To enforce the point I was making in my blog entry What Is Meant By "Works"?, here are the commentaries of Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, and Simon J. Kistemaker.
Matthew Henry's Commentary (Book 6, page 791-792)
6. We are taught that a justifying faith cannot be without works, from two examples, Abraham and Rahab.
(1.) The first instance is that of Abraham, the father of the faithful, and the prime example of justification, to whom the Jews had a special regard (v. 21): Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Paul, on the other hand, says (in ch. 4 of the epistle to the Romans) that Abraham believed, and it was counted to him for righteousness. But these are well reconciled, by observing what is said in Heb. 11, which shows that the faith of both of Abraham and Rahab was such as to produce those good works of which James speaks, and which are not to be separated from faith as justifying and saving. By what Abraham did, it appeared that he truly believed. Upon this footing, the words of God himself plainly put this matter. Gen. 22:16, 17, Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son; therefore in blessing I will bless thee. Thus the faith of Abraham was a working faith (v. 22), it wrought with his works, and by works was made perfect. And by this means you come to the true sense of that scripture which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness, v. 23. And thus he became the friend of God. Faith, producing such works, endeared him to the divine Being, and advanced him to very peculiar favours and intimacies with God. It is a great honour done to Abraham that he is called and counted the friend of God. You see then (v. 24) how that by works a man is justified (comes into such a state of favour and friendship with God), and not by faith only; not by a bare opinion, or profession, or believing without obeying, but by having such a faith as is productive of good works. Now besides the explication of this passage and example, as thus illustrating and supporting the argument James is upon, many other useful lessons may be learned by us from what is here said concerning Abraham. [1.] Those who would have Abraham's blessings must be careful to copy after his faith: to boast of being Abraham's seed will not avail any, if they do not believe as he did. [2.] Those works which evidence true faith must to works of self-denial, and such as God himself commands (as Abraham's offering up his son, his only son, was), and not such works as are pleasing to flesh and blood and may serve our interest, or are the mere fruits of our own imagination and devising. [3.] What we piously purpose and sincerely resolve to do for God is accepted as if actually performed. Thus Abraham is regarded as offering up his son, though he did not actually proceed to make a sacrifice of him. It was a done thing in the mind, and spirit, and resolution of Abraham, and God accepts it as if fully performed and accomplished. [4.] The actings of faith make it grow perfect, as the truth of faith makes it act. [5.] Such an acting faith will make others, as well as Abraham, friends of God. Thus Christ says to his disciples, I have called you friends, John 15:15. All transactions between God and the truly believing soul are easy, pleasant, and delightful. There is one will and one heart, and there is a mutual complacency. God rejoiceth over those who truly believe, to do them good; and they delight themselves in him.
(2.) The second example of faith's justifying itself and us with and by works is Rahab: Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? v. 25. The former instance was of one renowned for his faith all his life long, This is of one noted for sin, whose faith was meaner and of a much lower degree; so that the strongest faith will not do, nor the meanest be allowed to go without works. Some say that the word here rendered harlot was the proper name of Rahab. Others tell us that it signifies no more than a hostess, or one who keeps a public house, with whom therefore the spies lodged. But it is very probably that her character was infamous; and such an instance is mentioned to show that faith will save the worst, when evidenced by proper works; and it will not save the best without such works as God requires. This Rahab believed the report she had heard of God's powerful presence with Israel; but that which proved her faith sincere was, that, to the hazard of her life, she received the messengers, and sent them out another way. Observe here, [1.] The wonderful power of faith in transforming and changing sinners. [2.] The regard which an operative faith meets with from God, to obtain his mercy and favour. [3.] Where great sins are pardoned, there must prefer the honour of God and the good of his people before the preservation of her own country. Her former acquaintance must be discarded, her former course of life entirely abandoned, and she must give signal proof and evidence of this before she can be in a justified state; and even after she is justified, yet her former character must be remembered; not so much to her dishonour as to glorify the rich grace and mercy of God. Though justified, she is called Rahab the harlot.
Matthew Poole's Commentary On the Holy Bible (Book 3, page 888-889)
24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
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. Quest. How doth this general conclusion follow from the particular case of Abraham? Answ. Abraham's faith and justification, both before God and the world, are set forth as the exemplars of ours, to which the faith and justification of all believers, both Jews and Gentiles, is to be conformed, Rom. iv. 11, 12, 23, 24. Quest. Doth not James here contradict Paul's doctrine in the matter of justification, Rom. iv.? Answ. 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 xci, 2, 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, Gal. ii. 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, Rom. iv. 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, ver. 14, 17, 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, Rom. iv., 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 everywhere 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, Gal. v. 6. Whereas James speaks of a profession, or presumption of faith, barren, and destitute of good fruits, such a faith as is dead, ver. 17, such as the devils may have, ver. 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 vii. 29, the people justified God, i.e. owned and declared his righteousness by confession of their sins, and submission to John's baptism; and ver. 35, Wisdom is justified, i.e. declared to be just and right. Rom. iii. 4, justified in thy sayings, i.e. acknowledge and declared to be true in thy word. And what is Christ's being justified in the Spirit, 1 Tim. iii. 16, but his being declared to be the Son of God? Rom. i. 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, Gen. xv., 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, Gen. xxii. 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, ver. 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 a 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 the 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.
New Testament Commentary (Book 11, page 96-98)
22. You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend.
a. "His faith and his actions." Here James faces his opponent and opens the Old Testament Scriptures. He points to the account of Abraham's faith at the altar of sacrifice (Gen. 22) and says, "You see, here is definitive proof that faith and works go together." Faith and action, then, are never separated. The one flows naturally from the other. Deeds originate in faith and faith supports the believer in his work. Everyone hearing or reading these words from James readily admits that in the case of Abraham, the father of believers did what he had to do on the basis of faith.
b. "His faith was made complete." Purposely James alludes to Abraham's test of faith when the patriarch was asked to sacrifice Isaac. Even though we do not know how old Abraham was, we learn from Scripture that this test of faith is the last for Abraham. When he sustained this last test, he heard the voice from heaven saying, "It is enough." Abraham's faith was made complete.
In his life Abraham had shown trust and confidence in God by traveling to the promised land, waiting decades for his promised son Isaac, and finally demonstrating his obedience by being willing to sacrifice him. The supreme test was not so much in his traveling or waiting but in preparing to sacrifice Isaac. Killing his own son meant that the promise would end. But as the writer of Hebrews sums it up, "Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death" (11:19).
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24. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.
Here is the conclusion. James addresses all his readers when he says, "You see." With his reference to Abraham he has convincingly shown that anyone who appeals to Scripture will find that Abraham acted on the basis of faith. James does not say that Abraham was justified because of his faith and works.
God justifies the sinner. That is, the sinner can never justify himself by his own deeds. Nor can many rely on faith alone, for faith without works is dead. James is saying that faith and works go together, that they ought not to be separated, and that faith divorced from deeds does not justify a person. God justifies a sinner who is spiritually alive and who shows trust and obedience.
As I said in my previous blog entry, faith may be the driving force behind one's works, but nevertheless faith and works must go hand-in-hand. As I said before, so say I again:
Throughout the entire Bible, whenever you see instances of faith, it is inseparably linked with faith in action (i.e., works/living faith), as demonstrated by James with regard to Abraham and Rahab. To deny this is to be living in sheer ignorance. If we know from Scripture that there are two kinds of faith, and two kinds of repentance, why would we foolishly assume there is only one kind of works? Is Ephesians 2:10 saying we were created for works of the Law or legalism? Clearly not! So why do we assume that all talk regarding "works" is in regard to works-righteousness and us being right with God based on those merits?
Since every instance of faith in the Bible is inseparably accompanied by faith in action (i.e., works/living faith), it is foolish to assume that when Scripture speaks of "faith" that it merely refers to mental assent. Faith is not merely what we believe in our head and our heart, but also how we act in accordance with that belief. Genuine acceptance of the Gospel is inseparably accompanied by immediate genuine repentance and followed by continuous genuine repentance as one grows in that faith. Faith is never faith alone apart from actions! Ergo, "faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself" (James 2:17). When the Bible speaks of Abraham's "faith," it includes not only what he believed in his heart, but also how he acted upon that belief. This is how Paul can say he was justified by faith and how James can say he was justified by his works. The two are not contradictory. The belief in his heart alone was not enough, as James points out. He had to act upon it, the same way we do. The moment he acted, his actions perfected his belief. Belief and actions together constitute "faith." You do not believe me?
Closely examine the woman with the issue of blood (or any other instance of faith in Scripture). She believed in her heart that touching Jesus' garment would heal her (faith) and she reached out in that belief and touched His garment (works/living faith/faith in action). Jesus' words to her? "Your faith has healed you." "Faith," here, encompasses both her belief in her heart that she would be healed and her faith in action by touching the garment. How about Peter walking on water? Faith (believing it was possible) plus works of faith (stepping out on the water). How about the crippled man by the pool? Some stranger comes up to him and tells him to walk. How cruel! Faith (believing it) plus works of faith (standing up). How many passages in Scripture would you care to examine and see this pattern? I can do this all day if you would like. You see this everywhere in Scripture!
Justification is never by faith alone. Abraham did not simply believe God, he acted upon that belief. His action perfected his belief. His action made his belief real. This is how Paul can say he was justified by faith and how James can say he was justified by his works. Faith and works (faith in action) always go hand-in-hand. They are inseparable! It is that simple.