Consider helping today!
PATIENCE AND HER WORK
IT does not appear from the rest of this letter that the persons to whom it was addressed were under the pressure of any particular trouble or affliction. Seeing that they are ‘the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,’ the width of that superscription makes it improbable that the recipients were undergoing any common experience. It is the more noteworthy, therefore, that at the very outset James gives this exhortation hearing upon trials and troubles. Clearly it is hot, as we often take it to be, a counsel only for the sorrowful, or an address only to a certain class of persons, hut it is a general exhortation applicable to all sorts of people in all conditions of life, and indispensable, as he goes on to say, for any progress in Christian character.
‘Let patience have her perfect work’ is an advice not only for sad hearts, or for those who may be bowed down under any special present trouble, but for us all. And it is the condition on which it is possible, and without which it is impossible, that any Christian man should be ‘perfect and entire, wanting nothing.’ So I want you to look with me, first at what is the scope of this counsel; and then at how it can be obtained; and then why it is so important: what - how - why.
I. First, then, what is the meaning of the counsel to ‘let patience have its perfect work’?
Notice that the very language of the text puts aside the common notion that patience is a passive grace. The ‘patience’ of my text does ‘work.’ It is an active thing, whether that work be the virtues that it produces, or, as is more probable, its own preservation, in unbroken activity. In any case, the patience that James would have us all cultivate is an intensely active energy, and not a mere passive endurance. Of course I know that it takes a great deal of active energy to endure passively. There is a terrible strain upon the nerves in lying still on the operating-table without wincing, and letting the surgeon’s knife cut deep without shrinking or screaming. There is much force that goes to standing motionless when the wind is blowing. But, for all that, the mere bearing of trouble by no means covers the whole ground of this royal and supreme virtue to which my text is here exhorting us. For, as I have often had occasion to say, the conception of ‘patience’ in the New Testament includes, indeed, that which is generally supposed to be its sole signification - viz., bearing unresistingly and unmurmuring, and with the full consent of a yielding will, whatever pains, sorrows, losses, troubles, or disappointments may come into our lives, but it includes more than that. It is the fixed determination to ‘bate not one jot of heart or hope, but still bear up, and steer right onwards,’ in spite of all hindrances and antagonisms which may storm against us. It is perseverance in the teeth of the wind, and not merely keeping our place in spite of it, that James exhorts us to here. The ship that lies at anchor, with a strong cable and a firm grip of the flukes in a good holding-ground, and rides out any storm without stirring one fathom’s length from its place, exhibits one form of this perseverance, that is patience. The ship with sails wisely set, and a firm hand at the tiller, and a keen eye on the compass, that uses the utmost blast to hear it nearer its desired haven, and never yaws one hairbreadth from the course that is marked out for it, exhibits the other and the higher form. And that is the kind of thing that the Apostle is here recommending to us - not merely passive endurance, but a brave, active perseverance in spite of antagonisms, in the course that conscience, illuminated by God, has bidden us to run.
And if you want instances of it I will give you two ‘He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.’ All through Christ’s life the shadow of the Cross closed His view; and, unfaltering, unswerving, unresting, unreluctant, He measured every step of the path, and was turned aside by nothing; because ‘for that hour He came into the world,’ and could not blench because He loved.
I will give you another, lower, and yet like, caught from and kindled by, the supreme example of persistence in duty. ‘None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear to myself, that I might finish my course with joy.’ The Apostle, who was warned on all sides by voices of prophets, and by tears and by supplications of friends, had his path clearly marked out for him, by his own conscience responsive to the will of God. And that path, whatsoever happened, he was resolved to tread. And that is the temper that my text commands us all to cultivate.
Beautiful and hard as bearing sorrows rightly may be, that is only a little corner o£ the grace that my text enjoins. And so, dear friends, will you let me put the two or three words more that I have to say about this matter into the shape of counsel, not for the sake of dictating, but for the sake of giving point to my words? I would say, then, to every man, bear unmurmuring the burdens and sorrows that each of you have to bear. There are some of us, no doubt, who have some special grief lying at our hearts. There are many of us, I doubt not, who know what it is to have for all the rest of our lives a wound that never can be healed, to carry a weight that never can be lessened, and to walk in a darkness that never can be lightened. Irremediable losses and sorrows are the portion of some of my hearers. Let, patience have her ‘perfect work’; and bow, bow to that supreme and loving will.
But, beyond that, do not let all your effort and energy be swallowed up in rightly enduring what you may have to endure. There are many of us who make some disappointment, some loss, some grief, the excuse for shirking plain duty. There is nothing more selfish than sorrow, and there is nothing more absorbing, unless we guard against its tendency to monopolise.
Work! Work for others, work for God is our best comforter next to the presence of God’s Divine Spirit. There is nothing that so lightens the weight of a lifelong sorrow as to make it the stimulus to a lifelong devotion; and if our patience has its perfect work it will not make us sit with folded hands, weeping for the days that are no more, but it will drive us into heroic and energetic service, in the midst of which there will come some shadow of consolation or, at least, some blessed oblivion of sorrow.
Again, I weald say, on the wider view of the meaning of this great exhortation, let no antagonism or opposition of any sort come between us and the plain path of Christian service and duty. And remember that the patience of my text has to be applied, not only in reference to the unswerving prosecution of the course which God and our own consciences dictate to us in the face of dificulties, sorrows, and losses, but also to the unswerving prosecution of that same path in the face of the opposite things - earthly delights and pleasures, and the seductions of the world, as well as the darknesses and sorrows of the world. He that lets hie endurance have its perfect work will scorn delights as well as subdue sorrows. The clouds darken, but the sun dazzles. It is not only the rocks that threaten Ulysses and his crew, the sirens sit upon their island home, with their harps of gold, and trill their sweet songs, and no man understands what Christian endurance is who has not learned that he has to ‘endure’ in the face of joys as well as in the face of sorrows, and that persistence in the Christian course means that we shall spurn the one and turn our backs upon the other when either of them threaten to draw us aside from the path.
I might gather all that I have to say about this great queenly virtue of perseverance in the face of antagonisms into the one word of the Apostle, ‘I count them but dung that I may win Christ.’ ‘Forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth unto those that are before, I press toward the mark.’ ‘Let patience have her perfect work.’
II. And now, secondly, a word as to how this preset may best be carried out. It is a precept.
The perfecting of Christian endurance is not a thing that comes without effort. And so the Apostle puts it into the shape of an exhortation or an injunction. He does not specify methods, but I may venture to do so, in a few sentences.
And I put first and foremost here, as in all regions of Christian excellence and effort, the one specific which makes men like the Master - keeping near Him. As the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, ‘consider’ by way of comparison Him that endured, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds. ‘Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin.’
Oh, brethren! there is nothing that sucks the brightness out of earthly joys when they threaten to interrupt our course, and dazzle our eyes, like turning our attention to Christ, and looking at Him. And there is nothing that takes the poison-sting, and the irritation consequent on it, out of earthly sorrows like remembering the’ Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ Am I to grumble when I think of Him? Shall I make a moan and a mourning for my sorrows when I remember His? Am I to say, ‘O Lord! Thou hast given me as much as I can manage in bearing this terrible blow which Thou hast aimed at me, without repining against Thee. I cannot do any work because I have got so much to bear’? Are we to say that when we remember how He counted not His life dear to Himself, and bore all, and did all, that He might accomplish the Father’s will? Do not let us magnify our griefs, but measure them by the side of Christ’s. Do not let us yield to our impatience, but rather let us think of Him. Consider Him, and patience will have her perfect work.
Again, let me say, if we would possess in its highest degree this indispensable grace of persistent determination to pursue the Christian course in spite of all antagonisms, we must cultivate the habit of thinking of life, in all its vicissitudes, as mainly meant to make character. That is what the Apostle is saying in the context. He says, ‘Brethren, count it all joy when you fall into divers temptations.’ That is a paradox. It bids a man to be glad because he has trouble and is sad. It seems ridiculous, but the next verse solves the paradox: ‘Knowing this, that the trial of your faith worketh patience.’ That is to say - if I rightly understand the meaning of this world in its bearing on myself, the intention of my whole life to make me what God would have me to be, then I shall not measure things by their capacity to delight and please taste, ambitions, desires, or sense, but only by their power to mould me into His likeness. If I understand that the meanings of sorrow and joy are one, that God intends the same when He gives and when He withdraws, that the fervid suns of autumn and the biting blasts of November equally tend to the production of the harvest, that day and night come from the same cause - the revolution of the earth; if I understand that life is but the scaffolding for building character, and that, if I take out of this world, with all its fading sweets and its fleeting sadnesses, a soul enlarged, ennobled by difficulties and by gladnesses, then I shall welcome them both when they come, and neither the one nor the other will be able to deflect me from my course.
