James 2
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
Ch. James 2:1-13. Respect of Persons

1. have not the faith …] Better, do not hold. The Greek for “respect of persons” (better, perhaps, acceptance of persons) is in the plural, as including all the varied forms in which the evil tendency might shew itself, and stands emphatically immediately after the negative. The name of “our Lord Jesus Christ” is used obviously with a special force. He had shewn Himself, through His whole life on earth, to be no “respecter of persons” (Matthew 22:16), to have preferred the poor to the rich. There was a shameful inconsistency when those who professed to hold the faith which had Him as its object acted otherwise. To the name of the Lord Jesus is added the description “the Lord of Glory.” The first two words are not repeated in the Greek, but the structure of the English sentence requires their insertion. The motive of the addition is clear. In believing in Him who was emphatically a sharer in the Eternal Glory (John 17:5), who had now returned to that Glory, men ought to feel the infinite littleness of all the accidents of wealth or rank that separate man from man. This seems the most natural construction, but the position of the words “of glory” is anomalous, and some have joined it with “faith” either as a genitive of the object “faith in the future glory,” or as a characterising attribute = “the glorious faith.”

For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
2. if there come unto your assembly] Literally, into your synagogue, the old familiar name as yet, in that early stage of the Church’s life, being used for the Christian as for the Jewish place of worship. What is noted presented the most glaring and offensive form which the acceptance of persons had taken. Signs of the eagerness of men who aimed at a high religious reputation to obtain such honours are seen in Matthew 23:6; and in a society so pervaded by worldliness as that of Judæa, wealth, if accompanied by any kind of religiousness, was sure to be accepted as covering a multitude of sins. What grieved St James was that the same evil should have crept in even among the disciples of the Lord of Glory.

a man with a gold ring] Literally, a gold-ringed man, implying, probably, more than one. The custom was one of the fashions of the Empire, and had spread from Rome to Judæa. So Juvenal, in a portrait which unites the two forms of ostentatious luxury noted by St James, describes one who, though born as an Egyptian slave, appears with Tyrian robes upon his shoulders, and golden rings, light or heavy, according to the season (Sat. i. 28. 30). So in Martial (xi. 60) we read of one who wears six rings on every finger, day and night, and even when he bathes.

in goodly apparel] Better, in gorgeous, or bright apparel. The word is the same as that used of the robe placed upon our Lord in mockery (Luke 23:11), and of that in which the Angel appeared to Cornelius (Acts 10:30). The primary idea is that of “bright” or shining, and this effect was often produced by a combination of gold embroidery with Tyrian purple and crimson.

in vile raiment] squalid is perhaps the nearest equivalent to the Greek word. It is used in the LXX. of Zechariah 3:4, of the “filthy garments” of Joshua the High-Priest. In Revelation 22:11 it is used of spiritual “filthiness,” as is the cognate noun in chap. James 1:21 of this Epistle.

And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:
3. And ye have respect to] Better, look with respect upon. The same word is used in Luke 1:48; Luke 9:38. The English version weakens the dramatic vividness of the Greek.

the gay clothing] The English presents a needless variation from the Greek, which has the same words as in the preceding verse. The translators would seem to have acted on their principle of bringing in as many English words as they could by way of fairness. See Preface to the Authorised Version.

Sit thou here in a good place] The English paraphrases the Greek, which runs literally, as in the margin, Sit here honourably. In practice the seats most coveted among the Jews were those near the end of the synagogue which looked towards Jerusalem, and at which stood the ark that contained the sacred roll of the Law. We do not know whether the first meeting-places of the Christian society followed the same arrangements, or whether then, as at a later period, the Table of the Lord took the place which had been occupied by the ark, and led them to covet the places that were near it, and therefore well placed for seeing and hearing the officiating elder.

Stand thou there …] The Christian, probably the elder or deacon, is supposed to point the poor man to his place at the other end of the synagogue, far from sight and hearing, giving him, it may be, the alternative of a seat on the ground, just below what we should call the “stall,” in which the rich man was invited to take his place, with a stool for his feet to rest on.

Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
4. are ye not then partial in yourselves?] The verb is the same as that translated “waver” in chap. James 1:6 and elsewhere, as in Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23; Acts 10:20; Romans 14:23 by “doubt.” Nor is any other meaning, such as that of “making distinctions,” necessary, or admissible, here. “When you acted in this way (the tense assumes that the thing had been actually done) did you not doubt, as others doubt, in your own hearts?” Faith in Christ’s words as to the deceitfulness of riches and the little honour due to them would have kept men from such servility. They shewed by their words and acts that they were half-hearted, or, in St James’s sense of the word, “double-minded.”

judges of evil thoughts?] The construction is the same as that of the English phrase “a man of bad temper,” and is precisely analogous to that rendered “unjust judge” (literally, judge of injustice) in Luke 18:6, and to the “forgetful hearer” or “hearer of forgetfulness” in chap. James 1:25. It means accordingly, “evil-thinking judges.” In acting as they did, men made themselves judges between rich and poor, and with “base reasonings,” or better, perhaps, what we call “base calculations,” gave a preference to the former.

Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
5. Hath not God chosen …] Better, perhaps, did not God choose? as referring to the special election of the poor by Christ as the heirs of blessings and the messengers of His Kingdom (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20; comp. also 1 Corinthians 1:27).

the poor of this world] Literally, in this world, i. e. “as far as this world is concerned.”

rich in faith] The construction of the words is (to use a technical phrase) that of a secondary predicate, “God had chosen the poor in this world as, i.e. to be, rich in faith, as in the region in which they lived and moved.”

heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised …] Here, as before (ch. James 1:12), it is scarcely possible to exclude a direct reference to the words of Christ, as in Luke 6:20; Luke 12:31-32, and so we get indirect proof of a current knowledge, at the early period at which St James wrote, of teaching that was afterwards recorded in the written Gospels. Some of the better MSS., however, give “heirs of the promise.”

to them that love him?] Care is taken not to lead men to suppose that poverty itself, apart from spiritual conditions, was a sufficient title to the inheritance. There must be the love of God which has its root in faith. What is pressed is that poverty and not wealth was the true object of respect; partly as predisposing men to the spiritual conditions, partly as having been singled out by Christ for special blessings.

But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
6. But ye have despised the poor] Better, ye have dishonoured, or done dishonour to, the word implying the outward act that expressed contempt. The Greek tense may point to the special instance just given as a supposed fact, “Ye dishonoured.…” The pronoun is emphatic, “God chose the poor, ye put them to shame.”

Do not rich men oppress you] Better, lord it over you. The word is like, though not identical with, those used in Matthew 20:25; 1 Peter 5:3, and means literally, to act the potentate over others. As a rule the wealthier class in Judæa tended to Sadduceeism (Joseph. Ant. xiii. 10. § 6), and St James’s reference to their treatment of the disciples agrees with the part that sect took, including, as it did, the aristocracy of the priesthood, in the persecutions of the earlier chapters of the Acts (James 4:1; James 4:6, James 5:17).

and draw you before the judgment seats?] Better, drag you to courts of Justice. The same noun appears in 1 Corinthians 6:2; 1 Corinthians 6:4. The Greek verb implies violence, as in Acts 21:30. The words may point either to direct persecutions, such as that of Acts 9:1-2, or to the indirect vexation of oppressive lawsuits. In the Greek the verb is preceded by an emphatic pronoun, “Is it not they that drag you.” There seems, at first, a want of logical coherence. The rich man first appears as gaining undue prominence in the assembly of Christians, and then as one of a class of persecutors and blasphemers. This, however, is just the point on which St James lays stress. Men honoured the rich Christian, not because he was a Christian, but because he was rich, i. e. because he was connected with a class, which, as such, had shewn itself bitterly hostile to them.

Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
7. Do not they blaspheme that worthy name] Better, Do not they revile that noble Name? The pronoun is again emphatic, Is it not they that revile? The two senses of the Greek verb, the reviling which has man for its object, and the blasphemy, in its modern sense, which is directed against God, are in this instance so closely mingled that it is difficult to say which predominates. Men reviled Christ as a deceiver, and in so doing were, not knowing what they did, blaspheming the Son of God. The Name can be none other than that of Jesus as the Christ, and the epithet attached to it, “which is given you, or called upon you,” is best explained as referring to the name of Christian, which was beginning to spread from Antioch into Palestine (Acts 11:26). Where it had not yet found its way, it was probable enough that the disciples of Jesus would be known by the name out of which “Christian” sprang, as οἱ Χριστοῦ, “Christ’s people,” “Christ’s followers.” The description reminds us of the account St Paul gives of his work in compelling the saints to “blaspheme” (Acts 26:11). The persecution in which he thus took part was instigated, it will be remembered, by the Sadducean priests, who formed a wealthy aristocracy, rather than by the more cautious Pharisees, who adopted the policy of Gamaliel (Acts 5:17; Acts 5:34).

