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Bible Commentaries
James 2

Poole's English Annotations on the Holy BiblePoole's Annotations

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James 2:1-9 It is not agreeable to the Christian profession to regard the rich, and despise the poor.

James 2:10-12 The guilt of any one breach of the law.

James 2:13 The obligation to mercy.

James 2:14-19 Faith without works is dead.

James 2:20-26 We are justified, as Abraham and Rahab were, by works, and not by faith only.

Verse 1

Have not; profess not yourselves, and regard not, or esteem not in others.

The faith of our Lord Jesus Christ; i.e. faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; not the author but the object of faith is meant, as Galatians 2:20; Galatians 3:22; Philippians 3:9.

The Lord of glory; Lord not being in the Greek, glory may be joined with faith, ( admitting only a trajection in the words, so frequent in the sacred writers), and then the words will run thus, the faith of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, i.e. the faith of his being glorified, which by a synecdoche may be put for the whole work of redemption wrought by him, which was completed by his glorification, as the last part of it; or, by a Hebraism, the faith of the glory, may be for the glorious faith. But the plainest way of reading the words is (as our translators do) by supplying the word Lord just before mentioned; Lord of glory, ( Christ being elsewhere so called, 1 Corinthians 2:8), i.e. the glorious Lord; as the Father is called the Father of glory, Ephesians 1:17, i.e. the glorious Father: and then it may be an argument to second what the apostle is speaking of; Christ being the Lord of glory, a relation to him by faith puts an honour upon believers, though poor and despicable in the world; and therefore they are not to be contemned.

With respect of persons; the word rendered persons signifies the face or countenance, and synecdochically the whole person; and, by consequence, all those parts or qualities we take notice of in the person. To respect a person is sometimes taken in a good sense, Genesis 19:21; 1 Samuel 25:35. Mostly in an evil, when either the person is opposed to the cause, we give more or less to a man upon the account of something we see in him which is altogether foreign to his cause, Leviticus 19:15, or when we accept one with injury to or contempt of another. To have, then, the faith of Christ with respect of persons, is to esteem the professors of religion, not for their faith, or relation to Christ, but according to their worldly condition, their being great or mean, rich or poor; this the apostle taxeth in the Hebrews to whom he wrote, that whereas in the things of God all believers are equal, they respected the greater and richer sort of professors, because great or rich; so as to despise those that were poor or low. The Greek hath the word plurally, respects, which may intimate the several ways of respecting persons, in judgment or out, of judgment. This doth not exclude the civil respect we owe to magistrates and superiors upon the account of their places or gifts; but only a respecting men in the things of religion upon such accounts as are extrinsical to religion; or, with prejudice to others as considerable in religion as themselves, though inferior to them in the world.

Verse 2

For if there come unto your assembly; either church assemblies for worship, Hebrews 10:25; and in these we find some respect of men’s persons, which may here be blamed: see 1 Corinthians 11:20-22. Or their assemblies for disposing church offices, and deciding church controversies, &c.; for he speaks of such respecting men’s persons as is condemned by the law, James 2:9, which was especially in judgment.

A man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel; the usual ensigns of honourable or rich persons, Genesis 38:18,Genesis 38:25; Genesis 41:42; Luke 15:22; Luke 16:19.

And there come in also a poor man; the word signifies one very poor, even to beggarliness.

In vile raiment; filthy and sordid, Zechariah 3:3,Zechariah 3:4, the sign of extreme poverty.

Verse 3

And ye have respect to him; Greek, look upon, viz. with respect and veneration, or a care and concern to please him.

Sit thou here in a good place; an honourable place, either contrary to the usual orders of the churches, according to which, (as some say) the elder sat in chairs, the next to them on benches; and the novices on the pavement at their feet; the apostle taxing their carnal partiality in disposing these places to the people as rich, not as Christians; or it may note their disposing church offices to them that were rich, or favouring them in their causes rather than the poor.

Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool; the meanest places, and belonging to the youngest disciples: both are expressions of contempt.

Verse 4

Are ye not then partial in yourselves? Either, are ye not judged in yourselves, convicted by your own consciences of partiality, and accepting men’s persons? Or, have ye not made a difference? viz. out of a corrupt affection rather than a right judgment; and then it falls in with our translation; Are ye not partial? The Greek word is used in this sense, Acts 15:9; Jude 1:22.

