Our chapter opens with the distinct confession of Christ; so that we are in advance of the pious but general ground taken before, which, though quite compatible, to say the least, with faith in Him, does not expressly put His name forward, beyond the mention of it that was made in Jam_1:1. We shall see that there is good reason for this new step when it is duly weighed.
"My brethren, do not with respectings of persons have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [Lord] of glory" (ver. 1).
The tendency was strong to sever faith from practice, and this quite as much among Jewish professors, this chapter shows, as among Greeks. It is the levity and selfishness of human nature. But the preceding chapter took a distinct and positive step in asserting the blessedness of enduring trial; and yet more, that of His own will God the Father begot the believers by the word of truth. This is incomparably more than holding sound views. It is not orthodoxy alone but a communicated "divine nature" as 2Pe_1:4 expressly calls it, and as 1 John throughout teaches with fulness and precision.
Here the warning is against the inconsistency of spirit and ways. The case first specified is "in respectings of persons." For it might occur in many forms and in various degrees. But allowance in any shape is not to be indulged, as being an affront to "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ," emphasised as it is here too, by speaking of "the glory" that belongs to Himself.
No soul that believes in Christ can be ignorant of the death-blow He in His entire practice gives to such feelings or conduct. Mary of whom He deigned to be born was a Jewish maiden in the humblest position; so was Joseph the carpenter, His legal father through whose descent He derived His title to the throne of David and Solomon; and this was essential as a perfect claim to Messiahship. For Mary, daughter of Heli, was descended from David's son Nathan who gave no such right. Again, when born, He was laid "in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." So He grew, advancing in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man. One lovely episode excepted, He abides in entire obscurity, going down and dwelling with Mary and Joseph, in subjection to them and in despised Nazareth; yet was He King of kings and Lord of lords.
When His public service called Him to speak out, what so uncompromising! "Blessed ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed ye that hunger now, for ye shall be filled. Blessed ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh. Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you, and shall reproach and cast out your name as wicked for the Son of man's sake. Rejoice in that day and leap [for joy]; for, behold, your reward is great in the heavens, for in the same manner did their fathers to the prophets. But woe to you the rich! for ye have received your consolation; woe to you that are filled now! for ye shall hunger. Woe, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. Woe, when all men speak well of you! for in the same manner did their fathers to the false prophets" (Luke 6: 20 26).
To a similar effect might one transcribe our Lord's habitual teaching; and His ways were in unwavering accord with it. He and He alone, when asked, "Who art thou?" could truly answer, "Absolutely (in the principle of My being) that which I also speak to you" (Joh_8:25). His speech and His conduct - Himself - exactly tallied. He was in every way the truth: not a word to recall, nor a way to question. All was genuine - this always in Him Who was the Holy, the True, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God.
And what shall one say of that mighty work of His which in depth exceeded all that was possible even throughout His days here below? Happily we have the Holy Spirit to pronounce unerringly. He, "subsisting in the form of God, counted it not a thing to be grasped to be on equality with God, but emptied Himself, taking a bondman's form, becoming in likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, death of the cross" (Php_2:6-8). "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich" (2Co_8:9).
Such is "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [Lord] of glory." Can any considerations, can any words, rise up to the simple overwhelming strength of what God thus tells us of Him? Has He not said (Luk_9:23; Luk_9:26), "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me?" and "whosoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him shall the Son of man be ashamed when he cometh in his own glory, and of the Father, and of the holy angels?" Again, has He not laid down, "When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends nor thy brethren, nor thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest haply they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee? But when thou makest a feast, bid the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind; and thou shalt be blessed, because they have it not to recompense thee; for thou shalt be recompensed in the resurrection of the just" (Luk_14:12-14). What more withering of the world's glory than "what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luk_16:15)? Do we truly believe it? And where was respect of persons then in His sighs? It never had a moment's place; nor should it have with us, who believe in Him. His glory may well and for ever eclipse every rival - that of the world especially which crucified Him.
Respect of persons is the instinct of self, and the reflex of the world; but it denies Christ in practice, and the reality of that intimate relationship which grace has formed between all that are His. The inspired writer singles out a particular case which he had probably witnessed, though put here hypothetically.
"For if there come into your meeting (lit. synagogue) a man gold-ringed in splendid clothing, and there come in also a poor one in vile clothing; and ye look upon him that weareth the splendid clothing, and say, Sit thou here well (or, in a good place); and ye say to the poor one, Stand thou there, or sit under my footstool, did you not make a difference among yourselves and become judges of evil thoughts" (vers 2-4)?
One can easily understand "synagogue" used by the writer to those addressed, not literally, but as applied by a ready transition to a Christian company. It is therefore here rendered "meeting" as perhaps the nearest analogue. No one could be surprised at so worldly a spirit in a literal synagogue; it was a grief if it passed to a Christian congregation. What was less congruous with Christ than a gold-ringed man in splendid clothing? Never was He bedizened save in the bitter mockery of those about to crucify Him. Yet could He have called in a moment all the wealth and grandeur of the world around Him, had it been seasonable either for Himself or for those that represent Him here below. On high He is crowned with glory and honour, as they will be at His coming. But faith recognises the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that, though He was rich, for our sakes He became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich. Now, however, is the time to follow Him on earth, indifferent to all that flesh counts desirable, and counting all things loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.
Suffering for righteousness' sake, yet more for Christ's sake, ought to be precious in our eyes as Christians; and we might appropriately honour such as have won a good degree in any spiritual way. But to slight one for the garb that bespeaks his penury, and to honour another because of his gorgeous raiment attesting his wealth, is a two-fold contradiction of Christ. Even the law taught far higher principles than those that the Jews had fallen into, and that govern the Gentiles who know not God. For in the days of law it was touching to read the solicitude of God for the poor and afflicted, and the earnestness with which He urges on His people to consider them. But how much more deeply His compassion was shown in Him Who was His image! And forgetfulness of His example was serious in the eyes of James for those who owe all to His grace, Himself the Lord of glory.
