14What doth it profit. He proceeds to commend mercy. And as he had threatened that God would be a severe Judge to us, and at the same time very dreadful, except we be kind and merciful towards our neighbors, and as on the other hand hypocrites objected and said, that faith is sufficient to us, in which the salvation of men consists, he now condemns this vain boasting. The sum, then, of what is said is, that faith without love avails nothing, and that it is therefore wholly dead.
But here a question arises, Can faith be separated from love? It is indeed true that the exposition of this passage has produced that common distinction of the Sophists, between unformed and formed faith; but of such a thing James knew nothing, for it appears from the first words, that he speaks of false profession of faith: for he does not begin thus, “If any one has faith;” but, “If any says that he has faith;” by which he certainly intimates that hypocrites boast of the empty name of faith, which really does not belong to them.
That he calls it then faith,is a concession, as the Rhetoricians say; for when we discuss a point, it does no harm, nay, it is sometimes expedient, to concede to an adversary what he demands, for as soon as the thing itself is known, what is conceded may be easily taken away from him. James then, as he was satisfied that it was a false pretext by which hypocrites covered themselves, was not disposed to raise a dispute about a word or an expression. Let us, however, remember that he does not speak according to the impression of his own mind when he mentions faith, but that on the contrary he disputes against those who made a false pretense as to faith, of which they were wholly destitute.
Can faith save him?This is the same as though he had said, that we do not attain salvation by a frigid and bare knowledge of God, which all confess to be most true; for salvation comes to us by faith for this reason, because it joins us to God. And this comes not in any other way than by being united to the body of Christ, so that, living through his Spirit, we are also governed by him. There is no such thing as this in the dead image of faith. There is then no wonder that James denies that salvation is connected with it.
What doth it profit – though a man say he hath faith – We now come to a part of this epistle which has appeared to some eminent men to contradict other portions of the Divine records. In short, it has been thought that James teaches the doctrine of justification by the merit of good works, while Paul asserts this to be insufficient, and that man is justified by faith. Luther, supposing that James did actually teach the doctrine of justification by works, which his good sense showed him to be absolutely insufficient for salvation, was led to condemn the epistle in toto, as a production unauthenticated by the Holy Spirit, and consequently worthy of no regard; he therefore termed it epistola straminea, a chaffy epistle, an epistle of straw, fit only to be burnt. Learned men have spent much time in striving to reconcile these two writers, and to show that St. Paul and St. James perfectly accord; one teaching the pure doctrine, the other guarding men against the abuse of it. Mr. Wesley sums the whole up in the following words, with his usual accuracy and precision: “From Jam_1:22 the apostle has been enforcing Christian practice. He now applies to those who neglect this under the pretense of faith. St. Paul had taught that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law. This some already began to wrest to their own destruction. Wherefore St. James, purposely repeating, Jam_1:21, Jam_1:23, Jam_1:25, the same phrases, testimonies, and examples which St. Paul had used, Rom_4:3; Heb_11:17, Heb_11:31, refutes not the doctrine of St. Paul, but the error of those who abused it. There is therefore no contradiction between the apostles; they both delivered the truth of God, but in a different manner, as having to do with different kinds of men. This verse is a summary of what follows: What profiteth it, is enlarged on, Jam_2:15-17; though a man say, Jam_2:18, Jam_2:19; can that faith save him? Jam_2:20. It is not though he have faith, but though he say, I have faith. Here therefore true living faith is meant. But in other parts of the argument the apostle speaks of a dead imaginary faith. He does not therefore teach that true faith can, but that it cannot, subsist without works. Nor does he oppose faith to works, but that empty name of faith to real faith working by love. Can that faith which is without works save him? No more than it can profit his neighbor.” – Explanatory notes.
That St James quotes the same scriptures, and uses the same phrases, testimonies, and examples which St. Paul has done, is fully evident; but it does not follow that he wrote after St. Paul. It is possible that one had seen the epistle of the other; but if so, it is strange that neither of them should quote the other. That St. Paul might write to correct the abuses of St. James’ doctrine is as possible as that James wrote to prevent St. Paul’s doctrine from being abused; for there were Antinomians in the Church in the time of St. James, as there were Pharisaic persons in it at the time of St. Paul. I am inclined to think that James is the elder writer, and rather suppose that neither of them had ever seen the other’s epistle. Allowing them both to be inspired, God could teach each what was necessary for the benefit of the Church, without their having any knowledge of each other. See the preface to this epistle.
As the Jews in general were very strenuous in maintaining the necessity of good works or righteousness in order to justification, wholly neglecting the doctrine of faith, it is not to be wondered at that those who were converted, and saw the absolute necessity of faith in order to their justification, should have gone into the contrary extreme.
Can faith save him? – That is, his profession of faith; for it is not said that he has faith, but that he says, I have faith. St. James probably refers to that faith which simply took in the being and unity of God. See on Jam_2:19, Jam_2:24, Jam_2:25.
What doth it profit? (ti ophelos). Rhetorical question, almost of impatience. Old word from ophello, to increase, in N.T. only here, Jam_2:16; 1Co_15:32. “Ti ophelos was a common expression in the vivacious style of a moral diatribe” (Ropes).
If a man say (ean legei tis). Condition of third class with ean and the present active subjunctive of lego, “if one keep on saying.”
He hath faith (pistin echein). Infinitive in indirect assertion after legei.
But have not works (erga de me echei). Third-class condition continued, “but keeps on not having (me and present active subjunctive echei) works.” It is the spurious claim to faith that James here condemns.
Can that faith save him? (me dunatai he pistis sosai auton). Negative answer expected (me). Effective aorist active infinitive sosai (from sozo). The article he here is almost demonstrative in force as it is in origin, referring to the claim of faith without works just made.
15If a brother, or, For if a brother. He takes an example from what was connected with his subject; for he had been exhorting them to exercise the duties of love. If any one, on the contrary, boasted that he was satisfied with faith without works, he compares this shadowy faith to the saying of one who bids a famished man to be filled without supplying him with the food of which he is destitute. As, then, he who sends away a poor man with words, and offers him no help, treats him with mockery, so they who devise for themselves faith without works, and without any of the duties of religion, trifle with God.
If a brother or sister be naked … – The comparison in these verses is very obvious and striking. The sense is, that faith in itself, without the acts that correspond to it, and to which it would prompt, is as cold, and heartless, and unmeaning, and useless, as it would be to say to one who was destitute of the necessaries of life, depart in peace.” In itself considered, it might seem to have something that was good; but it would answer none of the purposes of faith unless it should prompt to action. In the case of one who was hungry or naked, what he wanted was not good wishes or kind words merely, but the acts to which good wishes and kind words prompt. And so in religion, what is wanted is not merely the abstract state of mind which would be indicated by faith, but the life of goodness to which it ought to lead. Good wishes and kind words, in order to make them what they should be for the welfare of the world, should be accompanied with corresponding action. So it is with faith. It is not enough for salvation without the benevolent and holy acts to which it would prompt, any more than the good wishes and kind words of the benevolent are enough to satisfy the wants of the hungry, and to clothe the naked, without correspondent action. Faith is not and cannot be shown to be genuine, unless it is accompanied with corresponding acts; as our good wishes for the poor and needy can be shown to be genuine, when we have the means of aiding them, only by actually ministering to their necessities. In the one case, our wishes would be shown to be unmeaning and heartless; in the other, our faith would be equally so. In regard to this passage, therefore, it may be observed:
(1)That in fact faith is of no more value, and has no more evidence of genuineness when it is unaccompanied with good works, than such empty wishes for the welfare of the poor would be when unaccompanied with the means of relieving their wants. Faith is designed to lead to good works. It is intended to produce a holy life; a life of activity in the service of the Saviour. This is its very essence; it is what it always produces when it is genuine. Religion is not designed to be a cold abstraction; it is to be a living and vivifying principle.
