This entire letter is about testing – testing your faith to see if it rings true! The person who is the best judge of it is the person to whom the letter is written: that is, to you and to me. We are not in a situation where others are expected to appraise us; this is a self-assessment, aided by the Spirit of God and abetted by our own consciences. How does our faith measure up?
Social attitude is one acid test. Are we a slave to appearances? Are we social snobs? We have been brought up to live in a country (the UK, in my case) where at least one political party is proud to call itself the party of the working class; class distinctions are imbibed with our mothers’ milk! Our national newspapers rabidly take tribal positions in the national debate. The school that supplied our education may have been another political ‘player’, encouraging us to welcome a certain social class and to despise another. We are in the middle of an epidemic! So how does heavenly DNA counteract this natural social tendency?
Look at how you treat different people – other than your best friends or your family. Are you prejudiced against certain ‘types of people? Are you a misogynist? (You look down on women and think them a ‘lesser’ species.) How do you, in you heart of hearts, view Christians from other denominations or churches? Do we in some subtle way avoid them, undermine them, feel sorry for them, or slightly patronise them – since our revelation from Christ is ‘obviously’ the only one worth having?
The damage is done entirely in our thoughts; we never actually say or do anything to follow through – but nevertheless, God knows, and he is angry with us. (See v4). The example used in James is of rich vs poor, and we much watch out for that; but there are so many other real-life examples that are traps for our pride and our prejudice – certainly enough material to make a TV series! The antidote to a poisonous thought life is the ‘Royal Law’: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. (And we are heavenly ‘royalty’.) When God chose us, he chose in mercy. He probably didn’t like us very much at all! But he loved us and directed his thoughts into deeds that resulted in our salvation.
Martin Luther hated James chapter 2. His God-given message to attempt to bring the church back on track with the gospel was that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. As back-up to this doctrine, he quoted: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3 and Genesis 15:6).
Annoyingly for Luther, James 2 uses that exact verse to reinforce the doctrine that Abraham’s faith and his actions were ‘working together’ and that his actions were ‘completing’ his faith. Yet, we believe that scripture is inerrant and is inspired by the Holy Spirit (at least as originally delivered). So how can we help Luther out and reconcile what Paul says in Romans and Galatians with what James says in James?
James is not talking about ‘obeying the Law of Moses’, nor of indulging in meaningless rituals, complex food regulations or offering animal sacrifices. He is not trying to turn Gentile-heritage Christians into Jewish-heritage ones. He is actually saying that, as far as faith is concerned, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’ (as we say in the UK). If our faith is genuine enough to save us, then it will be real enough to change us from the inside to the outside. Paul is actually referring mainly to the justification by faith – being made judicially acceptable to the Lord; this is entirely in the realm of faith and grace. James, on the other hand, is referring to the change of heart that true faith brings us too. A change of heart that leads to changes in attitudes and actions.
To see both concepts together, look at Jeremiah 31:33-34 , or maybe Ezekiel 36:25-27. Both passages contrast the judicial forgiveness and cleansing with the inner motivation to do good that comes from a renewed heart and an indwelling Spirit. And all this comes by faith!
James simply makes the case that saving faith is more than an intellectual understanding of Jesus and must be so transforming of us that it affects our actions and behaviour – if it is indeed genuine. Godly actions are the ‘completion’ or ‘fulfilment’ of faith, as inevitably as a fertilised ovum completes itself by becoming a baby!
Jesus pointed out to his disciples that you can effectively judge a tree by its fruit; I suspect that James had this verse in mind throughout this chapter. Godly deeds are the evidence of faith and are its fulfilment and purpose too.