Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
The Duty of Patience
James 1:2–4. My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith works patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.
WE at this time are scarcely able to form a conception of the state of the Church in the apostolic age. Christianity among us is attended with none of the evils to which the primitive professors of it were exposed. But to what is this owing? Is Christianity altered at all? or is it less offensive than it was in the eyes of ungodly men? No, it is the same as ever: and, if those who profess it be not despised and hated now as they were in former times, it is because they retain "the form only of godliness, and have none of its power." Let persons enter into the spirit of Christianity now, as the Christians did in the Apostles' days, and they will be treated precisely as they were, so far at least as the laws of the land will admit of it: and, if they be not persecuted unto death, it will not be from there being any more love to piety in the carnal heart now, than there was then; but from the greater protection which is afforded by the laws of the land, and from a spirit of toleration which modern usages have established. Real vital godliness was then universally hated; and it is so still. It was not to the Jewish converts in Palestine only that James wrote, but "to the twelve tribes who were scattered abroad." Religion was persecuted not by one party only, but by every party and in every place: and it is still, in every place, "to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness," and all who will cultivate it will sooner or later need to have the consolations of our text administered to them for their support.
In the words which we have read, we see,
I. The appointed portion of God's people.
In former ages they were hated for righteousness' sake.
Go back to the time of Abel. You well know that he was murdered by his own brother Cain. And what was the ground of Cain's enmity against him? We are informed on infallible authority: "Cain slew his brother, because his own works were evil, and his brother's righteous." Descend through all successive ages, and you will still find the same enmity subsisting between the seed of the woman, and the seed of the serpent. As light and darkness, so Christ and Belial, both in themselves and in their members, ever have been, and ever must be, opposed to each other. As to the diversity of trials to which the godly have been exposed, we need look no further than to the short summary given us in the 11th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews: "Some were tortured: others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yes, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheep-skins and goat-skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented," (yes, they were so treated "of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth." Come we to the time of Christ and his Apostles: it might be hoped that their superior light and piety, and the innumerable miracles with which their divine commission was confirmed, would screen them from such evil treatment; and especially that the Lord Jesus Christ, whose character was so spotless, and whose wisdom was infinite, should be able to overcome the prejudices of a blind infatuated world. But they were only the more exposed to the taunts and cruelty of the ungodly in proportion as their light shined with the brighter splendor. And all who in the first ages of the Church became their followers, were, in their measure, subjected to the same trials, and made to drink of the same bitter cup.
The same treatment they meet with in the present day.
We have observed, that a mere form of piety will pass without opposition: but real, vital godliness, will subject us to reproach at this day, as much as ever: "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." That kind of godliness which arises from self and terminates in self, will bring us into favor with the world: but that which is derived altogether from Christ as its proper source and author, and is exercised altogether for the advancement of his glory, is, and ever will be, odious in the eyes of the ungodly: and a man who exemplifies it in his life and conversation can no more escape persecution than Christ himself could. To receive all from Christ, and to do all for Christ, is the very essence of Christian piety: and in requiring this of his followers, our blessed Lord has bequeathed to his Church a never-failing source of variance with the world. This he himself tells us: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law: and a man's foes shall be they of his own household." Accordingly we find universally, that where a person begins to live by faith on the Lord Jesus Christ, and to devote himself to his service, all his friends and relatives will take the alarm, and try, by every method of ridicule, or menace, or persuasion, to divert him from his purpose. Let him live in an entire neglect of his soul, and no one will trouble himself about him. He may live his whole life in such a state, and not a friend will exhort him to serve the Lord: but the least approach to piety will be discouraged by every friend and relative that he has. Not that religion will be discountenanced as religion: some evil name must be given to it first; and then it will be reprobated under that character. But the very persons who hold in the highest veneration the names of the Apostles, and of the great reformers of our Church, and who would raise shrines and monuments to departed saints, will persecute the living saints with the utmost rancor: and were the Apostles or reformers to live again upon the earth, they would receive the very same treatment from them that they met with from the people of the age in which they lived. If they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, it is in vain for any servant of his to hope that he shall escape a similar reproach.
Painful as this portion is to flesh and blood, none need to fear it, if only they attend to
II. The Apostle's directions in relation to it.
God graciously appoints to his people this portion, in order to promote their spiritual welfare, and progressively to transform them into the Divine image in righteousness and true holiness. Hence James exhorts his afflicted brethren to regard their trials as means to an end; and,
1. To welcome the means.
The proper tendency of trials is to work patience in our souls. At first indeed they operate to the production of impatience, or, rather I should say, to the eliciting of those evil dispositions which lurk in our hearts. Until we have had our pride in some measure subdued, we know not how to bear the unkindness which we meet with: we fret under it, and rage even as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: but when we discover our weakness, we are ashamed of it, and humble ourselves before God on account of it, and implore grace from him to support us, and thus gradually become instructed by the discipline, and are at last "strengthened with all might by his Spirit unto all patience and long-suffering, with joyfulness, giving thanks unto the Father," who has wrought in us that very change of heart and life which has exposed us to the enmity of the ungodly world.
Now when we see what good our God designs us by these trials, we should not only be reconciled to them, but be thankful for them, and "count them just occasions for exalted joy." For, what price can be too great for so valuable an acquisition as that of a meek, submissive, and patient spirit? We submit with readiness to many things which are displeasing to flesh and blood for the advancement of our bodily health: and shall we not thankfully take the prescriptions of our heavenly Physician for the health of our souls? What, if they be unpalatable to our taste? We should regard the affliction as good, when we know what benefits will ultimately result from it; assured, that "the sufferings of this present life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us." When therefore we see the clouds gathering around us, we should not be alarmed, but should say rather, like the countryman whose fields are burnt up with drought, Now God is about to refresh and fructify my barren heart, and his clouds shall drop fatness on my soul. What if your enemies meditate nothing but evil? Should that be of any concern to you, when you know who has engaged to overrule it all for good? I say then with the prophet, "Fear not" any menaces or preparations, how formidable soever they may appear; nor complain of any trials, however oppressive they may be at the time; but rejoice in them, and bless God who counts you "worthy to bear" them, and accept them as an invaluable "gift at his hands," and "take pleasure in them," as knowing that they will assuredly issue in your welfare, and "in the honor of your God."
2. To cultivate the end.
Does God design by means of trials to make you resemble him "who was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so opened he not his mouth?" Seek to experience this benefit from them; and "let patience have its perfect work in you, that you may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." Complain not that your trials are heavy, or of long continuance: but be more anxious to have your dross consumed, than to have the intensity of the furnace diminished. It was "through sufferings that the Lord Jesus Christ himself was made perfect," and if "he learned obedience by the things which he suffered," will not you be content to learn it in the same way? We are ready to think that perfection consists in active virtue: but God is not a whit less honored by passive virtue: and when patience has so far operated upon your soul as to make you "glory in tribulations" for the Lord's sake, and you can say from your inmost soul, under all circumstances, "Not my will, but your be done," you will have attained that measure of holiness which constitutes perfection; and you will before long, as a shock of corn that is fully ripe, be treasured up in the garner of your heavenly Father. You have seen "Jesus, after having endured the cross, and despised the shame, set down at the right hand of the throne of God," be content then to "suffer with him, that in due time you may be glorified together." Let this be the one object of your concern: and pray that "the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus through the blood of the everlasting covenant, would make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight through Christ Jesus."
1. The timid Christian.
"Who are you, that you should be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man that shall be as grass, and forget the Lord your Maker?" O! "fear not the oppressor, as if he were able to destroy: for where is the fury of the oppressor?" Look at Pharaoh and all his host: what could they do against the God of Israel? Look at Herod, when he would "stretch out his hand to vex the Church," "he falls a prey even to worms," which eat him up alive. Know that the creature is no more than "an axe or saw in your Father's hands," and that he can do nothing, but as your Father sees fit to employ him for your good. In all that he attempts, he is limited and controlled, and shall effect nothing which shall not subserve your eternal interests. Be strong then, and of good courage: and whatever cross may lie in your way, take it up cheerfully, and bear it after your Lord and Savior: for be well assured, that your Savior deserves it richly at your hands.
2. The suffering Christian.
Shall I pity you? No; rather let me congratulate you as being made conformable to your Lord and Savior. Repeated are James's declarations, that sufferings for Christ's sake are subjects rather for joy than for grief. "We count them happy that endure." And again, "Blessed is the man that endures temptation; for, when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love him." Receive then trials as "the portion which God has appointed you;" and expect that, if your afflictions abound for Christ's sake, "so shall your consolations also abound by Christ;" and whatever you may lose for his sake, you shall even in this present life receive an hundred-fold more than you have lost, and, in the world to come, "an accumulated weight of happiness and glory" to all eternity. And when you shall have arrived at the realms of glory, it will be no grief to you that you "came out of great tribulation;" for then will "your Savior lead you to the living fountains of bliss, and God himself will wipe away all tears from your eyes."
The Way to Obtain True Wisdom
James 1:5, 6. If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that gives to all men liberally, and upbraids not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.
WISDOM is necessary for the due discharge of every office of life: but it is more particularly necessary for a Christian, on account of the many difficulties to which he is subjected by his Christian profession. For no sooner does he give himself up to the service of his God, than his friends and relatives exert themselves to draw him back again to the world. Every species of temptation they lay in his way, if by any means they may effect their purpose, and divert him from the path which he has chosen. They fail not to represent to him, the injury that will arise to his reputation and worldly interests, and the pain which his new course occasions to those whose happiness he is bound to consult. Not unfrequently too parental authority is interposed to arrest his progress, and to interdict the use of such means as he has found conducive to his spiritual welfare. Those books which would best inform his mind, that society which would most strengthen his heart, and those ordinances which would most edify his soul, are all prohibited; and no alternative is left him, but to relinquish his pursuit of heavenly things, or incur the contempt and hatred of his dearest friends. What now must be done? He wishes to keep a conscience void of offence: but how can it be effected? If he is faithful to his God, he offends man: and, if he pleases man, he violates his duty to God. The principle which he adopts is in itself plain and simple; namely, that he must obey God, and not man. But how to apply this principle is a difficulty which frequently involves him in the greatest embarrassment. If he relax in nothing, he appears absurd in the extreme: if his compliances be carried too far, he endangers his peace of mind, and the welfare of his soul. Again, in the manner of executing what his conscience dictates, he is also at a loss. He may be too bold, or too timid; too faithful, or too obsequious. The different dispositions of all with whom he has to do must be consulted, and his conduct be adapted to them in all the diversified situations in which he is called to act. But "who is sufficient for these things?" Often does he wish for an experienced counselor to advise him; and almost sit down in despair of ever attaining such a measure of wisdom as is necessary for him. It is to persons so circumstanced that James addresses the directions in our text. He supposes them to have "fallen into divers temptations," and to be laboring so to "possess their souls in patience," that "patience may have its perfect work, and that they may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." But how is all this to be effected? Any mariner may steer a vessel in a calm: but how shall one so inexperienced regulate it in a storm; and so regulate it, that it shall in no respect be driven out of its course? To these anxious questions the Apostle gives an answer: wherein he directs us,
I. How to seek wisdom.
True wisdom is the gift of God.
Even earthly wisdom must in reality be traced to God as its author. The persons who formed the tabernacle and all its vessels derived all their skill from God: and even those who move in a sphere which may be supposed to be suited to the meanest capacity, and spend their lives in the common pursuits of agriculture, can no farther approve themselves skillful in their work, than they are instructed by God himself. But spiritual wisdom is still farther out of the reach of unassisted reason, because it is conversant about things "which no human eye has seen, or ear heard, or heart conceived, and which can only be revealed by the Spirit of God." It is emphatically "a wisdom which is from above," and which can "come only from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." The Spirit of God, whose office it is to impart it unto men, is called "the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;" and to him are we directed "to open the eyes of our understanding," and to "guide us into all truth," since it is only by the unction derived from him, that we can possibly attain a spiritual discernment.
To him must we look for it in earnest prayer.
Study, doubtless, even a study of the Holy Scriptures, is necessary; because it is only by the written word that we are to regulate our course. But to study we must add humble and fervent supplication; according to that direction of Solomon, "If you cry after knowledge, and lift up your voice for understanding; if you Seek her as silver, and search for her as for hid treasures; then shall you understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God: for the Lord gives wisdom; out of his mouth comes knowledge and understanding." Accordingly we find the Apostle Paul crying to God in behalf of the Ephesian Church, that "God the Father would give unto them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ;" and, for the Colossians he prayed, that they also might by the same Spirit "be filled with the knowledge of God's will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding."
And to seek it in this way we are all encouraged, both from a general view of God's goodness, and from a particular and express promise.
"God gives to all men liberally, and upbraids not," "he opens his hand, and fills all things living with plenteousness;" he "gives alike to the evil and the good, to the just and to the unjust." If then he give so abundantly to those who seek him not, "will he refuse his Holy Spirit unto them that ask him?" True, they are unworthy of so rich a blessing: and, as Jephthah upbraided those who requested his assistance against the Ammonites, saying to them, "Did not you hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are you come unto me, now you are in distress?" so might God reply to them; "You have resisted my Spirit, and rebelled against the light, times without number; and how can you expect that I should aid you any more?" But he will not so treat the weeping suppliant; but will surely impart unto him the blessing he desires. Of this he assures us by an express promise: "Let him ask of God; and it shall be given him." This promise may be relied on, as may many others which he has given us to the same effect—The time, and the manner, and the measure in which it shall be fulfilled, must be left to God: but fulfilled it shall be to all who rest upon it. Not that a man shall be rendered infallible, or have such wisdom imparted to him as shall keep him from every degree of error; but so much as his necessities require, God will assuredly grant to all who seek it of him in sincerity and truth.
That no man shall seek wisdom in vain, James adds a caution, from which we learn,
II. How to secure the attainment of it.
"We must ask in faith, nothing wavering." Here it will be proper for me to show,
1. What is that faith which we are called to exercise.
It has not respect to that individual thing which we may chance to ask; for we may possibly be asking for something which God sees would be injurious to us, or, if not injurious, yet inconsistent with the ends which he has determined to accomplish. When our blessed Lord prayed for the removal of the bitter cup, and Paul for the removal of the thorn in his flesh, neither the one prayer nor the other was granted literally; though both were answered in the way most satisfactory to the suppliants, and most conducive to God's honor. So the specific thing which we ask, may be withheld: but we shall be sure of receiving something better in its stead: and it is with this latitude only that our faith must be exercised, except where there is an express promise for us to plead: and then we may assuredly expect that very thing to be granted to us.
Now respecting such a measure of wisdom as shall ultimately guide us through all our difficulties, we may ask with the fullest possible assurance: and in asking it, we should have no more doubt of its being given to us, than of our own existence: we should "ask in faith, nothing wavering." If we doubt at all, our doubt must arise, either from not being fully persuaded of the power of God to help us, or from some suspicion of his willingness. But to limit his power is sinful in the extreme: and to doubt his willingness is, as John expresses it, "to make God a liar," for the promise in the text is to every creature under Heaven who asks in faith. I well know that persons pretend to found their doubts on their own unworthiness: but this is a mere fallacy: for every man is unworthy: and, if unworthiness be such a disqualification as deprives a man of all right to expect the blessing in answer to his prayers, then no man living has any right to expect the blessing; and the promise of God is a mere nullity. Our need of wisdom is supposed in the very petition that is offered for it: and the more deeply we feel our need of it, the more willingly and more largely will God confer it upon us. In praying for it therefore, we are to ask, not on the ground of any imagined worthiness in us, but on the sole ground of its having been freely promised to us: and, in that view, we must lift up our hands, "as without wrath, so also without doubting."
2. Its certain efficiency to the desired end.
In some circumstances, the fulfillment of the promise seems to exceed all reasonable hope, if not the limits of possibility itself. But in proportion as it seems to exceed hope, we are to "believe in hope," just as Abraham did, when the promise was given to him of a posterity as numerous as the stars of Heaven. Our blessed Lord has taught us this in a very striking manner. To his disciples, who expressed their surprise that the fig-tree, which he had cursed, should wither away in one single night, he said, "Have faith in God: for truly I say unto you, that whoever shall say unto this mountain, be removed, and be cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he says shall come to pass; he shall have whatever he says. Therefore I say unto, "What things soever you desire when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you shall have them." The truth is, that God, if I may so say, feels his own honor implicated in fulfilling his own word: and therefore, if not for our sakes, yet for his own name's sake, "he will accomplish the thing which has gone out of his mouth." Yet not for his own sake only will he do it, but for our sakes also: for, "them that honor him he will honor."
1. Those who are unconscious of their need of wisdom.
Though men are sensible enough of their ignorance in relation to human sciences, they almost universally fancy themselves competent to decide everything relating to their faith or practice. But very pointed is that declaration of Solomon, "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool." Respecting spiritual things we are all by nature blind, and need, the learned as well as the unlearned, to have our understandings opened to understand them. We all "lack wisdom" exceedingly: and to all equally would I address those words of Solomon, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not to your own understanding: in all your ways acknowledge him; and he shall direct your paths."
2. Those who are discouraged by their want of wisdom.
If you look either to the greatness of your difficulties, or your own insufficiency to meet them, you may well faint and fail: but if you look to God, there is no ground for discouragement at all. For, can he not "ordain strength in the mouths of babes and sucklings?" And "does he not put his treasure into earthen vessels on purpose that the excellency of the power may be seen to be of Him?" See how he reproved Jeremiah, for his desponding thoughts: and be content to be "weak, that his strength may be perfected in your weakness"—See how he reproved Peter also; and be careful how you admit a doubt. If you are doubting, he warns you plainly, that "you must not expect to receive anything of the Lord," but, if you will believe, according to your faith it shall be unto you.
The Double-Minded Man Exposed
James 1:8. A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways.
IT is a generally-acknowledged truth, that the mind constitutes the man. In human friendships, an insincere profession of regard will not stand a severe trial; but will fail us, when we most need a firm support. In religion too, if the heart be not right with God, we shall never persevere amidst the difficulties and dangers with which we shall be encompassed. That our faith will be tried, is certain; and that we shall need support from above, is certain: I may add too, that, if we be "strong in faith, giving glory to "God," we shall derive such aid from above, as shall carry us through all our temptations, how great soever they may be, and make us "more than conquerors" over all our enemies. But, if we are of a doubtful mind, we shall never finally maintain our steadfastness; but shall draw back when dangers threaten us, and faint when trials come upon us; for "the double-minded man is unstable in all his ways."
Let us endeavor,
I. To ascertain the character here specified.
The Apostle is speaking solely respecting confidence in God: to that therefore we shall confine our observations. Were we to enter at large into the character of a "double-minded man," we should have a vast field before us, sufficient to occupy our attention through many discourses: but by adhering simply to the view proposed to us in the text, we shall best consult the scope of the Apostle's argument, and the edification of your minds.
"The double-minded man" then is one,
1. Whose reliance on God is not simple.
There is in every man a proneness to self-dependence: and, in matters of ordinary occurrence, no man, except the truly pious, will look higher than to himself for wisdom to guide him, or for strength to support him. Even when obstacles arise which call for the intervention of a superior power, he will cry unto his God for help: but he will not "pray in faith," because he still "leans to his own understanding," and is unable to "commit his way entirely to the Lord." As there were in the days of old those who "swore by Jehovah and by Malcham too," and those who "feared the Lord and yet served other gods" at the same time, so the double-minded man will rely on the Lord, but will rely on himself also; and make God and himself successively or conjointly the objects of his hope, as the variations of his mind, or the urgency of his necessities, may seem to require.
We must however distinguish between a prudent use of means, and a divided ground of hope: for confidence in God is on no account to supersede the use of prudent means. Jacob acted wisely in his endeavors to pacify his brother's wrath, sending presents by many successive messengers, and dividing his family, so that, if some were slain by Esau, others might escape. These precautions sprang not from any want of faith in God, but from a determination to leave nothing undone on his part which might contribute to the desired end. His confidence was not at all in the means he used, but in God, who, he hoped, would accomplish by them the purposes of his grace. But where means are so used as to become a joint ground of confidence to those who use them, there is the evil complained of in the text. Such was the character of the Jews who went down to Egypt for help against their enemies. God had told them, that "in returning and rest they should be saved; that in quietness and confidence should be their strength; and that their strength was to sit still." But not able to rely on God alone, they went down to Egypt for help, and thereby provoked God to give them up to utter destruction. God is a jealous God, and requires that we should trust in him alone, and have no confidence whatever on an arm of flesh.
2. Whose confidence in God is not entire.
Not only is there to be no reliance on the creature, but there should be no distrust of God. We should rely upon him without any doubt as to the issue of our confidence. We should view everything, even to the falling of a sparrow, as under his control. We should feel that there is no power or counsel against him: and that for man to defeat his purposes, is utterly impossible. We should see, that, if we trust in God, he will accomplish for us everything that is good; and the things which are not, shall as certainly exist, as if they were already in existence.
But this measure of faith is not in the double-minded man. He cannot so repose his confidence in God. He does not so realize the thought of God's universal agency, as to be able to commit everything into his hands, and to "stand still in an assured expectation of seeing the salvation of God." On the contrary, he is ever "limiting the Holy One of Israel," and when successive trials arise, he overlooks his former deliverances, and reiterates his usual apprehensions; like those who said, "He smote the stony rock indeed, that the waters gushed out; but can he give bread also, or provide flesh for his people?"
The character of the double-minded man will be more fully seen, while we proceed,
I. To mark his conduct.
"He is unstable in all his ways," and is ever liable to be turned from the truth.
1. In his principles.
Not having such clear views of the covenant of grace as to be able to lay hold of it, and confidently to expect all the blessings contained in it, he is ever open to the allurements of novelty, and ready, "like a child, to be tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and the cunning craftiness with which they lie in wait to deceive." Matters which really are of doubtful disputation, possess in his mind an importance which does not belong to them: and he will dwell on them, to the neglect of other things which are essential to his salvation. Hence it is that heretics of every description gain such influence: and hence it is that so many, "led away by the error of the wicked, fall from their own steadfastness." The versatility both of the one and of the other originates in this, that they have never obtained such a knowledge of God in Christ Jesus as has brought perfect peace into their souls. They know not what God is to his people: they see not to what an extent he has pledged himself to them: they have no conception of the interest which the Lord Jesus Christ takes in them, or how indissolubly connected their happiness is with his honor and glory. Let them be well "rooted and built up in Christ, and established in the faith, as they have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving;" and they will "stand fast in the faith," and suffer nothing to "move them away from the hope of the Gospel."
2. In his practice.
The man that cannot fully confide in God will be alarmed, whenever a storm is gathering around him. Were "his mind fully stayed on God, he would be kept in perfect peace"; and, when menaced with the most formidable assaults, would reply, "None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto me, so that I may but finish my course with join." But the double-minded man is so terrified by his adversaries, that he dares not to proceed in the plain path of duty. Like "the stony-ground hearers, he is presently offended, and in time of temptation will fall away." How many of this description are there in every place, where the Gospel is preached in sincerity and truth! It convinces many; it calls forth many to make an open profession of their acceptance of it: but in a little time how many fair blossoms wither! how many are blown off from the tree by storms and tempests! and how many, through their unbelief, are found rotten at the core! Truly, it is rather the gleanings, than the harvest, that is brought home to reward the toil that has been bestowed upon them; so many "turn back unto perdition, and so few believe to the saving of the soul."
But it may here be asked, Are we in no case to bend to circumstances? Did not Paul himself diversify his modes of conduct, sometimes complying with Jewish rites, which at other times he declared to have been utterly abolished? Yes, was he not of so accommodating a disposition, that he became all things to all men, and acted as a Jew or as a Gentile, according to the society with which he mixed? Yes; he did so: but there is this great difference between his conduct and that of a double-minded man: what Paul did, he did for the benefit of others: but the compliances of the double-minded man are only for the purpose of preventing evil to himself. His compliances too were only in things of perfect indifference: he would not have been guilty of denying or dishonoring the Savior on any account: but the double-minded man cares not what dishonor he brings on the Gospel, provided he may but escape the evils with which he is menaced for his adherence to it. He is "like the wave," now raised, now depressed, and driven hither and thither as the wind impels it; while the upright soul is as the rock, which, amidst all the storms and tempests that assail it, is unshaken and unmoved.
Let us learn then from hence,
1. The vast importance of self-examination.
Men do not easily see their own duplicity. "The heart is deceitful above all things," and readily persuades us, that our doubtful confidence in God, and our partial obedience to him, are all that is required of us. But God discerns the inmost recesses of the heart, and sees there all the latent workings of worldliness and unbelief: nor will he at the last day approve of any but those whom he can attest to have been "Israelites indeed, and without deceit." As for "the fearful and unbelieving," he will assign to them no other portion than "the lake that burns with fire and brimstone." O let us fear, lest, after all our profession, "our religion prove vain," and we be found to have "deceived our own souls."
2. The indispensable necessity of being "renewed in the spirit of our minds."
Never, until that takes place, shall we possess "the single eye," and walk before God in one undeviating path of holy obedience. We may take up a profession of religion; but instability will mark our every step. To rely on God uniformly, and to "follow him fully," are far too high attainments for the natural man. Let me then entreat you to seek of God a new heart, and to pray that he would "renew a right spirit within you." Then may you hope to be "steadfast, and immoveable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord," and then shall you be fixed "as pillars in the temple of your God, that shall go no more out forever."
The Effects of Religion on The Different Orders of Society
James 1:9, 10. Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: but the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away.