(2) there is a great deal of that kindness and charity in the world which is expressed by mere good wishes. If we really have not the means of relieving the poor and the needy, then the expression of a kind wish may be in itself an alleviation to their sorrows, for even sympathy in such a case is of value, and it is much to us to know that others feel for us; but if we have the means, and the object is a worthy one, then such expressions are mere mockery, and aggravate rather than soothe the feelings of the sufferer. Such wishes will neither clothe nor feed them; and they will only make deeper the sorrows which we ought to heal. But how much of this is there in the world, when the sufferer cannot but feel that all these wishes, however kindly expressed, are hollow and false, and when he cannot but feel that relief would be easy!
(3) in like manner there is much of this same kind of worthless faith in the world – faith that is dead; faith that produces no good works; faith that exerts no practical influence whatever on the life. The individual professes indeed to believe the truths of the gospel; he may be in the church of Christ; he would esteem it a gross calumny to be spoken of as an infidel; but as to any influence which his faith exerts over him, his life would be the same if he had never heard of the gospel. There is not one of the truths of religion which is bodied forth in his life; not a deed to which he is prompted by religion; not an act which could not be accounted for on the supposition that he has no true piety. In such a case, faith may with propriety be said to be dead.
Being alone – Margin, “by itself.” The sense is, “being by itself:” that is, destitute of any accompanying fruits or results, it shows that it is dead. That which is alive bodies itself forth, produces effects, makes itself visible; that which is dead produces no effect, and is as if it were not.
Be ye warmed and filled – Your saying so to them, while you give them nothing, will just profit them as much as your professed faith, without those works which are the genuine fruits of true faith, will profit you in the day when God comes to sit in judgment upon your soul.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
The habit of receiving passively sentimental impressions from sights of woe without carrying them out into active habits only hardens the heart.
one of you — James brings home the case to his hearers individually.
Depart in peace — as if all their wants were satisfied by the mere words addressed to them. The same words in the mouth of Christ, whose faith they said they had, were accompanied by efficient deeds of love.
be … warmed — with clothing, instead of being as heretofore “naked” (Jam_2:15; Job_31:20).
filled — instead of being “destitute of food” (Mat_15:37).
what doth it profit — concluding with the same question as at the beginning, Jam_2:14. Just retribution: kind professions unaccompanied with corresponding acts, as they are of no “profit” to the needy object of them, so are of no profit to the professor himself. So faith consisting in mere profession is unacceptable to God, the object of faith, and profitless to the possessor.
17Is dead, being alone. He says that faith is dead, being by itself, that is, when destitute of good works. We hence conclude that it is indeed no faith, for when dead, it does not properly retain the name. The Sophists plead this expression and say, that some sort of faith is found by itself; but this frivolous caviling is easily refuted; for it is sufficiently evident that the Apostle reasons from what is impossible, as Paul calls an angel anathema, if he attempted to subvert the gospel. (Gal_1:8.)
Jas 2:17 Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. It is like a lifeless carcass, a body without a soul, Jam_2:26 for as works, without faith, are dead works, so faith, without works, is a dead faith, and not like the lively hope and faith of regenerated persons: and indeed, such who have no other faith than this are dead in trespasses and sins; not that works are the life of faith, or that the life of faith lies in, and flows from works; but, as Dr. Ames observes (b), good works are second acts, necessarily flowing from the life of faith; to which may be added, and by these faith appears to be living, lively and active, or such who perform them appear to be true and living believers.
(b) Medulla Theolog. l. 2. c. 7. sect. 35.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
faith … being alone — Alford joins “is dead in itself.” So Bengel, “If the works which living faith produces have no existence, it is a proof that faith itself (literally, ‘in respect to itself’) has no existence; that is, that what one boasts of as faith, is dead.” “Faith” is said to be “dead in itself,” because when it has works it is alive, and it is discerned to be so, not in respect to its works, but in respect to itself. English Version, if retained, must not be understood to mean that faith can exist “alone” (that is, severed from works), but thus: Even so presumed faith, if it have not works, is dead, being by itself “alone,” that is, severed from works of charity; just as the body would be “dead” if alone, that is, severed from the spirit (Jam_2:26). So Estius.
18 Yea, a man may say. Erasmus introduces here two persons as speakers; one of whom boasts of faith without works, and the other of works without faith; and he thinks that both are at length confuted by the Apostle. But this view seems to me too forced. He thinks it strange, that this should be said by James, Thou hast faith, who acknowledges no faith without works. But in this he is much mistaken, that he does not acknowledge an irony in these words. Then ἀλλὰ I take for “nay rather;” and τὶς for “any one;” for the design of James was to expose the foolish boasting of those who imagined that they had faith when by their life they shewed that they were unbelievers; for he intimates that it would be easy for all the godly who led a holy life to strip hypocrites of that boasting with which they were inflated.
Shew me. Though the more received reading is, “by works,” yet the old Latin is more suitable, and the reading is also found in some Greek copies. I therefore hesitated not to adopt it. Then he bids to shew faith without works, and thus reasons from what is impossible, to prove what does not exist. So he speaks ironically. But if any one prefers the other reading, it comes to the same thing, “Shew me by works thy faith;” for since it is not an idle thing, it must necessarily be proved by works. The meaning then is, “Unless thy faith brings forth fruits, I deny that thou hast any faith.”
But it may be asked, whether the outward uprightness of life is a sure evidence of faith? For James says, “I will shew thee my faith by my works.” To this I reply, that the unbelieving sometimes excel in specious virtues, and lead an honorable life free from every crime; and hence works apparently excellent may exist apart from faith. Nor indeed does James maintain that every one who seems good possesses faith. This only he means, that faith, without the evidence of good works, is vainly pretended, because fruit ever comes from the living root of a good tree.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
“But some one will say”: so the Greek. This verse continues the argument from Jam_2:14, Jam_2:16. One may say he has faith though he have not works. Suppose one were to say to a naked brother, “Be warmed,” without giving him needful clothing. “But someone (entertaining views of the need of faith having works joined to it) will say (in opposition to the ‘say’ of the professor).”
show me thy faith without thy works — if thou canst; but thou canst not SHOW, that is, manifest or evidence thy alleged (Jam_2:14, “say”) faith without works. “Show” does not mean here to prove to me, but exhibit to me. Faith is unseen save by God. To show faith to man, works in some form or other are needed: we are justified judicially by God (Rom_8:33); meritoriously, by Christ (Isa_53:11); mediately, by faith (Rom_5:1); evidentially, by works. The question here is not as to the ground on which believers are justified, but about the demonstration of their faith: so in the case of Abraham. In Gen_22:1 it is written, God did tempt Abraham, that is, put to the test of demonstration the reality of his faith, not for the satisfaction of God, who already knew it well, but to demonstrate it before men. The offering of Isaac at that time, quoted here, Jam_2:21, formed no part of the ground of his justification, for he was justified previously on his simply believing in the promise of spiritual heirs, that is, believers, numerous as the stars. He was then justified: that justification was showed or manifested by his offering Isaac forty years after. That work of faith demonstrated, but did not contribute to his justification. The tree shows its life by its fruits, but it was alive before either fruits or even leaves appeared.
