James 2 Commentary

vv.1-12: “There is no doubt that there must have been social problems in the early church. The Church was the only place in the ancient world where social distinction did not exist. There must have been a certain initial awkwardness when a master found himself sitting next his slave or when a master arrived at a service in which his slave was actually the leader and the dispenser of the Sacrament. The gap between the slave, who in law was nothing more than a living tool, and the master was so wide as to cause problems of approach on either side. Further, in its early days the Church was predominantly poor and humble; and therefore if a rich man was converted and came to the Christian fellowship, there must have been a very real temptation to make a fuss of him and treat him as a special trophy for Christ.

“The Church must be the one place where all distinctions are wiped out. There can be no distinctions of rank and prestige when men meet in the presence of the King of glory. There can be no distinctions of merit when men meet in the presence of the supreme holiness of God. In his presence all earthly distinctions are less than the dust and all earthly righteousness is as filthy rags. In the presence of God all men are one.”[1]

v.6: “In the society which James inhabited the rich oppressed the poor. They dragged them to the law-courts. No doubt this was for debt. At the bottom end of the social scale men were so poor that they could hardly live and moneylenders were plentiful and extortionate. In the ancient world there was a custom of summary arrest. If a creditor met a debtor on the street, he could seize him by the neck of his robe, nearly throttling him, and literally drag him to the law-courts. That is what the rich did to the poor. They had no sympathy; all they wanted was the uttermost farthing. It is not riches that James is condemning; it is the conduct of riches without sympathy.”[2]

vv.8-11: “James goes on to lay down a great principle about the law of God. To break any part of it is to become a transgressor. The Jew was very apt to regard the law as a series of detached injunctions. To keep one was to gain credit; to break one was to incur debt. A man could add up the ones he kept and subtract the ones he broke and so emerge with a credit or a debit balance. There was a Rabbinic saying, “Whoever fulfills only one law, good is appointed to him; his days are prolonged and he will inherit the land.” Again many of the Rabbis held that “the Sabbath weighs against all precepts,” and to keep it was to keep the law.

“As James saw it, the whole law was the will of God; to break any part of it was to infringe that will and therefore to be guilty of sin. That is perfectly true. To break any part of the law is to become a transgressor in principle. Even under human justice a man becomes a criminal when he has broken one law. So James argues: “No matter how good you may be in other directions, if you treat people with respect of persons, you have acted against the will of God and you are a transgressor.”

“There is a great truth here which is both relevant and practical. We may put it much more simply. A man may be in nearly all respects a good man; and yet he may spoil himself by one fault. He may be moral in his action, pure in his speech, meticulous in his devotion. But he may be hard and self-righteous; rigid and unsympathetic; and, if so, his goodness is spoiled.”[3]

v.14 “James first states his proposition in two questions, both of which declare that faith not accompanied by good deeds is of no saving value. The two questions set up the hypothetical case of a person who “claims to have” genuine saving faith. James does not say that the person actually has faith. The question “Can such faith save him?” is so structured in the Greek text that it expects a negative answer: “This faith [i.e., faith not accompanied by deeds] can’t save him, can it?” Faith that saves requires faith that proves itself in the deeds it produces. These deeds do not earn merit before God; rather, genuine faith is a concomitant of regeneration and therefore affects the believer’s behavior. Faith that does not issue in regenerate actions is superficial and spurious.”[4]

“There is belief which is purely intellectual.  For instance, I believe that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares on the other two sides; and if I had to, I could prove it – but it makes no difference to my life and living.  I accept it, but it has no effect upon me.  There is another kind of belief.  I believe that five and five make ten, and therefore, I will resolutely refuse to pay more than ten pence for two five penny bars of chocolate.  I take that fact, not only into my mind, but into my life and action.  What James is arguing against is the first kind of belief, the acceptance of a fact without allowing it to have any influence upon life.  The devils are intellectually convinced of the existence of God; they, in fact, tremble before him; but their belief does not alter them in the slightest.  What Paul held was the second kind of belief.  For him to believe in Jesus meant to take that belief into every section of life and to live by it.”[5]

vv.14-26: “Many skeptics argue that a contradiction exists between Paul’s statement that “a man is justified by faith apart from works” (Rm 3:28; cp. 4:5–6; Gl 2:16) and the teaching of James that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jms 2:24). However, these positions actually complement one other.

“First, Paul and James addressed different situations. On the one hand, Paul refuted a Jewish legalism holding that one must observe the law’s requirements in order to be saved. On the other hand, James opposed an antinomianism that was twisting faith in Christ so much that no expression of works was necessary.

“Second, when Paul used the word “justified,” he meant “saved” or “declared righteous,” whereas James meant “vindicated” or “authenticated.” By “works,” Paul meant “works of the law,” whereas James meant works that faith produces.

“In the light of the above, Paul was saying that one is declared righteous by God apart from the works of the law. James, by contrast, was saying that a person’s faith produces works that vindicate his faith in Christ as genuine. James used Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (vv. 21–23; cp. Gn 22:9) and Rahab’s protection of the spies (Jms 2:25; cp. Jos 2) as examples to show that their works authenticated the reality of their faith in God. For James, faith without works was clearly worthless; it must be more than words (Jms 2:14–19, 26). Authentic faith will bear the fruit of good works.”[6]


[1] The letters of James and Peter. 2000 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

[2] The letters of James and Peter. 2000 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

[3] The letters of James and Peter. 2000 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.). The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

[4] Frank E. Gaebelein, Gen. Ed. Expositor’s Bible Commentary CD (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992) 2:14.

[5] William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia, PA:  The Westminster Press, 1976) 73.

[6] Cabal, T., Brand, C. O., Clendenen, E. R., Copan, P., Moreland, J., & Powell, D. (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (1843). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

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