And so, lastly, about this matter, I would say bring the future into immediate connection with the present, and that will illuminate the dark places, will minimise the sorrows, will make the crooked things straight and the rough places plain, will prevent joy from being absorbing, and anxiety from being corroding, and sorrow from being monopolising, and will enable us to understand how all that is here is but preparatory and disciplinary for that great and serene future. And so the light affliction, which is but for a moment, will not be so very hard to bear; and the efforts at likeness to Jesus Christ, the consequences of which will last through eternity, will not be so very difficult to keep up; and patience, fed by contemplation of the suffering Christ, and nurtured further by consideration of the purpose of life, and stimulated by the vision of the future to which life here is but the vestibule, will have ‘her perfect work.’
III. And, lastly, Why is this grace so important? James says, with his favourite repetition of the same word, ‘Let her work be perfect, that ye may be perfect.’
Such endurance is indispensable to growth in Christian character.
I do not need to enter, at this stage of my sermon, on the differences between ‘perfect’ and ‘entire.’ The one describes the measure of the individual graces belonging to the man; the other describes the completeness of the assemblage of such graces. In each he is ‘perfect,’ and, having all that belongs to complete humanity, he is ‘entire.’ That is the ideal to which we have to press.
That is an ideal to which we may indefinitely approximate. There are people now - as there always have been - who are apt to substitute emotion and passivity for effort in the path of Christian perfection. I would take James’s teaching. Let your perseverance have her perfect work, and by toil and by protracted effort, and by setting your teeth against all seductions,and by curbing and ruling your sorrows, you will reach the goal. God makes no man perfect without that man’s diligent and continuous struggle and toil, toil, indeed, based upon faith; toil, indeed, which receives the blessing, but toil all the same.
Nor need I remind you, I suppose, how, in both the narrower and the wider sense of this word, the perseverance of my text is indispensable to Christian character.
I dare say we all of us know some chronic invalid say, on whose worn face there rests a gleam like that of the Lawgiver when He came down from the mount, caused by sorrow rightly borne. If your troubles, be they great or small, do not do you good they do you harm. There is such a thing as being made obstinate, hard, more clinging to earth than before by reason of griefs. And there is such a thing as a sorrow rightly borne being the very strength of a life, and delivering it from many a sin. The alabaster sheet which is intended to be fitted into the lamp is pared very thin that the light may shine through. And God pares away much of our lives in order that through what is left there may gleam more clearly and lambently the light of an indwelling God.
There is nothing to be won in the perfecting of Christian character without our setting ourselves to it persistently, doggedly, continuously all through our lives. Brethren, be sure of this, you will never grow like Christ by mere wishing, by mere emotion, but only by continual faith, rigid self-control, and by continual struggle. And be as sure of this, you will never miss the mark if, ‘forgetting the things that are behind, and reaching forth to those that are before,’ you ‘let patience have her perfect work,’ and press towards Him who is Himself the Author and Finisher of our patience and of our faith.
DIVINE WISDOM, AND HOW TO GET IT
‘IF any of you lack.’ James has just used the same word in the previous verse, and it is to be regretted that the principle upon which our authorised translators went of varying the rendering of identical expressions, masks the repetition here. James has just been telling his brethren that their aim should be to be ‘perfect and entire, lacking nothing.’ And that thought naturally suggests the other one of how great the contrast is between that possible completeness and the actual condition of Christians in general. So he gently and courteously puts, as a hypothesis, what is only too certain a fact in those to whom he is speaking; and says, not as he might have done, ‘since you all lack,’ but, with gracious forbearance, ‘if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.’
Now, it seems to me that, in this hypothetical exhortation there are three points to be noted, two of them being somewhat unlike what we should have looked for. One is the great deficiency in the average Christian character - wisdom; another is the great means of supplying it - ask; and the third is the great guarantee of the supply - the giving God, whose gifts are bestowed on all liberally and without upbraiding.
I. The great deficiency in the average Christian character - wisdom.
Now, that is not exactly what we should have expected to be named as the main thing lacking in the average Christian. If we had been asked to specify the chief defect we should probably have thought of something else than wisdom. But, if we remember who is speaking, we shall understand better what he means by this word. James is a Jew, steeped through and through in the Old Testament. We have only to recall the Book of Proverbs, and what it has to say about ‘wisdom’ and ‘folly,’ by which it means something a great deal deeper and more living than knowledge and ignorance or intellectual strength and feebleness, or practical sagacity and its opposite. That deeper conception of wisdom which bases it all on ‘the fear of the Lord,’ and regards it as moral and spiritual and not as merely or chiefly intellectual, pervades the whole New Testament. This Epistle is more of an echo of the earlier revelation than any other part of the New Testament, and we may be quite sure that James uses this venerable word with all the associations of its use there, and in all the solemn depth of meaning which he had learned to attach to it, on the lips of psalmists, prophets, and teachers of the true wisdom. If that were at all doubtful, it is made certain by his own subsequent description of ‘wisdom.’ He says that it is ‘from above,’ and then goes on to ascribe all manner of moral and spiritual good to its presence and working on a man. It is ‘pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits.’ You cannot say such glowing things about the wisdom which has its seat in the understanding only, can you? These characteristics must apply to something a great deal more august and more powerful in shaping and refining character.
What, then, does James mean by ‘wisdom’? He means the sum of practical religion. With him, as with the psalmist, sin and folly are two names for the same thing, and so are religion and wisdom. He, and only he, has wisdom who knows God with a living heart-knowledge which gives a just insight into the facts of life and the bounds of right and wrong, and which regulates conduct and shapes the whole man with power far beyond that of knowledge however wide and deep, illuminating intellect however powerful. ‘Knowledge’ is poor and superficial in comparison with this wisdom, which may roughly be said to be equivalent to practical religion.
The use of this expression to indicate the greatest deficiency in the average Christian character, just suggests this thought, that if we had a clear, constant, certain, God-regarding insight into things as they are, we should lack little. Because, if a man habitually kept vividly before him the thought of God, and with it the true nature and obligation and blessedness of righteous, loving obedience, and the true foulness and fatalness of sin - if he saw these with the clearness and the continuity with which we may all see the things that are unseen and eternal, if he ‘saw life steadily, and saw it whole,’ if he saw the rottenness and the shallowness of earthly things and temptations, and if he saw the blessed issue of every God-pleasing act - why! the perfecting of conduct would be secured.
It would be an impossibility for him, with all that illumination blazing in upon him, not to walk in the paths of righteousness with a glad and serene heart. I do not believe that all sin is a consequence of ignorance, but I do believe that our average Christian life would be revolutionised if we each carried clear before us, and continually subjected our lives to the influence of, the certain verities of God’s word. And, brethren, I think that there is a practical direction of no small importance here, in the suggestion that the thing that we want most is clearer and more vivid conceptions of the realities of the Christian revelation, and of the facts of human life. These will act as tests, and up will start in his own shape the fiend that is whispering at our ears, when touched by the spear of this divine wisdom. So, brethren, here is our root-deficiency; therefore instead of confining ourselves to trying to cure isolated and specific faults, or to attain isolated and specific virtues, let us go deeper down, and realise that the more our whole natures are submitted to the power of God’s truth, and of the realities of the future and of the present, of Time and Eternity, the nearer shall we come to being ‘perfect and entire,’ lacking nothing.
II. We have next to note the great means of supplying that great deficiency - ‘let him ask.’
Thai direction might at first sight strike one as being, like the specification of the thing lacking, scarcely what we should have expected. Does James say, If any of you lack ‘wisdom,’ let him sit down and think? No! ‘If any of you lack wisdom,’ let him take a course of reading? No! ‘If any of you lack wisdom,’ let him go to pundits and rabbis, and get it from them? No! ‘If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask.’ A strange apparent disconnection between the issue and the means suggested! Very strange, if wisdom lives only up in the head! not so strange if it has its seat in the depths of the human spirit. If you want to learn theology you have to study. If you seek to master any science you have to betake yourself to the appropriate discipline. It is. of no use to pray to God to make you a good geologist, or botantist, or lawyer, or doctor, unless you also take the necessary means to become one. But if a man wants the divine wisdom, let him get down on his knees. That is the best place to secure it. ‘Let him ask’; because that insight, so clear, so vivid, so constant, and so perfectly adequate for the regulation of the life, is of God. It comes to us from the Spirit of God that dwells in men’s hearts.
I believe that in nothing is the ordinary type of Christian opinion amongst us, in this generation, so defective as in the obscurity into which it has pushed that truth, of the Spirit of God as actually dwelling in men’s hearts. And that, I believe, is to a large extent the reason why the other truths of Christianity have so little power upon people. It is of little use to hold a Christianity which begins and ends with the fact of Christ’s death on the Cross. It is of less use, no doubt, to hold a Christianity which does not begin with that death. But if it ends there, it is imperfect because, as the Apostle put it, our Christ, the Christ who sends wisdom to those who ask it, is the ‘Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us,’ and sends down His Spirit on us.
And to receive that spirit of wisdom, the one thing necessary is that we should want it. That is all. Nothing more, but nothing less. I doubt very much whether hosts of the average Christian people of this generation do want it, or would know what to do with it if they had it; or whether the gift of a heart purged from delusions, and of eyes made clear always to behold the God who is ever with us, and the real importance of the things around us, is the gift that most of us pray for most. ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask.’ It is a gift, and it is to he obtained from that Holy Spirit who dwells and works in all believers. The measure of their desire is the measure of their possession. That wisdom can be had for the asking, and is not to be won by proudly self-reliant effort.
