Excerpts from Calvin's Commentaries

The purpose of this paper is to present a selection of quotations from John Calvin's commentary on James. These excerpts represent exceptional insights either on the text itself or on Christian living. John Calvin was one of the great theologians of the Protestant Reformation. All excerpts are from the Baker edition in 22 volumes.

"Count it all joy when you fall into various temptations" (James 1:2)

The first exhortation is to bear trials with a cheerful mind. And it was especially necessary at that time to comfort the Jews, almost overwhelmed as they were with troubles. For the very name of the nation was so infamous that they were hated and despised by all people wherever they went; and their condition as Christians rendered them still more miserable because they had their own nation as their most inveterate enemies. At the same time, this consolation was not so suited to one time but that it is always useful to believers, whose life is a constant warfare on earth.

But that we may know more fully what he means, we must doubtless take temptations or trials as including all adverse things; and they are so called because they are the tests of our obedience to God. He bids the faithful, while exercised with these, to rejoice; and that not only when they fall into one temptation, but into many, not only of one kind but of various kinds. And doubtless since they serve to mortify our flesh, as the vices of the flesh continually shoot up in us, so they must necessarily be often repeated. Besides, we labor under diseases, so it is no wonder that different remedies are applied to remove them.

The Lord then afflicts us in various ways because ambition, avarice, envy, gluttony, intemperance, excessive love of the world, and the innumerable lusts in which we abound cannot be cured by the same medicine.

When he bids us to count it all joy, it is the same as though he had said that temptations ought to be so deemed as gain, as to be regarded as occasions of joy. He means, in short, that there is nothing in afflictions which ought to disturb our joy. And thus, he not only commands us to bear adversities calmly and with an even mind, but shows that there is a reason why the faithful should rejoice when pressed down by them.

It is indeed certain that all the senses of our nature are so formed that every trial produces in us grief and sorrow, and no one of us can so far divest himself of his nature as not to grieve and be sorrowful whenever he feels any evil. But this does not prevent the children of God to rise, by the guidance of the Spirit, above the sorrow of the flesh. Hence it is that in the midst of trouble they cease not to rejoice.

"Knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience" (James 1:3)

We now see why he called adversities trials or temptation, even because they serve to try our faith. And there is here a reason given to confirm the last sentence. For it might, on the other hand, be objected, "How comes it that we judge that sweet which to the sense is bitter?" He then shows by the effect that we ought to rejoice in afflictions because they produce fruit that ought to be highly valued, even patience. If God then provides for our salvation, he affords us an occasion of rejoicing. Peter uses a similar argument at the beginning of his first Epistle, "That the trial of your faith, more precious than gold, may be," etc. We certainly dread diseases, and want, and exile, and prison, and reproach, and death, because we regard them as evils. But when we understand that they are turned through God's kindness unto helps and aids to our salvation, it is ingratitude to murmur and not willingly to submit to be thus paternally dealt with.

"Let no man say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted of God' " (James 1:13)

Here, no doubt, he speaks of another kind of temptation. It is abundantly evident that the external temptations, hitherto mentioned, are sent to us by God. In this way God tempted Abraham (Gen. 22:1), and daily tempts us, that is, he tries us as to what we are by laying before us an occasion by which our hearts are made known. But to draw out what is hid in our hearts is a far different thing from inwardly alluring our hearts by wicked lusts.

He then treats here of inward temptations, which are nothing else than the inordinate desires which entice to sin. He justly denies that God is the author of these, because they flow from the corruption of our nature.

This warning is very necessary, for nothing is more common among men than to transfer to another the blame of the evils they commit; and they then especially seem to free themselves when they ascribe it to God himself. This kind of evasion we constantly imitate, delivered down to us as it is from the first man. For this reason James calls us to confess our own guilt and not to implicate God, as though he compelled us to sin.

