James 2:1-26

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Addressing believers as “my brothers,” fellow members of God’s family of beloved children, James admonished them not to show favoritism (literally, “accept faces”), assessing the worth of others on the basis of their possessions and social status. His words may be understood either as a question or as an introductory statement to the exhortation that follows. As a question, the verse could be rendered literally, “My brothers, do you not, with partiality, hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory?” Another possible literal translation could be, “My brothers, do not, with partiality, hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ of glory.” (2:1)

Translators have variously rendered verse 1, often supplying words that are not in the Greek text. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” (NRSV) “My brothers, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” (NAB) “My dear brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, never think some people are more important than others.” (NCV) “My friends, you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ who reigns in glory and you must always be impartial.” (REB)

The “faith of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the faith that has him as its object. It is faith or trust in him and all that he accomplished when surrendering his life. As the highly exalted one with divinely granted authority over everything in heaven and on earth, Jesus Christ is the Lord of “glory,” the glorious or magnificent Lord. Any display of partiality is inconsistent with faith in Jesus Christ. This is because all who put their faith in him come to be “sons” of God, enjoying the same standing in God’s family as all others who have been reconciled to him as his beloved children. (2:1)

Among those to whom James wrote, certain believers did not act in harmony with their faith in Christ. They showed partiality, treating wealthy or influential individuals with far greater respect than poor persons. Two visitors might enter their meeting place (literally, “synagogue,” which can apply either to a place of gathering or the meeting itself). One of the men may be splendidly attired and have gold rings on his fingers, indicative of his wealth and social standing. The other visitor may be extremely poor and dressed in rags (literally, “filthy” or “soiled clothing”). (2:2)

If the well-dressed man is given special attention and offered a choice seat while the poor man is told to keep standing or to sit on the floor (below someone’s footstool), believers would be guilty of discrimination and reveal themselves to be judges who make “evil decisions.” Their judgments would be based on outward appearances and, therefore, on the wrong standards. To make this important point about partiality, James presented it in the form of a rhetorical question. (2:3, 4)

He then stressed the impropriety of such preferential treatment, introducing his comments with the words, “Listen, my beloved brothers.” Although certain ones had acted wrongly, he did not reject them but addressed them as beloved fellow members of God’s family. By means of a rhetorical question, James reminded them that God had chosen the poor (the nobodies as far as the world was concerned) to be “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those loving him.” (2:5)

The communities of believers to whom James directed his words were much like the one in Corinth. Based on human evaluation, not many among them were wise, influential, or of noble birth. (Compare 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.) Nevertheless, God had chosen the poor or insignificant ones to be rich in faith. They had responded to the message about Christ, and so God chose them to be his children, members of his family who are “rich in faith,” having the fullness of trust in him and his Son that is a priceless possession. This faith is their true wealth, for it makes possible an enduring relationship with him and his Son. As God’s children, they are “heirs of the kingdom,” which signifies finally entering as sinless persons into the realm where he is recognized as the Sovereign who exercises supreme authority by means of his unique Son Jesus Christ. This is the kingdom or royal realm that God has promised to all who love him, and this love is evident from their earnest desire to do his will. (2:5; see the Notes section.)

When according greater honor to the wealthy, believers dishonored the poor, the very ones who had proved to be more responsive to the good news about Jesus Christ. The rich, on the other hand, were undeserving of the kind of deference certain believers showed to them when they came to one of their gatherings. As a class, the wealthy mistreated believers and dragged them before courts. While the oppression from the rich may, in part, have been prompted by their hostile rejection of the message about Jesus Christ, it could also have been from their greed for material advantage. The rich commonly were intent on increasing their holdings. (2:6)

Wealthy unbelievers often were the ones who blasphemed the “good name.” Believers identified themselves as belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ. Accordingly, when unbelievers spoke abusively of them, they blasphemed him or the “good name” (the most excellent name by which believers were called). (2:7)

The ones to whom James wrote would be doing well if they “fulfilled” or observed the “kingly” or “royal law according to the scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Leviticus 19:18, LXX) The command calling for love to be shown to one’s neighbor or fellow is “according to” or set forth in the holy writings. It is a “kingly law,” for it is the command of God, the Supreme Sovereign. Moreover, it is “kingly” from the standpoint of being the command that sums up all the others that relate to the treatment of fellow humans. So it is a law that stands in the foremost position like a king in relation to all the other commands. In relation to the context, heeding the kingly law of love required that believers treat others impartially. (2:8; see the Notes section.)