Yea, a man may say … – The word which is rendered “yea” (αλλὰ alla) would be better rendered by “but.” The apostle designs to introduce an objection, not to make an affirmation. The sense is, “some one might say,” or, “to this it might be urged in reply.” That is, it might perhaps be said that religion is not always manifested in the same way, or we should not suppose that, because it is not always exhibited in the same form, it does not exist. One man may manifest it in one way, and another in another, and still both have true piety. One may be distinguished for his faith, and another for his works, and both may have real religion. This objection would certainly have some plausibility, and it was important to meet it. It would seem that all religion was not to be manifested in the same way, as all virtue is not; and that it might occur that one man might be particularly eminent for one form of religion, and another for another; as one man may be distinguished for zeal, and another for meekness, and another for integrity, and another for truth, and another for his gifts in prayer, and another for his large-hearted benevolence. To this the apostle replies, that the two things referred to, faith and works, were not independent things, which could exist separately, without the one materially influencing another – as, for example, charity and chastity, zeal and meekness; but that the one was the germ or source of the other, and that the existence of the one was to be known only by its developing itself in the form of the other. A man could not show that he possessed the one unless it developed itself in the form of the other. In proof of this, he could boldly appeal to anyone to show a case where faith existed without works. He was himself willing to submit to this just trial in regard to this point, and to demonstrate the existence of his own faith by his works.
Thou hast faith, and I have works – You have one form or manifestation of religion in an eminent or prominent degree, and I have another. You are characterized particularly for one of the virtues of religion, and I am for another; as one man may be particularly eminent for meekness, and another for zeal, and another for benevolence, and each be a virtuous man. The expression here is equivalent to saying, “One may have faith, and another works.”
Show me thy faith without thy works – That is, you who maintain that faith is enough to prove the existence of religion; that a man may be justified and saved by that alone, or where it does not develop itself in holy living; or that all that is necessary in order to be saved is merely to believe. Let the reality of any such faith as that be shown, if it can be; let any real faith be shown to exist without a life of good works, and the point will be settled. I, says the apostle, will undertake to exhibit the evidence of my faith in a different way – in a way about which there can be no doubt, and which is the appropriate method. It is clear, if the common reading here is correct, that the apostle meant to deny that true faith could be evinced without appropriate works. It should be said, however, that there is a difference of reading here of considerable importance. Many manuscripts and printed editions of the New Testament, instead of “without” (works – χωρίς choris), read “from” or “by” (εκ ek), as in the other part of the verse, “show me thy faith by thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works.”
This reading is found in Walton, Wetstein, Mill, and in the received text generally; the other (without) is found in many manuscripts, and in the Vulgate, Syriac, Coptic, English, and Armenian versions; and is adopted by Beza, Castalio, Grotius, Bengel, Hammond, Whitby, Drusius, Griesbach, Tittman, and Hahn, and is now commonly received as the correct reading. It may be added that this reading seems to be demanded by the similar reading in Jam_2:20, “But wilt thou know that faith “without works” (χωρὶς τὼν έργων choris ton ergon) is dead,” evidently implying that something had been said before about “faith without works.” This reading also is so natural, and makes so good sense in the connection, that it would seem to be demanded. Doddridge felt the difficulty in the other reading, and has given a version of the passage which showed his great perplexity, and which is one of the most unhappy that he ever made.
And I will show thee my faith by my works – I will furnish in this way the best and most certain proof of the existence of faith. It is implied here that true faith is adapted to lead to a holy life, and that such a life would be the appropriate evidence of the existence of faith. By their fruits the principles held by men are known. See the notes at Mat_7:16.
19Thou believest that there is one God. From this one sentence it appears evident that the whole dispute is not about faith, but of the common knowledge of God, which can no more connect man with God, than the sight of the sun carry him up to heaven; but it is certain that by faith we come nigh to God. Besides, it would be ridiculous were any one to say, that the devils have faith; and James prefers them in this respect to hypocrites. The devil trembles, he says, at the mention of God’s name, because when he acknowledges his own judge he is filled with the fear of him. He then who despises an acknowledged God is much worse.
Thou doest well, is put down for the purpose of extenuating, as though he had said, “It is, forsooth! a great thing to sink down below the devils.”
Thou believest that there is one God – This is the faith in which these persons put their hope of pleasing God, and of obtaining eternal life. Believing in the being and unity of God distinguished them from all the nations of the world; and having been circumcised, and thus brought into the covenant, they thought themselves secure of salvation. The insufficiency of this St. James immediately shows.
The devils also believe, and tremble – It is well to believe there is one only true God; this truth universal nature proclaims. Even the devils believe it; but far from justifying or saving them, it leaves them in their damned state, and every act of it only increases their torment; φρισσουσι, they shudder with horror, they believe and tremble, are increasingly tormented; but they can neither love nor obey.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
Thou — emphatic. Thou self-deceiving claimant to faith without works.
that there is one God — rather, “that God is one”: God’s existence, however, is also asserted. The fundamental article of the creed of Jews and Christians alike, and the point of faith on which especially the former boasted themselves, as distinguishing them from the Gentiles, and hence adduced by James here.
thou doest well — so far good. But unless thy faith goes farther than an assent to this truth, “the evil spirits (literally, ‘demons’: ‘devil’ is the term restricted to Satan, their head) believe” so far in common with thee, “and (so far from being saved by such a faith) shudder (so the Greek),” Mat_8:29; Luk_4:34; 2Pe_2:4; Jud_1:6; Rev_20:10. Their faith only adds to their torment at the thought of having to meet Him who is to consign them to their just doom: so thine (Heb_10:26, Heb_10:27, it is not the faith of love, but of fear, that hath torment, 1Jo_4:18).
Thou believest that there is one God – One of the great and cardinal doctrines of religion is here selected as an illustration of all. The design of the apostle seems to have been to select one of the doctrines of religion, the belief of which would – if mere belief in any doctrine could – save the soul; and to show that even this might be held as an article of faith by those who could be supposed by no one to have any claim to the name of Christian. He selects, therefore, the great fundamental doctrine of all religion, – the doctrine of the existence of one Supreme Being, – and shows that if even this were held in such a way as it might be, and as it was held by devils, it could not save men. The apostle here is not to be supposed to be addressing such an one as Paul, who held to the doctrine that we are justified by faith; nor is he to be supposed to be combating the doctrine of Paul, as some have maintained, (see the Introduction); but he is to be regarded as addressing one who held, in the broadest and most unqualified sense, that provided there was faith, a man would be saved. To this he replies, that even the devils might have faith of a certain sort, and faith that would produce sensible effects on them of a certain kind, and still it could not be supposed that they had true religion, or that they would be saved. Why might not the same thing occur in regard to man?
Thou doest well – So far as this is concerned, or so far as it goes. It is a doctrine which ought to be held, for it is one of the great fundamental truths of religion.