If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
8. If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture] The Greek gives a particle which is not expressed in the English, “If, however, ye fulfil …” Nothing that the writer has said in disparagement of wealth and the wealthy is to lead men to anything at variance with the great law of love; that law embraces rich and poor alike. The position of the verb in the Greek gives it a special emphasis. The “law” which follows may be called “royal” or “kingly,” either (1) in the sense in which Plato speaks (Minos ii. 566) of a just law as kingly or sovereign, using the same adjective as St James, or (2) as coming from God or Christ as the true King and forming part of the fundamental code of the kingdom. In a Greek writer the first would probably be the thought intended. In one like St James, living in the thought of a Divine kingdom, and believing in Jesus as the King, the latter is more likely to have been prominent. This agrees too more closely with the uniform use of the word in the LXX. in a literal and not a figurative sense. The law which follows, from Leviticus 19:18, had been solemnly affirmed by the true King (Matthew 22:39). One who accepted it in its fulness was ipso facto not far from the Kingdom (Mark 12:34). Believing this to have been the main thought present to St James’s mind, it is yet probable enough that he chose the word so that those who were not as yet believers in Christ might see in the commandment of love, the law of God as the Great King.

ye do well] The words seem to point to those who, like the scribe in Mark 12:32-33, were ready enough to accept the law in theory but shrank from its practical application. We almost trace a tone of irony in the words: “In that case, if you attain a completeness which you never have attained, ye do well.” “Right well,” or “nobly,” or more colloquially “excellent well,” comes closer to the force of the adverb.

But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
9. but if ye have respect to persons] The Greek gives a compound verb which is not found elsewhere, If ye be person-accepting.

ye commit sin] The Greek is more emphatic, “It is sin that ye are working, being convicted by the Law.” However generally decorous their lives might be, yet through this one offence they failed to meet the requirements of the Law. The way in which they dealt with rich and poor was, in the strictest sense of the term, a crucial test.

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
10. in one point] The noun, as the italics shew, is not in the Greek, but the English is a satisfactory rendering. Guided by what follows we might perhaps say “in one commandment.”

he is guilty of all] Better, he has become guilty, i. e. liable to condemnation under an indictment which includes all the particular commandments included in the great Law. This seems at first of the nature of an ethical paradox, but practically it states a deep moral truth. If we wilfully transgress one commandment we shew that in principle we sit loose to all. It is but accident, or fear, or the absence of temptation, that prevents our transgressing them also. Actual transgression in one case involves potential transgression in all. A saying of Rabbi Jochanan is recorded in the Talmud (Sabbath, fol. 70) identical with this in its terms, and including in its range what were classed as the 39 precepts of Moses. St James was urging upon devout Jews, whether they believed in Christ or no, the highest ethical teaching of their own schools. It is probable enough, that the Pharisees who misrepresented the teaching of St James in the Church of Antioch, laid stress on these words as including circumcision and the ceremonial Law, as well as the precepts which were moral and eternal (Acts 15:1; Acts 15:5; Acts 15:24). See Introduction, ch. 3

For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
11. For he that said, Do not commit adultery …] The two commandments are chosen as standing first in the Second Table, the fifth being classed by most Jewish writers as belonging to the First, just as in Greek and Roman ethics, duty to parents came under the head of Εὐσεβεία and Pietas, rather than under that of Justice (comp. 1 Timothy 5:4). This division is recognised by Josephus (Ant. iii. 6. § 6) and Philo (De Decal. i.), and falls in better than the common one with the pentad and duad grouping that pervades the Law. It is singular that in all New Testament quotations from the Second Table “Thou shalt not commit adultery” precedes “Thou shalt not kill,” Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 13:9; and the order is made the subject of direct comment by Philo (De Decal. xii. 24). It may be inferred from this that there was, probably, a traditional order varying from that at present found in the Hebrew Pentateuch.

So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
12. So speak ye, and so do] The thoughts of the teacher dwell, as before (chap. James 1:26) and afterwards (chap. James 3:1-12), on sins of speech as no less tests of character than sins of act. In so doing he was echoing the words of a yet greater Teacher (Matthew 12:37).

the law of liberty] See note on ch. James 1:25. The recurrence of the phrase indicates a certain fondness for the thought which it expresses. As a phrase it is peculiar to St James, but the idea is found in John 8:32. Verbally it presents something like a contrast to St Paul’s language as to the law “which gendereth unto bondage” (Galatians 4:24), but the difference is on the surface only, St James speaking of the moral law when the will accepts it as the guide of life, St Paul of its work as reproving and condemning when the fleshly will resists it, and pre-eminently of its merely ritual and ceremonial precepts, the days and months and years of Galatians 4:10.