And are become judges of evil thoughts; i.e. judges that have evil thoughts, or are evil affected: q.d. You evidence the corruptness of your affections by your thus perversely judging.

Verse 5

Hath not God chosen the poor? Not that God hath chosen all the poor in the world, but his choice is chiefly of them, 1 Corinthians 1:26,1 Corinthians 1:28. Poor he means in the things of this world, and in the esteem of worldly men; they are opposed to those that Paul calls rich in this world, 1 Timothy 6:17,1 Timothy 6:18.

Rich: some insert the verb substantive to be between this and the former clause, and read: Hath not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich, &c. So Romans 8:29, predestinate to be conformed: the like defective speeches we find, John 12:46; 2 Corinthians 3:6. And the verb understood here is expressed, Ephesians 1:4, after the same word we have in this text. And yet if we read the words as they stand in our translation, they do not prove that foresight of faith is previous to election, any more than that being heirs of the kingdom is so too.

In faith; either in the greatness and abundance of their faith, Matthew 15:28; Romans 4:20; or rather, rich in those privileges and hopes to which by faith they have a title.

And heirs of the kingdom; an instance of their being rich, in that they are to inherit a kingdom.

Which he hath promised to them that love him: see James 1:12, where the same words occur, only that which is here a kingdom, is there a crown.

Verse 6

But ye have despised the poor; God’s poor, viz. by your respecting persons.

Do not rich men? Either those that were unbelieving Jews or heathen; or such as made a profession of Christianity, but were not cordial friends to it; or, both may be included.

Oppress you; insolently abuse you, and unrighteously, either usurping a power over you which belongs not to them, or abusing the power they have.

And draw you before the judgment-seats; especially before unbelieving judges, 1 Corinthians 6:1,1 Corinthians 6:6; they would colour their oppression with a pretence of law, and therefore drew the poor saints before the judgment-seat.

Verse 7

Do not they blaspheme? If the rich here spoken of were Christians, then they may be said to blaspheme Christ’s name, when by their wicked carriage they caused it to be blasphemed by others, unbelievers, among whom they were, Romans 2:24; Titus 2:5, &c.; 1 Timothy 6:1; but if rich unbelievers be here meant, the rich men of those times being generally great enemies to Christianity; he would from thence show how mean a consideration riches were, to incline the professors of religion to such partiality as he taxeth them for.

That worthy name; or, good or honourable (as good place, James 2:3, for honourable) name of Christ; they blaspheme what they should adore.

By the which ye are called; or, which is called upon you, either, which was called upon over you, when you were baptized into it; or rather it is a Hebrew phrase, and, implies no more than (as we read it) their being called by it, as children are after their fathers, and wives after their husbands, Genesis 48:16; Isaiah 4:1; for so God’s people are called by his name, Deuteronomy 28:10 Ephesians 3:15.

Verse 8

If ye fulfil; or, perfect; the word signifnies to accomplish perfectly, but no more is meant by it than sincerity in observing the duties of the law in an indifferent respect to one as well as another, which he seems to oppose to their partiality in the law, by respecting some and neglecting others.

The royal law; either the law of God the great King, or Christ the King of saints; or rather, the royal law is the king’s law, i.e. the great law which is the same to all, rich and poor, the common rule by which all are to act, as, the king’s way, Numbers 21:22, i.e. the great plain way in which all are to travel. Here may likewise be a tacit reflection on the servile disposition of these accepters of men’s persons, evil becoming them that pretended to be governed by the royal law, which was to be observed with a more free and king-like spirit.

According to the Scripture: see Matthew 22:39; Galatians 5:14.

Ye do well; ye are not to be blamed, but commended. The apostle seems here to answer an objection they might make in their own defence; that in the respect they gave to rich men, they did but act according to the law which commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves: to this he replies partly in this verse by way of concession, or on supposition; that if the respect they gave to rich men were indeed in obedience to the law of charity, which commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves, then they did well, and he found no fault with them; but the contrary he shows in the next verse.

Verse 9

But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin; the second part of the apostle’s answer, in which he sets persons in opposition to neighbour: q.d. If you, instead of loving your neighbour, which excludes no sort of men, poor no more than rich, choose and single out (as ye do) only some few (viz. rich men) to whom ye give respect, despising others, ye are so far from fulfilling the royal law, that ye sin against it.

