Commentary on the Bible, by Adam Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
We should not prefer the rich to the poor, nor show any partiality inconsistent with the Gospel of Christ, Jam 2:1-4. God has chosen the poor, rich in faith, to be heirs of his kingdom, even those whom some among their brethren despised and oppressed, Jam 2:5, Jam 2:6. They should love their neighbor as themselves, and have no respect of persons, Jam 2:7-9. He who breaks one command of God is guilty of the whole, Jam 2:10, Jam 2:11. They should act as those who shall be judged by the law of liberty; and he shall have judgment without mercy, who shows no mercy, Jam 2:12, Jam 2:13. Faith without works of charity and mercy is dead; nor can it exist where there are no good works, Jam 2:14-20. Abraham proved his faith by his works, Jam 2:21-24. And so did Rahab, Jam 2:25. As the body without the soul is dead, so is faith without good works, Jam 2:26.
My brethren, have not - This verse should be read interrogatively: My brethren, do ye not make profession of the faith or religion of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with acceptance of persons? That is, preferring the rich to the poor merely because of their riches, and not on account of any moral excellence, personal piety, or public usefulness. Πιστις, faith, is put here for religion; and της δοξης, of glory, should, according to some critics, be construed with it as the Syriac and Coptic have done. Some connect it with our Lord Jesus Christ - the religion of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Others translate thus, the faith of the glory of our Lord Jesus. There are many various readings in the MSS. and versions on this verse: the meaning is clear enough, though the connection be rather obscure.
If there come unto your assembly - Εις την συναγωγην· Into the synagogue. It appears from this that the apostle is addressing Jews who frequented their synagogues, and carried on their worship there and judicial proceedings, as the Jews were accustomed to do. Our word assembly does not express the original; and we cannot suppose that these synagogues were at this time occupied with Christian worship, but that the Christian Jews continued to frequent them for the purpose of hearing the law and the prophets read, as they had formerly done, previously to their conversion to the Christian faith. But St. James may refer here to proceedings in a court of justice.
With a gold ring, in goodly apparel - The ring on the finger and the splendid garb were proofs of the man's opulence; and his ring and his coat, not his worth, moral good qualities, or the righteousness of his cause, procured him the respect of which St. James speaks.
There come in also a poor man - In ancient times petty courts of judicature were held in the synagogues, as Vitringa has sufficiently proved, De Vet. Syn. l. 3, p. 1, c. 11; and it is probable that the case here adduced was one of a judicial kind, where, of the two parties, one was rich and the other poor; and the master or ruler of the synagogue, or he who presided in this court, paid particular deference to the rich man, and neglected the poor man; though, as plaintiff and defendant, they were equal in the eye of justice, and should have been considered so by an impartial judge.
Sit here under my footstool - Thus evidently prejudging the cause, and giving the poor man to see that he was to expect no impartial administration of justice in his cause.
Are ye not then partial - Ου διεκριθητε· Do ye not make a distinction, though the case has not been heard, and the law has not decided?
Judges of evil thoughts? - Κριται διαλογισμων πονηρων· Judges of evil reasonings; that is, judges who reason wickedly; who, in effect, say in your hearts, we will espouse the cause of the rich, because they can befriend us; we will neglect that of the poor, because they cannot help us, nor have they power to hurt us.
Hath not God chosen the poor of this world - This seems to refer to Mat 11:5 : And the poor have the Gospel preached to them. These believed on the Lord Jesus, and found his salvation; while the rich despised, neglected, and persecuted him. These had that faith in Christ which put them in possession of the choicest spiritual blessings, and gave them a right to the kingdom of heaven. While, therefore, they were despised of men, they were highly prized of God.
Do not rich men oppress you - The administration of justice was at this time in a miserable state of corruption among the Jews; but a Christian was one who was to expect no justice any where but from his God. The words καταδυναστευουσιν, exceedingly oppress, and ἑλκουσιν εις κριτηρια, drag you to courts of justice, show how grievously oppressed and maltreated the Christians were by their countrymen the Jews, who made law a pretext to afflict their bodies, and spoil them of their property.
Blaspheme that worthy name - They took every occasion to asperse the Christian name and the Christian faith, and have been, from the beginning to the present day, famous for their blasphemies against Christ and his religion. It is evident that these were Jews of whom St. James speaks; no Christians in these early times could have acted the part here mentioned.