For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
13. For he shall have judgment] There is something more emphatic in the actual structure of the sentence. For the judgment shall be merciless to him that wrought not mercy. The axiom presents one aspect of the great law of divine retribution, and, like so much of St James’s teaching, is an obvious reproduction of that of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1). The reference to that discourse suggests the thought that the “law of liberty” of which St James speaks is not the law given by Moses, but the new Law, full of grace and truth, which was given by Christ. See note on James 2:8. On this assumption the supposed contrast with St Paul dwindles into nothing.

mercy rejoiceth against judgment] The verb is found in Romans 11:18. The abruptness of the original, where the maxim stands with no connecting particle, is singularly forcible, mercy glories over judgment. The law holds good universally. It is true of man’s judgment, but also of God’s, that mercy triumphs over severity, when it finds a willing object. The truth has seldom found a nobler utterance than in the familiar words which remind us that

“Earthly power doth then shew likest God’s,

When mercy seasons justice.”

Shakespeare. Merchant of Venice, iv. 1.

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?
14–26. Justification by Faith and Works

14. though a man say he hath faith] The section on which we now enter has been the battle-field of almost endless controversies. It led Luther in the boldness of a zeal not according to knowledge to speak of the whole Epistle with contempt. (Preface to German New Testament, 1522; but see J. C. Hare’s Vindication of Luther, p. 215.) To him it was an “Epistle of Straw,” (Epistola straminea,) to be classed with wood, hay, stubble, as compared with the teaching of St Paul, which it seemed to him to contradict. It led Bishop Bull to write his Harmonia Apostolica to prove the agreement of the two, by assuming, with many of the Fathers, that St James wrote to correct the false inferences which men had drawn from St Paul’s doctrine, in itself and as taught by him a true doctrine, as to Justification. In dealing with the problem presented by a comparison of the teaching of the two writers, it is obviously necessary to start with what to the reader is an assumption, though to the writer it may be the conclusion of an inquiry, as to the aim and leading idea of the writer with whom we have to deal; and the notes that follow will accordingly be based on the hypothesis that the teaching of St James was not meant, as men have supposed who exaggerate the diversities of thought in the Apostolic age, to be antagonistic to that of St Paul, nor even to correct mistaken inferences from it, but was altogether independent, and probably prior in time, moving in its own groove, and taking its own line of thought. If this view, as a theory, solves all the phænomena, and throws light upon what would otherwise be obscure, it will be its own best vindication. At the close it may be well to take a brief survey of other modes of interpretation.

We must remember then, to start with, that St James is writing primarily to the Jews of the “dispersion.” The disciples in Jerusalem and Judæa were under his personal guidance, and therefore were not in need of an Epistle. The faults which he reproves are pre-eminently the faults of the race. Men dwelling, as those Jews dwelt, in the midst of a heathen population, were tempted to trust for their salvation to their descent from Abraham (comp. Matthew 3:9) and to their maintaining the unity of the Godhead as against the Polytheism and idolatry of the nations. They repeated their Creed (known, from its first Hebrew word, as the Shemà), “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). It entered, as our Creed does, into the Morning and Evening Services of the Synagogue. It was uttered by the dying as a passport to the gates of Paradise. It was to this that they referred the words of Habakkuk that the just should live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4). St James saw, as the Baptist had seen before him, how destructive all this was of the reality of the spiritual life, and accordingly takes this as the next topic of his letter.

No emphasis is to be laid on “though a man say.” The argument of St James assumes that the man has the faith which he professes. His contention is that faith is not enough by itself, that unless it pass into “works” it gives proof that it is ipso facto dead; and the “works” of which he speaks are, as the next verse shews, emphatically, not ceremonial, nor ascetic, but those of an active benevolence.

can faith save him?] The pronoun, and, in the Greek, the article prefixed to faith, are emphatic. “Can his faith save him, being such as he is?” There is no slight cast upon faith generally, though the kind of faith in the particular case is declared to be worthless.