And are convinced of the law; either by the particular law against respecting persons, Leviticus 19:15, or rather, by that very law you urge; your thus partially respecting the rich to the excluding of the poor, being so contrary to the command of loving your neighbour, which excludes none.

As transgressors; i.e. to be transgressors, viz. of the whole law, as fellows.

Verse 10

For whosoever shall keep: this is not an assertion, that any man doth keep the whole law so as to offend but in one point, but a supposition that if, or admitting, such a one were.

The whole law; all the rest of the law, that one point only of the whole being excepted.

And yet offend in one point; slip, or trip, or stumble at; it seems to signify the least failing in any point of the law.

He is guilty of all; guilty of the breach, and obnoxious to the punishment, of all; not distributively, or separately, as if he transgressed every precept distinctly; but:

1. Conjunctively or copulatively; he is guilty of not keeping the whole law, though not of breaking each particular command; he breaks the whole law, though not the whole of the law: as he that wounds a man’s arm wounds the whole man, though not the whole of the man; he that breaks one link breaks the whole chain, and he that fails in one musical note spoils the whole harmony.

2. He sins against charity, which is the sum of the law, and upon which all the commands depend; and so though he keep most of them, as to the substance, yet he keeps none of them in a right manner, because none out of love, which should be the principle out of which he observes all of them.

3. He sins against the authority of the whole law, which is the same in every command.

4. He is liable to the same punishment, though not the same degree of it, as if he had broken all the commandments, Galatians 3:1; and his keeping most, cannot exempt him from the punishment due for the breach of that one. This he speaks either in opposition to the Pharisees among the Jews, who thought themselves righteous if they kept most of the law, though in some things they came short; or rather, against hypocrites among Christians, who would pick and choose duties, obey some commands and neglect others; whereas no obedience to God is right, but that which is impartial, and respects all the commands, Psalms 119:6; Matthew 5:19.

Verse 11

All proof of what he laid down in the former verse, by instancing in these two commands, there being the same reason of all the rest, the same sovereignty and righteousness of God appearing in them, and it being the will of God to try our obedience in one as well as another.

Thou art become a transgressor of the law; viz. by contemning the authority and holiness of God, which appears in the whole law, and every command of it.

Verse 12

So speak ye, and so do: the apostle concluding his discourse about respecting persons, which consisted both in their words and actions, be directs them how to govern themselves in both.

As they that shall be judged; viz. for both your words and actions, and that, not only in your own consciences at present, but at God’s tribunal hereafter.

By the law of liberty; the gospel, of the liberty of which it is one branch, that these differences among men, of Jew and Gentile, bond and free, circumcised and uncircumcised, &c., are taken away, Acts 10:28; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11; against this law of liberty you sin if you respect persons, and then may well fear to be judged by it; as it takes away differences of persons now, so it will make none at last, but will be as impartial in its judgment as it is in its commands.

Verse 13

For he shall have judgment without mercy; shall be judged according to the rigour of the law, by pure justice without any mixture of mercy.

That hath showed no mercy; that hath been cruel and unmerciful to his neighbour here.

And mercy rejoiceth against judgment; either,

1. The mercy of God rejoiceth and glorieth over judgment, being as it were superior and victorious in relation to those that show mercy, to whom the promise of obtaining. mercy is made, Matthew 5:7. Or rather:

2. The mercy of men, i.e. of those that deal mercifully with others; their mercy having the mercy and promise of God on its side, need not fear, but rather may rejoice, and as it were glory against judgment, as not being like to go against them.

Objection. Is not this to make some ground of glorying to be in men themselves, contrary to Psalms 143:2; Romans 4:2?

Answer. Mercy in believers is an evidence of their interest in God’s mercy, which prevails on their belief against his justice; and so its rejoicing against judgment, is not against it as overcome by itself, but by God’s mercy. Thus both senses are included.

