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The Royal Law
We do not know what is meant by a man having on "a gold ring." The translators have Englished this matter down to simplicity. The persons referred to had not on "a" gold ring, they had as many rings on each finger as the finger would carry. That is a very different statement; that, however, is the historical fact; the hands were all jewelled, hardly any portion of the hand could be seen. We do not know what is meant by a man having "long hair" in this country, or in Western civilisation; when it is rebuked in the New Testament it is a very different thing from anything we have ever seen, unless we have travelled in Eastern countries. It is precisely the same with this matter of the gold ring, which in its singularity is perfectly justifiable, and may be very beautiful. We are to understand, however, by the gold ring of the text, foolish, extravagant, ostentatious luxuriousness. We do not know what is meant by "goodly apparel"; the word is better rendered lower down, "gay clothing." The reference is to people who were very fond of high colours, and who covered themselves with great glaring, staring, dazzling, blinding garments; no matter how the colours lay in relation to one another, provided there was plenty of colour, a man was satisfied. Now, says James, if a mountebank like that came into the church, the church would not be good enough for him. Some think the reference here is to great pagan authorities, coming to pay an occasional visit to the Christian synagogue, which, by the way, is the literal translation of the word "assembly" in the second verse, the only instance in which the term synagogue is associated with the Christian function in the New Testament, Some have thought that now and again a great Roman might look in, some huge and pompous local celebrity might deign to look in, to see how the Christians conducted themselves in worship; and James gave warning that the presence of such a person in the church may very likely excite undue attention, and elicit a deference which was neither rational nor pious. This, however, may not be the case; the reference may be to Christian classes, the one rich and the other poor, but all the classes being included within Christian or ecclesiastical lines: if so, the warning was all the more poignant and the danger all the more acute. Do not compare one man with another. It is not a question of stature against stature, and jewellery against jewellery: remember, says James, whose servants you are; you are the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory; if you lose sight of your Master, you will be making all kinds of mistakes about one another. He whose eye is filled with Christ never sees what kind of coat a man has on: it is the poor fool who has forgotten Christ that begins to look at the people with whom he has to associate. If we could see all the heaven that this poor little capacity can take in, we should see no pomp in palaces or in thrones. Caesar would attract none of our attention because we have been with the King of kings, with the Lord of lords; and this is precisely the Apostle's argument: you are the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, the centre of all law, the focus of all magnificence and splendour: what have you to do with the coat of the self-idolator, with the jewellery of a man who clothes himself in shining stones of earth? or why should you be intimidated by any little majesty of a local and transient kind? or why should you be turned away as if through revulsion from the poorest human creature that sleeps without a pillow? No, James would rather say, If ye had in you the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, ye would say that this poor man more closely resembles the Son of God in his earthly relations than any other man. That would be Christian reasoning.
How difficult it is to keep the world in its right place! The great man would not allow the poor black negro to sit in his pew. He was argued with on the ground of philanthropy, but philanthropy had no effect upon his nature; he was argued with on the ground of advancing civilisation, things were now much larger and nobler than they used to be; he was argued with on the ground of the personal piety of the negro, he was represented as reverent, as really Christian in feeling and spiritual in aspiration; but all this was lost on the self-idolator: when, however, the self-idolator was told that the negro was worth a million dollars, he said, Introduce me, if you please. How difficult it is to keep the devil in his right place, and to keep the world within its right limits, and to keep ourselves really honest men. We shall get over all this little tawdry devotion by-and-by; our hope is in education, our hope is also partially in familiarity, so that people, becoming accustomed to these little lights or superficial glories, will in due time learn to value them at their right price, or to despise them all. What does it matter how much luggage a man carries through to the grave? Yet we admire the man who has a great deal of baggage. It is a kind of hotel standard: the landlord seeing the luggage carried upstairs is quite sure that his bill will be paid, or that luggage will never leave the roof until it is discharged. We are luggage-worshippers. All these fields of yours are but so much luggage; the rows of houses are but so much baggage; they but amount to such and such a quantity of impedimenta , that is all; they do not make you any better or any richer in heart, any wider in mind, any kinder or more Christian in soul. The question is, What are you, yourself? When you have lost your luggage, how stand ye? men, or not men? calm, noble, richer than ever, or perturbed, disquieted, humiliated, thrown down, and altogether disorganised? You are in reality what you are in your soul.