RELIGION certainly appears in some respects adverse to the happiness of men, inasmuch as it inculcates the daily practice of humiliation and contrition, mortification and self-denial. The injunction to cut off a right hand and pluck out a right eye, cannot, it might be thought, conduce to our comfort in this world, whatever it might do with respect to the world to come. But, if Christianity deprive us of some carnal joys (I should rather say, limit and refine them), it affords abundant ground for joy of a more exalted kind. It does not merely concede as a privilege, but prescribes as a duty, that we should "rejoice evermore." To persons of every description is this direction addressed in the words before us; and the reasons upon which it is founded are declared. In conformity with the Apostle's views, we shall show,
I. The effects of religion upon the different orders of society.
We shall notice them,
1. Upon the poor.
These are represented as "exalted" by Christianity. Not that they are raised out of their proper sphere, or have any right to assume consequence to themselves on account of their acquaintance with religion: but they are exalted in their state and condition, their dispositions and habits, their hopes and prospects.
The poor are for the most part regarded in so low and mean a light, that a rich man would be ashamed to acknowledge them as related to him: yes, they themselves feel a very humiliating disparity between themselves and their opulent neighbors. But, when once they embrace the Gospel, and are made "rich in faith," "God himself is not ashamed to be called their God," he calls them "his friends," "his sons," "his peculiar treasure," "he gives them a name better than of sons and of daughters." They instantly become "kings and priests unto God;" and the very angels in Heaven account it an honor to wait upon them, as their ministering servants. In short, being born from above, they are sons of God, and "if sons, then heirs, heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ." What an elevation is this! Surely, in comparison of it, all earthly dignities are no better than the baubles of children, or the conceits of maniacs.
When elevated thus, the poor begin to feel also dispositions suited to their state. While they are destitute of religion, they either riot in a licentious independence, without any regard to character, or, with a servility unrestrained by conscience, yield themselves willing instruments to any one that can reward their services. But when once they are taught of God, they learn primarily and solely to regard his will. We again say, that they will obey all the lawful commands of their superiors; they will regard their authority as God's, and do whatever is required of them, "as unto the Lord," but their first inquiry will be, "What does my God require?" and, if urged to violate their duty to him, they will reply as the Apostles did, "Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge you," "we ought to obey God rather than men." Nor have they a lower standard of action than the most polished Christian upon earth: if they are truly upright before God, the rule by which they walk is that prescribed by the Apostle; and what can the highest refinement suggest more? Here therefore their elevation again appears, inasmuch as their habits are no longer formed by interest or the caprice of men, but founded on, and assimilated to, the mind and will of God.
As to the hopes of the poor, they have little to stimulate their ambition. To provide for their present wants, and to lay up something for a time of sickness, is the utmost that the generality of them aspire to. But what glorious views does religion open to them! Truly, instead of looking up with admiration to the great and opulent, they rather stand on an eminence, from whence they can look down upon them with pity and compassion. What are the prospects of princes, to those which are unfolded to their view? They can look within the veil of Heaven itself, and there see crowns and kingdoms reserved for them, yes, a seat upon the throne even of God himself. Who that contemplates this will not say that religion "exalts" the poor?
2. Upon the rich.
These religion humbles. It does not indeed despoil them of that honor which is due to their rank; (it rather confirms it to them;) but it humbles them in their own estimation, and in the estimation of others, and in the daily habit of their minds.
The rich are apt to arrogate much to themselves on account of their distinctions; and even before God to entertain high thoughts of themselves: "Our lips are our own: who is lord over us?" But let grace reach their hearts, and they no longer say, "I am rich and increased with goods, and have need of nothing;" but, "I am wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." And so far are they from despising the poor on account of the inferiority of their station, that they most gladly "condescend to men of low estate," and love them truly as brethren, notwithstanding they are "brethren only of low degree."
It is scarcely needful to say how much they are lowered also in the eyes of others. Only let them become true disciples of Christ, and it will soon appear that they have lost the esteem of an ungodly world. However wise or amiable they may be, the serpent's seed will hiss at them. Though David was a king, and as eminent for piety as man could be, he was the sport of fools, and "drunkards made songs upon him." If any qualities could have insured universal respect, the Lord Jesus Christ would have obtained it. But "he was despised and rejected of men," and "if they called the Master of the house Beelzebub, much more will they those of his household."
But though the contempt of men was once the most formidable of all evils, they are not much concerned at it now; for they are made "poor in spirit," and consequently regardless of the indignities that are offered to them. They know what they deserve at God's hands; and therefore they are willing to bear anything from those whom He may use as instruments of his indignation or love. They are willing also that God should deal with them in any way he may see fit; and whether he give or take away, they are ready to bless his holy name. They are brought to a state of mind resembling that of a man subsisting upon alms: "they come to their God and Savior for gold, that they may be enriched; for eye-salve, that they may see; and for clothing, that the shame of their nakedness may not appear." They are contented, yes they are glad, to seek their daily bread at his hands, and to live altogether as pensioners on his grace and mercy. In short, as in their own estimation they are vile and guilty, so in the habit of their minds they are meek, patient, submissive, and dependent.
Thus, while the poor are elevated by religion, the rich "are reduced and made low."
And what shall we say of these diversified effects? Are they represented as adverse to our happiness? No, we are rather led to contemplate,
II. The universal satisfaction which they are calculated to produce.
That the poor have cause to rejoice in their exaltation, is obvious enough.
Think only what the poorest of the Lord's people are privileged to enjoy.
First, they have the most exalted of all characters.—Though some few of the Lord's people have been opulent, the generality have been "a poor and afflicted people." The Apostles had little else besides a scrip and a staff; they were "poor, though making many rich; and had nothing, though in some respects they possessed all things." When it pleased God also to send his only dear Son into the world, what was the state to which he appointed him? It was that of a poor man, who "had not where to lay his head." And has not this dignified the condition of the poor? Yes, have they not reason to glory, in being so assimilated to their Lord and Savior? The tribe of Levi had no portion allotted to them in Israel: but were they therefore less honorable than the rest? No, the Lord was their portion: and their want of earthly possessions was a favor conferred, and not a privilege denied. Thus it is an honor to the poor that they have their all in God: and though flesh and blood cannot receive the saying, it is really a greater honor to be fed like Elijah from day to day by the special providence of God, than to be living upon stores collected by the hands of men.
Next, they are in the most favorable of all states.—Our adorable Savior has determined this point beyond a doubt. He has declared, that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of Heaven," "with men," he says, "it is altogether impossible." The Rich Youth perished only because he would not sacrifice his earthly possessions: had he been a poor man, he would in all probability have followed Christ, and have been at this moment in Heaven. Besides, a rich man is afraid of being thought singular, if he "follow the Lord fully," he fancies that his situation obliges him to conform to the customs of the world: he is ashamed to associate with the Lord's people: nor will he suffer any one to deal faithfully with him: but a poor man may follow his own ways, and seek instruction wherever he can obtain it; and nobody will trouble himself about him: his instructor also may, without compliment or circumlocution, come at once to the point, and "declare unto him all the counsel of God." What an advantage is this for the obtaining of everlasting happiness; and what a solid ground of joy to all who possess it.
Once more; they have a sovereign antidote against all their disadvantages.—Be it granted; they want the benefit of human learning: but they have the teachings of God's Spirit. They want many earthly comforts; but they have the promises of the living God. "Their afflictions may abound; but their consolations also abound by Christ." Wherein they may be supposed to labor under any disadvantage, they have everything that they need, treasured up for them in Christ Jesus; and out of his fullness they receive, in the time and measure which he knows to be best for them. Poor they may be in this world's goods; but they are enriched with "the unsearchable riches of Christ."
Now let the poor say whether they have not reason to rejoice. Surely if they estimate their state aright, they may well "rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified."
That the rich have equal reason to rejoice in their humiliation, is, though less obvious, not at all less true.
What a mercy is it to them, that they are brought to see the vanity of all their earthly distinctions. In their unenlightened state, they have no conception how contemptible those things are, which they suppose to be of such mighty consequence. What is a high-sounding title, or a large estate, to a man that in a few hours is about to launch into eternity? Yet that is the real condition of all: we are like the grass, which by the influence of the sun and rain is brought forth rapidly into mirthful luxuriance, but by an eastern blast is withered in an hour. Everything we possess is perishing; and we ourselves also are fading away in the midst of our enjoyments. Ungodly men do not like to reflect on these things; but the true Christian delights to realize them in his soul: and he well deserves our warmest congratulations, who has learned to estimate earthly things by the standard of truth.
It is also a mercy to the opulent servants of God, that they are made to know wherein true honor and happiness consist. That which may be possessed by the vilest, as well as by the best of men, can never constitute the chief good of man. But to be restored to the favor of God, to live in the enjoyment of his presence, to possess his image on our souls, to glorify him in the world, and to be growing up into a fitness for his everlasting inheritance, this is honor, this is happiness: and O! what a mercy is it to see and feel this! Happy are you, whoever you are, that have lost your relish for earthly vanities, and are brought to set your affections upon things above!
Finally, it is a mercy past all conception to have for their portion an inheritance that shall never fade. Were they instantly, and of necessity, to be deprived of all they possess, we should still bid them to "rejoice that they were made low," for earthly riches, however great, are only dung and dross in comparison of the Christian's portion. Let those who in this life "took joyfully the spoiling of their goods," say, whether they found any reason to alter their minds, when once they reached the mansions of bliss? How small do their sacrifices now appear, how unworthy of a single thought! Blessed then indeed are you who are enabled to "forsake all and follow Christ," even "in this world" he promises you "an hundred-fold;" but what you shall possess in the world to come "no eye has seen, or ear heard, or heart conceived."
But what shall we say, either to the poor or rich, who are destitute of an interest in Christ? Shall we bid them rejoice? What cause of joy have the poor, who, after all their trials and privations here, shall have no part or lot with the saints above? or what ground of glorying have the rich, who will so soon be "lifting up their eyes in torments, seeking in vain a drop of water to cool their tongues?" Should we attempt to console any from a consideration of their present attainments or possessions, the prophet would rebuke our folly, and dash the cup out of their hands. Be it known then to you all, that the poor must be exalted here, if ever they would be exalted in a better world; and the rich must be humbled here, if ever they would attain the true riches. The poor must be made partakers of a divine nature, before they can "inherit a throne of glory;" and the rich must be emptied of self, before they can be "filled with all the fullness of God."
The Testimony of God Respecting His Tempted People
James 1:12. Blessed is the man that endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love him.
UNDER the afflictions with which we are visited in this valley of tears, philosophy has suggested many grounds for resignation and submission: but to find in them matter for self-congratulation and joy, was beyond the reach of unassisted reason. To that however are we led by the voice of revelation, which teaches us to look with confidence to a future state, wherein all that we endure for God, and in meek submission to his will, shall be compensated with a weight of glory, proportioned to the trials we have here sustained for his sake, and the spiritual improvement which we have derived from them. James, who wrote to "his Jewish brethren who were scattered abroad" through the violence of persecution, frequently repeats this consolatory idea. He begins with bidding them to "count it all joy when they fall into divers temptations." Towards the close of his epistle he declares this to be at least the persuasion of his own mind; "Behold, we count them happy that endure." But in the text he does not hesitate to affirm it as an unquestionable truth, that such persons are truly blessed: "Blessed is the man that endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to them that love him." Now as he spoke this by inspiration from God, I shall consider it as a declaration from God himself; and shall unfold to you,
I. God's testimony respecting his tempted people.
"Blessed is the man that endures temptation."
This sentiment doubtless, at first sight, appears very paradoxical.
How can it be? Consider the state of God's tempted people. Consider only the lighter trials which they are called to bear for their Lord's sake: hatred, reproach, contempt, ridicule, the opposition of their nearest friends and relatives; this, every one that will follow the Lord Jesus Christ, must endure: a variety of circumstances may tend to screen a man from heavier trials; but these, in some measure at least, are the lot of all, even of the least and poorest of Christ's followers, as well as of the most conspicuous among them: let the light but shine even into the poorest cottage, and the surrounding darkness will evince its incapacity to maintain communion with it. But come to the severer trials which thousands have to sustain: think of privations, the most distressing that can be imagined to flesh and blood: think of bonds, and imprisonment: think of death in its most terrible and appalling forms: shall it be said that there is any blessedness in these? Must we not rather say, that the persons who are called to endure such things are in the most wretched state? Yes, I must confess, as Paul himself says, "If in this life only such persons have hope, they are of all men most miserable," and altogether in a most pitiable condition. Nevertheless, while we heartily subscribe to this position of the Apostle, we must still say of the declaration in our text, that
Yet it is most true.
These sufferings must be viewed in their reference to eternity; and then they will wear a very different aspect from what they do when considered merely in themselves. For, "to those who love him and suffer for him, God has promised a crown of life, which they shall receive" at his hands the very instant that their sufferings are finished. Consider, "a crown!" the highest of all distinctions! "a crown of life!" not a corruptible one, like those which were given to the victors in the Olympic games; nor a temporary one, which is soon to be transferred to a successor—a crown of life and glory, which fades not away! Conceive of the saint as just entering into the eternal world, and ascending to Heaven from the flames of martyrdom: what a cloud of witnesses come forth to congratulate him on his victory, and to welcome him to those blessed abodes! Behold him welcomed too by his Lord and Master, for whose name he has suffered, and under whose banners he has fought: hear the plaudit with which he is received, "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter you into the joy of your Lord." See the crown brought forth, and put upon his head; and behold him seated on the very throne of God himself, according to that promise, "To him that overcomes, will I give to sit down with me upon my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father upon his throne," I say, behold these things, and then tell me, whether the prospect of such glory, assured to him by the promise and oath of God, did not constitute him blessed in the midst of all his sufferings? Of the myriads, respecting whom it is said, "These all came out of great tribulation," do you suppose there is one who regrets the sufferings he once endured for the sake of Christ? Not one assuredly: not one, who does not congratulate himself that he was ever counted worthy to suffer for the Redeemer's sake. But is James peculiar in his sentiments on this head? No; our blessed Lord bids all "who suffer for righteousness' sake, to rejoice and leap for joy," and to the same effect speak all his holy Apostles. Though therefore "no suffering is for the present joyous, but grievous," yet, taken in connection with their present consolations, and with all the future consequences, sufferings may justly be regarded as grounds of self-congratulation and joy.
Such then being God's testimony, I proceed to set before you,
II. Some instructions arising out of it.
There are in our text several instructive hints, which ought not to be overlooked.
1. We should so love the Lord Jesus Christ, as to be willing to suffer for him.
Love, even among men, is of little value, if it will make no sacrifices for the object beloved. But the Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of all the love that can ever be exercised towards him. Consider only what love he has manifested towards us: how he left the bosom of his Father for us, and emptied himself of all his glory, in order to assume our nature, and to expiate by his own blood the sins of the whole world: is it a mere cold esteem that is a proper return for such love? When the terms on which alone he could save the world were proposed to him, he said, "Lo! I come, I delight to do your will, O God." When he then proposes that we, in testimony of our love to him, should "take up our cross and follow him," shall we draw back, and complain that his yoke is too heavy for us? Of what value will he account such love as that? Go, he will say, and "offer it to your earthly friend," and see whether he will value it: how much less then is it suited to express your obligations to me, who have redeemed you to God with my own blood!
It is worthy of observation, that the same person who in the first clause of the text is spoken of as "enduring temptation," in the last clause is characterized as "loving God," for, in fact, none will suffer for him who do not love him; nor can any love him without being willing to suffer for him. If therefore we profess love to God and to the Lord Jesus Christ while yet we are afraid of bearing the contempt and hatred of an ungodly world for his sake, we only deceive our own souls: for he has plainly told us, that he will consider none as his disciples, who will not take up their cross daily and follow him. He has told us, that, if we are ashamed of him and deny him, he will be ashamed of us and deny us: and that those only who are willing to lay down their lives for his sake, shall ever save them unto life eternal.
I pray you, brethren, try your love to the Savior by this touchstone: and never imagine that it is sincere, unless it will stand this test.
2. We should so apprehend God's promises, as utterly to despise men's threats.
"Exceeding great and precious are the promises which God has given unto them that love him," nor is it possible for us to be in any situation, wherein he has not made ample provision for our support and consolation. Now these promises are all sure and certain: "they are all yes and amen in Christ Jesus," nor can so much as one jot or tittle of them ever fail. But look at the threatenings of man; how empty and vain are they! The whole universe combined cannot effect the smallest thing without God's special permission: and, if permitted to execute their purposes, how impotent is their rage, when God is pleased to interpose in behalf of his people! Fire could not hurt the Hebrew Youths, nor lions injure the defenseless Daniel, nor chains and dungeons confine Peter on the eve of his intended execution. Men, the most potent monarchs not excepted, are no more than an axe or saw in the hand of God, who uses it, or not, according to his own sovereign will, and for the promotion only of his own glory. "Who then are you, that you should be afraid of a man that shall die, and of a son of man that shall be as grass; and forget the Lord your Maker?" Besides, suppose man to prevail to the extent of his wishes; what can he do? He can only reach the body: the soul he cannot touch. "Fear not man therefore, who can only kill the body, and after that has no more that he can do; but fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in Hell: yes, I say unto you, Fear him." And, as God has promised that "our strength shall be proportioned to our day" of trial, let us rest on his word, and hold in utter contempt all the menaces of our most potent enemies.
3. We should so realize eternity as to rise superior to all the concerns of time and sense.
In the view of eternity, all that relates to time vanishes, as the twinkling star before the mid-day sun. If we could suppose a man caught up, like the Apostle Paul, to the third heavens, and then sent down again to abide a few more years upon earth, what would be his estimate of those things which so occupy and enslave our carnal minds? The baubles of children would not be more contemptible in his eyes than the glittering pageantry of courts: and, though the sufferings which are sometimes inflicted on the saints are heavy, they would be reckoned by him as "not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall before long be revealed in us." But it is not needful that we be transported to Heaven to this end: we have the whole set before us in the oracles of God: and, if we believe those oracles, we may be as fully convinced of the comparative insignificance of earthly things, as if we saw the crown of glory with our bodily eyes, or already tasted of the heavenly bliss. Let us then seek that "faith, which is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen." Then shall we, like those of old, "take joyfully the spoiling of our goods, knowing that we have in Heaven a better and an enduring substance;" and, with Moses, shall "esteem even the reproach of Christ as greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt."
Sin the Offspring of Our Own Hearts
James 1:13–15. Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempts he any man: but every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.
THERE are temptations necessarily connected with the Christian life, and which often, through the weakness of our nature, become the occasions of sin: and there are other temptations which are the direct and immediate cause of sin. The former are external; the latter are within a man's own bosom. The former may be referred to God as their author, and be considered as a ground of joy: the latter must be traced to our own wicked hearts; and are proper grounds of the deepest humiliation. This distinction is made in the passage before us. In the foregoing verses the former are spoken of; in the text, the latter.
In the words of our text, we notice the origin, the growth, and the issue of sin. We notice,
I. Its origin.
Many are ready to trace their sin to God himself.
This is done when we say, "I could not help it," for then we reflect on our Maker, as not enduing us with strength sufficient for our necessities. It is done also, though not quite so directly, when we ascribe our fall to those who were in some respect accessary to it: for then we blame the providence of God, as before we did his creative power. It was thus that Adam acted, when he imputed his transgression to the influence of his wife, and ultimately to God who gave her to him.
But God neither is, nor can be, the Author of sin.
He may, and does, try men, in order to exercise their graces, and to show what he has done for their souls. Thus he tempted Abraham, and Job, and Joseph, and many others. But these very instances prove that he did not necessitate, or in any respect influence, them to sin; for they shone the brighter in proportion as they were tried. But he never did, nor ever will, lead any man into sin. And though he is said to have "hardened Pharaoh's heart," and to have "moved David to number the people," he did not either of these things in any other way than by leaving them to themselves.
All sin must be traced to the evil propensities of our own nature.
"A clean thing cannot be brought out of an unclean;" and therefore no descendant of Adam can be free from sin. We have within us a secret bias to sin; which, however good our direction appear to be, operates at last to turn us from God. That bias is called "lust," or desire, or concupiscence: and it works in all, though in a great variety of degrees and manner. All sin is fruit proceeding from this root, even from "the lust that wars in our members;" and in whatever channel our iniquity may run, it must be traced to that as its genuine and proper source.
This will appear more strongly, while we mark,
II. Its growth.
Its first formation in the soul is often slow and gradual.
"Lust," or our inward propensity to sin, presents something to our imagination as likely to gratify us in a high degree. Whether it be profit, or pleasure, or honor, we survey it with a longing eye, and thereby our desire after it is inflamed. Conscience perhaps suggests that it is forbidden fruit which we are coveting; and that, as being prohibited, it will ultimately tend rather to produce misery than happiness. In opposition to this, our sinful principle intimates a doubt whether the gratification be forbidden; or at least whether, in our circumstances, the tasting of it be not very allowable: at all events, it suggests that our fellow-creatures will know nothing respecting it; that we may easily repent of the evil; and that God is very ready to forgive; and that many who have used far greater liberties are yet happy in Heaven; and that, consequently, we may enjoy the object of our desire, without suffering any loss or inconvenience. In this manner the affections are kindled, and the will is bribed to give its consent: then the bait is swallowed, the hook is fastened within us; and we are "dragged away" from God, from duty, from happiness; yes, if God do not seasonably interpose, we are drawn to everlasting perdition.
Its progress to maturity is generally rapid.
The metaphor of a foetus formed in the womb, and brought afterwards to the birth, is frequently used in Scripture in reference to sin. When the will has consented to comply with the suggestions of the evil principle, then the embryo of sin is, if we may so speak, formed within us; and nothing remains but for time and opportunity to bring it forth. This of course must vary with the circumstances under which we are: our wishes may be accomplished, or may prove abortive: but whether our desire be fulfilled or not, sin is imputed to us, because it formally exists within us: or rather it is brought to the birth, though not altogether in the way we hoped and expected.
We proceed to notice,
III. Its issue.
Sin was never barren; its issue is numerous as the sands upon the sea-shore: but in every instance the name of its first-born has been "death." Death is,
1. Its penalty.
Death temporal, spiritual, and eternal, was threatened as the punishment of transgression while our first parents were yet in paradise. And on many occasions has the threatening been renewed—So that sin and death are absolutely inseparable.
2. Its desert.
The fixing of death as the consequence of transgression was no arbitrary appointment. The penal evil of death is no more than the moral evil of sin. Consider the extreme malignity of sin: What rebellion against God! What a dethroning of God from our hearts! What a preferring of Satan himself, and his service, to God's light and easy yoke! View it as it is seen in the agonies and death of God's only Son: Can that be of small malignity which so oppressed and overwhelmed "Jehovah's fellow?" Of those who are now suffering the torments of the damned, not one would dare to arraign the justice of God, or to say that his punishment exceeded his offence: whatever we in our present state may think, our mouths will all be shut, when we have juster views, and an experimental sense, of the bitterness of sin.
3. Its tendency.
We may see the proper effect of sin in the conduct of Adam, when he fled from God, whom he had been accustomed to meet with familiarity and joy. He felt a consciousness that his soul was bereft of innocence; and he was unable to endure the sight of Him whom he had so greatly offended. In the same manner sin affects our minds: it indisposes us for communion with God; it unfits us for holy exercises: and, if a person under the guilt and dominion of it were admitted into Heaven, he would be unable to participate the blessedness of those around him; and would rather hide himself under rocks and mountains, than dwell in the immediate presence of a holy God. Annihilation would be to him the greatest favor that could be bestowed upon him; so truly does the Apostle say, that "the motions of sin do work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death."
1. Do not palliate sin.
Though circumstances doubtless may either lessen or increase the guilt of sin, nothing under Heaven can render it light or venial. Our temptations may be great; but nothing can hurt us, if we do not ourselves concur with the tempter. That wicked fiend exercised all his malice against our adorable Lord; but could not prevail, because there was nothing in him to second or assist his efforts. So neither could he overcome us, if we did not voluntarily submit to his influence. All sin therefore must be traced to the evil dispositions of our own hearts; and consequently affords us a just occasion to humble ourselves before God in dust and ashes. If we presume to reflect on God as the author of our sin, we increase our guilt a hundred-fold: it is only in abasing ourselves that we can at all hope for mercy and forgiveness.
2. Do not trifle with temptation.
We carry about with us much inflammable matter, if we may so speak; and temptation strikes the spark which produces an explosion. How readily are evil thoughts suggested by what we see or hear; and how strongly do they fix upon the mind! "Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles!" Let us then stand at a distance from the places, the books, the company, that may engender sin. And let us, in conformity with our Lord's advice, "watch and pray, that we enter not into temptation."
3. Do not for one moment neglect the Savior.
There is none but Jesus that can stand between sin and death. Indeed even "he overcame death only by dying" in our stead: and we can escape it only by believing in him. We deserve death: we have deserved it for every sin we have ever committed. Ten thousand deaths are our proper portion. Let us then look to Him who died for us. Let us look to him, not only for the sins committed long ago, but for those of daily incursion. Our best act would condemn us, if he did not "bear the iniquity of our holy things." He is our only deliverer from the wrath to come: to Him therefore let us flee continually, and "cleave unto him with full purpose of heart."
God the Only Source of All Good
James 1:16, 17. Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.
THERE is much evil in the world. But people are little aware from whence it proceeds. We forget that at the first creation there was no such thing as evil, either natural or moral, in the whole universe. God, it is true, could have prevented the existence of it: and so he could have prevented the existence of the world itself, which only came into being through the operation of his sovereign will and of his almighty power. It is not for us to inquire, why he permitted evil to exist. Doubtless he will ultimately be glorified in all that he has done, yes and, on the whole, in all that he has permitted, though we cannot exactly say how that glory shall accrue to him. All that we, in our present state, are called to, is, to feel and to maintain that he does all things well: that, however he may permit, he does not do evil; but that, on the contrary, all good, and nothing but good, is to be ascribed to him.
