James 2 continues the theme of maturity presented at the beginning of the book. When James opens his letter, he challenges his readers to view trials as opportunities to grow rather than obstacles to lament. He asserts that every trial we overcome helps us mature as Christians. Enduring them makes our faith and relationship with our Savior all the stronger. This maturity leads us to put our faith into action, and James says we are blessed when we look into the perfect law of liberty and then do what we find there.
This theme transitions directly into the thoughts of James 2. When we put our faith into action, we will lose all prejudice and learn to treat others with grace and fairness regardless of any worldly differences that might otherwise separate us.
I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.
Verses 1–13: Letting Go of Prejudice
My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
The Sin of Discrimination
The first way we put our faith into action is by letting go of our prejudices. Most translations read “favoritism” in verse 1, but what James describes comes down to prejudice. In this book, James uses economic status as the basis for prejudice, but we could replace this with any form of discrimination, and it would work just as well. A Latino man versus a white man, a homeless mom versus a business person, a gay person versus a straight person, a pacifist versus a veteran, a Democrat versus a Republican — if we make one person in any of these pairings feel less welcome in our congregations, then we are showing the exact prejudice that James describes.
This is not to say we never deal with sin. This is not to say we never teach about difficult or controversial topics. But anyone should feel welcome and cared for among Christians. How can we ever hope to bring people to Christ if we discriminate against them? When we do so, we betray the righteous judgment Christ says we ought to exercise in John 7:24, and we become judges with evil thoughts, pushing people away from salvation based on our own fears and mistrust. James does not mince words here. In verse 9, he says that we commit sin when we discriminate. This is not a matter of opinion. It is not a matter of politics or cultural preservation. It is sin.
The Cure for Prejudice
The cure is in verse 8 — love your neighbor as yourself. Verse 13 says mercy triumphs over judgment. If we start with love and mercy as a foundation, then it’s easier to let go of our prejudices. When we see each other as God sees us — as souls in need of His grace — then we can be gracious to each other and look past whatever differences that may otherwise come between us. This takes effort, however.
- We have to admit to our prejudices. I cannot make any progress if I am unwilling to admit that I have indeed discriminated at times. If someone accuses me of being racist, my initial temptation is to dig my heels in and deny it. But I have to objectively look at the facts. This may begin by simply asking the other person what I did wrong. If I am unwilling to self-examine, then I am like the person in James 1 who looks in the mirror and forgets their face. I have to be brutally honest with myself.
- We have to unlearn our prejudices.We all have learned prejudices. Once we acknowledge them, then we can correct our course. We can talk to others to see how we can do better. We can get to know those we’re tempted to fear or distrust. We may also have to turn away from TV, internet, and radio personalities who fuel and reinforce prejudice. I cannot say I am trying to overcome lust while keeping a folder of porn sites to visit; nor can I overcome racism while listening to influences that fuel hatred and fear. I have to unlearn the old to learn a better way.
Paul addresses this issue in the context of baptized believers in Galatians 3:27–29; in contrast, James applies the principle more broadly. Still, I wonder how Galatians would look different if updated for today’s challenges.
For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no American or foreigner, citizen or immigrant, patriot or protestor; male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise.
Verses 14–26: Faith in Action
James bookends his thoughts on discrimination with putting our faith into action. Essentially, he’s saying, “Learn God’s word and do it. Actively resist discrimination. Put your faith into action.” If that doesn’t emphasize the importance of overcoming our prejudices, I don’t know what does. This is one of the works that shows we have a faith in Jesus Christ, and James makes it clear that faith and action are symbiotic.
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothes and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you don’t give them what the body needs, what good is it? In the same way faith, if it doesn’t have works, is dead by itself.
Faith and Action
James uses a simple illustration to show how faith and action work hand-in-hand — providing for those in need. If I see someone in need, and I just give the traditional thoughts and prayers platitude, what good have I done that person? Yes, I should pray for that person, and then I should put my faith into action and provide for that person as well. In this illustration, prayer without giving is empty, but prayer with benevolence shows God’s grace to one who needs it. I become an instrument of His love.
In the following verses, James issues a challenge. Show your faith by doing nothing. How will you ever do that? Instead, our humble, obedient, and gracious works testify to our faith in God. From worshiping God the way He wants to be praised, to teaching those we can about salvation in Christ, to showing love and grace to those around us; we show our faith through action.
Two Examples of Faith
- Abraham.First, James talks about the faith of Abraham in offering Isaac in Genesis 22. Abraham already had a relationship with God. Abraham had already shown his faith in numerous ways. What more could he have to prove? The truth is that we are never done working for our God, and faithful living can prove difficult at times. Still, we push forward, faithful and obedient to the God who loves us and saves us.
- Rahab.In contrast, Rahab knew little of God when the spies came to Jericho in Joshua 2. She had heard of God’s help to Israel, and she believed God would help them conquer her city as well, so she helped shelter the spies. In turn, Rahab survives the conquest of Jericho and even ends up in Christ’s lineage.
In choosing these two examples, James shows how our faithful action can honor God regardless of where we are in our relationship with Him. Abraham had an established and long relationship with God. Rahab, in contrast, was a prostitute from an idolatrous background. Both pleased God with their works, for those works demonstrated their faith. Faith comes alive when we act on it.
Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion
- James 2:13 recalls the parable of the unforgiving slave in Matthew 18:21–35. The king showed mercy to his slave, but the slave was unwilling to show that same mercy to another slave. We are all equal in our humility before the Father. Let’s not think so highly of ourselves that we deny the mercy we hope to gain.
- James 2:5–7 feels extraordinarily contemporary. We see an unrighteous person who has had great success in this world, and we rally around them despite their obvious sinfulness. Sometimes we even defend their right to mistreat their workers or unfairly game the system, and it just makes no sense from a Christian perspective.
- James is among the books Martin Luther challenges as canonical. (Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation were the others.) “In a word, [James] wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task in spirit, thought, and words. He mangles the Scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.”(Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, 1522.) Luther’s main point of contention is chapter 2:14–26.
James 3 will bring us more insights into maturing our faith, focusing primarily on our speech and then touching on wisdom as a cornerstone for our spiritual growth.