But let us not think that any kind of ‘asking’ suffices to put that great gift into our hearts. The petition that avails must be sincere, intense, constant, and accompanied by corresponding conduct.
It is not dropping down on your knees for two minutes in a morning, before you hurry out to business, and scrambling over a formal petition; or praying after you have gone to bed at night, and perhaps falling asleep before you get to ‘Amen.’ It is not asking, and then not waiting long enough to get the answer. It is not faint and feeble desire, but one presented with continuity which is not shameless importunity, but patient persistence. It must breathe intense desire and perfect confidence in the willingness of the Giver and in the power of prayer.
If our vessels are empty or nearly so, while the stream is rolling its broad, flashing flood past our doors, if we sit shivering beside dying embers while the fire blazes high on the hearth, let us awake to recognise the tragic difference between what we might be and what we are, and let us listen to James’s other word, ‘Ye have not because ye ask not.’ ‘If any of you lack wisdom’ - and, alas! how many of us do, and that how sorely! - ‘let him ask of God.’ III. The great guarantee that such petitions shall be answered.
James has an arrangement of words in the original which can scarcely be reproduced in an English translation, but which may be partially represented thus: ‘Let him ask of the giving God.’ That represents not so much the divine giving as an act, but, if I may so say, as a divine habit. It is just what the Prayer-book says, ‘His nature and property is to have mercy.’ He is the giving God, because He is the loving God; for love is essentially the impulse to impart itself to the beloved, and thereby to win the beloved for itself. That is the very life-breath of love, and such is the love of God. There is a must even for that heavenly nature. He must bestow. He is the ‘giving’; and He is the blessed God because He is the loving and the giving God. Just as the sun cannot but pour out his rays, so the very activity of the divine nature is beneficence and self-impartation; and His joy is to grant Himself to His creature, whom He has made empty for the very purpose of giving all of Himself that the creature is capable of receiving.
But not only does James give us this great guarantee in the character of God, but he goes on to say, ‘ He giveth to all men. ‘I suppose that all’ must be limited by what follows - viz., ‘He gives to all who ask.’
‘He gives to all men liberally. ‘ That is a beautiful thought, but it is not the whole beauty of the writer’s idea. The word translated ‘liberally,’ as many of you know, literally means ‘simply, without any by-ends,’ or any underlying thought of what is to be gained in return. That is the way in which God gives. People have sometimes objected to the doctrine of which the Scripture is full from beginning to end, that God is His own motive, and that His reason in all His acts is His own glory, that it teaches a kind of almighty and divine selfishness. But it is perfectly consistent with this thought of my text, that He gives simply for the benefit of the recipient, and without a thought of what may accrue to the bestower. For why does God desire His glory to be advanced in the world? For any good that it is to Him, that you and I should praise Him? Yes! good to Him in so far as love delights to be recognised. But, beyond that, none. The reason why He seeks that men should know and recognise His glory, and should praise and magnify it, is because it is their life and their blessedness to do so. He desires that all men should know Him for what He is, because to do so is to come to be what we ought to be, and what He has made us to try to be; and therein to enjoy Him for ever. So ‘liberally,’ ‘simply,’ for the sake of the poor men that He pours Himself upon, He gives. And ‘without upbraiding.’ If it were not so, who of us dare ask? But He does not say when we come to Him, ‘ What did you do with that last gift I gave you? Were you ever thankful enough for those other benefits that you have had? What is become of all those? Go away and make a better use of what you have had before you come and ask Me for any more.’ That is how we often talk to one another; and rightly enough. That is not how God talks to us. Time enough for upbraiding after the child has the gift in his hand! Then, as Christ did to Peter, He says, having rescued him first, ‘Oh! thou of little faith; wherefore didst thou doubt?’ The truest rebuke of our misuse of His benefits, of our faithlessness to His character, and of the poverty of our askings, is the largeness of His gifts. He gives us these, and then He bids us go away, and profit by them, and, in the light of His bestowments, preach rebukes to ourselves for the poverty of our askings and our squandering of His gift.
Oh, brethren! if we only believed that He is not an austere man, gathering where He did not straw, and reaping where He did not sow, but a ‘giving God!’ If we only believed that He gives simply because He loves us and that we need never fear our unworthiness will limit or restrain His bestowments, what mountains of misconception of the divine character would he rolled away from many hearts! What thick obscuration of clouds would he swept clean from between us and the sun! We do not half enough realise that He is the ‘giving God.’ Therefore, our prayers are poor, and our askings troubled and faint, and our gifts to Him are grudging and few, and our wisdom woefully lacking.
MY purpose is to bring out the elements of the blessed life here, by grouping together those New Testament passages which represent the future reward under the metaphor of the ‘crown,’ and so to gain, if not a complete, at all events a comprehensive view of the elements of the blessedness of the perfected life hereafter.
These passages are numerous. Paul speaks of ‘the incorruptible crown,’ the reward of the victorious athlete, and of ‘the crown of righteousness,’ the anticipation of which soothed and elevated his last solitary hours. Peter speaks of the ‘crown of glory,’ the reward of the faithful elders. James speaks in my text of the ‘crown of life’ which the man wins who is proved by trial and stands the proof. The martyr Church at Smyrna is encouraged to faithfulness ‘unto death’ by the promise of the ‘crown of life’ from the hands of the Lord of life. The angel of the Church at Philadelphia is stimulated to ‘hold fast what thou hast, that no man take thy crown.’ The elders ‘cast their crowns before the throne.’ If we throw all these passages together, and study their combined effect, we shall, I think, get some helpful and stimulating thoughts.
I. I ask you, then, first to look with me at the general idea conveyed by the symbol.
Now the word which is employed in the passages to which we have referred is not that which usually denotes a kingly crown, but that which indicates the garland or wreath or chaplet of festivity and victory. A twist of myrtle or parsley or pine was twined round the brows of the athlete flushed with effort and victory. The laurel is the ‘meed of mighty conquerors.’ Roses, with violets or ivy, sat upon the brows of revellers. And it is thoughts of these rather than of the kingly tiara which is in the mind of the New Testament writers; though the latter, as we shall see, has also to be included.
So we get three general ideals on which I touch very lightly, as conveyed by the emblem. The first is that of victory recognised and publicly honoured. So Paul uses the symbol in this sense in both the instances of its occurrence to which we have already referred, the reward of the racer or athlete in the paloestrum, and the ‘crown of righteousness’ which was to follow his having ‘fought the good fight, and finished his course.’ That implies that the present is the wrestling ground, and that the issues of the present lie beyond the present.
We do not look for flowers on the hard-beaten soil of the arena; and the time of conflict is no time for seeking for delights. If the crown be yonder, then here must be the struggle; and it must be our task ‘to scorn delights and live laborious days’ if we are ever to find that blessed result and reward of life here. We have, then, the general idea of victory recognised and publicly honoured by the tumult of acclaim of the surrounding spectators. ‘I will confess His name before the angels of God.’
Then there is the other general idea of festal gladness. That, I suppose, is what was present particularly to Peter’s mind when he talked about ‘the wreath that fadeth not away.’ I think that there is in his words a probable reference to a striking Old Testament passage, in which the prophet takes the drooping flowers on the foreheads of the drunkards of Samaria at their feast as an emblem of the swift fading of their delights, and of the impending destruction of their polity. But, says Peter, this wreath fades never. The flowers of heaven do not droop. It is an emblem of the calm and permanent delights which come to those behind whom is change with its sadness, and before whom stretches progress with its blessedness. Festal gladness, society, and the satisfaction of all desires are included in the meaning of the wreathed amaranthine flowers that twine round immortal brows.
But the usage in the Book of the Apocalypse stands upon a somewhat different footing. There are no Gentile images there. We hear nothing about Grecian games and heathen wrestlings in that book; but all moves within the circle of Jewish thought. That the word which is employed for ‘the crown,’ though it usually meant the victors ‘and the feasters’ chaplet, sometimes also meant the king’s crown of sovereignty, is obvious from one or two of its uses in Scripture. For the ‘crown of thorns’ was a mockery of royalty, and the ‘golden crowns’ which the elders wear in the vision are associated with the thrones upon which they sit, as emblems, not of festal gladness or of triumphant emergence from the struggles and toils of life, but as symbols of royalty and dominion. The characteristic note of the promises of the Revelation is that of Christ’s servants’ participation in the royalty of their Lord. So to the other two general ideas which I have deduced from the symbol we must add for completeness this third one, that it shadows, in some of the instances of its use at all events, though by no means in all, the royalty so mysterious, by which every one of Christ’s ‘brethren is like the children of a king,’ and all are so closely united to Him that they participate in His dominion over all creatures and things. Dominion over self, dominion over the universe, a rule mysterious and ineffable which is also service, cheerful and continuous, are contained in the emblem.
So these three general ideas, victory, festal gladness and abundance, royalty and sovereignty, are taught us by this symbol of the crown.