Verse 14

What doth it profit; viz. as to his eternal salvation? Wherein are the ends of religion promoted by it? The apostle had just before declared, that they who are unmerciful to men shall find God severe to themselves, and have judgment without mercy: but hypocritical professors boasted of their faith as sufficient to secure them against that judgment, though they neglected the practice of holiness and righteousness. Hence he seems to take occasion for the following discourse, to beat down their vain boasting of an empty, unfruitful faith, and possibly, lest they should abuse or misunderstand what he had said about the law of liberty, as if that inferred a licence of sinning, and living as they pleased.

Though a man say; whether boastingly with his mouth to others, or flatteringly in his heart to himself. The apostle doth not say, that a man’s having faith simply is unprofitable, but either that faith he pretends to without works, or his boasting he hath faith, when the contrary is evident by his not having works.

He hath faith; such as he pretends to be good, and sound, and saving, but is really empty and dead, James 2:26, and unfruitful.

And have not works; i.e. good works, such as are not only acts of charity, to which the papists would restrain it, but all the fruits of righteousness and holiness proceeding from faith, and appearing both in heart and life.

Can faith save him? The interrogation is a vehement negation; q.d. It cannot save him, viz. such a faith as a man may have (as well as boast he hath) without works. This James calls faith only by way of concession for the present, though it be but equivocally called faith, and no more really so, than the carcass of a man is a man.

Verse 15

If a brother or sister; a Christian man or woman, who are frequently thus called: see 1 Corinthians 7:12,1 Corinthians 7:15.

Be naked; badly clothed, or destitute of such clothing as is fit for them, Job 22:6; 1 Corinthians 4:11.

And destitute of daily food: see Matthew 6:11; that which is necessary for the sustaining of life a day to an end. Under these two of nakedness and hunger, he comprehends all the calamities of human life, which may be relieved by the help of others; as food and raiment contain all the ordinary supports and comforts of life, Genesis 28:20; Matthew 6:25; 1 Timothy 6:8.

Verse 16

Depart in peace; a usual form of salutation, wherein, under the name of peace, they wished all prosperity and happiness to them they greeted, Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50; Luke 8:48.

Be ye warmed; i.e. be ye clothed; the warmth here mentioned being such as is procured by clothes, Job 31:20.

And be ye filled, or, satisfied with food; a metaphor from the fatting of cattle with grass or hay. The same word is used, Matthew 14:20; Mark 6:42; Philippians 4:12. These two good wishes answer the two former great wants.

Notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; understand, when yet ye are able to relieve them; for he speaks to the rich, or such as were in a capacity of being helpful to others.

What doth it profit? Either, what do your good words and charitable wishes profit them, without charitable deeds? Or, what do they profit yourselves? Or both may be included: as your fair speeches convey no real good to them, so they bring in no reward to you from God.

Verse 17

Even so faith; that which they boasted of, and called faith.

Is dead; void of that life, in which the very essence of faith consists, and which always discovers itself in vital actings and good fruits, where it is not hindered by some forcible impediment; in allusion to a corpse, which plainly appears to have no vital principle in it, all vital operations being ceased. It resembles a man’s body, and is called so, but in reality is not so, but a dead carcass.

Being alone; margin, by itself, or in itself; be it what it will, it is but dead: or, as we render it, being alone, i.e. not in conjunction with works, which always it should be.

Verse 18

A man; any true believer.

May say; to any such boasting hypocrite.

Thou hast faith; thou pretendest to have faith, or admit thou hast faith; and an historical faith he might have, as James 2:19.

And I have works: I do not boast of my faith; or, to say nothing of my faith, yet works I do profess to have.

Show me thy faith without thy works: there are two readings of these words, but in both the sense agrees with the rest of the apostle’s discourse. If we take the marginal reading, show me thy faith by thy works, the sense is, evidence the faith thou pretendest to by thy works, as the fruits of it; let thy actions vouch for thy profession. But if we take the reading in the text, without thy works, it is a kind of ironical expression; q.d. Make it appear by convincing arguments that thou hast true faith, when yet thou wantest works, the only argument of the truth of it. Understand here, but this thou canst not.

And I will show thee my faith by my works; I will easily prove my faith to be true and genuine, by those good works it brings forth in me. Demonstrate the cause to me without the effect, if thou canst; but I will easily demonstrate the cause by the effect, and prove the root of faith to be in me, by my bringing forth that fruit which is proper to it. It cannot hence be inferred, that wherever such works are, as men count and call good, there must needs be faith: the apostle’s meaning only is, that wherever true faith is, there good works will certainly be.

