an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 2: Maturity in Unprejudiced Grace

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?

James 2:1–4

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

James 2:14–17

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Defined By Our Faith

The Old Covenant is more than a codified list of commands. It is more than a list of “dos and don’ts.” What it comes down to, in the midst of those detailed commands and expectations, is a system of faith and a covenant of relying on God more than others or self. It is predicated entirely upon faith, and – though our covenant, its terms, and its sacrifice are different – our relationship with God is no different today. Our lives in God are predicated entirely on our faith. On that faith rests the foundation of our spiritual lives.

II Corinthians 5:7 tells us we walk by faith rather than sight, similar to Hebrews 11:1, defining faith as the evidence of things we cannot see. Romans 3:28 then simply states we are saved by faith, and our salvation in faith is no different than the children of Israel’s justification through faith. For our faith then informs our conduct and our personal surrender to God’s will, truly understanding it by putting that faith into practice.

Faith Beyond Rationale

Faith is not always purely logical. Remember Abraham. In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham (then Abram) to leave his life behind him to inhabit a land he had never seen. Hebrews 11:8 tells us that Abraham obeys by faith, not knowing where he was going. Later, Abraham is asked to offer up Isaac, his only son, and Paul makes reference to this event in Romans 4:1-3, citing Abraham’s great faith. The Hebrew writer speaks of Abraham’s faith in the resurrection of his son.

Think of crossing the Red Sea. Think of the bronze serpent. Think of Joshua and Caleb encouraging the people to take the Promised Land. Consider Job, in Job 31, expressing his lack of understanding; then, in 40:3, after God provides an answer to Job, he relents and lays his fate in God’s hands. Even going as far as I Corinthians 1, Paul describes the gospel itself as something that goes against our reason and wisdom, yet it is God’s power to save.

We can read through Hebrews 11 and see person after person who do seemingly impossible things, who face insurmountable odds, who accomplish great deeds, because of their faith. Does this look like a faith that is inactive? In James 2:17-26, we see that faith without action is empty and lifeless. It is more than an acknowledgement of God. It is living for and by God.

Faith in Action

Again, look to Abraham in Genesis 22. It is in verse 12 that the angel proclaims, “for now I know that you fear God.” Did Abraham not already have a faithful heart? We know he did, but there is a difference between thought and action. Feelings are not actions. We can know about God intellectually; we can feel a relationship with God; we can understand God’s word. Without putting that knowledge and those feelings into action, though, our faith is empty. This may involve some significant sacrifices in our lives, but none of those can match what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in faith.

This is not, however, salvation dependent upon our own abilities or our checklist. Trusting in God and obediently yielding to Him in all things will abase self rather than elevate self. Our hope, trust, and confidence is placed entirely in what God has done and will do for us – no more and no less. We cannot lessen our faith by falling into inactivity, nor can we constrain it by relying on traditions and rituals, placing confidence in the flesh.

Faith – a complete, living faith – does require action. It requires obedience. It compels us to change our lives, but it is not a reliance on self. In Galatians 2:20-21, Paul plainly states that his faith drives self out of the equation of his life, living by and relying completely upon the teachings and promises of Christ, not nullifying God’s grace but by putting faith in that grace into action. Just as God wanted the children of Israel to wholly rely on Him in all things, He wants the same commitment from us today. We must crucify self, let Christ live in us, and take up a life defined by our faith.

lesson by Tim Smelser

“Help My Unbelief”

In Mark 9, the gospel writer records an encounter Jesus has with a possessed boy. His disciples had been unable to cast the unclean spirit out, and, in verse 20, the spirit reacts violently to being in Jesus’ presence. Jesus replies that all things are possible to one who believes, and the father of this boy pleads with Jesus, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” So many times, in prayer and in study I remember these words. Despite our faith and trust in God, we all struggle with times of unbelief.

Strengthening Faith

There are a couple of things we can do to perfect our faith in the face of unbelief.

  • Romans 10:17 says that our faith comes through exposure to God’s word, and James 1:22-25 makes it clear we have to live that word for it to take hold in our lives.
  • James 1:6 encourages to pray in faith, not allowing doubt to toss us around. Also, chapter 5:15-16 testifies to the power of sincere prayer.

We can increase our faith through greater knowledge, greater application, and a more active prayer life. How often do any of us pick up our Bibles or bend our knees? We schedule our lunches, our appointments, our dates, and our other activities. We should also have time set aside to talk to our God and to study from His word. The more time we spend in the presence of God, the less time we have to walk contrary to His will.

Abraham’s Example of Faith

In Genesis 15:6, God accounts Abraham’s faith to righteousness, and James 2:23 uses similar language in referring to the events of Genesis 22. Abraham, though, demonstrates many examples of faith prior to Genesis 15 or 22. What James is explaining is that the events of Genesis 22 is a culmination of the faith he demonstrates prior to that near-sacrifice.