II. Now, secondly, note more particularly the constituent parts of that chaplet of blessedness.
There are two phrases as to these, amongst the passages with which we are now concerned. St. James and the Book of Revelation speak of the ‘crown of life,’ and Peter speaks of the ‘crown of glory.’ That is to say, the material of which the garland is composed is no perishable pine or myrtle, but it is woven, as it were, of ‘ life’ on the one hand, of glory on the other. Or, if we do not venture upon such a violent metaphor as that, we can at least say that the crown’s life and glory.
Now, as to the first of these - what dim and great thoughts are taught us in it! ‘Life,’ in the New Testament, does not mean bare existence, but in its highest sense pure and blessed existence in union with God. And such life - full, perfect, continual - is regarded as being in itself the crown and reward of faithful Christian living here below. In our experience life is often a burden, a weariness, a care. If it be a crown, it is a crown of thorns. But yonder, to live will be blessedness; being will be well-being. The reward of heaven will simply be the fact of living in God. Here life comes painfully trickling, as it were, in single drops through a narrow rift in the rock; yonder it will spread a broad bosom, flashing beneath the sunshine. Here the plant grows strugglingly in some dusty cleft, amidst uncongenial surroundings, and with only occasional gleams of sunlight; its leaves are small, its stem feeble, its blossoms pallid; yonder it will be rooted in rich soil and shone upon by an unclouded sun, and will burst into flowers and forms of beauty that we know nothing of here. Life is the crown. Then it is a crown of glory. What is glory? The splendour of God’s character manifested to His creatures and become the object of their admiration. That is the full meaning of glory in the Old and in the New Testament. And all that is transferred to those who cleave to Him here and are perfected yonder. There will be complete perfection of nature. ‘We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.’ The inmost and deepest beauty of redeemed and perfected souls will then be capable of being manifested fully. Here it struggles for expression, and what we seem to be, though it is often better, is just as often much worse than we really are. But there we shall be able to show ourselves as what in our deepest hearts we are. For the servants who, girt with priestly vestments, do Him sacerdotal service in the highest temple, have His name blazing upon their foreheads, and shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. The redeemed souls, transmuted into the likeness of the Lord, and made visible in the flashing splendour of their gentle radiance, shall be beheld with the wonder with which all other creatures gaze on Him who is the Lord and Source of their purity, and ‘ if so be that we suffer with Him, we shall be also glorified together.’
But why speak of what we know as little about as the unborn child does of the world, or the caterpillar of its future life when winged and painted and basking in the sunshine? Let us bow before the ignorance which is the prophecy and pledge of the transcendent greatness that lies behind the veil, and say, ‘It is enough for the servant that he be as his Lord.’
III. Now, thirdly, note the conditions of the crown.
These are variously put with a rich variety. Paul speaks, as you remember, of ‘the crown of righteousness,’ by which he means to imply that on impure brows it can never sit, and that, if it could, it would be there a crown of poisoned thorns. None but the righteous can wear it. That is the first and prime indispensable condition. But then there are others stated in the other passages to which we have referred. The wrestler must ‘strive lawfully,’ according to the rules of the arena, if he is to be crowned. The man that is tried must ‘endure his temptation,’ and come out of it ‘proved’ thereby, as gold is tried by the fire. The martyr must be willing to die, if need be, for fidelity to his Master. We must’ hold fast that which we have’ if we are ever to win that which, as yet, we have not, even the crown that ought to be ours, and so is by anticipation called ours. But two of the passages to which I have referred add yet another kind of condition and requirement. Paul says, ‘Not to me only, but to all them also that love His appearing’; and James here says that the man who is tried will receive the crown ‘which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him.’ So it is not difficult to make out the sequence of these several conditions. Fundamental to all is love to Jesus Christ. That is the beginning of everything. Then, built upon that, for His dear sake, the manful wrestling with temptations and with difficulties, long-breathed running, and continual aspiration after the things that are before, fidelity, if need be, unto death, and a grim tenacity of grasp of the truth and the blessings already bestowed. These things are needed. And then as the result of the love that grasps Christ with hooks of flesh, which are stronger than hooks of steel, and will not let Him go, and as the result of the efforts and struggles and discipline which flow from that love to Him, there must be a righteousness which conforms to His image and is the gift of His indwelling Spirit. These are the conditions on which the crown may be ours.
Such righteousness may be imperfect here upon earth, and when we look upon ourselves we may feel as if there were nothing in us that deserves, or that even can bear, the crown to be laid upon our brows. But if the process have been begun here by love and struggling, and reception of His grace, death will perfect it, But death will not begin it if it have not been commenced in life. We may hope that if we have our faces set towards the Lord, and our poor imperfect steps have been stumbling towards Him through all the confusions and mists of flesh and sense, our course will be wonderfully straightened and accelerated when we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil.’ But there is no sanctifying in death for a man who is not a Christian whilst he lives, and the crown will only come to those whose righteousness began with repentance, and was made complete by passing through the dark valley of death.
IV. Lastly, note the giver of the crown.
‘Which the Lord hath promised,’ ‘which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me in that day.’ ‘I will give him a crown of life.’ So Jesus Christ, as Judge, as Brother, as Distributer of the eternal conditions of men, as indwelling in us and making us sharers of all that is His, bestows upon His servants the crown. Yet, let us remember that He does not give it in such a fashion as that the gift may be taken once for all and worn thereafter, independent of Him. It must be a continual communication, all through eternal ages, and right on into the abysses of celestial glories - a continual communication from His ever-opened hand. The energy of a present Christ bestowing at the moment if there be moments in that dim future is the condition of the crown’s continued gleaming on brows that have worn it for ages, to which geological periods are but as the beat of a pendulum. Like the rainbow that continues permanently above the cater-act, and yet at each moment is fed by new spray from the stream, so the crown upon our heads will be the consequence of the continual influx into redeemed souls of the very life of Christ Himself.
So, dear brethren, all ends as all begins, with cleaving to Him, and drawing from His fulness grace whilst we need grace, and glory when we are fit for glory. Strength for the conflict and the reward of the victory come from the same hand, and are ours on the same conditions. He who covers our heads in the day of battle is He who wreathes the garland on the conqueror’s brow and keeps its flowers unfading through eternal ages. ‘On His head are many crowns,’ which He bestows upon His followers, and all the heaven of His servants is their share in His heaven. If, then, we love Him, if for His dear sake we manfully strive in the conflict, patiently accept the ministry of trial, discipline ourselves as athletes are willing to do for a poor parsley wreath, hold fast that which we have, and by faith, effort, and prayer, receive of His righteousness here, then the grave will be but as the dressing-room where we shall put off our soiled raiment and on our white robe; and thus apparelled, even we, unworthy, shall hear from Him, ‘I will make thee ruler over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’
‘FIRST-FRUITS OF HIS CREATURES’
ACCORDING to the Levitical ceremonial, the first sheaf of the new crop, accompanied with sacrifice, was presented in the Temple on the day after the Passover Sabbath. No part of the harvest was permitted to be used for food until after this acknowledgment, that all had come from God and belonged to Him. A similar law applied to the first-born of men and of cattle. Both were regarded as in a special sense consecrated to and belonging to God.
Now, in the New Testament, both these ideas of ‘the first-born’ and ‘the first-fruits,’ which run as you see parallel in some important aspects, are transferred to Jesus Christ. He is ‘become the first-fruits of them that slept’: and it was no mere accidental coincidence that, in this character, He rose from the dead on the day on which, according to the law, the sheaf was to be presented in the Temple. In His case the ideas attached to the expression are not only that of consecration, but that of being the first of a series, which owes its existence to Him. He makes men ‘the many brethren,’ of whom He is ‘the first-born’; and He, by the overflowing power of His life, raises from the dead the whole harvest of which He is the first-fruits.
Then that which Jesus Christ is, primarily and originally, all those who love Him and trust Him are secondarily and by derivation from Himself. Thus, both these phrases are further transferred in the New Testament to Christian people. They are the ‘first-fruits unto God and the Lamb’; or, as my text has it here, with a qualifying word, ‘a kind of first-fruits’; which expresses at once a metaphor and the derivation of the character: They are also ‘the Church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven.’
So, then, in this text we have contained some great ideas as to God’s purpose in drawing us to Himself. And I want you to look at these for a moment or two.
I. First, then, God’s purpose for Christians is that they should he consecrated to Him. The sheaf was presented before God in the symbolical ceremonial, as an acknowledgment of His ownership of it, and of all the wide-waving harvest. It thereby became His in a special sense. In like manner, the purpose of God in bestowing on us the wondrous gift of a regeneration and new life by the word is that we should be His, yielding to Him the life which He gives, and all that we are, in thankful recognition and joyful consecration.
We hear a great deal about consecration in these days. Let us understand what consecration means. There is an inward and an outward aspect of it. In the inward aspect it means an entire devotion of myself, down to the very roots of my being, to God as Lord and Owner.
Man’s natural tendency is to make himself his own centre, to live for self and by self. And the whole purpose of the gospel is to decentralise him and to give him a new centre, even God, for whom, and by whom, and with whom, and in whom the Christian man is destined, by his very calling, to live.