James begins to reason with the people, as he may well reason with all the generations following "Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him." God does not take the view of the case which you adopt. God looks at men, not at circumstances; God looks at the soul, not at the body; God sees the jewels of the mind, the gleaming of intelligence, the uplifting of aspiration, the outstruggling of the soul towards liberty and light and rest. A man is not necessarily a bad man because he has a great income: a man is not necessarily a good man because he has no income at all, and because he is so crippled that he can never earn his own daily bread, but has to be a pauper all the days of his life. Incapacity and piety are not interchangeable terms. The real moral and spiritual argument you find below all these incidental aspects and transitory relationships. If a man is trusting in his riches he is a pauper; if a man is living honestly, he never can be other than really rich. Unless we have a clear understanding of these terms, we shall never get at the meaning at all. We must not look upon "rich" as equal to money, "poverty" equal to piety; nothing of the kind: the whole question of character still remains to be looked into and to be determined.
What is the charge of James against the people to whom he is writing? He states it frankly in Jam 2:6 But ye have despised the poor despised them, not because they were ignorant, perverse, foolish, worldly, or stupid, but ye have despised the poor because they are poor: if these very same men had been the recipients of ten thousand a year, then you would have quoted their names, and you would have said that your gardens adjoined one another, and that you were on hobnobbing terms with my Lord Ten-thousand-a-year. There would have been no change in the men, they have not been to school, they have not learned several more languages, they have not purified themselves of low desires; they have simply laid a great income upon their ignorance, and you look at the revenue and not at the superstition. Are ye not partial, and do ye not indulge evil thoughts? and is not your whole intellectual and social system thrown out of gear by these seductive temptations? Nor let the poor man imagine that he is despised when he is not. The poor man is apt to be sensitive; and sensitiveness is often stupidity, it is most offensive to everybody who has to do with the poor man, or with the rich man either, when any man claims to be too sensitive. I do not understand that a man is necessarily of a very high quality of character simply because his pockets are empty; I can quite understand men believing themselves despised when no feeling of contempt whatever exists in relation to them. Poverty may be honest, and honesty is always independent. Honesty can always walk in the middle of the road; it may not be able to ride in a chariot, but honesty knows the way home and takes it straightly, and is thankful that it can at all events fall back upon an unaccusing conscience. He is wealthy who wants little; he is a rich man whose necessities are few; and he is a poor man who, being a millionaire at the bank, wants the next field. Greed is never contented, cupidity is never satisfied, avariciousness lays down its head upon a pillow of thorns.
"Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?" That was the case in the time of James, and has probably been the case in all generations. It is simply impossible for any poor man to get justice in England. He will get justice if he gets before the judges, but how to get there is the question. He is not strangled by the judges: the judges of England are to be spoken of in terms of veneration and religious gratitude; they do not care whether it is prince or peasant that stands before them, they will deal out justice according to the evidence that is submitted; we ought to be proud of the English bench; but the poor man cannot get to the bench, he cannot get through the bar; there are many gentlemen who take care that the poor man shall have a hard time of it, if he wants to lay his case before the court. Why not go and seek justice? you say to the poor man. He says, I cannot pay for it: I want it, I am dying because I cannot have my case clearly stated, but I have not the costs. Why not seek to be released from this burden? Because I cannot pay for the release. The judges will do you justice. Certainly, if I could see them they would, but I cannot get at them. Justice is too dear in this country. Justice is an article of commerce, and it is sold for gold in the sense in which I have just defined. Thank God, not in the higher sense. England has outlived that period of venality, and now the bench is spotless in its administration of justice. The rich man challenges the poor man to go to law, knowing very well that the poor man cannot follow in that pursuit. The great newspaper with its million pounds behind it, says, To the law! The poor man says, I would go to the law, but it would mean utter ruin to me before I could have my case fully laid before the proper tribunal. The Apostle's argument is this, that life uncontrolled by moral and spiritual considerations is oppressive, overbearing, dictatorial. Wealth, spelling itself with an infinite W, demands to have its own way, to sit where it pleases, and to order the rest of the world about as menial servants: that is vulgar wealth; that is the new riches; not the real wealth, accompanied by learning, self-control, piety, Christian reverence, love of Christ. Blessed be God, it is possible for a man to be very rich, and yet to be very good. It is a great danger; he lives on a volcano, he would seem to invite the enemy; yet history and our own observation concur in testifying that it is possible to be wealthy and to be modest; possible to be socially great, and socially kind; possible to have much of this world, and to counterbalance it by infinitely more of heaven: blessed are they who can thus exemplify such a possibility.
"Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by which ye are called?" Here the Apostle is evidently speaking of pagan rich people. To blaspheme means to hurt with the tongue, to prick, puncture, injure, poison with the tongue; to utter foul words, unjust words, hellish words. Do not these people hurt the Son of God with their unruly tongues? Are they not irreverent, are they not impious, are they not profane? Hear their language, it expresses a boastful spirit; if they were poor they would be close-mouthed, if they had nothing to eat you would never see their real character: wealth develops personality. A man who never suspected himself of being overbearing or tyrannical, will suddenly develop into an oppressor when he receives his wealth without a corresponding addition of moral quality, spiritual energy, and sense of dependence upon the living God.
"If ye fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well." A man is your neighbour, whatever his circumstances may be. If he be too rich to acknowledge you as a neighbour, you can do without him; if he be so poor that he will thank you for neighbourly offices, you need not make him feel his poverty by an injudicious bestowal of such offices. Neighbourliness is full of subtle quality, full of spiritual unction, and may be turned into a real blessing. A man is not your neighbour simply because he lives next door to you; he may live next door to you locally, and yet live many miles from you sympathetically: he is your neighbour who understands you, who trusts you, who comes to you in his hour of need, and who quietly and hopefully tells you that he would be thankful for a hand stronger than his own put out to assist him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. You will be imposed upon. I do not really care much for people who have never been imposed upon. They impose upon themselves. They seek to impose upon God, and they succeed. They eat bread to which they are not entitled; they drink water which they have practically stolen. Deceived! why, Jesus was once imposed upon by nine men all at once. There were ten men who came to him and told him what they wanted, and he granted their request; and no sooner did they get what they wanted, than off went nine, and they have never been heard of since. One man came back, and had the good sense to fall down and worship the Son of God. What, have the nine never been heard of since? how mistaken the suggestion, how absurd the proposition! Why, they are here, they are everywhere, we cannot get rid of them. We know them to be of the nine, although they never confess it. There lives no man in gospel lands who is not a debtor to Christ; there lives no man under the sun that is not a debtor to the Cross of Calvary.
How then, is all this difficulty to be handled? By not handling it at all. We get wrong when we become economists, managers, machine-minders. Whenever we turn Christianity into a machine or an organisation, we do it injury. Christianity is a spirit, it is a quality of the heart: if we have in us the obedient spirit, carrying out the law, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself," there need be no handling in an economic sense, there need be no showy patronage of the poor, as who should say, Look at me: here is a man with the poorest clothing on, and I will walk with him, as it were arm-in-arm, down the whole length of the church: behold me. That man is not kind to the poor; he does not understand the poor; he is not an ornament in the sanctuary, he is an ostentatious idiot. He only does Christ's will who so does it that he is not seen of men in the doing of it. How is the spirit? how is it with our hearts? Do we really love the Saviour? are we crucified with Christ? are we partakers of the miracle which he alone, as the priest of the universe, works out? If so, we shall do all things almost unconsciously. The garden never says, I am giving you great wafts of fragrance to-day, am I not kind? The garden never says a word about the odours which it throws upon the winds. If we be in Christ Jesus, rooted and grounded in him, sharers of his grace, guests at his table of sacrifice and priesthood, our life will emit its frankincense, our hands will distribute the myrrh of the gospel, and our whole action will be modest, beautiful, simple, beneficent. This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working.
How shall we thank thee, thou God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for all thy loving kindness and thy tender mercy, when they are without measure or bound? Our poor song is strained, our praise is without effect, our thanksgiving fails for the infinite occasion: who shall praise thee adequately, or set forth thy glory in words that are enough? Behold, there is none who hath harp, or instrument of music, or voice, to praise the Lord with sufficiency of praise. Yet thou wilt accept our song, feeble though it be; thou knowest what our hearts would do if they could: sometimes we feel as if life were too small for us, as if it needed enlargement, because of our slumbering faculty, which, if awakened by the breath of the Lord, would need all space for the utterance of its song. Thou art verily good unto us. Every man has his own blessing, every home its own light, every life its own song. Thou hast left none unblessed; on every flower there is one trembling drop of dew. We accept all thy gifts as pledges of still greater bestowment: what shall we see when we receive our sight? what shall strike the vision of the soul when delivered from the limitations of the flesh? These are mysteries we may not penetrate, but they are so hallowed and tender and condescending that they lure us on an onward, heavenward course, and we are filled with delight because of the assurance that every cloud shall be transfigured into glory, and all things now difficult and bewildering shall be made part of the great harmony of thy movement. What we need is patience, the power to wait, the energy that can stand still, the resoluteness which can express itself in repose. But this is the gift of Christ; the world has no such treasure to bestow. Bless us with thy peace, thou Son of God, and we shall be quiet under all circumstances; yea, though the earth be removed and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, we shall linger with religious leisure by the stream which maketh glad the city of God. Amen.
The Broken Law
That seems to be hard. James is hard. He cuts like a diamond. Now and then he melts a little in his feeling, and then he says some gracious words; says indeed some of the most gracious words that can be found in the New Testament; then presently he straightens himself again as if he had never stooped to dry a tear. It seems unreasonable that, if a man be good in nine points, all the nine points should go for nothing because he is wrong or bad in the tenth point. Does it seem hard that the word should be marked as ill-spelt because there is one wrong letter in its composition? Yet that is what schoolmasters do: that is what even mothers are obliged to do; they do not want to do it, they would gladly wink when they come to the letter wrong, but having regard to the real progress of the scholar they are bound to point out the wrong letter which spoils the whole word. Which is the right letter in a word? They are all right letters; one letter is just as right as another; the h cannot boast against the q, and the t is quite unable to snub the s as an inferior member of that word. It seems hard for the child to have to go back to spell a long word with four syllables in it another time because one of the letters is not right, and perhaps because that one letter is not definitely pointed out: it seems twice hard not only to be told that we are wrong, but to go and find out where we are wrong. That is discipline. That is wise tuition. The lesson is a double one; we are first humbled, and then we are sent upon the quest of error, that through that quest we may come to conclusions that are right. Education is not one act; education is a series of acts all running into one another, and interplaying with effects in emphasis and colour in a way which could only be secured by this interaction. We cannot tell when we made our real progress; it was not in one step, it was not in any dozen steps, but the steps all went back upon one another and recurred and interplayed; yet almost suddenly we became conscious of the fact that we had got on one clear mile. What was it that charmed us on the road? We cannot tell. The birds, the flowers, the fragrant breeze, the lovely landscape, the sweet companionship, which of them? None of them. How then? All of them. That is education; that is progress.
"The law," why not say the "laws"? That is the whole mystery of the occasion. We do not want these confusing plurals. It is because the term is singular, definite, indivisible, that life is made so solemn, yet so tender. Were it a question of laws, then it might be a question of proportion. If the laws are ten in number and we keep seven of them, we ought to be accounted as seven-tenths good. The commandments are not ten in any sense that destroys their unity. We have seen in our former study that there are not ten aspects of virtue, but there are ten ways in which vice has enabled itself to wriggle out of the right road: therefore the law says, Stop up every hole! The law is love, or light, or truth; some indivisible quantity: but because vice is so wily, law has made arrangements to check its progress and foil its mischievous policy. The law, then, is one. God is one. Truth is one. If we say a man is very truthful, but not very courteous, we utter a sentence that is anomalous and self-contradictory. It is impossible for a discourteous man to be a truthful man. How so, teacher? Have we not heard of bluff, brusque, strong-mouthed Christians? Possibly: but you had no business to hear of them, because they ought not to have had any existence. Courtesy is truth truth in proportion, truth in colour, truth in feeling, truth in social music. We make a mistake in thinking of truth as an iron pillar or a granite pedestal, something absolutely stern, tuneless, flowerless: truth gathers up into itself all grace, all music, all sacred passion; truth is courteous, and courtesy is essential to truth. The men who can drink more wine than would kill some other men have had no hesitation in holding up their riotous hands, their five foul fingers, in sign of excommunicating a man who has got wrong in some other way: as who should say, My brother, we do not blame you for getting wrong, but for getting wrong in that particular way: we all get wrong; if you had got wrong just as I do, why, nothing would have induced me to vote for your expulsion from the Church. More than that, a man may have so seasoned himself in wine-drinking that he can take six glasses one after the other, and joke between the couples; another man not so seasoned takes his second glass and is found on the floor. What is to be done with him? He must be expelled expelled by the very man who drank the six glasses and who offered the temptation to his weaker friend. Is this right? is this noble? is this after the spirit of the Cross of Christ? How is it in society? By society is here to be understood an honest, not a painted, community. Suppose a man should be introduced to your society as a scholar, a gentleman fit to be sent on any embassy requiring politesse , tact, artistic behaviour; a man who speaks seven languages: will you receive him, if I add that he is an incorrigible liar? That is all: now what say you? You will not receive him, you cannot receive him; all his qualifications and attractions are overwhelmed, obliterated, by the fact that the truth is not in him. But he only offends in one point: see what a gentleman he is, and how well-dressed, how well-spoken, how correct in accent, how musical in emphasis, how well-mannered. All this, you say, is true, but the man is a liar on your testimony, and therefore all other statements, though in his favour, must go for nothing. Then you are as stern as the Apostle James himself. Now that we touch the core of the matter we find that James is not the only stern man in the Church.
Yet this is not sternness, using that term as equivalent to unpitying and unrighteous rigour. It is only the sternness of truth, honesty, purity of heart. Here is another man of whom many things can be said truthfully that are favourable, the only drawback to this man's character is that he is a forger. What of that? If the points in a man's life are ten, and nine of them are good, and the tenth point refers to a trick and habit of forgery, you would never keep the man outside on that account. You are accustomed to carry things by majorities: yea in our assemblies that are even called Christian we sometimes carry things by "overwhelming majorities." What delightful characters we are! Why, if nine to one is not an overwhelming majority, what is? Has not the minority a right to live? Here is a man who is good in nine of the points when you come to point number ten, and yet you take him fiercely into hands and put him out of the synagogue. You are right. The illustration is only intended to give emphasis to the text, namely, that one point being wrong the offence against the whole law is complete.
We cannot keep the law in one point only. James graciously assumes that it may be possible to keep nine points of the law and offend in one; but he is only making the assumption for the sake of argumentative illustration. It is impossible for a man who is wrong at any one point to be right at any other. He may be apparently right, he may be expediently and conveniently right; that is to say, he may be employed by merchantmen to do a certain kind of business, and he may do it well: but the character is more than the action; the action is sometimes but a dim or infirm symbol of the real character. The character is in the soul, in the spirit, and not in the overt act, which may be but a trick of the hand, an arrangement; something well done, but of the nature of legerdemain. Character is a question of quality; it is a question of spirit. When a man tells the truth and does not want to tell it, he is a liar; when a man pays you your wages and would rather not do it he is an oppressor. Not the act detached and self-complete, but the character out of which the action comes must determine the whole question. Who then can be clean? Precisely so; that is the evangelical inquiry. Not one. Is there no possibility of becoming really clean of heart, and righteous in spirit? Certainly there is. What is that possibility? That possibility is revealed in one Name only. To work that miracle the Son of God wrought all other wonders. Whatever he did was meant to be initial, prefigurative, indicative; when he cleaned a man's skin of the foul leprosy, he said, I do not want to terminate there, I only clean the body of this foul disease that I may be permitted to get at the soul. The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanseth from all sin. Marvel not that I say unto you, Ye must be born again: you must begin at the beginning; what you want is not reformation but regeneration; what man wants is not to be newly attired, but to have a new spirit; he needs to have his heart of stone taken away, and to have a heart of flesh put in its stead.
James is strong upon the whole question of moral unity. He will not have anything done by halves. He treats the question of faith just as he treats the question of the law:
"What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him?" ( Jam 2:14 ).
There is no need to be afraid of this inquiry. No Paul's ghost need be started in order to scare the religious imagination, as if a great and irreconcilable discrepancy had been discovered between the two Apostolic teachers. James simply asks, Can faith save a man when it is detached from works? who knows then whether it is faith or not? How do we know the faith but by the works? The faith is the creator of the works; works, if honestly done, ought to represent the degree of faith that is in a man's soul. When man is right, action shall express character, but now it is often used for the purpose of concealing character; assuming honesty through every point of the soul, then every action is a word of truth, every attitude is a picture of inward beauty. "Can faith save him?" that is, can intellectual faith, or theoretical, or speculative faith save the soul? and we answer with Paul's authority, as well as the authority of James, Thank God, no! Whoever would seek to dissociate morality from theology cannot adore God, or love the Saviour, or obey the Holy Spirit. Whoever supposes he can keep faith as a mere sentiment, an inward and spiritual luxury, a new variety of moral confectionery, is a thief and a robber in the Church which he disgraces. How much this needs to be said, and how much nearly every man needs to say it to himself, flatly, resonantly! Is there not a temptation to say, What are the points of my faith? and having gone minutely over all the points to say, There, that is sound! So it is; it is just that; by a happy inspiration you have hit upon the word. There is also a temptation to judge other men unkindly and ungraciously by our own standard. James would seek to say to all intellectual combatants, My brethren, what does it come to in the matter of character? what are you as doers of the Word? When you pass away from the Church into the home how is it with you? how do you stand in your own house? When you go into the market-place from the altar what do you take with you? is the odour of heaven upon your garments, is the fragrance of heaven in your very breath, do you look as if you had been praying? Are you not only honest according to the ordinary conception of that term, but is your honesty fostered, and nourished, and beautified by a fine generosity? Do you want to see whether you can do a little more, and how you can do a little better? Does the customer say, This man can be trusted? On the contrary, as it is you go forth with a creed drawn up by divines fourteen hundred years ago, and you carry with you every line, jot, and tittle of it: now what are you in the market-place? If there you are known to be a man of ambiguity of speech; if you are understood to be a man who will take a profit whoever sustains a loss, and under whatever conditions the loss may be sustained; if you are known as a trickster, and a card-sharper, and a gambler, who is afraid of the name only, but not of the reality; then you do not believe the theology you think you believe. You only use it, pervert it, make a cloak of it; the theology is not to be blamed, but you, thief, liar, can only be blamed, denounced, execrated; and when the Judge sends men to eternal punishment you must go in the black procession. James therefore is not arguing against faith, he is simply saying, that where there is real faith there must be real character, and character is but the larger word for works. Nothing of a merely legal nature is intended by this praising of character or of action. I do not know that we should be so much afraid even of what is termed legality. In some instances I could do with a little more of it. I have known men who were just as sound as they supposed they were, and yet I would not trust them with any money if I wanted to see the money back again. It is when faith is unhappily hypocritically adopted by such men that the Son of God is crucified afresh.
Shall I tell you who the infidels are? I will not hesitate to accept the challenge if you address it to me. The men who profess Christianity, but do not act it; the men who would stand up for the inspiration of every comma and semicolon in the written Bible, but who never obey one of the precepts of that sacred book, these are the infidels. They are doing infinitely more harm than any infidel can ever do. They are using the Christian profession for the purpose of doing unchristian or selfish work. On the other hand, if a man suppose that he can climb to heaven by doing what he calls good deeds, purely of his own motion and by his own regulation, let me tell you what he is attempting to do he is attempting to reach the skies by a ladder. That has never been done. There are long ladders, but never one of them rested its trembling head on the horizon. Anything we can do is imperfect: the miracle that must be wrought is the miracle of God the Holy Ghost. We must have a new heart, a new spirit, a new self. We ascend to heaven not as a trick of cleverness on our part but as a miracle of the grace of God on the part of Christ. So I have no fear of these apparent discrepancies, because the discrepancies are apparent, and not real in any one element or aspect. "Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone;" it has no body, it has no medium of expression, it cannot put forth its Divine faculties; it dies for want of exercise. Faith allowed to fall into desuetude may easily rot into infidelity.
"Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well" so far the faith is not to be challenged in point of orthodoxy, but "the devils also believe" they are not polytheists, they would say, How true it is that there is but one God: yet when they believe they "tremble" literally, their hair stands on end; it is no gospel to them, it is the consummation of terrors; if they could get rid of God, they could get rid of hell. Hell is the creation of God; hell is a necessity in any universe that is bad. Sin made hell. God has appointed it, because without it how could the universe be administered? The wicked shall go into hell, with all the nations that fear not God. Do not make a point of controversy of it: go into your own consciousness and experience: every man knows that the moment he did the forbidden thing he was stung by the fire of hell. This is not a mystery which we must die to believe, it is a fact which our consciousness or our experience attests.
James uses a beautiful illustration in the case of Abraham; he says:
"Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect?" ( Jam 2:22 ).
If it had been a question of Abraham only we might have been dismayed. We are not helped always by the great and shining characters of history: they may for our present state of vision be too dazzling in moral purity; we would like, therefore, some case nearer our own level. Blessed be God, in reading Scriptural biography we often come upon the spot, even in the sun of the finest character. It is at the contemplation of that spot we take heart again. James is not afraid, therefore, to set side by side with Abraham a character of another caste:
"Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?" ( Jam 2:25 ).
This word cannot be softened out of its basest meaning, it is not to be rendered "innkeeper"; the woman must stand there with all her sins upon her: and yet she had something in her heart greater than herself, greater than her sin; and by that something she touched the Infinite, the Eternal, the fatherhood of God. Here we come to another aspect of the case that was presented in our first reading. We cannot always give an account of our actions; we do some things without being able to explain them; there may be a Christly inspiration for which we have no words and of which we have no direct consciousness. Rahab, why didst thou receive the messengers? She might be able to give one or two probable reasons, or reasons which seemed to her to be equal to the occasion: but we do not always realise our deepest consciousness, there is what may be termed a sub-consciousness, another and deeper self, a ministry and action of motive not to be set forth in palpable words open to literary criticism. Peter was in that condition; his lips were scarcely healed from the wound of the oath they had uttered, when he said, "Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee." What, below all that blasphemy? Was the blasphemy but foam? Was the soul but lashed into momentary excitement? Were there depths of ineffable peace? There may have been; the poor broken-hearted man could but say, I remember what happened a day or two ago; I was not fool only, but sinner, criminal, base man; yet I did not mean it all; thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee. Here, then, is hope for many of us. We have done the things we ought not to have done, we have not done the things that we ought to have done, and yet in our soul's soul we are praying all the time. That is a mystery which the vulgar cannot understand; that is a mystery which often begets for us the undeserved character of inconsistency. Actions of the hand come and go, they are suddenly extorted from our very fingers; we speak extemporaneously what we feel at the moment, and often without due deliberativeness we express ourselves; yet, when we fall back upon our deeper consciousness, we find that the soul has never forsaken the altar, has never been untrue to Christ.
Everything, therefore, as to construction will depend upon the compass of the life we lead. There are some people who have not yet begun to live; they are living in points, they are excellent in aspects, they are people of promise, but the whole grand sublime idea of life they have never grasped. Nor are they to be blamed: who would reproach a child for not knowing as much as is known by an octogenarian? who would blame a young student that he is not as far advanced in knowledge and in wisdom as his veteran teacher? Much, therefore, of our judgment, must be regulated by circumstances, such as time, place, opportunity, degree of industry, and degree of faithfulness. The mischief is that a uniform standard is too often applied to men. We cannot tell how much it took to make some men go to church; other men are never happy but when they are there: are both the attendances to be marked down at the same valuation? They will not be so registered by God in his life-books. You do not know what it cost your brother to kneel down at his own bedside and utter family prayer for the first time. He was knocked down as with lightning struck by the sound of his own voice; he had no sooner said "Our Father," than he became dizzy, the whole room seemed to be revolving swiftly, and everything seemed to be out of place; but he persevered, and now he can pray calmly, coherently, and with profit to others. One man has been, it may be, brought to church very much against his will; he says, No, certainly not; I cannot go: I have not been to church for years; do not ask me to go, let me see the green fields and hear the singing birds, or pass into the city and partake of its urgent life; anything but going to church. Yet you appealed again, by a chary use of wise words you persuaded him to come just inside, and told him that if he did not like the service he could easily retire. When he came over the threshold of the sanctuary he did more in the way of self-denial and self-mortification than many of us may have done for years. Let us, therefore, leave all judgment with God, and especially let us abolish the uniform standard; let us recognise psychological difficulties, differences amounting almost to opposing constitutions, and let God be judge.
We come unto thee, Father of our spirits, in the name of thy Son Jesus Christ, who washed us from our sins in his own blood. He himself bare our sins in his own body on the Tree. He died, the Just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, and be our everlasting King, eternal in his living, his intercession, and in his sovereignty. He is alive for evermore. Christ has abolished death. He himself tells us that he was dead, yet is alive, and is living for evermore. We wish to know somewhat of this fulness of life, this ocean-like roll of ages, this new revelation of duration. May we know that if we are in Christ we also shall share his blessed eternity; where he is there we shall be also, and as long as he is we shall live with him. We worship Jesus Christ thy Son, who is yesterday, to-day, and for ever; the same always, unchangeable, Alpha, Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End, the All-in-all, summing up in himself all majesty, all tenderness, all love. May we be in the world as he was, may he be our Ideal day by day, towards whose realisation we shall struggle with all our strength. The Lord help us, the Lord help us to see his Son, the Cross of Christ, and the crown of Christ, so that having been with him in the fellowship of his sufferings we may also be with him in the power of his resurrection. The Lord hear us in these things and come to us daily with new revelations of light and love and power to help. All this we say at the Cross of him who died for us and rose again. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on James 2". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent