James speaks in this chapter about the importance of faith and love. Paul began his letter to the Colossian Christians with these words: “We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all the saints.” (Colossians 1:3-4a)
James teaches us that all Christians must have a biblical worldview that embraces the unity of rich and poor, based on a faith that leads to obedient action that will bless the world.
There was once a favorite praise song for Christians who wanted to express their unity in Christ that went beyond racial and class divisions.
“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord . . .
and we pray that all unity will one day be restored . . .
we will walk with each other . . .
we will work side by side,
and we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.
All praise to the Father, from whom all things come;
and all praise to Christ Jesus, His only Son,
And all praise to the Spirit, who makes us one.” (1966, by Fr. Peter Scholtes)
James introduces his teaching on the necessity of unity of poor and rich Christians, and concludes it later in chapters three and four. He was addressing churches that showed partiality to the rich while ignoring the needs of the poor. Some Christians there were applying standards of secular, ungodly society to the situation in their churches. They had a “world-friendly faith.” Paul warns against this in Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
We too easily become conformed to the world’s mindset and value systems. Without the renewing of our minds by the Holy Spirit’s planting the Word of God within us, we become “worldly Christians.” The results are racial prejudice, oppression of the poor by the rich, and many more social evils . . . all found not only in our society, but also inside our churches.
We must remember that James is not saying that it is a sin to be wealthy. The Scriptures are full of stories of men and women of wealth who used their wealth to serve others, who understood themselves to be stewards of the wealth that God gave them to be a blessing to others. We remember the Shunamite woman of Elisha’s day (2 Kings chapter 4), of Barnabas the Levite in the Book of Acts, who owned land and used it to build up the community of the Early Church; and who also, according to many scholars, used his wealth to finance the first missionary journey that he undertook with the apostle Paul. Throughout history, godly men and women of wealth have furthered the expansion of the Kingdom of God. The problem is not money; it is love of money – mammonism. The poor as well as the rich easily fall into this trap of love of money.
James gives a lot of space in this short letter to the matter of poor and rich Christians, which shows us that this was a major problem among his readers.
James described a church meeting where the ushers discriminated against a poor man. The church leaders were treating the rich like a special class, and treating the poor with contempt. He accused these Christians of judging the poor, and warned them that they themselves will be judged by the law. He made three accusations (2:6-7):
- Oppressing the poor
- Dragging the poor into court
- Blaspheming the name of Christ
The Royal Law
He exhorts them to fulfill the “royal law” (2:8), which could also be called the “supreme law” of the Scriptures. The most wonderful explanation of this “royal law” is found in Moses’ sermon to the people of Israel, especially his exhortation in Deuteronomy 10:12-22, where he explains the essence of the law. Take a moment now and read this important passage. You will understand fully the meaning of this commandment, and you will begin to desire to live this way.
Micah 6:8 tells us clearly what God requires of those who follow Him. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice [mishpat], and to love kindness [hesed – also faithful love or mercy], and to walk humbly with your God?”
These two passages help us understand how James is exhorting the churches to live . . . to believe in Jesus, to love Him, and to serve Him with all our heart and soul by serving others, just as Jesus has served us.
(Remember that a good way to enrich your study of any passage of Scripture is to examine similar passages in other parts of the Bible that may help you understand what you are studying. A cross-reference Bible is a great help in your study. A basic principle of Bible study is: The Word interprets the Word.)
The royal law is to love God with all our heart and soul, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus added a radical “new commandment” to His disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 ESV)
The Law of Liberty
What is the “law of liberty, or freedom” (James 2:12)? It is the law of the Spirit. Romans 8:1-2 – “There is therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and death.” The “law of liberty” is not a new law; it is a new way of obeying the law.
The Mosaic law was the law of death, because it had no power to help sinners turn away from sin. The “law of liberty,” or the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,” gives us the power to overcome sin and obey the law.
