no different from a demonic being in that respect. Demons believe in God’s existence as well but in the words of one Biblical paraphrase, “…what good does it do them?” (MSG).
Consider this incident from Jesus’ life…
“Now in the synagogue there was a man who had a spirit of an unclean demon. And he cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Let us alone! What have we to do with You, Jesus of Nazareth? Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are– the Holy One of God!'” (Luke 4:33-34).
Although demonic beings clearly recognize the truth about Jesus, that recognition does not automatically mean that all is well. In fact, just the opposite is true, for their actions represent a deep-seated contempt for that truth.
In a similar manner, it is possible for someone to “believe in God” yet live in a way that effectively denies His existence. A genuine, God-honoring, Biblical faith is one that will demonstrate its hidden reality; otherwise, it is dead and useless according to James 2:17.
In light of this, it’s important to remember that people often judge Christ and the God of the Scriptures by those who claim to represent Him- and Jesus saved some of His strongest criticism for those who claimed to know God in theory but were very different in practice…
“Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look beautiful on the outside but inside are full of the bones of the dead and of everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you look righteous to people, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28 NET).
Genuine, Biblical faith is more than simply believing “…that there is one God…” (NIV). In the words of one Biblical scholar, “…no one can get to the top floor by an elevator if she simply believes that elevators can get her there. She must believe in the elevator (i.e., trust it) enough to step in it and allow it to get her there.” (1)
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When Critics Ask : A popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties (pp. 526–527). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
“But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:20-22).
There is a considerable difference between a belief in God’s existence and the act of placing one’s faith and trust in God. The great Old Testament patriarch Abraham provides us with a model that illustrates this difference, for Abraham may represent the finest Biblical example of authentic faith.
The Scriptures tells us that God called Abram (as he was then known) at age seventy-five to leave his home and travel to another land that God would reveal to him (see Genesis 12:1). In addition, God said, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2 NIV).
Despite the fact that Abram and his wife were well beyond child-bearing years, the Scriptures tell us that he took God at His word and “…departed as the Lord instructed him…” (Genesis 12:4). We’re then told that Abram continued his journey until he finally reached the land of Canaan (Genesis 12:4-8), an area that generally comprises the modern-day nation of Israel.
After a brief (but eventful) sojourn in Egypt, Abram later returned to Canaan. Although Abram was quite wealthy by this time (Genesis 13:2), the reality was that he was an elderly man in an unfamiliar environment. He was also surrounded by a number of potentially hostile neighbors like the Canaanites and Perizzites (Genesis 13:7).
Other than his servants, his possessions, and his nephew Lot (who eventually left to live within the region of Sodom), Abram had little more than a promise from God- a promise that he accepted and believed by faith. Because of this, Genesis 15:6 tells us that “(Abram) believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (NIV).
In the course of time, God gave Abraham a son just as He had promised (see Genesis 15:2-5, 17:19, and 21:1-7). As a further demonstration of his faith, we’ll later find that Abraham was prepared to present his beloved son as a sacrificial offering (Genesis 22:1-19).
We’ll look at that account in greater detail next but for now, we can say that Abraham’s external actions revealed the existence of his internal faith. Therefore as James 2:22 tells us, “…(Abraham’s) faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did” (NIV).
“Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend’ (James 2:21-23 NIV).
Isaac represented the fulfillment of God’s promise to provide Abraham with an heir. But there came a time when Isaac was involved in a significant test of Abraham’s faith…
“Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love–Isaac–and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you’
…When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son'” (Genesis 22:2, 9-12 NIV).
While the sacrifice of his own son was traumatic enough, let’s consider what this sacrifice entailed. First, Abraham had to split the wood to sacrifice his own son (Genesis 22:3). Next, Abraham had three long days to think about the ensuing death of his beloved child as they traveled together to the site of his execution.
If that wasn’t enough, Isaac eventually began to question the true nature of their trip: “Father, we have the coals and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” (Genesis 22:7 CEV). This must have been a difficult question for Abraham but his answer revealed the true depth of his faith: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 NIV).
It seems that Abraham’s faith in God was such that he believed God would keep His promises, even if that meant bringing his son back from the dead. God’s response subsequently validated the reality of Abraham’s faith through his willingness to offer his son, thus making Abraham a living embodiment of Romans 1:17: “…it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith'” (NIV).
“You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
James 2:24 provides us an opportunity to consider the important Biblical concept of “justification.”