Verse 19

Thou believest that there is one God; thou givest thy assent to this truth, that there is one God. This may likewise imply other articles of the creed, to which the like assent may be given.

Thou doest well; either this kind of faith hath its goodness, though it be not saving; or ironically, q.d. A great matter thou dost, when thou goest almost as high as the devils.

The devils also believe; yield the like assent to the same truth.

And tremble: the word signifies extreme fear and horror, viz. such as the thoughts of their Judge strike into them. This shows the faith the apostle speaks of in this place, not to be the faith of God’s elect, which begets in believers a holy confidence in God, and frees them from slavish fears; whereas the faith here spoken of, if it have any effect upon men, it is but to fill them with horror.

Verse 20

But wilt thou know? Either this question is in order to teaching, as John 13:12; Romans 13:3; and then the sense is: If thou hast a mind to know, I shall instruct thee: or, it is a teaching by way of question, as more emphatical and pressing; and then it is as if he had said, Know, O vain man.

O vain man; an allusion to an empty vessel, which sounds more than one that is full. The carnal professor to whom he speaks is vain, because empty of true faith and good works, though full of noise and boasting.

Objection. Doth not the apostle sin against Christ’s command, Matthew 5:22?


1. He speaks not of any particular man, but to all in general, of such a sort, viz. who boasted of their faith, and yet did not evidence it by their works.

2. It is not spoken in rash anger, or by way of contempt, but by way of correction and just reproof; see the like spoken by Christ himself, Matthew 23:17,Matthew 23:19; Luke 24:25 and by Paul, Galatians 3:1; 1 Corinthians 15:36.

That faith without works is dead; a defective speech, faith without works, for that that which is without works, or, faith, if it be without works. He doth not say, faith is dead without works, lest it should be thought that works were the cause of the life of faith; but faith without works is dead, as James 2:17,James 2:26; implying, that works are the effects and signs of the life of faith.

Verse 21

Was not Abraham our father; not only the father of us as Jews, (for to them he wrote), and according to the flesh, but as believers, and according to the promise; so all believers are called Abraham’s children, Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:7.

Justified by works; found or declared to be justified, not only before God, but in the face of the world; and his faith (by which he had been justified above thirty years before in the sight of God) now approved as a true, lively, justifying faith, by this proof he gave of it, upon God’s trying him in the offering up his son, Genesis 22:9,Genesis 22:12,

Now I know that thou fearest God, & c. Abraham did fear God, and believe him before, and was justified before in the sight of God; but by the working of his faith in so eminent an act of obedience, the sincerity of all his graces, and so of his faith, was manifested and made known, and so his faith itself justified, as his person was before, and he obtained this ample testimony from the mouth of God himself. So that Abraham’s justification here was not the absolution of a sinner; but the solemn approbation of a believer; not a justifying him as ungodly, but commending him for his godliness. He was by his works justified as a righteous person, but not made righteous, or constituted in a justified state, by his works. The design of the apostle is not to show how sinners are justified in God’s court, but only what kind of faith it is whereby they are justified, viz. such a one as purifies the heart, Acts 15:9, and looks to Christ, not only as made righteousness, but sanctification to them, 1 Corinthians 1:30; and consequently not only rests on him for justification, but stirs them up to yield obedience to him.

When he had offered Isaac his son; viz. in his firm purpose and resolution, and was about to do it actually, had not God hindered him. It was no fault in Abraham that it was not actually done, and therefore it was counted to him as if it had been really done, Genesis 22:12; Hebrews 11:17.

Upon the altar; this shows the settled purpose of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, when he proceeded so far as to bind him, and lay him upon the altar; for that argues, that he expected and intended nothing but his death, which generally was wont to follow in sacrifices when once laid upon the altar.

Verse 22

Seest thou how faith wrought with his works? He doth not say, works wrought with his faith, as he should have said, if he had intended their concurrence in justification; but

faith wrought with his works, i.e. his faith was not idle, but effectual in producing good works, it being the office and business of faith to respect Christ for sanctification, as well as righteousness, Acts 26:18.