But the whole doctrine of Scripture seems to be inconsistent with this passage, for it teaches us that men are blinded by God, are given up to a reprobate mind and delivered over to filthy and shameful lusts. To this I answer, that probably James was induced to deny that we are tempted by God by this reason, because the ungodly, in order to form an excuse, armed themselves with testimonies of Scripture. But there are two things to be noticed here: when Scripture ascribes blindness or hardness of heart to God, it does not assign to him the beginning of this blindness, nor does it make him the author of sin so as to ascribe to him the blame. And on these two things only does James dwell.

Scripture asserts that the reprobate are delivered up to depraved lusts; but is it because the Lord depraves or corrupts their hearts? By no means; for their hearts are subjected to depraved lusts because they are already corrupt and vicious. But since God blinds or hardens, is he not the author or minister of evil? No, but in this manner he punishes sins and renders a just reward to the ungodly, who have refused to be ruled by his Spirit (Rom. 1:26). It hence follows that the origin of sin is not in God, and no blame can be imputed to him as though he took pleasure in evils.

"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac his son
upon the altar?" (James 2:21)

The Sophists lay hold on the word justified and then they cry out as being victorious, that justification is partly by works. But we ought to seek out a right interpretation according to the general drift of the whole passage. We have already said that James does not speak here of the cause of justification, or of the manner how men obtain righteousness, and this is plain to everyone; but that his object was only to show that good works are always connected with faith. And, therefore, since he declares that Abraham was justified by works, he is speaking of the proof he gave of his justification.

When, therefore, the Sophists set up James against Paul, they go astray through the ambiguous meaning of a term. When Paul says that we are justified by faith, he means no other thing than that by faith we are counted righteous before God. But James has quite another thing in view, even to show that he who professes that he has faith must prove the reality of his faith by his works. Doubtless James did not mean to teach us here the ground on which our hope of salvation ought to rest; and it is this alone that Paul dwells upon.

That we may not then fall into that false reasoning which has deceived the Sophists, we must take notice of the two-fold meaning of the word justified. Paul means by it the gratuitous imputation of righteousness before the tribunal of God; and James, the manifestation of righteousness by the conduct, and that before men, as we may gather from the preceding words "show to me your faith," etc. In this sense we fully allow that man is justified by works, in a similar way as when anyone says that a man is enriched by the purchase of a large and valuable estate--because his riches that were before hid and shut up in a chest were thus made known.

Man is not justified by faith alone, that is, by a bare and empty knowledge of God. He is justified by works, that is, his righteousness is known and proved by its fruits.

"My brethren, be not many masters" (James 3:1)

The common and almost universal interpretation of this passage is that the Apostle discourages the desire for the office of teaching, and for this reason--because it is dangerous and exposes one to a heavier judgment in case he transgresses. And they think that he said, Be not many masters, because there ought to have been some. But I take masters not to be those who performed a public duty in the Church, but such as took upon them the right of passing judgment upon others; for such reprovers sought to be accounted as masters of morals. And it was a mode of speaking usual among the Greek as well as Latins, that they were called masters who superciliously animadverted [commented unfavorably] on others.

And that he forbade them to be many, it was done for this reason--because many everywhere did thrust in themselves; for it is, as it were, an innate disease in mankind to seek reputation by blaming others. And in this respect a twofold vice prevails: though few excel in wisdom yet all intrude indiscriminately into the office of masters; and then few are influenced by a right feeling, for hypocrisy and ambition stimulate them and not care for the salvation of their brethren. For it is to be observed that James does not discourage those brotherly admonitions which the Spirit so often and so much recommends to us, but [only] that immoderate desire to condemn which proceeds from ambition and pride, when anyone exalts himself against his neighbor, slanders, carps, bites, and malignantly seeks for what he may turn to a sinister purpose. For this is usually done when impertinent censors of this kind insolently boast themselves in the work of exposing the vices of others.

From this outrage and annoyance James recalls us, and he adds a reason--because they who are thus severe towards others shall undergo a heavier judgment; for he imposes a hard law on the one who tries the words and deeds of others according to the rule of extreme rigor. Nor does he deserve pardon who will pardon none. This truth ought to be carefully observed, that they who are too rigid towards their brethren provoke against themselves the severity of God.