Now, how can an inward devotion and consecration of myself be possible? Only by one way, and that is by the way of love that delights to give. The yielding of the human spirit to the divine is only accomplished through that sweet medium of love. Self-surrender is the giving up of self at the bidding of love to Him to whom my heart cleaves.
The will will yield itself. There will be no murmuring at hard providences; no regrets darkening a whole life and paralysing duty, and blinding to blessings, by reason of the greatest sorrow which He may have sent. The will will yield in submission; the will will yield in obedience. According to the dreadful metaphor of the founder of the Jesuits - dreadful when applied to the relations of a man to a man, but blessed when applied to the relation of a man to God, and of God to man - I shall be in His hands ‘like a staff’ in the hand of a man, only to be used as He desires.
Consecration means self-surrender; and the fortress of self is in the will, and the way of self-surrender is the flowery path of love.
To take the other metaphor of Scripture, by which the same idea is expressed - the consecration which we owe to God, and which is His design in all His dealings with us in the gospel, will be like that of a priestly offering of sacrifice, and the sacrifice is ourselves. So much for the inward; what about the outward? All capacities, opportunities, possessions, are to be yielded up to Him as utterly as Christ has yielded Himself to us. We are to live for Him and work for Him; and set, as our prime object, conspicuously and constantly before us, and to be reached towards through all the trivialities of daily duty, and the common-places of recurring tasks, the one thing, to glorify God and to please Him. Consecration means the utter giving of myself away, in the inmost sanctuary of the spirit. And it means the resolute devotion of all that I have and all that I am in the outgoings of daily life to His service and to His praise.
That is what God meant for you and me when He made us Christians; that was His design when He sent His Son. And we thwart and counter-work Him, just in the measure in which we still make ourselves our own centre, our wills our own law, and our well-being our own aim.
Now, remember, such consecration is salvation. For the opposite thing, the living to self, is damnation and hell and destruction. And whosoever is thus consecrated to God is in process of being saved. The relation between the two ideas is not, as it often is put, that you are to he saved that you may be consecrated; but, you are being saved in being consecrated. And the measure in which we have ceased to be devoted to ourselves, and are devoted to Him, is the accurate measure in which we have received the true salvation that is in Jesus Christ.
That consecration is blessedness. There is no joy of which a human spirit is capable that is as lofty, as rare and exquisite, as sweet and lasting, as the joy of giving itself away to Him who has given Himself for us. And such consecration is the true possession of what we give, and the only way of really owning ourselves or our possessions. ‘He that loveth himself shall lose himself,’ and he that gives himself away to God, a weak, sinful man, gets himself back from God, a hero, strong, and a saint.
Such consecration, which is the root of all blessedness, and the true way of entering into the possession of all possessions, is only possessible in the degree in which we subject ourselves to the influence of these mighty acts which God has done in order to secure it. Our yielding of ourselves to Him is only possible when we are quite sure that He has given Himself to us. Our love which melts us, and bows us in willing, joy-fill surrender, can only be the echo of His love. The pattern is set us in the Christ, and set us that we may imitate it, and we imitate it in the measure in which we lie exposed to its mighty power. ‘He gave Himself for us, that He might purchase for Himself a people for His possession.’ My surrender is but the echo of the thunder of His; my surrender is but the flash on the polished mirror which gives back the sunbeam that smites it. We yield ourselves to God, when we realise that Christ has given Himself for us.
Christian men and women, behold your destiny! God’s purpose concerning you is that you might be not your own, because you are bought with a price. And measure against that mighty purpose the halting obedience, the reluctant wills, the half-and-half surrender which is no surrender at all, which make up the lives of the average Christians among us, and see whether any of us can feel that the divine purpose is accomplished in us, or that we have paid what we owe to our God.
II. Secondly, my text suggests that God’s purpose for Christians is that they should be specimens and beginnings of a great harvest.
The sheaf that was carried into the Temple showed what sun and rain and the sweet skyey influences had been able to do on a foot or two of ground, and it prophesied of the acres of golden grain that would one day be garnered in the barns. And so, Christian men and women to-day, and even more eminently at that time when this letter was written, are meant to be the first small example of a great harvest that is to follow. The design that God had in view in our being Christianised is that we should stand here as specimens of what He means the world to be, and as witnesses of what He, by the gospel, is able to make men.
If we strip that thought of its metaphor it just comes to this, that if Christianity has been able to take one man, pick him out of the mud and mire of sense and self, and turn him into a partially and increasingly consecrated servant of God, it can do that for anybody.
The little sheaf, though there be but a handful of nodding heads in it, is a sure pledge of the harvest on the great prairie yonder, as yet untilled and unsown, which will yet hear like fruit to His praise and honour.
‘We have all of us one human heart.’ Whatever may be men’s idiosyncrasies or diversities of culture, of character, of condition, of climate, of chronology, they have all the same deep primary wants, and the deepest of them all is concord and fellowship with God. And the path to that is by faith in His dear Son, who has given Himself for us. If, then, that faith in one case has given to a man the satisfaction of that which all men are hungering for, whether they know it or not, and are restless and miserable till they find it, then there is document and evidence that this gospel, which can do that for the individual, can do it for the race. And so the first-fruits are the pledge and the prophecy of the harvest.
What a harvest is dimly hinted at in these words of my text; the ‘first-fruits of His creatures!’ That goes even wider than humanity, and stretches away out into the dim distances, concerning which we can speak with but bated breath; but at least it seems to suggest to us that, in accordance with other teaching of the New Testament, ‘the whole creation’ which ‘groaneth and travaileth together in pain until now,’ will, somehow or other, be brought into the liberty and the glory of the children of God, and, as humble waiters and attenders upon the kings who are the priests of the Most High, will participate in the power of the redemption. At all events, there seem to me to gleam dimly through such words as those of my text, the great prospects of a redeemed humanity, of a renewed earth, of a sinless universe, in which God in Christ shall be all in all.
The possibility and the certainty of that issue lie in this comparatively humble fact, that some handful of poor men have found in Jesus Christ that which their finding of it in Him manifests to them, is the elixir viloe and the hope of the world. You are meant to be specimens, exhibitions of what God intends for mankind, and of what the gospel can do for the world. Do you think, Christian men and women, that anybody, looking at you, will have a loftier idea of the possibilities of human nature, and of the potentialities of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Because if they will not, then you have thwarted your Father’s design when He sent you His Son.
III. Lastly, my text suggests that God’s purpose for Christians is that they should help the harvest.
That does not lie in the Levitical ceremonial of the sheaf of the first-fruits, of course. Though even there, I may remind you, that the thing presented on the altar carried in itself the possibilities of future growth, and that the wheaten ear has not only ‘bread for the eater but seed for the sower,’ and is the parent of another harvest. But the idea that the first-fruits are not merely first in series, but that they originate the series of which they are the first, lies in the transference of the terms and the ideas to Jesus Christ; for, as I pointed out to you in my introductory remarks, when He is called ‘ the first-fruits of them that slept,’ it is implied that He, by His power, will wake the whole multitude of the sleepers; and when it speaks of Him as’ the first-born among many brethren,’ it is implied that He, by the communication of His life, will give life, and a fraternal life, to the many brethren who will follow Him.
And so, in like manner, God’s purpose in making us ‘a kind of first-fruits of His creatures’ is not merely our consecration and the exhibition of a specimen of His power, and the pledge and prophecy of the harvest, but it is that from us there shall come influences which shall realise the harvest of which our own Christianity is the pledge and prophecy. That is to say, all Christian men and women are Christians in order that they may make more Christians.
The capacity, the obligation, the impulse, are all given in the fact of receiving Jesus Christ for ourselves. If we have Him we can preach Him, if we have Him we ought to preach Him, if we have Him in any deep and real possession, we must preach Him, and His words will be like a fire in our bones, if we forbear; and we shall not be able to stay.
‘Heaven doth with us as we with torches do, Not light them for themselves.’
What do you get Christ for? To feed upon Him. Yes! But to carry the bread to all the hungry as well.
Do not say you cannot. You can talk about anything that interests you. You can speak about anything that you know. And are your lips to be always closed about Him who has given Himself for you? Do not say that you need special gifts for it. We do need special gifts for the more public and conspicuous forms of what we call preaching nowadays. But any man and any woman that has Christ in his or her heart can go to another and say, ‘We have found the Messiah,’ and that is the best thing to say.
You ought to preach Him. Capacity involves obligation. To have anything, in this world of needy men who are all knit together in the solidarity of one family - to have any anything implies that you impart it. That is the true communism of Christianity, to be applied not only to wealth but to everything, all our possessions, all our knowledge, all our influence. We get them that they may fructify through us to all; and if we keep them, we shall be sure to spoil them. The corn laid up in storehouses is gnawed by rats, and marred by weevils. If you want it to be healthy, and your own possession of it to increase, put it into your seed-basket; and ‘in the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand,’ and it will come back to thee, ‘seed for the sower and bread for the eater.’
