Epistle of James, Chapter 2 – The Foundation of your life is shown in your works

Pasi Hujanen
Taisto Sokka

True love does not count the losses James – 2:1–9

Apostle James can be called a teacher of practical faith. The beginning of the second chapter is probably inspired by real life incident, and James wanted to teach his readers through this practical case.

Scholars have not reached a consensus on whether the events James here describes have happened in the congregation or in some other situation – perhaps in a legal trial between church members (ref. 1 Cor 6:1–7). In my understanding the natural situation for this event is a normal gathering of the congregation.

At that time there were no church buildings so the congregation had to gather in a member’s home. Now there came two new people: A rich and a poor one. The rich was treated well while the poor was treated badly.

It is known that during that time most members of the church were poor, even slaves, so it was rare for a rich person to attend the meeting. When this happened, perhaps the congregants got excited about a rich new potential member and began to imagine all the benefits they could receive through this newcomer. On the contrary, the poor person was expected to become a burden for the church – just one more mouth to feed.

James judged this kind of behaviour. First, they focused their attention on irrelevant things: worldly rather than spiritual matters. Second, the act contradicted the example God had given: He cares especially for the low and poor (1 Cor 1:26–29). Third, it is against God’s law of impartiality (Deut 10:17–19). Fourth, it is against God’s Commandment to love your neighbour as yourself (verse 7; Lev 19:18; ref. also Matt 22:34–40).

We should remember that a person can be honoured without belittling somebody else. This is the case when honouring for example the President.

It is easy to find examples in the history of the Church, where the Church has done exactly the way that James now judges. The rich might have even had their own ”signature seats” in the church.

Unfortunately, it is just as easy to find this kind of examples from our daily life as well. Let us imagine, that on a Sunday, a famous actor and a homeless alcohol-dependent person appears at the church door. I guess the two would not be treated equally. Unequal treatment could be reasoned like this: “the Christian faith of this celebrity would bring good publicity to the church!” Such an idea is unfair also to the celebrity. The celebrity is only seen as a someone who benefits the church, and not as a valuable person, created and redeemed by God.­

Once again James gives us a difficult, and in fact impossible, challenge: We should love all people equally, but we are unable to do that.

On the other hand, you might wonder: when there are so many neighbors and their needs far too great, what should I do? First, it is worth remembering that it is not God’s intention to exhaust anyone under too great a burden.

Who is my neighbour? Three principles help us find the right balance:

  1. Ask, what is your calling and what God wants you to do.

  2. Honour the callings of other people. Not everybody is e.g. a street evangelist or a missionary to the Muslims.

  3. We need to find the right co-operation with other fields of spiritual work. The work for God’s kingdom is not a one-man show but a common task all Christians should do together.

Our prayer cannot be ”Lord, here I am, send my sister”, but instead, ”Lord, here I am, send me” (Matt 9:36–38).

In verse 7 ”the honourable name by which you were called” refers to baptism, where the baptized is called through the name of Jesus Christ.

The Chain is as strong as its weakest link – James 2:10–13

Apostle James says the same thing in verse 10 as St. Paul in Galatians 5:3, but from a different perspective. Apostle Paul emphasizes the doctrine of faith: If you want to be saved through the law, you cannot appeal to grace. Also, if you want to be saved through grace, you cannot appeal to fulfilling any of the commandments. James teaches that the law of God is a whole: You cannot choose to follow the commands you find easy, and ignore the rest.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that God's law must be obeyed even in thought (Matt 5:27–30). The duty to fulfil the whole law is found also in the Old Testament (Deut 31:12).

The revelation of God is a whole. When God revealed Himself to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, He did not give them a statue to worship but a law to follow. God manifests Himself through the law.

”The law of liberty” in verse 12 brings to mind a question: Are not "liberty" and "law" opposites to each other? It might seem that way, because the law limits our freedom.

But who can be free? The basic condition for being free is to know who and what you are. If a person does not know who he is, he cannot “truly enjoy and fulfil himself”, but he inevitably becomes a slave to things like money and power.

Who is man? The Bible answers: The image of God (Gen 1:27). Both man and the law of God - and His entire revelation - are images of God. Therefore, these two are in harmony, not in conflict with each other. Therefore, the law is “the law of liberty”.

Man and the law of God were in harmony before man fell into sin. But now the image of God in man is corrupt and man has turned against the will of God. That is why the law is an unpleasant opponent in our ordinary life. But in the beginning, it was not like this. And now, when God continues His good work in the heart of the Christian, we begin to see the goodness in His law. Obeying it does not feel so tedious anymore, because we see it as a good gift from God.

Man can only be free when he is not a slave to something. True freedom is found only in the will of God because only God’s will can set him in his right place.

Once again in verse 13 James reminds us that our works tell what we believe: Do we trust in grace or justice? There is huge difference whether we say to God at the Last Judgement: ”Have grace on me!” or “Have justice on me!”

None of us can fulfil the law entirely. That is why we cannot seek to be saved through the law. We can only depend on grace. But if we truly follow the way of grace, we are also graceful to others (ref. Matt 18:21–35 The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant; ref. also Matt 5:7). If we are merciless to others, we cannot expect God to be merciful to us either.

We can compare salvation through the law to a chain by which we try to climb to heaven. It does not matter if most links of the chain are good and strong, but a few would be weak and break. Then we would fall. - But where? It is good to fall into grace than a new attempt driven by the law.

Faith cannot be invisible – James 2:14–26

This passage is the most disputed part of the Letter of James. Most scholars agree that Apostle James is not fight against St. Paul but against the false interpretations of his teachings. St. Paul had to do so himself also, because some had intentionally or unintentionally misunderstood him (Gal 2:17; Rom 3:8; 6:1).

Possibly the disputes have arisen because James uses the words ”works” and ”faith” in a different meaning than St. Paul does in Romans Ch. 3–4. St. Paul describes faith and works as opposite ways for salvation. The question is whether works should precede faith or not. Instead, James speaks of what should be the outcome of faith. Can faith remain without any effect to the believer’s works?

James was not putting faith and works against each other but living faith and dead faith.

Apostle Paul would have probably agreed with James that a living faith cannot be invisible in the believers works. Still, there remains a problem with verses 21–24, where James interprets Abrahams work differently than Paul. It looks like James is denying a basic principle of Lutheran doctrine: That salvation comes through faith only.

James’ interpretation about Abraham sacrificing Isaac is the same that Jewish scholars used. It emphasizes the work of Abraham while St. Paul emphasizes Abraham’s faith which made him do as God requested (Rom 4).

Are the writings of James and Paul unavoidably contradicting? No. The key to the answer lies in verse 19. James claims that believing something to be true (= dead faith) does not save anybody. Salvation can only come through living faith. How, then, do we recognize a living faith? It will be followed by deeds. Faith without works does not save, because that is a false faith. Saving faith causes good deeds. But works are not the foundation of salvation. Faith is the foundation for salvation and works are the effect of such faith.

It is not always easy to distinguish faith from works. For example, the Story of Jesus healing a withered arm in Matt 3:1–6 shows us how faith is not only logical conclusions but practical living of life. The living life never conforms to strict patterns and expectations.

It could be said that when James corrects the misunderstanding of St. Paul’s teachings (call it even the mockery of His theology, ref. 1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:6), he himself goes to the other extreme which is just as much prone to misunderstandings. But in heated debates this happens easily.