Not that the scripture warrants the spirit of disrespect to the noble or the exalted. Render, says the apostle Paul, to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute [is due]; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour; even as every soul is called to be subject to the higher authorities, being set up by God in His providence, a terror not to a good work but to an evil one. Thus is the Christian relation to the powers that be in the outside world. But love is due to one another among all who bear the Lord's name, and tender compassion to such as are in danger of snare through their trials and poverty. Contempt to the poor Christian is as far from the mind that was in Christ as can be conceived.
Hence we see, before this uncomely offence is touched, how this Epistle in the very first chapter exhorted brethren to count it all joy when they fell into varied temptations; which to unbelievers are nothing but sorrow and disappointment to be got rid of by all means possible. Hence the brother of low degree was to glory in his elevation, and the rich in his humiliation, because as the flower of grass he was to pass away. More than this he who endures temptation (he declares from God) is blessed; for it is not only that grace works moral profit now, but, having here been proved, he shall receive the crown of life promised of the Lord to those that love Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him, as assuredly as if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him. The cross of Christ is correlative to heavenly glory; and so here His glory precedes this rebuke to the worldly spirit that despised the poor and cringed to the rich, unworthy anywhere, most of all where those showed it who professed the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory.
Dr. Whitby and others labour to explain this of judicial assemblies which the Jews held in their synagogues; and they infer the probability that this was transferred by the converted Israelites to their meetings. This of course reduces the rebuke to partiality in case of trials between a poor man and a rich, instead of seeing that we have here a great principle universally applicable, and all the more necessary when ease and wealth and luxury began to flow in among professing Christians. So too Doddridge follows Beza in his lowering of ver. 4 ("judices male ratiocinantes"), as he also makes the opening words to mean, "and distinguish not in yourselves" according to the different characters of these two men, but only regard their outward appearance, "you even become judges who reason ill." What is really intended is an evil moral state, out of all sympathy with our Lord, in making a difference among themselves, and becoming judges of evil thoughts, i.e., characterised by having evil thoughts, instead of weighing and feeling as in the light of God and His love by faith. It was a worldly mind.
Nor is it only that fawning on rich persons, even when believers are gathered together, is inconsistent with faith in Him Who in His grace became poor though Lord of glory. It is opposed to the law, and still more to the gospel and Christianity. It denies in effect relationship with Him as a secondary thing to the circumstances of the day and the lowest distinction in the world; and it is as far as possible from God's mind, as His word shows and Christ impressively interpreted and livingly endorsed it. "The poor have the gospel preached to them." What were they that received it in His eyes? To the pungent contrast already given we have an earnest appeal added.
"Hear, my beloved brethren; did not God choose the poor as to the world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those that love Him? But ye dishonoured the poor [man]. Do not the rich oppress you, and they drag you before tribunals? Do not they blaspheme the worthy name that was called on you" (vers. 5-7)?
Attention is drawn first to the plain and characteristic fact everywhere manifest in the church that not only is the gospel preached to the poor, but that the poor are those who as a class are chosen by God. So the apostle strongly set before the ease-loving intellectual Corinthians who liked to be on good terms with the world to the Lord's dishonour and their own loss and danger. How little they had read aright the word of the cross which is to those that perish foolishness, but to the saved God's power! For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and set aside the intelligence of the intelligent. Here it is the still more debased assumption of the rich. But in any case the foolishness of God, as they count Christ crucified, is wiser than men, and the weakness of God in the same cross is stronger than men. "For behold your calling, brethren, that [there are] not many wise according to flesh, not many mighty, not many high born. But God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame the wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the strong things; and the ignoble things of the world and the despised God chose, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought the things that are; so that no flesh should boast before God" (1Co_1:26-29).
The humble estate of the poor is by grace made their decided advantage when they are called. For there is no bondage more imperious than that which "society" imposes on its votaries, nothing more at issue with the Lord of all Who judged it root and branch by being outside it all and ignoring its pretensions, and pursuing His path of holy goodness to all in unswerving obedience. This the poor believer sees, rich in faith, and escapes the will of his class to rise in the world by religious means as by every other way. His insight may not be profound or extensive, but he accepts with joy the gospel which elevates him spiritually, and he seeks no other now, looking onward confidently for the kingdom not of this world, which He, Whose it is, promised to those that love Him.
The poor "of this world" of Tyndale, Cranmer, Geneva, and the Auth. V. supposes a text which extant MSS. do not warrant, unless it be the exaggerated rendering of the article, without the demonstrative pronoun. This "of the world" has considerable support of both uncials and cursives, as well as ancient versions, etc., and is the text of Griesbach, Matthaei (both edd.) and Scholz. They were probably misled by the Vulgate, followed by Wiclif who preceded them, and by the Rhemish that came after them, "in this world," which has one cursive (29) to this effect with the venerable Bede. "In the world" has the support of three junior MSS. (27, 43, 64). The true reading adopted by the latest critics is that of the most ancient and best uncials, though neglected by the ancient versions save the later or Philoxenian Syriac. It is τῳ κόσμῳ and appears to be the dative of reference, i.e. poor in respect of, or as to, the world - a not uncommon usage.
It may be remarked that "rich in faith" is the simple contrast by grace with their lowly circumstances here below, and qualifies them as a class without any question of different measure of comparison individually. Faith made them all rich if they had nothing otherwise; and faith as well as love would honour them accordingly now, as God surely will and before the universe in due time. Christ gave their confidence in Him, and love to Him. His promise encourages and strengthens them along the road.