When found within the Scriptures, this word is used to describe the judicial process by which imperfect and sinful human beings are made acceptable to a holy and perfect God. In the original language of this passage, the word “justified” means, “to declare, pronounce one to be just, righteous, or such as he ought to be.” (1)
In considering the doctrine of justification, its important to ensure that we do not remove James 2:24 from its Biblical context. If we fail to take that precaution, we might be led to believe that people are justified by their good efforts and not by faith alone. But as we’ve seen, that would misrepresent the premise of James chapter two as well as a number of other important Biblical references.
As many commentators have pointed out, salvation is through faith alone but the faith that saves is not alone- it is always accompanied by external acts that reveal the evidence of its existence. In like manner, the basis for our justification is not found in the number of good works we’ve done. Instead, our faith in Jesus and His sacrificial death on our behalf forms the basis of our justification (see Galatians 2:16). Good works should then follow as the external evidence of that internal faith.
You see, the Scriptures tell us “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” in speaking of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). In light of this, Romans 5:1 concludes, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Since Jesus accepted the death sentence decreed against humanity, “…the result of (this) one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men” (Romans 5:18 NIV). Furthermore, “…since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation” (Romans 5:9 NLT).
So a “faith” that is not accompanied by verifiable works is one that cannot be justified as genuine. This is the point of James chapter two. One commentator summarizes this relationship between faith and works in the following manner: “…as James makes clear, true faith will, by its very nature, produce those works that will acquit us at the judgment. So, while faith and works must be kept distinct, they must also not be separated.” (2)
(1) G1344 dikaioo Thayer’s Greek Definitions
(2) Elwell, W. A. (1995). Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, Jas 2:14). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
“Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25).
Rahab is someone who perhaps is best known for her efforts to hide a pair of Israelite spies from the authorities within the ancient city of Jericho. But the events that led to Rahab’s fateful decision actually began long before those Israelite agents ever reached the city…
“After the death of Moses the LORD’s servant, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant. He said, ‘Moses My servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them. I promise you what I promised Moses: ‘Wherever you set foot, you will be on land I have given you'” (Joshua 1:1-3 NLT).
We’re then told, “Joshua chose two men as spies and sent them from their camp at Acacia with these instructions: ‘Go across the river and find out as much as you can about the whole region, especially about the town of Jericho.’ The two spies left the Israelite camp at Acacia and went to Jericho, where they decided to spend the night at the house of a prostitute named Rahab” (Joshua 2:1 CEV).
Jericho was the first city that the people of Israel encountered after they crossed the Jordan River and entered the land that God had promised to give them. Modern-day archaeologists have excavated the ancient city of Jericho on a number of occasions and their work has provided us with an idea of what life was like within the city during the Old Testament period.
Although Jericho was a residential city, it almost seems as if it was constructed like an ancient version of a military base. For example, researchers believe that Jericho was more than a quarter-mile wide in diameter (about .50 km) and occupied an elevated location, a position that offered a definite advantage against a potential invasion force.
It also appears that there were three different walls that surrounded the city to protect it from intruders. The first wall circled the city’s perimeter and was fifteen feet (5m) high and six feet (2m) thick. Behind this perimeter wall was a second wall that was twenty-five feet (8m) high and six feet (2m) thick. Finally, a third wall that was similar in height and thickness to the second wall was built within these two outer walls.
We’ll see what this information has to do with James 2:25 over the next two studies.
“And in like manner was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them out another way?” (James 2:25 ASV).
Rahab lived within the ancient city of Jericho, Israel’s first military objective upon entering the land of Canaan. However, the inhabitants of Jericho were not taken by surprise by the advancing Israelites for Joshua 6:1 tells us that the city went into a complete lockdown to defend against them.
But an Israelite scout team had already penetrated the city some time earlier and established a residence within Rahab’s home. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before the authorities arrived…
“…someone informed the king of Jericho that two Israelis who were suspected of being spies had arrived in the city that evening. He dispatched a police squadron to Rahab’s home, demanding that she surrender them. ‘They are spies,’ he explained. ‘They have been sent by the Israeli leaders to discover the best way to attack us.’
But she had hidden them, so she told the officer in charge, ‘The men were here earlier, but I didn’t know they were spies. They left the city at dusk as the city gates were about to close, and I don’t know where they went. If you hurry, you can probably catch up with them!’ But actually she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them beneath piles of flax that were drying there” (Joshua 2:2-6 TLB).
It was then that Rahab demonstrated the kind of faith that would alter her destiny…
“Before the spies went to sleep that night, Rahab went up on the roof to talk with them. ‘I know the Lord has given you this land,’ she told them. ‘We are all afraid of you. Everyone in the land is living in terror. For we have heard how the Lord made a dry path for you through the Red Sea when you left Egypt.
And we know what you did to Sihon and Og, the two Amorite kings east of the Jordan River, whose people you completely destroyed. No wonder our hearts have melted in fear! No one has the courage to fight after hearing such things. For the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below.’
‘Now swear to me by the Lord that you will be kind to me and my family since I have helped you. Give me some guarantee that when Jericho is conquered, you will let me live, along with my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all their families” (Joshua 2:8-13 NLT).
We’ll link this account to James’ discussion of faith next.
“In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” (James 2:2:25 NIV).
After Rahab secretly assisted the Israelite spies in escaping from Jericho, Joshua 6:2-21 records the collapse of the city’s seemingly impenetrable walls and its subsequent destruction. However, there was one group of residents who were spared from death: “…Joshua said to the two spies, ‘Keep your promise. Go to the prostitute’s house and bring her out, along with all her family'” (Joshua 6:22 NLT).
Rahab’s account provides us with an example of the “faith backed by action” spoken of here in James chapter two. You see, Rahab not only said that “…the Lord your God is the supreme God of the heavens above and the earth below” (Joshua 2:11 NLT), she verified her stated belief by taking action.
For instance, if Rahab did not possess genuine faith in the God of the Scriptures, there would have been no reason for her to risk her life to hide Joshua’s advance scouts and safely send them away. If Rahab did not have true faith in the God of Israel, she would not have agreed to hang a scarlet cord in her window to identify her place of residence (Joshua 2:14-21).
If Rahab had “faith but not works,” she might not have chosen to stay within her home in the midst of the city’s annihilation. Rahab also demonstrated her conviction that God would be faithful to ensure that the people of Israel followed through on their promise to spare her when they entered the city. These acts served to validate her faith in God to save her from the city’s destruction.
So Rahab’s faith had a visible impact upon her choices and decisions- and to paraphrase James 2:18, she demonstrated her faith by her works. This also explains why Rahab has been acknowledged within the “Faith Hall of Fame” as found within the New Testament book of Hebrews (see Hebrews 11:31).
But this is not the end of Rahab’s story. You see, the Scriptures tell us that Rahab went on to settle among the people of Israel (Joshua 6:25) and eventually married a man named Salmon. Rahab and Salmon’s lineage eventually led to the birth of Israel’s King David and ultimately to Jesus Himself (see Matthew 1:5-16).
As with the example of Abraham, Rahab’s external actions demonstrated the internal reality of her faith- and because Rahab acted upon what she believed, she helps serve as an example of genuine, authentic, Biblical faith.
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
It can often be challenging to find an appropriate gift for someone who has accumulated a large number of possessions. After all, what can you give to the person who seemingly has everything? In a sense, this was the dilemma facing the people of Old Testament Israel in their relationship with God. In fact, God Himself addressed this very situation through the pen of the Psalmist…
“Why would I want more bulls from your barns or goats from your pens? I already own all the animals in the forest. I own all the animals on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains. Everything that moves in the fields is mine. If I were hungry, I would not ask you for food. I already own the world and everything in it” (Psalm 50:9-12 ERV).
So what can mere human beings offer to the God who is in need of nothing? Well, Psalm 50 goes on to provide us with an answer to that question: “Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God, and keep the vows you made to the Most High” (Psalm 50:14 NLT).
Sincere, genuine faith in God through Christ is another offering that is sure to be accepted by God for as we’re told in Hebrews 11:6, “It’s impossible to please God apart from faith…” (MSG). For instance, we can allow the trials of life to generate things like worry, fear, or anxiety. Or we can view those trials as opportunities to exercise the kind of faith that is pleasing to God.
The two examples given to us here within the closing verses of James chapter two -Abraham and Rahab- provide us with models that represent the kind of faith that truly honors God. These two individuals were certainly not perfect but their choices and subsequent actions demonstrated the reality of their genuine, authentic, God-honoring faith.
So if we truly believe that God accepts and rewards those who diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6), our lives should reflect that belief as well. Of course, doing good things doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is a Godly person, but a Godly person will certainly demonstrate his or her faith by doing good things.
In the final equation, the real test of faith lies not in simply saying what we believe but in acting on what we believe- and in the words of James 2:26, “Anyone who doesn’t breathe is dead, and faith that doesn’t do anything is just as dead!” (CEV).