"If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man" (James 3:2)

After having said that there is no one who does not sin in many things, he now shows that the disease of evil-speaking is more odious than other sins. For by saying that he who offends not with his tongue is perfect, he intimates that the restraining of the tongue is a great virtue, and one of the chief virtues. Hence they act most perversely who curiously examine every fault, even the least, and yet so grossly indulge themselves.

He then indirectly touches here on the hypocrisy of censors, because in examining themselves they omitted the chief thing and what was of great moment, even their evil-speaking. For they who reproved others pretended a zeal for perfect holiness; but they ought to have begun with the tongue if they wished to be perfect. As they made no account of bridling the tongue, but on the contrary did bite and tear others, they exhibited only a fictitious sanctity. It is hence evident that they were the most reprehensible of all, because they neglected a primary virtue.

"Therewith bless we God . . . and therewith curse we men" (James 3:9)

It is a clear instance of the tongue's deadly poison that it can thus through a monstrous levity transform itself; for when it pretends to bless God, it immediately curses him in his own image even by cursing men. For since God ought to be blessed in all his works, he ought to be so especially as to men in whom his image and glory peculiarly shine forth. It is then a hypocrisy, not to be borne, when man employs the same tongue in blessing God and in cursing men. There can be then no calling on God, and his praises must necessarily cease, where evil-speaking prevails. For it is an impious profanation of God's name when the tongue is virulent towards our brethren and pretends [at the same time] to praise him [God]. That we may therefore rightly praise God, the vice of evil-speaking as to our neighbor must especially be corrected.

This particular truth ought also to be borne in mind, that severe censors discover their own virulence when they suddenly vomit forth against their brethren whatever curses they can image, after having in sweet strains offered praises to God. Were anyone to object and say that the image of God in human nature has been blotted out by the sin of Adam, we must indeed confess that it has been miserably deformed, but in such a way that some of its lineaments still appear. Righteousness and rectitude, and the freedom of choosing what is good, have been lost. But many excellent endowments, by which we excel the brutes, still remain. He, then, who truly worships and honors God will be afraid to speak slanderously of man.

"Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up" (James 4:10)

The conclusion of what is gone before is, that the grace of God will then be ready to raise us up when he sees that our proud spirits are laid aside. We emulate and envy because we desire to be eminent. This is a way wholly unreasonable, for it is God's peculiar work to raise up the lowly, and especially those who willingly humble themselves. Whosoever then seeks a firm elevation, let him be cast down under a sense of his own infirmity and think humbly of himself. Augustine well observes somewhere, "As a tree must strike deep roots downwards that it may grow upwards, so everyone who has not his soul fixed deep in humility exalts himself to his own ruin."

"Speak not evil one of another" (James 4:11)

Or, "defame not." We see how much labor James takes in correcting the lust for slandering. For hypocrisy is always presumptuous, and we are my nature hypocrites, fondly exalting ourselves by calumniating [falsely accusing] others. There is also another disease innate in human nature--that everyone would have all others to live according to his own will or fancy.

Paul handles nearly the same argument in Romans 14, though on a different occasion. For when superstition in the choice of meats possessed some, what they thought unlawful for themselves they condemned also in others. He then reminded them that there is but one Lord, according to whose will all must stand or fall, and at whose tribunal we must all appear. Hence he concludes that he who judges his brethren according to his own view of things assumes to himself what peculiarly belongs to God. But James reproves here those who under the pretense of sanctity condemned their brethren, and therefore set up their own morosity [will] in the place of the Divine law. He, however, employs the same reason with Paul, that is, that we act presumptuously when we assume authority over our brethren while the law of God subordinates us all to itself without exception. Let us then learn that we are not to judge but according to God's law.

"Go to now, ye that say, Today or tomorrow we will go . . ." (James 4:13)

They are mistaken, as I think, who consider that James here exhorts the rich to repentance. It seems to me to be a simple denunciation of God's judgment by which he meant to terrify them without giving them any hope of pardon; for all that he says tends only to despair. He, therefore, does not address them in order to invite them to repentance. On the contrary, he has a regard to the faithful, that they, hearing of the miserable end of the rich, might not envy their fortune; and also that knowing that God would be the avenger of the wrongs they suffered, they might with a calm and resigned mind bear them.

