The apostle now enters on the subject of those who professed to believe that Jesus was Christ the Lord. Before, in chapter 1, he had spoken of the new nature in connection with God: here the profession of faith in Christ is brought to the same touchstone-the reality of the fruits produced by it in contrast with this world. All these principles-the value of the name of Jesus, the essence of the law as Christ presented it, and the law of liberty-are brought forward to test the reality of their professed faith, or to convince the professor that he did not possess it. Two things are reprobated: having respect to the outward appearance of persons; and the absence of good works as a proof of the sincerity of the profession.
First, then, he blames respect for outward appearance of persons. They profess faith in the Lord Jesus, and yet hold with the spirit of the world! He replies that God has chosen the poor, making them rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom. These professors had despised them; these rich men blasphemed the name of Christ and persecuted Christians.
In the second place he appeals to the practical summary of the law, of which Jesus had spoken-the royal law. They broke the law itself in favouring the rich. Now the law did not allow of any infraction whatsoever of its commands, because the authority of the legislator was concerned. In despising the poor, they were assuredly not loving their neighbor as themselves.
In the third place they ought to walk as those whose responsibility was measured by the law of liberty, in which-possessing a nature which tasted and loved that which was of God-they were set free from all that was contrary to Him; so that they could not excuse themselves if they admitted principles which were not those of God Himself. This introduction of the divine nature leads the apostle on to speak of the mercy by which God glorifies Himself. The man who shews no mercy will find himself the object of the judgment which he has loved.
The second part of the chapter is connected with this; for he begins his discourse on works, as proofs of faith, by speaking of this mercy which answers to the nature and character of God, of which, as born of Him, the true christian is made a partaker. The profession of having faith without this life-the existence of which is proved by works-can profit no one. This is plain enough. I say the profession of having faith, because the epistle say it: "If a man say he hath faith." This is the key to this part of the epistle. He says it: where is the proof of it? Works are the proof; and it is in this way that the apostle uses them. A man says he hath faith. It is not a thing that we can see. I say therefore with reason, "Shew it me." This is the evidence of faith which is required for man-it is only by its fruits that we make it evident to men; for the faith itself cannot be seen. But if I produce these fruits, then assuredly I have the root, without which there could not be the fruits. Thus faith does not shew itself to others, nor can I recognise it, without works; but works, the fruit of faith, prove the existence of faith.
That which follows shews that he is speaking of the profession of a doctrine, true perhaps in itself-of certain truths being confessed; for it is a real faith looked at-certainty of knowledge and conviction-which devils have in the unity of the Godhead. They do not doubt it; but there is no link at all between their heart and God by means of a new nature-far indeed from it.
But the apostle confirms this, by the case of men in whom the opposition to the divine nature is not so apparent. Faith, the recognition of the truth with respect to Christ, is dead without works; that is, such a faith as produces none is dead.
We see (ver 16) that the faith of which the apostle speaks is a profession devoid of reality; verse 16 shews that it may be an unfeigned certainty that the thing is true: but the life begotten by the word, so that a relationship is formed between the soul and God, is entirely wanting. Because this takes place through the word, it is faith; being begotten of God we have a new life. This life acts, that is to say, faith acts, according to the relationship with God, by works which flow naturally from it, and which bear testimony to the faith that produced them.
From verse 20 to the end he presents a fresh proof of his thesis, founded on the last principle that I have mentioned. Now these proofs have nothing at all to do with the fruits of a kindly nature (for there are such), appertaining to us as creatures-but not to that life which has for its source the word of God, by which He begets us. The fruits of which the apostle speaks, bear testimony by their very character to the faith that produced them. Abraham offered up his son; Rahab received the messengers of Israel, associating herself with the people of God when everything was against them, and separating herself from her own people by faith. All sacrificed for God, all given up for His people before they had gained one victory, and while the world was in full power, such were the fruits of faith. One referred to God; and believed Him in the most absolute way, against all that is in nature of on which nature can count; the other owned God's people, when all was against them; but neither was the fruit of an amiable nature or natural good, such as men call good works. One was a father going to put his son to death, the other a bad woman betraying her country. Certainly the scripture was fulfilled which said that Abraham believed God. How could he have acted as he did, if he had not believed Him? Works put a seal on his faith: and faith without works is but like the body without the soul, and outward form devoid of the life that animates it. Faith acts in the works (without it the works are a nullity, they are not those of the new life), and the works complete the faith which acts in them; for in spite of trial, and in the trial, faith is in activity. Works of law have no part in it. The outward law which exacts, is not a life which produces (apart from this divine nature)s these holy and loving dispositions which, having God and His people for their object, value nothing else.
James, remark, never says that works justify us before God; for God can see the faith without its works. He knows that life is there. It is in exercise with regard to Him, towards Him, by trust in His word, in Himself, by receiving His testimony in spite of everything within and without. This God sees and knows. But when our fellow-creatures are in question, when it must be said "shew me," then faith, life, shews itself in works.