If, however, believers were to show partiality (literally, “accept faces”), judging by outward appearances and acting accordingly, they would be “working” or practicing sin. The law of love would reprove them as transgressors. Their partial treatment of others would reveal lack of love for those whom they dishonored, exposing the partial believers as having transgressed the command to love their neighbors as themselves. (2:9)

James referred to the law with its numerous commands as being one law. Accordingly, individuals who observed all the requirements of the law but violated one command made themselves guilty of lawbreaking and so violated “all,” that is, the law as a whole. The keeping of numerous other commands did not cancel out the violation of any one command. (2:10)

The whole law has one source, God. He is the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” and also said, “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13, 14 [13, 15, LXX]; Deuteronomy 5:17, 18, LXX) Therefore, the man who did not commit adultery but did murder constituted himself a transgressor of the law. His observing one command did not offset his violating the other one. It appears that James purposely singled out the two commands because he later discussed how believers could make themselves guilty of adultery through friendship with the world and commit murder through unloving actions. (2:11; 4:1, 2, 4; 5:4; see the Notes section.)

Believers needed to speak and act like persons who would be judged by the “law of freedom.” Based on the context, the “law of freedom” would be the “kingly law,” which obligates believers to treat others in a loving manner. The motivation for speaking and acting in harmony with the command to love one’s neighbor or fellow as oneself would not be the restraint stemming from a fear of punishment for transgressions. Instead, an inner motivation is involved, for (as set forth in Jeremiah 31:33 regarding the new covenant) the law is written on the hearts and so is an integral part of the individual’s inmost self. Accordingly, it is not a law characterized by the imposition of external restraints but a law of freedom, one that rightly motivated individuals choose to obey in response to the prompting of their inmost selves. At the same time, believers need to recognize that they are accountable to God and his Son for their words and actions. This means that they will be judged by the “law of freedom,” that is, the basis for judgment will be whether love guided their words and deeds. (2:12; compare Matthew 25:31-46.)

One’s showing mercy or compassion for others and actively responding to their needs is an expression of love. Therefore, the one who did not act in a compassionate manner toward those in need would not be shown any mercy when faced with judgment. “Mercy glories over judgment.” One’s having acted compassionately toward others means that one will be shown mercy at the time of judgment. In this way, the individual’s record of mercy determines whether the judgment will be favorable or condemnatory. In the case of merciful persons, their record of mercy and the corresponding mercy associated with their judgment, will glory or triumph over any unfavorable judgment that might otherwise be pronounced against them. (2:13)

“Of what benefit [is it], my brothers, if one should say, ‘[I] have faith,’ but he does not have works? That faith cannot save him, [can it]?” A faith or belief that is a mere expression of the lips has no substance. It gives no evidence of being a genuine trust in God and Christ. There must be actions that demonstrate the existence of a vibrant faith. Mere words cannot save or deliver anyone from sin and the condemnation to which it leads. When one truly puts faith in Christ and the value of his sacrificial death, conduct consistent with that faith follows. (2:14)

James illustrated that words are not enough; there must be action. A brother or a sister may be “naked,” lacking adequate clothing, and without essential food for the day. If someone were to do nothing to help the destitute person but say, “Go in peace; keep warm and well-nourished,” the needy one would not be benefited. To send a poor brother or sister away with such words and nothing for bodily needs would actually be hurtful and cruel, revealing a tremendous lack of love and compassion. (2:15, 16)

