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The Epistle of James Chapter 2 “Faith Brought to Completion”

The Epistle of James


Chapter 2 – “Faith Brought to Completion”


James in this section gets down to very practical issues in faith and life.  He emphasizes the fact that the sin of showing partiality is the complete opposite of loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39).  James emphasizes the difference between faith as assent and faith as genuine trust in the Lord.  In reality he shows the same view of the law and faith as the apostle Paul.


  1. “Acts of Favoritism” – 2:1-13


The church is not immune to the false standards of the world.  We are easily impressed by wealth and prestige.  Obviously the same problem occurred in the early church.  James points out that we can pay special attention to someone who is well dressed and appears to be rich.  At the same time, we can look down on someone who appears homeless or poor.  God, however, favors the poor.  We can never forget that.  Proverbs tells us, “Whoever is kind to the poor, lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full” (Prov. 19:17).


Showing partiality is a sin. Everyone is made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).  This is the clear basis for the teaching that all are created equal.  This applies not only to social standing but to race, nationality, education or even religion.  This is not simply a matter of ethics.  It is a question of our spiritual nature, of our relationship to God.


James makes a point about the law that is also found in the apostle Paul. If we try to follow the Law of Moses we have to realize that to fail in one aspect of it is to fail in all of it: “Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law” (Gal. 3:10).  Following the law is everything or nothing.  Paul and James agree that no one can live according to the law.  We can’t pick and choose among the commandments.


Paul speaks of freedom (Gal. 5:1). James refers to the “law of liberty.”  The essence of this law (or “norm”) is mercy.  The only ones to whom this mercy is not extended are those who have not shown mercy.  In Jesus’ framework this would be the religious leaders (Matthew 23).  Paul speaks of the fact that, in the final analysis, God will be merciful to all (Rom. 11:32).  In one of the strongest statements in scripture James says that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  This is why the gospel embraces prostitutes, extortionists, Samaritans and adulterers but condemns the self-righteous.


It is a sad commentary that often Christians are seen as being unmerciful since the demonstration of mercy is so central to the gospel itself.  Faced with the frequent criticism of religious leaders Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6, “I require mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13; 12:7).


  1. Faith Without Works – 2:14-26


This is the section of James’ epistle that has caused an apparent controversy with the apostle Paul.  On the face of it James seems to contradict Paul.  Paul said that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:1-5).  James says the exact opposite (2:23-24).  For this reason, Martin Luther called the Book of James “an epistle of straw.”  However, in spite of the apparent contradiction we have to ask, are Paul and James talking about the same thing?


In reality they are not.  Paul is speaking of faith as an essential trust in God.  He offers Abraham as an example because Abraham proceeds to follow God.  This, however, is the result of his faith not the cause of it.  James says something very similar when he indicates that Abraham showed his faith by obeying God in offering up his son.


Faith needs to show itself.  When Paul in his strongest defense of justification by faith apart from works adds that those who openly engage in the “works of the flesh” will not inherit the kingdom of God, he is indicating, like James, that faith must be visible (Gal. 5:16-21).  Early in Paul’s career his teaching was being distorted to justify self-indulgence (I Cor. 6:12-20).  For Paul faith was a complete trust and confidence in God’s promises.  It had nothing to do with human effort or merit.  Yet once having been justified by faith one’s life needed to show the reality of that trust in God (Eph. 5:1-20).


James actually is correcting two misconceptions of faith.  One is the view that faith is nothing more than a wish, a general hope.  To say to a poor person, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat your fill” without offering any real help is nothing more than an idle saying.  Real faith propels someone to action.  Paul would not dispute that.  The other mistake is to identify faith with mere assent.  In that case faith is nothing more than a tacit acknowledgement without any commitment.  James uses the example of the demons who believe and shudder.  I can say objectively that Jesus is Lord and Savior without expressing any real trust or confidence in him.  The essence of James’ argument is his saying, “I by my works will show you my faith.”  This is to say that faith is central.  What James means by faith is a committed trust, not just an empty belief that doesn’t come to terms with a life that lives out that faith.


To put a final touch on his argument James uses the example of Rahab the prostitute from the Book of Joshua.   She knows that the Lord is with the Israelites.  She and her people have heard about the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptians.  She believes that God is with the Israelites.  This however is more than an assent to a given set of facts.  Rahab takes the spies in.  She hides them and then lies about them to the king’s soldiers.  Two key points must be noted here.  Her obedience to God requires her to break the ninth commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”).  Second, she is a living example of what Paul calls faith working through love (Gal. 5:6).


Questions for Discussion –

  1. Why is it so hard for us to be impartial?  Why are we so impressed with people’s outward appearances?
  1. What does it mean to say that “mercy triumphs over judgment?” Does this mean that everything is acceptable (cf. I Cor. 6:12)?
  1. How can we demonstrate our faith? Why does faith need to be demonstrated?

Next Class – James chapter 3 – “Tongue of Fire”

wed. bible study James chapter 2