The devils – The “demons,” – (τα δαιμόνια ta daimonia). There is, properly, but one being spoken of in the New Testament as “the devil” – ο διάβολος ho diabolos, and ο Σαταν ho Satan – though “demons” are frequently spoken of in the plural number. They are represented as evil spirits, subject to Satan, or under his control, and engaged with him in carrying out his plans of wickedness. These spirits or demons were supposed to wander in desert and desolate places, Mat_12:43, or to dwell in the atmosphere, (Notes, Eph_2:2); they were thought to have the power of working miracles, but not for good, (Rev_16:14; compare Joh_10:21); to be hostile to mankind, Joh_8:44; to utter the pagan oracles, Act_16:17; to lurk in the idols of the heathen, 1Co_10:20; and to take up their abodes in the bodies of men, afflicting them with various kinds of diseases, Mat_7:22; Mat_9:34; Mat_10:8; Mat_17:18; Mar_7:29-30; Luk_4:33; Luk_8:27, Luk_8:30, et soepe. It is of these evil spirits that the apostle speaks when he says that they believe.
Also believe – That is, particularly, they believe in the existence of the one God. How far their knowledge may extend respecting God, we cannot know; but they are never represented in the Scriptures as denying his existence, or as doubting the great truths of religion. They are never described as atheists. That is a sin of this world only. They are not represented as sceptics. That, too, is a peculiar sin of the earth; and probably, in all the universe besides, there are no beings but those who dwell on this globe, who doubt or deny the existence of God, or the other great truths of religion.
And tremble – The word here used (φρίσσουσιν phrissousin) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament. It means, properly, to be rough, uneven, jaggy, sc., with bristling hair; to bristle, to stand on end, as the hair does in a fright; and then to shudder or quake with fear, etc. Here the meaning is, that there was much more in the case referred to than mere speculative faith. There was a faith that produced some effect, and an effect of a very decided character. It did not, indeed, produce good works, or a holy life, but it made it manifest that there was faith; and, consequently, it followed that the existence of mere faith was not all that was necessary to save men, or to make it certain that they would be secure, unless it were held that the devils would be justified and saved by it. If they might hold such faith, and still remain in perdition, men might hold it, and go to perdition. A man should not infer, therefore, because he has faith, even that faith in God which will fill him with alarm, that therefore he is safe. He must have a faith which will produce another effect altogether – that which will lead to a holy life.
20But wilt thou know. We must understand the state of the question, for the dispute here is not respecting the cause of justification, but only what avails a profession of faith without works, and what opinion we are to form of it. Absurdly then do they act who strive to prove by this passage that man is justified by works, because James meant no such thing, for the proofs which he subjoins refer to this declaration, that no faith, or only a dead faith, is without works. No one will ever understand what is said, nor judge wisely of words, except he who keeps in view the design of the writer.
But wilt thou know – Will you have a full demonstration of it; will you have the clearest proof in the case. The apostle evidently felt that the instances to which he was about to refer, those of Abraham and Rahab, were decisive.
O vain man – The reference by this language is to a man who held an opinion that could not be defended. The word “vain” here used (κενε kene) means properly “empty,” as opposed to “full” – as empty hands, having nothing in them; then fruitless, or without utility or success; then false, fallacious. The meaning here, properly, would be “empty,” in the sense of being void of understanding; and this would be a mild and gentle way of saying of one that he was foolish, or that he maintained an argument that was without sense. James means, doubtless, to represent it as a perfectly plain matter, a matter about which no man of sense could have any reasonable doubt. If we must call a man foolish, as is sometimes necessary, let us use as mild and inoffensive a term as possible – a term which, while it will convey our meaning, will not unnecessarily wound and irritate.
That faith without works is dead – That the faith which does not produce good works is useless in the matter of salvation. He does not mean to say that it would produce no effect, for in the case of the demons it did produce trembling and alarm; but that it would be valueless in the matter of salvation. The faith of Abraham and of Rahab was entirely different from this.
21Was not Abraham. The Sophists lay hold on the word justified, and then they cry out as being victorious, that justification is partly by works. But we ought to seek out a right interpretation according to the general drift of the whole passage. We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to every one; but that his object was only to shew that good works are always connected with faith; and, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.
When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to shew that he who professes that he has faith, must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon.
That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has deceived the Sophists, we must take notice of the two fold meaning, of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words, “Shew to me thy faith,” etc. In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, as when any one says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable chest, because his riches, before hid, shut up in a chest, were thus made known.
Was not Abraham our father – Our progenitor, our ancestor; using the word “father,” as frequently occurs in the Bible, to denote a remote ancestor. Compare the notes at Mat_1:1. A reference to his case would have great weight with those who were Jews by birth, and probably most of those to whom this Epistle was addressed were of this character. See the Introduction.
Justified by works – That is, in the sense in which James is maintaining that a man professing religion is to be justified by his works. He does not affirm that the ground of acceptance with God is that we keep the law, or are perfect; or that our good works make an atonement for our sins, and that it is on their account that we are pardoned; nor does he deny that it is necessary that a man should believe in order to be saved. In this sense he does not deny that men are justified by faith; and thus he does not contradict the doctrine of the apostle Paul. But he does teach that where there are no good works, or where there is not a holy life, there is no true religion; that that faith which is not productive of good works is of no value; that if a man has that faith only, it would be impossible that he could be regarded as justified, or could be saved and that consequently, in that large sense, a man is justified by his works that is, they are the evidence that he is a justified man, or is regarded and treated as righteous by his Maker. The point on which the apostle has his eye is the nature of saving faith; and his design is to show that a mere faith which would produce no more effect than that of the demons did, could not save.
In this he states no doctrine which contradicts that of Paul. The evidence to which he appeals in regard to faith, is good works and a holy life; and where that exists it shows that the faith is genuine. The case of Abraham is one directly in point. He showed that he had that kind of faith which was not dead. He gave the most affecting evidence that his faith was of such a kind as to lead him to implicit obedience, and to painful sacrifices. Such an act as that referred to – the act of offering up his son – demonstrated, if anything could, that his faith was genuine, and that his religion was deep and pure. In the sight of heaven and earth it would justify him as a righteous man, or would prove that he was a righteous man. In regard to the strength of his faith, and the nature of his obedience in this sacrifice, see the notes at Heb_11:19. That the apostle here cannot refer to the act of justification as the term is commonly understood, referring by that to the moment when he was accepted of God as a righteous man, is clear from the fact that in a passage of the Scriptures which he himself quotes, that is declared to be consequent on his believing: “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.”
The act here referred to occurred long subsequent to that, and was thus a fulfillment or confirmation of the declaration of Scripture, which says that “he believed God.” It showed that his faith was not merely speculative, but was an active principle, leading to holy living. See the notes at Jam_2:23. This demonstrates that what the apostle refers to here is the evidence by which it is shown that a man’s faith is genuine, and that he does not refer to the question whether the act of justification, where a sinner is converted, is solely in consequence of believing. Thus the case proves what James purposes to prove, that the faith which justifies is only that which leads to good works.
When he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar – This was long after he believed, and was an act which, if any could, would show that his faith was genuine and sincere. On the meaning of this passage, see the notes at Heb_11:17.