In open opposition is the haughty contempt which wealth naturally engenders. How strange and deplorable that the rich as a class should be of any account in Christian eyes? What is "the poor" man (whether in the case described in vers. 2-4 or in any other) but dishonoured by their unbelieving self-complacency? More unjust and selfish still is their attitude and habit. "Do not the rich oppress you? and [is it not] they [that] drag you into courts of justice? Do not they blaspheme the excellent name that was called on you?" As a class, and so it is our Epistle speaks, they were hostile to the name of the Lord, which was everything to the poor that believed and confessed Him; as they were heartless toward themselves whose poverty exposed them to all manner of evil surmise and detraction, and so to persecution.
In riches the enemy has a ready means of keeping up the spirit of the world against Christ and His poor. But what is here aimed at is the guilty tendency on the part of any Christian, and especially the poor, to honour "the unrighteous mammon," and those who have nothing else to boast. Friendship with the world is enmity with God. Scripture is dead against coveting their goods, or yet more wronging themselves. Neither this Epistle nor any other countenances levelling. Faith gives the only exultation of value in the spiritual realm; and this the church surely is, or it is worse than nothing, even salt that has lost its savour, and proper neither for land nor for dung. He that hath ears to hear let him hear.
It is characteristic of this Epistle to employ the expression "royal law"; nor is it the only peculiar phrase that fell to it with striking propriety. We have already "the perfect law of liberty" in Jam_1:25, and we have "law of liberty" again in Jam_2:12.
"If however ye fulfil law royal according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well; but if ye have respect to persons, ye work sin, being convicted by the law as transgressors" (vers. 8, 9).
This is admirable. The feeble saints of the circumcision, most of them poor, had so forgotten early fervour of faith, as to cringe before the wealthy, and this even in their assemblies if a rich man entered therein. Yet were they not rich in faith, the poorest of them? Were they not heirs of the kingdom which He who chose them promised to those that love Him? What inconsistency to give themselves the air of valuing a little money, of closing the eye of faith to their own hopes of glory, though the least recollection of the Lord of glory dispelled those natural thoughts and brought back the promise which detects the false glitter of the world as it is.
The third book of Moses had from early days asserted that great moral principle as far as Israel were concerned; but where was the heart to prize it? where the nature capable of carrying it out unswervingly? Certainly it is not in the mind of the flesh, which is enmity against God and is no better really for man. "Love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love." Nothing more true or trenchant. The fulness and the manifestation of it is in Christ sent into the world that we might live through Him. This we cannot do till we receive Him from God, believing on His name. Then we live, and live to God; for he that believeth on Him hath life eternal. There is no other way. "He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself; he that believeth not God hath made him a liar, because he believeth not the witness that God gave of his Son. And this is the witness that God gave us life eternal, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not life."
The believer then alone has this life, and loves according to Christ, Who, when challenged gave the first place to loving God, but also pressed in the next place loving one's neighbour. Here in this world of need and misery even the law-teacher had not obeyed it, and asked, Who is my neighbour? To the Lord it was all plain enough. He came in love to seek and save the lost at all cost to Himself. Now that He is on high, His love is active in His own, and in them only. For as the apostle shows in Rom. 8 those that are in Christ walk according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh which is lawless and selfish, the very opposite of love or of any other good. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus it is that freed the believer from the law of sin and death. Sin is no longer a law, the power of death was broken by Christ risen from among the dead; and He is our life. Such is one reason (ver. 2) why there is no condemnation for those in Christ. God cannot condemn that life which is now ours in Him. But then what of our evil nature, the flesh? The second (ver. 3) meets this. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in likeness of flesh of sin, and for sin (i.e. as a sin-offering) condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law, its righteous import, might be fulfilled in us who walk not after flesh but after Spirit. For it is only the believer who has the new life and the efficacy of Christ's death in annulling his evil nature that walks according to the Spirit, loving God supremely and loving man so as to suffer or even die for his good.
It is not that James brings out what was left for the apostle of uncircumcision. But he does characterise this grand moral claim of God as regards the neighbour as a "royal law." Before it respect to persons is sentenced to death. The command to love one's neighbour towers above any transient or artificial distinctions among men. Who or what are the rich to wish it set aside in their favour? And what mean any rich in faith among the poor by ignoring it? It is a royal law, says our Epistle. Those who fix the eyes of their heart on our Lord Jesus, will not fail to fulfil it. It were a sad descent to look away from Him in glory, as He is, to the gold-ringed man of wealth. Even Jacob before the Lord Jesus came did better when brought into the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. He was not dazzled, any more than he petitioned for his family. But "Jacob blessed Pharaoh." "And without all contradiction," says Heb_7:7, "the less is blessed of the better." May the poorest of the saints be strengthened to cherish undimmed the consciousness of his blessedness and the hope of the glory where the Lord is, and whither he himself is bound!
Respect of persons is a violation of love and a transgression of the law that insists on love, as is added in the verse that follows. If a believer be poor, there is no ground in this why he should pander to worldliness, despise his poor brethren, puff up the wealthy, and dishonour the Lord of glory Who has shown us the clear contrary. "For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich" (2Co_8:9). "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." Weigh Php_2:5-9. As our Epistle declares, to have respect of persons is to work sin and to be convicted by the law as transgressors; as the Epistle says, Love worketh no ill to the neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilment of the law.
There is hardly a fact more characteristic of the natural man than condemning another for the evil to which one is not addicted, while extenuating one's own sins by every excuse possible as a peccadillo. Truly man is not only fallen, but his nature is utterly unjust, and God is in none of his thoughts. One may plead the universal failure of mankind, and the inconsistency of the faithful. But Christ puts all such apologies to the rout, and shows us Man on earth in Whom was no sin and no guile in His mouth, now in glory, the Lord of glory. He, not Adam, nor Israel, is the standard here below as well as in heaven. Who can stand beside Him as He was, or be with Him as He is?