And by works was faith made perfect; either:

1. Faith by producing good works is itself encouraged, heightened, improved; and so not made perfect by any communication of the perfection of works to it, but by being stirred up and exercised as to the internal strength and power of it. Or rather:

2. Faith is made perfect by works declaratively, inasmuch as works evidence and manifest the perfection and strength of faith.

Faith is the cause, and works are the effects; but the cause is not perfected by the effect, only its perfection is demonstrated by it, as good fruit doth not make a tree good, but show that it is so. See 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Verse 23

And the Scripture was fulfilled; this illustrious instance of Abraham’s obedience did so clearly evidence the sincerity of his faith, that it did most plainly appear, that what the Scripture said of him, it spoke most truly, viz. that he did indeed believe God,

and it was counted to him for righteousness. Things are said to be fulfilled when they are most clearly manifested. As those words, Psalms 2:7; This day have I begotten thee, are said to be fulfilled at Christ’s resurrection, Acts 13:32,Acts 13:33; not that he was then first begotten of the Father, but that he was then in a glorious manner declared to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead, Romans 1:4. So here Abraham’s offering up his son being the evident discovery of his faith, it did by that appear, that the Scripture report of him was true, that he

believed God, & c.: he did believe before, and his faith was imputed to him before, but it was never so fully made known, as by this so high an act of obedience.

It was imputed unto him for righteousness; viz. as apprehending Christ in the promise. Faith is said to be imputed for righteousness, Romans 4:3-6, as being the instrument or means of applying Christ’s righteousness, by which elsewhere we are said to be justified, Romans 3:24,Romans 3:25; Romans 5:19; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Philippians 3:9.

And he was called the Friend of God; either he was the friend of God; to be called, sometimes times implies as much as to be, Isaiah 48:8; or properly, he was called, 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; and that not only on the account of God’s frequent appearances to him, conversing with him, revealing secrets to him, Genesis 18:17,Genesis 18:18; John 15:15, and entering into covenant with him; but especially his renewing the covenant with him upon the sacrificing of his son, and confirming it by oath, and thereby, as it were, admitting him into a nearer degree of friendship, Genesis 22:16, &c.

Verse 24

Ye see then; an inference either from the instance of Abraham, or from the whole preceding discourse.

How that by works; works of new obedience.

A man is justified; declared to be righteous, or approved as such, and acquitted from the guilt of hypocrisy.

And not by faith only; not by a mere profession of faith, or a bare assent to the truth, without the fruit of good works.

Question. How doth this general conclusion follow from the particular case of Abraham?

Answer. Abraham’s faith and justification, both before God and the world, are set forth as the exempars of ours, to which the faith and justification of all believers, both Jews and Gentiles, is to be conformed, Romans 4:11,Romans 4:12,Romans 4:23,Romans 4:24.

Question. Doth not James here contradict Paul’s doctrine in the matter of justification, Romans 4:1-25?

Answer. The contradiction is but seeming, not real, as will appear, if four things be considered:

1. The occasion of these apostles’ writing, and their scope in it. Having to do with different sorts of persons, they had likewise different designs. As Christ speaks one way when he dealt with proud Pharisees, whom he would humble; another way, when with humble hearers, whom he would encourage. and Paul carried it one way when among weak brethren, in condescension to whose infirmities he circumcised Timothy, Acts 16:2,Acts 16:3; and another, when he was among false brethren, and men of contention, who opposed Christian liberty, seeking to bring believers into bondage, and then would not suffer Titus to be circumcised, Galatians 2:3-5. So in the present affair. Paul’s business lay with false apostles and Judaizing Christians, such as did, in the matter of justification, either substitute a self-righteousness instead of God’s grace, or set it up in conjunction with it; and therefore his scope is (especially in his Epistles to the Romans and Galatians) to show the true cause and manner of justification, and vindicate the freeness of grace in it, by the exclusion of man’s works, of what kind soever; to which purpose he propounds the examples of Abraham and David, in their justification, Romans 4:1-25. Whereas James having to do with carnal professors, and such as abused the doctrine of grace to encourage themselves in sin, and thought it sufficient that they had faith, (such as it was), though they did not live like believers, resting in an empty profession, with the neglect of holiness; his design plainly is, to show the effects and fruits of justification, viz. holiness and good works; thereby to check the vanity and folly of them who did thus divorce faith from a holy life, (which God hath joined to it), and fancied themselves safe in the profession of the one, without any respect to, or care of, the other, as appears in this chapter, James 2:14,James 2:17,James 2:26. And because they might bear themselves high in this false confidence by the example of Abraham, their father according to the flesh, and whom Paul had set forth, Romans 4:1-25, as justified by faith, without the concurrence of works to his justification; James makes use of the same example of Abraham, as one eminent for holiness as well as faith, and who made his faith famous by the highest act of obedience that ever a saint did, to show, that faith and holiness ought not to be separated; Abraham’s faith being so highly commended, especially as productive of it. To the same purpose he makes use of the instance of Rahab, who, though a young saint, and newly come to the knowledge of God, yet showed the truth of her faith by so considerable an exercise of her love and mercy to God’s people, as her receiving the spies in peace was. This therefore helps not a little to reconcile the difference between these two apostles. Paul deals with those that magnified works too much, as if they were justified by them, and slighted faith and grace; and therefore, though he frequently shows the usefulness of faith and good works unto salvation, and presseth men every where to the practice of them, yet he proves that they have no interest in the justification of a sinner before God’s tribunal, which he asserts to be wholly and solely of grace, and by faith. But James, in dealing with loose Christians, who magnified faith, and slighted good works, not only as having no influence on justification, but as not necessary at all to salvation; he takes upon him to maintain good works, not as necessary to justification, but as the effects, signs, and evidences of it, and such as without which their faith was vain, and themselves in an unjustified state.

2. Paul and James take faith in different senses: Paul speaks of a true, lively faith, which purifies the heart, and worketh by love, Galatians 5:6. Whereas James speaks of a profession, or presumption of faith, barren, and destitute of good fruits, such a faith as is dead, James 2:17, such as the devils may have, James 2:19, which is but historical, and consists only in a belief of God’s being, not a consent to his offer, or relying on his promises. What contradiction then is there here between these two apostles, if Paul assert justification to be by faith, viz. a lively, working faith; and James deny it to be by faith, viz. an idle, inactive, barren faith, and which hath only the name, but not the nature of that grace, and is rather the image of faith than faith itself?

3. But because James not only denies justification to the faith he speaks of, but ascribes it to works in this verse; therefore it is to be considered, that justification is taken one way by him, and another by Paul. Paul takes it for the absolution and acceptation of a sinner at God’s bar, by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is the primary and proper notion of justification. But James takes it for the manifestation and declaration of that justification; and the word is taken in the like sense in other scriptures: Luke 7:29, the people justified God, i.e. owned and declared his righteousness by confession of their sins, and submission to John’s baptism; and Luke 7:35, Wisdom is justified, i.e. declared to be just and right. Romans 3:4, justified in thy sayings, i.e. acknowledged and declared to be true in thy word. And what is Christ’s being justified in the Spirit, 1 Timothy 3:16, but his being declared to be the Son of God? Romans 1:4. And that James takes justification in this sense, appears:

(1.) By the history of Abraham here mentioned: he was (as hath been said) justified by faith long before his offering up his son, Genesis 15:1-21, but here is said to be justified, i.e. declared and proved to be so, by this testimony which he gave to the truth of his faith, and consequently to his justification by it; and the Lord therefore tells him, Genesis 22:12, Now I know that thou fearest God, & c.; q.d. By this obedience thou hast abundantly showed the sincerity of thy graces.

(2.) Because if James doth not here speak of Abraham’s being justified declaratively, how can it be true which he speaks, James 2:23, that the Scripture was fulfilled (in his sacrificing his son) which saith, He believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness? For if James intends justification in the proper sense, how was Abraham’s being justified by works a fulfilling of the Scripture, which asserts him to be justified by faith? Here therefore again there is no contradiction between these apostles. For it is true, that Abraham was justified, i.e. accepted of God, and absolved from guilt, by faith only; and it is as true, that he was justified, i.e. manifested and declared to be a believer, and a justified person, by his works.

