The Pulpit Commentary

James 2:14-26 (James 2:14-26)

WARNING AGAINST RESTING CONTENT WITH A MERE BARREN ORTHODOXY . Preliminary note : This is the famous passage which led to Luther's depreciation of the whole Epistle, which he termed a "right strawy" one. At first sight it appears, indeed, diametrically opposed to the teaching of St. Paul; for:

St. James refers to her as an example of justification by works (verse 25). The opposition, however, is only apparent; for:

(a) That the object of the much-vaunted faith of those against whom St. James writes is " the fundamental maxim of the Law," "Thou believest that God is one" ( Deuteronomy 6:4 ); not "the fundamental fact of the gospel," "Thou believest that God raised Christ from the dead" ( Romans 10:9 ).

(b) That the whole tone of the Epistle recalls our Lord's denunciations of the scribes and Pharisees, and seems directed against a kindred spirit. To these we may add:

(c) That the teaching of St. Paul and St. James is combined by St. Clement of Rome ('Ep. ad Corinthians,' c. 12) in a manner which is conclusive as to the fact that he was unaware of any divergence of view between them, whether real or apparent. We conclude, then, that the teaching of St. James has no direct relation to that of St. Paul, and may well have been anterior in time to his Epistles to the Romans and Galatians.

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James 2:20-24 (James 2:20-24)

(3) Third point : Proof from the example of Abraham that a man is justified by works and not by faith only. In Genesis 15:6 we read of Abraham that "he believed in the Lord; and he accounted it to him for righteousness" ( LXX ., ἐπίστευσεν αβραμ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην , quoted by St. Paul in Romans 4:3 ; Galatians 3:6 ). But years after this we find that God "tested Abraham" ( Genesis 22:1 ). To this trial St. James refers as that by which Abraham's faith was "perfected" ( ἐτελειώθη ), and by which the saying of earlier years found a more complete realization (cf. Ecclesiasticus 44:20, 21, "Abraham … kept the Law of the Most High, and was in covenant with him … and when he was proved, he was found faithful. Therefore he assured him by an oath, that he would bless the nations in his seed," etc).

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James 2:14-26 (James 2:14-26)

Faith and works.

I. THE HOLLOWNESS OF PROFESSION WITHOUT PRACTICE ; of a mere orthodox creed without the deeds of love, which are as the fruits by which the tree is known. There is no reason to think that the Pharisee of the one parable was unorthodox, or that Dives in another was a heretic; but the faith of each of these was worthless, because not a "faith which worketh by love." The good Samaritan was a stranger and an alien, but did by nature the deeds of the Law; and thus (although " salvation is of the Jews") is held up for an example. The barren fig tree stands forth as the type of profession without practice—a great show of foliage, the ordinary sign that marked the presence of fruit, but after all "nothing but leaves." So is the man who says to his destitute brother, "Depart in peace, get warmed and filled," but gives him none of those things which be needful for the body; and the fate of the fig tree is a warning to all ages of the danger in which such stand.


1. In the case of Abraham his faith was perfected by his obedience.

2. Rahab the harlot was justified by works. Works are necessary for all Christians, wherever they are possible,

Hence judgment by works is expressly taught in the New Testament. So in the Athanasian Creed, "They that have done good shall go into life everlasting," etc.

III. On the apparent difference between the teaching of St. James and of St. Paul, see Farrar's 'Early Days of Christianity,' vol. 2. p. 99. "We may thank God that the truth has been revealed to us under many lights; and that by a diversity of gifts the Spirit ministered to each apostle severally as he would, inspiring the one to deepen our spiritual life by the solemn truth that works cannot justify apart from faith, and the other to stimulate our efforts after a holy life by the no less solemn truth that faith cannot justify us unless it be the living faith which is shown' by works. There is in the diversity a deeper unity. The Church, thank God, is 'Circumamicta varietatibus'—clothed in raiment of many hues. St. Paul had dwelt prominently on faith; St. Peter dwells much on hope; St. John insists most of all on love. But the Christian life is the synthesis of these Divine graces, and the works of which St. James so vehemently impresses the necessity, are works which are the combined result of operative faith, of constraining love, and of purifying hope."