The royal law - Νομον βασιλικον. This epithet, of all the New Testament writers, is peculiar to James; but it is frequent among the Greek writers in the sense in which it appears St. James uses it. Βασιλικος, royal, is used to signify any thing that is of general concern, is suitable to all, and necessary for all, as brotherly love is. This commandment; Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, is a royal law, not only because it is ordained of God, and proceeds from his kingly authority over men, but because it is so useful, suitable, and necessary to the present state of man; and as it was given us particularly by Christ himself, Joh 13:34; Joh 15:12, who is our King, as well as Prophet and Priest, it should ever put us in mind of his authority over us, and our subjection to him. As the regal state is the most excellent for secular dignity and civil utility that exists among men, hence we give the epithet royal to whatever is excellent, noble, grand, or useful.
But if ye have respect to persons - In judgment, or in any other way; ye commit sin against God, and against your brethren, and are convinced, ελεγχομενοι, and are convicted, by the law; by this royal law, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself; as transgressors, having shown this sinful acceptance of persons, which has led you to refuse justice to the poor man, and uphold the rich in his oppressive conduct.
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, etc. - This is a rabbinical form of speech. In the tract Shabbath, fol. 70, where they dispute concerning the thirty-nine works commanded by Moses, Rabbi Yochanan says: But if a man do the whole, with the omission of one, he is guilty of the whole, and of every one. In Bammidar rabba, sec. 9, fol. 200, and in Tanchum, fol. 60, there is a copious example given, how an adulteress, by that one crime, breaks all the ten commandments, and by the same mode of proof any one sin may be shown to be a breach of the whole decalogue. The truth is, any sin is against the Divine authority; and he who has committed one transgression is guilty of death; and by his one deliberate act dissolves, as far as he can, the sacred connection that subsists between all the Divine precepts and the obligation which he is under to obey, and thus casts off in effect his allegiance to God. For, if God should be obeyed in any one instance, he should be obeyed in all, as the authority and reason of obedience are the same in every case; he therefore who breaks one of these laws is, in effect, if not in fact, guilty of the whole. But there is scarcely a more common form of speech among the rabbins than this, for they consider that any one sin has the seeds of all others in it. See a multitude of examples in Schoettgen.
For he that said - That is, the authority that gave one commandment gave also the rest; and he who breaks one resists this authority; so that the breach of any one commandment may be justly considered a breach of the whole law. It was a maxim also among the Jewish doctors that, if a man kept any one commandment carefully, though he broke all the rest, he might assure himself of the favor of God; for while they taught that "He who transgresses all the precepts of the law has broken the yoke, dissolved the covenant, and exposed the law to contempt, and so has he done who has broken even one precept," (Mechilta, fol. 5, Yalcut Simeoni, part 1, fol. 59), they also taught, "that he who observed any principal command was equal to him who kept the whole law;" (Kiddushin, fol. 39); and they give for example, "If a man abandon idolatry, it is the same as if he had fulfilled the whole law," (Ibid., fol. 40.) To correct this false doctrine James lays down that in the 11th verse. Thus they did and undid.
So speak ye, and so do - Have respect to every commandment of God, for this the law of liberty - the Gospel of Jesus Christ, particularly requires; and this is the law by which all mankind, who have had the opportunity of knowing it, shall be judged. But all along St. James particularly refers to the precept, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
For he shall have judgment - He who shows no mercy to man, or, in other words, he who does not exercise himself in works of charity and mercy to his needy fellow creatures, shall receive no mercy at the hand of God; for he hath said, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. The unmerciful therefore are cursed, and they shall obtain no mercy.
Mercy rejoiceth against judgment - These words are variously understood.
1. Mercy, the merciful man, the abstract for the concrete, exults over judgment, that is, he is not afraid of it, having acted according to the law of liberty, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
2. Ye shall be exalted by mercy above judgment.
3. For he (God) exalts mercy above judgment.
4. A merciful man rejoices rather in opportunities of showing mercy, than in acting according to strict justice.
5. In the great day, though justice might condemn every man according to the rigour of the law, yet God will cause mercy to triumph over justice in bringing those into his glory who, for his sake, had fed the hungry, clothed the naked, ministered to the sick, and visited the prisoners. See what our Lord says, Matthew 25:31-46.
In the MSS. and versions there is a considerable variety of readings on this verse, and some of the senses given above are derived from those readings. The spirit of the saying may be found in another scripture, I will have mercy and not sacrifice - I prefer works of charity and mercy to every thing else, and especially to all acts of worship. The Royal Law, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, should particularly prevail among men, because of the miserable state to which all are reduced by sin, so that each particularly needs the help of his brother.
