Holding the Faith, part 2

As mentioned in the previous section, this entire second chapter seems to an appeal from James to his brethren to “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.” How that shows up is by not showing partiality to people who walk into the synagogue. Built upon the preceding context about treating all people the same (treat all men well, right, justly), James ties all this to the “royal law” which is found in the Bible. He has appealed to their sensibilities, asking pointed rhetorical questions of his brethren. Having shown them the folly of favoritism, he turns their attention to the sinfulness of partiality. He makes an argument based upon the word of God.

James 2.8-13 (ESV)
8 If you really fulfill 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 but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.
12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.
13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

The Scriptural Argument (v.8-11)

James presents an argument which is intended to be somewhat of a test for his readers which answers the question as to which camp they belong to – the “well-doers” or the “transgressors.” The method he uses to communicate this is “on the one hand…on the other hand…” Coupled with an appeal to Scripture (Lev 19.18) and James’ argument packs a powerful punch.

It seems best to understand the “royal law” as being distinct from the Scripture passage. There are those who say that the “royal law” is the heavenly legislation issued by the King of heaven contained in the book of Leviticus. However, while James quotes from the Old Testament, his habitual practice is to reference Jesus in making exhortations to his fellow Christians. Indeed, Jesus sums up the Law and the Prophets in “love the Lord your God” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt 22.37-40). While rooted in the Scripture and reaffirmed by the Savior, the “royal law,” which is synonymous with the “perfect law” (1.25) and “the law of liberty” (v.12), seems to be that kingly law issued by the King of Kings whereby the citizens of His kingdom walk.

Realization (v.8-9): James says that on the one hand, if you “fulfill” the “royal law” which is codified in the Scripture (Lev 19.18), “you are doing well.” On the other hand, if you are showing partiality, you work a sin and are shown to be a transgressor. James is calling for his brethren to realize the seriousness of showing partiality – to do so causes you to stand convicted before Almighty God as a transgressor, that is one who over steps the boundaries. But to fulfill (stronger than “keep” in v.10) the royal law is to live “according to the Scripture” – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In this James shows (even as Christ did through His teaching) that the royal law which is the law of the kingdom of heaven “does not replace, but takes up within it the demand of God in the Old Testament” (Moo 94).

What a fantastic thing James has called his fellow brethren and even the church today to especially when we consider it in the context of the teaching of Jesus. Our neighbors would not only include our Christian brothers, but also “perfect strangers” (Luke 10.29-37) and even our enemies (Matt 5.43-44). But to “fulfill” or “complete” the royal law according to the Scripture carries the blessing for the Christian that he/she is doing well (present tense). In other words, you are making it you habitual career to do that which is well pleasing to God. Indeed, one does the very thing for which he was made – obedience to the King. There is a rightness to keeping the law.

Explanation (v.10): Verse 10 begins with “for” (Gk gar) and carries the force of “let me tell you why.” James seeks to explain why showing partiality carries such a heavy penalty even causing one to stand condemned by the law as a transgressor. Most scholars believe this verse has a Talmudic reference: “If a man do all, but omit one, he is guilty for all and each.” Perhaps James, the good Jew that he was, was familiar with Talmudic teaching and knew that his readers were equally versed to some degree. However, this seems to a principle linked with the word of God. Israel was to keep all of God’s Law (Lev 19.37). Jesus touched upon the need to keep the whole law (Matt 5.19). James is merely saying “amen” to what God and Christ have already issued. Further, what is seen in this verse is the unity of the “whole law.” Someone has said that the law is a golden chain whose completeness is broken if you break one link. The unity of the law lies in the Lawgiver – He is One (cf. Deut 6.4). So failure at one point (in this case a very major point – love) leaves one “guilty of all.” That is, he has become and stands guilty before God.

Illustration (v.11): James’ illustration is thoroughly Jewish. It was common for a rabbi or in Jewish texts to juxtapose two commands – one “light” and one “heavy” – to show that it is equally serious to violate either. But James cuts right to the heart taking two commandments from the Ten Commandments of seemingly equal “weight.” It is interesting that he uses these two commandments: in chapter 4 he will call his audience “adulterous” (4.4) and Jesus’ own teaching concerning the sixth commandment equates anger with murder. Seemingly James is calling his brethren who show partiality essentially murderers (cf. 1 John 3.15). Nevertheless, he uses these two commandments to make a point: violation of one commandment is tantamount to violating (transgressing, going beyond) the whole law. You may not commit adultery, but if you murder you have transgressed the law. It almost smacks with James’ intensity characteristic in this work – by your partiality you are murdering!

A Salvific Appeal (v.12-13)

Having laid the groundwork concerning holding the faith and how that shows up manifesting love for one’s neighbor which is fulfillment of the royal law of the kingdom, James reaches a crescendo in which he makes an appeal to his brethren. Two present imperatives are given in verse 12: speak and act. James is calling for these Christians to make it their habitual practice to speak and act in such a manner that is in keeping with 1) the coming judgment and 2) the law of liberty.

First, the perfect and royal law is also the law of liberty (or freedom) for by it one is liberated from the yoke of bondage (Law of Moses, cf. Gal 5.1), either bondage of the Law or bondage to sin, death and hell. This is the law of the kingdom set down by the King of Kings. It is not freedom to do (anything and everything); it is freedom to be (children of God, disciples). So in light of the law of Christ, be mindful of your mouth and your manner.