Here, however, it is the law which is used to crush self-righteousness; and the law, being of God, cannot but be inflexible and resents all the evasions of men. "For whoever shall keep the law as a whole but shall offend in one [point] is become guilty of all. For he that said, Thou shalt not commit adultery, said also, Thou shalt not kill. And if thou commit not adultery but killest, thou art become a transgressor of law. So speak, and so act, as about to be judged by a law of liberty"(vers. 10-12). Were there true obedience, one claim of God would be as binding as another, violence as hateful to us as corruption. To offend in one point violates God's authority and brings us under the guilt of breaking all. The appeal reminds us of the apostle's reasoning in Rom_2:17-29, where the Jew is convicted of folly in resting on law and boasting in God and teaching others as babes while failing to teach himself, and dishonouring God by the transgression of the law in which he professedly gloried. All attempt for sinful man (and a Jew made no difference) to acquire righteousness by the law, and stand on any such ground before God, is but fatal ignorance of self as well as of God. By deeds of law shall no flesh be justified in His sight.
On the other hand the believer in the Lord Jesus is begotten by His word of truth. It is not only an operation on conscience and heart, but a new nature is imparted, which is of God, as indeed those who thus believe are declared to be born of God, and His children. As the life of the Spirit is by the word of truth, so it is formed, and nourished, developed and exercised in that word, which has for him who is thus begotten a character of holy freedom in entire contrast with the action of the law on the natural man. In this case it is an instrument of bondage, because the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good; whereas the mind of the flesh, the natural man, is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be; only self-will is the law of its being. The law therefore, when truly applied, discovers to the sinner his essential alienation and can give no quarter but condemn and kill. It is no better in those born of God than in any other, as the latter half of Romans 7 elaborately shows. Flesh does not change into spirit. That which is born of the flesh is flesh.
But as the word was used in God's will to beget the believer by the impartation of a nature akin to Himself and His word, so it remains valid and intended for the need and admonition, refreshment, direction, and strengthening of the new life all through. This it is which is called a "law of liberty." Its authority was recognized by the soul in hearing Christ's word and passing from death unto life. Then ensued repentance toward God as truly as faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ: self was judged as evil, grace and truth in Christ became most welcome. Then the word which communicated the knowledge of such a blessing is valued and confided in, to guide the soul through the mazes of a world departed from, and to lay bare the devices of the enemy to ensnare along the way. Light divine surrounds one's going. It is accordingly a "law of liberty" which we love; as indeed we now know the God Who gave it us first and last as our best and truest Friend, proved and manifested in the Lord Jesus.
It is of much interest to observe how the apostle Paul shows in Rom_8:3-4 the way in which he contrasts with the law that worketh wrath, and slew him who sought thus to establish his standing, what he calls "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ," which was characterised by emancipation, not bondage, and issued in a life of obedience pleasing to God. Each inspired writer has his points of difference; both agree in testifying to a similar blessed result.
Men easily satisfy themselves before a God who no longer manifests Himself visibly, Who does not act now as when the law ruled, or government was displayed in immediate rewards and punishments. And the error of men is apt to be so much the greater when they regard the gospel as introducing a mitigation of legal severity. They fancy that a little sin here and there, now and then, will meet with mild dealing, so that there is no need of over-righteousness. The circumstances of those addressed in this Epistle would naturally expose souls to this snare, which is itself laid bare and torn to pieces in the verses already before us. No notion was more derogatory to His authority Who had spoken at Sinai, none more subversive of the law itself, which is necessarily inflexible. If broken in a single point, righteousness under it is gone, and the honour of the whole is compromised. If infraction in one respect were tolerated, licence would go on to expect more and more, till perhaps every point but one was surrendered, if indeed even one on such a principle could escape the encroaching will of man. But all such tolerance is unknown to the law, which demands nothing less than absolute, uncompromising, subjection.
Is it argued then that the condition of man under it, no matter what his privileges and helps, is and must be hopeless? The answer is that so it is assuredly, because man is a sinner. Evil is there since the fall in his very nature, a law in his members, warring in opposition to what is holy and just and good. The apostle Paul goes to the root, and shows that death to the old man is the sole divine deliverance, amelioration of ourselves gradual or sudden being alike human and vain, the nostrums of theological empiricism, and not the remedy proclaimed to faith in God's word. Again, were it simply our death, it would be unavailable for us here below, and the blessed fruit would only be after death when we should be with Christ; and thus the victory that God intends now through our Lord Jesus would be shorn of a great part of its lustre and power. But it is not so. The death and resurrection of Christ gives far more now than most Christians believe, to their own loss. For it is not only that He died for us - for our sins, which are therefore blotted out and forgiven - He died also to sin, He Himself wholly without it. He knew no sin; yet God made Him sin for us; and we who believe are associated with Him in that death of complete deliverance from sin in principle, root and not fruits merely, as the apostle so elaborately discusses in Rom_5:12; Rom_5:8. Our very baptism signifies, not only that we washed our sins away, but that we died to sin and are justified from sin as well as sins. Hence we are called to reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Our Epistle does not penetrate to such depths nor rise to such heights, as it was given to the great apostle of the uncircumcision, minister of the church no less than of the gospel, as he designates himself in Col. 1. But it is no less inspired of God, no less necessary to man, in order to test mere profession where it most abounded and was most dangerous, to maintain the true character of that law which must be a ministry of death and condemnation to the guilty, and to insist on "a law of liberty" which exactly suits the new nature of those whom God in His purpose or will begot by the word of truth. The law was not accompanied by the rainbow, the beautiful sign of divine mercy in the covenant with creation (Gen. 9), after Noah began the post-diluvian world with the burnt-offering, the sign of Christ's sacrifice. Lightning and thunder, unearthly trumpet, and God's voice more terrible than all to sinful man, inaugurated the law. It is Christ here below Who first shows us the law of liberty in all its fulness and perfection.