But he does not speak of the rich indiscriminately, but of those who being immersed in pleasures and inflated with pride thought of nothing but of the world, and who, like inexhaustible gulfs, devoured everything. For they, by their tyranny, oppressed others, as it appears from the whole passage.

"The patience of Job" (James 5:11)

Having spoken generally of the prophets, he now refers to an example remarkable above others; for no one, as far as we can learn from histories, has ever been overwhelmed with troubles so hard and so various as Job; and yet he emerged from so deep a gulf. Whosoever, then, will imitate his patience will no doubt find God's hand, which at length delivered him, to be the same. We see for what end his history has been written. God suffered not his servant Job to sink because he patiently endured his afflictions. Then he will disappoint the patience of no one.

If, however, it be asked, Why does the Apostle so much commend the patience of Job, as he had displayed many signs of impatience, being carried away by a hasty spirit? To this I reply, that though he sometime failed through the infirmity of the flesh, or murmured within himself, yet he ever surrendered himself to God, and was ever willing to be restrained and ruled by him. Though, then, his patience was somewhat deficient, it is yet deservedly commended.

"But above all things, my brethren, swear not" (James 5:12)

It has been a common vice almost in all ages to swear lightly and inconsiderately. For so bad is our nature that we do not consider what an atrocious crime it is to profane the name of God. For though the Lord strictly commands us to reverence his name, yet men devise various subterfuges and think that they can swear with impunity. They imagine, then, that there is no evil, provided they do not openly mention the name of God; and this is an old gloss. So the Jews, when they swore by heaven or earth, thought that they did not profane God' name because they did not mention it. But while men seek to be ingenious in dissembling with God, they delude themselves with the most frivolous evasions.

It was a vain excuse of this kind that Christ condemned in Matthew 5:34. James, now subscribing to the decree of his Master, commands us to abstain from these indirect forms of swearing. For whosoever swears in vain and on frivolous occasions profanes God's name, whatever form he may give to his words.

It then appears evident that both by Christ and by James the puerile astuteness of those is reproved who taught that they could swear with impunity provided they adopted some circuitous expressions. That we may then understand the meaning of James, we must understand first the precept of the law, "Thou shalt not take the name of God in vain." It hence appears clear that there is a right and lawful use of God's name. Now James condemns those who did not indeed dare in a direct way to profane God's name, but endeavored to evade the profanation which the law condemns by circumlocutions.

"Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly"
(James 5:17)

There are innumerable instances of Scripture of what James meant to prove, but he chose one that is remarkable above all others; for it was a great thing that God should make heaven in a manner subject to the prayers of Elijah, so as to obey his wishes. Elijah kept heaven shut by his prayers for three years and a half; he again opened it so that it poured down abundance of rain. Hence appeared the wonderful power of prayer. Well known is this remarkable history, and it is found in 1 Kings 17 and 18. And though it is not there expressly said that Elijah prayed for drought, it may yet be easily gathered, and that the rain also was given [in answer] to his prayers.

But we must notice the application of the example. James does not say that drought ought to be sought from the Lord because Elijah obtained it; for we may by inconsiderate zeal presumptuously and foolishly imitate the Prophet. We must then observe the rule of prayer, so that it may be by faith. He, therefore, thus accommodates this example--that if Elijah was heard, so also we shall be heard when we rightly pray. For as the command to pray is common, and as the promise is common, it follows that the effect also will be common.

Lest anyone should object and say that we are far distant from the dignity of Elijah, James places him in our own rank by saying that he was a mortal man and subject to the same passions with ourselves. For we profit less by the examples of saints because we imagine them to have been half-gods or heroes, who had peculiar intercourse with God; so that because they were heard, we receive no confidence. In order to shake off this heathen and profane superstition, James reminds us that the saints ought to be considered as having the infirmity of the flesh; so that we may learn to ascribe what they obtained from the Lord, not to their merits but to the efficacy of prayer.

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