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James 2:20-26 (James 2:20-26)

Justification by faith and works.

The meaning of this notable passage has been much contested, because its teaching seems to many minds to contradict the doctrine of justification by faith. It was this apparent antagonism which led Martin Luther for a time to denounce the whole Epistle of James as a mere handful of "straw." Since his day, however, good men have been coming more and. more to see that Paul and James, so far from opposing one another, are in reality presenting different sides of the same great truth. Paul, in Romans and Galatians, fights against self-righteousness; James, in this Epistle, contends against formalism and licentiousness. James's "faith without works" is not the justifying faith of Romans 3:28 —"working through love;" it is rather the useless faith without love of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 . The two apostles, as we understand the matter, both treat of the same justification, but they do not contemplate it from the same point of view. Paul looks at justification metaphysically, in its essence as meaning acceptance with God on the ground of the righteousness of Christ; while James views it practically, in its vital connection with sanctification, and its efflorescence in a holy life. The "works" of James are just the "faith" of Paul developed in action. In the verses before us, James continues his illustration of the operative fruit-bearing nature of justifying faith. He adduces two examples from the Old Testament Scriptures.

I. THE EXAMPLE OF ABRAHAM . (Verses 21-23) It is remarkable that Paul employs the same illustration in setting forth the doctrine of justification by faith alone; and that he appeals also to the identical Old Testament statement ( Genesis 15:6 ) here quoted respecting Abraham's acceptance ( Romans 4:1-25 .; Galatians 3:6 , Galatians 3:7 ). Paul says that Abraham was justified by faith before Isaac was born; while James says that he was "justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar" (verse 21). But James is careful to add, that in this crowning manifestation of his piety the patriarch's faith co-operated with his works. The confidence which Abraham had reposed in God for so many years was the very life of his obedience to the dreadful command to kill his only son; and. the reflex influence of his victorious passage through such an awful ordeal was that his strong trust in God was still further strengthened and " made perfect" (verse 22). Abraham's faith alone had been "reckoned unto him for righteousness" ever since the day when he first "went out, not knowing whither he went;" but the longer that he persevered in believing, and kept adding practical virtues to his faith, his original justification was the more confirmed. So, as good works are vitally connected with saving faith—being, in fact, wrapped up within it in germ from the beginning—Abraham may be said to have been "justified by works." The faith which saved him was a works-producing faith. And he was so greatly distinguished for the fruitfulness of his faith that he became known in Hebrew history as "the friend of God."

II. THE EXAMPLE OF RAHAB . (Verse 25) Her case seems to have been selected because it was so unlike the preceding. Abraham was a Jew, and the father of the chosen nation; Rahab was a heathen woman. Abraham had for many years received a special training in the school of faith; Rahab had enjoyed no training at all. Abraham was a good and pure man; Rahab had lived a loose and sensual life. Yet this degraded Canaanite obtained "like precious faith" with the illustrious patriarch. The same two Old Testament examples are cited also in Hebrews 11:1-40 .; and certainly they take rank as the two extreme cases selected for special mention in that chapter. The contrast is useful as showing that, invariably, good works are found flowing from a living faith. The object of Rahab's belief is expressed in her own words in Joshua 2:9-11 ; and her strenuous exertions for the safety of the two spies, made at the risk of her life, bring her faith into prominence, as "working with her works."

CONCLUSION . In Joshua 2:20 the apostle begins the paragraph with a restatement of his thesis; and in Joshua 2:24 and 26, after presenting the scriptural examples respectively, he introduces a triumphant "Q.E.D" He has shown that the faith which lies only in the cold assent of the intellect to a system of divinity is more like a lifeless corpse than a living man (verse 26). Truly saving faith consists in such a warm personal trust of the heart as will manifest itself in a life of holy obedience. So the ethical in religion ought never to be divorced from the evangelical. Every Christian minister should preach many sermons on distinctively moral subjects, taking care, however, that such discourses are informed with gospel motives. And every member of the Church should practice in the market-place and the workshop the morality of the Sermon on the Mount—not simply because a holy life is the appropriate evidence of faith, but rather because it is the great end in order to which the believer's faith is reckoned fur righteousness.—C.J.

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James 2:14-26 (James 2:14-26)

Faith and works.

The supposed antagonism between Paul and James. Misapprehension. Paul's great argument is that, not by seeking to fulfill an impossible righteousness do we make ourselves just before God, but by acknowledging our sin and accepting his salvation. James's argument is, that the very faith which saves us is a faith which brings forth after-fruits, or it is not true faith at all. So, then, the "works" to which the one refers are works done with a view to salvation, that God's favor may be won by them; the works to which the other refers are works springing out of salvation, because God's favor has been so freely and graciously bestowed. Let us study James's presentation of this truth—faith as a mere profession; faith as a practical principle.

I. FAITH AS A MERE PROFESSION . All profession which is mere profession is vain, and worse than vain. This needs no proving, and therefore James, in his usual graphic style, illustrates rather than proves the truth.

1. The faith of mere profession is a mockery. (Verses 15, 16) Picture the scene which he supposes: "If a brother or sister be naked," etc. What mockery! So is it possible for our " faith " to be a consummate caricature of the truths we profess to hold. Take, e.g. , the central creed of our religion: " I believe in God the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost." What does this mean to us? That we live to God as our Father, by the grace of his salvation, and through the power of his Spirit? Or are these mere names to us? The world knows. And better no professed faith at all than a faith which is belied by all our life.

2. The faith of mere profession is but the dead semblance of the living thing. (Verses 17, 20, 26) Take the living man, and you have spirit, expressing itself in body, and actuating the body in all the active movements of the outer life. But mere body? A ghastly, pseudo-expression, not real; and no movement, no life. The spirit, the living principle, is gone! The analogy: what the spirit is to the expression of the spirit in the bodily form, and to the movements of active life which are carried on through the bodily instrumentality, that faith is to the profession of faith which shows it forth to men , and to the works by which it lives and moves in the world. But mere profession? Corpse-like! For there is no quickening principle there, and consequently no movement of life. So our creeds may be dead bodies, not instinct with any quickening principle, not bringing forth any fruits.

3. The faith of mere profession may consist with the deepest damnation. (Verse 19) Orthodoxy? You have it there! But to what result? A shuddering! Oh, let us learn this: a truth that is not wrought into the life is no truth to us; nay, it may but ensure our speedier and more dreadful ruin! Who are the atheists of the present day? Who the Christless ones? To whom was it said, "Thou, which art exalted unto heaven," etc. ( Matthew 11:23 )? Let us learn, that the belief which now we trifle with, and glibly profess, may one day make us shudder!

II. FAITH AS A PRACTICAL PRINCIPLE . "Can that faith save him?" No, indeed; impossible per se! For whatever saves us must change us; and therefore the faith must he, not mere profession, but vital principle. True faith is trust; what we believe we live by. And faith in Christ, being a trustful surrender to Christ, is essentially operative. It must work; if it have not the "promise and potency" of work, it is not faith at all.

1. Faith manifested by works. (Verse 18) So far as there are true works, there is virtually true faith in the Christ of the heart , with whatever error mingled. We are warranted by Christ's own words in saying this: " By their fruits ye shall know them" ( Matthew 7:16-20 ). So, then, true works are an evidence to all of the true faith from which alone they can spring. But the converse is true: a lack of works is sure proof of a lack of faith.

2. Faith justifying by works. (Verses 21, 23, 24, 25) Only in so far as the faith is vital and operative does it justify, though the works themselves are really the outcome of the faith, or, more strictly, the result of the salvation of which the faith lays hold. James does not use the phrase, "justified by works," with metaphysical precision, but rather for broad, popular effect; and what he really means is, "justified by a working faith." Mingled with this, there may be likewise the idea in his mind, according to verse 18 (see above), "accredited to the world as a justified man." So Abraham; so Rahab.

3. Faith perfected by works. (Verse 22)

All which, being translated into perhaps more experimental language, means, "Christ in you;" and the Christ within must live and wink ( Galatians 2:1-21 .-20), May the faith that appropriates such a life be ours!—T.F.L.

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