Now it is of great importance that we should, at least as far as regards ourselves, have just views of this matter, since for want of them we greatly err. So the Apostle evidently intimates in the words which we have read: from whence I will take occasion to show,
I. The true character of the Deity.
He is here declared to be the only, and the unchanging source of all good.
1. He is the only source of all good.
The sun in the material world may properly be called "the father of lights," because there is no light but what proceeds from him. The moon and stars only reflect the light which they receive from him. Thus is God to the whole creation the only source of light and life. There is no "good and perfect gift," but proceeds from him. In nature, all the worlds were framed by him, and everything in them was fitted for its peculiar use, and for the benefit of the whole. In providence, everything is ordered with unerring wisdom to sub-serve the designs of God, and to accomplish his holy will, yes, and ultimately to further the welfare of all his chosen people—In grace this appears in a still more striking point of view. Every good disposition is formed by him in the heart of man, which, without the agency of his Spirit, would continue one entire and unaltered mass of corruption through all eternity. If we either will or do anything that is good, it is in consequence of his electing love and sovereign grace.
2. He is the unchanging source of all good.
If in the communication of good he in some respects resembles the sun, he in other respects differs widely from it. The sun, though the fittest emblem that we have of immutability in dispensing good, has yet its changes, both annual and diurnal, and at different seasons of the day and year, casts its shadows in a widely different form, according to the quarter in which it shines, and to its position in our hemisphere, as more vertical or horizontal. But not so Jehovah, the Father of all heavenly lights. There are no changes with him. "With him is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." To his believing people he is "the same yesterday, today, and for ever." True, his light may be intercepted by a cloud: but he himself remains the same: and let only the cloud be dispelled, and he will shine as bright as ever on the believing soul.
Now that you may see how important this view of the Deity is, I beg you to notice,
II. The errors we run into for want of duly adverting to it.
We err exceedingly,
1. In a way of self-vindication.
This is the precise point to which James directs our attention. After saying, "Let no man say, when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil; neither tempts he any man: but every man, when he is tempted, is drawn away of his own lust and enticed;" he adds, "Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift, and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," Evil is from yourselves, and from yourselves alone: good, and only good, is from God.
Now you cannot but know, that, like our first parents, we are ever ready to exculpate ourselves, and to cast the blame of our sins, either on the tempters that led us to them, or on the propensities which God himself has implanted in us. But in both of these cases we do, in fact, cast the blame on God, as either immediately or remotely the cause of the evils we commit. But beware of all excuses, be they what they may. The fault is all your own, and nothing but humiliation and contrition will become you to the latest hour of your lives—If ever you perish, you will have none but yourselves to blame.
2. In a way of self-dependence.
We are ever prone to look for some good in ourselves, instead of seeking all good from God alone. But it is in vain to rely on any wisdom of our own to guide us, or strength of our own to support us, or righteousness of our own to justify us. Satan himself may as well look for these things in himself as we: and it is on this account that God has been "pleased to treasure up in his dear Son a fullness of them, that we may receive them all from him" from day to day, and from hour to hour. Know you this, that in yourselves "you are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked;" and "from Christ alone can you ever receive clothing to cover you, or gold to enrich you, or the eye-salve" that shall administer healing to your organs of vision. "All your fresh springs must be in God," even in God alone.
3. In a way of self-applause.
We are no less prone to take to ourselves credit from what is good, than to shift off from ourselves blame in what is evil. But "if we differ from others or from our former selves, who is it that has made us to differ? or what have we that we have not received from God himself?" As well might the earth boast of its fertility independently of the sun, whose genial rays have called it forth, as we arrogate to ourselves honor on account of any good that we have ever done. If you would see what the earth would be independent of the sun, go to the polar regions in the depth of winter. And, if you would see what you yourselves would be independent of God, go down to that place where God never comes by the operations of his grace, and where the damned spirits are left without control. If there be any good in you, it is from Christ that you have received it: for "without him you could do nothing." If you have attained to anything more than ordinary, you must say, "He who has wrought me to the self-same thing is God." Even if you equaled the Apostle Paul in holiness, you must say, "By the grace of God I am what I am;" and in reference to every individual act, "It was not I, but the grace of God that was with me."
"Do not err then, my beloved brethren."
Be aware of your tendencies; and remember how to correct them. You never can err in taking shame to yourselves: nor can you ever err in giving glory to God. But if you arrogate anything to yourselves, you will rob God: and, in robbing him, you will eventually, and to your utter ruin, rob yourselves."
Regeneration—Its Author, Means, And End
James 1:18. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures.
THERE is an evil in the world so monstrous and so horrible, that one can scarcely conceive how it should ever be committed; namely, the ascribing unto God our own iniquities, and tracing them to him as their proper author. Yet is this the common refuge of sinners; who, when led captive by their own lusts, excuse themselves by averring, that no criminality can attach to the indulgence of passions which God himself has given them. But James protests against this impiety, and declares, that "God tempts no man; but that every man who yields to temptation, is drawn away and enticed by his own lust." Another evil also he sets himself to counteract, namely, the tracing of good to ourselves, as though it originated with us as its proper authors. This, though it does not shock our feelings so much as the former does, yet is of the same nature with it, and no less offensive in the sight of God: for, while the former sentiment makes God the cause of evil, the latter denies him to be the cause of good. But on this subject also James rectifies our views; assuring us, that, as all light proceeds from the sun, so does "every good and perfect gift come down from above, even from God the Father of lights." We may indeed have great changes, as from day to night, or from summer to winter: but these arise from ourselves only; for "with him is no variableness, neither shadow of turning;" and, if we have less abundant communications from him at one time than another, it is owing to the change of our position with respect to him, and to our temporary departure from him. If, on the contrary, a spiritual change has taken place in any of us, so that we have been born again, it is because "he begat us with the word of truth;" and begat us, not on account of any merit in us, but purely "of his own will," and "to the praise of the glory of his own grace."
In this assertion of the Apostle the whole subject of regeneration or conversion comes before us: and we shall be led to mark,
I. The source from whence it flows.
It is not from man.
Man has neither power nor inclination to convert himself truly and thoroughly to God. If only we consider what is said in the Scriptures respecting the extreme weakness of man in relation to everything that is spiritually good,—that "without Christ he can do nothing;" that "no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit;" and that "we are not of ourselves sufficient even to think anything that is good;" that our sufficiency even for that is of God alone,—how can it be thought that we should be able to "put off the old man and to put on the new," and to "renew ourselves in the spirit of our minds after the image of our God in righteousness and true holiness?" The very terms in which this change is spoken of, as a resurrection, a new birth, a new creation, clearly import, that it is beyond the power of man to effect it in himself. We need go no further than to the image used in the text itself, to show the utter absurdity of any such idea. Nor have any others a power to effect it in us: for man can only address himself to our outward senses: he has no access whatever to our hearts; he can therefore never accomplish in us so great a work, as that of "giving us a new heart, and renewing a right spirit within us."
Nor has any man the inclination thus to renew himself. Let us look around, and see what is the state of mankind at large. Are they mourning over their degeneracy and corruption? Are they panting after holiness? Are they using the means which are confessedly within their reach? Are they thankful for every aid they can receive, and for every instruction by which their good desires may be furthered? If you think they are, take your Bible with you, and go to all your neighbors and offer your assistance to them, and solicit a reciprocal aid from them: act as if you all were shipwrecked, and all were anxious for their own personal welfare, and for the welfare of those around them. Do this, and you will soon see how much inclination men have for a thorough conversion of their souls to God.
It is from God, and from God alone.
This we are not left to determine by any fallible reasonings of our own: it is decided for us by God himself; who, speaking of all who received the Lord Jesus Christ, and thereby received power to become the sons of God, says, "They were born, not of blood (or in consequence of their descent from any particular parents), nor of the will of the flesh (that is, from any good desires of their own), nor of the will of man (that is, from the kind efforts of others), but of God." It is God alone who makes one to differ from another: it is "God alone who gives us either to will, or to do," what is good: and "He who is the Author, is also the Finisher," of all that can issue in a man's salvation.
But as God is pleased to use means and instruments in this work, I will proceed to show,
II. The means by which it is effected.
It becomes not us to restrict God in the use of means. We know that he frequently makes use of affliction, and of conversation; and we will not presume to say that he never employs even dreams or visions for the attainment of his ends: we know assuredly that he has done so in former times; and therefore he may do so at this time (we confess, however, that we are not partial to anything arising out of such means: we are always fearful that they will issue in something transient and delusive: we prefer infinitely what proceeds from causes more rational, and more tangible, and more consonant with the dispensation under which we live); but we are not at liberty to limit God to any particular mode of communicating his blessings to mankind. Of one thing however we are sure (and that will effectually cut off all occasion for enthusiastic delusions); namely, that whatever means God makes use of to bring the soul to a consideration of its state, it is "by the word of truth" alone that he savingly converts it to himself. By other means he may call our attention to the word; but by the word only does he guide us to the knowledge of his truth, and to the attainment of his salvation.
By the word he begins the good work within us.
It is from thence alone that we attain the knowledge of our fallen state—From thence alone can we learn the way of salvation through a crucified Redeemer—From thence alone can we derive encouragement to lay hold on the hope that is set before us: for the only legitimate object of faith is the word of God; and "without faith, so grounded, we cannot possibly please God."
By the word also he carries it on, and perfects it, within us.
"The word is that unadulterated milk by which the new-born babes must grow." And, whatever degrees of sanctification are produced in us at a more advanced period, they are effected by the same divine instrument; as Paul has said: "Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish." Hence our blessed Lord, when praying for his Church, said, "Sanctify them through your truth: your word is truth." Not that the word has this power in itself: for thousands both hear and read it without deriving any benefit from it to their souls. It is "the sword of the Spirit;" and effects no more than what He who wields it sees fit to accomplish. If it "come in word only," it is of no weight at all: but when it "comes in demonstration of the Spirit and of power," then "it effects all for which God himself has sent it," and "through him is mighty to the pulling down of all the strong-holds" of sin and Satan.
Thus is the whole work of grace wrought within us: and a blessed work it will appear, while we show,
III. The end for which it is wrought.
The contemplation of this may well reconcile us to all that has been said about the sovereign will of God. The ground on which men are so jealous of the Divine sovereignty is, that they think it leads to a disregard of holiness; since, if God have chosen men to salvation, they shall attain it without holiness; and if he have not chosen them to salvation, they can never be saved, how holy soever they may be. But this is altogether an erroneous statement. God is not so regardless of holiness as this supposes: on the contrary, if he elect any, it is "that they may be holy, and without blame before him in love;" and, if "he beget any with the word of truth," it is "that we may be to him a kind of first-fruits of his creatures."
The "first-fruits" were, by God's own appointment, holy; so that every one was bound to consecrate them unto him. In like manner are God's people to be holy, and altogether devoted to his service. They are on no account to imagine themselves at their own disposal: "They are God's; and must glorify him with their body and their spirit, which are his."
It is not to salvation only that God ordains his people; but to sanctification, as the way to, and the preparation for, the blessedness of Heaven. "He has chosen them out of the worlds," from which "they are to be separated," as the first-fruits are from the remainder of the harvest. Being "a chosen generation, they are to be a peculiar people," "zealous of good works." To this "the word of truth" bears testimony in every part. To think that God should "beget" any person by his word and Spirit, and leave him at liberty to be a servant of sin and Satan, is a thought from which one revolts with utter abhorrence. Thus at least did Paul: "Is Christ the minister of sin? God forbid." "Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid." "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid." "God has not called us unto impurity, but unto holiness," and, whatever men may say respecting God's "will" in ordaining us to life, or respecting our relation to him as his children, "begotten of him," this is a truth that must never for one moment be questioned, "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord."
See then that you,
1. Value the ordinances of God.
The word is doubtless to be read with care and diligence at home: for, as we have said, it is the food of God's new-born offspring, and the great medium by which he communicates his blessings to the soul. But it is through the ministry of that word that God chiefly works. He will bless those who read it in their own houses: but he will bless also, and more abundantly, those who at the same time attend upon the ministration of it by those whom he has sent to speak in his name; for "he loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob." Let not any think light of the ordinances, because the persons who dispense them are weak as other men: for "God has put his treasure into earthen vessels, on purpose that the excellency of the power may the more manifestly appear to be of him." If indeed men look to the instrument, they will meet with nothing but disappointment: but if they will look through the instrument to God, they shall find the "word as quick and powerful" as ever, and shall experience it to be "the power of God unto their everlasting salvation." There is no blessing which God will not dispense to them by means of it—Nor, if only they mix faith with what they hear, shall their most enlarged expectations of "profit" ever be disappointed.
2. Labor to improve them for their destined end.
Sanctification, as you have heard, is that for which both the word and ordinances are to be improved. Examine then yourselves by what you hear, that you may find out every defect in your obedience; and keep in remembrance both the precepts and examples that are set before you, that so you may attain to the highest degrees of holiness, and "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God." You know, that to appropriate any of the first-fruits to a common use would have been sacrilege: beware then lest the world rob God of any measure of those services which are due to him alone. You are to be his wholly and altogether: "your bodies are to be his," and "your members instruments of righteousness unto him." Your souls, with all their faculties, are to be his also; his temple, wherein he is to reside; his throne, wherein he is to reign: "your whole body, soul, and spirit are to be sanctified wholly unto him," you are to be altogether "a living sacrifice unto him," and this is no other than "your reasonable service." And, as it is by this only that you can make a due improvement of ordinances, so it is by this only that you can have in your own souls any evidence that you are born of God. As for others, they can form no judgment at all of you, but by your works. The rule for them to judge by, is this: "He who commits sin is of the devil: whoever is born of God does not commit sin; for his seed, namely, the word of God, abides in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." Press forward then for the highest attainments, that, "being blameless and harmless, and without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, you may shine as lights in the world, and approve yourselves indeed to be the sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty."
The Reward of Obeying the Gospel
James 1:25. Whoever looks into the perfect law of liberty, and continues therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
A PROFESSION of religion without the practice of it will avail us little. Obvious as this truth is, it needs to be frequently insisted on. Even in the Apostle's days there were many who "professed to know God, while in works they denied him." James wrote his epistle with a more immediate view to such persons. He tells them plainly that they only "deceive their own selves," but affirms with equal confidence that the practical Christian shall be blessed.
We shall consider,
I. The Apostle's description of the Gospel.
The Gospel is generally thought to be a mere system of restraints.
But it is, in truth, a "law of liberty."
It finds us under a worse than Egyptian bondage; and proclaims liberty from our oppressive yoke. It offers pardon to those who are under the condemnation of the law; and freedom from sin to those over whom it has had dominion. It rescues us from the captivity in which Satan has held us; it breaks the fetters whereby the world has retained its ascendency over us; and opens the way for the unrestrained observance of holy duties. It is to captive sinners, what the jubilee-trumpet was to the enslaved Jews; and effects for the imprisoned soul what the angel wrought for Peter. This liberty however it proclaims with the authority of a "law." It does not merely offer what we may alter or reject: it is properly called by the Apostle "the law of faith." It prescribes the only possible method of obtaining salvation; it declares that all attempts to find out another will be vain; and it enjoins us to embrace this at the peril of our souls.
It is justly called a "perfect" law of liberty.
Nothing can be added to it to render it more effectual: neither ceremonial nor moral duties can at all improve Christ's finished work. It will be utterly made void also, if anything be taken from it. The blood of Christ, not any work of ours, must be regarded as the price of our redemption; and the liberty itself must be received as the gift of God through faith. The Gospel is perfect also with respect to its effects upon the conscience. The Mosaic sacrifices were little more than remembrances of sins; but in the Gospel we have a sacrifice that takes away our sin. The soul, once purged by the Redeemer's blood, is cleansed for ever; and, once freed by his almighty grace, is free indeed!
This beautiful view of the Gospel will easily account for,
II. The regard which the Christian pays to it.
A man immured in a dungeon, would not treat with indifference a proclamation of pardon; nor can he who is in earnest about salvation, disregard the Gospel.
He endeavors to understand it.
He does not inspect it to gratify a foolish curiosity: he searches into it with care and diligence. Like the Bereans of old, he maturely weighs its declarations, and "proves all things in it, that he may hold fast that which is good." Even the angels themselves desire to investigate its mysteries: much more does he, who feels so great an interest in its contents. Nor does he do this in a transient manner, but with persevering diligence.
He labors also to obey it.
What he hears or reads is not suffered to escape his memory: he at least "gives earnest heed to it, lest at any time he should let it slip." He cannot be satisfied to "see his face in a glass, and presently to forget what manner of man he was." he desires to have the word engraved on his heart, and transcribed into his life. When he hears of liberty, he feels a solicitude to obtain it; or, having obtained it, he strives to honor his almighty Deliverer. He is well aware that his pretensions to faith must be supported by a suitable life and conversation; and it is his determination, through grace, to show forth his faith by his works.
That he does not find it vain to serve God, will appear by considering,
III. The reward which he ensures to himself thereby.
The world suppose that the service of God is irksome and unprofitable; but the Christian can attest the contrary from his own experience.
In the very act of obeying he finds a rich reward.
He can adopt, in reference to the law, the declaration of Paul. However strict the commandments be, he does not account them grievous: on the contrary, he feels "the ways of religion to be pleasantness and peace." His deliverance from impetuous passions is no small source of happiness: his exercise of benevolent affections greatly tranquillizes his mind. The testimony of his own conscience is a rich and continual feast. Moreover God himself will grant to him delightful tokens of his approbation. He will shed abroad his love in the hearts of his faithful servants; He will lift upon them the light of his applauding countenance; and "seal them with the Spirit of promise, as the earnest of their inheritance." Thus, in the most literal sense, is that expression realized; and the description, alluded to in the text, is abundantly verified.
A still more glorious recompense also awaits him in the future world.
Many are extremely cautious of asserting this truth. They are afraid lest they should be thought to be advocates for the doctrine of human merit; but there is no truth more clear than that our works shall be rewarded. Nor does this at all interfere with the doctrines of grace. Our persons and our services are equally accepted through Christ, and our happiness will be altogether the gift of God for his sake: but our works will assuredly be the measure of our reward, and we may with propriety be stimulated by the hope of a future recompense. Let the Christian then know, that not the meanest of his services shall be forgotten; but that his weight of glory shall be proportioned to his services.
1. The inconsiderate hearers.
It is obvious that many hear the word without receiving any saving benefit. This is owing to their own carelessness and inattention. They are like the way-side hearers, from whom Satan catches away the word; but such hearers do not merely lose the blessings which the faithful Christian obtains. If the word be not "a savor of life, it becomes a savor of death, to their souls." O that all would remember the admonition once given to the Jews. Thus should they know the truth, and the truth should make them free.
2. The practical hearers.
You have been brought from bondage to liberty, from darkness to light; and, doubtless, you experience the blessedness of doing the will of God. "Stand fast then in the liberty with which Christ has made you free;" "and be not entangled again with any yoke of bondage." Show that you consider God's service as perfect freedom. Seek to have your very "thoughts brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ." Thus shall your "peace flow down like a river;" and abundant treasures be laid up for you in the heavenly kingdom.
James 1:26. If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridles not his tongue, but deceives his own heart, this mans religion is vain.
IF there be persons in the present day who pervert the doctrines of the Gospel, and take occasion from them to depreciate morality, we must not wonder at it, since this evil obtained to a very great extent even in the apostolic age. It was with a view to persons of this description chiefly that James wrote this practical and vituperative epistle. It is evident that the Christian temper was too much overlooked by many who professed themselves followers of Christ. There were many who loved to hear the Gospel, but neglected to comply with its injunctions. In particular, they would give a very undue licence to their tongues, indulging themselves in most uncharitable censures of each other; while in the opinion of their own party, and in their own estimation, they stood high as "saints of the Lord." But, in the words which we have read, the Apostle James declared plainly to them, that they "deceived their own souls," and that "their religion was vain."
In this declaration we may see,
I. The proper office of religion in the soul.
Religion is not intended to fill the mind with notions, but to regulate the heart and life.
1. As admitted into the soul, it brings us under the authority of God's law.
Previous to our reception of the Gospel, we know no other rule of conduct than that of our own will, or the opinions of the world around us. But when we have "received the truth as it is in Jesus," we see that God is a Sovereign who must be obeyed; and that his law is to be a rule of action to all his creatures. His law extends not to outward actions only, but to the thoughts and desires of the heart; over which it exercises a complete control. We now begin to see, that the requirements of that law, in their utmost extent, are all "holy, and just, and good;" precisely such as it became Jehovah to enact, and such as it is our truest happiness to obey. The mere circumstance that it has been spoken by the Lord, is quite sufficient to give it, in all cases, a paramount authority: nor are the customs or opinions of the whole world, however long or universally established, accounted of any weight in opposition to it.
2. As operating in the soul, it disposes and qualifies us to obey that law.
The Gospel duly received, does not merely convince the judgment, but engages the affections; and at the same time that it gives a new taste, it imparts a vital energy; whereby we are enabled to "put off the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and to put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." It is an engine of vast power: it is "mighty through God to the pulling down of the strong-holds of sin and Satan: it casts down all towering imaginations, and everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God; and brings into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ."
Now all this is implied in the text. It is taken for granted, that religion, duly operating, will enable us to "bridle the tongue." But, to regulate the tongue, we must of necessity "keep and rectify the heart," since "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." If therefore the not bridling of the tongue argues our religion to be vain, it is evident, that the proper office of religion is to bring the whole soul into subjection to God's law, and to render us conformed to the perfect example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It will make us to aspire after this, and to strive for it, and in a considerable measure to attain it. I say, in a considerable measure; because perfection, sinless perfection, is not to be attained by such corrupt and feeble creatures as we. "The wildest beasts have been so tamed as almost to have changed their nature: but the tongue can no man tame," so as never in any instance to offend with it. Not even Moses, or Job, or Paul, attained such perfection as that. But still, as to any predominant habit of sin, we shall be delivered from it, if we are truly upright before God; and shall be enabled to say with David, "I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue: I will keep my mouth with a bridle," when most tempted and provoked to speak unadvisedly with my lips.
From hence we can be at no loss to determine,
II. The state of those in whom its appropriate influence is not found.
The declaration in our text may be accounted harsh; and particularly as made to persons who were considered as eminent in the Church of Christ. But it is true; and must be delivered, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear. Mark,
1. What is here supposed.
It is supposed that a man may seem to others to be religious, and may be fully persuaded in his own mind that he is so; and yet have so little government of his tongue, as to prove that he deceives his own heart, and that his religion is vain. And is this a supposition that is not warranted in fact? Would to God it were so! but he can know very little of the Christian world, divided as it is into innumerable sects and parties, and not know, that the most prominent in every sect have been but too ready to condemn each other, and oftentimes with an acrimony which has shown clearly enough under whose malignant influence they were. A little difference of sentiment about certain doctrines (though not of primary or fundamental importance), or about matters of discipline only (which are confessedly less plainly revealed in the Gospel), have been sufficient, and still are, to rend the seamless garment of Christ into ten thousand pieces, and to fill with mutual enmity whole communities, who profess to have embraced a religion of love. Nor is it in this respect only that the Christian world are obnoxious to the reproof given in our text. The pride, and conceit, and vanity, of many professors proclaim to the whole world how destitute they are of true humility, and consequently of true religion. Their envious surmisings too, their uncharitable censures, their vindictive recriminations; alas! there are scarcely any persons more guilty of these things than blind bigots and party zealots, and talkative professors. Shall I mention the licence which many give to their tongue, in ungoverned anger, in palpable falsehood, in shameless impurity? Ah! tell it not in Gath; publish it not in the streets of Ashkelon: such are the defects of many who yet stand fair with the Christian world, and would think themselves greatly injured, if their piety were held in doubt. It is plain that such things existed in the Apostle's days; and we flatter ourselves too much, if we think that the Church is a whit purer in the present day. There ever were, and there still are, "tares growing with the wheat;" and they must be left to God, who alone can make the separation.
2. What is here asserted.
The religion of such persons, however eminent they may be in the estimation of themselves or others, is altogether "vain," for it will neither be accepted of God, nor be of any avail for the salvation of their souls. God cannot accept it, because he looks at the heart. External forms, or strong professions, cannot deceive him. "He requires truth in the inward parts," and forms his estimate of men by the conformity of their hearts to his mind and will. To what purpose will it be that we "cry, Lord, Lord, if we do not the things which he says?" We are told by Paul to what a height of religion men may apparently attain, even "exercising a faith that can remove mountains, and speaking as with the tongues of angels, and giving all their goods to feed the poor, yes and their bodies also to be burnt, and yet be no better before God than sounding brass or tinkling cymbals." Let those who have not the government of the tongue attend to this. The want of that self-command argues a radical want of the vital principle of love: and the want of that principle vitiates all that we can either do or suffer, and renders it of no value in the sight of God. He has warned us beforehand, that "he will take account even of every idle word that we speak," and much more of every uncharitable word; and that "by our words we shall be justified, and by our words we shall be condemned."
In reflecting on this subject, we cannot but observe,
1. In what an awful state they must be, who have not even the appearance of religion.
I know that persons who have no desire after vital godliness will bless themselves because they are not hypocrites. But is it to the credit of any, that they do not even pretend to have the fear of God in their hearts? Is it to the credit of any, that while they name the name of Christ, they do not so much as profess to depart from iniquity, or to take his yoke upon them? What is this boast, but an avowed acknowledgment that they are rebels against God, violators of his laws, haters of his Christ, and despisers of his salvation? Go you on then, and glory that you are not hypocrites—though it were easy enough to prove that you are the basest hypocrites, because you profess yourselves Christians, and would be indignant with any one who should dispute your title to Christian ordinances and Christian burial, while you give the lie to that profession by the whole tenor of your life and conversation—I say, go on, and glory that you are not hypocrites. Then you shall not be condemned as hypocrites. But you are rebels; and, as rebels, you shall be condemned: and that Savior whom you now despise, will shortly say, "Bring hither those my enemies, who would not that I should reign over them, and slay them before me." Yes, truly, if those who have so much religion as to stand high in the estimation of the Christian Church on account of it, may yet deceive themselves, and have their religion vain, much more must you deceive yourselves, if you hope to escape the judgments of God in the eternal world. If their religion will not save them, much less will your irreligion save you. Repent then, and turn unto your God in sincerity and truth. Yet look not to your reformation to save you, but to the Lord Jesus Christ, who expiated your guilt by his own blood, and offers you by my mouth the forgiveness of your sins. As an ambassador from him, I beseech you in his stead, be reconciled to God. Then shall not only your "sins be blotted out as a cloud," but your very love of sin shall be subdued and mortified by his Spirit and grace; so that the fountain which has hitherto emitted so much that was impure, shall henceforth flow in endless streams of praise to your redeeming God.
2. What need the professors of religion have of vigilance and care.
You see in others how difficult it is to have the full government of the tongue. Know then that the same difficulty exists in relation to yourselves. But in yourselves you are apt to overlook it. It is surprising how faulty a religious professor may be in the licence which he allows to his tongue, while he is not conscious of any fault at all, or perhaps takes credit to himself for his fidelity and zeal. But, when you hear how fatally you may deceive your own souls, it becomes you to be upon your guard, and to pray continually, with David, "Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth, and keep the door of my lips." And be not content with abstaining from evil discourse, but let your words be always such as may "minister grace to the hearers, and tend to the use of edifying." The power of speech is that which above all others may be employed for the honor of God, and the welfare of your fellow-creatures. In this respect your tongue is "your glory." Bid it then "awake to honor and adore your God." Remember, it is not the talkative professor of religion that is always the most humble or most acceptable in the sight of God. Many of that description there are, who "think themselves to be something, when they are nothing;" and thereby eventually deceive and ruin their own souls. Be not you of that unhappy number. Be rather "swift to hear, and slow to speak." And, if you do stand forward to instruct and benefit others, be doubly careful to set an example of all that you inculcate, and to let the power of religion appear in the whole of your own spirit and deportment.
Pure and Undefiled Religion Described
James 1:27. Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
ERRORS of the most fatal kind were early found in the Christian Church. So speedily had vital godliness decayed, that even in the Apostles' days a mere form and profession of religion was deemed sufficient. Under the idea of exalting faith, the value of good works was depreciated, and the necessity of performing them denied. Against such errors the Apostle James lifted up his voice like a trumpet: he bore testimony against them in the most energetic manner: he declared that "faith without works was dead," that to be "hearers of the word and not doers of it, was the way to deceive our own souls," that the "religion" which did not produce self-government, "was vain," and that religion, which alone God would acknowledge as "pure and undefiled," would lead to the most self-denying exercises of love, and to a freedom from all those corruptions with which the world abounded: "Pure religion, etc. etc."
Let us consider,
I. His description of true religion.
We must remember that the Apostle is here speaking of religion solely in a practical view. He is not speaking of principles. Not that he disregards them: on the contrary, instead of setting aside the doctrines of justification by faith, as some would represent, he insists on the necessity of faith as strongly as Paul himself; only he distinguishes between that which is living and operative, and that which is uninfluential and dead; and affirms, that it is the living and operative faith only, which will save the soul.
Nor is the whole even of practical religion in the contemplation of the Apostle in this passage. He does not advert to the exercise of our affections towards God, but only to our actions towards men: and it is in this confined view that we must understand him as speaking in the words before us.
He informs us how religion will influence us in reference to,
1. The world at large.
The terms here made use of draw the line with great accuracy. It is not required of us to renounce the world entirely: we are social beings, and have many social duties to perform: and, if we were to abandon society altogether, we should withhold from mankind many benefits which they have a right to expect from us. When God calls us "the salt of the earth." it is necessarily implied that we are to come in contact with that mass, which, by our influence, is to be kept from corruption. But from "the corruptions that are in the world" we are to "keep ourselves unspotted." Its pleasures, riches, and honors we are to despise, even as our Lord Jesus Christ himself did. Nor are we to be conformed to its sentiments and habits: even its friendship we are neither to court nor desire. If we would approve ourselves Christians indeed, we must "feel such an influence from the cross of Christ, as to be crucified unto the world, and to have the world altogether crucified unto us." Thus, though in the world, we shall clearly show that we are not of the world.
2. That part of it which is destitute and afflicted.
Love is the life and soul of religion: and, as it will extend to all in general, so will it manifest itself particularly towards those who are bowed down with affliction. The "visiting" of the afflicted is an office which the true Christian will delight to execute; yet not in a slight and transient manner: he will so interest himself in all their concerns, as to relieve and comfort them to the utmost of his power. His conduct towards them will resemble that of Job. It is the way in which he expresses his obligations to God; and in which he shows his love to his Lord and Savior. He considers love and charity as a commandment stamped with peculiar authority by Christ himself; and, in obedience to it, he desires to "weep with them that weep, as well as to rejoice with them that rejoice." This is "pure and undefiled religion." Other things may pass for religion before men, but this is religion "before God," it is that which he will acknowledge as agreeable to his will, and will recompense with tokens of his approbation.
This description of religion will probably force from us a tribute of applause: but, instead of bestowing on it empty commendations, it will be proper to consider,
III. The use we are to make of it.
The Apostle doubtless designed that we should regard it,
1. As a criterion whereby to judge of our state.
"Victory over the world" is one of those marks which are universally found in the Lord's people, and in no other. Other persons, it is true, may be free from open vices, and, through disappointments and infirmities, may become disgusted with the world: but their love of the world is not at all changed, provided they could have the things on which their hearts are fixed, with health and strength to enjoy them.
A delight in all the offices of love to men for Christ's sake is another mark, whereby Christians are distinguished from all other persons. It is a disposition which springs out of a sense of redeeming love, and infallibly "accompanies salvations." The want of this disposition argues a total absence of divine grace; while the exercise of it warrants an assured confidence in the Divine favor.
Let us then bring ourselves to this touchstone. Let us ask ourselves, whether we do indeed account it "better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting?" Do we consider ourselves as "pilgrims and sojourners here;" and value our possessions, not so much for the respect or comfort which they procure to ourselves, as for the opportunities they afford us of honoring God and benefitting our fellow-creatures?
Alas! alas! when estimated according to this rule, how little of "pure and undefiled religion" will be found! This is a melancholy view indeed of the Christian world; but it is the view which God himself gives us of it; and it is in vain for us to controvert it; for by his decision we must stand or fall.
2. As a directory whereby to regulate our conduct.
The commands of God relative to these things are clear and express: "Come out from the world, and be separate, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a father unto you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty." Nor is the law respecting sympathy at all less forcibly enjoined: "Bear you one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
In a word, I call upon you all to obey these great commands. Remember, it is not to any peculiarities of a sect that we are urging you, but to that which God himself dignifies with the name of "pure and undefiled religion."
Say not, "This is not my office: I cannot thus come out from the world, nor can I thus devote myself to deeds of charity." I readily grant that all cannot consecrate an equal measure of their time or property to these offices: but no man in the universe has any dispensation from devoting such a measure of his time and property to these things as his situation and circumstances will admit of. The command is equally obligatory on all: and a disposition to obey it ought to be equally strong in all. The various modes of our obedience will be judged of by God himself, who alone knows what our respective states and circumstances require. But this I say, "He who sows liberally shall reap liberally; and he who sows sparingly, shall reap also sparingly." Respecting the excellence of such religion I dare appeal to your own consciences. See a person, whether of higher or lower rank, laying aside the cares and pleasures of the world, and visiting the abodes of misery: see the disconsolate "widow, and the helpless children," bemoaning their bereavement, while to the anguish occasioned by so severe a loss, the pressure of poverty is added; and, to the want of immediate sustenance, the prospect of permanent and irremediable distress: see the compassionate visitor opening the sources of consolation which the Gospel affords, until the unhappy sufferers are brought to kiss the rod that smites them: see him administering present relief, and devising means for the future support of the family: how is he received as an angel from Heaven! And how does "the widow's heart even sing with joy," while she acknowledges the hand of God in these supports, and, with feelings too big for utterance, adores her Heavenly Benefactor! Go you, beloved, to such scenes as these, and you will soon begin to see the beauty of religion, and to understand that paradox, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Yes, realize one such scene as this, and you will need no further persuasion to assist the charity before us, or to emulate the zeal of those who are most active in it.
God's Distinguished Regard for the Poor
James 2:5. Hearken, my beloved brethren, Has not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to them that love him?
IT is a duty incumbent on all ministers to discountenance any errors, whether of faith or practice, that may have crept into the Church. But when compelled by necessity to reprove what is amiss, they should show by most unquestionable evidence, that there is just occasion for censure; and, by their tender manner of reproving, they should evince that they are actuated only by a sense of duty to God, and of love to man. James had seen a very shameful partiality prevailing in the Church in favor of the rich, while the poor were too generally neglected and despised. Against this great evil he bears his testimony, not merely with fidelity, but with unoffending tenderness, and unanswerable wisdom. His argument is to this effect; Has not God chosen the poor, and selected them as monuments of his love, and as heirs of his glory? With what consistency then can you pour contempt upon them, as though they were unworthy of the smallest attention?
In discoursing upon his words we shall show,
I. What inheritance God has chosen for the poor.
While man is unmindful of the poor, God has exalted them above others in respect of,
1. Their present portion.
Faith is that precious gift which he has bestowed on them: and though few among the rich regret their want of it, yet is it a most inestimable blessing. The smallest portion of it is sufficient (provided it be a true and living faith) to prove their election of God; to secure to them the remission of sins; to bring peace into their conscience; and to sanctify their hearts. The smallest portion of it is a peculiar gift bestowed on very few; and one which neither men nor devils ever shall deprive them off. Yet God has not chosen them to enjoy a small portion of it, but "to be rich in it," he would have them "strong in faith, not staggering at any promise," but "living," both for temporal and spiritual things, altogether "by faith in the Son of God," fully assured, that all things needful shall be supplied for their bodies, and that all things shall work together for the good of their souls.
The Levites were not suffered to have any inheritance among their brethren; but the Lord their God was their inheritance. And this, so far from being a grievance to them, was deemed their highest privilege. Thus privileged are the poor: they have little of this world; but, if they have God for their portion, they are the richest people upon earth.
2. Their eternal inheritance.
God has provided "a kingdom for them that love him," a kingdom worthy to be possessed by those, whom God delights to honor. And it is his will that "the poor of this world" should not only aspire after it, but consider themselves as "heirs" to it. While they are destitute, perhaps, of food to eat, or of clothing to put on, he would have them like minors that are heirs to a large estate, who delight to survey the grounds which they are speedily to possess: he would have them survey all the glory of Heaven, and say, "That is my patrimony: the instant I attain the age appointed by my Father's will, I shall have a host of angels sent to bear me on their wings to the mansions prepared for me."
To vindicate the ways of God, we shall proceed to show,
II. Why he has chosen this portion for them in particular.
That God has chosen this portion for the poor is beyond a doubt.
If the Apostle had only affirmed it, no room would have been left for doubt; but he ventured to appeal even to the rich themselves respecting it, and that too at the very time that he was reproving them for their contempt of the poor; yes, he even grounded the reproof itself upon that very appeal. He could not possibly express more strongly his own persuasion of the truth in question. But it is capable of abundant proof both from Scripture and experience. Who were the people that received the testimony of our blessed Lord? "Did any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believe on him?" Who constituted the great majority of the Church in the apostolic age? Paul informs us; "You see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God has chosen the foolish, the weak, the base, the despised, yes, and things which are not, to bring to nothing things that are." And we might appeal to you at this day; Who are they that crowd the churches where the Gospel is preached, notwithstanding they meet with the same contemptuous treatment that the Apostle so justly complains of? Who are they that "receive the word with meekness, and have it engrafted" in their hearts, and exemplified in their lives? are these the rich? A few there may be; but it is "to the poor chiefly that the Gospel is preached," and it is "the common people that hear it gladly."
Nor are we at a loss to assign reasons for this procedure.
God has thus distinguished the poor, in order to stain the pride of man. Men, if they are exalted above their fellow-creatures in wealth or dignity, are ready to conceive that they are as great in the eyes of God as they are in their own eyes. They think themselves (I had almost said) above God himself: they are too wise to learn of God, and too great to be controlled by him. God therefore pours contempt on them, as they do on him. He will let them see that their possessions or endowments, however great, are not a child's portion, but only as crumbs cast to the dogs. He will render the poor as superior to them in spiritual things, as they are to the poor in temporal things: he will "lift up the beggar from the dunghill, and set him among the princess," while he casts down the mighty from their thrones to the lowest abyss of shame and misery.
Moreover, in thus distinguishing the poor, God further designs to magnify the riches of his own grace. If God bestowed his favors principally on the rich, we should be ready to think that they had some peculiar claim upon him, and that his attention to them was no more than their due: or perhaps we should rather conclude, that their superior talents enabled them to unravel the divine mysteries, and to attain Heaven by their own unassisted efforts. But when we see the Gospel "hid from the wise and prudent, and revealed to babes," we are constrained to acknowledge the marvelous condescension, and uncontrollable sovereignty, of our God.
1. Those who despise the portion that God has chosen.
It is to be lamented that many even among the poor themselves are regardless of the "true riches." But what madness is it to reject that which would assuage all their present sorrows; and to render themselves infinitely more destitute in the next world than they are in this! O that they would accept the portion that God offers them!
The rich too almost universally despise the Gospel. But how painful will their reflections be in that day when the parable of Dives and Lazarus shall be realized in them! O consider, you are not excluded; God is willing to bestow the same inestimable blessings upon you. Seek then to be rich in faith, and Heaven itself shall be your everlasting inheritance.
2. Those who desire to possess that portion.
Blessed be God, there are some among the poor that know and enjoy their privileges. But whence is it that they discern what is hid from others? Had they anything in themselves more than others; "anything which they have not received?" No, they would never have chosen God, if God had not first "chosen" them. Let them then adore that grace which has been thus magnified towards them.
Do any of the rich inquire, What shall we do to get a share in this inheritance? Shall we cast away all our riches, and reduce ourselves to poverty? No; there is an infinitely better and safer way; "Love God." You may give away all your goods, and be nothing profited: but if you "love God, the kingdom is absolutely promised to you." The poor cannot be saved unless they be rich in faith: and you, if you exercise faith and love towards our adorable Savior, shall also be saved with an everlasting salvation.
The Law of Liberty
James 2:12. So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
THE law of works contained in the Ten Commandments is continued in force under the Gospel dispensation, as a rule of life. This appears from the frequent reference which is made to it in the New Testament in this particular view. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, when inculcating the duty of love, says, "Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he who loves another has fulfilled the law.… for love is the fulfilling of the law." In like manner James, condemning an undue respect of persons which had obtained to a great extent in the Christian Church, says, "If you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors." The difference which exists between the Law and the Gospel, is not that the Gospel dispenses with anything which the law had enjoined, but that it requires the same things in a different manner; the law inculcating them as the means of obtaining life; the Gospel requiring them as the means of honoring God, and of manifesting that life which God has already imparted to the soul. The law in its requirements begets a spirit of bondage: but the Gospel, while its requirements are the same, operates as "a law of liberty;" inspiring us with motives of a more sincere kind, and at the same time imparting to the believer such powerful assistance as renders obedience easy and delightful. Hence the Apostle, showing that the conduct which he was reproving was condemned by the Gospel no less than by the law, (for the Gospel itself declares, that "he shall have judgment without mercy, who has shown no mercy,") entreats the whole Christian Church "so to speak, and so to act, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty."
Now in these words we see,
I. The true character of the Gospel.
It is a law, and has all the force of a law, and must be obeyed on pain of God's heavy displeasure; but it is "a law of liberty," and this it is,
1. As freeing men from the guilt of sin.
The Gospel proclaims, to all who receive it, pardon and peace. It holds forth a Savior, who has bought us with his blood, and by the sacrifice of himself has effected our reconciliation with the offended Majesty of Heaven. It declares, that "by receiving that Savior," however guilty we may have been in times past, "we shall have the privilege of becoming the sons of God"—In this it differs widely from the law: the law knew nothing of pardon: it simply said, "Do this, and live," and if in one single instance it was violated, all hopes of acceptance by it were destroyed for ever. A certain kind of forgiveness indeed was obtained by the offering of certain sacrifices: but it was only such a measure of it as exempted the person from present punishment, but could never procure acceptance for him in the eternal world; and hence, as "it could never really take away sins," it could "never make any man perfect as pertaining to the conscience." Moreover, there were some sins for which no sacrifice whatever could be received. But the Gospel offers a full and everlasting remission from all sins, and declares, that "all who believe, are justified from all things, even from those from which they could never (even in appearance) be justified by the law of Moses." Thus by announcing to the whole world, that "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus," the Gospel may justly be called "A law of liberty."
2. As freeing men from the power of sin.
The promise which the Gospel makes to all who truly receive it, is this; "Sin shall not have dominion over you; for you are not under the law, but under grace." And, while it gives this assurance to its votaries, it imparts to them the power of carrying it into effect. The person who is united unto Christ by faith, is like a scion, which when engrafted into a tree, lives by virtue derived from the tree, and is enabled from that time to bring forth its appropriate fruits. Our Lord in this view says, "I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me, or separate from me, you can do nothing." In this again the Gospel differs widely from the law: for, while the law issued its commands, it imparted no power to obey them: but the Gospel conveys to the soul of the believer such a measure of strength, as enables it to mortify sin, and to abound in all the fruits of righteousness to the praise and glory of God. This is what Paul expressly tells us: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, that is, the Gospel, (which James in nearly similar terms calls 'the law of liberty,') has made me free from the law of sin and death: for what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, (has done; that is, he has) condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit."
I may add, that the Gospel gives us a more liberal spirit, in that it does not force us to do what is hateful to us, but disposes us willingly to take upon us the yoke of Christ, and renders "his yoke easy, and his burden light." The current of a believer's affections is changed by it; so that, though he still feels the workings of corruption strong within him, he "delights in the law of God after his inward man," and "has his conversation in Heaven," as the unbeliever has on earth.
Thus does "the law of faith" "make men free;" and "the liberty which they receive from Christ renders them free indeed."
The Apostle, in calling men's attention to the law of liberty, marks,
II. Our duty in relation to it.
If we have been made free by the Gospel, we are bound to regard it,
1. As our rule of conduct here.
The substance of all its commands is comprehended in one word, Love. As he who loves fulfills the law, so he who loves fulfills the Gospel also; as Paul has said; "Bear you one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." But here we must particularly observe, that our obedience to this law is not restricted to overt acts: our whole spirit must accord with it, and be molded by it. If we notice the particular conduct which the Apostle reproves, we shall find, that it was not such as would have brought down censure from the world at large: it would rather have been commended as a respect due to the higher orders of society. But, when strictly examined, it was contrary to the principle of love: and that was quite sufficient to render it an object of severest reprobation. The doing as we would be done unto, forms the proper standard for our conduct towards all mankind: and if, either in word or deed, we deviate from that, we transgress that holy law which we are bound to obey. How far this heavenly principle extends, may be seen in the description given of it by Paul: and, if we do not in the constant habit of our minds endeavor to attain it, we may believe what we will, and do what we will, and suffer what we may, but, after all, we shall be only "as sounding brass, and as tinkling cymbals.
2. As God's rule of judgment hereafter.
By this law we shall be judged in the last day. It is remarkable, that in the account which our Lord gives us of the final judgment, there is no mention made of any actual transgression as determining the fate of the ungodly: their performance of the offices of love is the only subject of inquiry; and their neglect of them is the only ground that is specified for their eternal condemnation. Of course, I must not be understood to say, that this will really be the only subject of inquiry, or the only ground of a sinner's condemnation; for no doubt the whole of men's lives will be taken into the account in fixing their eternal destiny: but it is the only thing mentioned by our Lord in his account of that day: and this is sufficient to show us the vast importance of keeping it ever in our view. We must attend to it no less in our words, than in our actions; and "so speak, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty."
That we may bring home this subject more powerfully to your hearts, we would entreat you to bear in mind the main points contained in it:
1. The true nature of the Gospel.
Men universally conceive of the Gospel as a system of restraints: and when we call upon them to obey the Gospel, they consider us as attempting to abridge their liberty. But the very reverse of this is true. We find men slaves to the world, and sin, and Satan; and we come to break their chains, and to set them at liberty. Our blessed Lord proclaimed this as the great object of his mission, "to preach deliverance to the captives, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." There are now, as there were in the Jewish state, many who love their bonds, and account the service of their master preferable to the liberty that is proclaimed. But this does not at all change the nature of the Gospel, which is altogether "a law of liberty" to all who truly embrace it. Do not then imagine, that, when we would induce you to renounce all the lords that have had dominion over you, we would bring you into bondage, or deprive you of anything that will conduce to your real happiness. We make our appeal to yourselves, and ask, Whether what you have hitherto considered as liberty, has not been in reality the sorest bondage? We ask, Whether sin has not kept you from the love and service of God, and bound you as with adamantine chains to the objects of time and sense? We ask, Whether in proportion as you were brought to the employment and felicity of the heavenly hosts, you would not attain to perfect freedom? To all then we say, Believe in Christ, and give yourselves up to him, and you shall then "be delivered from the bondage of corruption, into the glorious liberty of the children of God."
2. Its proper tendency.
Strange as the inconsistency is, the very persons who will exclaim against the Gospel as making the way to Heaven so strait that nobody can walk in it, will cry out against it also as a licentious doctrine, and will represent the preachers of it as saying, that men may live as they please, provided only they believe. But the Gospel is "a doctrine according to godliness;" and the very "grace of God which brings salvation, teaches men to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live righteously, soberly, and godly in this present world." The Gospel, it is true, is "a law of liberty;" but not of liberty to live in sin: it is a liberty from sin; and a liberty in the ways of God. Instead of superseding morality, it raises the tone of morals to the highest possible pitch, requiring us to "walk in all things as Christ walked," and to "purify ourselves even as he is pure." And, while it sets up this high standard for our attainment, it sets up the same for our trial in the last day; and requires us so to speak and so to do, as they that shall be tried and judged by it. Know therefore, that notwithstanding the Gospel is as free for all as the light we see and the air we breathe, its proper tendency is to assimilate us to God, whose name and nature is love.
3. The wisdom of all who profess to have embraced it.
Doubtless it is your privilege to be rejoicing in God your Savior, and in the freeness and fullness of his salvation—But you must also keep in view the future judgment, and be acting continually with a reference to it. There is no dispensation given to you to continue in sin: "Shall you continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid." The scrutiny which you shall undergo in the last day, so far from being less exact than that of others, will be more strict, in proportion to the advantages you have enjoyed, and the professions you have made. Your acceptance, it is true, will be solely on account of what the Lord Jesus Christ has done and suffered for you: but the truth of your faith will be tried by the works it has produced: and according to the measure and quality of them will be your reward. I say then, in all that you say and do, have respect to the future judgment, when "God will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart," and in order to your being approved of God in that day, "walk in love, as Christ has loved you;" and, while you endeavor to "walk in his steps" "let the same mind also be in you as was in Christ Jesus."
Justification by Works Explained
James 2:24. You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
CERTAINLY, of all the questions that can occupy the human mind, the first and greatest is, "How shall man be just before God?" On this subject men have differed from each other as far as the east is from the west. To this difference the passage before us has not a little contributed. It is therefore most desirable that we enter candidly into the investigation of it, and endeavor to ascertain with all possible precision what is so indispensable to our eternal welfare.
It is obvious, that the words which I have read to you are a deduction from a preceding argument. We ought therefore carefully to examine the argument itself; for, it is only by a thorough knowledge of the premises that we can understand the conclusion drawn from them. Suppose that I were, as a conclusion of an argument, to say, 'So then man is an immortal being;' if the argument itself were not investigated, you might understand it as a denial of man's mortality: but, if the argument showed, that the conclusion referred to his soul alone, the conclusion would be found perfectly consistent with an apparently opposite position, namely, that man is a mortal being. In like manner, if the Apostle's argument in the preceding context be candidly examined, there will be found no real inconsistency between the deduction contained in the text, and an apparently opposite deduction which may be founded on premises altogether different.
Let us consider then,
I. The Apostle's argument.
The first thing to be inquired is, Whence the argument arose? or, What was the occasion of it?
James was reproving an evil which obtained to a very great extent among the Church in his day; namely, the showing partiality to the richer members, while the poorer were treated with supercilious contempt, and harassed with the most flagrant acts of oppression. Now, as this was directly contrary to the whole spirit of Christianity, he introduced his reproof with these words; "My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons." Now these words, duly noticed, will give a clue to the whole. "Have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ with respect of persons," hold not the true faith in so erroneous and unworthy a manner. He then proceeds to show, that a faith productive of no better conduct than that, will never justify, "never save," the soul: for that it is a dead faith, and not a living one, a mere carcass, and not a living body.
The next thing we have to do is, to trace the steps of his argument.