If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food,
15. If a brother or sister …] The words are not necessarily used in the sense in which they imply the profession of faith in Christ as they are, e. g., in Acts 10:23; Acts 11:1; 1 Corinthians 5:11. Every Israelite was to see a brother in every child of Abraham (Matthew 5:23; Acts 2:29; Acts 3:17). All that can be said is that where the reader of the Epistle was a Christian, he would feel that the words brought before him those who were of the same society or brotherhood.

naked, and destitute of daily food] The picture drawn is one of extremest destitution, and, like the teaching of the whole passage, reminds us of Matthew 25:36; Matthew 25:43. What was the faith worth which could witness that suffering and not be stirred to help? The words are applicable to all times and countries, but it gives them a special interest to remember that the Church over which St James presided had suffered, and was probably, at the very time he wrote, suffering, from the famine foretold by Agabus (Acts 11:28-30). The Gentile disciples had, we read, done their best to alleviate the distress of the Churches of Judæa. St James’s language, addressed to the Jews and Jewish Christians of the dispersion, would seem to imply that they had shewn less forwardness, and had wrapt themselves up in the self-satisfaction of professing the orthodox faith of the sons of Abraham, while the Gentile converts whom they despised were setting an example of self-denying charity.

And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?
16. Depart in peace] The phrase was one of familiar benediction, and had been used by our Lord to those who came to Him seeking bodily or spiritual healing (Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48; Acts 16:36). It would naturally only be used where such wants, if they existed, had been, or were going to be, relieved.

be ye warmed and filled] The first verb refers obviously to the naked, the second to those who are destitute of food. The Greek verbs may be either in the imperative or indicative, “Get yourselves warmed and filled,” or “Ye are warming and filling yourselves.” The former is the more generally received interpretation, and represents the kind of benevolence which shews itself in good advice. The idea of mere good wishes is excluded by the use, on this assumption, of the imperative. It may perhaps, however, be questioned whether the indicative does not give a preferable meaning. The man whose faith was only the acceptance and the utterance of a dogma, was mocking the souls of others when he said “God is One—God is your Father,” as much as if he said to the naked or hungry, “Ye are being warmed or filled.” No amount of faith on their part could turn that mockery of a feast into a reality, unless they had the food and clothing they needed; and the man who gave a bare dogma to men without the reality of love, was mocking them,—yes, and cheating himself,—in much the same manner.

notwithstanding ye give them not] Better, and ye give them not. The change to the plural generalises the individual case presented in “one of you.”

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.
17. Even so faith, if it hath not works …] This then is St James’s objection to the faith of which he speaks. It is, while alone (literally, by itself), with no promise or potency of life, and it is, therefore, dead, and being so, as we scarcely call a corpse a man, is unworthy of the name of faith. The assent to a dogma, beginning and ending in itself, has no power to justify or save. St Paul’s language in Romans 2:13 shews that he was in substantial agreement with St James.

Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.
18. Yea, a man may say …] The objector thus introduced, after the same manner as by St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:35, is here the representative neither of an opponent to be refuted, nor yet of the writer’s own thoughts, but rather, as we should say, of an outsider, the man of common sense and practical piety, in this instance, of the Gentile convert whom the orthodox Jew or Jewish Christian despised, who might be less expert in formulating the Truth, but lived by the Truth which he believed.

shew me thy faith without thy works] The reading followed by the English version is at once more intelligible and supported by better MS. authority, than the alternative “by thy works,” which, in fact, destroys the whole point of the antithesis. The man who relied on faith is challenged to exhibit it, if he can, apart from works, as a distinct entity by itself. It is assumed that no such exhibition is possible. If he is to give any evidence that he has the faith that saves, it must be by having recourse to the works which he neglects, and, it may be, disparages. On the other hand, the challenger, starting with works, can point to them as proofs of something beyond themselves. Deeds of love, implying a victory over self, could not have been wrought without, not a dead faith in the dogma of the Divine Unity, but a living trust in God.

Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
19. Thou believest that there is one God …] The instance of the faith in which men were trusting is important as shewing the class of Solifidians (to use a term which controversy has made memorable) which St James had in view. They were not those who were believing in the Son of God, trusting in the love, the blood, in the language of a later age, the merits, of Christ, but men who, whether nominally Christians or Jews, were still clinging to their profession of the Creed of Israel as the ground of all their hopes. It is scarcely probable that a writer intending to correct consequences drawn from St Paul’s teaching as to faith would have been content with such a far-off illustration.

thou doest well] The words have the character of a half-ironical concession. Comp. note on James 2:8. It is well as far as it goes, but the demons can claim the same praise.

the devils also believe and tremble] Better “shudder.” The general bearing of the words is plain enough, but there is a special meaning which is commonly passed over. The “devils” are the “demons” or “unclean spirits” of the Gospels, thought of, not as in their prison-house of darkness (Jude James 2:6), but as “possessing” and tormenting men. As such, they too acknowledged the Unity and Sovereignty of God, but that belief, being without love, led only to the “shudder” of terror, when the Divine Name was uttered in the formulæ of exorcism. (Comp. Matthew 8:29; Mark 9:20; Mark 9:26.) Here then was an instance in which belief in a dogma, as distinct from trust in a person, brought with it no consciousness of peace or pardon, and what was true of the “demons” might be true also of men.

But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
20. wilt thou know, O vain man …] The term, as applied to men, is not found elsewhere in the New Testament, but is used with something of the same significance in the LXX. of Jdg 9:4. The idea is primarily that of “emptiness,” and the Greek adjective is almost literally the equivalent of our empty-headed, as a term of contempt. It answers clearly to the Raca of Matthew 5:22.

that faith without works is dead] The MSS. vary between “dead” and the adjective rendered “idle” in Matthew 12:36; Matthew 20:3. The meaning is substantially the same. That which is without life is without the activity which is the one proof of life.

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
21. Was not Abraham our father justified by works] The close correspondence of phraseology with Romans 4:2 at first seems to favour the view that St James is correcting or modifying St Paul’s statement It is obvious, however, that the agreement equally admits of the explanation that St Paul is correcting or modifying the language of St James. He presses the fact that “Abraham believed God,” and that this “was counted to him for righteousness,” i. e. that he was justified prior to any act but that of simple trust. And the impression left by a careful study of the passage referred to is that St Paul is there referring to something that had been urged, as having a high authority, against his teaching that a man is justified by faith. It is clear, at all events, that no inference can be drawn from the two passages in favour of the assumption that the Epistle of St James was later than that of St Paul to the Romans.

The use of the word “justify” shews that its meaning is to “acquit” or “count as righteous” (Matthew 12:37; Acts 13:39; Sir 26:29; Sir 23:11).

The preposition used in the Greek points to “works” as being the source rather than the instrument of justification.

when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?] Better, when he offered Isaac, the two acts being thought of, not as successive, but simultaneous. It is remarkable that the only scriptural references, after Genesis 22, to the sacrifice of Isaac, are found in Wis 10:5 and Hebrews 11:17. It is hardly likely that the latter could have been known to St James, the internal evidence pointing to a later date; but the former, whether, as some have supposed, by the same author as the Epistle to the Hebrews, or written fifty or sixty years earlier, might well have come under his notice. In relation to St Paul’s teaching, as noticed above, it must be remembered that the one writer speaks of the beginning of Abraham’s course, the other of its consummation. St James might well urge that if Abraham had not shewn his faith by his works, up to the crowning work of the sacrifice of his son, it would have proved that his faith too was dead.

Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?
22. Seest thou how faith wrought with his works …?] Better, perhaps, not as a question, Thou seest that … Attention is called, not as the English “how” suggests, to the manner of co-operation, but only to the fact. The tense of the verb emphasises the continued co-operation of Abraham’s faith with his works. The one was all along working together with the other. What St James presses is, not that works can justify without faith, but that faith cannot justify unless it includes “the promise and the potency” of the life that shews itself in acts.

by works was faith made perfect?] Here the tense is changed to that which denotes completion in a single act. It was “by works” (i. e. out of, as from the originating cause) that faith was brought to its completion. The interpretation which sees in the words nothing more than that faith was shewn to be perfect, must be rejected as one of the afterthoughts of controversy. It may be added, however, as pointing to the true reconciliation of St James and St Paul, that the very form of the statement implies that the faith existed prior to the works by which it was made perfect.

And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
23. And the scripture was fulfilled …] The use of the words commonly applied to the fulfilment of prophetic utterances implies that St James saw in the statement of Genesis 15:6 that which, though true at the time, was yet also an anticipation of what was afterwards to be realised more fully. Of that prophecy, as of others, there were, to use Bacon’s phrase, “springing and germinant accomplishments.” What was then reckoned as righteousness continued to be reckoned, as with an ever-increasing value, which reached its maximum in the sacrifice of the son who was the heir of the promise.

and he was called the Friend of God] The words seem to refer, in the English version of the Bible, to 2 Chronicles 20:7 and Isaiah 41:8, where the term “my friend” is applied to Abraham by Jehovah. Singularly enough, however, the term is not found in the Hebrew, nor in the LXX. version, with which St James, writing in Greek, must have been familiar, and which gives, in the first of the two passages, “Abraham thy beloved,” and in the second, “whom I loved.” The distinctive title first appears in Philo’s citation of Genesis 18:1 (De resipisc. Noë, c. 11), and, after St James, in Clement of Rome (Epist. ad Cor. I. 10). It was probably the current phrase in the Jewish schools, and has descended to the Arabs, with whom the name of El Khalil Allah (the friend of God), or more briefly El Khalil, has practically superseded that of Abraham. Even Hebron, as the city of Abraham, and so identified with him, has become El Khalil, “the friend.”

Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
24. Ye see then] The better MSS. omit the then. The Greek verb may be indicative, imperative, or interrogative. The English Version is probably right in giving the preference to the first.

not by faith only] There is, it is obvious, a verbal contradiction between this and St Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28, but it is verbal only. St James does not exclude faith from the work of justifying, i. e. winning Good’s acquittal and acceptance, but only a faith which stands “by itself,” “alone,” and therefore “dead,” and assumes that “works” have their beginning in the faith which they ripen and complete. St Paul throughout assumes that faith will work by love and be productive in good acts, while the works which he excludes from the office of justifying are “works of the law,” i.e. works which, whether ceremonial or moral, are done as by a constrained obedience to an external commandment, through fear of punishment, or hope of reward, and are not the spontaneous outcome of love and therefore of faith. It will be felt that St James presents the more practical, St Paul the deeper and more mystical aspect of the Truth, and this is in itself a confirmation of the view maintained throughout these notes, that the latter was the later of the two, and therefore that so far as one corrects or completes the popular version of the teaching of the other, it was to St Paul and not to St James that that task was assigned.

Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?
25. was not Rahab the harlot …] The question meets us, What led St James to select this example? St Paul does not refer to it, as he probably would have done, had he been writing with St James’s teaching present to his thoughts, in any of the Epistles in which his name appears as the writer. In the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:31) it appears as one of the examples of faith, but this was most probably after St James had given prominence to her name. In the mention of Rahab by Clement of Rome (i. 12) we have an obvious echo from the Epistle just named, with the additional element of a typical interpretation of the scarlet thread as the symbol of the blood of Christ, by which those of all nations, even the harlots and the unrighteous, obtained salvation. A more probable explanation is found in the connexion of St James with the Gospel according to St Matthew. The genealogy of the Christ given in ch. 1 of that Gospel must have been known to “the brother of the Lord,” and in it the name of Rahab appeared as having married Salmon, the then “prince” of the tribe of Judah (Matthew 1:5; 1 Chronicles 2:50-51; Ruth 4:20-21). The prominence thus given to her name would naturally lead him and others to think of her history and ask what lessons it had to teach them. If “harlots” as well as “publicans” were among those who listened to the warnings of the Baptist and welcomed the gracious words of Christ (Matthew 21:31-32), she would come to be regarded as the typical representative of the class, the Magdalene (to adopt the common, though, it is believed, an erroneous view) of the Old Testament. A rabbinic tradition makes her become the wife of Joshua and the ancestress of eight distinguished priests and prophets, ending in Huldah the Prophetess (2 Kings 22:14). Josephus (Ant. v. i. § 2), after his manner, tones down the history, and makes her simply the keeper of an inn. Another ground of selection may well have been that Rahab was by her position in the history the first representative instance of the deliverance of one outside the limits of the chosen people. In this instance also, St James urges, the faith would have been dead had it been only an assent to the truth that the God of Israel was indeed God, without passing into action. The “messengers” are described in Josh, Joshua 6:23 as “young men,” in Hebrews 11:31 as “spies”.

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
26. For as the body without the spirit is dead …] Some MSS. omit the conjunction, but the evidence for retaining it preponderates. The reasoning seems to refer Rahab’s justification by works to the wider law that faith without works is dead (as in James 2:17) and therefore cannot justify. Our usual mode of thought would lead us to speak of works, the outward visible acts, as the body, and of faith as the spirit or vivifying principle. From St James’s standpoint, however, faith “by itself” was simply the assent of the intellect to a dogma or series of dogmas, and this seemed to him to be “dead” until it was vitalised by love shewing itself in act. St Paul reproves the deadness of mere morality, St James that of mere orthodoxy. St James, it will be noted, adopts the simple division of man’s nature into “body and spirit,” rather than St Paul’s more philosophical trichotomy of “body, soul and spirit.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Comp. note on ch. James 3:13.

faith without works] More literally, faith apart from works.


The view which has been given in the notes seems to the writer clear and coherent in itself, consistent with what we know as to the relations between the two Apostles, and involving less violence of interpretation than any other hypothesis. Two other views have, however, been maintained with arguments more or less plausible, and it will be well to notice them briefly.

(1) There is the position assumed by some of the bolder critics of the French and German Schools, that there was a real antagonism in the Apostolic Church, not only between the Judaizing teachers and St Paul, but between that Apostle and the three, Peter, James, and John, to whom the Church of the Circumcision looked as its natural leaders. On this assumption, the writer of the Acts of the Apostles strives to gloss over the divergence of the two parties, and to represent an unreal unity. The messages to the Seven Churches are “a cry of passionate hate against St Paul and his followers” (Renan, St Paul, p. 367). When St James says, “Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead,” he is probably pointing at St Paul himself. From the point of view of those who hold this theory it is, perhaps, a small thing that it is inconsistent with the belief that the teaching of St James and of St Paul had, as its source, the inspiration of the Eternal Spirit, who, though working in many different ways and with wide diversity of gifts, is yet the Spirit of the Truth which is essentially one. But on simply historical grounds the theory is, it is believed, untenable. St Paul himself acknowledges that after he had privately laid before them the sum and substance of the Gospel as he preached it, James, Cephas, and John gave to him the right hands of fellowship (Galatians 2:9). James appears as giving a public sanction to that Gospel at the Council at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). Long after the Judaizing teachers had been doing their worst for years, the “right hand of fellowship” is still held out by the one teacher to the other (Acts 21:17-25). The question whether this hypothesis is as satisfactory an explanation of the facts with which it deals, as that which I have here given, I am content to leave to the judgment of the reader.

(2) The other theory has at least the merit of accepting the teaching of each of the two writers as in itself inspired and true. It assumes that St James wrote after St Paul, and aimed at correcting inferences that had been wrongly drawn from his doctrine, that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. How to reconcile their statements on this assumption is a problem which has been variously solved. (a) It has been said that St Paul speaks of man’s justification before God, St James of the proof of that justification before the eyes of men; but of this there is not a shadow of proof in the language of either writer. (b) It has been maintained that St Paul speaks of a true faith, St James of that which is false or feigned; but nothing in the language of the latter, though he stigmatizes the faith which is without works as dead, suggests the thought that it did not mean a real acceptance of the dogma which it professed to hold. (c) It has been held that the “works” of which St Paul speaks as unable to justify, are the ceremonial works of the law of Moses, those on which the Pharisees laid stress; but the width of St Paul’s teaching as to the nature and office of the law in Galatians 3, Romans 7 scatters this view to the winds at once. (d) There is a nearer approximation to the truth in the solution which finds in St James’s faith the intellectual acceptance of a dogma, in St Paul’s the trust in a living Person as willing and able to save, and therefore the confidence that salvation is attainable by him who so trusts. This is, in the main, the view that has been taken in these notes, with the exception of the point on which stress has been laid above, that the Antinomianism which St James condemned was that of ultra-Jewish teachers, who taught a justification by faith in Monotheism, and not of an ultra-Pauline party. It agrees practically with the distinction drawn by the Schoolmen that St James speaks of a fides informis, rudimentary and incomplete, St Paul of a fides formata, developed or completed by Love. Errors, however, assume subtle disguises. Those who used St James’s name in the Apostolic age dwelt so much on outward acts apart from the motive that gives them life, as sufficient for man’s acceptance with God, that it was necessary for St Paul to revive the truth which had been first distorted and then denied, that “the just by faith shall live” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). His teaching again, in its turn, led men to think that they might be justified by faith, not in God who justifies, but in a dogma about justification. It was well that both aspects of the truth should have been presented then, and have been preserved for the guidance of the Church in all ages, as completing each the other. We need not fear to be as varied in our teaching as were those who were taught of God, and to tell men, according to their variations in character, as they require more deepening of the spiritual life, or more strengthening for practical activity, now that they must be justified by faith, and now that they must be justified by works.

The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

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