What doth it profit - though a man say he hath faith - We now come to a part of this epistle which has appeared to some eminent men to contradict other portions of the Divine records. In short, it has been thought that James teaches the doctrine of justification by the merit of good works, while Paul asserts this to be insufficient, and that man is justified by faith. Luther, supposing that James did actually teach the doctrine of justification by works, which his good sense showed him to be absolutely insufficient for salvation, was led to condemn the epistle in toto, as a production unauthenticated by the Holy Spirit, and consequently worthy of no regard; he therefore termed it epistola straminea, a chaffy epistle, an epistle of straw, fit only to be burnt. Learned men have spent much time in striving to reconcile these two writers, and to show that St. Paul and St. James perfectly accord; one teaching the pure doctrine, the other guarding men against the abuse of it. Mr. Wesley sums the whole up in the following words, with his usual accuracy and precision: "From Jam 1:22 the apostle has been enforcing Christian practice. He now applies to those who neglect this under the pretense of faith. St. Paul had taught that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law. This some already began to wrest to their own destruction. Wherefore St. James, purposely repeating, Jam 1:21, Jam 1:23, Jam 1:25, the same phrases, testimonies, and examples which St. Paul had used, Rom 4:3; Heb 11:17, Heb 11:31, refutes not the doctrine of St. Paul, but the error of those who abused it. There is therefore no contradiction between the apostles; they both delivered the truth of God, but in a different manner, as having to do with different kinds of men. This verse is a summary of what follows: What profiteth it, is enlarged on, Jam 2:15-17; though a man say, Jam 2:18, Jam 2:19; can that faith save him? Jam 2:20. It is not though he have faith, but though he say, I have faith. Here therefore true living faith is meant. But in other parts of the argument the apostle speaks of a dead imaginary faith. He does not therefore teach that true faith can, but that it cannot, subsist without works. Nor does he oppose faith to works, but that empty name of faith to real faith working by love. Can that faith which is without works save him? No more than it can profit his neighbor." - Explanatory notes.
That St James quotes the same scriptures, and uses the same phrases, testimonies, and examples which St. Paul has done, is fully evident; but it does not follow that he wrote after St. Paul. It is possible that one had seen the epistle of the other; but if so, it is strange that neither of them should quote the other. That St. Paul might write to correct the abuses of St. James' doctrine is as possible as that James wrote to prevent St. Paul's doctrine from being abused; for there were Antinomians in the Church in the time of St. James, as there were Pharisaic persons in it at the time of St. Paul. I am inclined to think that James is the elder writer, and rather suppose that neither of them had ever seen the other's epistle. Allowing them both to be inspired, God could teach each what was necessary for the benefit of the Church, without their having any knowledge of each other. See the preface to this epistle.
As the Jews in general were very strenuous in maintaining the necessity of good works or righteousness in order to justification, wholly neglecting the doctrine of faith, it is not to be wondered at that those who were converted, and saw the absolute necessity of faith in order to their justification, should have gone into the contrary extreme.
Can faith save him? - That is, his profession of faith; for it is not said that he has faith, but that he says, I have faith. St. James probably refers to that faith which simply took in the being and unity of God. See on Jam 2:19, Jam 2:24, Jam 2:25.
If a brother or sister be naked - That is, ill-clothed; for γυμνος, naked, has this meaning in several parts of the New Testament, signifying bad clothing, or the want of some particular article of dress. See Mat 25:36, Mat 25:38, Mat 25:43, Mat 25:44, and Joh 21:7. It has the same comparative signification in most languages.
Be ye warmed and filled - Your saying so to them, while you give them nothing, will just profit them as much as your professed faith, without those works which are the genuine fruits of true faith, will profit you in the day when God comes to sit in judgment upon your soul.
If it hath not works, is dead - The faith that does not produce works of charity and mercy is without the living principle which animates all true faith, that is, love to God and love to man. They had faith, such as a man has who credits a well-circumstanced relation because it has all the appearance of truth; but they had nothing of that faith that a sinner, convinced of his sinfulness, God's purity, and the strictness of the Divine laws, is obliged to exert in the Lord Jesus, in order to be saved from his sins.
Show me thy faith without thy works - Your pretending to have faith, while you have no works of charity or mercy, is utterly vain: for as faith, which is a principle in the mind, cannot be discerned but by the effects, that is, good works; he who has no good works has, presumptively, no faith.
I will show thee my faith by my works - My works of charity and mercy will show that I have faith; and that it is the living tree, whose root is love to God and man, and whose fruit is the good works here contended for.