Having reproved the partiality before-mentioned, he shows, that it is alike contrary both to the law and to the Gospel: to the law, the very essence of which is love; (which if any person habitually violates, he violates the whole law;) and to the Gospel, which inspires its votaries with a more liberal spirit, and declares, that the person who exercises not mercy to his brethren, of whatever class they may be, shall find no mercy at the hands of God.
He then appeals to the whole Church; and calls upon them to say, whether any person so holding the faith of Christ can be saved? and whether all the faith whereon he builds his confidence, be not a nullity, and a delusion? "What does it profit, my brethren, though a man say he has faith, and have not works? can faith, such a faith as that, save him?"
He then proceeds to show how vain any man's pretenses to love would be, if it were as inoperative as this faith. "If a brother or sister be naked, and be destitute of daily food; and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be warmed, and be filled, notwithstanding you give them not those things which are needful to the body; what does it profit?" Could that person be said to possess any real love? or would such a love as that be approved and rewarded by God? Certainly not. "Even so then," says he, "faith, if it have not works, is dead, being alone," and any person before whom you might boast of such a faith as that, might justly reply, "Show me your faith without your works, (which you can never do:) and I will show you my faith by my works;" which is the only test to which such pretensions can be referred. Nay more, such a faith as that is no better than the faith of devils. "The devils believe that there is one God: and they tremble;" but they do not love. So you may believe that Jesus Christ is a Savior; and you may be partially affected by that persuasion: but, if you do not love, your faith is no better than theirs: and, by pretending to a living and saving faith, when you have nothing but a dead and inoperative faith, you only show, that you are a "vain," ignorant, and self-deluded "man."
He now goes on to confirm these assertions by an appeal to the Scriptures themselves. "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? See you how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" Abraham believed in the promised Seed, "in whom all the nations of the earth should be blessed." But what kind of a faith was his? Was it unproductive of holy obedience? No, it led him to obey the hardest command that was ever given to mortal man, even to slay, and to reduce to ashes upon the altar, that very son, to whom the promises were made, and through whom alone they could ever be accomplished: so that his works evinced the truth and sincerity of his faith; and proved indisputably, that he was accepted of his God. His faith existed before: but now it operated; and "was made perfect by the works which it produced;" just as a tree is then only in a state of complete perfection, when it is laden with its proper fruits. The fruit indeed does not add to the vegetative power that produced it; but it evinces that power, and displays it in full perfection: and so did Abraham's works evince the truth of the faith which previously existed in him, and complete the objects for which it had been bestowed. "And then was fulfilled the Scripture which says, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called, The friend of God." The same he illustrates by another instance from Scripture, even that of Rahab, who evinced the truth of her faith, and was accepted in the exercise of it, when at the peril of her life she concealed the Jewish spies, and sent them home in safety to their own camp.
Now from all this he draws, as an unquestionable deduction, that very truth, which in the first instance he had only asserted; namely, that persons, whatever degrees of faith they might pretend to, could never be accepted of God, unless their faith wrought by love: "You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only," for as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Thus viewed, the argument is clear from beginning to end. That the terms which are used are strong, is certain: but then they may be accounted for from the general drift of the argument, and its immense importance to the Church of God. The Apostles do not measure words and syllables as we are apt to do, but speak in broad unqualified terms. Paul had done so on the subject of a sinner's acceptance by faith alone: and James does so on the subject of those vain pretenses to faith which were made by many who were destitute of good works: but an attention to the scope of their respective arguments will lead us to a just view, both of the terms which they use, and of the conclusions at which they arrive. James's argument we have seen. Let us now attend to,
II. The conclusion drawn from it.
This must accord with the argument on which it is founded. If we make the premises refer to one thing, and the conclusion to another, or, if we make the conclusion broader than the premises, we destroy the argument altogether, and make the Apostle reason, not only as if he were not inspired, but as if he were not endowed with common sense. What then does his conclusion amount to? it amounts to this:
1. That the future judgment will proceed on grounds of perfect equity.
God could, if it pleased him, assign to every man his portion in the eternal world, according to what he has seen existing in the heart. But it is his intention to show before the whole universe, that, as the governor and the judge of all, he dispenses rewards and punishments on grounds which are not arbitrary, but strictly equitable. On this account the day of judgment is called "the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God." If the judgment were passed on men solely on grounds which none but God could see, it would be impossible for any one to judge of the equity of his proceedings: but when the works of all are brought forth as witnesses of the inward dispositions and habits of their minds, all can see the correctness of the estimate which is formed of men's characters, and the justice of the sentence that is passed upon them. This then is one part of the conclusion which the Apostle arrives at in the words before us: God will not judge of men by their faith, which he alone can discern, but by their works, which all may judge of as soon as ever they are laid before them. A man may pretend to faith of the strongest kind: but the inquiry will be, what effects did it produce? And, if the fruits which it produced were such as were insufficient to attest its genuine truth and excellence, they will be utterly disregarded; and God will say, "Depart from me, I never knew you, you workers of iniquity." However confidently the truth and genuineness of it may be asserted by the persons themselves, God will not at all regard it, but will bring everything to the test which is here established, and condemn or justify every man according to his works.
2. That faith, of whatever kind it be, is of no value, any farther than it is attested by works.
If faith in the first instance apprehends Christ as a Savior from guilt and condemnation, it does not rest there: it lays hold on him for sanctification, as well as for righteousness; and would account him not worthy of the name of Jesus, if he did not save his people from their sins. The characters given to faith in the inspired volume are inseparable from it: it works by love, and overcomes the world, and purifies the heart: and if it produce not these effects, it will never benefit the soul. Knowing therefore in what way God will appreciate it hereafter, it becomes us to form a correct estimate of it now; and to weigh ourselves in the balance of the sanctuary now, that we may not be found wanting in the day of judgment.
It will here be expected, of course, that we answer a common objection to the foregoing statement.
It is said that Paul's sentiments and declarations on this subject are directly opposed to those of James; since, after a long argument, he comes to this conclusion: "Therefore we conclude, that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." He goes farther still, and says, that "to him that works not, but believes in him that justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." Now it may well be asked, 'How can this be reconciled with the foregoing statement?' I answer, 'Only examine Paul's argument, as you have that of James, and you will see that there is no opposition at all between their respective assertions.' The two Apostles are writing on two different subjects. Paul is proving that a man is not to seek salvation by any righteousness of his own, but simply by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: whereas James is proving, that the man who professes to have faith in Christ, must show forth his faith by his works. Paul endeavors to convince the self-justiciary; James, the Antinomian—Paul, by showing, that works are nothing without faith; James, by showing, that faith is nothing without works. Paul exalts Christ, as giving a title to Heaven; James, as giving a fitness for Heaven. Paul bends the whole force of his mind to establish the one leading doctrine of the Gospel; James, to have that doctrine adorned. Thus, according to the two Apostles, a man is justified by faith, because by it he is made righteous; and he is justified by works, because by them he is proved righteous: and God in justifying him, whether on the one ground, or the other, approves himself both "a just God and a Savior." We may render this matter somewhat more clear by means of a familiar illustration. A scion must be engrafted into a stock in order that it may live: and it must bring forth fruit in order to prove that it does live. Is there any opposition between these two assertions? None whatever. So then with Paul I assert, that man must be engrafted into Christ by faith, in order that he may live: and with James I assert, that he must bring forth fruits of righteousness, to prove that he does live. Without being engrafted into the stock, he can have no life: and, if he bring not forth good works, he shows that he has no life. These two positions are perfectly compatible with each other: and so, when properly understood, are the apparently opposite positions of these two Apostles.
Hoping now that I have set the whole of this matter in a clear light, I conclude with a few words,
1. Of caution.
Two things in particular I would caution you against: first, Do not separate faith and works; and next, Do not confound them.
Do not separate them, or imagine that you can be saved by either of them apart from the other: for faith, if it be alone, is dead; and works, if they be alone, leave you altogether destitute of any interest in Christ. If your faith be strong enough to remove mountains, yet, if it work not by love, it will leave you no better than "sounding brass, or tinkling cymbals." And if your works be ever so perfect, they can never exceed what the law requires of you; and consequently, can never discharge the debt which you owe to God for your past violations of it: nor indeed can you ever in your present imperfect state fulfill the law so perfectly as not to come short of it every day you live: and consequently, every day you live, you stand in need of mercy for your daily transgressions, instead of purchasing Heaven by your superabounding merits.
On the other hand, Do not confound the two, as though you were to be saved by faith and works united; or to have a first justification by faith, and a second justification by works. Either the one or the other of these errors will invalidate the whole Gospel; and will rob Christ of his glory, and you of your salvation. Christ is the only Savior of sinful man: and his righteousness is that in which alone any child of man can be accepted before God. If you join anything with that, you make it void: and, as far as respects you, "Christ will have died in vain." The true way of salvation is this: go to Christ as a sinner: and seek salvation altogether through his atoning sacrifice, and his obedience unto death. But, when you have believed in him, be careful to "maintain good works," yes, and to "excel in" good works. Then will Christ be honored in every way: your faith will honor him as the alone Savior of mankind; and your works will honor him as your Lord and Master. But remember to keep each in its place. In building an edifice, you do not build the superstructure first, (if I may so speak,) and then lay the foundation afterwards; nor do you mingle the foundation and superstructure in one indiscriminate mass: but you keep each in its place; and then it answers the end for which it was raised. So you must lay Christ as your foundation first; and afterwards raise on him the superstructure of good works: then shall you be found "workmen that need not be ashamed;" and both in your faith and in your works be justified before God.
2. Of encouragement.
Let not any apparent difficulties in this subject embarrass you. They will all vanish in an instant, if only you get a broken and contrite heart. It is surprising what light such a state of mind will reflect on the subject before us. It may not indeed enable you to solve all the verbal difficulties that may be raised: but, as far as relates to the main subject, it will scatter all doubts, as mist is scattered by the noon-day sun. It will convince you that no righteousness but that of Christ can ever avail for your acceptance before God: and, at the same time, that holiness is no less necessary for your final enjoyment of his favor. It will convince you too, that both faith and holiness, being the gifts of God, you have no reason to despair of attaining all that is necessary to your complete salvation; since God is pledged "not to despise the contrite heart," or to withhold from his upright people the blessings either of grace or glory.
The Best of Men But Weak and Frail
James 3:2. In many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
THAT persons instructed in divine truth should be anxious to instruct others is well: but to rush uncalled into the ostensible office of the ministry, is by no means expedient. By his life, as well as by his doctrine, must a minister instruct his people: and if, on the one hand, his reward will be glorious if he discharge his duties aright; his punishment will, on the other hand, be proportionably severe, if by word or deed he "cast a stumbling-block before others," and "cause the way of truth to be evil spoken of." Before a man therefore engage in this arduous calling, he should see his way clear: lest, by entering rashly upon it, he involve himself in the heavier condemnation. This is the hint given by James, in the verse before my text: and, to enforce it, he reminds us of our extreme frailty; since "in many things we all offend," and have therefore abundant reason for caution in contracting, without necessity, such an augmented responsibility.
Let me, then, show you,
I. What even good men have to mourn over, in their daily walk before God.
"There is no man that lives, and sins not." By reason of our extreme weakness, and the numberless obstacles which lie in our way, there is not any man who does not occasionally "make a trip," and "offend,"
1. By a slip of his feet.
No good man will, knowingly and deliberately, do that which is evil. "A man truly born of God cannot so commit bin." He has a principle within him which will not suffer it. But, sometimes through ignorance and inadvertence, and sometimes through weakness and corruption, the very best of men may err: as it is said, "The righteous falls seven times." When James and John proposed to call fire from Heaven, to consume a Samaritan village, it was doubtless from a mistaken idea, that the example of Elijah, who so vindicated the honor of Jehovah, was applicable to the occasion which then presented itself to them; and that such was a proper way of expressing their indignation against those who had refused to their Master the rights of hospitality. It was also from a mistaken love to his Divine Master that Peter dissuaded Jesus from subjecting himself to the sufferings which he had just predicted. But the principle, in both these instances, was really evil, though the Apostles themselves thought it to be good: and therefore they brought on themselves a just rebuke. In Peter's requiring the Gentiles to submit to the Jewish law there was downright "dissimulation;" such as betrayed Barnabas also into the very same fault. Here was weakness here was the sad effect of human corruption: and, accordingly it was reproved with a severity proportioned to the offence In Paul and Barnabas too, there was a blameworthy contention, issuing in their final separation. The error of Peter and Barnabas proceeded from an undue compliance; and that of Paul and Barnabas from an undue pertinacity, both in sentiment and determination. But, as such things have been in the Church, even among the Apostles themselves; so must they be expected to arise, while human nature is so weak, and so many difficulties beset our way.
2. By a slip of his tongue.
"If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body." The fact is, that every corruption of the heart finds its first and readiest gratification through the tongue. If pride or vanity inflate the mind, it will discover itself, not only in the look and gesture, but through some appropriate language of the lips. If levity have put a man off his guard, it will betray itself by some unadvised expressions, some "jestings" (facetious terms of double import), which may excite a smile at the moment, but are quite offensive to God. Need I say how anger will vent itself, or how uncharitableness will indulge its malignant propensities? But so it is with every unhallowed feeling of the soul: and he is the most perfect man who puts the most complete restraint upon his tongue, and suffers it not to utter anything which God will not approve.
While good men have so much occasion to mourn, let us consider,
II. What they have more especially to attend to, in order to counteract the evil of their hearts.
Among the many things which might be mentioned, I will recommend,
Who has not found, by sad experience, the truth of the Apostle's assertion, that "in many things we all offend?" Who then has not reason to lie low both before God and man? If Paul complained of "the law in his members warring against the law of his mind," much more may we; and with him cry out, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?" Methinks, if Job abhorred himself, and the Prophet Isaiah complained, "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips," a leper in the midst of a leprous population; no humiliation can be too deep for us. Let us walk softly then, every one of us, in the remembrance of our manifold infirmities; and abase ourselves before God, as "less than the least of all saints," yes, "as the very chief of sinners."
Never can we tell what an hour may bring forth; or what temptations may arise, to cause us to offend either in word or deed. We should therefore "make a covenant with our eyes," as holy Job did; and "set a watch before the door of our lips," as did the man after God's own heart. We should mark the first risings of inclination, that they may not operate with undue force, and betray us into actual sin. We should mark with jealous care the motives and principles by which we are actuated; remembering, that by them will the quality of our actions be determined, and that by them we shall be judged in the last day. In a word, we must "keep our hearts with all diligence, knowing that out of them are the issues of life."
3. Dependence upon God.
Here is our only security. If we trust in our own hearts, our folly will very soon appear. Satan can "assume the form of an angel of light," and deceive us by specious appearances: and, if we would be preserved from his wiles, our prayer should continually be to God; "Hold you up my goings in your paths, that my footsteps slip not," "Hold you me up, and I shall be safe." Then, notwithstanding our weakness and frailty, we may hope to be "preserved blameless until the day of Christ."
"Now unto him that is able to keep us from falling, and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, forever and ever! Amen."
The Evils of the Tongue
James 3:6. The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of Hell.
AMONG the most important of all subjects must be reckoned the government of the tongue. The consideration of it is well calculated to convince the profane, to pluck off the mask from hypocrites, to humble the sincere, and to edify every description of persons. James, who intended his epistle as a corrective to the abuses that prevailed in the Christian Church, insisted strongly upon this subject: and, in the words before us, has given us such a description of the tongue, as, if it had proceeded from any other than an inspired writer, would have been deemed a libel upon human nature. In order that the text may be fully understood, we shall show,
I. The true character of the human tongue.
The Apostle tells us "it is a fire."
Fire, in its original formation, was intended for the good of man; and, when subordinated to his wishes, is highly beneficial: but its tendency is to consume and to destroy. Thus the tongue was at first made for the Creator's praise; but through the introduction of sin, that member, which was, and, if well used, yet is, the glory of man, is become "an instrument of unrighteousness" and all iniquity.
Fire also, even the smallest spark, is capable of producing incalculable mischief; such mischief as it may not be in the power of man to repair. Thus also will one single motion of the tongue. It may so irritate and inflame a man, as to change him instantly into a savage beast, or an incarnate devil: and, if the whole world should labor to remedy the evil, it would mock their endeavors.
He further adds that it is "a world of iniquity."
There is not any sin whatever, which does not stand in the nearest connection with the tongue, and employ it in its service. Search the long catalogue of sins against God; then inspect those against our neighbor; and, lastly, those against ourselves; and there will not be found one, no, not one, that has not the tongue as its principal ally—All iniquities whatever center in it, and are fulfilled by it: so justly is it called, "A world of iniquity."
Its character will yet further appear by considering,
II. Its effects.
1. These are defiling.
Sin, as soon as ever it is conceived in the heart, defiles the soul: but when it is uttered by the lips, "it defiles the whole body." Utterance gives solidity and permanency to that which before existed in idea, and might have passed away: and, inasmuch as the tongue has every other member at its command to execute, according to their several powers, the things it has divulged, the whole man is become a partaker of its guilt and defilement. And, though all its communications are not equally polluting, yet is there a stain left by means of them, a stain which nothing but the Redeemer's blood can ever wash away.
To such an astonishing degree has this fire gained the ascendant, that it has "inflamed the whole course of nature." Look at individuals; what malignant passions has it kindled in them! Visit families; what animosities, and inextinguishable feuds has it produced! Survey churches; and you will find the unhallowed fire burning even in the sanctuary of God; and sometimes too, even in the very censers of his ministers. Cast your eyes round upon whole nations; and you will perceive that, times without number, it has kindled the flames of war, and spread desolation through the globe.
To prove that this account is not exaggerated, we shall point out,
III. The reason of its producing these effects.
The tongue "itself is set on fire of Hell."
Satan is the source and author of all the evils that proceed from the tongue. Does it falsify? behold it does so at the instigation of that wicked fiend, "the father of lies." Does it discourage men from the prosecution of their duty? It does so as the devil's agent. Does it accuse and scandalize the people of God? Who but Satan is the author of such calumnies? Does it disseminate error? the propagator of that error is Satan's minister, however he be transformed into an angel of light. Does it encourage any bad design? It is the devil himself who speaks by it. In every sin that it commits, it is actuated by "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now works in all the children of disobedience." Its whole "wisdom is earthly, sensual, devilish." It comes from Hell, and leads to Hell: and, if God were to withdraw his restraints here, as he does in Hell, it would speedily produce a very Hell upon earth.
This alone can account for the effects that proceed from it.
Doubtless the wickedness of the heart may account for much: but, if the flames were not fanned by satanic agency, we can scarcely conceive that they should rage with such an irresistible force, and to such a boundless extent.
1. How great must be the evil of the human heart!
The heart is the fountain, in which "the evil treasure is;" the tongue is only the channel in which it flows. If the channel then be so vile, what must the fountain be? Yet every one of us has this tongue in his mouth, and this heart in his bosom: and, if God should leave us without restraint, there is not one of us but would proclaim all the evil of his heart, as much as the most loathsome sensualist, or most daring blasphemer.
2. How much do we need the influences of the Holy Spirit!
It is absolutely impossible for man to tame this unruly member. Yet restrained it must be, if ever we would be saved. What then shall we do? Shall we sit down in despair? God forbid. The Holy Spirit will help our infirmities, and Christ will give us his Spirit if we call upon him. Let us then look to Christ; and we shall prove by sweet experience, that his "grace is sufficient for us," and that through him, strengthening us, we can do all things."
3. How careful should we be of every word we utter!
Immense injury may we do by one unguarded word. We may take away a character which we can never restore, or inflict a wound which we can never heal. On this account we should "set a watch before the door of our lips." Nor is this a matter of expediency merely, but of necessity; for God has warned us that we shall give account of every idle word, and that by our words we shall be justified, and by our words we shall be condemned. Let us then be utterly purposed that our mouth shall not offend. Let our tongue be as choice silver, or a tree of life, to enrich and comfort the Lord's people. Let our "speech be always with grace seasoned with salt," for the honor of God, and the good of our fellow-creatures.
Influence of Wisdom Upon The Conduct
James 3:13. Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.
THE government of the tongue is of all things the most difficult; because every evil that is in the heart seeks for vent through that organ. A man who should be able so to control it that no unadvised word should ever escape from his lips, would be a perfect man. Yet, if a man profess to be religious, and have not so much self-government as to impose an habitual restraint upon his tongue, he deceives his own soul, and his religion is vain. The gift of speech is to be improved for God by holy and heavenly communications, and the man who suffers it to be a vehicle of sin, discovers himself to be a hypocrite before God. The inconsistency of such conduct is obvious. "A fountain cannot send forth both fresh water and bitter; nor can a tree bear both olives and figs," so neither can a renewed heart bear such different and discordant fruits. Whoever therefore professes godliness, should take care that no such inconsistency be found in him. "Who is a wise man, and endued with knowledge among you? let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom."
In these words we see,
I. The proper character of Christians.
When we say that the Christian is "a wise man, and endued with knowledge," we seem to be guilty of great arrogance; since it is a notorious fact, that the great majority of religious persons, as Paul himself acknowledges, are of the lower orders of society, whose talents and attainments are extremely limited. And even where the disadvantages of education are not so great, it is often found that "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light." How then can we presume to designate the godly by such inappropriate and high-sounding names? I answer, That the wisdom of this world is in God's estimation, folly; and that his people alone deserve the titles that are here assigned them. They are wise and intelligent,
1. As fearing God.
They all without exception fear God. This is the lowest attainment that will justify any pretensions to true piety. And what is said of it by holy Job? "The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding." Here then at once is their character fixed by the testimony of God himself. And to them does it belong exclusively: for of all others the Prophet Jeremiah says, "They have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in theme?" They may possess much which passes under that name: they may be skilled in arts and sciences, even as Solomon himself: yet they show that they are fools and idiots, as it respects the things of God. They show that they know not the true end of their being: they know not wherein real happiness consists: they know not the value of an immortal soul: they know not the judgment that awaits them, or the importance of preparing for it. Their views are circumscribed by the things of time and sense; and of Heaven and heavenly things they have no knowledge. "Their wisdom and knowledge, such as it is, only perverts them." Hence of them it is said, that "madness is in their hearts while they live." But of the Lord's people, how ignorant soever they may be of other matters, it may be said, as on this very ground it was said of the Jews of old, "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people."
2. As instructed by God himself.
This also is peculiar to them, and abundantly vindicates their title to the character given them in the text. To them universally, and to them exclusively, does that promise belong, "They shall all be taught of God." They are taught of God, who by his Spirit has "opened the eyes of their understanding," and "brought them out of darkness into the marvelous light of his Gospel." To them he has given a spiritual discernment, whereby they are enabled to discern the things of the Spirit. He has given to them such views of Christ as "flesh and blood could never have revealed to them." "Wonderful things are they enabled to behold in God's law." They see—what others have no conception of—the spirituality of that law, extending to every thought and desire of the heart. They see in that glass the unsearchable wickedness of their own hearts; their just desert of God's wrath and indignation; their utter need of a Savior; the suitableness of Christ to their extreme necessities, and his sufficiency for all their wants. "They have an understanding given them to know Him that is true; and, in consequence of that, they are in Him that is true, even in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the true God and eternal life." To them are made known things which from all eternity were hid in God; and things which the natural man, whatever be his endowments, cannot receive or know: yes, though they be in every other respect mere "babes, to them God has revealed what he has hid from the wise and prudent," so that, while the man of learning, that is wise in his own conceit, looks down upon them with contempt as weak and foolish, they see the vanity of all his boasted wisdom, and they pity the blindness of his deluded mind. See how strongly all this is asserted by the Apostle Paul: "He who is spiritual (however destitute he may be of human learning) judges all things: yet he himself is judged of no man: (he estimates rightly the state of others, while they can form no just estimate of his:) for who (what carnal man) has known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we (we who are taught of God) have the mind of Christ;" and consequently can form a correct judgment both of our own state and theirs. Thus, while all others are "perishing for lack of knowledge," they have "that unction of the Holy One whereby they know all things," and are become truly wise, being made "wise unto salvation through faith in Christy."
Such being their high character, they are concerned to know, and to consider well,
II. The conduct that befits them.
Doubtless their deportment should be such as is suited to the distinguished rank which they bear among their fellows: and their superiority to others should be marked,
1. In their works.
Their whole "conversation should be such as becomes the Gospel of Christ." A tree must be known by its fruits; and their faith be judged of by their works. The whole tenor of these must be good: and, though they are not to be done with a view to man's applause, they must be such as to evince to all around them the excellence of the principles which they profess: "they must make their light so to shine before men, that all who behold their good works may glorify their Father that is in Heaven." They must "show out of a good conversation their works."
But in relation to these (their works) the godly will find no difficulty, if they attend to that which is principally adverted to in our text, namely, to walk worthy of their profession.