Despite this faith, Genesis is replete with examples of Abraham falling short. He struggles with his faith. He stumbles in sin, but he presses forward. The overall direction of his life is typified by faith. We, as sons of Abraham, can be as faithful despite our weaknesses and doubts. His faith produces righteousness and overcomes those shortcomings. Can the same be said of us? Is our trust and confidence in God when it counts the most? Are we able to give control over to our God? While imperfect, Abraham lives in obedience and faith, and God declares him righteous because of that faith.

Conclusion

Read God’s word. Apply it. Spend time talking with God. Set aside time to remember God in our lives, and He will help our unbelief. Will God count our faith unto us as righteousness? We believe in our God and Father, may we allow Him to help our unbelief.

lesson by Tim Smelser

What Hagar Taught

For some reason, I’m picking up on things this time through Genesis that I have glossed over before. It’s interesting how familiar text can sometimes gain new life. Anyway, in Genesis 21, Isaac is born, and we see his weaning feast eight verses later. Then comes verse nine:

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing.

The idea here is that Ishmael is laughing hatefully at Isaac. Perhaps he sees this child replacing him as heir to the household as ridiculous. Perhaps he is jealous and acting out defensively. Perhaps he is merely being a bully. Whatever the reasons, there is only on place he could have learned such animosity in Abraham’s household – his own mother.

It’s easy to see where such hard feelings would arise in Hagar with a cursory glance over the preceding chapters. However, during her life as a mother, she passed her hatred for Sarah on to her own child, liewise demonstrating it toward Sarah’s child.

As examples to our children and others around us, we have to be careful what values we’re passing on. Hatred should not be a family value, but for Hagar it was. What misplaced values are we passing on to our own children?

Faith & Family In Genesis 22

I recently led a Bible class discussion on Genesis 22 – the occasion of Abraham offering Isaac up to God. It’s a traumatic story filled with Messianic parallels and New Testament imagery, but a couple verses in particular made an impression on me this time through the familiar passage.

The first was Genesis 22:5:

And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the young man [Isaac] and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”

The Hebrew writer, in chapter 11 of his or her book, cites Abraham’s faith that God could raise Isaac from the dead, and that faith is very evident in this verse. Abraham tells his servants, “We will come back to you.” Knowing God’s commands, He affirms his faith that God will allow both of them to return after this ordeal. It’s a small but powerful statement.

The other thing that impresses me is Isaac’s compliance in this whole matter. Through the entirety of Genesis 22, we only have record of Isaac speaking once, and that’s in verse 7:

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And [Abraham] said, “Here am I, my son.” [Isaac] said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”

In verse 8, Abraham simply answers that God will provide, and Isaac proceeds silently, as a lamb led to the slaughter. We often focus on what could have been going through Abraham’s mind, knowing full well that he may have to slay his only begotten son. We see the relief he must have felt when his hand is stayed, and a ram crowned in thorns is offered in the place of his son, paying the price of Isaac’s sacrifice.

What of Isaac, though? Surely he felt something was amiss while, with his aged and reticent father, he ascended that mountain in Moriah. The tension must have been palpable. Consider your own reaction had your father or mother built an altar and stretched you over it, bound as a trapped animal. Wouldn’t you or I cry out? Wouldn’t our first instincts be resistance and self-preservation? In Genesis 22, Isaac is much younger and likely in much better physical condition that Abraham. He could have easily overpowered the centenarian.

Yet the Biblical record says nothing of Isaac fighting back. He places his trust in his father and his Father. I think this single fact speaks volumes of the relationship Abraham had with Isaac as well as the faith passed on from father to son. Here we see a son, when faced with crisis, willing to place his fate in the hands of the man who has nurtured him and the God who can deliver him.

A Small Fish In a Big Pond

“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others.”

The idea of servitude permeates the New Testament, and it contracts the way we like to center our world around ourselves. We want to be a big fish in a little pond. We want to leave a mark, a name for ourselves.

In Genesis 24, we are introduced to an unnamed servant of Abraham who helps Isaac find a wife. He is an incidental character who plays an important role in these events. He is a small fish. He is pious and faithful. He is devoted to his master, and he is committed to seeing the matter through to the end.

Qualities of Abraham’s Servant

  • His Faith. Immediately, in verse 12, we see this servant praying to God for the success of his endeavor. This is the first prayer recorded in the Bible the solicits an immediate response. He has faith that God can answer him quickly. He worships God, in verse 24-27, when he sees the prayer being answered.
  • His Devotion. When he prays, for God’s assistance, he does so on behalf of Abraham. He is committed to his master. In verse 14, he speaks of kindness to Abraham again, and verse 27 records him praising God for His love for Abraham. This servant is devoted to Abraham.
  • His Commitment. This servant refuses even food before telling Rebekah’s family of his task. He implores the family not to hinder him in his task in verse 56. He would abide no distractions in completing his efforts for the task at hand.

The Small Fish

If this servant is Eleazar, he is doing all these things for the heir that had displaced him. Eleazar of Damascus was to inherit the household of Abraham prior to Isaac’s birth. Despite his lowered position, he still serves his master faithfully. He is humble. He puts others before himself. He serves as a small fish in a big pond.

lesson by Tim Smelser