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James chapter 2

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What does James chapter 2 mean?

James continues with the main theme of his letter: genuine faith in God results in genuinely changed lives. This includes the "works" that we do, which involves our actions and our thoughts. Those who have a saving belief in God, who receive the gift of salvation through trusting in Christ, are expected to act out that trust while making choices about all of their actions. In other words, according to James, belief which leads to no change, or no works, is not saving faith at all. The works do not save us, but they do reveal the character of our trust in God.

What does that look like in our daily lives?

James's prior words in chapter one were a command to live out the Words of God. He compared the absurdity of hearing the Word, then ignoring it, to a man looking at his face in a mirror and then immediately forgetting what he looks like. Here, in chapter 2, James urge his readers not to show favoritism or partiality. As a specific example, he refers to rich people, including any wealthy people that might come to Christian gatherings. To show more love and kindness to the rich than to the poor is not consistent with our professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

James asks the reader to consider a scenario in which a wealthy-looking man and poor-looking man come to their Christian gathering. Why should the rich man be given a place of honor and the poor man be made to stand or to sit on the floor? This is exactly what would have happened in the typical non-Christian environment of James's day. Sadly, it happens in various ways even today. James is clear that it must not happen in the church.

Those who trust in Christ should trust God to provide for and protect them instead of hoping they will gain the favor and protection of the rich. After all, as James writes to his mostly poor Christian readers, it's the rich who are currently oppressing them!

In fact, James writes, to favor the rich over the poor is a sin. It is breaking the command to love your neighbor as yourself. And since breaking any command makes one a lawbreaker, showing favoritism to the wealthy is as much a breaking of the moral laws of God as murder or adultery. We all stand in need of God's mercy, therefore we should speak and act as people who honestly believe they will be judged by the law that brings freedom. Christians are obligated to be merciful to everyone.

Next, James lays out his case that it is not enough to simply have "belief" in God. In this notorious passage, he questions the value of a "faith" which is mere mental agreement with the truth. Any religious "faith"—or simple intellectual agreement—which doesn't result in good works is a dead faith. To have biblical, saving faith in God, to really trust Him, is a mindset which invariably leads one to obey God.

As an example, James describes an encounter with someone who doesn't have enough to wear or eat. Is it enough to simply tell them to stay warm and get something to eat and to go in peace? No, James insists, those words accomplish nothing. What we say in our minds is meaningless if it does not matter enough to influence our actions. More to the point, the actions prove the truth—or falsehood—behind the claimed belief.

Some read James's arguments as a contradiction to the teachings of Paul. It's not a necessary disagreement, as this passage actually complements the message of Paul very consistently. The reason for confusion involves a mistaken view of the biblical definition of "faith." Saving faith is not merely agreement; it is trust. James makes it clear that the "faith" which he says cannot save is mere intellectual belief. True faith saves, but it also results in works.

Paul was eager to make clear that salvation cannot be achieved by human effort. Freedom from the eternal penalty of sin is available only to those who trust in Christ. It is not something we can earn by keeping of the law (Ephesians 2:8–9). But those saved through faith and by God's grace will, without fail, step into the good works God has prepared for them to do (Ephesians 2:10).

James agrees. In fact, he is saying, theologically, exactly the same thing as Paul. However, while Paul emphasizes the "cause," which is trusting faith, James emphasizes the "effect," which is good works. James stresses that so-called-"faith", which is merely mental agreement and does not produce good and loving works, is not a genuine, saving faith. He points to the Old Testament examples of Abraham and Rahab to show that their faith saved them—and we know this because their "faith" resulted in obedience and courageous good works for God and His people.

James summarizes this with the explicit comparison to a dead body. A body which exhibits no spirit or breath is not alive. In the same way, a "faith"—in this case, meaning "intellectual belief"—with no resulting works is also dead.

What is the Gospel?
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