2. In their spirit.
The Christian is renewed, not in knowledge or in the outward conduct only, but "in the spirit of his mind." He is poured into a new mold, the mold of the Gospel. He is assimilated to the Lord Jesus Christ himself, especially in the meekness and gentleness of his spirit under the heaviest trials, and the bitterest provocations. Of him we are told, that "he was led as a lamb to the slaughter; and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so opened he not his mouth," and in that particular he is more especially commended to us as an example: for "he suffered, leaving us an example that we should follow his steps; who did no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth; who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, threatened not; but committed himself to him that judges righteously." This is the state which God approves. The outward act is comparatively of little value in his sight; since that may abound even where the inward principle is most corrupt: but when he sees "the hidden man of the heart" thus habited, he views it with delight: "the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit is in his sight of great prices." This is what the Apostle so beautifully inculcates in our text: "Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom." Meekness and wisdom are intimately and indissolubly connected: as it is said, "He who is hasty of spirit, exalts folly; whereas he who is slow to wrath, is of great understanding." In this then must every true Christian excel: and it will be in vain for him to pretend that he has been taught of God, if he have not learned, and practically too, this important lesson. Do you ask how the true Christian must be distinguished? Paul shall tell you: "Put on, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, affections of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also should you forgive others." This is the proper test of your principles. If you have knowledge, it is well: if you have faith, it is well: if you have works, it is well: but you may "have the knowledge of men and angels, and a faith that can remove mountains; and such zeal, both of an active and passive kind, as may lead you to give all your goods to feed the poor, and your bodies to be burned, and yet, after all, want that internal principle of love, which is necessary to your acceptance with God." Your proper character is, that you are "the meek of the earth: seek righteousness therefore, and seek meekness." "I beseech you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ" that you cultivate this spirit to the uttermost: for, if you have not in this respect "the mind that was in Christ Jesus," you are not, you cannot be, his.
For the more extensive improvement of this subject,
I would add two solemn admonitions.
1. Rest not in attainments, while destitute of knowledge.
There is a great diversity in the natural dispositions of men: some are from their very birth more meek and gentle than others: and certainly they whom nature has formed in this better mold, have much to be thankful for. But let not any one mistake this natural gentleness for grace. The meekness of which my text speaks, is "a fruit of the Spirit," and is always associated with true wisdom. It springs from a sense of our own unworthiness, and of the obligations which we owe to Christ for all the wonders of redeeming love. It is a humble submission to Almighty God, whose hand is viewed in all events, and whose love is tasted in the bitterest dispensations. It is a resignation of the soul to him, that he may perfect it in his own way, and glorify himself upon it, as seems him good. Before you draw inferences then from your comparative proficiency in gentle habits, inquire how they have been obtained? Examine whether they are associated with this heavenly wisdom; and whether they are the result of deep humiliation, and of ardent love to God? If you have not been taught of God to know yourselves and the Lord Jesus Christ, you are in darkness even until now: and though you appear to be in the fold of Christ, you have never entered it at the strait gate, and therefore are not regarded by him as his sheep indeed. O! may God instruct you, and by his Holy Spirit guide you into all truth!
2. Rest not in knowledge, while destitute of these attainments.
Many possess a very clear knowledge of Scripture truths, while yet they experience not their sanctifying and transforming efficacy. It is a melancholy fact, that many who profess religion are grievously under the dominion of evil tempers. It was evidently so among those to whom James addressed this epistle. But, beloved, "these things ought not so to be," and must not so be: for, if they be, they will terminate in fearful disappointment at the last day. Think not to excuse yourselves by saying, That your temper is naturally hasty and violent. It may be so: but this is no reason why it is to have the mastery over you. If the struggles which you have to maintain be the greater, the strength of Christ shall be the more displayed in the victories which he will enable you to gain. Only go to him in fervent and continual prayer, and you shall find, that "his grace is sufficient for you," it never failed yet; nor shall it ever fail, when sought in sincerity and truth. Only prostrate yourselves before him with shame, and sorrow, and contrition, and implore of him the assistance of his good Spirit; and then will he "beautify you with salvation;" for "instead of the thorn shall grow up the fir-tree, and instead of the brier shall grow up the myrtle-tree: and you shall be to the Lord for a name, and for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off."
The Nature of True Religion
James 3:17. The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy tube entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
RELIGION, like a tree, must be judged of by its fruits. That which savors of pride, earthliness, or sensuality, is not of God. Its character is justly drawn in the words before us. It is,
I. Holy in its nature.
Religion, above all other things, is entitled to the name of "wisdom."
It enlightens the mind, informs the judgment, regulates the life; and he who lives under its influence, is wise in the estimation of God himself.
Being from above, it resembles its Divine Author.
Religion is a beam issuing from God the fountain of light; and, as "in him is no darkness at all," so neither is there anything impure in that which flows from him. It may be mixed with sin, but in its own nature it is "pure;" and, in proportion as it prevails, it will dissipate the clouds of ignorance and sin. All "spiritual or fleshly filthiness" will surely vanish before it.
In consequence of this it is,
II. Useful in its tendency.
It renders us,
1. Amiable in our spirit.
Though men differ widely in their natural tempers, yet the unregenerate are, on many occasions, quarrelsome, fierce, implacable. But as soon as ever religion exerts its influence on our minds, we mortify these unhallowed tempers, and become "peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated." From thenceforth it is the delight of our souls to cultivate and promote peace, to maintain in ourselves a meek and quiet spirit, and to exercise, as occasion may require, forbearance and forgiveness to all around us.
2. Benevolent in our conduct.
Compassion and diligence are inseparable attributes of true religion. The real Christian is not, like the barren fig-tree, covered with the leaves of an outward profession, but destitute of fruit. He labors to abound in every good word and work, and to benefit to the utmost the bodies and souls of his fellow-creatures. His heart is "full" of love, and out of the abundance of his heart he both speaks and acts.
It is within us a living principle, that is,
III. Uniform in its operations.
1. To duties without limitation.
The grace of God will not admit of "partiality" in our obedience. It will stimulate us to difficult and self-denying duties, as well as to those which are more easy and pleasant; and will make us as solicitous to do what is right towards strangers or enemies, as towards our own friends or partisans.
2. To desires without reserve.
Religion penetrates to the inmost soul, and regulates all our motives and principles of action. The person whose outward conduct only is good, is in God's sight no other than a "whited sepulcher." The man whose heart is right with God, will watch against all selfish ends, and endeavor to act with a single eye to the glory of his God.
1. How unjustly is religion condemned in the world!
Many consider religion as destructive of all personal and social happiness; but what is there in this representation of religion that deserves such a character? Let the world call it folly if they will; but God accounts it "wisdom."
2. What reason have the most godly to blush and be ashamed!
We must not estimate our religion by our opinion? so much as by our practice. Doubtless we must build on Christ as our only foundation; but we have no evidence of an union with him any further than we raise upon him this holy superstructure. Alas! what poor builders have the very best of us been; and how little progress have we made when we judge by this test!
3. What need have we to wait continually upon our God in prayer!
This wisdom is "from above," and can be derived from God alone; and how can we obtain it of him, but in the exercise of prayer? Let us then ask it of him, who has promised to impart it "liberally, and without upbraiding."
Friendship of The World Is Enmity With God
James 4:4. You adulterers and adulteresses, know you not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
THERE is a boldness of speech, which not only comports well with the character of God's ambassadors, but is necessary to the faithful discharge of the ministerial office. To those who are unused to the figurative language of Scripture, the address of James to the professors of Christianity may appear coarse and severe. But the truth he delivered, needed to be strongly insisted on even in the apostolic age; so much did the practice of the Church fall short of the knowledge which was at that time generally diffused. As to the appellation which he gave the worldly temporizing Christians, it could not fail of being understood in its proper sense; because all knew that God called himself the husband of the Church; and consequently, that the violation of the people's engagements to him justly entitled them to the name by which they were addressed.
To the Christians of this age the doctrine of the text should be very fully opened. It is indeed far from being calculated to please men: but we proceed to the consideration of it, in the hope that the word shall not go forth in vain.
We shall endeavor to show,
I. What we are to understand by the friendship of the world.
The "world" must be understood in its largest sense, as comprehending not only the people, but also the pleasures, riches, and honors of the world. To draw the precise limits of that which is here called "the friendship" of the world, is not so easy. Nevertheless we may ascertain this with as much accuracy as is necessary on the present occasion.
If we love any one person above all others, and strive to please him habitually, not only in common with others, but even in direct opposition to them, we certainly must be acknowledged to have a considerable degree of friendship for him. Let us inquire then,
1. Which do we love more, the world, or God?.
2. Which do we strive to please when their commands are irreconcilable with each other?.
If conscience testify that the world have in these respects a decided preference, we are, beyond all doubt, the friends of the world.
II. In what respects it is enmity with God.
This may seem a strong expression; but it does not exceed the truth. For the friendship of the world is, in fact, a denial of God's excellency, since it declares that the world is a better portion than he—It is a contempt of his authority, seeing that when he says, "My son, give me your heart," it makes us reply with Pharaoh, "Who is the Lord, that I should serve him? I know not the Lord, neither will I obey his voice"—It is also a violation of our most solemn engagements with him. He is our Husband; and we bound ourselves to him in baptism to "renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil," and to be his, even his only. But by receiving the world to our bosom, we suffer that to invade his property, and, as the text intimates, are guilty of spiritual adultery—Moreover it is (as far as our influence extends) a banishing of the very remembrance of him from the earth. God himself testifies respecting the friends of the world, that "he is not in all their thoughts," and it is certain that, while they can converse readily on every worldly subject, they like not to hear or speak of his name: and if there were not a few who stand forth as his witnesses upon earth, his very name would soon be blotted out of our remembrance.
If the friends of the world would view their conduct in this light, they would see an extreme malignity in the practices which they now maintain and justify: and they would tremble at the thought of being found enemies to him, who, as omniscient, sees; as holy, hates; as just, condemns; and, as almighty, will punish, such daring impiety.
III. The state of those who cultivate it.
Nothing can be more express than the declaration of the text: they are "enemies of God." Whether they intend it or not, whether they think of it or not, they are enemies of God. However sober, modest, kind, generous, and amiable they may be in their deportment, they still are enemies of God. Exalt their characters ever so highly, so that they shall appear in the most enviable light, you must bring them down at last with this melancholy exception, but "they are enemies of God."
Nor is this a matter that admits of doubt. James even appealed to the very persons whom he was condemning, and made them judges in their own cause; "Know you not this?" can you doubt of it one moment? does not the Scripture fully declare it? does not experience universally attest it?
But there is an emphasis in the text that marks this truth in the strongest manner. As an avowed desire to compass the death of the king is treason, though that wish should never be accomplished; so the determining to maintain friendship with the world, when God commands us to "come out from it and be separate," is treason against the King of kings: the very willing to side in this manner with the world, constitutes us enemies of God.
1. The friends of the world.
It is to be feared that even in a Christian assembly the doctrine of the text will be called in question; and that many, whose conduct in other respects is unexceptionable, impute no blame to themselves for their attachment to the world. Yes, so ignorant of their duty are the generality of Christians, that instead of saying, "Know you not," we must rather say to them, "Know you that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?" For, alas! few in this day seem to know it, or even to suspect it: and their reply to us would be, 'No, I neither know it, nor believe it; nor shall anything that you can say persuade me to receive a sentiment so unreasonable, and so contrary to common sense.' But, brethren, so it is, whether you know it or not. Let none therefore deceive themselves, or attempt to unite the friendship of the world with friendship with God; for that is impossible, as our Lord has plainly told us: "You cannot serve God and mammon."
2. The friends of God.
It is a great mercy to be "delivered from the love of this present world." But we may mistake our experience with respect to this. Age, sickness, poverty, disappointment, and other trials may render us apparently indifferent to the world, while yet, under other circumstances, our old attachment to it would revive. Let us take care therefore that, as an evidence of our friendship with God, our delight in him proportionally increase. This must of necessity accompany our deadness to the world. As one scale descends, the other must rise. We must guard also against a relapse; for the world is ever soliciting a place in our affections; and if we be not on our guard, we shall, like Demas, forsake the path of self-denial for the more enchanting one of earthliness and self-indulgence.
James 4:8–10. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
THE season of Lent has been set apart by the Church for the purpose of calling all her members to deep humiliation of soul before God: and, were it observed according to the intention of those who destined it to this holy use, there can be no doubt but that it would tend exceedingly to the advancement of religion in the world. So, at least, the reformers of our Church judged; as appears from the peculiarly solemn service which is appointed for the day with which this season commences. And I cannot but think, that, while we value ourselves on an increased freedom from the errors of superstition, we have reason to fear that we have suffered loss in respect of real piety; since, with the forms of religion, we have relinquished also, in no small degree, the spirit of it. Not that a becoming reverence for this season has altogether ceased. On the contrary, a discourse which was not pertinent to the occasion would very generally be deemed unseasonable and indecorous: so that I have at least your prejudices and your expectations in my favor, while I propose to your consideration the solemn subject before us.
In the Apostle's exhortation we see,
I. An encouragement to repentance.
A person under conviction of sin is ready to fear that God will not receive him to mercy.
Nor is this without reason, when we consider how awfully we have all departed from our God. Though "in him we live and move and have our being," and are bound by all possible ties to obey and honor him, we have altogether "contemned" his authority, and "lived without him in the world." We have in our hearts said to him, "Depart from me; for I desire not the knowledge of your ways." We have altogether "forgotten him," and wished that there were "no God," or, at least, that, as to his claims upon us, he might be "made to cease from before us." Would it be wonderful, therefore, if God, in his righteous indignation, should execute on all, what he certainly will execute on every impenitent offender, a sentence of utter and everlasting exclusion from his presence?—This is merited by all; and therefore might well be apprehended by all, if God, of his unbounded mercy, had not assured us of his willingness to receive returning penitents.
But God has declared, that, "if we draw near to him, he will draw near to us."
He will not despise the prayer of the poor destitute," or "cast out any who come unto him" in his Son's name. However great or long-continued their sins may have been, he will not withhold his mercy from them. No, in truth: "he will incline his ear unto them, and hear them," he will "look down upon them from the habitation of his holiness and his glory;" yes, "he will rend the heavens, and come down;" and "at their cry he will answer, Here I Amos." Even "before the supplication is well uttered, he will answer; and while they are yet speaking, he will hear." No language can express the depth of the condescension which he will manifest to the poor suppliant, or the riches of that grace which he will impart to the believing penitent. Pardon, peace, holiness, glory, are not too great for him to bestow on the most unworthy of men, who call upon him with their whole hearts.
But, that we may not miscarry in the exercise of this duty, the Apostle gives us,
II. A direction for the acceptable performance of it.
Our repentance must be attended with,
1. A sincere renunciation of all evil.
Oh! "cleanse your hands, you sinners;" and think not to find acceptance with God, while you "hold fast iniquity" of any kind. Hear what God said to his people of old: "When you come to appear before me, who has required this at your hands, to tread my courts?" When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you: yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. Wash you; make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes: cease to do evil: learn to do well." In truth, "the very prayers of the wicked are an abomination to the Lord," Look, I pray you, to all the habits of your past life; your conduct in your respective trades and callings, no less than in your common fellowship with mankind: and, as God enjoins you to "shake your hands from holding of bribes," so I would say, Shake your hands from holding of unjust gains of any kind, and from retaining any evil which you have been accustomed to perpetrate.
Nor is this sufficient: you must put away evil from the heart, as well as in the act: for "if you regard iniquity in your heart, the Lord will not hear you." "Your heart must be right with God," who demands the whole of it for himself, and will not accept "a divided hearty." "Purify your hearts then, you double-minded," for "you cannot serve God and mammon too." You must "not love the world, nor anything that is in it," if you would approve yourselves to God: the very desire to retain friendship with the world is constructive treason, and a decisive proof of enmity against God. See, then, that you be "Israelites indeed, in whom is no allowed deceit." Then, whether it be "under the fig-tree," or in any place whatever, God will behold you with delight; and not only listen to your prayers, but exceed in his answers your largest petitions or desires.
2. A deep contrition for all your past iniquities.
A forsaking of sin is not sufficient. There are many grounds on which some lust may be subdued: a change of age, or even of our circumstances in life, may operate to the abstaining from some sins, while yet the evil of them may never have been truly felt. Sin, of whatever kind, is hateful in the sight of God; and must become so in our eyes. "Be afflicted therefore, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy into heaviness: humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, if ever you would be lifted up." It is "the broken and contrite heart, which God will not despise," and all repentance that falls short of that, will only prove "a repentance that must itself be repented off." But, if you come to God with a holy and sincere shame, even though you had been as wicked as Manasseh himself, you shall not be rejected: for "all manner of wickedness shall be forgiven unto men;" nor will God ever suffer any human being to "seek his face in vain." No, truly; if he see one prostrating himself before him in dust and ashes, he will "lift him up," just as the father in the parable did his prodigal son; testifying over him the joy with which he will restore him, not to his favor only, but to all the blessedness that he himself is able to impart. He who thus sows in tears, shall surely "reap in joy," and "he who thus humbles himself, shall surely be exalted."
1. It may be, that some among you doubt the necessity of such a repentance.
But who among you is not "a sinner" before God? or, who among you has not been "double-minded," giving at least a portion of his heart to the creature, when the whole of it should have been fixed on God?—I accuse not any one among you of gross sin: but as corresponding with the character drawn in my text, I must accuse every child of man, I grant there is a great diversity in the guilt of different men: but there is no man so innocent as not to need repentance, and repentance too of the very kind that is here required. I pray you therefore, brethren, not to rest satisfied with a few faint acknowledgments of your guilt; but to abase yourselves before God, even as holy Job did, in dust and ashes.
2. There may possibly be others, also, who doubt its efficacy.
You may perhaps have sought the Lord for some time, and not yet have obtained an answer of peace. But does this discourage you? Think, I pray you, how long God sought after you, and followed you with his invitations and entreaties to return unto him. Think, I say, of this; and then you will acknowledge, that, if you cried to him for a hundred years, and yet obtained an answer only at the last hour, you would have no reason to complain. But God has gracious designs in delaying the manifestations of his favor towards you. He desires to humble you the more deeply before him, and to prepare you more fully for the due reception of his favor. Peter says, "Humble yourselves under his mighty hand, and he will exalt you in due time." And who is the best judge what "the due time" is? Surely you may well leave this matter to Him who cannot err; and who, "having given you his dear Son, will surely with him also freely give you all things." You yourselves do not give to your child a thing the instant that he cries for it, but judge of the fittest season wherein to give it. Wait, then, the Lord's leisure; assured, that "the vision, though delayed, shall not tarry" beyond the period which you yourselves, if you saw things as clearly as God does, would be the foremost to assign for it.
The Folly of Undue Security
James 4:13, 14. Go to now, you that say, Today or tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: whereas you know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away.
RELIGION has ever a tendency to decline. Sin has pre-occupied the ground: and though religion expels it for a time, it is ever watching, as it were, for an opportunity to return, and to regain its former ascendant over the soul. Even in the Apostolic age manifold declensions were found, not only in individuals, but in whole Churches: and James, with the utmost fidelity and earnestness, set himself to counteract the fatal evil. Among the various evils which he had to reprove, was that of undue security, or of presuming on the success of our plans for future advancement, without any becoming reference to the shortness and uncertainty of life: and there being still but too much reason to complain of this habit in the Christian world, I shall distinctly mark,
I. The habit which is here censured.
The Apostle does not intend to condemn all forethought and contrivance; for then we should all be as weak and foolish as children: nor, indeed, if prospective plans were unlawful, would any one branch of agriculture or commerce, or even of liberal education, be carried forward. It is the proud reliance on our own wisdom, and the confident expectation of time to come, that is here condemned; and this is,
1. A great evil.
What is it but an entire forgetfulness of our dependence upon God? For who is it that can give success to any plans, but God himself? And, if we could command success, who can tell whether that which we seek as a blessing, may not prove to us the greatest curse? Even an unqualified desire of the things themselves, without a reference to the wisdom of God to choose for us, and his will to bestow them on us, is highly sinful. It contravenes that express command, "You shall not covet," and is, in fact, an usurpation of God's prerogative to direct and govern the affairs of men. Besides, such a confident expectation of life is of itself most offensive to God: for it is "he who holds our souls in life," "in him we live, and move, and have our being," and the contemplation of life, irrespective of his agency, is no other than practical atheism.
2. A common evil.
We imbibe these atheistical sentiments from our earliest infancy. Scarcely any other ever meet our ears. Our very parents are constantly speaking to us of what is to be gained us in future years in consequence of our own care and industry. As we grow up, we buoy up ourselves with the same unqualified hopes and expectations: from youth to manhood, and from manhood to old age, we still continue to speak of future events as depending on ourselves, rather than on God; and seldom, if ever, have any direct reference in our minds to the superintending and all-directing providence of God. Indeed, it is from hence that our exertions principally arise: and so gratifying to our minds is this corrupt habit, that our chief happiness in life arises from it: for it is a well-known fact, that the fond dreams of hope almost invariably exceed the pleasures of actual enjoyment.
Such is the evil which the Apostle censured in the words before us: which, however, lead us yet further to consider,
II. The folly of it.
There is nothing in reality at our command, or under our control. We cannot by any means secure,
1. The success of our labors.
"We cannot tell what shall be on the morrow," we cannot tell how soon circumstances may arise to make us view that as an evil, which we just before coveted as a good. The fact is, that there is scarcely a man living, who has not as much reason to bless God for the dispensations by which his desires have been thwarted, as for those by which they have been gratified. How foolish then is it to take the disposal of events out of God's hands, instead of committing it to him, whose wisdom cannot err, and whose power cannot be counteracted! We may, like Israel, cause him "in wrath to give us" the object of our inordinate desires, and constrain him to inflict upon us the judgment denounced against his disobedient people; "I will curse their blessings."
2. The continuance of our lives.
"What is our life? it is a vapor that appears but a little time, and then vanishes away." This is a truth which all acknowledge; and which, if duly considered, would abate the ardor of our earthly pursuits, and moderate our too sanguine expectations. Who has not seen persons in the bloom of youth, when promising themselves years of prosperity and joy, cut off suddenly, even as the flower of the grass, which in the morning looks mirthful and flourishing, and in the evening is cut down, dried up, and withered? Yes, a light, airy, unsubstantial vapor is but too just an image of life, which in its best estate is vanity, and in the twinkling of an eye may pass away forever. Is it wise then to be either looking forward to future joys, or resting too confidently in joys possessed, when for anything that we know, the decree may have already gone forth, "This year," this month, this very day, "shall you die?"
Let us learn from this subject,
1. To have a direct reference to God in all things.
God will govern all things, whether we acknowledge him or not: and, if we refer all to him, he will govern all things for our good. Not a hair of our head shall fall to the ground without his special permission.
2. To be moderate in our anticipations of earthly bliss.
What a lesson is taught us by the fate of him who said to his soul, "Soul, you have much goods laid up for many years; eat, drink, and be merry." The reply of God to him was, "You fool, this night shall your soul be required of you." The true way to avoid disappointment from earthly things, is, to regard them as vanity and vexation of spirit, and to be contented with such a measure of them as God sees to be best for us.
3. To bend all our attention to the concerns of eternity.
These will never disappoint our hopes: we shall never seek eternal happiness in vain. Our desires in reference to them cannot be too large, nor our expectations from them too sanguine. Who, on coming to our blessed Savior, was ever cast out? In what instance did the blood of Christ ever prove insufficient to justify, or his grace to save? As for life, the cutting short of that will not deprive us of any blessing which we have ever sought: on the contrary, it will bring us to the speedier possession of all good. We must indeed, in spiritual as well as carnal things, place our hope in God alone; because God alone can "give us either to will or to do;" and in the bestowment of his blessings he will consult only "his own will and pleasure," but if we look steadfastly to him, and rely confidently on him alone, "we shall not be ashamed or confounded world without end."
Sins of Omission Considered
James 4:17. To him that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin.
THERE is not anything of which men are more convinced, than the shortness and uncertainty of life: yet in the habit of their minds they live as if they were certain of many months and years to come. They form their plans and projects as if they were sure of living to see them executed. Of this the Apostle complains in the preceding context, because it altogether overlooks God in the government of the world, and is nothing less than practical atheism.
Having pointed out the evil of such a habit, the Apostle deduces from it this general position; that, as the person who in theory acknowledges the providence of God, and practically denies it, sins; so, whoever omits to do any other thing which he knows to be right, sins also.
It is my intention,
I. To confirm this truth.
Let us consider what such conduct manifests. It argues,
1. An insensibility in the conscience.
God has given to every man a conscience, to be, as it were, his viceregent in the soul. It is designed by him to check us, when we are in danger of committing any evil, and to stimulate us continually to whatever is pleasing in his sight. But if, when we know what is good, we do it not, we show that we have silenced the voice of conscience, or have rendered ourselves incapable of attending to its suggestions. And is this no sin? Is a sentinel who sleeps at his post guilty of no crime, when through his unwatchfulness a camp or city is surprised? And is not a minister, who, when he sees the sword of God's vengeance uplifted to strike his people, neglects to warn them, justly chargeable with their blood? Shall not guilt then attach to you, who lull your consciences asleep, and say to yourselves, "I shall have peace, notwithstanding I walk after the imagination of my own evil heart?" The very heathen were charged with guilt, because, "when from the works of creation they knew God, they glorified him not as God," depend upon it, therefore, that your neglect of known and acknowledged duties cannot but involve your souls also in much guilt.
2. An indifference to the welfare of our own souls.
It is by our works that we shall be judged in the last day. We are as servants that have talents committed to us: they who make a good improvement of them will have a proportionable reward: but those who hide them in a napkin will be dealt with as wicked and unprofitable servants. What then do you say, in fact, when you neglect an acknowledged duty? You say, in reality, 'I care not for my soul; I care not whether it is happy in a future world, or not: I know that by a diligent attention to all God's commands, I might advance its eternal interests: and I know that by inattention to his will I shall involve it in misery: but let me have present ease; let me be excused the trouble of doing what does not suit my taste and inclination: let me have the world with its pleasures and interests: and if through my love to present things I must lose my soul, be it so: I consent to "the exchange," "I will sell my birthright for a bowl of porridge." Tell me now, Is there nothing criminal in this? May not such persons be justly charged with "loving death, and wronging their own souls?" Yes: whether a man do a thing of which he doubts the lawfulness, or neglect to do a thing of which he admits the necessity, he is equally "a sinner against his own soul," for, as "whatever is not of faith, is sin," so to know what is good and to neglect it, is sin also.