Now this is a matter of individual responsibility. You cannot get rid of it. Every Christian has the obligation laid upon himself, and every Christian man has some sphere in which he can discharge it, and in which, if he discharge it not, he is a dumb dog lying down and loving to slumber. Oh! I wish I could get into you tongue-tied, cowardly Christian men and women who never open your mouths to a soul for the Master’s sake, this conviction, that you are thwarting God’s purposes, and that the blood of souls lies at your door by reason of your guilty silence.
If you believe these things which I have been saying to you, the application follows. ‘The field is the world.’ And neither criticisms about missionary methods nor allegations of the superior claims of the little hit of the field round about your own doors are a sufficient vindication before God, though they may be an excuse before men, for tepid interest in, or indifference to, or lack of help of, any great missionary enterprise.
We have to sow Beside all waters; and if any men in the world were ever debtors both to the Greek and to the barbarian, both to the Englishman and the foreigner, it is the members of this great nation of ours, which, ‘as a nest hath gathered the riches of the nations, and there were none that peeped or muttered or moved the wing.’ We are debtors to the heathen world, Because whether we will or no we come into contact with heathen lands; and whether we take Bibles or not, our countrymen will take rum and gunpowder, and send men to the devil if we do not try to draw them to God. We are debtors to them in a thousand cases by injuries inflicted. We are debtors by benefits received; and we are debtors most of all because Christ died for them and for us equally.
And so, I beseech you, give us your help, and remember in giving it that ‘God of His own will hath Begotten us by the word of truth, that we should Be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.’
THE PERFECT LAW AND ITS DOERS
AN old tradition tells us that James, who was probably the writer of this letter, continued in the practice of Jewish piety all his life. He was surnamed ‘the Just.’ He lived the life of a Nazarite. He was even admitted into the sanctuary of the Temple, and there spent so much of his time in praying for the forgiveness of the people that, in the vivid language of the old writer, his ‘knees were hard and worn like a camel’s.’ To such a man the Gospel would naturally present itself as ‘a law,’ which word expressed the highest form of revelation with which he was familiar; and to him the glory of Christ’s message would be that it was the perfecting of an earlier utterance, moving on the same plane as it did, but infinitely greater.
Now that, of course, is somewhat different from the point of view from which, for instance, Paul regards the relation of the Gospel and the Law. To him they are rather antitheses. He conceived mainly of the law as a system of outward observances, incapable of fulfilment, and valuable as impressing upon men the consciousness of sin.
But, though there is diversity, there is no contradiction, any more than there is between the two pictures in a stereoscope, which, united, represent one solid reality. The two men simply regard the subject from slightly different angles. Paul would have said that the gospel was the perfection of the law, as indeed he does say that by faith we do not make void, but establish, the law. And James would have said that the law, in Paul’s sense, was a yoke of bondage, as indeed he does say in my text, that the gospel, in contrast with the earlier revelation, is the law of liberty. And so the two men complement and do not contradict each other. In like manner, the earnest urging of work and insisting upon conduct, which are the keynote of this letter, are no contradiction of Paul. The one writer begins at a later point than the other. Paul is a preacher of faith, but of faith which works by love. James is the preacher of works, but of works which are the fruit of faith. There are three things here on which I touch now. First, the perfect law; second, the doers of the perfect law; and third, the blessedness of the doers of the perfect law.
I. First, then, the perfect law.
I need not dwell further upon James’s conception of the gospel as being a law; the authoritative standard and rule of human conduct. Let me remind you how, in every part of the revelation of divine truth contained in the gospel, there is a direct moral and practical bearing. No word of the New Testament is given to us only in order that we may know truth, but all in order that we may do it. Every part of it palpitates with life, and is meant to regulate conduct. There are plenty of truths of which it does not matter whether a man believes them or not, in so far as his conduct is concerned. Mathematical truth or scientific truth leaves conduct unaffected. But no man can believe the principles that are laid down in the New Testament, and the truths that are unveiled there, without their laying a masterful grip upon his life, and influencing all that he is.
And let me remind you, too, how in the very central fact of the gospel there lies the most stringent rule of life. Jesus Christ is the Pattern, and from those gentle lips which say, ‘If ye love Me, keep My commandments,’ law sounds more imperatively than from all the thunder and trumpets of Sinai.
Let me remind you, too, how in the great act of redemption, which is the central fact of the New Testament revelation, there lies a law for conduct. God’s love redeeming us is the revelation of what we ought to be, and the Cross, to which we look as the refuge from sin and condemnation, is also the pattern for the life of every believer. ‘Be ye imitators of God, as dear children, and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us.’ A revelation, therefore, of which every truth, to the minutest fibre of the great web, has in it a directly practical bearing; a revelation which is all centred and focused in the life which is example because it is deliverance; a revelation, of which the vital heart is the redeeming act which sets before us the outlines of our conduct, and the model for our imitation - is a law just because it is a gospel.
Such thoughts as these are needful as a counterpoise to one-sided views which otherwise would be disastrous. God forbid that the thought of the gospel of Jesus Christ as primarily a message of reconciliation and pardon, and providing a means of escape from the frightful consequences of sin, even separation from God, should ever be put in the background! But the very ardour and intensity of man’s recognition of that as the first shape which Christianity assumes to sinful men, has sometimes led, and is always in possible danger of leading, to putting all other aspects of the gospel in the background. Some of you, for instance, when a preacher talks to you about plain duties, and insists upon conduct and practical righteousness, are ready to say, ‘He is not preaching the gospel.’ Neither is he, if he does not present these duties and this practical righteousness as the fruits of faith, or if he presents them as the means of winning salvation. But if your conception of Christianity has not grasped it as being a stringent rule of life, you need to go to school to James, the servant of God, and do not yet understand the message of his brother Paul The gospel is a Redemption. Yes I God be thanked; but because a Redemption, it is a Law.
Again, this thought gives the necessary counterpoise to the tendency to substitute the mere intellectual grasp of Christian truth for the practical doing of it. There will be plenty of orthodox Christians and theological professors and students who will find themselves, to their very great surprise, amongst the goats at last. Not what we believe, but what we do, is our Christianity: Only the doing must be rooted in belief. In like manner, take this vivid conception of the gospel as a law; as a counterpoise to the tendency to place religion in mere emotion and feeling. Fire is very good, but its best purpose is to get up steam which will drive the wheels of the engine. There is a vast deal of lazy selfishness masquerading under the guise of sweet and sacred devout emotion. Not what we feel, but what we do, is our Christianity.
Further, notice how this law is a perfect law. James’s idea, I suppose, in that epithet, is not so much the completeness of the code, or the loftiness and absoluteness of the ideal which is set forth in the gospel, as the relation between the law and its doer. He is stating the same thought of which the Psalmist of old time had caught a glimpse. ‘The law of the Lord is perfect; because it ‘converts the soul.’ That is to say, the weakness of all commandment - whether it be the law of a nation, or the law of moral textbooks, or the law of conscience, or of public opinion, or the like - the weakness of all positive statute is that it stands there, over against a man, and points a stony finger to the stony tables, ‘Thou shalt!’ ‘Thou shalt not!’ but stretches out no hand to help us in keeping the commandment. It simply enjoins, and so is weak; like the proclamations of some discrowned king who has no army at his back to enforce them, and which flutter as waste paper on the barn-doors, and do nothing to secure allegiance. But, says James, this law is perfect - because it is more than law, and transcends the simple function of command. It not only tells us what to do, but it gives us power to do it; and that is what men want. The world knows what it ought to do well enough. There is no need for heaven to be rent, and divine voices to come to tell men what is right and wrong; they carry an all but absolutely sufficient guide as to that within their own minds. But there is need to bring them something which shall be more than commandment, which shall be both law and power, both the exhibition of duty and the gift of capacity to discharge it.
The gospel brings power because it brings life. ‘If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness had been by the law.’ In the gospel that desideratum is supplied. Here is the law which vitalises and so gives power. The life which the gospel brings will unfold itself after its own nature, and so produce the obedience which the law of the gospel requires.
Therefore, says James further, this perfect law is freedom. Of course liberty is not exemption from commandment, but the harmony of will with commandment. Whosoever finds that what is his duty is his delight is enfranchised. We are set at liberty when we walk within the limits of that gospel; and they who delight to do the law are free in obedience; free from the tyranny of their own lusts, passions, inclinations; free from the domination of men and opinion and common customs and personal habits. All those bonds are burnt in the fiery furnace of love into which they pass; and where they walk transfigured and at liberty, because they keep that law. Freedom comes from the reception into the heart of the life whose motions coincide with the commandments of the gospel. Then the burden that I carry carries me, and the limits within which I am confined are the merciful fences put up on the edge of the cliff to keep the traveller from falling over and being dashed to pieces beneath.