Justified by works (ex ergon edikaiothe). First aorist passive indicative of dikaioo (see Galatians and Romans for this verb, to declare righteous, to set right) in a question with ouk expecting an affirmative answer. This is the phrase that is often held to be flatly opposed to Paul’s statement in Rom_4:1-5, where Paul pointedly says that it was the faith of Abraham (Rom_4:9) that was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness, not his works. But Paul is talking about the faith of Abraham before his circumcision (Rom_4:10) as the basis of his being set right with God, which faith is symbolized in the circumcision. James makes plain his meaning also.
In that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar (anenegkas Isaak ton huion autou epi to thusiasterion). They use the same words, but they are talking of different acts. James points to the offering (anenegkas second aorist – with first aorist ending – active participle of anaphero) of Isaac on the altar (Gen_22:16.) as proof of the faith that Abraham already had. Paul discusses Abraham’s faith as the basis of his justification, that and not his circumcision. There is no contradiction at all between James and Paul. Neither is answering the other. Paul may or may not have seen the Epistle of James, who stood by him loyally in the Conference in Jerusalem (Acts 15; Gal 2).
22By works was faith made perfect By this he again shews, that the question here is not respecting the cause of our salvation, but whether works necessarily accompany faith; for in this sense it is said to have been perfected by works, because it was not idle. It is said to have been perfected by works, not because it received thence its own perfection, but because it was thus proved to be true. For the futile distinction which the Sophists draw from these words, between formed and unformed faith, needs no labored refutation; for the faith of Abram was formed and therefore perfected before he sacrificed his son. And this work was not as it were the finishing, or last work. Formerly things afterwards followed by which Abraham proved the increase of his faith. Hence this was not the perfection of his faith, nor did it then for the first time put on its form. James then understood no other thing, than that the integrity of his faith then appeared, because it brought forth that remarkable fruit of obedience.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
Or, “thou seest.”
how — rather, “that.” In the two clauses which follow, emphasize “faith” in the former, and “works” in the latter, to see the sense [Bengel].
faith wrought with his works — for it was by faith he offered his son. Literally, “was working (at the time) with his works.”
by works was faith made perfect — not was vivified, but attained its fully consummated development, and is shown to be real. So “my strength is made perfect in weakness,” that is, exerts itself most perfectly, shows how great it is [Cameron]: so 1Jo_4:17; Heb_2:10; Heb_5:9. The germ really, from the first, contains in it the full-grown tree, but its perfection is not attained till it is matured fully. So Jam_1:4, “Let patience have her perfect work,” that is, have its full effect by showing the most perfect degree of endurance, “that ye may be perfect,” that is, fully developed in the exhibition of the Christian character. Alford explains, “Received its realization, was entirely exemplified and filled up.” So Paul, Phi_2:12, “Work out your own salvation”: the salvation was already in germ theirs in their free justification through faith. It needed to be worked out still to fully developed perfection in their life.
Seest thou – Margin, “Thou seest.” Either rendering is correct, and the sense is the same. The apostle means to say that this was so plain that they could not but see it.
How faith wrought with his works – συνήργει sunergei. Cooperated with. The meaning of the word is, “to work together with anyone; to co operate,” 1Co_16:16; 2Co_6:1; then to aid, or help, Mar_16:20; to contribute to the production of any result, where two or more persons or agents are united. Compare Rom_8:28. The idea here is, that the result in the case of Abraham, that is, his salvation, or his religion, was secured, not by one of these things alone, but that both contributed to it. The result which was reached, to wit, his acceptance with God, could not have been obtained by either one of them separately, but both, in some sense, entered into it. The apostle does not say that, in regard to the merit which justifies, they came in for an equal share, for he makes no affirmation on that point; he does not deny that in the sight of God, who foresees and knows all things, he was regarded as a justified man the moment he believed, but he looks at the result as it was, at Abraham as he appeared under the trial of his faith, and says that in that result there was to be seen the co-operation of faith and good works. Both contributed to the end, as they do now in all cases where there is true religion.
(By the somewhat unhappy term “merit,” the author clearly means nothing more than “principle,” as is obvious from his acute and evangelical comment on the verse; as well as from the admirable reconciliation of Paul and James below.)
And by works was faith made perfect – Made complete, finished, or entire. It was so carried out as to show its legitimate and fair results. This does not mean that the faith in itself was defective before this, and that the defect was remedied by good works; or that there is any deficiency in what the right kind of faith can do in the matter of justification, which is to be helped out by good works; but that there was that kind of completion which a thing has when it is fully developed, or is fairly carried out.
23And the Scripture was fulfilled. They who seek to prove from this passage of James that the works of Abraham were imputed for righteousness, must necessarily confess that Scripture is perverted by him; for however they may turn and twist, they can never make the effect to be its own cause. The passage is quoted from Moses. (Gen_15:6.) The imputation of righteousness which Moses mentions, preceded more than thirty years the work by which they would have Abraham to have been justified. Since faith was imputed to Abraham fifteen years before the birth of Isaac, this could not surely have been done through the work of sacrificing him. I consider that all those are bound fast by an indissoluble knot, who imagine that righteousness was imputed to Abraham before God, because he sacrificed his son Isaac, who was not yet born when the Holy Spirit declared that Abraham was justified. It hence necessarily follows that something posterior is pointed out here.
Why then does James say that it was fulfilled? Even because he intended to shew what sort of faith that was which justified Abraham; that is, that it was not idle or evanescent, but rendered him obedient to God, as also we find in Heb_11:8. The conclusion, which is immediately added, as it depends on this, has no other meaning. Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God; he is justified by works, that is, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
scripture was fulfilled — Gen_15:6, quoted by Paul, as realized in Abraham’s justification by faith; but by James, as realized subsequently in Abraham’s work of offering Isaac, which, he says, justified him. Plainly, then, James must mean by works the same thing as Paul means by faith, only that he speaks of faith at its manifested development, whereas Paul speaks of it in its germ. Abraham’s offering of Isaac was not a mere act of obedience, but an act of faith. Isaac was the subject of the promises of God, that in him Abraham’s seed should be called. The same God calls on Abraham to slay the subject of His own promise, when as yet there was no seed in whom those predictions could be realized. Hence James’ saying that Abraham was justified by such a work, is equivalent to saying, as Paul does, that he was justified by faith itself; for it was in fact faith expressed in action, as in other cases saving faith is expressed in words. So Paul states as the mean of salvation faith expressed. The “Scripture” would not be “fulfilled,” as James says it was, but contradicted by any interpretation which makes man’s works justify him before God: for that Scripture makes no mention of works at all, but says that Abraham’s belief was counted to him for righteousness. God, in the first instance, “justifies the ungodly” through faith; subsequently the believer is justified before the world as righteous through faith manifested in words and works (compare Mat_25:35-37, “the righteous,” Mat_25:40). The best authorities read, “But Abraham believed,” etc.
and he was called the Friend of God — He was not so called in his lifetime, though he was so even then from the time of his justification; but he was called so, being recognized as such by all on the ground of his works of faith. “He was the friend (in an active sense), the lover of God, in reference to his works; and (in a passive sense) loved by God in reference to his justification by works. Both senses are united in Joh_15:14, Joh_15:15” [Bengel].
