Our faith in Jesus Christ should never be held in partiality, or discrimination. The Lord of glory Himself shows no partiality (Deuteronomy 10:17 Acts 10:34), so neither should those who put their trust in Him.
At the time that James wrote this letter it was a very partial society. The People were filled with prejudice and hatred based on class, ethnicity, nationality, and religious background. In the ancient world people were put into categories of Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, Greek or barbarian, or whatever. An aspect of the work of Jesus was to break down these barriers in the society of the day. One purpose of Jesus was to bring forth a new people united in Him (Ephesians 2:14-15)
Astonishment in this ancient world was the openness and unity of the early Church. But this accomplishment would not come automatically. This point is made clear by the command of James in this letter. The early Church had to be taught by the apostles to never hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . with partiality.
Sometimes partiality is shown to people because of their social status. Those whose achievements outshine the less fortunate may be treated with greater welcome. They may be given the greater attention and provided with the best of opportunity. This is clearly because of their outward appearances and ability to possibly return more in return. The Lord searches the heart and sees people for what they are on the inside. The Christian should pray that God would allow us to see people as He sees them. Everyone has great value to God and no one should be treated as less because of the way they appear on the outside. God knows the potential of what each person could be.
Assembly in Greek translates to synagogue. Synagogue is the meeting place for the Jews. James calling a Christian meeting place shows that this letter was written before Gentiles were widely received into the Church. At the time of this letter most Christians were of Jewish heritage. The Letter of James is the only place in the New Testament that the word synagogue is used as the meeting place of the Christians. “Till the final rift between Judaism and Christianity both Christian and non-Christian Jews used, at least often, the same word for their sacred meeting-place.” (Adamson)
Rings in Roman society were a sign of wealth. The rings of the wealthy were worn with great ostentation. “There were even shops in Rome where rings could be rented for special occasions” (Hiebert)
To show favoritism over the poor for the rich is a calamity among Christians. Again this shows that we care more for the outward appearances that we do for the heart of a person. God looks at the heart and so should we. (1 Samuel 16:7) People who judge others this way have a misunderstanding of who is important and blessed in the sight of the Lord. By assuming that a rich man is more important to God, or more blessed by God, we are putting to much value on material riches. It also shows a selfish streak within us that we think that a rich man can provide more for us and our wants. That the rich can do more favors for us than the poor.
God isn’t partial to the rich or the poor. In fact riches are an obstacle to the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 19:24) There is a sense here that the poor of this world are especially blessed by the Lord. The poor are chosen to be rich in faith because there are more opportunities for them to trust God. Because they realize their need for God more than the rich they may be far richer in faith than the rich man. It is harder for the rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven because of his lack of need for God. The poor are chose because of the humility and knowledge of their dependency upon the Lord.
Having fewer obstacles to the Kingdom of Heaven the poor are more ready to respond to God in faith. In view of this we can see how God has chosen the poor. “Church history demonstrates that comparatively more poor people than rich have responded to the gospel.” (Hiebert) By choosing people by what we can see on the surface we miss the mind of God. Judas appeared to have much better leadership material than Peter, but God saw the heart of each. Not only has God chosen the poor but he has chosen the poor first, in the sense Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 1:26. “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble;” Calvin also writes regarding God’s choice of the poor: “Not indeed alone, but he wished to begin with them, that he might beat down the pride of the rich.”
Because of their love of money, James reminds us, the sin often sins against us. Money is the root of much evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) For this reason alone, the rich are not worthy of the partiality often shown to them.
In anticipation James thinks that some of his readers might defend their partiality towards the rich as say they are caring for their neighbor, who happens to be rich, and this is in obedience to the law. But the problem is not that you are nice to the rich as it is that you neglect the poor in doing so. One cannot make an excuse for their partiality by saying they are fulfilling the law of loving their neighbor.
Our God is the King of kings and the Lord of lords so His law is a royal law. Jesus placed special emphasis on this command, (Matthew 22:36-40) which comes from the Old Testament. (Leviticus 19-18) James is reminding us that the poor man is just as much our neighbor as the rich man.
A person cannot pick and chose the Laws of God he will obey and not obey. James here warns us that if we are not obedient to the whole law then we are guilty of breaking the whole law. God gave us the whole law that we might live a holy life before Him. We cannot agree to obey the law that say we should not commit murder but disregard the law against adultery. By doing that we are willingly committing sin. God does not only just care for the laws that we agree with but cares for His whole law. The whole of the law must be kept if we are to be justified by the law. One ancient Rabbi taught: “If a man performs all the commandments, save one, he is guilty of all and each; to break one precept is to defy God who commanded the whole.” (Adamson)
We are under the law of liberty. The law has liberty, yet it is a law that must be obeyed. It is God’s law that we will be judged by at the judgment seat of Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:10) Being judged by the Law of God it would benefit us to show mercy towards others, as God then He will show mercy towards us. Here James again is making reference to the Sermon of the Mount. For we on the Day of Judgment will be judged in the same measure that we have judged others. (Matthew 7:2)
According to James it is impossible to have a saving faith without good works. People do claim to have that saving faith but do not have good works. James’ question is a valid one, can faith without works save?
