“Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 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. 26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”James 1:19-27
What’s the Problem
Being spiritually born again does not eliminate a person’s sin nature. It continues to exist in its opposition to the things of God. But the environment in which it changes. The old sin nature is opposed by the new godly nature. From the time of regeneration for the remainder of their mortal life, a believer undergoes the process of sanctification, the process of the old sin nature being gradually subdued. Glorification totally eliminates the sin nature and any remaining inclination to sin. James gives instructions to his readers aimed at speeding up their spiritual growth from “new birth” to “mature new life.” He says being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger will encourage the new nature and discourage the sin nature. LISTEN intently to God’s Word and LIVE AS THE WORD COMMANDS.
Preparing the Soil of the Heart
Jesus spoke a parable to show that if the seed of truth is to germinate, grow, mature, and bring forth much fruit, the soil of the heart must be properly prepared. Regeneration is followed by the process of sanctification which gradually brings the ability be rid of all moral filth and evil. To make way for the developing new life, believers must, as enabled by the Holy Spirit, do the task of eliminating moral filth and evil from their lives.
There is a logical progression from soil preparation to bountiful harvest. The soil of the heart must be properly prepared (God alone does this in regeneration), plant the seed of truth (we participate), and eliminate the weeds of anger, filth, and wickedness (we participate).
James says, “be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” The point is that hearing the word without striving to understand, and obey what is understood, is self-deception. A believer’s task is to HEAR the Word with understanding, and be faithful in DOING the Word which is understood. Scripture does not yield its wisdom and power to a mere hearing or reading. Grasping, understanding, and action are necessary.
Even though we hear, read, and understand God’s truth, we tend to disobey it. Believers become adept at devising good sounding reasons for not obeying today – although we intend to be obedient soon. Our intentions are good, our follow-through often not so good. In this we are like a person who sees their dirty face in a mirror, studies it carefully, and then does nothing to clean their face. Without repeated viewing the image of our dirty face in the mirror, the fact of a dirty face is soon forgotten. God’s Word is a mirror, which with careful attention, will repeatedly show us our dirty life. Obedience to truth found in the Word will cleanse our lives. There is no proper excuse for failing to live as God’s Word commands, because what God’s Word commands, the Holy Spirit enables (1 Corinthians 13:10 reminds us temptation need not lead to sin).
An unbridled tongue is a moral problem. The presence of an unbridled tongue is a sign that one may be deceived in believing they are progressing in holiness. A true believer, through the wisdom God gives, will control their tongue, care for the helpless, and avoid worldly defilement. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” The reality of new birth enables both outer trials and inner temptations to be seen in their proper place. God’s gift to each believer of new spiritual life has as its goal their holiness.
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 2 For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, 3 and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” 4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? 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.”James 2:1-13
Partiality and Prejudice
Believers are not to show partiality in dealing with other believers. Response to people is often dominated by first impressions based on appearance and a few exchanged comments. Time and effort are required to get to know someone “by their fruit,”
which is necessary to gain some insight into their moral nature. God knows moral nature directly.
1 Samuel 16:7b says, “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God looks at the inner person, seeing even the inner most reaches of the heart. We are limited to seeing external consequences of another’s inner person. Jesus says by their fruit (externally observable events) you will know them. Only dimly and after knowing someone for considerable time, do we gain a little insight into their “inner person.” Prejudice means to “pre-judge.” “Pre-judgment” is often based on insufficient knowledge. Partiality means basing actions on some external known fact about a person – wealth, power, position in the community, their garments, and so forth. Jesus says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said he wanted his children to be judged by the content of their character (an inner-person truth), not the color of their skin (an externally observable fact).
Impartiality in Dealing with Others
What does James mean in his comments on how we should deal with others? Some commentators say James means we should treat all people equally. Do they mean equal opportunity, equal benefits and results, or something else? Whatever they mean, James’ remarks are not pointed at equality but impartiality. His comment is derived from Scripture, particularly Scripture’s insistence God is impartial and no respecter of persons. Impartiality does not mean equality of benefits or results. Here is what it means.
Impartial means unbiased or without prejudice, showing no favoritism. It means God has the same rules, the same requirements and commandments, for each and every person. King or beggar, wealthy merchant, or laborer – status or race makes no difference. All are subject to the same rules. All have failed to obey those rules and know it. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All are under God’s condemnation for their sin. There is no way to change that situation except to come to the Father through Christ the Son and receive God’s salvation. Does God have a special place in His heart for His redeemed and special plans for their future? Yes!
James comment says don’t make inappropriate distinctions (showing partiality) between fellow believers, especially distinctions based on external appearance. Christianity is a matter of the inner person. The effects of a redeemed inner person are observable to others as increasing righteousness in attitude, speech, and action. Things like degree of wealth or poverty, level of power, or quality of garments are inappropriate for determining the worth of anyone (unbelievers or believers). You will know Christians by what they say, what they do, and where they devote time, finances, and other resources. Likewise, those captivated by the world will be known by their version of these same factors.
Character and godliness are the vital factors, but how can they be known? Their essence is invisible, not observable from the outside. Only God sees into the heart seeing people as they truly are. We certainly can’t do that. But we can observe external consequences of the presence or absence of good moral character and godliness. Words, emotions, and actions flow from the heart and are witnesses to a person’s inner being. If these observables don’t match up to a person’s profession of faith, we and that person should question the authenticity of their declared faith. A true believer and one who is deceived as to their faith have different spiritual needs. They are to ministered to in different ways. New believers and mature believers have different spiritual needs and must be ministered to differently and appropriately.