Thou believest that there is one God - This is the faith in which these persons put their hope of pleasing God, and of obtaining eternal life. Believing in the being and unity of God distinguished them from all the nations of the world; and having been circumcised, and thus brought into the covenant, they thought themselves secure of salvation. The insufficiency of this St. James immediately shows.
The devils also believe, and tremble - It is well to believe there is one only true God; this truth universal nature proclaims. Even the devils believe it; but far from justifying or saving them, it leaves them in their damned state, and every act of it only increases their torment; φρισσουσι, they shudder with horror, they believe and tremble, are increasingly tormented; but they can neither love nor obey.
But wilt thou know - Art thou willing to be instructed in the nature of true saving faith? Then attend to the following examples.
Was not Abraham our father - Did not the conduct of Abraham, in offering up his son Isaac on the altar, sufficiently prove that he believed in God, and that it was his faith in him that led him to this extraordinary act of obedience?
Seest thou how faith wrought - Here is a proof that faith cannot exist without being active in works of righteousness. His faith in God would have been of no avail to him, had it not been manifested by works; for by works - by his obedience to the commands of God, his faith was made perfect - it dictated obedience, he obeyed; and thus faith ετελειωθη, had its consummation. Even true faith will soon die, if its possessor do not live in the spirit of obedience.
The scripture was fulfilled - He believed God; this faith was never inactive, it was accounted to him for righteousness: and being justified by thus believing, his life of obedience showed that he had not received the grace of God in vain. See the notes on Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3 (note); Gal 3:6 (note); where this subject is largely explained.
The friend of God - The highest character ever given to man. As among friends every thing is in common; so God took Abraham into intimate communion with himself, and poured out upon him the choicest of his blessings: for as God can never be in want, because he possesses all things; so Abraham his friend could never be destitute, because God was his friend.
Ye see then how - It is evident from this example that Abraham's faith was not merely believing that there is a God; but a principle that led him to credit God's promises relative to the future Redeemer, and to implore God's mercy: this he received, and was justified by faith. His faith now began to work by love, and therefore he was found ever obedient to the will of his Maker. He brought forth the fruits of righteousness; and his works justified - proved the genuineness of his faith; and he continued to enjoy the Divine approbation, which he could not have done had he not been thus obedient; for the Spirit of God would have been grieved, and his principle of faith would have perished. Obedience to God is essentially requisite to maintain faith. Faith lives, under God, by works; and works have their being and excellence from faith. Neither can subsist without the other, and this is the point which St. James labors to prove, in order to convince the Antinomians of his time that their faith was a delusion, and that the hopes built on it must needs perish.
Rahab the harlot - See the notes on Jos 2:1, etc., and Heb 11:31 (note), etc. Rahab had the approbation due to genuine faith, which she actually possessed, and gave the fullest proof that she did so by her conduct. As justification signifies, not only the pardon of sin, but receiving the Divine approbation, James seems to use the word in this latter sense. God approved of them, because of their obedience to his will; and he approves of no man who is not obedient.
For as the body without the spirit is dead - There can be no more a genuine faith without good works, than there can be a living human body without a soul.
We shall never find a series of disinterested godly living without true faith. And we shall never find true faith without such a life. We may see works of apparent benevolence without faith; their principle is ostentation; and, as long as they can have the reward (human applause) which they seek, they may be continued. And yet the experience of all mankind shows how short-lived such works are; they want both principle and spring; they endure for a time, but soon wither away. Where true faith is, there is God; his Spirit gives life, and his love affords motives to righteous actions. The use of any Divine principle leads to its increase. The more a man exercises faith in Christ, the more he is enabled to believe; the more he believes, the more he receives; and the more he receives, the more able he is to work for God. Obedience is his delight, because love to God and man is the element in which his soul lives. Reader, thou professest to believe; show thy faith, both to God and man, by a life conformed to the royal law, which ever gives liberty and confers dignity.
"Some persons, known to St. James, must have taught that men are justified by merely believing in the one true God; or he would not have taken such pains to confute it. Crediting the unity of the Godhead, and the doctrine of a future state, was that faith through which both the Jews in St. James' time and the Mohammedans of the present day expect justification. St. James, in denying this faith to be of avail, if unaccompanied with good works, has said nothing more than what St. Paul has said, in other words, Romans 2, where he combats the same Jewish error, and asserts that not the hearers but the doers of the law will be justified, and that a knowledge of God's will, without the performance of it, serves only to increase our condemnation." - Michaelis.