This portion closes with the next two verses: "So speak and so act as about to be judged by a law of liberty; for the judgment [is] merciless to him that showed no mercy. Mercy glorieth over judgment" (vers. 12, 13). James as ever was led of the Spirit to press in practice the manifestation of God's will on those that have or say they have, the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ; and he resents, as we ought, the shame which a lax and spurious profession puts on the Lord "of glory." Can any appeal be more wholesome now as then? They are indeed to be pitied as well as blamed who think it beneath scripture; and it is to be feared, that, even if at bottom true believers, they find the edge of the sword, as James wields it, too sharp for their ways. Otherwise it seems incomprehensible that they should not welcome his words as of great and permanent value for themselves as for others.
Nor is it true that the Epistle is absorbed in the outward conduct. Speaking and doing are its exhortation as covering a very large part of our practical life; but it is carefully defined that both were to be of such a sort as was suited to those that are to be determined by a law of liberty: a principle of the inner man, and inscrutable to such as, having no faith, have no new life from God and no knowledge of His grace. As mercy is the spring of all we profess as God's children, God is indignant at its absence in those that by grace claim kindred with Himself. They surely, of all mankind, are responsible to delight in mercy and to manifest it in word and deed, as having to do and to be judged by a law, not of bondage, but, of liberty. For God is not mocked but sanctified in those that come nigh Him, as all do who are begotten of Him; and He will be glorified in the solemn judgment of those that set Him at nought. As we here read, "for the judgment [is] merciless to him that showed no mercy." Is not this as it should be?
Say not in a depreciatory way, It is a sentiment suited to James the Just. Read on, and learn that God gives us much more through him: "Mercy glorieth over judgment." Are not we who believe witnesses of it? Was not our Lord Jesus the proof of it, so exhaustively that there is no need, no room, for more? For all the vessels of mercy derive it through Him. Mercy is God's habitual and congenial work; judgment is His strange work, yet most righteous, against those who, having the utmost need, despise His mercy and most of all in the Lord of glory. Yet He has shown and proved it in its richest resources and its most affecting form, emptying Himself, yea, the true God humbling Himself, to save His ungodly enemies. But how blessed for those that believe! Beyond doubt "mercy glorieth over judgment" in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. But are not we who bear His name responsible to have it bright within us, that our practical conversation may be filled with it and governed by it?
Thus the spirit of grace has been upheld, and a law of liberty which accompanies it, in contrast with a judicial spirit which avails itself of the law of bondage and ought to be as alien from an object of mercy as it displeases God. How solemn the warning of merciless judgment to him that showed no mercy! How sweet the assurance that mercy glories over judgment! Life, liberty, and grace go together for blessing.
Thence the transition is simple and intelligible to the snare of setting up a bare creed. Israelites were above all exposed to this danger; so that the dealing with such a case is peculiarly appropriate to this Epistle. In judgment they had been used to a brotherhood after the flesh, as the seed of Abraham. When professors of Christ, they were liable to regard their new brotherhood as founded on no more than their common recognition of the Lord of glory. But it as plain in fact as it is in scripture that such a recognition of Him might be no more than intellectual, having no root of divine life because it sprang from no work of conscience through the Holy Spirit's application of the truth in revealing Christ. For we are not brought to know God save through our wants and guilt, not as students of science, but as poor sinners in need of His mercy in Christ. A mental profession of faith was of no more value than the schools of differing thought, under different names as leaders to which Greek vanity was ever prone. It was even more fatal and in itself "natural," as their contentious zeal was "carnal," for so the apostle made the distinction.
"What [is] the profit my brethren, if one say he have faith, but have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or a sister be naked and destitute of daily food, and one from among you say to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, but ye give them not the things needful for the body, what [is] the profit? So also faith, if it have not works, is dead in (or by) itself" (vers. 14-17).
When the apostle Paul declared the gospel, he insisted on faith in Jesus Christ as justifying, apart from works of law; because it is God's righteousness, not man's, unto all, and upon all that believe, Jew and Greek being lost sinners. It is a question of being justified freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Now, for our Epistle, it is the quite different question of a practical life in accord with Christian profession. Indeed Paul insists on this moral reality in Rom. 2 as strenuously as James does here. It is a worthless faith which does not produce fruit of righteousness that is by Jesus Christ unto God's glory and praise. The scripture before us does not answer the question how a sinner is to be cleansed before God, but what conduct befits those that have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.
To this end of necessary consistency are the questions. What is the profit for a man to profess faith and have no works as its witness? Can faith save him? This is illustrated by the heartlessness of dismissing a naked and hungry brother or sister with the words, Be warmed and filled, without any corresponding gift to help them. Does Christ own a faith that does not work through love? Here again we may observe how the apostle Paul's words in Gal_5:6 energetically express the practical aim of James. The tongue may be active, the heart cold, the walk selfish as before; but are these the ways of a nature begotten to the Father of lights by truth's word? Are such unreal talkers a kind of first-fruits of His own creatures?
There is no need, however, to give the Greek article with Wakefield the force of "this," nor with Bede and the Revisers the emphasis of "that," nor yet the more legitimate possessive sense of "his." Faith is entitled, even apart from previous mention, to the article in Greek as an ideal object, the thing faith, or as we in English say "faith," as much as if it expressed the different sense of "the faith" required in many scriptures. The context can alone decide in which shade it is employed. Hence also we may observe that in ver. 17 scarce any person thinks of translating the same words, ἡ πίστις save as "faith"; and rightly so, for it is still used in the same general sense. This is not at all invalidated by the anarthrous form in ver. 14, where the insertion of the article would be improper. For in such cases the accusative is complementary to the transitive verb, and expresses the character of the action that resulted, unless it be intended to denote that which through some reason becomes a specific object before the mind; both of which cases may be seen again in ver. 18.
The principle is stated concisely in ver. 17: "faith, if it have no works, is dead in itself." If it were divinely given (Eph_2:8: Php_1:29), it would manifest its mighty and gracious effects. For Christ is its object, and His love above all thought of man, but influential beyond anything in us or around us to raise the soul accordingly. He is not only an example that powerfully acts on all He loves and loving Him, but a motive and a source, to form the affections and the walk of His own here below. It is easy for those who are no better than James describes in their human faith to decry its energy where the Holy Spirit has wrought livingly. In fact they know nothing of its divine reality. Their faith is dead in itself; and any works so wrought are no less intrinsically dead.
