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The Epistle of James - Basic but Vital (3)

E Baijal, Wick

James Chapter 2

James ended chapter one exhorting the people of God to 'do', not just 'hear'. In doing so, he gave specific exhortation regarding the demonstration of reality, and exercising support and care for those in need. He also taught the saints that obedience to the Word of God requires separation from the mindset of the world system. In the chapters to follow, James deals with individual and basic areas where obedience must be seen. In some cases, he teaches truth that has, from time to time, mistakenly been relegated to a place of lesser importance by assemblies of the saints. In the second chapter, two such issues are dealt with. The chapter may conveniently be divided as follows: Verses 1-12: Unjustified Partiality, and Verses 13-26: Unsubstantiated Profession.

Verses 1-12: Unjustified Partiality

James opens this section by appealing to his brethren not to live the Christian life in such a way that they treat people differently depending on what they are in the world's eyes. He emphasises that the Christian walk is a life of faith dependent on the Lord Jesus Christ, and it seems that his reference in verse 1 to "the Lord of glory" serves to emphasise the fact that, if He had exercised respect of persons in the way the saints did, and do, none of the redeemed would ever have been reached in their sinfulness. An illustration is given in the next verses, perhaps based on an incident that had been reported to James. A man with all the marks of wealth and influence comes into the synagogue, and there also comes in a man with the marks of poverty (v 2). Simply on the basis of what they look like, and their earthly position, the rich man is given a preferential place, and the poor man is looked down upon. The letter teaches very clearly (v 4) that to behave (or think!) in this way is "evil" and sinful. It demonstrates partiality, and reveals a mistaken view that what a man is in the world is indicative of what he is spiritually. Verse 5 teaches that this is not the case at all. In the main, although not exclusively, God has chosen people without influence in this world to be "heirs of the kingdom". Their place in God's purpose is secured by their faith in Christ and not what they are, or are not, in the eyes of the world. The problem with the people of God at that time, and sometimes sadly now, was that they "despised [dishonoured] the poor" (v 6).

When every child of God can read of the example of our blessed Lord Jesus, it is a shame that members of the body are despised, put down, excluded, or sneered at, simply because they lack worldly wealth and influence. It is not always deliberate, but it is always wrong. In a world that considers that life consists of what a man has, rather than what he is, it is easy to become conformed to such a way of thinking. James, however, wants the saints to remember that, in the main, the world system is controlled by riches and the rich men that they seek to honour, and it was such as those that were leading the persecution against them and the Lord (vv 6-7). The teaching of the epistle on this subject of partiality is summed up by quoting the law, as taken up by the Lord: "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (v 8). James wants the original, Jewish, readers of the letter to understand that such partiality has not suddenly become sinful; it has always been sinful (vv 9-11). In fact, respecting persons on the basis described makes one a law-breaker. Verse 10 is very important doctrinally in a wider sense too, showing that to transgress the law in one place is to be a transgressor of all, and therefore to fall short of God's standard (Rom 3.23). The believers needed to be reminded that, while they would not lose their salvation as a result of law-breaking, God's standard would be applied in assessment in due course. It is a sobering matter to realise that the divine estimation is very different from the human one. This is particularly the case when there is partiality shown, and, too often, our treatment of others may be influenced by what they might be able to do for us in return.

Verses 13-26: Unsubstantiated Profession

In the second section of the chapter, James deals with the difficulty of believers who did not show any indication of eternal life in the way they lived, even though they professed to have it. This is an area that should still concern every saint today. Lives should not be lived carelessly, without evidence of salvation, and to live in such a way may suggest a lack of genuine faith ever having been exercised.

James introduces the subject by asking a series of rhetorical questions (v 14). He shows that it is not enough to say that one possesses faith. Rather, genuine saving faith will be manifested by good works in the life after salvation. A profession of faith that has not made a change is, James says, not genuine. So, while good works do not produce salvation, salvation will always produce good works (v 18). Again, to illustrate the point being made, James speaks about treatment of other saints. If there is a genuine need, which one promises to meet, yet does not, the need remains unmet, despite the profession of help. So it is with the exercise of faith (v 17). Profession is one thing, but it is the evidence of fruit that demonstrates life.

There is still a great need to proclaim far and wide that salvation is by grace (Eph 2.8). However, there is also a need to understand that saints are not called to preach a Gospel of empty profession. Genuine salvation will radically change the life, and will be demonstrated by good works. Saving faith makes an impact in the life because its effect is salvation. James uses the illustration of the demons. They have some appreciation of the awesome greatness of God, but that does not cause them to repent. A man is not saved by a purely theoretical knowledge of the Gospel. He is saved when it becomes real to him personally and, as a consequence of that, fruit will then be produced for God.

Verses 21-25 narrate two Old Testament examples of the point James is making. The account of Abraham is particularly interesting, because it is clear from Romans 4 that he was justified by faith, yet James indicates that he was justified by works. It seems clear James is teaching that, while salvation has always been on the basis of faith exercised, there is a sense in which a man is declared righteous by his works; that is, a genuinely saved man will produce good works, and therefore give testimony to his salvation and justification. The ESV¹ helpfully renders verse 22: "You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works." In a sense, therefore, works are the outcome and demonstration of faith exercised, and so justification by faith and justification by works (in a purely Biblical sense) are not contradictory. A man who has been justified by faith will, in turn, be justified by works. Similarly, Rahab had obviously believed in Jehovah by the time she was helping the spies. Had she not helped them, she would have practically denied her profession, but, instead, her help was evidence of her justification by faith.

James concludes that, without evidence of salvation in the life, it matters not how vehement or strong a profession is; there is no genuine faith or life (v 26). It is a challenge to every professing believer to examine the life, and honestly ask in the sight of God if there is fruit and evidence of salvation (cf Mt 7.20). As the apostle exhorted, "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves" (2 Cor 13.5).

¹ English Standard Version.

(To be continued …)


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