The way we deal with believers (and other people in general) is to be impartial in the sense that God is impartial. Same rules and expectations of moral behavior for everyone. We should strive to impartially meet the true needs of each person (believer or non-believer) as measured against the Word of God. Some will need physical help, some will need to hear the gospel, some will need a friend to come alongside, some will need to be put into prison for breaking the law, some will need to be restrained from vindictive actions against others.
No Bias for or Against Wealth or Poverty
James is neither for or against either wealth or poverty, nor high society or social outcasts. That is simply not the issue. His view is consistent with the picture throughout Scripture. Leviticus 19:15 says, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Character and godliness matter! God is no respecter of outward appearance or social position. He judges the inner person.
James mentions that certain rich people blaspheme the name of Christ (and so do certain poor people). That is despicable and sinful. They may or may not claim to be a believer. They clearly are not leading a godly life. What they are doing is wrong and they need correction.
The Law of Love
In general, Scripture requires that people be dealt with according to the law of love. Believers are to strive to meet true needs and recognize their value as created in the image of God. Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
James underlines this truth by saying, rather than make improper distinctions between people wealth, status, power and other external factors, believers should operate according to the royal law of love – “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40, Romans 13:9-10). In all Biblical law dealing with relationship between people, love is the ruling principle. If we love our neighbor, we will keep all God’s laws with respect to him. When a believer mistreats a fellow believer, the effect is to slander the noble name of Christ to whom we belong.
God gives the principles of the Law to His redeemed to show them the right pattern for life. The Law reflects His nature. He gives the Law for our obedience so that our lives may reflect His holiness. The Law is a mirror revealing a person’s transgressions. It is not a ladder by which the unsaved can climb into salvation. Being born again does not free a person from obligation to obey God, but increases obligation. Being in Christ establishes a new basis for obedience – love for Him. Christ liberates us from the penalty of sin and gives us the power to obey His will.
One who shows no mercy cannot expect to receive mercy at the judgment (see also Matthew 5:7, Micah 6:8). Showing mercy is evidence of faith. If we are truly in Christ, we will develop a merciful attitude and be merciful in action. Being in Christ is our confidence for vindication at the judgment, depending on Christ’s righteousness, not our own. Merciful acts are EVIDENCE of the fact that we are in Christ.
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”- and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”James 2:14-26
Saving and Sustaining Faith
These verses are easier to understand if we distinguish between “saving” (or “initial” faith) and “sustaining” faith. Saving faith is the gracious gift of God that enables us to respond to the gospel. We receive saving faith in a once for all time miraculous event that occurs at a single point of time. Saving faith is all of God. We are passive receivers of saving faith. Nothing we do or could do influences in any way God’s gift of saving faith. We receive from Him a new nature, are justified before Him, and the Holy Spirit dwells within us. What about sustaining faith?
Being justified by God’s gift of saving faith establishes a believer’s destiny. They will be transformed by the Holy Spirit into a likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Believers are told to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is working in them to will and to act according to His good purpose (Philippians 2:12-13).
A believer’s relationship with the indwelling Holy Spirit can change. Paul says a believer can grieve or quench the Holy Spirit, or walk in step with Him. As the Holy Spirit works within us, to transform us, it is our obligation to cooperate by corresponding thoughts and actions, to “walk in step” with Him. When we don’t cooperate grieving or quenching Him are possible.
Sustaining faith enables the working out in a believer’s life of the implications of saving faith. Believers participate in sustaining faith by obedience and cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Sustaining faith is EVIDENCED or VALIDATED externally for others to see by the good works of a changed life. If there is no evidence of good works, likely there is no sustaining faith. If there is no sustaining faith, there is no saving faith. A claim to faith when all external evidence is to the contrary is an indication of no faith or dead faith.
Earlier, examples were given of forms of faith in which the whole person is not involved. The three major categories of the inner person are intellect, emotions, and will. True faith always involves all three elements. False faith may take the form of “intellectual faith,” “emotional faith,” “willful faith,” or combinations of any two of the three divisions of the inner person. Unless the will is engaged, faith at most involves mere thoughts, emotions, and words but no action, no good works. That is what James means when he says faith without works is dead faith.
Faith Without Good Works
Hence, James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” God knows whether or not we have saving faith. Scripture says we too can know for certainty whether or not we have saving faith. But can we know if the claim of faith by someone else is true? We cannot see into their heart, only God can do that. We have only limited observations of their outward behavior. But James says unless a person who claims to have faith shows outward behavioral evidence of an inward new spirit, then we and they have no reason to believe the claim. Such a person should carefully examine themselves to see if they truly do have saving faith.
James provides two examples of spurious faith: The first is absence of fruitfulness of faith toward people. James says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? The lesson is: 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” The second example is absence of fruitfulness of faith toward God. James says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe and shudder!”
Then, he gives two examples of genuine faith. The first is fruitfulness of faith toward God. James says, “Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? The lesson is: 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”- and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The second is fruitfulness of faith toward people. James says, “And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?”
James sums up his argument concluding, “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” Faith must involve the intellect, emotions, and the will.
Faith without the will to do good works is not true faith.