We have now another saying in order to bring out the reality, as we had in vers. 14 and 16. In the First Epistle of John we may see the contrast pursued more deeply. "But some one will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works. Show me thy faith apart from works, and out of (or, by) my works I will show thee my faith Thou believest that God is one, thou doest well: the demons also believe and shudder (vers. 18, 19).
The fact in the spiritual realm, which lies under the question here discussed, we have seen to be laid down with the utmost simplicity and clearness in chap. 1: 18. It is the possession of a new life, which is given to all who are begotten by the word of truth. No intellectual process can amount to such a boon, though a spiritual understanding never in operation before accompanies it, as there are also new affections proper to it. We can readily apprehend how unpalatable such teaching must be to those that were attached to the ancient system of ritual and law for a nation chosen as a whole, as well as to the still wider snare of crying up human powers, with no adequate sense of God or His kingdom on the one hand, or of man's sin and ruin on the other. It was therefore urgently requisite that all should learn on divine authority that in christianity a mere action however powerful on a man's faculties is altogether short of the truth. For there is communication of a life in Christ which he never possessed before, as well as the Holy Spirit thenceforward dwelling in him in power, the gift of God's grace; so that he might know the things of God and the revealed objects, as the old nature was capable of knowing the things of man and of the old creation subjected to him.
This new nature, attaching to the family of God, and of course to every member of it, involves with such a relationship the responsibility of a corresponding walk as well as inward communion with the source and giver of its blessedness. It was the allotted and appropriate work of James to charge home this all-important truth and its practical consequences on those he addresses, and indirectly but none the less really on all that have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here he is resisting an abuse easily understood, and as dangerous as evil. He censures and repudiates a mere doctrinal scheme without life, and hence destitute of the works which attest a new nature from God. John, who was given to set forth the glory of Christ's person beyond all others of the inspired, shows us life in Christ which the believer even now has, and the gift of the Spirit, the other Advocate. But here the same truth of the divine nature whereof we become partakers is no less truly revealed, the basis of all works acceptable to God, of all godly practice in word, deed, or feeling.
"But some will say, Thou hast faith, and I have works:" a supposition that divorces what God joins inseparably, an evident fighting against His word and nature, as also His will. For had he not affirmed in the Spirit, that God, the Father of lights, of His purpose begat us by the word of truth? To be doers of the word, not hearers only who are not so begotten, is our consistent and blessed place, a perfect law of liberty in which we by grace continue because our new nature loves Him and His word. Those who sever work from faith have no living association with God and simply deceive themselves.
Hence the refutation in the next words: - "Show me thy faith apart from works, and out of my works I will show thee my faith." It is an answer in both its parts conclusive. Faith is as it were the soul, and needs works as its body to be shown. To "show" faith separate from works is therefore an impossibility. He who believes by the Holy Spirit shows his faith by his works, as the rebuker rejoins.
This very word "show," as it falls in with the great aim of the Epistle is the key to the difficulty, which from of old till now so many uninstructed and unestablished souls have found in comparing the teaching of Paul and of James.
Inasmuch as both were inspired, there can be no ground for it. The appearance is due solely to the ignorance of unbelief. The one is occupied with the root, with what is "before God" (Rom_4:2); the other, with the fruit, and therefore "show me" before men. Both agree that, where faith is divinely given and souls are begotten by the word of truth, good works are the fruit and the outward witness of faith. There is nothing in fact to reconcile, because there is no real variance. The one insists that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law; the other, that he who claims to have faith is bound to show it by his works. In the one, the question is how a sinner can be justified by grace; in the other, what God looks for from him who professes faith.
But the refutation goes farther. "Thou believest that God is one; thou believest well: the demons also believe and shudder." It was well to own the unity of God, and wicked to hold a multiplicity of gods, which were no better than demons. Even these were not so insensible as those who boasted of their faith but had no works corresponding to show. For the demons shudder, as we see in the Synoptic Gospels. The mere professor of faith may not have as much feeling, though God's word solemnly warns that such as he have no inheritance in the kingdom of the Christ and God.
The allusion to the demons is a powerful illustration of the point in hand. None believe more decidedly than they; none anticipate their doom more surely or keenly. But such faith has no link with a new nature from God, nor does it issue in works that please Him. The demons ere subject to the evil will of their chief, the devil. Man alas! plays his part in a way most offensive to God, boasting of a faith with even less feeling than the demons, and without the works testifying to a life received from Him. There is nothing to "show," as there ought to be and must be if the gospel were accepted as it is truly, not men's but God's word, which is also energetic in those that believe.
"But art thou willing to learn, O vain man, that faith apart from works is dead (or, idle)? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when (or, in that) he offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" (vers. 20, 21).
As to the difference of reading in the first of these verses, the great majority of MSS. gives "dead"; but the witness for "idle" is, ancient and excellent. The shade is but slight, the substantial sense remains as before. Only there was here as elsewhere the danger of assimilation, for the chapter ends with the conclusion that faith apart from works is "dead." If "idle" were the true text in ver. 20, the language of ver. 26 would not be a repetition but a striking and effective climax. Hence Alford, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, with Westcott and Hort, prefer it.
Then we are confronted with an appeal to Abraham's case, always of the greatest weight with his descendants, and in the present instance an overwhelming disproof of the evil that is combated, "Was not Abraham our father justified by (or, out of) works when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar?"
It is the more decisive, because the work of Abraham here adduced had nothing in common with the benevolent or philanthropic works which men mean by "good," and boast of as sure to weigh with God. To be willing to slay his son Isaac, on the contrary, this class of men would consider atrocious in Abraham, and only worthy of Moloch as they blasphemously add. They do not believe that God ever put Abraham to such a test, and become more and more bold in treating it as the Syrian legend of a barbarous age and of a heathen superstition.