And the Scripture was fulfilled which saith – That is, the fair and full meaning of the language of Scripture was expressed by this act, showing in the highest sense that his faith was genuine; or the declaration that he truly believed, was confirmed or established by this act. His faith was shown to be genuine; and the fair meaning of the declaration that he believed God was carried out in the subsequent act. The passage here referred to occurs in Gen_15:6. That which it is said Abraham believed, or in which he believed God, was this: “This shall not be thine heir (namely, Eliezer of Damascus), but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels, shall be thine heir.” And again, “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them. And he said unto him, So shall thy seed be,” Jam_2:3-5. The act of confiding in these promises, was that act of which it is said that “he believed in the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness.”
The act of offering his son on the altar by which James says this Scripture was fulfilled, occurred some 20 years afterward. That act confirmed or fulfilled the declaration. It showed that his faith was genuine, and that the declaration that he believed in God was true; for what could do more to confirm that, than a readiness to offer his own son at the command of God? It cannot be supposed that James meant to say that Abraham was justified by works without respect to faith, or to deny that the primary round of his justification in the sight of God was faith, for the very passage which he quotes shows that faith was the primary consideration: “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed,” etc. The meaning, therefore, can only be, that this declaration received its fair and full expression when Abraham, by an act of obedience of the most striking character, long after he first exercised that faith by which he was accepted of God, showed that his faith was genuine. It he had not thus obeyed, his faith would have been inoperative and of no value. As it was, his act showed that the declaration of the Scripture that, he “believed” was well founded.
Abraham believed God, and it was imputed … – See this passage fully explained in the notes at Rom_4:3.
And he was called the friend of God – In virtue of his strong faith and obedience. See 2Ch_20:7; “Art not thou our God, who didst drive out the inhabitants of this land before thy people Israel, and gavest it to the seed of Abraham thy friend forever?” Isa_41:8. “But thou, Israel, art my servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend.” This was a most honorable appellation; but it is one which, in all cases, will result from true faith and obedience.
Ye see then – From the course of reasoning pursued, and the example referred to.
How that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only – Not by a cold, abstract, inoperative faith. It must be by a faith that shall produce good works, and whose existence will be shown to men by good works. As justification takes place in the sight of God, it is by faith, for he sees that the faith is genuine, and that it will produce good works if the individual who exercises faith shall live; and he justifies men in view of that faith, and of no other. If he sees that the faith is merely speculative; that it is cold and dead, and would not produce good works, the man is not justified in his sight. As a matter of fact, therefore, it is only the faith that produces good works that justifies; and good works, therefore, as the proper expression of the nature of faith, foreseen by God as the certain result of faith, and actually performed as seen by men, are necessary in order to justification. In other words, no man will be justified who has not a faith which will produce good works, and which is of an operative and practical character. The ground of justification in the case is faith, and that only; the evidence of it, the carrying it out, the proof of the existence of the faith, is good works; and thus men are justified and saved not by mere abstract and cold faith, but by a faith necessarily connected with good works, and where good works perform an important part. James, therefore, does not contradict Paul, but he contradicts a false explanation of Paul’s doctrine. He does not deny that a man is justified in the sight of God by faith, for the very passage which he quotes shows that he believes that; but he does deny that a man is justified by a faith which would not produce good works, and which is not expressed by good works; and thus he maintains, as Paul always did, that nothing else than a holy life can show that a man is a true Christian, and is accepted of God.
Ye see then how – It is evident from this example that Abraham’s faith was not merely believing that there is a God; but a principle that led him to credit God’s promises relative to the future Redeemer, and to implore God’s mercy: this he received, and was justified by faith. His faith now began to work by love, and therefore he was found ever obedient to the will of his Maker. He brought forth the fruits of righteousness; and his works justified – proved the genuineness of his faith; and he continued to enjoy the Divine approbation, which he could not have done had he not been thus obedient; for the Spirit of God would have been grieved, and his principle of faith would have perished. Obedience to God is essentially requisite to maintain faith. Faith lives, under God, by works; and works have their being and excellence from faith. Neither can subsist without the other, and this is the point which St. James labors to prove, in order to convince the Antinomians of his time that their faith was a delusion, and that the hopes built on it must needs perish.
25Likewise also was not Rahab. It seems strange that he connected together those who were so unlike. Why did he not rather choose some one from so large a number of illustrious fathers, and join him to Abraham? Why did he prefer a harlot to all others? he designedly put together two persons so different in their character, in order more clearly to shew, that no one, whatever may have been his or her condition, nation, or class in society, has ever been counted righteous without good works. He had named the patriarch, by far the most eminent of all; he now includes under the person of a harlot, all those who, being aliens, were joined to the Church. Whosoever, then, seeks to be counted righteous, though he may even be among the lowest, must yet shew that he is such by good works.
James, according to his manner of speaking, declares that Rahab was justified by works; and the Sophists hence conclude that we obtain righteousness by the merits of works. But we deny that the dispute here is concerning the mode of obtaining righteousness. We, indeed, allow that good works are required for righteousness; we only take away from them the power of conferring righteousness, because they cannot stand before the tribunal of God.
Rahab the harlot – See the notes on Jos_2:1, etc., and Heb_11:31 (note), etc. Rahab had the approbation due to genuine faith, which she actually possessed, and gave the fullest proof that she did so by her conduct. As justification signifies, not only the pardon of sin, but receiving the Divine approbation, James seems to use the word in this latter sense. God approved of them, because of their obedience to his will; and he approves of no man who is not obedient.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown
It is clear from the nature of Rahab’s act, that it is not quoted to prove justification by works as such. She believed assuredly what her other countrymen disbelieved, and this in the face of every improbability that an unwarlike few would conquer well-armed numbers. In this belief she hid the spies at the risk of her life. Hence Heb_11:31 names this as an example of faith, rather than of obedience.
“By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not.” If an instance of obedience were wanting. Paul and James would hardly have quoted a woman of previously bad character, rather than the many moral and pious patriarchs. But as an example of free grace justifying men through an operative, as opposed to a mere verbal faith, none could be more suitable than a saved “harlot.” As Abraham was an instance of an illustrious man and the father of the Jews, so Rahab is quoted as a woman, and one of abandoned character, and a Gentile, showing that justifying faith has been manifested in those of every class. The nature of the works alleged is such as to prove that James uses them only as evidences of faith, as contrasted with a mere verbal profession: not works of charity and piety, but works the value of which consisted solely in their being proofs of faith: they were faith expressed in act, synonymous with faith itself.
messengers — spies.
had received … had sent — rather, “received … thrust them forth” (in haste and fear) [Alford].
another way — from that whereby they entered her house, namely, through the window of her house on the wall, and thence to the mountain.
Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works? – In the same sense in which Abraham was, as explained above – showing by her act that her faith was genuine, and that it was not a mere cold and speculative assent to the truths of religion. Her act showed that she truly believed God. If that act had not been performed, the fact would have shown that her faith was not genuine, and she could not have been justified. God saw her faith as it was; he saw that it would produce acts of obedience, and he accepted her as righteous. The act which she performed was the public manifestation of her faith, the evidence that she was justified. See the case of Rahab fully explained in the notes at Heb_11:31. It may be observed here, that we are not to suppose that everything in the life and character of this woman is commended. She is commended for her faith, and for the fair expression of it; a faith which, as it induced her to receive the messengers of the true God, and to send them forth in peace, and as it led her to identify herself with the people of God, was also influential, we have every reason to suppose, in inducing her to abandon her former course of life. When we commend the faith of a man who has been a profane swearer, or an adulterer, or a robber, or a drunkard, we do not commend his former life, or give a sanction to it. We commend that which has induced him to abandon his evil course, and to turn to the ways of righteousness. The more evil his former course has been, the more wonderful, and the more worthy of commendation, is that faith by which he is reformed and saved.