II. Now notice, secondly, the doers of the perfect law.
James has a long prelude before he comes to the doing. Several things are required as preliminary. The first step is, ‘looketh into the law.’ The word employed here is a very picturesque and striking one. Its force may be seen if I quote to you the other instances of its occurrence in the New Testament. It is employed in the accounts of the Resurrection to describe the attitude and action of Peter, John, and Mary as they ‘stooped down and looked into’ the empty sepulchre. In all these cases the Revised Version translates the word as I have just done, ‘stooping and looking,’ both acts being implied in it. It is also employed by Peter when he tells us that the ‘angels desire to look into’ the mysteries of Redemption, in which saying, perhaps, there may be some allusion to the silent, bending figures of the twin cherubim who, with folded wings and fixed eyes, curved themselves above the mercy-seat, and looked down upon that mystery of propitiating love. With such fixed and steadfast gaze we must contemplate the perfect law of liberty if we are ever to be doers of the same.
A second requirement is, ‘and continueth.’ The gaze must be, not only concentrated, but constant, if anything is to come of it. Old legends tell that the looker into a magic crystal saw nothing at first, but, as he gazed, there gradually formed themselves in the clear sphere filmy shapes, which grew firmer and more distinct until they stood plain. The raw hide dipped into the vat with tannin in it, and at once pulled out again, will never be turned into leather. Many of you do not give the motives and principles of the gospel, which you say you believe, a chance of influencing you, because so interruptedly, and spasmodically, and at such long intervals, and for so few moments, do you gaze upon them. Steadfast and continued attention is needful if we are to be ‘doers of the work.’
Let me venture on two or three simple practical exhortations. Cultivate the habit, then, of contemplating the central truths of the gospel, as the condition of receiving in vigour and fulness the life which obeys the commandment. There is no mystery about the way by which that new life is given to men. James tells us here, in the immediate context, how it is. He speaks of ‘God of His own will begetting us with the word of truth’; and of the ‘engrafted word, which,’ being engrafted, ‘is able to save your souls.’ Get that word - the principles of the gospel and the truths of revelation, which are all enshrined and incarnated in Jesus Christ - into your minds and hearts by continual, believing contemplation of it, and the new life, which is obedience, will surely spring. But if you look at the gospel of your salvation as seldom and as superficially and with as passing glances as so many of you expend upon it, no wonder that you are such weaklings as so many of you are, and that you find such a gulf between your uncircumcised inclinations and the commandment of the living God. Cultivate this habit of reflective meditation upon the truths of the gospel as giving you the pattern of duty in a concentrated and available form. It is of no use to carry about a copy of the ‘Statutes at Large’ in twenty folio Volumes in order to refer to it when difficulties arise and crises come. We must have something a great deal more compendious and easy of reference than that. A man’s cabin-trunk must not be as big as a house, and his goods must be in a small compass for his sea voyage. We have in Jesus Christ the ‘Statutes at Large,’ codified and put into a form which the poorest and humblest and busiest amongst us can apply directly to the sudden emergencies and surprising contingencies of daily life, which are always sprung upon us when we do not expect them and demand instantaneous decision. We have in Christ the pattern of all conduct. But only those who have been accustomed to meditate upon Him, and on the truths that flow from His life and death, will find that the sword is ready when it is needed, and that the guide is at their side when they are in perplexity.
Cultivate the habit of meditating on the truths of the gospel, in order that the motives of conduct may be reinvigorated and strengthened. And remember that only by long and habitual abiding in the secret place of the Most High, and entertaining the thoughts of His infinite love to us, as the continual attitude of our daily life, shall we be able to respond to His love with the thankfulness which springs to obedience as a delight, and knows no joy like the joy of serving such a Friend.
These requirements being met, next comes the doing. There must precede all true doing of the law this gazing into it, steadfast and continued. We shall not obey the commandment except, first, we have received and welcomed the salvation. There must be, first, faith, and then obedience. Only he who has received the gospel in the love of it will find that the gospel is the law which regulates his conduct. ‘Faith without works is dead’; works without faith are rootless flowers, or bricks hastily and incompletely huddled together without the binding straw.
But, further, the text suggests that the natural crown of all contemplation and knowledge is practical obedience. Make of all your creed deed. Let everything you believe be a principle of action too; your crendenda translate into agenda. And, on the other hand, let every deed be informed by your creed, and no schism exist between what you are and what you believe. III. Lastly, note the blessedness of the doers of the perfect law.
There is an echo in the words of my text, of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, the form in which the gospel was, perhaps, dearest to this Apostle. He uses the same word - ‘Blessed.’
Notice the in; not ‘after,’ not ‘as a reward for, ‘ but ‘blessed in his deed.’ It is the saying of the Psalmist over again, whose words we have already seen partly reproduced in the former portion of this text, who, in the same great psalm, says: ‘In keeping Thy commandments there is great reward.’ The rewards of this law are not arbitrarily Bestowed, separately from the act of obedience, by the will of the Judge, but the deeds of obedience automatically bring the blessedness. This world is not so constituted as that outward rewards certainly follow on inward goodness. Few of its prizes fall to the lot of the saints. But men are so constituted as that obedience is its own reward. There is no delight so deep and true as the delight of doing the will of Him whom we love. There is no blessedness like that of an increasing communion with God, and of the clearer perception of His will and mind which follow obedience as surely as the shadow does the sunshine. There is no blessedness like the glow of approving conscience, the reflection of the smile on Christ’s face.
To have the heart in close communion with the very Fountain of all good, and the will in harmony with the will of the best Beloved; to hear the Voice that is dearest of all, ever saying, ‘This is the way, walk ye in it’; to feel ‘a spirit in my feet’ impelling me upon that road; to know that all my petty deeds are made great, and my stained offerings hallowed by the altar on which they are honoured to lie; and to be conscious of fellowship with the Friend of my soul increased by obedience; this is to taste the keenest joy and good of life, and he who is thus ‘blessed in his deed’ need never fear that that blessedness shall be taken away, nor sorrow though other joys be few and griefs be many.
But, remember, first believe, then work. We must begin where Paul told the Philippian gaoler to begin ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved’ - if we are to end where James leads us. Do not begin your building at the roof, but put in the foundations deep in penitence and faith. And then, let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon.
THIS is a text which is more often quoted and used than understood. The word ‘religion’ has somewhat shifted its meaning from that which it bore at the time of our translation. We understand by it one of two things. For instance, when we speak of the Mohammedan or the Brahminical religion we mean the body of beliefs, principles, and ceremonies which go to make up an objective whole. When we speak of an individual’s religion we generally mean, not that which he grasps, but the act, on his part, of grasping the consciousness of dependence, the attitude of reverence and aspiration and love and its consequences within. But when our translation was made the word meant rather worship than religion, or, to use an expression which has been recently naturalised among us, it meant the ‘cult’ of a God, and that mainly, though not exclusively, by ceremonials, or by oral and verbal praise and petition. Now, it is obvious that that is the meaning of the expression in my text, because otherwise you would have a patently absurd saying. If James meant by ‘religion’ here what we now mean by it, to say that benevolence and personal purity are religion would be just equivalent to and as absurd as saying that a mother’s love is washing and feeding her child, or that anger is a flushed face and a loud voice. The feeling is one thing, the expression of it is another. The feeling is religion, the expression of it is worship. And so if you take the true meaning, not only of the original Greek, but also of the word ‘religion’ at the beginning of the seventeenth century, then you will understand the passage a little better than some of the people that are so often quoting it do.
For the writer is not talking about religion, but about its expression, ‘worship.’ And he says that ‘ true worship, pure and undefiled... is to visit the widows and the fatherless in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.’ He has been, in the previous verses, striking at various forms of self-deception, such as that a man should conceive himself to be all right, because he listens to the law, and then goes away and forgets it, or that a man should think himself a real worshipper, while he does not bridle his tongue, and then he states the general principle of my text - worship has for its selectest manifestation and form these two things, beneficence and purity. Now I would deal with these words and seek to point out first -
I. The noble ideal of life that is set before us here.
You observe that there are two great departments into which all the forms of individual duty are, as it were, swept. To put these into plain words, the one is beneficence, as the sum and substance of all our duties to our fellows, and the other is keeping ourselves pure, as the sum and substance of all our duties to ourselves. Now I would notice, for it strikes me as being remarkable, that duties to other people are put first, and duties to ourselves second. I do not know that there is any question of practical morality more difficult for us to settle, with full satisfaction to ourselves, than the relative proportion, in our lives, of care for ourselves, for our own culture, for our own rectification, for our Own growth in grace and righteousness, and our obligations to our fellows. It is very hard for us to note how much we ought to give to the definite purpose of trying to make ourselves better, and how much we ought to give to the other purpose of forgetting ourselves, and seeking for the good of other people. But James, although he does not enter into the difficulties which clog the solution of that question for us individually, does seem to think that the first thing to be looked after is other people, and that in looking after such other people we shall be most efficiently keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. And it is so, for if we get around us, as it were, an atmosphere of sympathy, of unselfish regard, of unwearied effort for the benefit of other people, it is like the thin film or air that may surround some object, and prevent the fire from reaching it for a moment or two. We shall find that by no means the least powerful detergent to purge from us the spots of the world is an honest and thorough-going flinging of ourselves into the necessities and the sorrows of other people.