Our Epistle, and it is not alone in this (for the Epistle to the Hebrews, wholly distinct as it is in character, is emphatically in accord), cites it as a deed of the highest moral excellence, and proving Abraham to be justified by works. It was characteristically an act contrary to every instinct of a father. It was enhanced by the fact that Isaac was "thine only son, whom thou lovest," as God said in putting Abraham to this extreme proof. There was, on the face of the demand, the apparent frustration of those blessed hopes of blessing, long promised by God, "In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed," to say nothing of making of him a great nation, and making his name great. How could this be if Isaac must now die, and this so unaccountably by his father's hand, as an offering to the God Who had wrought wondrously in giving him, and now strangely required his sacrifice? Doubtless God could give another son, and by Sarah if it so pleased Him; but this would not meet the case. For had not God said in calling his wife not Sarai but Sarah (Gen. 17) that the son of her, to make her mother of nations and of kings of peoples, would be this very Isaac, with whom He would establish His covenant for an everlasting covenant for his seed after him? There in fact it was Abraham's faith rested. He laughed, we may say, at impossibilities, in contrast with Sarah's laughter incredulous at first. The real impossibility was for God to lie. He was sure therefore that if Isaac had now to die, God would raise him up from the dead in order to make the promise good. Abraham's faith was now, not as before, that God would give him a son of Sarah, but that He could not fail to raise this son from the death now required, in order to fulfil all He had promised. Never such a trial of faith; never such a triumph by grace.
Long before this event, if late in Abraham's fruitful course, it is written that he believed in Jehovah, and He counted it to him for righteousness (Gen_15:16). This is the most express acknowledgment of him as justified by faith. And scripture uses it beyond controversy in this way and to this end, as in Rom. 4. But in Gen. 22, as referred to in our Epistle, we behold the believing man "showing" his works and thereby justified. Nor can any thing be more certain than that Abraham's work in offering Isaac his son on the altar derived all its value from his faith in God's call; so much so that without this it would have been heinously evil.
But the reasoning goes farther, and the weight of Abraham's example is urged yet more in a way as telling as simple. So did our Lord Himself when here below in divine wisdom and grace dealing with the Jews; so did the great apostle of the Gentiles repeatedly and in the power of the Spirit.
"And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness, and he was called Friend of God. Ye see that a man is justified by works and not by faith only" (vers. 23, 24).
It is a striking arrangement that the offering up of Isaac is introduced before the statement of Abraham's believing God. This departure from the order of fact and of the inspired history was of course not only intentional, but essential to the question in hand. For it is asked in the first place if Abraham our father was not justified when he offered Isaac his son upon the altar.
Greater trial than such a demand never was laid by God on a believing father. For many years had passed after the promise to make of him a great nation, to bless him, and to bless in him all the families of the earth (Gen. 12). This was ere long enlarged by defining the land or visible scene of the blessing with a promise also of his seed made as the dust of the earth beyond number (Gen. 13). Later on, when there appeared to the childless man no possessor of his house but Eliezer of Damascus, Jehovah assured him that one to come forth from his own bowels should be his heir, and that as the stars (for He bade him look up) should his seed be. And he believed Jehovah, Who counted it to him for righteousness. Long years after this was the son born, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. And not a few years elapsed during which Isaac grew up, the object not only of the tenderest love but of hopes far deeper and higher than filled any other heart on earth. God then proved Abraham. It was not to resign him in death, as many a father has sorrowfully known. It was not to have another son as a substitute for Isaac. For, in the bitter trial of Ishmael sent away with his bondwoman mother, Abraham knew from God that in Isaac should his seed be called. In him only was the line of promise. Yet God, in no way softening the blow, "after these things" said, "Take now thy son, thine only one, Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of" (Gen_22:2).
What! God, the true God, the God of grace, lay such a claim on His Friend - the demand on such a father of such a son, the surely and solely expected channel of blessing so immense and hopes so glorious! And not this only, but in a way so unexpected and so terrible, as a burnt offering to Himself, and from his father's hand as the slaughterer! Yes, it was a trial beyond example, heightened by all that nature could feel, by the very faith that received the word of Jehovah so implicitly, and by the hope so fed by promise, and matured by experience of divine mercy beyond all he dared to ask when interceding. It was just to prove the faith unqualified which His grace had given to Abraham, and this not in word only but in deed and truth. Truly it was faith perfected by works. This could not be deduced from Gen. 15. It was manifest to the highest degree in Gen. 22. And hence we see the ground which requires that this should take here the first place.
But it is carefully added, "And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness," as the earlier chapter has. For this was the joint result of a faith proved to be of God. The works had nothing in common with those activities of benevolence which fill the horizon of man and are the boast of such as make the creature all, but God nothing. Here it was one who looked death in the face and in a form incomparably harder to bear than if he had been called to die for his son, - to smite with the knife at God's word his only and well-beloved son on whose life hung the promises of blessing for all mankind! It was not only to trust God for his own character who would seem the worst of murderers, but for raising from the dead him who must live again to make good the promised blessings for Israel and for man.
Yet, however differently applied at the last, it was the same divinely-given faith on which God at the first had pronounced. "The scripture was fulfilled." No wonder he was called God's Friend. So Jehovah treated him in Gen. 18 when He disclosed His secret intentions. "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?" So Jehovah treated him when drawing out his heart there in intercession. Hence in due time the pious king of Judah (2Ch_20:7) and the prophet friend of another pious king (Isa_41:8) called Abraham Jehovah's friend.
But it was a work that man would never have thought of, a work deriving all its virtue from absolute trust in the God Who demanded what He alone was entitled to ask, as He alone could have availed by resurrection power to conciliate it with His love, His truth, His character, and His purposes, turning it too, spite of appearances, to such experimental blessing as Abraham had never yet enjoyed, and to like blessing for the family of faith in their turn. We see from such a case how far Abraham was from a bare faith of the mind, when justified out of his works, and not out of the empty assent there denounced. How could it justify any one? Surely we may here apply the Lord's word, Wisdom is justified of all her children.