3. A contempt of Almighty God.
Whatever obedience a man may pay to all other commandments, if there be one which he knowingly violates, or willfully neglects, he is a rebel against God, and a despiser of his Divine Majesty. For the same authority that enjoins one, enjoins all: and if it be disregarded in one, it is in reality disregarded in all: for it is impossible to have a due regard to it in anything, if we have not a regard to it in everything. And is it no sin to cast off the yoke of God, and to say, "As for the word that has been spoken to me in the name of the Lord, I will not hearken unto it?" Our blessed Lord has told us what he will say to such persons in the last day: "Bring hither those that were my enemies, who would not that I should reign over them, and slay them before me." "Those who knew not their Lord's will," and sinned through ignorance, are chargeable with guilt, and will be visited with punishment; because they had the means of instruction, and did not diligently improve them: but if "the servant who knew not his Lord's will shall be beaten with few stripes, be assured, that the servant who knew his Lord's will and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."
Truly this is a solemn truth, and deeply to be weighed by every child of man. Let me therefore proceed,
II. To suggest some reflections arising out of it.
Who that duly considers it must not see,
1. What ground we all have for humiliation before God.
I will suppose that we have never committed any enormous sin, and that in respect of the letter of the law we have been as blameless as ever Paul was previous to his conversion: still, are we not sinners? There has been no doubt on any of our minds whether we had occasion for the acknowledged duties of repentance, faith, and obedience: but have we diligently performed these duties? Have we from day to day humbled ourselves before God, and wept in dust and ashes? Have we labored to find out all our past transgressions, to spread them before God with penitential sorrow, and to implore with all earnestness the remission of them?—Have we fled to the Lord Jesus Christ for refuge, as to the hope that is set before us? Have we pleaded before God the merit of his sacrifice, and sprinkled our souls with his all-atoning blood? Is this the daily habit of our minds; and the only source of peace to our souls?—And have we given up ourselves to God without reserve, to fulfill his every command, and to live altogether to his glory? Do we for this end study his blessed word with all diligence, that we may know his mind? and do we labor incessantly to "stand perfect and complete in all the will of God?" We have known these things to be right; but have we done them? Can we appeal to the heart-searching God, that this has been, and yet is, the daily tenor of our lives? Must we not rather acknowledge, that no one day of our lives has been so occupied with these duties as it ought to have been? Then we are sinners, "sinners before the Lord exceedingly," and, if we turn not to God in newness of life, we shall speedily become monuments of his wrath and fiery indignation.
2. The folly of seeking salvation by any righteousness of our own.
I will not only grant, as before, that we are free from any gross sins, but I will admit, that we have done a great deal that was good and praiseworthy. But how shall we get rid of this immense load of guilt which we have contracted by our willful and habitual neglects? Our good deeds, admitting that we have performed some, have been only occasional: whereas our neglects have been continual, from the first moment that we began to be capable of acting. Our good deeds have all been marred with imperfections; but our neglects have had in them no mixture of good: they were pure and unmixed evil; and in comparison of them, any good that we do is lighter than dust upon the balance. In truth, no man who reflected a moment on my text could any more entertain a hope of being justified by any righteousness of his own, than he could form a purpose to create a world. He would see, that, while he was doing those very works on which he was inclined to build his hopes, the weakness and defectiveness of his exertions infinitely outweighed any merit which they might be supposed to have; and rendered his works a just ground for condemnation, rather than of justification before God. Bear in mind then the declaration before us; and limit not your views to sins of commission, but extend them to sins of omission: and then you will no longer hesitate to renounce all hope in yourselves, but will say with the Apostle Paul, "I desire to be found in Christ, not having my own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."
3. The improvement which we should make of divine ordinances.
We should not come to the house of God merely to satisfy conscience and to perform a duty, but really to get instruction respecting the mind and will of God. A mariner about to navigate a ship, and having the assistance of a skillful builder to examine whether she was in a state fit for sea, would not listen to his observations as a mere matter of curiosity or amusement, nor would he shut his eyes to any defects that were pointed out: his object would be, to find out defects, in order to their being remedied: and if only a doubt were suggested, he would endeavor to ascertain how far there was any foundation for it. He would say, I am about to commit my life and property to this vessel, and I must not stay until I am got into the midst of the ocean before I search into her state: it will be too late to do that when I am in the midst of a storm: I must do it now, before I go on board. Precisely in this way should you come up to the house of God. You are about to embark for eternity: and the instructions given by your minister are intended to point out every defect in your vessel, in order to its being remedied in time. Shut not then your ears to his instructions; and close not your eyes to your defects: but bless God for every assistance which you can obtain in a matter of such infinite importance, and endeavor to improve it for the salvation of your soul. In particular, search out your defects; and cry mightily to God to pardon them for the Redeemer's sake, and to repair them by the influences of his good Spirit: so may you hope to navigate in safety this tempestuous ocean; and in due season to "have an abundant entrance" into the haven of eternal bliss.
Patient Perseverance Urged
James 5:7, 8. Be patient, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the gardener waits for the precious fruit of the earth, and has long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain. Be also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draws near.
CHRISTIANITY, even in the apostolic age, was professed by multitudes who neither understood its doctrines nor obeyed its precepts. The great and fundamental doctrine of justification by faith was denied by some, and abused by others; who took occasion from it to "turn the grace of God into licentiousness," and to "continue in sin that grace might abound." To this latter class more especially James directed his epistle. He did indeed write to the unbelieving Jews also: for his epistle is addressed "To the twelve tribes who were scattered abroad," and, as they were in no state to receive such affectionate salutations as are observable in the epistles which were addressed to Christians only, he contented himself with merely sending to them "greeting." There were indeed many truly pious persons who were suffering for the truth's sake; and these he sought to comfort and encourage. The foregoing part of this chapter seems addressed to the former; the text and following verses to the latter. We cannot conceive that the oppressive and murderous conduct which he lays to the charge of some, could admit of their being numbered with the Church of God. But their cruelties rendered the path of the true Christians who were among them far more difficult: and therefore, after warning those who were so grossly violating every principle of common morality, he encourages the suffering Christians to persevere in a patient discharge of their duty, and in an assured expectation of recompense at the coming of their Lord.
We shall consider the injunction which he gives them in a two-fold view;
I. In reference to the terms by which it is expressed.
These are strong and energetic. Twice he says, "Be patient;" that is, bear with all long-suffering the trials that are come upon you: and then he adds, "Establish your hearts;" let them be so firmly fixed, that nothing may ever shake them.
Now from these expressions we gain a very considerable insight into Christianity: we see, that,
1. It exposes us to heavy trials.
No man could profess Christianity at its first establishment, but at the peril of his life: thousands and myriads being called to seal the truth with their blood. If the same persecutions be not experienced at this day, let us not imagine that they have therefore ceased: for it is as true at this day as it was in the apostolic age, that "all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." And every man now, as well as then, must be prepared to lay down his life for Christ, if he will be acknowledged as "a disciple indeed." Nor let it be thought that the persecutions of the present day are so very light. It is no easy thing for flesh and blood to withstand the hatred, and contempt, and ridicule to which he will be assuredly exposed, if he set himself in earnest to serve the Lord. The fear of these consequences is abundantly sufficient to deter multitudes from embracing the Gospel, and to turn back multitudes after they have embraced it. True it is, that all are not exposed to these things in an equal degree: but every follower of Christ must have his cross to bear, and be conformed to his Divine Master in sufferings, before he can be made like him in glory.
2. It calls for great exertions.
Religion is the same that it ever was, and calls for the same efforts on the part of all who embrace it. A race is not won at this day without exertion; nor does a wrestler overcome a strong antagonist without effort: nor a man engaged in warfare obtain a triumph without labor. Our spiritual enemies are as strong as ever: sin is not subdued and mortified by listless endeavors; nor is Satan defeated without much watchfulness and prayer. The whole man must be engaged. We must summon to the conflict all our faculties and powers; yes, such are the efforts required, that, if we be not strengthened by that same almighty power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead, we can never prevail.
3. It requires incessant efforts even to the end.
There is to be no period when we are to give way either to impatience or sloth. However long our trials may continue, we are "in patience to possess our souls," and however difficult the path of duty may be, we are "never to be weary in well-doing." God should be able to say of us, as he does of the Church of Ephesus, "You have borne, and have patience, and for my name's sake have labored, and not fainted." This in particular is intimated in our text. It is supposed that the trials are long, and heavy, and calculated to turn us from the faith: and hence it is necessary that we "be long-suffering," and that our "souls be established with grace." It is in this way only that we can finally prevail: for to those only who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, will eternal life be adjudged.
To enter fully into the Apostle's exhortation, we must consider it,
II. In reference to the comparison with which it is illustrated.
This Apostle seems particularly to affect easy and familiar illustrations. The whole epistle abounds with them. He compares certain hearers of the word to persons beholding themselves in a glass, and then forgetting what manner of persons they were. Those who have a dead and unproductive faith he compares to persons who speak kind words to an indigent brother or sister without relieving their necessities. Those who govern not their tongue he reproves, by contrasting their conduct with horses that obey the bit; with ships that are turned by a helm; with beasts, birds, and even fishes of the sea, all of which have been tamed by men: and by warning them, that as no fountain can send forth sweet water and bitter, and no tree bear both olives and figs, so they can be no true Christians, while such unworthy and inconsistent speeches issue from their mouths. Here in our text he brings to our view the gardener, whose continued labors and patient expectations form a fit model for the Christian. Him we are called to resemble,
1. In a steady prosecution of the appointed means.
Many are the discouragements which the gardener meets with in the cultivation of his ground. Sometimes the weather is untoward: sometimes blights, or insects, or mildew, injure his crops: sometimes drought almost destroys all his hopes: but still he goes on from year to year, ploughing his ground, clearing it from weeds, manuring it, casting in his seed, and harrowing it; and this he does, not knowing for certain that a single grain which he casts into the furrows shall rise again. But he expects nothing without the use of means; and therefore he does his part; and that too as regularly and diligently as if everything depended on himself. He well knows that God alone can give rain, or cause the sun to shine, or give power to the seed which he has sown to spring up: but still he labors, that he may not fail through any neglect of his own.
Now in this he is a pattern for all Christians. They have their work to do. True, they cannot ensure success: but they know that it is in the use, and not in the neglect, of the appointed means, that God will bless them: and therefore they are laboring as assiduously as if everything depended on themselves. Behold them in secret: they read the Scriptures with diligence: they pray over them with earnestness: they set themselves to mortify their evil propensities, and to fulfill their duties both to God and man. Observe them at all times, and you will see, that they are in earnest for Heaven. When you go into the fields, and see the gardener ploughing, manuring, sowing, harrowing, weeding his ground, you will never hesitate a moment to say, that he has the harvest in view. So, see the Christian from day to day, and you will without fail remark, that he has Heaven in view, and that he is preparing for a future harvest.
2. In a patient expectation of the desired end.
Many months intervene between the seed-time and the harvest: but the gardener waits with patience. It is some time before the seed springs up from under the clods: but he waits for it, and for "the former rain," which alone can call forth its vegetative powers. Its growth is afterwards impeded by drought: but still he waits for the latter rain, without which the corn can never come to maturity. There may be many alternations of hope and fear: but he commits the matter to the Lord, and waits the destined time, in expectation that God will give him to see, in an abundant increase, the fruit of his labors. So the Christian must wait upon his God: many things he will meet with to try his faith and patience: but he must commit them all to the Lord, not doubting but that God will give him "strength according to his day," and cause "all events to work together for his good." As the gardener knows that a few months will bring the appointed harvest; so the Christian knows, that his Lord is quickly coming, and "will not tarry beyond the appointed time," and for that time he must wait; fully assured, that the harvest which he shall then reap will amply repay all his cares and all his toil.
This then, Christian, is the pattern you are to follow: you must be "steadfast, and immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord; and then you are assured, that your labor shall not be in vain in the Lord."
Learn then from hence,
1. How to estimate your true character.
The Apostle addresses those whom he is exhorting by the endearing name of "brethren," for they are all children of one common Father, even of God himself. Now, wherein they differ from each other, they all agree in this: the true child of God is engaged in a work, which demands, and in which he puts forth, all his energies. In it he is occupied throughout the year. He consults not the clouds, to know whether he shall plough and sow his ground: he knows that the work must be done, and he engages in it in a humble dependence on his God: and he looks to the future judgment, as the period when all his labors shall be compensated, and his hopes fulfilled. Now, I would ask, would every one that sees you, know you by these marks? The gardener, without intending to attract notice, discovers to all, his views, his occupations, his desires. Are yours also in like manner apparent to all who behold your life and conversation! Doubtless your daily calls of duty are not so visible to every observer: but upon the whole, the great scope and end of your life is not a whit less visible to all who are round about you. Here then you may easily ascertain your own character. If eternity be not ever in your view; if all you do have not a reference to it; if you be not willing both to do and suffer everything that may conduce to your future welfare; and if you be not "looking for, and hastening unto, the coming of the day of Christ," as to the period for the completion of all your wishes, you do not belong to this holy family: you may call yourselves Christians; but you are not Christians indeed. We read of those who "said that they were Jews, and did lie," so you say that you are Christians; but your whole conduct gives the lie to your profession. If you are Christians in deed and in truth, "your works of faith, and labors of love, and patience of hope, are known to all;" and they vouch for you, that "you are the elect," the children of the living God.
2. How to anticipate your certain end.
All imagine that they are going to Heaven; and will not be persuaded to the contrary. But, if you have ears to hear, and hearts to understand, you shall know this day whether you are going to Heaven or to Hell. Ask yonder gardener: 'Have you been ploughing and sowing your ground this year?' 'No; I have had other things to do.'—'And do you expect a harvest?' 'Yes, I shall have as good a crop as any of my neighbors.'—'But do you think that you shall obtain the end without the means?' 'Tell me not about means and end: others give themselves a great deal of unnecessary trouble: and I shall have as good a crop as my neighbors: nor shall any one persuade me to the contrary.'
Now what, suppose you, will be the issue? Will the event accord with this man's expectations? Will he not, when the time of harvest comes, find that his confidence has been delusive; and that his barns are empty, while the granaries of others are filled with store? Then I agree that you shall be your own judges. If you can form a doubt about the issue of that man's confidence, especially when it is repeated for many years together, then I will be content that you shall buoy up yourselves with the hopes of Heaven, though you never use any means to obtain it. But if you have no doubt about that man's folly, then see in it a just picture of your own.
Behold then, I declare to all of you, that the means must be used in order to the end. You must repent, "ploughing up your fallow ground," and "sowing in tears" of deep contrition. You must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, as the only Savior of sinners; and must look to him for "the former and the latter rain," whereby alone the seed of the word can live and grow in your souls. Lastly, you must make it the one labor of your life to prepare for his second coming, that you may give up your account to him with joy and not with grief. If you thus "go on your way weeping, bearing precious seed, you shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing your sheaves with you," but if you act not thus, know that you shall reap according to what you sow. "He who sows to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; while he who sows to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting."
Nearness of Judgment
James 5:9. Behold! the Judge stands before the door.
OF the Day of Judgment there is frequent mention in the New Testament: and so strongly was the idea of it realized in the minds of the inspired writers, that they conveyed to the Church, unintentionally on their parts, an expectation of its speedy arrival. This arose indeed, in part, from our blessed Lord himself having blended his description of it with a prediction of the judgments which impended over Jerusalem, and which were to be inflicted upon it before that generation should have passed away. Yet, when there was no reference to the destruction of the Jewish polity, the language used respecting it was often exceeding strong. Paul, in his first Epistle to the Thessalonians, thus expresses himself: "This we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain unto the coming of the Lord, shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we who are alive, and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." We wonder not that some should mistake his meaning, as we find they did, insomuch that, in his next epistle, he was constrained to rectify their misapprehension of his words, and to bring to their recollection, that he had before told them of many important events, which would occur previous to the arrival of that day. James speaks of that period in terms of similar aspect with those of the Apostle Paul: "The coming of the Lord draws near," and again, "The Judge stands before the door." Whether, in these passages, James had any reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, I cannot exactly say: it is possible he might; because it would be some consolation to the suffering Christians to know that their oppressors would soon be disarmed of their power: but, beyond a doubt, he chiefly refers to the time appointed for the future judgment; when all the inequalities of this present state will be done away, and every person receive a suitable recompense, according to the injuries he has either inflicted or sustained. In this view, the Apostle says, "Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest you be condemned," that is, vent not your indignation against an oppressor, no, not even in an inarticulate sound, lest the same judgment come on you which you would be ready to inflict on him: but leave the matter to your Almighty "Judge, who stands before the door," ready to "award tribulation to those who trouble you; but to you, who are troubled, rest."
Let us consider,
I. The truth that is here suggested.
To enter into the full meaning of this awful truth, we must distinctly notice its two leading parts:
1. Death is at hand, to carry us before our Judge.
This is an undoubted truth. The experience of every day attests it. Death lurks within us; and finds, in the disordered state of our bodies, ten thousand means of accomplishing our destruction. He lies in ambush, too, in everything around us. There is not anything which may not prove an instrument in his hands to bring us down. Nor is it by disease or accident alone that he can effect his purpose. In instances without number he inflicts the fatal stroke, without so much as employing any visible or acknowledged agent. If only he receive his commission from God, he is able to work either by means or without means. It need only be said, "This night shall your soul be required of you;" and with irresistible power he executes the decree; and transmits us, prepared or unprepared, into the immediate presence of our God.
2. Our Judge is at hand, to pronounce our deserved doom.
He is not afar off, that he must be sought after: nor is he so occupied with the cases of others, as not to be at liberty to consider ours. The instant we are brought before him, he is ready to pronounce his sentence. Of this, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a striking illustration. "All is naked and open before him," at one view; and in one instant of time he can so present everything before our minds, that we also may discern the equity of his sentence. If at night we wished to see a variety of objects, we must take a light, and view them in succession, one at a time: but if the sun be risen upon the earth, we can see ten thousand objects at once. Thus can the Judge of quick and dead, in one instant of time, present to our view the records of our whole life, to serve as a foundation of the sentence that he shall pass upon us. Some notion of this we may form from the account given us of the Samaritan woman. She had had some conversation with our Lord, who had made known to her one particular circumstance of her life: and with such power was that particular truth accompanied to her soul, that she went home and said, "Come, see a man who has told me all that ever I did." Now this omniscient Judge is at the door, ready to pass sentence on us, the very instant we are brought before him: and, if our eyes were opened, as those of Elisha's servant were, we might see the throne of judgment already set; the Judge himself seated upon it; the books opened before him; the list of the prisoners, according as they are in succession to be brought before him; and the officers ready, both to summon them in their turn, and to execute on all the sentence awarded to them.
To impress this solemn truth upon your minds, let me proceed to show,
II. The attention it demands.
"Behold! the Judge stands before the door," mark it; contemplate it; act upon it. Surely the consideration of this awful truth should prevail upon us,
1. To seek without delay the pardon of our past sins.
If we "die in our sins," woe be to us! "it had been better for us never to have been born." But through repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ all our past sins may be forgiven: they may all "be blotted out, as a morning cloud;" yes, though they may have been of a "scarlet or crimson dye, they may be made white as snow." Should we, then, defer a moment to seek this inestimable blessing? When we know not but that the very next hour we may be summoned into the presence of our Judge, should we endanger the everlasting welfare of our souls by waiting for a more convenient season? Oh! "Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are in the way with him; lest the adversary deliver you to the Judge, and the Judge deliver you to the officer, and you be cast into prison. Truly, you shall not come out thence, until you have paid the utmost farthing."
2. To guard with all diligence against the incursion of fresh sin.
Remember, that whatever be the state of our souls at the moment of death, that will continue to be our state to all eternity. It may be said, "I have repented long since, and sought for mercy through Christ, and attained to a considerable measure of righteousness." Be it so. Yet must I declare unto you, that "if you relapse into sin, your past righteousness shall not be remembered; but in the iniquity which you have committed, shall you die." There cannot be a more fatal error, than to imagine that your past experience, whatever it may have been, shall avail you anything, if you turn back to sin. So far will it be from screening you from the wrath of God, that it will rather render you obnoxious to it, in a tenfold heavier degree: "You only have I known of all the families of Israel; therefore will I punish you for your iniquities." Hear how strongly God himself has cautioned you against this error: "Be not deceived: God is not mocked: for whatever a man sows, that shall he also reap: he who sows to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption: and he who sows to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting." When, therefore, you consider how suddenly you may be called into the presence of your Judge, it becomes you to "keep your garments clean," and to "use all diligence that you may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless."
3. To watch in a more especial manner over the secret workings of your hearts.
It is not our actions only that our God will call into judgment, but "every secret thing, whether it be good or evil." There is much that is externally "good in the eyes of men, which yet is an abomination in the sight of God." There may be in the best exercises of our religion much of pride and self-delight; and in our most benevolent actions, also, a mixture of ostentation and vanity. Now "God will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the heart." How attentive then should we be to the secret workings of our minds! They are all discerned by God, as clearly as our overt acts: "He searches the heart, and tries the reins," "he weighs the very spirits of men," and thousands, who took credit to themselves for acting from the best of principles, will be found no better than hypocrites before him. Beloved, know of a truth, that if ever you would find acceptance with your Judge, you must be "Israelites indeed, and without deceit."
4. To improve for your good every summons which is sent to those around us.
You see in the circumstances now before you a striking illustration of our text—And does not this event speak to you? What if you had been the person summoned into the presence of your Judge: were you prepared to meet him? Would he have found you truly penitent for all your past transgressions; and watchful against every sin, yes, against every degree of evil, even in thought or desire? If not, what would have been your feelings at this moment?—Do you not tremble at the thought? Or, suppose that this night a similar summons should be sent to you, (and you have no security that there will not,) are you ready? Do not trifle, my beloved brethren, on the very brink of eternity: but "stand with your loins girt, and your lamps trimmed, as servants waiting for the coming of your Lord." Then, "whether your Lord come in the morning, or in the evening, or at the cock-crowing, or at midnight," it shall be well with you. In a word, learn to "die daily," and then it will be a joy to you to reflect, that your Judge is at the door: for the door at which he stands shall no sooner be opened to summon you into his presence, than angels, as his ministering servants, shall bear you from his tribunal to the realms of bliss.
The Patience of Job
James 5:11. You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
ONE of the most singular ideas that can be suggested to a carnal mind, is that which occurs in the words immediately preceding the text; "We count them happy that endure." An ungodly man sees, that it is better to bear afflictions patiently than to sink under them; but he can scarcely conceive how afflictions, under any circumstances, can become a ground of congratulation. This difficulty, however, is solved by taking into the account "the end" of those afflictions: and it admits of easy illustration from the case of Job.
In prosecuting the Apostle's view of this subject, we shall consider,
I. The patience of Job under his afflictions.
Great and unparalleled were the afflictions of Job.
The destruction of all his property, and all his servants, by bands of robbers, and by lightning, announced to him as it was in three different accounts, by different messengers in speedy succession, would of itself have been sufficient to overwhelm his mind, if he had not been endued with uncommon fortitude; since by this he was reduced in a moment from the height of opulence and grandeur to the lowest indigence and want.
But, distressing as these events were, what an inconceivable aggravation must they have received from the tidings delivered by a fourth messenger, the sudden death of all his children! Had he heard of only one child dying, and that by any natural disorder, it would, to such a parent, have been a fearful addition to all his other burdens: but to hear of seven sons, and three daughters, all crushed in a moment by the falling of his house, if it did not bereave him of his senses, we might well expect, that it should, at least, draw forth some murmuring, and unadvised expressions.
To all these calamities were added yet others, that affected more immediately his own person; and which, in such a conjuncture, must be beyond measure afflictive. Satan, having permission to try him to the uttermost, smote him from head to foot with the most loathsome ulcers, insomuch that he was constrained to sit down among the ashes, and to scrape himself with a potsherd.
In the midst of all this trouble one might hope that he would have some comfort in the kind offices of neighbors, the compassion of friends, and the tender assiduities of his wife. But, alas! his servants turned their backs upon him: the children in the streets despised and mocked him: the very friends who came to comfort him, loaded him with the most unfounded accusations, and asserted, that his sufferings were indications of peculiar wickedness, which God was now disclosing and punishing. His wife also derided his affiance in God, and counseled him to renounce it utterly, yes, to "curse God, and die."
Take any one of these trials separately, and it was great: but view them collectively, and they exceeded all that ever were endured by mortal man.
They served however to call forth his most unrivaled patience.
Mark his conduct when informed of all his accumulated misfortunes, and especially the loss of all his children: "Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshiped; and said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."
Behold him yet again after his body was so smitten, and when his wife gave him that desperate, that atheistical, advice: all was meekness still: his very reproof was mild, though firm: "He said unto her, You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?"
Thus "in all this he never once charged God foolishly, or sinned in the least respect."
It is true that, after this, we find him "cursing the day of his birth," and uttering some unwarranted expressions against God: nor would it become us either to conceal, or to extenuate, his guilt in these respects. Our blessed Lord alone was absolutely without sin. But though Job betrayed his infirmity in some hasty words, yet, on the whole, his argument was right in opposition to that of his friends: and God himself, as the arbiter of the dispute, declared, that "they had not spoken the thing that was right as his servant Job had." Moreover, the deep humility with which he acknowledged his offence, proved his title to the character which God had given him in the beginning, that he was the most perfect and upright of the sons of men.