But I should like to put in a caution here. I believe that there are a great many good folk in this generation who have their hands so full of Christian work that they have no time at all for the development of their own Christian character in any other way, and that they lack an intelligent grasp of the principles of the gospel, and many things that would make their work upon other people a hundred times better, just because they are so busy helping other folk that they have no time at all to look after themselves. And so the Church as a whole to-day has, as I believe, not too much beneficent and religious machinery, for there never can be too much of that - but too much relatively to the strength of the Church to drive it. Your engine is too big for your boiler, and to this busy generation, in which ‘Christian worker’ has all but blotted out the conception of ‘Christian thinker’ and ‘Christian scholar,’ I believe that it needs to be preached, not so much ‘Look after other people’ as ‘Do not forget yourself.’ ‘Take heed to thyself, and to thy teaching,’ was good counsel for Paul’s young representative, and it is good counsel for us all. ‘What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.’ ‘Visit the widows and the fatherless in their affliction,’ by all means; and ‘Keep yourselves unspotted from the world.’
I suppose that it is scarcely necessary to remark that James does not mean visiting the widows and fatherless to be taken as a complete statement of our duties to others. He Singles out that one form which sympathy and hopefulness will take, as a typical example of the whole class of actions in which love will express itself. Nor need I do more than say in passing that ‘visiting’ means more than calling on - namely, looking after and caring for. The sum of all Christian duties to others, then, is gathered up in hopeful and sympathetic love, and in regard to ourselves James sums them up in what looks, after all, rather an incomplete ideal: ‘Keep yourselves unspotted from the world.’ He does not say with any falsely ascetic twist, ‘Keep yourselves out of the world.’ No! He says, ‘Fling yourselves into it, and when you are in the thickest of the muddy ways, see that no spots and splashes of filth come on your white garments.’ That implies that it is very likely, unless we take very rigid care, that contact with the external world, and with the aggregate of Godless men which makes the world, in the New Testament sense of the phrase, will infect Christian men and women with evil, even when they are going on with their works of beneficence. And I suppose we all know that that is true.
But here you get a very negative view of the sum of Christian duty, Some people preach ‘culture’ James says, ‘Try to keep yourselves clean.’ He realises that there is something more to be done by each of us with ourselves than to develop or draw out and increase that which is in us, that there needs to be another process, and that is to get rid of a great deal that is within us. We must cease to be much of what we are before we can be that which we may be and ought to be. Slay self first that you may live. Cultivate? Yes! and crucify as well.
Nor does James think any the less nobly of the resulting self, because he says that you will form the noblest character mainly by the way of negation. I know, of course, that that is only one-sided; but do we not all know that by reason of the abounding evil around us, and the proclivities more or less dormant, but existing, to much of that evil, which are in our own hearts, we do need that the law of our life should very largely be east in the form ‘Do not.’ Any man who has honestly set himself to the task of moulding his life into the likeness which God would approve, must know that to walk through the wards of an hospital and catch no infection, to stand in a dung-heap and bring away no stench nor foulness clinging to the robes, is as easy as it is to plunge into the world and catch no contagion and no pollution there.
And yet, says James, you have to do that. He sum, up Christian duty in this negative form, that is remarkable, and he flings the whole weight and burden of it on the man himself, that is more remarkable still. And yet we have only to read the rest of the chapter to see that he is not forgetting that there must be a Divine Keeper to keep the keepers, and that we shall never keep ourselves ‘unspotted’ unless we trust to Him who has said ‘I will keep thy feet from falling.’ So we need not wonder at the emphasis that is placed on the human side of the energy that is to be put forth in order to mould men into this character. But I desire to say here what I think some tendencies of good people’s opinions in this day do especially need: that we do not get cleansed, hallowed, sanctified, by faith only, but that the office of faith is to bring into our possession the power which will sanctify us if we use our own efforts. ‘Having therefore these premises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of flesh and spirit,’ and not trust to faith alone to make us pure.
II. We have here, secondly, the true and pure worship in such a life.
I need not repeat what I have already said at the beginning of these remarks as to the true bearing of the principle laid down here. Only let me remind you that the writer is not flouting, or putting away out of court, other forms of action which are more frequently called worship. True religion, which expresses itself, according to James, most nobly in the worship of life, must express itself by all the other means which men have for expressing their inmost selves, by the worship of words, by symbolical deed, by a ceremonial as well as by the visiting of the widows and the fatherless, and the keeping oneself unspotted from the world. But what is insisted upon here is that of these two ways - both of them equally natural and equally indispensable, if there be any religion to express - in some aspects the higher and the nobler is the dumb worship of a pure and beneficent life. Now, of course, we are accustomed as Nonconformists to think that texts of this sort hit the adherents of a more elaborate, sensuous, and ceremonial form of worship than finds favour in our eyes, very hard, and sometimes to forget that they hit us quite as hard. There may be quite as real ritualists amongst Nonconformists as there are amongst Anglicans or Roman Catholics - I was going to say amongst Quakers - as amongst the adherents of any form of Christian worship. For it is not the elaboration of the form, but it is the existence of it, that tempts men to trust too much to it. And the baldest - to use a modern term of opprobrium - Nonconformist worship may be just as productive of immoral reliance upon it, on the part of those who adhere to it, as the most elaborate and sensuous ceremonial that fills a cathedral with clouds of incense, and calls upon men to worship simply by looking on at a priest performing his miracle. Dear brethren, you and I need the warning as much as anybody ever did. There are people, I have no doubt, who leave their religion in their pews, and lock it up there in the box along with their hymn books, and whose notion of religion is very little more than coming to a so-called ‘place of worship’ and offering up verbal prayers. There creep in insincerity, unreality, unconscious hypocrisy; there creeps in mechanical, perfunctory utterance of the words of praise, or listening to the voice of the preacher. How many of you think about the hymns you sing, and make them the expression of your own feelings? How many of you fancy that you have spent the Sunday rightly when you go to church and listen more or less attentively to what your minister may have to say to you, and then go out and live a life in flat contradiction to the prayers, and the hymns, and the readings, and the preachings in which you have nominally taken part? Oh, Brethren! let us get into reality, and learn more and more than ever we have done that worship does not mean the external act, but the bowing of the spirit before God, and that amidst the many temptations to insincerity, unreality, and dead, fossil formalism, which adhere to all forms of oral and ceremonial worship, there is as much need to-day as ever there was that we should listen to him who says, ‘What hath thy God required of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’ ‘Lord! Lord! have we not prophesied in Thy name?’ ‘Depart from Me; I never knew you.’
III. And now let me say one last word as to the only possible foundation for such a life. It is worship, it is the expression of religion, and only when it is the expression of religion will you find beneficence and purity in their highest and noblest forms. There are people that say, ‘I do not understand the Psalms; they are far too rapturous and emotional for me. I do not care about Paul and his metaphysical theology. I cannot make much of John and his mysticism. Give me James. That is plain common-sense; that is good practical morality. No clouds of darkness, no fine-spun theories.’ Yes, and James has for his fundamental principle that if you want morality you must begin with religion. He believes that visiting the widows and the fatherless in affliction, and keeping oneself unspotted from the world, or, in other words, the highest form of morality, is the body, of which religion is the soul.
I am not going to enter upon that thorny question of the possibility of having an independent theory of ethics without religion, but my point is this - theory or no theory, where will you get the practical power that will work the theory and bring it out of the region of theory into the region of daily life and fact? I know it is extremely narrow, extremely old-fashioned, extremely illiberal, and I believe it is profoundly true. Begin with Jesus Christ and the wish to please Him, and there is the root out of which all these self-regarding and other’s regarding graces and beauties will most surely come. I have no doubt that you can make your model of a life without Christianity, though I fancy that a great deal of the model comes from the Christianity. But after you have got it, then one comes and says, ‘Well! it is all very pretty - a beautiful model; do you think it will work?’ If you want it to work, obtain the fire of the Holy Spirit to get up the steam and then it will work. You must begin with religion if you are to have a vigorous moral life, and your work in the world must be worship if it is to rise to the height of these two great forms of beautiful and noble life, the regard for others and the effort at purity for yourselves.
Do not run away with the perversion of this text which says, ‘I do not frequent churches and chapels; that is not worship. The diffused worship of my life is what God wants.’ Yes, that is what God wants. And you will be most likely to render the diffused worship of a life if you have reservoirs in the life - like Sundays, like hours of private devotion and prayer - from which will flow - and without which I doubt there will not deeply and perennially flow the broad streams of devotion all through your days. ‘Work is worship’ is a monastic motto that is very frequently quoted nowadays. Well, ‘it depends; as they say. Work is worship if there is a reference to God in it, It is not worship unless there is. Brethren, begin where the New Testament begins, with faith in Jesus Christ, and you will end with a worship which harmonises the service of the lip and the service of the life. And if you do not begin so, you may flout the prayers of the Church, and look upon our gatherings together as of very little value, but I doubt extremely whether you will ever have in your life the all-present reference to God which will make common deeds worship, and I doubt whether you will ever succeed either in beneficence to others, or in keeping yourselves unspotted from the world.
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on James 1". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter