Reading: James 2
This chapter gets right to the heart of where many have viewed Paul and James as having conflicting views of faith and works. James was likely writing years before Paul's epistles, so James didn't have Paul in mind in his letter, but did he have a different view of faith and works than Paul? Did James believe we were saved by faith and works while Paul believed we were saved by faith alone? Absolutely not. In this devotional I will present one way of understanding James' comments that might reveal we've been reading too much Paul into them.
James 1:27 speaks of caring for orphans and widows (those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder), and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Now James turns his attention to a specific situation amongst the believers; it may be a specific way they are being polluted by the world: they are showing favoritism. Favoritism is rooted in viewing others through eyes of self-love, not other-love. Favoritism is living according to what others can do for us, rather than asking how we can manifest Christ to them. James 2:4 references this when it says, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts [NASB: motives]?”
Then James goes on to speak about how, though God had honored the poor, they were insulting the poor (James 2:5-6). They clearly did not have a tight reign on their tongue (James 1:26). By insulting the poor, they were blaspheming the good name of the Lord. This may reference that fact that they were living in complete contradiction to Christ who humbled himself, became poor, in order to save us. James tells them to rather fulfill the royal law by loving their neighbor as themselves. This would be consistent with the Gospel they believed and by which they were saved. This would be living toward others as Jesus lived toward them. However, if you show favoritism (by not loving your neighbor as yourselves), you are convicted by the law as a lawbreaker.
James 2:10-13 might be seen as parenthetical. That isn't to say it is unimportant, but that James is digressing to explain something about his last comment. I might paraphrase this way, “If you are living in such contradiction to the Gospel that you treat others as if you yourself had not received mercy, then the law convicts you as a lawbreaker. How so? Because if you break one law, you're just as much a lawbreaker as if you break another. Therefore, stop living under that law because you can't win. Live as those who will be judged by the law that gives freedom—the Gospel. If we live as those unaffected by Gospel mercy because we don't show mercy, then we will be judged under the law. But those who live (speak and act according to) the Gospel are not judged by the law! Gospel mercy will triumph over the judgment of the Law.” (For an explanation of why 'the law that gives freedom' is the Gospel, see Part 1.)
We are called to speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom! (James 2:12) We have just been told, in James 2:10, that those who are judged by Moses law will be found guilty of breaking all of it. We however are not to live under that condemnation. We are to live as those who have come under the law that gives freedom—the Gospel. How is the Gospel a law that gives freedom? The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to follow Christ, it calls us to holy living (see Matthew 5 – 7), it calls us to obedience (Romans 1:5; Matthew 7:24), but it begins by cleansing us of our sin, by freeing us from the fear of death, by judging us righteous in Christ. It begins with mercy. Therefore, keeping God's commands—love your neighbor as yourself—grows out of mercy received (Compare to Paul's view in Romans 12:1ff).
If that paragraph (10-13) is parenthetical, then vs. 14 picks up where we left off—having been encouraged to love our neighbor as ourselves (vs. 8). It might help to read it like this:
8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right.... 14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:8-9, 14-17) [Emphasis added]
If read this way, R. T. Kendall pointed out, one needs to ask to whom the “him” at the end of vs. 14 refers. In other words, what is the antecedent to “him” in that sentence? Most assume the question might be read, “Can such faith save him—the person who has that faith?” Kendall suggests that it may well be read, “Can such faith save him—the neighbor whom you have been refusing to love as yourself.” Especially if you understand the word “save” in some of its broader meaning: rescue from danger and to restore to a former state of safety and well being - save, rescue, deliver; keep safe, preserve; cure, make well.
The question might then be paraphrased this way: What benefit is there to a faith that has no works? Does such a faith meet the need of the man who needs clothing or food? Ought not a man who has faith, being so transformed by the mercy of Christ, now show mercy on others? Would that not bring restoration to those around him in a greater way that just believing? If this is what James meant, then the question about how a man is saved (by faith alone or by faith plus works) disappears for James is not addressing personal salvation but is speaking about how our faith will impact the world around us.
All is not solved. For even if this is the way to read it (and I am becoming convinced that it is), there are a few difficult passages to work through at the end of the chapter. Those must wait until the next posting, lest you become weary in reading. Aside from the admitted difficulties to be discussed, this take seems to be more in fitting with the larger context of the letter.
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,