Another example is cited from the O.T. in support of faith not bare but working by love, so needful to impress on the Jewish mind. Rahab's case is in its circumstances as different as can be conceived from that of the father of the faithful; for it is a woman a Gentile, of the accursed race, and of previously bad character; yet after believing she entered the line of great David, and hence became an ancestor of David's greater Son. It was, therefore, no less pertinent and powerful.
"And likewise was not also Rahab the harlot justified by (out of) works, in that she received the messengers and sent [them] out another way?" (ver. 25).
Apart from faith the work of Rahab was no better than Abraham's trial. If done without God as the object and spring and authority, both were not only of no value but abominable. Viewed humanly, one was willing to kill his own son and heir, the other to betray her king and country to their destroyers. As faith wholly changed the character of their respective acts, so those acts proved the divine principle and the living power of their faith. This has been pointed out in the former instance. Wherein did it consist in the latter?
Rahab believed the two men to be the messengers of Jehovah's people. "I know," said she, "that Jehovah hath given you the land, and that your terror is fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you." How did she know this? Not a city was taken in Canaan, not an inch of its territory was annexed, not even a blow had yet been struck. Jordan ran its barrier against Israel on the other side, and it was at that time overflowing all its banks. How did Rahab know what neither king nor people of Jericho knew? It was by faith. "For we have heard [and faith comes by hearing] how Jehovah dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when ye came out of Egypt; and what ye did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond Jordan, to Sihon and to Og, whom ye utterly destroyed. We heard and our hearts melted, and there remained no more spirit in any man because of you; for Jehovah your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath" (Joshua 2).
The rest of the inhabitants had heard no less than Rahab; but the word of the report did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those that heard. It reached Rahab's conscience, and she bowed to God in the face of every natural reason and feeling. She rightly judged the folly and the sin and the ruin of fighting against the God who had delivered His people from the power of Egypt, and crushed irretrievably their Amorite foes. His purpose to give Israel Canaan was notorious; and therefore she hid the two spies as the representatives of the people to whom God gave the land by promise and oath: two immutable things in which it was impossible that God should lie. Her faith lay thereon. Could any anchor be more secure or firm?
Yet Rahab did not despair for herself or others; she counted on mercy in Jehovah's name, as true faith does. "And now, I pray you, swear to me by Jehovah, since I have dealt kindly with you, that ye will also deal kindly with my father's house, and give me a sure sign, that ye will save alive my father and my mother and my brothers and my sisters, and all that they have, and deliver our souls from death." The sign was given as solemnly as it was kept. As she received the messengers in faith, she sent them out by another way in the same faith.
Thus Rahab's faith, was self-evidently fruitful. She had swamped all patriotism in her fear of Jehovah. As she believed in the bond that attached Him to His people, she looked, and not in vain, that assuredly as He should destroy Jericho, He would rescue her and hers. In spite of her habits hitherto impure, notwithstanding her unscrupulous readiness to deceive and baffle where her heart was engaged, faith was energetically at work; and the heart-knowing God bore her witness. "And likewise was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works?"
For her it was no barren acquiescence that Jehovah was the God of Israel. It was the living active faith that He would work on their behalf in Canaan as in Egypt, in the wilderness, and in the borders of the promised land. Hence she acted in a faith which issued in works exactly and highly suited to His purpose for His people. Unbelief might suggest failure for herself as well as for them. But her faith overcame all fears and rose above all difficulties. It was easy to conceive hitches, and to apprehend the indignant and cruel destruction which must follow their discovery of her treason. But her faith was simple and strong in what Jehovah was to His people; and it expressed itself not in words only but in deeds which she well knew exposed her naturally to the most suffering and ignominious death. Her faith laid hold of the sound principle that the highest of all rights is that God should have His rights. Therefore she dreaded not the wrath of king or people, gave to the wind her fears, and endured, as seeing Him Who is invisible. Was not she too justified by works?
The witnesses of faith and works here adduced are the most powerful that the O.T. affords; and from it this Epistle in God's wisdom cites them as the weightiest and most conclusive for the purpose. Those of Israel who had the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ were as responsible as all others to manifest righteousness practically. It was the more relevant to press the godly walk which becomes faith, because, being brought out of a system of letter, they needed to be especially cautioned against relapse into what they had left behind. If they lived in the Spirit, they should the more seek to walk in the Spirit. For so is the will of God that with well-doing we may put to silence the ignorance of senseless men, as well as guard against our own tendencies. But there was more still in the cases before us; for even where works are most insisted on as evidence and proof of divine reality, these works owe all their value to the faith which gave them being. Without faith they would have been detestable, instead of being as they are the most solid testimony to their faith in God at all cost.
"For as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead" (ver. 26).
In ver. 17 it was said that faith, if it have not works, is "dead by itself"; in ver. 20 faith without works is "barren"; here at the end of the discussion faith without works is pronounced absolutely "dead," and so it surely is. Where the manifestation of living reality is sought, what can be more offensive than a dead body? Emphatically it is so under the gospel, where the Lord Himself declares that He who believes has life eternal. To lack holy vitality is fatal. It is not to have the Son of God, Who is the sole spring of all that glorifies God. For what else is the believer left here below but to walk and serve and suffer and worship, while waiting for the Lord? For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God before prepared that we should walk in them.
Even in writing to the Thessalonian saints, recently brought to God from heathenism, the apostle remembers without ceasing their work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope. With them the gospel was not in word only but also in power. The very world outside was telling the effect of the truth shown in their turning to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await His Son from the heavens, Whom He raised from the dead, Jesus our deliverer from the coming wrath. Israelitish confessors yet more required to be warned against a lifeless formalism. And here this is fully given.