Only if the poor brother or sister had been given needed food and clothing would it have been appropriate to wish him or her well. Likewise, faith must be accompanied by works that harmonize with it. Faith without works, or belief expressed merely with the lips, is “dead,” unproductive, or nonexistent. “According to itself,” or “by itself” and so without any tangible evidence of accompanying works, any claimed faith would lack substantive proof of existence as an activating force in the life of the individual. (2:17)

It appears that James introduced an objection to what he had written about faith and works. “But someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’” This could be understood to be an assertion that, in their relationship to God and Christ, individuals vary, with certain ones having faith and others having deeds. (2:18)

To indicate that only the first statement in verse 18 constitutes the objection, numerous translations use quotation marks (NAB, NIV, NRSV), and others are more explicit in their renderings. “But someone may say: ‘One chooses faith, another action.’” (REB) “Suppose someone disagrees and says, ‘It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.’” (CEV)

If only the opening statement of verse 18 is regarded as the objection, the response of James follows. A number of translations make this explicit in their renderings, “To which I reply: ‘Show me this faith you speak of with no actions to prove it, while I by my actions will prove to you my faith.’” (REB) “I would answer, ‘Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.’” (CEV) The implication is that, without “works” or “deeds,” a person would not be able to prove that he had faith. (2:18; for other possible ways this verse may be understood, see the Notes section.)

Seemingly, certain believers may have felt that faith or belief in one God was sufficient. While belief in the one God is acknowledged as good (“you are doing well”), this in itself is not enough to be divinely approved. “Even the demons believe and shudder.” The demons or disobedient angels (Jude 6) do not deny that God exists, but their belief in God did not prevent them from pursuing a course contrary to his will for them. Their belief was not a faith that manifested itself through good deeds. Therefore, they shudder or tremble in fear on account of the severe judgment that will be expressed against them. (2:19)

James addressed as an “empty man” the person who would object to the necessity of deeds that were a product of genuine faith. Such an individual would be one who thoughtlessly failed to give the essential consideration to the matter of faith and so remained ignorant. James asked whether the “empty man” wished to know or desired proof or evidence that “faith without works is inactive” (argós), useless, or unproductive of any positive good. Instead of the Greek word argós many manuscripts read “dead” (nekrós), and one seventh-century manuscript (P74) says “empty” (kenós). While the words appearing in manuscripts differ, the basic thought is that a faith without corresponding deeds is worthless, dead, and lacking all vitality. (2:20)

When referring to Abraham as “our father” or ancestor, James may have had Jewish believers in mind. There is also the possibility that he considered Abraham as the “father” of all who possessed a faith like his, which would have included non-Jewish believers. Directing his rhetorical question to the “empty” objector, James asked, “Was not Abraham our father justified by [literally, ‘out of’ or ‘from’] works when he presented his son Isaac on the altar?” This question, as the next verse indicates, is not to be understood as meaning to preclude faith. What Abraham did in attempting to offer Isaac proved that he fully trusted God and the promise he had made to him regarding his son. God accounted Abraham as righteous, upright, or approved because he acted in harmony with his faith or trust. (2:21)

Based on what Abraham did, James continued, “You see that faith operated along with his works, and, by [literally, ‘out of’ or ‘from’] works, faith was perfected.” Abraham’s “works,” or his action in attempting to offer Isaac, did not take place apart from his faith. The “works” constituted a tangible expression of his faith, the works being active along with his trust in God and his word. Upon having demonstrated his willingness to obey God’s command to the point of attempting to offer his own son as a sacrifice, Abraham’s faith came to be perfected or completed as a tested faith that had been revealed as truly genuine. (2:22)

On account of what Abraham did, the “scripture” about his being justified “was fulfilled.” The words of this “scripture” are found in Genesis 15:6, where they are linked to God’s covenant promise made to Abraham long before Isaac’s birth. The “scripture” says, “But [not in all manuscripts] Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” After Abraham had demonstrated his faith under test, the words about his being justified took on their fullest significance, for he then, on account of the “works” that expressed his faith, received the angelic confirmation of having God’s approval and the assurance of future blessing. (Genesis 22:10-18) Moreover, Abraham came to be called “friend of God,” a man whom God loved and approved. He was also a “friend of God” from the standpoint of his loving God, demonstrating that love by loyal obedience. (2:23; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; see the Notes section.)