Rahab the harlot (Raab he porne). Her vicious life she left behind, but the name clung to her always. For our purposes the argument of James may seem stronger without the example of Rahab (Josh 2:1-21; Jos_6:17; Jos_6:22-25; Mat_1:5; Heb_11:31). It is even said in Jewish Midrash that Rahab married Joshua and became an ancestor of Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
For as the body without the spirit is dead – There can be no more a genuine faith without good works, than there can be a living human body without a soul.
We shall never find a series of disinterested godly living without true faith. And we shall never find true faith without such a life. We may see works of apparent benevolence without faith; their principle is ostentation; and, as long as they can have the reward (human applause) which they seek, they may be continued. And yet the experience of all mankind shows how short-lived such works are; they want both principle and spring; they endure for a time, but soon wither away. Where true faith is, there is God; his Spirit gives life, and his love affords motives to righteous actions. The use of any Divine principle leads to its increase. The more a man exercises faith in Christ, the more he is enabled to believe; the more he believes, the more he receives; and the more he receives, the more able he is to work for God. Obedience is his delight, because love to God and man is the element in which his soul lives. Reader, thou professest to believe; show thy faith, both to God and man, by a life conformed to the royal law, which ever gives liberty and confers dignity.
“Some persons, known to St. James, must have taught that men are justified by merely believing in the one true God; or he would not have taken such pains to confute it. Crediting the unity of the Godhead, and the doctrine of a future state, was that faith through which both the Jews in St. James’ time and the Mohammedans of the present day expect justification. St. James, in denying this faith to be of avail, if unaccompanied with good works, has said nothing more than what St. Paul has said, in other words, Romans 2, where he combats the same Jewish error, and asserts that not the hearers but the doers of the law will be justified, and that a knowledge of God’s will, without the performance of it, serves only to increase our condemnation.” – Michaelis.
For as the body without the spirit is dead – Margin, “breath.” The Greek word πνεύμα pneuma is commonly used to denote spirit or soul, as referring to the intelligent nature. The meaning here is the obvious one, that the body is animated or kept alive by the presence of the soul, and that when that is withdrawn, hope departs. The body has no life independent of the presence of the soul.
So faith without works is dead also – There is as much necessity that faith and works should be united to constitute true religion, as there is that the body and soul should be united to constitute a living man. If good works do not follow, it is clear that there is no true and proper faith; none that justifies and saves. If faith produces no fruit of good living, that fact proves that it is dead, that it has no power, and that it is of no value. This shows that James was not arguing against real and genuine faith, nor against its importance in justification, but against the supposition that mere faith was all that was necessary to save a man, whether it was accompanied by good works or not. He maintains that if there is genuine faith it will always be accompanied by good works, and that it is only that faith which can justify and save. If it leads to no practical holiness of life, it is like the body without the soul, and is of no value whatever. James and Paul both agree in the necessity of true faith in order to salvation; they both agree that the tendency of true faith is to produce a holy life; they both agree that where there is not a holy life there is no true religion, and that a man cannot be saved. We may learn, then, from the whole doctrine of the New Testament on the subject, that unless we believe in the Lord Jesus we cannot be justified before God; and that unless our faith is of that kind which will produce holy living, it has no more of the characteristics of true religion than a dead body has of a living man.
Reconciliation of Paul and James.
At the close of the exposition of this chapter, it may be proper to make a few additional remarks on the question in what way the statements of James can be reconciled with those of Paul, on the subject of justification. A difficulty has always been felt to exist on the subject; and there are, perhaps, no readers of the New Testament who are not perplexed with it. Infidels, and particularly Voltaire, have seized the occasion which they supposed they found here to sneer against the Scriptures, and to pronounce them to be contradictory. Luther felt the difficulty to be so great that, in the early part of his career, he regarded it as insuperable, and denied the inspiration of James, though be afterwards changed his opinion, and believed that his Epistle was a part of the inspired canon; and one of Luther’s followers was so displeased with the statements of James, as to charge him with willful falsehood. – Dr. Dwight’s Theology, Serm. lxviii. The question is, whether their statements can be so reconciled, or can be shown to be so consistent with each other, that it is proper to regard them both as inspired men? Or, are their statements so opposite and contradictory, that it cannot be believed that both were under the influences of an infallible Spirit? In order to answer these questions, there are two points to be considered:
I. What the real difficulty is; and,
II. How the statements of the two writers can be reconciled, or whether there is any way of explanation which will remove the difficulty.
I.What the difficulty is. This relates to two points – that James seems to contradict Paul in express terms, and that both writers make use of the same case to illustrate their opposite sentiments.
(1) that James seems to contradict Paul in express terms. The doctrine of Paul on the subject of justification is stated in such language as the following: “By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight,” Rom_3:20. “We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” Rom_3:28. “Being justified by faith,” Rom_5:1. “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,” Gal_2:16. Compare Rom_3:24-26; Gal_3:11; Tit_3:5-6. On the other hand, the statement of James seems to be equally explicit that a man is not justified by faith only, but that good works come in for an important share in the matter. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” Jam_2:21. “Seest thou how faith wrought with his works?” Jam_2:22. “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only,” Jam_2:24.
(2) both writers refer to the same case to illustrate their views – the case of Abraham. Thus Paul Rom_4:1-3 refers to it to prove that justification is wholly by faith. “For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” And thus James Jam_2:21-22 refers to it to prove that justification is by works: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?”
The difficulty of reconciling these statements would be more clearly seen if they occurred in the writings of the same author; by supposing, for example, that the statements of James were appended to the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and were to be read in connection with that chapter. Who, the infidel would ask, would not be struck with the contradiction? Who would undertake to harmonize statements so contradictory? Yet the statements are equally contradictory, though they occur in different writers, and especially when it is claimed for both that they wrote under the influence of inspiration.
II. The inquiry then is, how these apparently contradictory statements may be reconciled, or whether there is any way of explanation that will remove the difficulty. This inquiry resolves itself into two – whether there is any theory that can be proposed that would relieve the difficulty, and whether that theory can be shown to be well founded.
(1) is there any theory which would remove the diffficulty – any explanation which can be given on this point which, if true, would show that the two statements may be in accordance with each other and with truth?
Before suggesting such an explanation, it may be further observed, that, as all history has shown, the statements of Paul on the subject of justification are liable to great abuse. All the forms of Antinomianism have grown out of such abuse, and are only perverted statements of his doctrine. It has been said, that if Christ has freed us from the necessity of obeying the law in order to justification; if he has fulfilled it in our stead, and borne its penalty, then the law is no longer binding on those who are justified, and they are at liberty to live as they please. It has been further said, that if we are saved by faith alone, a man is safe the moment he believes, and good works are therefore not necessary. It is possible that such views as these began to prevail as early as the time of James, and, if so, it was proper that there should be an authoritative apostolic statement to correct them, and to check these growing abuses. If, therefore, James had, as it has been supposed he had, any reference to the sentiments of Paul, it was not to correct his sentiments, or to controvert them but it was to correct the abuses which began already to flow from his doctrines, and to show that the alleged inferences did not properly follow from the opinions which he held; or, in other words, to show that the Christian religion required men to lead holy lives, and that the faith by which it was acknowledged that the sinner must be justified, was a faith which was productive of good works.
Now, all that is necessary to reconcile the statements of Paul and James, is to suppose that they contemplate the subject of justification from different points of view, and with reference to different inquiries. Paul looks at it before a man is converted, with reference to the question how a sinner may be justified before God; James after a man is converted, with reference to the question how he may show that he has the genuine faith which justifies. Paul affirms that the sinner is justified before God only by faith in the Lord Jesus, and not by his own works; James affirms that it is not a mere speculative or dead faith which justifies, but only a faith that is productive of good works, and that its genuineness is seen only by good works. Paul affirms that whatever else a man has, if he have not faith in the Lord Jesus, he cannot be justified; James affirms that no matter what pretended faith a man has, if it is not a faith which is adapted to produce good works, it is of no value in the matter of justification. Supposing this to be the true explanation, and that these are the “stand-points” from which they view the subject, the reconciliation of these two writers is easy: for it was and is still true, that if the question is asked how a sinner is to be justified before God, the answer is to be that of Paul, that it is by faith alone, “without the works of the law;” if the question be asked, how it can be shown what is the kind of faith that justifies, the answer is that of James, that it is only that which is productive of holy living and practical obedience.
(2) Is this a true theory? Can it be shown to be in accordance with the statements of the two writers? Would it be a proper explanation if the same statements had been made by the same writer? That it is a correct theory, or that it is an explanation founded in truth, will be apparent if:
(a) the language used by the two writers will warrant it;
(b) if it accords with a fair interpretation of the declarations of both writers; and,
(c) if, in fact, each of the two writers held respectively the same doctrine on the subject.
(a) Will the language bear this explanation? That is, will the word justify, as used by the two writers, admit of this explanation? That it will, there need be no reasonable doubt; for both are speaking of the way in which man, who is a sinner, may be regarded and treated by God as if he were righteous – the true notion of justification. It is not of justification in the sight of men that they speak, but of justification in the sight of God. Both use the word “justify” in this sense – Paul as affirming that it is only by faith that it can be done; James as affirming, in addition not in contradiction, that it is by a faith that produces holiness, and no other.
(b) Does this view accord with the fair interpretation of the declarations of both writers?
In regard to Paul, there can be no doubt that this is the point from which he contemplates the subject, to wit, with reference to the question how a sinner may be justified. Thus, in the Epistle to the Romans, where his principal statements on the subject occur, he shows, first, that the Gentiles cannot be justified by the works of the law, Rom. 1, and then that the same thing is true in regard to the Jews, Rom. 2–3, by demonstrating that both had violated the law given them, and were transgressors, and then Rom_3:20 draws his conclusion, “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” – the whole argument showing conclusively that he is contemplating the subject before a man is justified, and with reference to the question how he may be.
In regard to James, there can be as little doubt that the point of view from which he contemplates the subject, is after a man professes to have been justified by faith, with reference to the question what kind of faith justifies, or how it may be shown that faith is genuine. This is clear,
(aa) because the whole question is introduced by him with almost express reference to that inquiry: “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” Jam_2:14. That is, can such faith – can this faith (η πίστις he pistis) save him? In other words, He must have a different kind of faith in order to save him. The point of James” denial is not that faith, if genuine, would save; but it is, that such a faith, or a faith without works, would save.
(bb) That this is the very point which he discusses, is further shown by his illustrations, Jam_2:15-16, Jam_2:19. He shows Jam_2:15-16 that mere faith in religion would be of no more value in regard to salvation, than if one were naked and destitute of food, it would meet his wants to say, “Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled;” and then Jam_2:19, that even the demons had a certain kind of faith in one of the cardinal doctrines of religion, but that it was a faith which was valueless – thus showing that his mind was on the question what is true and genuine faith.
(cc) Then he shows by the case to which he refers Jam_2:21-23 – the case of Abraham – that this was the question before his mind. He refers not to the act when Abraham first believed – the act by which as a sinner he was justified before God; but to an act that occurred twenty years after – the offering up of his son Isaac. See the notes at those verses. He affirms that the faith of Abraham was of such a kind that it led him to obey the will of God; that is, to good works. Though, as is implied in the objection referred to above, he does refer to the same case to which Paul referred – the case of Abraham – yet it is not to the same act in Abraham. Paul Rom_4:1-3 refers to him when he first believed, affirming that he was then justified by faith; James refers indeed to an act of the same man, but occurring twenty years after, showing that the faith by which he had been justified was genuine. Abraham was, in fact, according to Paul, justified when he believed, and, had he died then, he would have been saved; but according to James, the faith which justified him was not a dead faith, but was living and operative, as was shown by his readiness to offer his son on the altar.
(c) Did each of these two writers in reality hold the same doctrine on the subject? This will be seen, if it can be shown that James held to the doctrine of justification by faith, as really as Paul did; and that Paul held that good works were necessary to show the genuineness of faith, as really as James did.
(1) they both agreed in holding the doctrine of justification by faith. Of Paul’s belief there can be no doubt. That James held the doctrine is apparent from the fact that he quotes the very passage in Genesis, Gen_15:6, and the one on which Paul relies, Rom_4:1-3, as expressing his own views – “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness.” The truth of this, James does not deny, but affirms that the Scripture which made this declaration was fulfilled or confirmed by the act to which he refers.
(2) they both agreed in holding that good works are necessary to show the genuineness of faith. Of James” views on that point there can be no doubt. That Paul held the same opinion is clear.
(a) from his own life, no man ever having been more solicitous to keep the whole law of God than he was.
(b) From his constant exhortations and declarations, such as these: “Created in Christ Jesus unto good works,” Eph_2:10; “Charge them that are rich, that they be rich in good works,” 1Ti_6:17-18; “In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works,” Tit_2:7; “Who gave himself for us, that he might purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works,” Tit_2:14; “These things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works,” Tit_3:8.
(c) It appears from the fact that Paul believed that the rewards of heaven are to be apportioned according to our good works, or according to our character and our attainments in the divine life. The title indeed to eternal life is, according to him, in consequence of faith; the measure of the reward is to be our holiness, or what we do. Thus he says, 2Co_5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body.” Thus also he says, 2Co_9:6, “He which soweth sparingly. shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully.” And thus also he says, Rom_2:6, that God “will render to every man according to his deeds.” See also the influence which faith had on Paul personally, as described in the third chapter of his Epistle to the Philippians. If these things are so, then these two writers have not contradicted each other, but, viewing the subject from different points, they have together stated important truths which might have been made by any one writer without contradiction; first, that it is only by faith that a sinner can be justified – and second, that the faith which justifies is that only which leads to a holy life, and that no other is of value in saving the soul. Thus, on the one hand, men would be guarded from depending on their own righteousness for eternal life; and, on the other, from all the evils of Antinomianism. The great object of religion would be secured – the sinner would be justified, and would become personally holy.