We must remember that James was writing to Christians that had a Jewish background. They had a discovered the glory of salvation by faith. These Jewish Christian converts knew the freedom from works righteousness. But they went to the other extreme to believe that works did not matter at all.
James is not contradicting Paul who wrote that we are not saved by works but by the grace of God through faith. (Ephesians 2:9) James is stating the kind of faith that saves us. We are saved by grace through faith, not by works; but saving faith will have works that accompany it. It has been said that faith alone saves but the faith that saves is not alone. Faith has good works with it.
Paul understood that works proved the character of our faith. As Paul wrote, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10) Paul also wrote, “This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.” (Titus 3:8) The great reformer and champion of salvation by grace through faith alone, John Calvin, understood James’ point: “But James has quite another thing in view, even to show that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation is to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon.” (Calvin)
If we fail to show a true concern for a brother or sister in need, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (James 2:16) If we fail to provide the needed necessities, then what does it profit us and our testimony? This then is the example of faith by itself without works, and that faith is dead. We must have a living faith in Jesus in order to have a saving faith. We must trust God for the provision to aid our brothers and sisters in need.
To only say “be warmed and filled” shows that we recognize their need. If we stop here with just comforting words of hope, then we are only giving lip service and not truly helping our neighbor but leaving them naked and hungry. A real saving faith, and the works that come with it, are not only made up of spiritual things, but also a concern for the basic needs for the less fortunate, the need for their comfort, covering, and food. Prayer is always the right answer but we should do our part in God’s answering of that prayer. Pray we must but it is not a substitute for our own personal action.
This passage is the first time James speaks of faith that is dead. True faith alone saves us but it must be a living faith. Our faith is made alive by the works that we do, if it does not have works to accompany it then the question is always do we truly have faith. Faith requires action, faith is acting upon God’s Word, and faith is trusting God’s promises. If we really put our trust and faith on Jesus, we will care for the naked and destitute as He told us to.
Some believe that there is the gift of faith while others believe that there is the gift of works. One can have a gift for good works and a desire to care for the needy, and this is a good attribute, but it is Grace through Faith that we are saved. Here James will have none of this kind of thought. Works will not save us, it is faith that saves us but a real saving faith is demonstrated by works.
James says, “Show me your faith without your works?” We can’t see some ones faith but we can see the result of their faith by the good works that accompany it. You can’t see faith without works, but you can demonstrate the reality of faith by works. The problem with faith without works is that it is the same kind of faith that the demons have. The demons acknowledge and believe in the existence of God. They were created by God before their fall. But they do not have a real faith, a faith that acts upon God’s Word, a faith that is unproven because it is not accompanied by good works.
Long before Abraham offered Isaac he was justified by faith. (Genesis 15:6) Abraham’s obedience towards what God had told him to do, that he was willing to sacrifice his son, demonstrated that he truly trusted God. Here we see the example of faith and works cooperating together perfectly. If Abraham did not believe God, then he could never have done the good work of obedience in offering his son for a sacrifice. Abraham’s faith was shown to be true; his faith was made completed and made perfect by his obedient works.
To be saved by faith only approach to salvation will not justify a person is a faith without good works, a dead faith. True faith, living faith, is shown to be true by good works and that faith alone will justify. A genuine faith must be accompanied by works because faith is connected to regeneration. To be born again is to become a new creature in Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:17) If we do not show evidence of a new life, then there is no genuine saving faith. Charles Spurgeon is reported to have said: “The grace that does not change my life will not save my soul.”
Another example of faith and works that James gives us is the story of Rehab hiding the Israelite spies and seeking salvation from their God. (Joshua 2:8-13) Rehab’s faith was shown to be living because she did something. Rehab’s belief in the God of the Israelite’s would not have saved her if she had not done something with that faith.
It is significant that James uses two examples of living faith, Abraham the father of the Jewish nation and Rehab a Gentile. This may be a rebuke by James on the partiality of the Christian Jews and the Christian Gentiles that were starting to come into the Church. The lesson from Abraham is clear that if we believe God we will do what he tells us. Rehab’s lesson is clear that if we believe God we will help His people, even at our own cost. “He designedly put together two persons so different in their character, in order more clearly to show, that no one, whatever may have been his or her condition, nation, or class in society, has ever been counted righteous without good works.” (Calvin, cited in Hiebert)
The body without life is dead, it is a corpse. Faith without life is faith without works is dead and is unable to save. “Therefore, if no deeds are forthcoming, it is proof that the professed faith is dead. Notice that James does not deny that it is faith. He simply indicates that it is not the right kind of faith. It is not living faith, nor can it save.” (Burdick) “Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God; he is justified by works, and that is, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits.” (Calvin)