Having taken this view of Job's afflictions, and of his patience under them, let us consider,
II. The design which God had in them.
We, who behold every part of this mysterious dispensation in one view, are enabled, from its catastrophe, to mark the design of God in every intermediate step of the plot: we see what God intended, by what he actually effected.
1. He confounded Satan.
Satan had accused Job as a hypocrite, who, if he were brought into trying circumstances, would even curse God to his face: and he undertook to prove him such a character, if God would only suffer him to make the trial. God gave him this permission, and thereby afforded Satan an occasion to prove himself a liar, and to demonstrate that integrity, the existence of which he was so forward to deny.
Nor is this a small consolation to the people of God, whom Satan is ever ready to accuse and harass. When he would persuade them that they are hypocrites, they may recollect, that "he was a liar from the beginning." When he, through Divine permission, assaults them either in body or mind, they may look back to this history, and see, that he can in no respect exceed his commission, or overthrow those who trust in God. He may toss them vehemently as in a sieve; but shall never destroy the smallest grain of solid wheat.
2. He exercised and improved the graces of Job.
If "men do not light a candle, in order to put it under a bushel, but that it may give light to those who are in the house," we may be sure that God does not implant his grace in the heart, but with a view to call it into exercise. Now he had endued Job with such eminent patience, that the common events of life were not sufficient to call it forth: he therefore suffered Satan to exert all his power against him, in order that Job's piety might be displayed, augmented, and confirmed. Behold the sufferer when coming out of his trial; how bright does he shine, when "abasing himself in dust and ashes!" How eminent does he appear, when God himself not only takes his part, but refuses forgiveness to his uncharitable friends, except as an answer to his intercession for them! Truly he lost nothing in the furnace but his dross; and "he came out of it purified as gold."
3. He increased Job's happiness both in this and in the eternal world.
Doubtless the afflictions of Job were inexpressibly severe: yet was he no stranger to consolation even in his most distressing hours. If all his earthly comforts were dead, and he had lost all hope of happiness on this side the grave, still he saw that he had a Redeemer living; and he knew that the day was fast approaching, when he should enjoy an intimate and everlasting communion with him.
But beyond all expectation he was raised from his low estate; his family was again increased to the very number he had before lost; his possessions were doubled; and his life, which probably at that time was somewhat advanced, was prolonged a hundred and forty years, that he might see his posterity even to the fourth generation. We must confess, therefore, that even in this life he was abundantly recompensed for the months of trouble that he had endured.
How much his eternal happiness was affected by it, it is impossible for us to say: but sure we are that his affliction was the means of greatly augmenting it. In this view, affliction was better to him than Heaven itself would have been: for, if he had been removed to Heaven at once, his state, though glorious, would have been forever fixed: whereas his affliction was "working for him" as long as it continued: it was every moment increasing that weight of glory which he was to possess forever. Who does not see that it would be better for a man to be cut off and be cast into Hell immediately, than to live only to "treasure up wrath against the day of wrath?" for though his torments would come upon him a little sooner, yet the respite of a few months, or years, would bear no proportion to the increased weight of misery that he must eternally endure. And exactly thus the additional weight of glory which Job will eternally possess, will far overbalance the trials he suffered, or the short period of bliss, which, by an earlier removal, he might have enjoyed.
To make the just improvement of this history, we must notice,
III. The general character of God, as it is exhibited in this particular dispensation.
This seems to be the more immediate object, to which James would direct our attention. Persons in the midst of their trouble are apt to entertain hard thoughts of God: but we who, in this instance, "have seen the end of the Lord," may rest assured "that he is very pitiful, and of tender mercy," however dark or painful his dispensations towards us may be. It is by love alone he is actuated,
1. In sending afflictions.
He does "not willingly afflict his people." He knows what we stand in need of; and he sends it for our good. He chastises us, not as earthly parents too often do, to indulge their own evil tempers, but purely "for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness." And as he knows what we want, so he knows what we can bear; and will take care either to apportion our burden to our strength, or to give us strength sufficient for our trials. Besides, in all our afflictions he sympathizes with us; he watches over us with the care of a refiner, and the solicitude of a parent: and when he sees that his rod has produced its desired effect, he is glad to return to us in the endearments of love, and to confirm our confidence in him by the sweetest tokens of reconciliation and acceptance.
2. In multiplying afflictions.
When our troubles, like those of Job, are many and various, we are ready to conclude that they are sent in wrath. But it is not for us to prescribe how many, or of what continuance, our afflictions shall be. We must consider God as a physician, who prescribes with unerring wisdom, and consults the benefit, rather than the inclination, of his patients. We must "walk by faith, and not by sight," it will be time enough hereafter to see the reasons of God's procedure. Job was induced at last to account God his enemy: and they who beheld the afflictions of Christ, were ready to say, that "he was judicially stricken, and smitten of God" as the most abandoned of mankind. But we know that, as Job was, so was Christ, beloved of the Father; and never more beloved than when crying in the depths of his dereliction, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Let not any then "write bitter things against themselves" on account of the greatness of their afflictions, but rather accept their trials as tokens of his love; for, "whom he loves he chastens; and scourges every son whom he receives."
1. Let none be secure, as though affliction were far off from them.
We may be today in affluence; tomorrow in want: today in health; tomorrow languishing on a bed of sickness: today enjoying the society of wife, or children; tomorrow lamenting their loss. Let us remember, that whatever we have is God's; it is only lent us for a little while, to be recalled at any hour he shall see fit. Let us learn to hold everything as by this tenure, that we may be ready at any moment to give up whatever he shall be pleased to require of us. Since "we know not what a day may bring forth," we should stand girt for the service of our God, ever ready to do or suffer his righteous will.
2. Let none be hasty in their judgments, when called to suffer.
Jacob thought all his trials were against him; when, in fact, they were designed for the good of himself and of all his family. And we know not but that the events we so deeply bewail, are indispensably necessary to our salvation. We have reason to think that, if we saw the end as God does, we, instead of regarding our losses or bereavements as afflictions, should adore God for them as much as for the most pleasing of his dispensations. Let us then wait until he shall have discovered to us the whole of his designs; and be content to form our judgment of him when all the grounds of judging are laid before us.
The Efficacy of Fervent Prayer
James 5:16. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
PRAYER and intercession are generally considered as duties: but, if viewed aright, they would rather be regarded as privileges; seeing that they are the means of obtaining for ourselves and others those blessings which no created being can bestow. In this point of view, the passage before us, together with the preceding context, affords us the greatest possible encouragement. It is to be regretted, however, that instead of making a due improvement of these gracious declarations, the Papists have made use of them chiefly, if not solely, to advance the temporal interests of their clergy, at the expense of the eternal welfare of the laity.
On the direction given to "pray over a sick person, and to anoint him with oil in order to his recovery," they have founded an ordinance, to be observed when a man is absolutely past recovery: and that which was designed of God as emblematic only of a miraculous power, given at that time for the restoration of bodily health, they have established as the essential means in all ages of saving the immortal soul.
Again; Because the saints are encouraged to "confess their faults one to another," with a view to the augmenting of their mutual sympathy, and the directing of them in their mutual intercessions, these deceivers have required the laity to confess their sins to the clergy, in order to their obtaining the forgiveness of them at the hands of God: whereas, according to James, there is no such deference due to any particular order of men; but the confession is as much required from the clergy to the laity, as from the laity to the clergy.
We stop not however to notice these grievous errors, but pass on to that which more immediately concerns ourselves; and to point out to you,
I. The import of the assertion before us.
The preceding context certainly leads our thoughts chiefly to the work of intercession: yet since it is also said, "Is any afflicted, let him pray," we must not confine our attention to prayer as offered for others, but must notice it also as offered for ourselves. We say then, that when "a righteous man" draws near to God, and presents before him prayers inspired and dictated by the Holy Spirit (whose peculiar office it is to "help our infirmities" in prayer, and to "make intercession for us"), he shall prevail;
1. For others.
Of this the instances are so numerous, that we can only give a short specimen of them: yet shall it be such a specimen, as will abundantly confirm the truth before us.
We will begin with Moses, who, when God was exceedingly wroth with his people for making and worshiping the golden calf, set himself to pray and intercede for them. But God, feeling, if I may so say, how impossible it would be for him to resist the importunity of his servant, said, "Let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and," if you think that my covenant with Abraham will be broken thereby, I assure you it shall not; for "I will make of you a great nation." But Moses would not "let him alone," but pleaded for them with all imaginable earnestness and importunity: and the consequence was, "the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people"
My next instance shall be that of Joshua, who, desiring to prosecute the advantage which he had gained over the Amorites, and destroy them utterly, prayed that neither the sun nor moon might advance in their course, but continue to aid him with their light, until he had accomplished his desire. To effect this, the whole universe must be arrested in its career; and such a shock be given to it, as to endanger its utter dissolution. But whatever stood in the way, it must yield to his prayer. Accordingly, no sooner did this righteous man issue the command, "Sun, stand you still upon Gibeon, and you moon in the valley of Ajalon," than all the laws of nature were suspended, "and the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. So the sun stood still in the midst of Heaven, and hastened not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day like that before it, or after it, that the Lord so hearkened to the voice of a man."
Here we have seen all the material creation stopped by the voice of prayer.—Now we will refer to another instance, wherein Heaven itself is moved, and an angel sent from thence to fulfill the petitions of two chosen servants. Jerusalem was besieged, and utterly incapable of holding out against the enemy who was come against it. But Hezekiah and Isaiah betook themselves to prayer. And what was the result? An angel was sent from Heaven to destroy, in one single night, one hundred and eighty-five thousand of the besieging army: and the blaspheming monarch, who had boasted that nothing could withstand him, was forced to return immediately to his own country, where he was slain by his own sons, while in the very act of worshiping the senseless idol in which he had trusted for success. For this cause, says the historian, "Hezekiah the king, and the Prophet Isaiah the son of Amos, prayed and cried to Heaven. And the Lord sent an angel, which cut off all the mighty men of valor, and the leaders and captains in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he was come into the house of his God, they that came forth of his own affections slew him there with the sword."
One more instance I will mention, in order to show how immediately the prayer of a righteous man succeeds. Daniel had understood, from the prophecies of Jeremiah, that the time for the close of the Babylonish captivity was near at hand: and he set himself to seek more particular instruction from God respecting it, in order that he might be able to take advantage of such circumstances as might occur for the benefit of his nation. "I set my face," says he, "unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes: and I prayed unto the Lord my God." And now behold the effect!—"And whiles I was speaking and praying, and confessing my sin, and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the Lord my God for the holy mountain of my God; yes, while I was speaking in prayer, even the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision at the beginning, being caused to fly swiftly, touched me about the time of the evening oblation, and informed me, and said, O Daniel, I am now come forth to give you skill and understanding: at the beginning of your supplications the commandment came forth; and I am come to show you all that you did ask." See what expedition was used, by God's special command, to answer while in the very act of prayer; and to let him know, that, at the very commencement of his suit, his prayer was heard!
More on this subject is unnecessary: yet less could scarcely have been spoken, if we would in any degree do justice to it.
2. For ourselves.
I mention this last, because it is, in reality, the greatest: for the prayers which are offered in behalf of others, prevail only for the obtaining of some temporal blessing: they cannot certainly procure for men the salvation of their souls: for, if they could, no creature would ever perish. When Stephen prayed, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge," it prevailed probably in behalf of Saul, and perhaps of some others: but it cannot be supposed that it succeeded in behalf of all. But for a man's own self his prayer is sure to prevail. There is no limit to the benefits which he shall receive, provided only he ask according to the will of God. He may not be answered in the particular way that he may desire. The cup, for the removal of which the Lord Jesus Christ himself prayed, was not taken out of his hands; nor was the thorn for the extraction of which Paul cried with such eager importunity removed: but both he and his divine Master were answered in a way more consonant with the purposes of Jehovah. But in some way, and that the best, prayer shall most assuredly be answered to all who cry to God in sincerity and truth. Whatever they ask in Christ's name, shall be given them. Let them "open their mouth ever so wide, it shall be filled." They may exhaust all the powers of language in their petitions, and may then extend their thoughts to the utmost limit of a finite conception; and they shall not only have all, but more than all, yes, "abundantly above all that they can ask or think."
The assertion in our text deserves the most attentive consideration on its own account; but more especially on account of,
II. The insight which it gives us into truths of the greatest importance.
From this we obtain an insight into,
1. The character of God.
We think of God, for the most part, as a Being of infinite majesty, who, unless in matters of very extraordinary moment, does not trouble himself with the concerns of men: and hence, if a person were to speak of having received answers to his prayers, he would be accounted wild, visionary, and presumptuous. But let God be viewed as he is represented in the text: let him be viewed as noticing with the deepest interest the very least and meanest of his children; as attending to their every cry, and treasuring up in his vials their every tear. Not so much as a "breathing" of theirs escapes his notice; or a desire, of which they themselves perhaps are scarcely conscious. The highest archangel does not more engage his attention, than does a poor despised Lazarus: nor is he less concerned about every individual among his people, than if there were but one in the whole universe. This is the true light in which to view his condescension and grace; of which a mother's feelings towards her first-born child afford but a slender and very inadequate idea.
2. The Christian's state.
In respect of external appearance, there is no difference between a child of God and any other person: but in reality, as they are viewed by God, they are widely dissimilar. In the one God beholds his own image: in the other, the image of the wicked one. On the one he looks with pleasure and delight: the other he views afar off, with utter disdain. To the one his ears are open, to hear their every request: "the sacrifices of the other are an abomination to him." Look at Abraham, when interceding for Sodom: there you see the friend of God. Look at those who, merely under the pressure of some calamity, cry and plead for help, while yet they have no love to God in their hearts: there you see the contrast; for God "laughs at their calamity, and mocks at their fear." And all this is but a prelude to that which will speedily be accomplished in them; when the one shall be called to his right hand, and be exalted to a throne of glory; and the other be turned to his left hand, and be cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone. Ungodly men endeavor to persuade themselves that all this is nothing but a vain conceit: but the Jews, notwithstanding all their blindness, could see that this difference did exist: "We know" say they, "that God hears not sinners: but if any man be a worshiper of God, and do his will, him he hears." Do you then know it: for, whether you will believe it, or not, so it is: nor are light and darkness, Christ and Belial, Heaven and Hell, further asunder, than are the children of God, and the children of the wicked one.
3. The use and excellency of the Gospel.
It is the Gospel alone that can bring a man into this happy state. Nothing else can show him how to draw near to God with acceptance, or to obtain reconciliation with him. This exhibits to us a Savior; a Savior, who bought us with his blood. This brings us into union with that Savior, so that we are made "one spirit with him," and are entitled to a participation of all that he himself possesses; "of the love with which the Father loves him;" of "the joy with which his soul is filled;" and "of the glory which the Father has given to him." Here is the true secret of the difference of which we have before spoken. The believer is viewed as in Christ; as washed in his blood; as clothed in his righteousness; as altogether "one with him, even as the Father and Christ are one." This accounts for all which we have before mentioned of the believer's peculiar and exalted privileges. Let me then entreat you, beloved, to embrace the Gospel without delay; seeing that through that alone you can have access to God, and obtain that fellowship with him which it is your privilege to enjoy.
Bear in mind to whom these privileges belong: they belong exclusively to "the righteous man." The ungodly and the hypocrite have no part in them. Seek then to attain the character of the righteous: seek it by faith in the Lord Jesus; "by whose obedience you shall be made righteous," and by whose all-powerful grace you shall "be renewed after the Divine image in righteousness and true holiness." Then shall all these blessings be yours. You shall be "a people near unto God," yes, you shall "have power with God, and shall prevail" in all your supplications: even for others you shall prevail to a great extent, but for yourselves you shall obtain all the blessings both of grace and glory.
Conversion of A Sinner A Great Benefit
James 5:19, 20. Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know that he who converts the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.
IN the apostolic age, the power of working miracles was given to many; and was much coveted, not only on account of the benefit which it enabled its possessor to impart, but on account of the honor which it brought to him that exercised it. That power has long since been withdrawn, it being no longer necessary for the support and credit of the Christian cause. Nor need we regret its discontinuance; since there is yet communicated to every true Christian a power of infinitely greater value; namely, a power to instruct and save the souls of men. We cannot any longer by the prayer of faith save the sick, and raise him up from the bed of sickness, and remove the judgments that have been inflicted on him on account of his sins: but by instructing a sinner, and turning him from the error of his sins, we can now, no less than in the apostolic age, save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins. The miraculous power was in the hands of few, even of "the elders of the Church;" but this spiritual power, as my text intimates, is common to all, and is to be exercised by all.
From hence we see,
I. Our duty towards our erring brethren.
There are still, as formerly, many, who, while they are called Christians, do materially "err from the truth."
No one can read this epistle without seeing that very awful errors obtained in the Church, both in relation to faith and practice: and no one can know anything of the Christian world, and not know, that Christianity among them is little more than a name. The very way of salvation, simple as it is, is very little understood. There is scarcely any one who is not expecting to be saved in whole, or in part, by some works of his own. The generality imagine that their repentance and reformation are to recommend them to God: and even those who acknowledge their obligations to the Lord Jesus Christ for what he has done and suffered for them, yet hope to obtain an interest in Him by their good works, or acceptance on account of their works through him. The simple life of faith is but little known: and frequently but little experienced, even where in terms the necessity of it is acknowledged.
The same may be said of men's practice also. Look at the life and conduct of the whole Christian world, and say, what resemblance you see in it to the life of Christ. Christians are said to be "epistles of Christ, known and read of all men." But what more would you learn of the mind and will of Christ, from what you see in the Christian world, than from what you might find in the better sort of heathens? In the Lord Jesus Christ there was an entire superiority to the world: but in his professed followers you see an entire subjection to it. In the Lord Jesus Christ you find that "it was his meat and drink to do the will of his heavenly Father," but in his professed followers you will see no such effort, no such determination to serve and honor God. Let all of you, who are here present, look at their own principles, and their own practice, and see whether they are founded altogether upon God's revealed will, and altogether conformed to the pattern set before them in the Scriptures. The more candidly these matters be inquired into, the more clearly will you see, that the great mass of nominal Christians are "erring from the truth," and need to "be converted from the error of their ways."
Towards these our duty is to use all possible means for their conversion.
We are not all called to take upon us the ministerial office: but we all in our respective circles should exert ourselves for the edification of those around us. No man is at liberty "to put his light under a bed, or under a bushel," no man is at liberty to ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Would any man, who should see a house on fire, be justified in saying, 'It is no concern of mine?' or, if the inhabitants were burnt to death through his unconcern, would there be a creature upon earth that would not execrate him for his inhumanity? Much more therefore, if we see immortal souls "erring from the truth," and hastening to destruction, should we be inexcusable, if we neglected to warn them of their danger, and to show them how their souls might be saved alive. We should warn those who are living in a willful neglect of God: we should declare to them their guilt and danger: we should set before them what the Scriptures have spoken respecting "the death of the soul," and should entreat them to "flee from the wrath to come." In particular, we should, as far as our capacity admits of it, open to them "the truth as it is in Jesus." We should make known to them the wonders of redeeming love: we should set the Lord Jesus Christ before them in all his endearing qualities; and show them how "able, and willing, he is to save to the uttermost all who come unto God by him." We should encourage them to believe in him; and, by the holy violence of argument and entreaty, should "compel them" to accept his gracious invitations, and to sit down as guests at the marriage supper of the Lamb. In a word, we should do our utmost to enlighten, convert, and save their souls.
That we may the more readily engage in this duty, let us consider,
II. Our encouragement to perform it.
We may doubtless find much of our labor to be in vain. But, if in any single instance we succeed,
1. We shall "save a soul from death."
Unconverted sinners, whatever they may imagine, are hastening to death: for the "wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men;" and the soul that sins, it shall die. And let not any one imagine, that this death consists in a mere annihilation: no; the soul, as to its existence, shall never die: but it will endure a misery of which we can form no conception, a torment in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is called in Scripture "the second death." From this however, if we are made the happy instruments of converting a soul to God, we deliver it. What a wonderful thought is this! to deliver a soul from "everlasting burnings!" If we labored throughout our whole lives, and succeeded but in one instance to accomplish our desire, how richly should we be recompensed! What if the great mass of those whose welfare we had sought, had derided us as weak enthusiasts? the thought of saving one soul from everlasting perdition would compensate all the obloquy that ever could be cast upon us. The truth is, we can form no idea what it must be to spend eternity in weeping and wailing and gnashing our teeth in the regions of despair, and under the wrath of an offended God. But, if we could form any conception of it, we should need no other inducement to labor day and night in endeavors to guide men into the way of truth, and to save their souls alive.
2. We shall hide a multitude of sins.
Who can ever count the sins of an unconverted soul? Yet shall they all be hidden, hidden from the sight of Almighty God, "out of the book of whose remembrance they shall be blotted," and from before whose face they shall pass away "as a morning cloud," yes, God himself will "cast them behind his back into the very depths of the sea," and "will remember them against the sinner no more." Hear the declaration of God upon this subject: "The iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found: for I will pardon them whom I reserve."
Now consider this: consider an immortal soul laden with iniquities more numerous and weighty than the sands upon the sea-shore; and liberated from its burden through your offices of love! Methinks, the most distant hope of conferring such a benefit is enough to turn you all into heralds and ambassadors of the Most High God. Yet let me not be misunderstood. It is not to the office of public instructors that I would call you; for that should be undertaken by none but those who are called to it by God himself: but to the office of private instructors, I would invite you; and would urge you with all importunity to engage in it: for it is not of ministers that the Apostle speaks in my text, but of private Christians; every one of whom he encourages to engage in this labor of love, saying, "Let him know, whoever he be that converts a sinner from the error of his ways, let him know, that he saves a soul from death, and hides a multitude of sins."
See then, beloved,
1. What is the true end of the ministry.
The whole world is out of course: all are erring from the fold of Christ, and wandering like sheep that know not how or where to return. That they may not irremediably perish, God has appointed ministers, to go forth, as under shepherds, to search out the wandering sheep, and to bring them back to his fold. This is the one object of our lives; to show you how far you "have erred from the truth;" to convert you from the error of your ways; and thus eventually to save your souls. In our execution of this office we perhaps appear to some to be uncharitable and harsh. But if we do believe that death, even the death of your immortal souls, will be the end of your wanderings, does it not become us "to lift up our voice like a trumpet, and to show to the house of Israel their sins" with all fidelity? Suppose a person taking the soundings of a ship in full sail, were to find, on a sudden, that the ship were running upon rocks or shoals, and would speedily, if the helm were not instantly turned, be irremediably lost; would he not feel it his duty to apprise the pilot of his danger? or would the passengers, whose lives were in such imminent peril, be offended with him, if he spoke as one who believed what he said, and as one who had the safety of the crew at heart? Methinks, if there were somewhat of vehemence in his words and manner, all would readily excuse it; and not excuse it only, but applaud it also, as the proper effect of fidelity and love. Then consider us as placed in that situation by Almighty God. You are all embarked on board the vessel, and we are appointed by God to take the soundings: and we do declare unto you, that, unless your course be changed, you must inevitably and eternally perish. If you doubt it, take the line in your own hands, and examine the chart by which you are to steer. We do not wish you to take our word, but to see and judge for yourselves: and, if our testimony be true according to the written word, then be thankful for our labors; and, instead of being offended at our fidelity, adore your God, who has appointed us "to watch for your souls," and has connected our welfare with yours: for it is only by a faithful discharge of our duty to you that "we can save ourselves, or them that hear us."
2. What should be your view in attending on the ordinances of the Gospel.
You should not come to be amused, but to be instructed and edified. You should come desirous of knowing wherein you have erred, and how you may get safely into the way of truth. Your minds should he open to conviction. You should be aware of the danger of self-deception. You should beg of God to instruct his ministers how to speak most to your edification; and should entreat him to accompany the word with power from on high, and to render it effectual for the salvation of your souls. You should bear in mind, that, "though Paul should plant, and Apollos water, it is God alone that can give the increase;" and you should judge of your profiting, not by the pleasure with which you heard, but by the insight which you have gained into the evils of your own heart, and the ability that has been imparted to rectify your errors. As God in the appointment of ordinances seeks the conversion of your souls, so should you in attending on them; "receiving with meekness the engrafted word," and praying that, as it is able, so also it may be effectual, to save your souls alive.
3. What should be the one object of your whole lives.
What is there of any importance, compared with the salvation of the soul? I do not hesitate to say, that the care of the soul is the "one thing needful." If there were no future state, men might go on in their own ways without much concern. But, when there is an eternity awaiting us,—an eternity, either of happiness in Heaven, or of misery in Hell; when our destination to the one or other of these depends entirely on our conduct in this present life; and when no man knows that he has another day to live; I see not how any doubt can exist in the mind of a rational being, that the care of his soul should infinitely outweigh all the concerns of time and sense. True it is, that when men act according to this truth, they are derided as enthusiasts: but there is no man who, in his deliberate judgment, does not see, that "the fear of the Lord is the very beginning of wisdom." Regard not then the scoffs of foolish and ungodly men; all of whom, if not in this life, yet in the next at least, will applaud your wisdom. As for the angels, they, though in the very presence of their God, will not be so occupied with the glories of Heaven, but they will have their joys augmented when they shall behold you turning into wisdom's ways. I pray you then to be in earnest about the salvation of your souls. If God has appointed an order of men on purpose to promote your welfare, and has suspended their salvation on their fidelity to you, and has taught them to consider success in one single instance as a rich recompense for the labor of their whole lives, surely it does not become you to be careless and indifferent. I pray you, awake to a sense of your condition: think how great a work you have to do, and how short and uncertain is the time wherein you have to do it: and now, before it be too late, "turn you, turn you from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?"