James 2 (J.B. Phillips New Testament)
Luther was specially severe on James, and the adverse judgment of a great man on any book can be a millstone round that book’s neck forever. It is in the concluding paragraph of his Preface to the New Testament that there stands Luther’s famous verdict on James:
“In sum: the gospel and the first epistle of St. John, St. Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians; and Peter’s first epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these the epistle of James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical.”
But Luther’s remark should be understood in its context. He was sometimes frustrated because those who wanted to promote salvation by works quoted certain verses from James against him. His intention was to observe that there was little or nothing in James that preached the gospel of justification by faith alone. In another place Luther wrote regarding James, “I think highly of the epistle of James, and regard it as valuable… It does not expound human doctrines, but lays much emphasis on God’s law.”
Avoid snobbery: keep the royal law
1-7Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ!
James used strong words to refer to Jesus Christ: The Lord of glory. Moffatt comments: “The Christian religion [is here called] more explicitly belief in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the divine Glory – a striking term for Christ as the full manifestation of the divine presence and majesty. The Jews called this the shekinah.”
This is especially significant because James is widely (and properly) regarded as one of the first letters of the New Testament written (perhaps somewhere between AD 44 and 48). This means that the earliest Christians considered Jesus to be God, and said so in strong, unmistakable words.
Suppose one man comes into your meeting well-dressed and with a gold ring on his finger, and another man, obviously poor, arrives in shabby clothes. If you pay special attention to the well-dressed man by saying, “Please sit here—it’s an excellent seat”, and say to the poor man, “You stand over there, please, or if you must sit, sit on the floor”, doesn’t that prove that you are making class-distinctions in your mind, and setting yourselves up to assess a man’s quality?—a very bad thing. For do notice, my brothers, that God chose poor men, whose only wealth was their faith, and made them heirs to the kingdom promised to those who love him. And if you behave as I have suggested, it is the poor man that you are insulting.
To show partiality shows that we care more for the outward appearance than we do upon the heart. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). God looks at the heart, and so should we.
To show partiality shows that we misunderstand who is important and blessed in the sight of God. When we assume that the rich man is more important to God or more blessed by God, we put too much value in material riches.
To show partiality shows a selfish streak in us. Usually we favor the rich man over the poor man because we believe we can get more from the rich man. He can do favors for us that the poor man can’t.
Look around you. Isn’t it the rich who are always trying to “boss” you, isn’t it the rich who drag you into litigation? Isn’t it usually the rich who blaspheme the glorious name by which you are known? 8-11 If you obey the royal law, expressed by the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, all is well. But once you allow any invidious distinctions to creep in, you are sinning, you have broken God’s Law.
Hearing Jesus in James:
Matthew 22:36-39 (NIV)
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Remember that a man who keeps the whole Law but for a single exception is none the less a law-breaker. The one who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’, also said, ‘Do not murder’. If you were to keep clear of adultery but were to murder a man you would have become a breaker of God’s whole Law.
12-13 Anyway, you should speak and act as men who will be judged by the law of freedom. The man who makes no allowances for others will find none made for him.
Hearing Jesus in James:
Matthew 6:15 (NIV)
“But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
It is still true that “mercy smiles in the face of judgment.”
The relation between faith and action
Now what use is it, my brothers, for a man to say he “has faith” if his actions do not correspond with it? Could that sort of faith save anyone’s soul? If a fellow man or woman has no clothes to wear and nothing to eat, and one of you say, “Good luck to you I hope you’ll keep warm and find enough to eat”, and yet give them nothing to meet their physical needs, what on earth is the good of that? Yet that is exactly what a bare faith without a corresponding life is like—useless and dead. If we only “have faith” a man could easily challenge us by saying, “you say that you have faith and I have merely good actions. Well, all you can do is to show me a faith without corresponding actions, but I can show you by my actions that I have faith as well.”
Hearing Jesus in James:
Matthew 7:16 (NIV)
“By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?”
To the man who thinks that faith by itself is enough I feel inclined to say, “So you believe that there is one God? That’s fine. So do all the devils in hell and shudder in terror!” For, my dear short-sighted man, can’t you see far enough to realise that faith without the right actions is dead and useless? Think of Abraham, our ancestor. Wasn’t it his action which really justified him in God’s sight when his faith led him to offer his son Isaac on the altar?
Can’t you see that his faith and his actions were, so to speak, partners—that his faith was implemented by his deed? That is what the scripture means when it says: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God.’
“Here is a proof that faith cannot exist without being active in works of righteousness. His faith in God would have been of no avail to him, had it not been manifested by works.”
24-25 A man is justified before God by what he does as well as by what he believes. Rahab who was a prostitute and a foreigner has been quoted as an example of faith, yet surely it was her action that pleased God, when she welcomed Joshua’s reconnoitring party and got them safely back by a different route.
26 Yes, faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul.
As I have often heard said, “The grace that does not change my life will not save my soul.”
“My Own Little World” by Matthew West. Wow. Are you willing to take a risk with your faith and serve others in a way slightly out of your comfort zone? Right HERE, right now?
J. B. Phillips, “The New Testament in Modern English”, 1962 edition by HarperCollins