Second, be aware of the coming judgment. At the judgment, the law of Christ will be our standard for judgment. So if we have been merciful, mercy will be shown us (Matt 5.7). If not, then the law has no mercy for us. This is wrapped in the context of partiality shown in Christian meetings to the rich and not showing mercy to the poor. How you treat visitors in the worship can have an effect on the judgment day. Hence, James’ final ejaculation in verse 13: “Mercy triumphs (or “glories”) over judgment.” That is to say our showing mercy in this life is proof positive of the Christ living in us and through us. This union with the fulfillment of the law, our Lord Jesus Christ, will be our only plea at the final judgment. How vital it is, then, to show the mercy of Christ to all men. At the judgment we will cry “mercy”; but have we shown mercy ourselves? If we have, then God’s mercy will triumph on our behalf at the judgment. John Chrysotrom says, “Mercy is clothed with the divine glory and stands by the throne of God.”

It’s a Religion! Part 2

As previously mentioned in part one, James is taking his readers toward pure and undefiled religion (1.27) in this section. To get there, he first deals with the word of God – Christians are to receive the word in their life. What does that look like? James’ concern for the body is once more manifested in his use of imperatives (“be doers”), the attachment of a blessing (v.25), and the exposition of what it means to receive “with meekness” the word of God.

Christians are to be hearers of the word, but our duty does not stop with hearing only – “be doers of the word.” This is tied directly to what Jesus taught during His ministry (cf. Matt 7.24-27; Luke 6.46-49). He taught his disciples to hear his word (Luke 8.8, 10-15, 18, 21) and also put it into practice (Luke 11.28). So here is James, half-brother of Jesus, continuing the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ as he exhorts his fellow countrymen and brothers in the faith toward not only hearing the word of God but also putting it into practice.

James 1.22-25
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.
24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

The Injunction (v.22)

James saw it in his day. The Jewish Christians to whom he writes apparently had become lax in doing the word. Or worse yet, they had heard the word, believed it, but had put it to no practical use. They showed up at the synagogue to hear preachers reason with the Jews concerning Jesus as the Christ. They met Sundays with their brothers and sisters and heard bishops and evangelists proclaim the word. Their profession, though, had become an empty form. They were merely hearers only, adopting a downright antinomian worldview. By the end of the second chapter, James will have set this monstrous distortion aright.

So James puts pen to parchment and calls upon his brethren to remind them that the sum of Christian duty is more than hearing only. James is not against hearing; indeed, it is vital to a Christian. However, to be a hearer only is self-deceptive. These Christians have been convinced by false reasoning that hearing only is enough. They have reasoned falsely and been deceived. James sets this straight by explaining that action is necessary – “be doers.” This is an imperative command. Stop being self-deceived and believe the truth: hearing is good but it must be coupled with action. “Do what it says!” (NIV)

This is nearly identical to what Paul says in Romans 2.13: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (ESV). While Paul speaks to a different context concerning the Law of Moses, James makes a similar argument for the greater “law of liberty.” If this were true concerning the Law, much more is it true for those in Christ Jesus!

“Very many hearers of the gospel are not sufficiently upon their guard against the dreadful danger of being ‘hearers only’” (Pulpit Commentary 17). They sit in pews every Sunday. They hear sermons every week. Their talk may even be full of “church talk.” But ultimately their life is void of transformation from having put into practice the word. Thus, they dwell in a state of false, carnal security.

An Illustration (v.23-24)

James next uses a very simple yet profound metaphor to further make his point and wake up these slumbering saints. To illustrate someone who is a hearer only, he uses the image of a person looking into a mirror. While this person looks intently into the mirror at his face and sees its features. Perhaps there are some blemishes, flaws which need to be corrected. Perhaps there is dirt which needs to be cleaned off. Whatever the case may be, it is the careful investigation which is highlighted. Time was spent looking into the mirror to see what he looks like. But as soon as he goes away having looked at himself, he immediately forgets what he saw. Hence, any blemish goes uncorrected, any mar is not cleaned. In addition, the man forgets his entire appearance! What he is like is not remembered. The very face he was born with is forgotten. How absurd!

That’s what it is like when you hear the word only and do not do it. You look into the perfect law and see what you are to be like – you are to be like Christ. Any flaws or character defects are found out. Any moral filth is identified. Your overall character is derived from what you see when you look into the perfect law. But as soon as the hearing is over and the doing should begin, you turn away from the mirror and forget what you are to look like! You forget Christ! A Christian who forgets to look like Christ? How absurd!

The Incentive (v.25)

Here in verse 25 we find the beatitude of the persevering. We have been born of the perfect law of liberty (see v.18), the word of truth. This perfect law is a perfect gift from our perfect God. The one who looks into this law and continues in a state of activity (perseveres) with it; the one who is not a hearer characterized by forgetfulness, but rather is a doer characterized by putting this gospel into action; the one hearing the word and doing it will be blessed. Just as the one who is steadfast under temptations is congratulated, so too the one who is steadfast is doing and keeping the law of liberty is congratulated. In other words, God looks with favor upon those who are doers of the word. In the very doing of the word God there is blessing! Alford says, “The life of obedience is the element wherein the blessedness is found and consists.”

On persevering Matthew Henry puts it this way: “when we are not forgetful of it [God’s word], but practice it as our work and business, set it always before our eyes, and make it the constant rule of our conversation and behaviour (sic), and model the temper of our minds by it.” It should be noted that scholars are careful to distinguish between being blessed for the doing and being blessed in doing the word. As the Psalmist says, in keeping the Law of the Lord “there is great reward” (19.11). Adam Clarke on this passage cites the sayings of the Jewish Fathers: “There are four kinds of men who visit the synagogues, 1. He who enters but does not work; 2. He who works but does not enter. 3. He who enters and works. 4. He who neither enters nor works. The first two are indifferent characters; the third is the righteous man; the fourth is wholly evil.” Perhaps James has this Jewish saying in mind when he writes this passage calling his Christian brethren to the high calling of Christ.