4. Lastly, we may distinguish of the person that is said to be justified; either he is a sinner, in the state of nature; or a believer, in a state of grace; whence ariseth the two-fold justification here mentioned. The justification of a sinner, in the remission of his sins through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, and acquitting him from the condemnation of the law, is the justification properly so called, and which Paul speaks so much of; and this is by faith only. The justification of a believer, is his absolution from condemnation by the gospel, and the charge of infidelity, or hypocrisy, and is no other than that declarative justification James speaks of, or an asserting and clearing up the truth and reality of the former justification, which is done by good works, as the signs and fruits of the faith, by which that former is obtained: and this is but improperly called justification. The former is an absolution from the general charge of sin, this from the special charge of hypocrisy, or infidelity. A sinner’s great fear (when first awakened to a sense of his sin and misery) is of a holy law, and a righteous Judge ready to condemn him for the violation of that law; and so his first business is to look to Christ by faith for righteousness, and remission of sin. But when he is justified by that righteousness, men may charge him with hypocrisy or unbelief, and so may the devil and conscience too, when faith is weak, or a temptation strong; and therefore his next work is to clear himself of this imputation, and to evidence the truth and reality of his faith and justification in God’s sight, which must be done by producing his obedience and good works, as the indications of his faith; and hereby he proves that he hath indeed closed with the promise of the gospel, and so is clear of the charge of not believing it, which was false; as well as (by consequence) is justified from the charge of sin against the law, which was true. To conclude, therefore, here is no opposition between Paul and James. Paul speaks of Abraham’s being justified as a sinner, and properly, and so by faith only; James speaks of his being justified as a believer, improperly, and so by works; by which not his person was justified, but rather his faith declared to be justifying: nor he constituted righteous, but approved as righteous. In a word, what God hath joined must not be divided, and what he hath divided must not be joined. He hath separated faith and works in the business of justification, and therefore we must not join them in it, as Paul disputes; and he hath joined them in the lives of justified persons, and there we must not separate them, as James teaches. Paul assures us they have not a co-efficiency in justification itself; and James assures us they may, and ought to have, a co-existence in them that are justified. If the reader desire further satisfaction yet, let him consult Turretine de Concordia Pauli et Jacobi, where he may find much more to the same purpose as hath been here said.

Verse 25

This instance of Rahab is joined to that of Abraham, either to show, that none of any condition, degree, or nation, was ever numbered among true believers, without good works; or else to prove, that faith, wherever it is sincere and genuine, is likewise operative and fruitful, not only in older disciples and stronger, such as Abraham was, but even proportionably in those that are weaker, and but newly converted to the faith, which was Rahab’s case.

The harlot; really and properly so, Joshua 2:1; Hebrews 11:31; though possibly she might keep an inn, and that might occasion the spies’ going to her house, not knowing her to be one of so scandalous a life; which yet the Holy Ghost takes special notice of, that by the infamousness of her former conversation, the grace of God in her conversion might be more conspicuous.

Justified by works; in the same sense as Abraham was, i.e. declared to be righteous, and her sincerity approved in the face of the congregation of Israel, when, upon her hiding the spies, God gave a commandment to save her alive, though the rest of her people were to be destroyed.

When she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way: her receiving them implies likewise her hiding them; both which, together with her sending them forth another way, were acts of love to the people of God, of mercy to the spies, and of great self-denial in respect of her own safety, which she hazarded by thus exposing herself to the fury of the king of Jericho and her countrymen; but all proceeded from her faith in the God of Israel, of whose great works she had heard, and whom she had now taken to be her God, and under whose wings she was now come to trust.

Verse 26

The spirit: this may be understood either, according to the marginal reading, of the breath; and then the sense is, that life and breath being inseparable companions, as the the of breath argues want of life in the body, so, lively faith and works being as inseparable, want of works argues want of life in faith: or, according to the reading in the text, spirit, taking it for that substance which animates the body, and is the cause of vital functions in it, which is sometimes called spirit, Psalms 31:5; Ecclesiastes 12:7; 1 Corinthians 2:11; and then the sense is, that as a body is without a soul, so faith is without works, i.e. both are dead. As a body without the soul hath the shape and lineaments of a man, but nothing that may discover life in it; so faith without works may be like true faith, have some resemblance of it, but hath nothing to discover the truth and life of it.

So faith; not true faith, for that cannot be dead, but an empty profession of faith, which is rather called faith by way of concession, or because of some likeness it hath to it, than really is so; as a dead body, though called a body, is really but a carcass.

Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on James 2". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mpc/james-2.html. 1685.
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