James says it well: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13) The New Jerusalem Bible says it this way: “Mercy can afford to laugh at judgment!” Mercy does not abolish justice, but fulfills it and exceeds it. (Thomas Aquinas) Mercy is the highest expression of God’s love, and as such it is the heart of the Gospel. Mercy does not undermine justice; it goes beyond justice. God does not stand beneath the demands of justice. He stands above those demands. The blueprint of the tabernacle that God gave to Moses in the wilderness shows the placement of each part of the tabernacle. The ark of the covenant, found in the “Holy of Holies,” contained the tablets of the law that God gave to Moses. But God placed the “mercy seat” above the ark of the covenant. He is a just God, righteous in all His ways. But God’s righteousness is the righteousness of love. God is love. 1 John 4:16 – “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” God is merciful, and we are called to be like Him.
In this section, James shows that faith without works is dead. James 2:14 – “How does it help, my brothers, when someone who has never done a single good act claims to have faith? Will that faith bring salvation? (NJB) James is saying that God’s Word drives us out into the world to do good works in Jesus’ name. We are created to do good works, for we are “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
The main point is that faith must result in good works to be complete faith. He is speaking here about the direction of true spirituality. True spirituality does not flow inward, simply blessing us and causing us to have great peace and joy. True spirituality must flow outward, into the world. The greater our faith, the more it will flow into the world. We also will have greater personal blessings, peace and joy; for the one giving the gift is blessed even more than those who receive it.
We cannot choose between faith and works. Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac, was not an act that he did apart from his faith. Rather, his obedience to what he understood to be God’s command completed his faith. Abraham’s faith was perfected through his obedience, just as it had been previously perfected by his obedience to leave his home and follow the Lord. God said to Abraham, in Genesis 22:12, “Now I know that you fear God.”
How should we understand James’ teaching? Both James and Paul taught that faith is not just belief in proper doctrines; faith is completed by good works that follow. When James says that a person is saved by works and “not by faith alone,” he is speaking of faith that is only in the mind. True saving faith is faith that results in works of obedience to God. This is why James says, in James 2:18, “But some 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.”
Faith without works is meaningless. Works without faith have no value. Our works reveal our faith. When we obey God and live out our life of faith by doing what He tells us to do, the world will see our good works and know that we are men and women of faith. God has a specific work that He wants each of us to do. But there are some works that all Christians must do. A few examples are:
- We must love fellow Christians with the same love with which Christ has loved us.
- We must be witnesses to Jesus Christ to the whole world.
- We must intercede for the world.
- We must feed the hungry.
- We must care for the vulnerable people in our society.
- We must forgive everyone.
- We must work to end poverty.
- We must fight against racial prejudice.
- We must work for reconciliation and peace with our neighbors and among all nations of the world.
- We must speak words that sustain the weary, not words that destroy them.
Jesus gave a new commandment, to love one another as He has loved us; by doing so, the world will know that we are His disciples. The new commandment does not eliminate the “greatest commandment” – to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves.
All too often, we Christians are known by what we do not do, or what we are against, rather than by what we do. Two examples: We let the world know that we are against abortion; and that we oppose homosexuality. Of course the Scriptures teach us that both are wrong, and it is right to work to limit abortion and to bring healing to those who are sexually disoriented. But when we simply oppose them, and make them seem to be the greatest sins of society, are we not being hypocritical? Being hypocritical means that we make a show of being very holy while at the same time doing nothing to alleviate the pain and suffering of people throughout the world. When we ignore the basic commands to care for the weak and vulnerable, to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, to fight against the sex trafficking of millions of children around the world, or to meet the needs of the poor, we make a pretense of righteousness by doing nothing more than voicing our opposition to the evils of our society. Is it any wonder that the world thinks that Christians have no sense of justice?
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” (James 2:26)
Questions to consider
- The gap between rich and poor is increasing today. As a Christian, how do you see your role in helping to solve this problem, beginning in your local church and community?
- How do you understand mercy? Why is it so important to revive a spirit of mercy today?
- Do you understand the relation between faith and works? If you were to meet Martin Luther, how would you help him understand the Letter of James?
- It would be good to read through the 4 Gospels and see Jesus’ demands on His followers. You may be surprised that James tells his readers to do almost the exact same things as Jesus does in the Gospel accounts.