START WITH SCRIPTURE:
There are multiple layers to this passage from James, but each layer addresses the practical application of the Gospel to the Christian life. James deals first with the issue of social status within the community of faith; then with the royal law found in Scripture, the law of love; and finally, with the proper exercise of faith expressing itself through works.
First, James addresses the tendency in the church to kowtow to the rich, and to treat the poor as inferiors. Not only are Christians not to show favoritism, he says, but he points out that the Scriptures teach the inherent dignity of the poor: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
There are echoes here of the teachings of James’ brother, our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, who said “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
And in the next breath, James sounds very like an Old Testament prophet: Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
Allow one example to stand for several others — Amos denounces the rich and powerful, saying though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts(Amos 5:11-12).
In his second section, verses 8-13, James affirms the central moral principle of the Bible: If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.
This reinforces the teachings of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 22:37-39) and of Paul (Romans 13:8-9). James says this in the context of his previous argument about impartiality toward rich and poor: But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. Love, in other words, is to be impartial.
But then comes a deeply convicting challenge: For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. This reminds us of Paul’s similar argument in Romans and in Galatians, as in Galatians 3:10 For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”
Paul’s argument is that the law cannot justify the sinner because no sinner can keep the whole law, and therefore the sinner must rely on the grace of God in Christ received through faith. James may be placing his accent on a slightly different syllable, but the impact is the same. The law is a rigid, perfect code that must be adhered to absolutely: For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
The ultimate yard stick by which the believer will be judged, says James, is the law that gives freedom. The law that gives freedom is the law of love, which sums up all other laws. And by implication, this means that love is inconsistent with adultery and murder, and presumably with all other aspects of the moral law.
Notice here, as elsewhere in Scripture, the principle of reciprocity: judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Not only is mercy an expression of love, but one who is not merciful will not receive mercy! Check out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:14-15: if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
But another central message of the Gospel shines through here as well: Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Third, and finally, James addresses the issue for which he is most famous: faith and works. Most of us associate the book of James with the phrase: Faith without works is dead.
Once again, he is following the thread that he mentioned earlier in this passage concerning the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor: 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?
It is actually helpful to define what he means by faith if we look at the rest of the argument in James 2:18-26. What he is saying is that true faith can be measured not by mere words and feelings, but by how it is lived: Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.
This is very reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). And also A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:18-20).
True faith is demonstrated by action; and action demonstrates true faith.
James addresses the timeless practical questions that Christians wrestle with today. How tempting it is to welcome a wealthy prospective member to the church and show them excessive deference. And how difficult can it be to muster up enthusiasm when one of the “shabby people” needs some of our time.
Yet God doesn’t see rich people or poor people — he simply sees people, whom he loves. And whomever he loves, he expects us to love, and welcome impartially!
And when it comes to knowing how we are to exercise our faith, there are two key principles James reinforces for us.
1. Love is the royal law of the scripture, and sums up all the law. If we love God and love others, we will keep the moral principles of the law.
2. Works are evident of faith. If we are truly people of faith we may ask ourselves, “where is the evidence?” The old saying is true: “If being a Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
One of my favorite hymns in the old hymnals has always been Trust and Obey. This old hymn captures the balance of faith and works that James is talking about:
Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.
This seems to me to be supported by Paul also, who says the only thing that counts is faith working through love (Galatians 5:6).
This doesn’t mean that we are saved by works of the law. We are saved by grace through faith; but true faith always takes us to the next level. Gypsy Smith, an evangelist famous in the early 20th century, once said “we are not saved by works, but we are saved for works. You cannot be saved by your works, but you cannot be saved long without works.”
There is always the sense of balance, of both/and in the Gospel. As Ephesians 2:8-10 says it so well: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Salvation is a gift of God, received by faith, and is not an accomplishment of ours. But God has saved us so that we can fulfill his works in the world and work through us.
Lord, I need your grace to help me live the life to which you call me. I want to treat people impartially and equally, but I confess sometimes I play favorites. I strive to fulfill the law of love, but I find myself judging others, which is not my prerogative but yours. I believe, but I need your help to put my faith to work. Thank you that you meet me where I am! Amen.
PHOTOS: "Faith plus Works" by Art4TheGlryOfGod by Sharon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.