After James began his letter encouraging oppressed Christians in their suffering, he moved onto how to properly practice the faith despite of trials and temptations to sin. In the second chapter be leaves the topic of suffering aside and moves onto how God’s first fruits in every day life ought to show no partiality nor partake in other actions that implicitly deny the faith.
2:1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
James continues on the topic of true religion. Though these believers were in exile, like the Jews, they still struggled with sin. The issue of sinning as a matter of temptation, encouraged by the pains of one’s circumstances, no longer appears in view. James has moved onto how bad doctrines lead to bad practices.
Perhaps, what we can take from this is how orthodoxy informs orthopraxy. Just as Paul took the first 11 chapters of Romans and first three chapters of Ephesians to teach doctrines, he then used the remainder of the letters to teach Christian practices that are good and necessary consequences of those doctrines.
The fact that he addresses his audience again may imply that he is changing subjects, from his discussion on orthopraxy in spite of suffering to orthopraxy in general.
Do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism…have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?
Just as when we give into temptation, we are to blame and not God, we must recognize that this is exactly what is occurring when we show favoritism to the rich. Our motive in showing favoritism is ultimately self gain. We are giving into our own temptations for riches ourselves or for esteem in the community. By acting upon such evil motives, we forget that undefiled religion is to show love to the helpless because spiritually we are helpless. This is likely the thematic connection between the previous chapter and the James’ subsequent discussion.
Matthew Henry’s Commentary observes that Christians should not show favoritism because if truly converted, they value in man what God does–faith in Christ:
The character of Christians fully implied: they are such as have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ; they embrace it; they receive it; they govern themselves by it; they entertain the doctrine, and submit to the law and government, of Christ; they have it as a trust; they have it as a treasure…Christ’s being the Lord of glory should teach us not to respect Christians for any thing so much as their relation and conformity to Christ. You who profess to believe the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the poorest Christian shall partake of equally with the rich, and to which all worldly glory is but vanity, you should not make men’s outward and worldly advantages the measure of your respect.
5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?
The Apostle Paul said the same, but in doing so tells us why God makes this choice:
God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God (1 Cor 1:27-29).
First, God chose the poor because it nullifies the order of the world. The world and its people, being evil and in the hands of Satan, is fundamentally set up wrong. By choosing the poor instead of the rich, God is remaking the world into something that is the antithesis of what it is now.
Second, Calvin’s read into James’ words an accusation of not appreciating what God honors:
[I]t is unbecoming and disgraceful to cast down those whom God exalts, and to treat reproachfully those whom he honors. As God honors the poor, then every one who repudiates them, reverses the order of God.
Surely, we do not want to find no value in whom God holds in high regard.
Third, God does not want men that boast in anything other than Him. The poor have nothing, so they can only boast in what God has given them.
Clearly, James presumes that his audience knows both of these things, for he asks incredulously “did not God choose the poor?”
6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?
It is as if James is saying, “As opposed to honoring those whom God honors, those who regularly defraud and oppress you are honored.”
If you think that most people are rich because they provide something valuable to society, then you are overlooking the fact that most rich people attain their wealth by being absolutely ruthless when it comes to money.
There are, indeed, some of the rich who are just, and meek, and hate all unrighteousness; but few of such men are to be found. James, then, mentions what for the most part usually happens, and what daily experience proves true.
7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?
The rich blaspheme God in their oppression of the poor, for God loves the poor.
8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.
How does loving one’s neighbor fulfill the whole Law? First let’s discern who is our neighbor. Our neighbor, like the Good Samaritan, is the one who shows mercy (Luke 10:37). So we are called to love the merciful, Christ’s people.
Again, how does love fulfill the Law? Let’s keep in mind that love for neighbor and faith in Christ are inseparable. Why? Whatever love we show towards them is credited as if it were love towards God. “[T]o the extent that you did it [good] to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me,” says the Lord in Matt 25:40. Love of neighbor fulfills the Law, because love of God does. Those who love God fear Him, believe in His Son, and do His will.
This sort of love should give us confidence in our salvation: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14).
And so, when one shows partiality he reveals by this one act that he hates the brethren and is divorced from Christ. The conviction of the Law is against him as if he were guilty of breaking all of it, because all men will be judged by their works and on judgment day those who have not had their sins paid for on the cross are convicted guilty, no matter what other good they have done. “Not that all sins are equal,” Matthew Henry’s Commentary adds, “but…all carry the same contempt of the authority of the Lawgiver, and so bind over to such punishment as is threatened on the breach of that law.” The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). There is Hell to pay.
Augustine marveled how James taught that one act of love was sufficient to impute to one the actual virtue of being good and that one act of wickedness shows the complete lack of virtue in a man:
But has he who has one virtue all virtues? and has he no virtues who lacks one? If this be true, the sentence of the apostle is thereby confirmed…[I]t [the preceding sentence] stands more sure in our esteem than all the authority of philosophers could make it (Letter CLXVII, Par. 4).
To have Godly love fulfills the Law, and yet to break one Law makes one under its entire condemnation. Calvin observes: “[F]or this passage and many others, clearly shew that there is no righteousness except in a perfect obedience to the law.” Indeed this is true, for “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Gal 3:10).
Then what are we to do, for no one is completely blameless before the Lord our God (Deut 18:13) by such a standard? Again, set one’s eyes onto Christ. Perfect obedience is achieved by loving God and His people through faith in Him. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). And again, “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal 5:14).
Ceasarius of Arles understood this when he wrote the following:
What does it mean to offend in one point and lose all, except to have fallen from the precept of love and thereby to have offended in all the other commandments? Without love none of our virtues amount to anything at all (p. 24).
As Jesus said, “On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt 22:40). And if the whole of Scripture hinges on love, then we fulfill the whole Law or break it in its entirety by how we love.
11 For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
Don’t boast that you do not break this or that law, for if you show favoritism you are no better than a murderer., because you are a murder. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).
It is important to keep in mind that individual commandments, such as do not commit adultery and do not murder are “designed to lead to perfect love,” (Andreas, p. 25) that is, the love of our neighbor and God. “To fail in one point is to lack perfect love for this is the source of all good deeds” (Ibid). It is in this sense that failing in one point makes us a transgressor of the entire law. Perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18) because it gives us confidence in the day of judgment that we belong to Christ and He has fulfilled the Law for us. “For,” in the words of Chrysostom, “the righteousness of the Law, that one should not become liable to its curse, Christ has accomplished for you” (Homilies on Romans, Rom 8:4).
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.
Do you really think you have been set free from the sin that enslaved you? Put your money where your mouth is. You say you love Christ? Then act as one who loves Christ. Do you say your are judged according to Christ’s righteousness and not your lack of? Then act as one who has truly experienced the love of Christ; in deed and not merely in word alone. Such a man is the one who really is under the Law of Liberty. For it is in this sense that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
Why does James use the terminology “the Law of Liberty” here? Calvin wrote on the said passage:
Since none of us can stand before God, except we be delivered and freed from the strict rigor of the law, we ought so to act, that we may not through too much severity exclude the indulgence or mercy of God, of which we all have need to the last.
A Christian can be under Law (Mosaic/Natural Law) which brings condemnation, or under grace, which is being in Christ. Being freed from the Law that condemns us, we so act as those who understand God’s mercy so much that it pours out from us.
Another popular answer is that it pertains to the equality of all men in Christ. Hilary of Arles writes, “By the New Testament Law everyone is born again, free and equal with one another” (p. 25). Oecuminius concurs: “The law of liberty is the one which does not recognize classes of persons” (p. 25). Paul says as much in Gal 3:24-28–
Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
We are no longer under the schoolmaster of the Law, but rather are free in Christ. And, if free, we are then clothed with Christ. This annihilates any gender, racial, or social distinctions.
To show partiality is to betray that one is not clothed in Christ at all, because He still pays mind to distinctions that Christians know are not important anymore.
However, to recap for it is worth repeating, the Law of Liberty is the same as “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” that “has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8:2).
For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3-4).
Like we said before, we do not fulfill the Law of Liberty specifically by walking according to the Spirit. Rather, we know that God fulfilled that Law for us so that it is fulfilled in us if we walk according to the Spirit and not the flesh. This is why James says, “So speak and so act” as those “that the requirement of the Law” is fulfilled in. “[I]f the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,” says Paul “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit.” It is because this reality is a present one in Christians that “we are under obligation” to live according to the Spirit (Rom 8:11-12).
So we speak and act not to earn salvation, but because we are saved. Those who do not have a faith that is counterfeit and that faith cannot save.
13 For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.
This verse is a parenthetical statement between verses 12 and 14, as verse 14 (“what use is it…if someone says he has faith”) really is the logical consequence of verse 12.
So, what is James purpose in telling us about judgment towards the merciless? “If we forgive others the sins which they have committed against us,” observes Oecumenius, “then God’s mercy will deliver us from judgment… [I]f we do not forgive them, we shall not be forgiven either” (p. 26). So, pay mind to the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
If you show partiality and in doing so reveal that you hate the poor (making them sit at your feet) do you not show yourself merciless? And, if you do not know mercy in your life, then how can you say God’s mercy has come to you? For mercy triumphs over judgment when we show mercy. Mercy is more powerful than judgment, for the mercy shown to us through faith in Christ forgives all sin. However, if one is not merciful there should be no expectation of mercy, for such a man does not know Christ.
Mercy flows from a heart that knows God’s mercy. True knowledge of mercy results in works of mercy. Knowledge is not merely intellectual, it is experiential. James will devote the remainder of the chapter to this idea.