The case of Abraham established that a man is justified or constituted right with God by (literally, “out of” or “from”) “works” and not by (literally, “out of” or “from”) “faith alone.” The mere profession of faith or belief in God is not enough; there must be deeds that undeniably establish that the individual truly has faith or trust in God and his word. (2:24)

Likewise, by works, the harlot Rahab was justified or divinely approved. Based on her knowledge of the miracle at the Red Sea after the Israelites left Egypt and of the later defeat of the Amorite kings Sihon and Og, she expressed her faith or belief that YHWH, the God whom the Israelites worshiped, had given them the land of Canaan. (Joshua 2:8-10) Her faith proved to be genuine, for she acted on it when accepting the Israelite “messengers” (“spies,” according to other manuscripts) into her home and afterward sending them away by another route so that they would escape detection and be able to return safely to the Israelite camp on the east side of the Jordan River. So, by reason of her good “works” for the two Israelite spies and which deeds had been prompted by faith, Rahab came to be approved, resulting in the preservation of her life and that of her relatives when Jericho was destroyed. (2:25; Joshua 2:14-19; 6:17)

As illustrated in the case of Abraham and of Rahab, a genuine faith is expressed in action. Deeds motivated by trust in God and his word are the tangible expressions of an existing faith. “Just as the body without spirit is dead, thus also faith without works is dead.” Without the “spirit” or the animating life principle, a physical body is dead. Likewise, when there are no deeds that prove the existence of belief, the professed faith is merely an expression of the lips. It is dead, for such a faith is unproductive. (2:26)


In verse 5, manuscript readings differ. The ones God has chosen are designated as the “poor to the world” (that is, poor in the estimation of the world of mankind), the “poor in the world,” or the “poor of the world.”

The quotations in verses 8 and 11 correspond to the wording in the extant Septuagint text.

In verse 18, the addition of quotation marks or of words to make the meaning explicit affects the way in which what James said is understood. Nevertheless, the basic message is that actions prove the existence of faith.

Many regard only the first statement of verse 18 to be the objection, but others have understood the objection to include the entire verse. “If we only ‘have faith’ [a] man could easily challenge us by saying: ‘You say that you have faith and I have merely good actions. Well, all you can do is to show me a faith without corresponding actions, but I can show you by my actions that I have faith as well.’” (J. B. Phillips)

The German Gute Nachricht Bibel, on the other hand, presents the objector’s words as only relating to faith. Aber vielleicht wendet jemand ein: »Hast du überhaupt Glauben?« Darauf antworte ich: Ich habe die Taten! Zeig mir doch einmal deinen Glauben, wenn du mir nicht die entsprechenden Taten zeigen kannst! Aber ich will dir meinen Glauben aus meinen Taten beweisen. (But perhaps someone may object: “Do you even have faith?” To that I answer: I have the deeds! Show me then your faith if you cannot show me the corresponding deeds! But I will show you my faith by my deeds.”)

Still another view is that James introduced the speaker to support the point that faith without works is dead. This introduced speaker would then be represented as addressing someone who objected to what James had said about faith and works. “You maintain that you have faith, but I have works. Show me the faith you claim to have without works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In his letter to the Romans (4:3), Paul used Genesis 15:6 to prove that Abraham was not justified on the basis of works. His purpose for quoting from Genesis 15:6 was not the same as that of James in his letter (2:23). The apostle Paul established that works could not earn one an approved standing with God but that the individual is justified on the basis of faith. James, on the other hand, presented matters from a different perspective. A living faith is revealed when it prompts good works. So the individual is justified on the basis of the works that are a product of faith. Both Paul and James are in agreement that the faith which leads to having an approved standing with God is not a mere expression of the lips but is an active faith that manifests itself in words and actions that are consistent with it. Like James, Paul emphasized the need for believers to live upright lives.